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The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
"The key decisions of the Helsinki Summit were far-reaching. It increased to 12 the number of countries involved in accession negotiations with the EU and gave candidate status to Turkey for the first time. That presages a hugely enlarged EU and, over time, with the membership of Turkey now formally on the agenda, an EU with its borders stretching as far as the Middle East. In addition, it has significantly pushed forward European defence co-operation, allowing the EU for the first time to build the capability of acting where NATO is not engaged. These are truly historic decisions for the EU.
"Before the start of the summit, we learned of the decision of the French Government to refuse to abide by the decision of the EU and lift the ban on British beef. As I said in this House on 10th November, it was always preferable to settle this through discussion and clarification; but failing that we would have to go to law. We worked hard to reach an understanding with France. In the end, the Commission tabled a summary of our response to French questions which we and the Commission believed should have satisfied reasonable concerns. Unfortunately, the French Government were unable to agree them. The Commission is now taking France to court, and it will issue its formal legal opinion tomorrow.
"There were some who said that we should have tabled this issue at the Helsinki Summit. I can think of nothing more counter-productive or misjudged. At present, British beef can be sold in 13 out of the 15 EU countries. The Commission is completely on side with us. The beef ban is in law lifted. To have reopened the entire issue--and given all 15 countries an obligation to debate an issue the vast majority regard as closed--would have been tactical ineptitude on a grand scale. Neither do I think it is sensible to threaten a trade war with France. We
"To return to the summit, the main issue was the enlargement of the European Union, which this Government strongly support. Democracy and the market economy are now firmly established in the majority of central and eastern European countries, and they are increasingly ready to join the European Union. We also owe an obligation to those countries who stood by us in the Kosovo conflict earlier this year.
"Six countries--Poland; Hungary; the Czech Republic; Estonia; Slovenia and Cyprus--began negotiations last year. The European Council decided to open negotiations early next year with six more: Latvia; Lithuania; Slovakia; Malta; Bulgaria and Romania. The process is lengthy and detailed, but it is now firmly under way.
"On Cyprus, the European Council welcomed the negotiations under way in New York between the Cypriot leaders. Successful conclusion of these talks would not only bring a welcome end to a long-running dispute, but also facilitate Cyprus's accession to the EU, and we urge all those involved to make every effort to reach agreement. But at Helsinki, Heads of Government endorsed our view that Cyprus's accession was a matter for decision by the member states of the European Union and that there should be no pre-conditions.
"The European Council also opened a new and much more positive chapter in its relations with Turkey. This has long been a preoccupation for Britain; Turkey is of great strategic importance, and an ally in NATO. A more constructive relationship between Turkey and the EU is overdue. But we have now secured that. Turkey is now a candidate country, destined to join the European Union on the same basis as the other candidates. It will enjoy all the benefits of other candidates, including financial assistance, even though accession negotiations are unlikely to begin for some time. It is an excellent outcome.
"The intergovernmental conference next year is aimed at preparing the Union for the impending enlargement. The Helsinki Council confirmed that the conference should focus on the size and composition of the European Commission, the weighting of votes in the Council and the possible extension of qualified majority voting, in certain limited areas. The conference will begin in February and complete its work by the end of next year.
"On security and defence, the European Council endorsed our view that the top priority is for European nations to strengthen their military capabilities. At Helsinki, we agreed that member states should, by 2003, be able to deploy and sustain for at least one year military forces of up to 50,000 or 60,000 troops, capable of a range of tasks essentially defined as humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping or peace enforcement.
"There have been suggestions that this agreement to increase the options open to us in future crises has adverse implications for NATO, or that the European Union is creating a European army. This is the opposite of the case. The European Council made clear that the EU will launch and conduct military operations only where NATO as a whole is not engaged. The process will involve full consultation and transparency with NATO. The six non-EU allies will be involved and consulted before decisions are taken, and will be able to take a full part in resulting operations. The EU will avoid unnecessary duplication with NATO.
"But it would be a tragic mistake, repeating mistakes of British European policy over the past few decades, if Britain opted out of the debate on European defence and left the field to others. This is a debate we must shape and influence from the start, because our vital strategic interests are affected by it. As a result of our participation, it is moving in a clear direction reinforcing NATO, not in opposition to it. I completely reject the view of those who would have us opt out of this issue.
"The conflict in Chechnya was much on our minds at Helsinki. Our relationship with Russia is a vital one, above all for the security and stability of our continent. We want Russia to continue on the path of democracy, market economy and the rule of law and will continue to support the transition process. But business as usual is not possible while human rights are being comprehensively abused in a corner of the Russian Federation. The EU called for a political solution to this issue and adopted a series of actions designed to back up the words of strong condemnation.
