Previous Section Index Home Page

9.17 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): It is a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). He clearly has a sympathetic, if not an empathetic view of the struggles of the people of Cyprus, as opposed to the political interests of those who have used that divided island for their own ends. That is the great problem that its people face. Bringing Cyprus in on a plan that was clearly rejected by half the island was bound to lead to tremendous failure and great difficulty in getting out of the impasse that we now find ourselves in. I am not quite as hopeful as he is that that will be easily resolved.

I agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who said that this is an important debate—even more important than the debate about matters pertaining to the behaviour in the House that took place previously.

Mr. Cash rose—

Michael Connarty: I am not going to give way given that I have been called to speak with 15 minutes to go after a series of rather lengthy speeches.

The hon. Member for Stone said that this debate was important. I think that European debates are so important that I always find it disappointing not to see the Chairs of every Select Committee in the Chamber. These matters are not only for those who have a specific interest in European politics. This is not just about people who have wide-ranging statements to make about European politics, but about the things that we are working on in the European Union. The question is whether the UK is at last a mature and confident partner in this process as we go into an election year.

Today I spent time as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee receiving large delegations from the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Macedonia, including its Speaker, all of whom looked to the procedures in this place and the attitude of the United Kingdom to much wider matters in letting them move forward as partners. They also met the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Rayleigh
9 Dec 2008 : Column 496
(Mr. Francois). They see us as having a wide-ranging involvement in the serious matters that Europe must deal with. I would have liked some time to talk about what is on the table—not opinions, bluff or bluster, but the things that we are tackling together as a European Union and which cannot be tackled in any other way.

An energy policy for Europe is vital. It is quite clear that no country can exist by having an energy policy on its own. The Commission has produced a very good green paper detailing the Commission’s plans on the energy policy for Europe, which was circulated and debated. It spoke of a European grid, interconnection levels between member states, investment in electricity generation for the next 20 years in a planned and programmed manner, open national markets and free competition. That latter point leads us to the question of opening out the liberalised markets to a flow of investment and energy that is not dependent on any one country, as it is at the moment. At the moment, 63 per cent. of gas energy production is provided by the Russian Federation, and that figure will rise to more than 70 per cent. unless something is done about that situation.

We have seen excellent initiatives, such as the getting together of Norway and the Netherlands to create a variable balance where hydro power can provide energy to the grid alongside wind power, so that they can balance out their needs. There clearly is a question about climate change and renewables. In our country, we are looking at whether those renewable commitments are affordable, but it seems that the intention is to drive renewable commitments up to a proposed level of 15 per cent., and for everyone to reduce their emissions by 20 per cent. That is great for the climate change agenda, but in a financial crisis we may need to be much more flexible. There is much we can do in that area together that we cannot do alone. It is foolish to think that we could do it alone; the EU has the structures to contribute to the process.

On the economic crisis—the credit crunch and the wider recession—the European Union has a European economic recovery plan. It is talking about a couple of principles in one main platform. There are two key pillars, the first of which is a major injection of purchasing power into the economy of Europe. It is an injection of £200 billion, with £170 billion coming from the member states of the EU and £30 billion coming from joint EU funds. I know that small businesses in my community are looking to that fund to get finance to them as quickly as possible. The banks are squeezing finance out at the moment, when they need to be putting it in. Hopefully, that will come together.

The second pillar is a need to direct short-term action to reinforce Europe’s competitiveness. It is not a move to run away and become protective, but a move to expand the markets to allow the economy to recover. The overarching fundamental principle is that the process should be one of solidarity and social justice. I do not think that that can be done within any one country. We know from the depression in America in the 1930s that when any one country locks things down, the economies of all countries start to do so, and they shrink.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

9 Dec 2008 : Column 497

Michael Connarty: I am sorry, I do not have time to take interventions. I do apologise, but that is what happens when debates are arranged in the way that this one has been.

It is important that people realise that the European Union is the platform and the context in which we must deal with these matters. There is no other way out of it. [ Interruption. ] I see the Opposition Whip chortling and laughing. I do think that it is quite wrong, if we thought we had an arrangement, to find that we do not have one. To say that I, as a Chairman of a Select Committee, should wait until the end beggars belief.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Turn up on time.

Michael Connarty: I have been in and out of this Chamber—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think that it would be sensible for the hon. Gentleman to continue with his speech.

Michael Connarty: There are clearly different opinions on the strategy, and whether the degree of it is correct, but not about its direction. There are questions about whether the involvement with the banks is too constrictive and whether state interference, which I happen to think is necessary at the moment, is likely to interfere with banking principles. Those are hot, and live, debates.

We had a tripartite meeting of MEPs, the Lords and the Commons where that was a major topic. Baroness Cohen, who was a banker for many years, made a substantial and relevant contribution. She said that caution against expanding help from the states must be taken seriously. It is important not to think simply that if the model works for the banks, it should be used for every other section of the economy.

