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Session 2008 - 09
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European Standing Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Cash, Mr. William (Stone) (Con)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Flint, Caroline (Minister for Europe)
Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Gardiner, Barry (Brent, North) (Lab)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
Moss, Mr. Malcolm (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(6):
McCafferty, Chris (Calder Valley) (Lab)
Mackinlay, Andrew (Thurrock) (Lab)

European Committee B

Monday 2 February 2009

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Enlargement Strategy

4.30 pm
The Chairman: Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a statement?
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): It might be helpful if I explain a little of the background to the European Scrutiny Committee’s recommendation for debate in the European Committee. One still cannot work out how one ends up on this Committee, but that is a matter for another time.
The Commission communication, “Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2008-09”, includes annexe 1, which consists of “A road map for reaching the final stage of accession negotiations with Croatia”, and annexe 2, which consists of the key points in the latest progress reports on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Turkey. The Committee recommended that the communication should be debated with three other documents. The first two were further disturbing progress reports on implementation of the post-accession co-operation and verification mechanism that was put in place in Bulgaria and Romania to support and monitor progress against various benchmarks concerning effective judicial reform and tackling corruption and organised crime effectively. The third document explained the Commission’s decision to suspend certain funding until Bulgaria enhanced its administrative capacity, curbed opportunities for high-level corruption and fought organised crime effectively.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The Chairman: Order. This is a statement, not a speech. The rules say that hon. Members cannot intervene. I know how much the hon. Member for Chorley is enjoying himself and how glad he is to be here, so I ask him to carry on.
Mr. Hoyle: I apologise for being unable to give way to the hon. Member for Rayleigh, but never mind. No doubt he will make his comments later if he needs to do so. I am sure that if he thinks long and hard, he might not need to.
In the introduction to both reports on the co-operation and verification mechanism, the Commission refers to
“principles which are at the heart of the EU—respect for the rule of law, mutual recognition and cooperating on the basis of a fundamental bargain of trust”.
It says that those principles can be put into practice only if the problems identified are tackled at source. The Committee’s view is that the problems were fully known before Romanian or Bulgarian accession; that the lack of progress since then demonstrates that the best way of ensuring the integrity of EU enlargement policy is to ensure that candidate countries are fully able to take on the responsibilities of EU membership, and to fulfil the values that underpin the EU, before accession takes place; and that that lesson should be learned with regard to planned future accessions. That is a bit late, is it not? There is nothing like closing the gate after the horse has bolted.
The Commission’s enlargement strategy communication reveals that even with Croatia, which has been given a tentative date for the conclusion of accession negotiations at the end of 2009, major reforms continue to be needed in the areas of the judiciary and public administration, and the fight against corruption and organised crime. What linked all the documents in the Committee’s mind was the Union’s commitment to conditionality. The Committee feels that that has been brought into question by the handling of those first Balkan accessions and the experience thus far with Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For good reasons, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe proposed a separate debate. She has subsequently told the Committee that she shares its concerns and she maintains that lessons have been learned since the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. However, although the Union encourages and supports the reforms necessary for membership and to build strong democracies that respect European values, the Minister told the Committee that
“there is little EU law in these areas and each European country has to build a system that works, taking into account its own history and culture.”
The Minister thus reiterated some of the key points made by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), during the earlier debate on 16 December, particularly regarding the substitution of target dates for entry by a conditions-based approach. He stated that
“we used to work collectively on the basis of target dates for countries to come into membership, whereas the approach is now very much conditions-based; there is a will in this regard. Although there is cross-party consensus on the merit of further enlargement of the EU, we are now rightly saying that the conditions for entry must be met before countries can come into membership, however strong the relevant principles.”—[Official Report, European Committee B, 16 December 2008; c. 11.]
The European Scrutiny Committee accordingly hopes that this debate will not only facilitate a general discussion on conditionality, but will provide the Minister with an opportunity to clarify whether there is now an insistence on seeing a track record of implementation of reforms, rather than ticking boxes when the necessary laws are passed on what she says are the “key areas”. That includes the issues that concern the Committee most—effective and independent judiciary and a public administration that demonstrates that it can and will tackle corruption and organised crime before accession takes place, rather than at some point thereafter, depending on what she describes as
“its own history and culture.”
4.35 pm
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire, and I welcome all hon. Members and staff who have managed to make their way here to ensure that we have the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley for the statement that he made on behalf of the ESC.
The concerns that the Committee expressed should be taken seriously, and I read the transcript of the debate involving the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. The debate examined the problems that the accession of Bulgaria and Romania caused—it was said that they had not met all the requirements after they joined the European Union. I share the Committee’s concerns about how best the EU can tighten conditionality, given the decisions it has made in recent years.
I hope, regardless of those legitimate concerns—the matter should be scrutinised—that the Committee shares the Government’s view that enlargement of the EU has transformed our continent in the past 20 years. We should remind ourselves that the continent that was divided by the cold war has been replaced by a union of democratic member states, from the shores of the Atlantic ocean to the Baltic and Black seas. I hope that there is consensus that enlargement has brought increased security and prosperity to the UK, the EU and the new member states. It has benefited UK consumers, travellers and holidaymakers, businesses and investors, and it has brought the UK new markets and opportunities.