"On the withholding tax, the Council agreed a sensible way forward. We will continue to work for a solution to the issue of tax evasion that rightly concerns some of our EU partners, Germany in particular. But this cannot be done at the expense of a major European financial market based here in London. I have made it clear that we will not permit that. We also have genuine concern about the efficacy of the measures proposed. So we have also insisted that, in debating the way forward, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proposal for an exchange of information on a basis that involves more than just EU countries should be examined. There is increasing recognition that it is no good adopting measures in the EU if the only impact is that the market in savings moves outside the EU. The rest of the tax package we can support, although of course other countries have difficulties with parts of it.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset how grateful I am to the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister's Statement. But will she agree with me that it was strong on generalisation but weak on any details?
On a more helpful note, I concur with her on the gravity of the situation in Chechnya. Is she aware that we support the measures agreed at Helsinki, including the diversion of TACIS funding, but that we also need to ensure that we do not undermine democratic forces in Russia? Is she concerned that, strongly as we condemn the unacceptable and brutal Russian action, the bombing of Belgrade and other cities by NATO may have provided a pretext--but certainly no excuse--for the Russian action? Does she agree that we need to think very carefully about the application of the Blair doctrine on armed military interventions in other countries' internal affairs?
I turn to the substance of the summit. Is the noble Baroness aware that we on this side strongly support the expansion of the European Union to the states to the east? In particular, does she recall that we have on repeated occasions deplored the offensive attitude taken by some EU members towards Turkey? Will she accept our support for inclusion of Turkey in the process of enlargement? But is she aware that we do not believe that admission to the Union must invariably be on the basis of the acquis communautaire? Is it not important to campaign for greater flexibility within the Union? Was it not regrettable that at the recent WTO conference the EU was adopting protectionist positions, when it is clear that free trade has been the greatest creator of prosperity in the world in the past two centuries? Do the Government remain unequivocally committed to the principles of free trade? Did the Prime Minister urge that position on our EU partners? In particular, did he oppose any requirement on aspirant members of the EU that they should regulate their labour markets and industries in order to qualify for EU admission? Would it not be bizarre for states like Estonia, which have just escaped central regulation and freed their economies, to have to re-regulate to join the EU? I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to assure the House that that will not be the case.
This brings me to the reality of the Helsinki conference. Do the Government regret that after their unilateral abandonment of the previous government's hard-won positions on the Social and Employment Chapters they have received precisely nothing? Are the Government ashamed that up and down this country as we speak there are millions of businesses--some of them small traders--wrestling with form after form, and regulation after regulation, that have been imposed on British business under the Social Chapter and various employment directives? Are they not concerned that our competitiveness is being sapped and the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs destroyed by such regulation? What was it all for? What has the Prime Minister achieved for small businesses in Britain?
In 1997 the Prime Minister preened himself, cycling around Amsterdam as a great European. No more bicycles now, my Lords. Instead, he has found himself being railroaded towards imposing a disastrous tax on the City of London. He was greeted with contempt and ridicule when he tried, far too belatedly, to speak up for our farmers. Does not this summit represent the complete failure of the Prime Minister's strategy on Europe? Will the Leader of the House tell us one thing that he has achieved by his willingness to sign away the interests of British business in Amsterdam? Has not his whole policy on Europe been exposed as utterly naive? We were told by the Prime Minister on 14th July that,
Is not the handling of the withholding tax another example of the foolishness of the Prime Minister? Time and again at the Dispatch Box the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, no less, has been asked by the House to make clear to our partners that this country would veto a withholding tax. Would it not have been better if the Government had taken the advice of this House and made that clear from the
Turning to some other issues, was there any discussion at Helsinki of the proposed new takeover directive? If so, did the Prime Minister make it clear that we would not accept any dilution of the freedom and flexibility of the Takeover Panel rules?
On the question of a European army, what will be the common language of such an army? Will commands be given in English? Does the Minister agree with the warning of the US Deputy Secretary of State that,
Was there any discussion of transport matters at the Helsinki Summit? If so, did the Prime Minister inform his colleagues of the new division of responsibilities within the DETR? Will the Minister join these Benches in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, on his promotion? Can she confirm that in all future EU Councils on transport it will be the noble Lord who will speak up for Britain?
In conclusion, is it not clear that, far from moulding a new Europe, the Prime Minister has limped along behind an old integrationist agenda? Is that not why he agreed at Helsinki to open-ended discussion on abolishing our veto, to taxing savings and to the creation of a new Euro-army? Has he not carried off an unbelievable double--to sign up to the Euro-federalist agenda while simultaneously being isolated in Europe?
