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Session 2006 - 07
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Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement) (Republic of Albania) Order 2007



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Cash, Mr. William (Stone) (Con)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op)
Efford, Clive (Eltham) (Lab)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh, South) (Lab)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
Johnson, Ms Diana R. (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
Moore, Mr. Michael (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD)
Murphy, Mr. Jim (Minister for Europe)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton, South) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Neil (Wigan) (Lab)
James Davies, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 16 July 2007

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement) (Republic of Albania) Order 2007

4.30 pm
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement) (Republic of Albania) Order 2007.
This is my first time in Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair and I look forward to serving under you on many future occasions. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North to the Committee. She is new to the role of the person who assists you in keeping us in order. As someone with experience of serving as a Government Whip, I am certain that she will perform the role as least as admirably as I tried to do during those two long years.
The western Balkans, of which Albania is a part, has had a troubled past. We all remember the horrific images that multiplied across our television screens throughout the 1990s: conflict, ethnic cleansing, massacres and the breakdown of law and order. Our challenge today—this is one of the United Kingdom’s foremost foreign policy priorities—is to help the region to draw a line under its troubled past and to move towards a much brighter future.
The United Kingdom’s vision of that future is one of all countries in the region moving steadily towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. That is the right vision for those countries because it provides the incentives for reform and it will bind the countries together into relationships of mutual co-operation and interdependence. It is the right vision for the European Union, too. The countries are not remote and distant; they directly border the EU. Our interests will be served by their progress towards meeting EU norms and their eventual membership of an EU that will offer security and prosperity to the western Balkans region. That is the context of today’s debate.
At the Zagreb summit in November 2000, the European Union established a process to bring the region closer to it, while fostering stability and facilitating development. The agreement that we shall debate today is a key part of that process. It will create a contractual relationship between the EU and Albania, setting the terms for free trade and easier movement of workers, services and capital. It will also set out responsibilities for the matters of justice, freedom, security and regional co-operation. The Government are convinced that the proper implementation of the agreement will help to bring stability and economic growth, and strengthen the rule of law in Albania. That will be especially important for not only Albania, but the United Kingdom.
Albanian criminal interests impact directly on the UK’s well-being. Our best way in which to deal with them—bilaterally and through the EU—is to establish a close partnership with Albanian institutions that will enable a strengthening of the rule of law in Albania and lead to a stronger capacity to tackle organised crime and corruption. As part of the European Union integration process, the countries of the region are required to take forward key reforms in public administration, economic governance and the fight against organised crime and corruption. While more progress is needed throughout the region, the prospect of eventual EU membership has been a powerful driver behind reform efforts, and improving governance and stability. As the countries move closer to the EU, we hope that a return to conflict becomes increasingly improbable.
Albania’s stabilisation and association agreement has now been ratified by Belgium, Spain, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Poland, Sweden, Slovenia and Slovakia, as well as the Albanian Assembly and the European Parliament, which is important. The implementation of the SAA will be a central and continuing requirement of the European Union, and, along with the priority reforms highlighted in the European partnership between Albania and the EU, it will help to reinforce public administration reform and good governance. The Department for International Development and the European Commission are working to support the reform efforts. The Government believe that the EU’s role in encouraging reform and stability is vital to the future of peace in the western Balkans, and such agreements constitute an important building block in that crucial progress. Albania’s stabilisation and association agreement will serve as a strong political message of EU support to the wider region and should provide motivation for Albania and other western Balkan states to make further progress in moving towards the EU.
4.36 pm
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your august chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, even though we are in July. It is a pleasure, too, to be speaking opposite the Minister for Europe, with whom I had previous dealings when we served in our respective Whips Offices. Like him, I also did a two-year tour of duty, and I remember that as fondly as he does.
In my previous job as a shadow Treasury spokesman, I had experience of working opposite the then Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), on the ratification of tax treaties. Incidentally, we are all very pleased to see her back in the House safe and well. Such treaties were often relatively straightforward, which seems to be the case with the measure before us, so I shall bring a smile to the face of the Government Whip—and perhaps even to that of my own Whip—by stating at the outset that I do not intend to delay the Committee too much. Nevertheless, any treaty obligation is potentially important, so there are several questions that I wish to put to the Minister before the Committee gives assent to the order on behalf of the House.
The purpose of the measure is summarised in paragraph 2 of the explanatory memorandum, which says:
“This Order would declare that the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States and the Republic of Albania, signed on 12 June 2006, is to be regarded as a Community Treaty as defined in section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972.”