EU enlargement has helped countries to tackle organised crime and reduce the flow of illegal migrants to Europe, and to clamp down on drug trafficking. I speak with some passion about those things as a former Home Office Minister—I was responsible for a great deal of justice and home affairs work and visited a number of the countries involved. As we have done in the past, we are endeavouring to ensure that their law enforcement and judicial systems are as good as they can be. Crime evolves, and systems must do likewise to deal with criminals.
Enlargement has also enabled us to make new allies, and to shape the EU into a more dynamic and outward-looking organisation. Some of the newer member states are both pro-European and conscious of their national identities, having moved away from the influence of the Soviet Union, under which they felt that their national identities were suppressed. Clearly, enlargement has not been without its challenges. The UK and the EU have learned from the experience of recent enlargements, and are seeking to improve the processes as we go on. In 2006, the European Council took stock not only of the successes but of the lessons of enlargement for central and eastern Europe and agreed a new consensus, the foundation for which is the “three Cs”: sticking to our commitment that Croatia, Turkey and the other countries in the western Balkans can join when they meet the criteria; strengthening conditionality to ensure that all the necessary reforms have been undertaken before accession; and improving communication, particularly to our own citizens, on the impact of enlargement and how we are managing problems.
The Committee will want to focus on the lessons that we have learned from previous accession negotiations and what we can do to ensure that future member states implement the necessary difficult and fundamental reforms, particularly in their judiciary and public administration. We believe that the future of the western Balkans region lies in the EU. It is the best way to secure stability and prosperity, and to move on the from the conflicts of the 1990s. Turkish membership of the EU is also of strategic importance. The prospect of joining the EU is the driving force behind reform in Turkey and the western Balkans, and behind changes that will give the people of those countries the opportunity to live in peace and security, to build more prosperous societies for themselves and to build more tolerant and democratic societies.
Making the enlargement process more effective is, therefore in the interests of the people of the region and of the UK. The criteria remain the same, but we have strengthened the negotiation process and our support for reform, and there is a commitment to tackle core issues, such as judicial and public administration reform, at a much earlier stage in the process. The accession negotiations now include a new chapter on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and the Commission has increased the financial support for those reforms. We now set rigorous but fair benchmarks for opening and closing chapters, clarifying the reforms that candidates must introduce, and chapter negotiations do not even start until opening criteria are met. In key areas, we insist on seeing a track record of reform implementation, and that means having detailed reports from the Commission about what is happening in the different countries, rather than just ticking boxes when the necessary laws have been passed. We will no longer set target dates for entry; candidates will be able to join only when they demonstrably met EU criteria.
I sincerely believe that enlargement remains the EU’s most effective tool to support democracy and economic reform in our region, but at the same time, we must ensure that the necessary measures are put in place so that we anticipate and can manage effectively the impact of enlargement on the UK. One key area is our insistence in future negotiations on agreeing arrangements so that we can decide when and how to open the UK labour market to workers from new member states. Successful enlargement will bring significant benefits to the UK, to the EU and to the accession countries themselves.
The Chairman: Before we move on, may I welcome Mr. Davey, who appears to have arrived from the Arctic? I am glad that you got here safely, given the weather conditions. Most of you will know the system, but in case anybody does not, may I explain that we have until 5.30 pm to question the Minister? I am more than ready to allow a Member to ask more than one supplementary question, with two key conditions: first, that it is attached to the first question, rather than to something else; and secondly, that they do not test my discretion by trying to get in more than four in a row. There are no bonus points for getting five. I shall willingly call somebody a second time, and, if people are still keen to ask questions at 5.30 pm, I have discretion to allow them to continue. However, let us deal with that when we come to it.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Would the Minister be good enough to comment on her explanatory memorandum, which contains a statement on Turkey, regarding
“improved relations...and mediation efforts between Israel and Syria”?
In the context of the massive row and walkout by the Turkish Prime Minister during a meeting with Shimon Peres at the recent economic summit in Davos, does the Minister still subscribe to the idea that they would be ideal partners in mediation efforts between Israel and Syria?
Caroline Flint: I stand by the general thrust of my comments in the explanatory memorandum—Turkey can play, and has played, a very positive role in the middle east peace process. The added value that it can bring is to be welcomed and acknowledged, not only in the middle east peace process, but in other issues in the region.
Mr. Francois: May I, too, say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Wilshire? Like the Minister, I am very pleased to see you here, given the adverse weather. The Mayor of London was interviewed at lunchtime about the conditions, and he apparently said that it was the right kind of snow but that the quantity was the problem, so I am pleased that you managed to overcome it and are here with us.
I apologise to the Minister for beginning on a sour note, but she may recall that on 17 November, at a previous meeting of the Committee, we talked about a document entitled “Communicating Europe in Partnership”. The debating material, which we had to study, arrived only a couple of days or so before the Committee meeting. At the time, the Minister reassured the Committee that that would not happen again. However, this morning, in the internal mail, I received an addendum to the bundle that we are debating this afternoon, relating to the sensitive matter of the conditions under which Serbia would be allowed to sign a stabilisation and association agreement with the EU. Those who follow such matters will know that that is a touchy subject, and that there has been a change in the Government position, which we shall want to debate. Why, therefore, did that rather important document only arrive in Members’ offices this morning, when the Minister had given us a commitment that such things would not happen again?
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