There are worries, which we discovered when we went to the Czech Republic, that if the USA decides to bail out—or, quite frankly, subsidise—its motor industry, Germany might be tempted to do the same. If Germany does the same, the knock-on effect on the Czech Republic and Slovakian economy would be immense. We have to be focused on what we are giving people money for. If it is just to pour out machines that nobody wants to buy, it is pointless, but if it is to innovate and put things that people want to buy on to the market and restart sections of the economy, it makes a lot of sense.

A number of contributors have talked about enlargement in various degrees, and there is an excellent document—an analysis—produced by the Commission on the enlargement process. Many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate about Turkey and Cyprus have been well covered in the document. It is clear that Turkey needs to continue with its internal political reforms if it is ever to be accepted as a member. Certainly the reports I have been reading have shown that there has been an increase in extra-judicial violence by the police in Turkey, which is worrying. As I think the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, one would think that Turkey would be tempted or attracted to meet the criterion so that it could get access to the European Union; yet it seems in some quarters to be going backwards.

9 Dec 2008 : Column 498

That reminds me of the Romania and Bulgaria scenario, whereby those countries were on their way to eradicating corruption at a high level and were then told that they could come in in 2008, if not in 2007. So, they stopped having to listen to the European Commission, and Bulgaria has now had the right to spend EU money removed because it is clearly not beyond corruption. In fact, corruption has increased, and there have been more than 100 contract killings in Bulgaria since it joined the EU. It is ridiculous that that should have happened. Clearly, it did not prepare itself and it was not assessed properly. There are serious questions about enlargement to Turkey, unless it gets itself back on the road in the way that it should.

As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, we know that talks are going on at the moment to try to work out a comprehensive settlement under the auspices of the United Nations. The Commission supports those efforts and has said clearly:

I do not believe that there is a positive climate from the Turkish side in these negotiations at the moment. Anyone who looks closely at the reports coming from the European Union must have deep concerns that that is the case.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to the western Balkans, which has been mentioned again and again in the reports that we get from the European Union on enlargement. There are some serious concerns about that. The country nearest to being a new member is Croatia; yet the report on Croatia is quite clear and says that there are serious problems in Croatia with corruption, inability and lack of capacity in the judicial field. That is a worrying factor. If we have Romania and Bulgaria, do we then take in Croatia with the same flaws and problems and add to the problems that have not yet been solved in those two countries?

Clearly, there is a problem with Slovenia. There is a minor problem between Slovenia and Croatia on the question of ports and access to the sea, which is similar to the problem in Turkey and Cyprus. We have serious concerns and to talk about Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania and Montenegro as if they are just a stepping-stone away from entry to the EU is to delude those countries and ourselves.

One of the meetings I had today was with the Speaker of the Macedonian Parliament, and I said to him that I would put his—and their—concerns on the record. Macedonia says that it has done so much and that it should be put on the fast track to European membership at the beginning of the negotiation process. However, the Macedonian Speaker has not been reading the reports that I read about what is going on. There has been serious violence during the recent election, and inviting a country into the European Union that has violence during its election process would not encourage it to change. The major Opposition parties boycotted the Parliament for about four months because they did not get the balance of power that they wanted, which shows that it is not a country approaching membership of the EU seriously. However, Macedonian politicians have questions about the matter and say that even the visa process that politicians who come here regularly have to undergo is onerous, expensive and demeaning. They believe that it should be put to this
9 Dec 2008 : Column 499
Parliament that if they are to be treated seriously, at the very least a method of creating visa exemptions might be worked out.

We have to be serious about a number of other items. When I went to the Czech Republic with the Committee about two weeks ago, just before the presidency, the most important news that we learned was that the Social Democratic party won all 20 seats in the senate elections—the Civic Democratic party, which is currently in government, lost those seats—which included the first ever woman elected to a state or regional presidency on a direct ballot. There is not even a name for her job—she is called “the head man” because there is no other name for it. The reason that the Social Democratic party won, we were told, was simple: it opposed missile defence and the strategy of putting a radar system on Czech soil. The latest poll shows that 65 per cent. of people in the country oppose that strategy.

To finish, what concerned me was that the Czech Republic seemed to have more of a NATO and an anti-Russian view than a European Union view. That worries me greatly, because the problem with Cyprus is that Turkey was always seen as an important NATO ally. Sometimes the NATO agenda can counteract the European agenda, which is about peaceful coexistence, not historic antipathy towards another country, whether it be a large country such as Russia or a smaller country such as Cyprus. I have a problem with our approach to the enlargement process. We should take into consideration whether the agenda is an EU agenda or one that has perhaps been set across the Atlantic. For me, there should be an EU agenda and we should be full partners in it.