Does the Minister recall that, when my noble friend Lady Thatcher was isolated, she won the British rebate; and that when my right honourable friend Mr Major was isolated, he won the UK opt-outs from the Social Chapter and the single currency? Is it not the truth that the Prime Minister is the first to return from a European summit both isolated and empty-handed? Over the past two and a half years he has given away vital British national interests and achieved precisely nothing. That is a humiliation for the Prime Minister, but it is also a tragedy for Europe and a tragedy for Britain.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I, too, want to add my congratulations to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House on the Statement that she has repeated. First, with regard to the French attempt to ban British beef, will she confirm that under the European Union there is a clear resort to legal action? Will also she confirm that in the case of other countries, such as the United States which has maintained a ban on British beef for many years, there is no such resort and no way in which that country can be legally obliged to take British beef, whereas that is not the case with France?
Secondly, will the Minister confirm that, in rejecting a proposal for a withholding tax, the United Kingdom agrees that there are serious problems of evasion and money-laundering which must be dealt with and proposes to set up a working party under the European Union to investigate the problem and see how it might best be met?
Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that in discussions with the United States on the issue of the European strategic and defence initiative, it was made clear by Mr Strobe Talbott and others that the United States welcomed such a development providing that there was proper consultation with the American administration; and that, in addition, the United States has made it plain that in some cases it would be willing to support, logistically and with intelligence information, those particular foreign policy initiatives that it supports but was never selfish enough to be directly engaged in? Given that, is it not the case that, at the summit, Europe has taken another step forward to a genuine and balanced partnership between the western nations?
Does the noble Baroness agree that the ambitious and historic programme for a major enlargement, now to include a further six countries and Turkey, places heavy responsibilities on the existing member states to achieve a reasonable timetable? Is it the view of the noble Baroness and her right honourable friend the Prime Minister that we can be sure that the IGC will take place, and that it will deal with the major outstanding institutional issues, including a simplification of a European Union constitution?
We commend the Prime Minister and the Government on their wider vision of where Europe should be and the efforts that they are making towards that. Does the Minister appreciate that there is an unbelievable double in respect of the Opposition, with half the party wanting to get out of Europe and half the party wanting to stand on the fence--an uncomfortable and physically impossible position to sustain?
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness raised questions relating to the European defence situation and whether it might lead inevitably to Europe being in conflict with NATO and in particular with our American allies. The noble Baroness rightly quoted one American expert in this area. Perhaps I may quote the US Defense Secretary. At the NATO ministerial meeting on the 2nd and 3rd of December, he said that for many years the United States Congress had been asking the Europeans to assume a greater burden. To precis his remarks, he said that the United States welcomed the arrangements that would be discussed at Helsinki and understood that it would be done in the context of having a European capability that would strengthen NATO. He added that there was no ground for speculation that somehow it would lead to a division between Europe and the United States. Noble Lords who have had a chance to examine the conclusions of the Helsinki Summit will have seen that at paragraph 27 there is an explicit undertaking spelling out clearly that this is in no way leading to the formation of a European army. Therefore, the noble Lord's question as to the language in which commands would be given is, frankly, irrelevant.
In passing, perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness that the IGC is scheduled to take place, and will end, by this time next year. Its primary concerns will, we hope, be focused on the reform of the structures that we have discussed several times in this House, particularly with a view to the arrangements that will be necessary when we come to examine the wider application of the candidate state.
On the question of beef, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. There is little more to be said given that the Prime Minister did not speak to the French Prime Minister on the subject. The noble Lord's understanding of the Prime Minister's private conversations with the French Prime Minister is slightly better informed than is mine, but I know that this subject was not included on the formal agenda--for the simple reason that, as was said in the colloquial language of last week's press statements, the time for diplomacy has ended and the only thing left now is to see the French in court. That is certainly the intention.
I relate this anecdote in contrast with the assumptions of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that nothing changes in Europe and everything is the worst of all possible worlds. I speak rarely in this House about my role as Minister for Women but it is appropriate to recall something that entirely demonstrates the step change in the relationship between this country and our European partners since the present Government came to power.
During exactly the same period as the Helsinki conference was in progress under the full spotlight of the international media, I was chairing in this country a meeting of European Union Ministers on women's and equality issues, at which there was practical discussion of arrangements between our different countries on some of the issues that most affect the everyday lives of our population. Although those discussions did not lead to any concrete or universal decisions, they produced a useful and important exchange of views, which can be taken forward. I shall take them forward tomorrow at a meeting with my right honourable friend David Blunkett and his counterpart the Portuguese Minister for Employment on issues relating to women's employment in this country and the wider European Union.
Such practical exchanges and detailed discussions by Ministers at a policy level contribute to the thickening and organisation of European issues. They are not in the glare of the media spotlight during a ministerial summit, but illustrate precisely what we are achieving in terms of our different relationships with Europe.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was determined to display the Prime Minister as being isolated in a way that led to this country being undermined and mocked. A columnist writing in the Daily Telegraph this morning stated that,
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