Paragraph 4 says:
“The Agreement is made by the European Communities and all its Member States, and must be ratified by each of those States as well as by the Communities and Albania before it can come into force. The Government intends, subject to the making of this Order, to ratify the Agreement on behalf of the United Kingdom.”
In itself, that seems relatively straightforward. However, the stabilisation and association agreement between Albania and the European Community and its member states was signed in Luxembourg on 12 June last year, which is more than a year ago. Being technically a treaty, it must be ratified by the EU states, including the United Kingdom, and by Albania itself. I was going to ask the Minister to update us on ratification in other EU countries, but he helpfully read out a list of the countries that have ratified so far. In that regard he was ahead of me. However, unless I missed this, I did not hear him mention Italy. For obvious reasons, Italy clearly takes a close interest in all matters Albanian. Will the Minister therefore say what progress has been made on ratification by Italy?
Will the Minister also say what progress there has been on ratification by Albania? I believe that he said that the agreement had been ratified by the Albanian Assembly, so will he confirm whether it has come fully into force in Albania, or whether it is being delayed in going live after ratification? In the case of tax treaties, the agreement sometimes comes fully into force some time after ratification. I think that Committee members would like to know the status of the agreement.
Article 2 of the order specifies that it will come into force on a date to be
“notified in the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes.”
Leaving aside the question of who is going to tell those in Cardiff, will the Minister give us some indication of when the order will come into effect in the UK, assuming that it is passed this afternoon?
The agreement is designed to enhance the relationship between Albania and the European Union as a step along the road to possible Albanian accession. In order to accede, Albania will need to comply with the three so-called Copenhagen criteria for accession states. The first criterion is political: a state must have stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for the protection of minorities. The second criterion is economic and relates to the existence of a functioning market economy and the capacity to meet the competitive pressure of market forces in the Union—I hope that someone has pointed out that criterion to Mr. Sarkozy. The third criterion involves acceptance of the Community acquis and the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including the aims of political, economic and monetary union.
Of course, the Minister will know that some Conservative Members have strong reservations about some of those issues, especially the references to political and monetary union. I look forward to debating those issues in the context of the revived EU constitution. Without straying on to that debate this afternoon, may I ask the Minister for the Government’s assessment of Albanian progress against the Copenhagen criteria? Will he give an overview of how the UK thinks the Albanians are doing against those three broad benchmarks?
The SAA is a detailed document that runs to more than 500 pages. It deals with a variety of issues including, under titles IV to VI, the supply of services and movement of capital, in which the general thrust is in the direction of more open markets and freer trade. Title VII covers co-operation on criminal matters to combat such things as internal corruption, drug smuggling and people trafficking, which have been a particular problem for Albania in the past few years, as I suspect that most members of the Committee would acknowledge.
It is notable that page 10 of the European Commission’s 2006 Albania progress report states:
“Sustained progress in fighting corruption is a fundamental condition for successful implementation of the SAA and the Interim Agreement. This will require following up strong initial measures with systematic efforts to tackle the causes of corruption by fixing legal loopholes, improving salaries, stabilizing the public administration, further simplifying complex and opaque administrative procedures and improving the professionalism of civil servants.”
The analysis goes on to state that
“designing and adopting effective legislation for the required systemic reforms”
will require broad political consensus on how
“to tackle corruption in the medium and long term.”
Given that, what is the Minister’s assessment of how the process is playing out? Are the Government convinced that the Albanians are making genuine progress on those matters, which will be important if it is going to progress eventually to EU membership? What firm evidence do the Government have if they believe that the Albanians are doing better? After all, we are effectively about to ratify a treaty with the country.
The Conservatives are not opposed to the order or the SAA that it will ratify. However, before we pass it, I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to my points about the likely timetable for ratification in the jurisdictions that I mentioned, the Government’s analysis or perception of Albanian progress against the Copenhagen criteria, and, specifically, the progress that the Albanians have made on combating corruption? I hope that the Minister agrees that those questions are reasonable under the circumstances, and I look forward with interest to his reply.
4.44 pm
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): May I say what a pleasure it is to have this opportunity to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Bercow? My remarks will be even briefer than those of the hon. Member for Rayleigh, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation that seems to have emerged on the order.
The agreement is important, as are others that have come before us, because it brings Albania closer to the European Union, which, from our perspective, is to be welcomed. Stabilising countries such as Albania is important. We have seen how the prospect of European Union membership has benefited other aspiring EU countries. Therefore, we welcome the agreement and the closer involvement and co-operation with the Albanian Government that it signifies.