9.31 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to sum up this often lively debate for Her Majesty’s Opposition. It has touched on a number of subjects, including the European economy, the Balkans, the Russian invasion of Georgia and the European summit later this week.

We also touched on other subjects. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) spoke movingly, from her own perspective, about Turkish-Kurdish relations. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) spoke knowledgeably about the complex problem of Cyprus. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) achieved something remarkable: she charmed my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). During our debates on the Lisbon treaty, Ministers almost pleaded with him on a number of occasions not to intervene on them, all to no avail. However, she somehow managed to keep him at bay for half an hour. She has developed a knack that we on the Front Benches have not yet mastered. Therefore, we must pay tribute to her.

One of the most important challenges for the international community in Europe today is the need to maintain stability in the Balkans, and in particular to preserve it in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), touched on that in his contribution. The Bosnian wars of the 1990s
9 Dec 2008 : Column 500
were perhaps Europe’s bloodiest in the past 60 years and were an unfortunate throwback to some of the worst chapters in European history. Since those days, there has been much progress. The Dayton peace agreement has by and large held. Bosnia and Herzegovina recently signed up to an EU stabilisation and association agreement and looks as if it might be on the road to eventual EU membership.

However, although Bosnia presents a face of progress to the outside world, serious problems remain. The state institutions remain weak, with politicians in both Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim Federation pandering to some extent to nationalist sentiment. Crucial reforms, such as the need to set up a truly national police force, remain blocked. Most worryingly, the political rhetoric of the Bosnian Serb Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, has become increasingly strident in recent months. In fact, in a recent joint article in The Guardian entitled “A Bosnian powder keg”, Richard Holbrooke and Lord Ashdown stated of Dodik:

Bosnia is therefore at something of a tipping point. Either it can go forwards, build up its institutions and start down the road to eventual EU membership or—God forbid—it can regress into the Bosnia of yesteryear, a failed state riven by religious and ethnic hatred.

However, it is at this point that international resolve seems to be in danger of faltering. The long-term future of EUFOR, the European Union force tasked with maintaining stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, remains uncertain. Its lifespan has now been extended for another year, which we welcome. However, given the delicate situation in Bosnia, will the Minister give us an assurance that the Government will continue to support EUFOR and the High Representative and that they will call on other EU states and the United States Administration to do the same?

There are, however, some positive signs in the Balkans. In Serbia, the elections in February resulted in the victory of President Boris Tadic, who was elected on a manifesto committed to improving relations with the European Union. Significantly, the nationalist elements in Serbia, having failed in the election campaign to convince the Serbian people of their vision of an isolated, inward-looking Serbia, have since turned on themselves and divided in two.

That leaves us with a real opportunity in Serbia to demonstrate the benefits of engagement with the outside world, including with the European Union. I would, however, offer this warning to the Minister. History tells us that these opportunities for progress in the Balkans do not last for ever. It is therefore important to resist those voices in some EU states that are tempted to speak out against further EU enlargement. If states such as those in the Balkans are led to believe that future EU membership is closed off to them for ever, they might look for an alternative future, in which the progress of the past few years could be dramatically unwound.

Since our last EU affairs debate, we have seen a sight that most of us hoped had been confined to archive film footage: Russian tanks rolling across a European frontier. The Russian action in August in invading the sovereign territory of its neighbour, Georgia, not only violated international law but ran contrary to its own express
9 Dec 2008 : Column 501
sentiments at the United Nations a few months earlier. Whatever one might think of the Georgian actions on 7 August, the Russian invasion of Georgia was grossly disproportionate, and in breach of international law. That fact was rightly acknowledged by the Foreign Secretary, and we congratulated and supported him when he said that at the time.

The immediate response of the EU presidency was quite impressive, with President Sarkozy himself brokering a six-point ceasefire. Since the ceasefire, however, there has unfortunately been little real progress. Russian combat troops have not withdrawn to their pre-7 August positions. Russia has not allowed Georgian refugees to return to their homes and, in contravention of the ceasefire agreement, it has not allowed EU monitors into either of the disputed territories. In our view, it is therefore wrong that the EU—now with British Government support—should reward Russia by restarting EU partnership talks when the ceasefire that the EU brokered is not being honoured. The Government should also ask themselves what message that sends to the states that neighbour Russia.

Russia’s action in Georgia should also bring home to the Russian leadership that there are real costs attached to its decision. First, Russia’s diplomatic offensive to promote recognition of the independence of the two disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has convinced only a few others, such as the regime in Nicaragua and that of Hamas, to support it. Conversely, states on which Russia thought it could rely—such as Belarus and members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation—have refused to comply with Russia’s requests for support.

Secondly, as well as lacking clear support diplomatically, Russia has damaged itself economically. The Financial Times noted that, on 8 August, the Russian stock market “plummeted” 6.5 per cent. and that:

Next Section Index Home Page