It is appropriate that the relevant conditions for European Union entry are maintained and seen to be maintained. We are pleased that the agreement continues the pattern of encouraging prospective member countries to become economically and politically stable. As Albania has a growing economy, albeit one that is still not fully developed and stable, it seems that the more contact and support that we and other European Union countries can give it, the better placed it will be. It is clearly to the wider advantage of the European Community that it develops its relationship with Albania and ensures that the country’s economy continues to strengthen.
We are encouraged that the agreement involves co-operation on the crucial issues of free trade, political reform and, especially, justice and home affairs. I know that there have been specific concerns about organised crime and corruption, to which the hon. Member for Rayleigh referred. I, too, look forward to the Minister giving us a satisfactory assurance on that matter. That said, I hope that, through this agreement, the European Community can co-operate and encourage the Government of Albania to work further in all those areas.
4.47 pm
Mr. Murphy: May I congratulate you, Mr. Bercow, on enabling our deliberations to be carried out with such apparent ease and unanimity? I will respond to a number of points raised by the hon. Members for Rayleigh and for Cheadle. Let me first thank them for the tone of their comments. I also thank the hon. Member for Rayleigh for his kind remarks about our experiences on European Standing Committees A, B and C. We had two years of real enjoyment.
Let me return to the matters in hand and the points raised by the hon. Gentlemen. The hon. Member for Rayleigh noticed that while I mentioned 11 states that have ratified the agreement, Italy, alas, was not among them. I am advised that it is going through the process with due care and diligence, but that it has not, as yet, arrived at the same stage of the process as the UK Parliament. However, there is no sign of any difficulty over ratification.
The hon. Gentleman asked when the agreement would come into force. I have been advised that the Albanians are currently working under an interim agreement that will remain in place until all member states have ratified. With regard to UK ratification, we hope that the Privy Council will be able to make an order at its next meeting on 25 July. I hope that that gives him enough specific detail.
Perhaps I could address in one group the questions about the Copenhagen criteria, corruption and how we judge Albania’s progress. The hon. Gentleman was right about the three sets of criteria. We believe that Albania is making substantial progress, especially on corruption, which was raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle. Corruption is one of the key barriers that are stopping Albania from making the progress that we all wish it to make.
The Government of Albania have pledged to beat corruption and criminality and to prosecute any official or politician when there is evidence of wrongdoing. There is considerable public support in Albania for the elimination of crime and corruption. The prospect of EU integration represents a powerful incentive for Albania to make sustained progress, and we believe that EU engagement is the right way to make that sort of change—[ Interruption. ] Bless you, Mr. Bercow.
Mr. Francois: You have just read a sneeze into the record.
Mr. Murphy: At least it was not a snooze.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh also asked about evidence. That is an important question because while the Government can commit to warm words, the issue is about how we test the Albanian Government in practice. As far as I know, there has been evidence in recent times of increased prosecution of organised crime in Albania. That is an important change, but there must be further progress in that field for us to accept that the Albanian authorities are making a 100 per cent. effort to drive out organised crime and such crime that is emanating from Albania and playing in different parts of the European Union, including the UK.
With regard to the wider points about Albania meeting its commitments, including those under the Copenhagen agreement, we believe that the implementation of the SAA forms a continuing part of Albania’s challenge to continue making substantial progress on the key reform areas that are identified in its European partnership and the Copenhagen criteria.
Although this question has not been asked, I am sure that the Committee would appreciate it if I put on record that neither the Government nor the EU have set an explicit timetable for the point at which Albania would achieve full membership of the EU. That will be dictated by conditions on the ground and the reforms that Albania puts in place, not by an arbitrary timeline set by the European Union or the UK. However, the Government are determined to do all that we can to support Albania to bring about reforms to its judicial and democratic processes and to deal with its corruption so that it can become a fit, willing and able partner that is capable of playing a full part in the EU.
Mr. Francois: I am grateful to the Minister for what he says about timing. Returning to the Copenhagen criteria, let us suppose that Albania were to join the EU and at some point wanted to join the European single currency. The means of ratifying that decision would be a matter for the country to decide, but it will have a treaty relationship with us if the order goes through. For neatness, will the Minister confirm that it remains the position of Her Majesty’s Government that should there ever be a recommendation for the UK to join the EU single currency, the matter would still be subject to a referendum?
Mr. Murphy: I am not sure that a conversation about Albania’s stabilisation agreement should bring us to a conversation about the single currency in the UK. I should like to confirm that the Government’s position on a single currency has not changed. I commend the order to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Stabilisation and Association Agreement) (Republic of Albania) Order 2007.
Committee rose at seven minutes to Five o’clock.
 
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