Select Committee on European Union Thirteenth Report


Letter from Robin Cook MP, Foreign Secretary to Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee

  Thank you for forwarding a copy of the Committee's report on "Enlargement of the EU: Progress and Problems" (HL paper 118, published on 24 November).

  I have read the report with interest, and am pleased to attach my detailed response.

2 December 1999


  The Government welcomes the Committee's interest in this subject. The next round of enlargement is vitally important to the future of Europe, and the UK is playing a leading and constructive role in the process. The Committee has provided a thoughtful and perceptive analysis of the issues involved in the negotiation and accession process.


  The Government appreciates the Committee's support for extending invitations at the Helsinki European Council to a further six applicants for membership (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia). The UK has been the strongest proponent of this approach amongst Member States. The Prime Minister's speeches in Romania and Bulgaria in May were a recognition of, as the Committee's Report says, "the political need to send a positive message to Bulgaria and Romania by including them in the list" (76). The Committee is quite right to observe that ". . . events in Kosovo have prompted a particular sense of obligation to those two countries . . . as well as heightening the perception of the geo-political importance of EU enlargement as a potential contributor to regional stability" (74).

  The Government agrees that once negotiations have been expanded, they should be conditional, objective and differentiated. The Commission's recommendations in its Composite Paper of 13 October 1999 on this point are welcome. Opening chapters at a pace appropriate to the candidates' own state of readiness is a good way to ensure that the negotiations are genuinely substantive.

  The Commission also recommended that chapters which have already been provisionally closed should be re-opened, to monitor implementation. The Government supports monitoring, and believes that it is in the best interests of both the EU and applicants. Proper implementation of the acquis is necessary for the new Member States to play a full part in the European Union, in particular the Single Market.

  The Committee's Report raises the question of whether the Commission will be well enough staffed to cope with so many different sets of negotiations. The Commission announced in October that it would recruit up to 270 new staff to cope with the negotiations. It has already begun to establish negotiating teams in anticipation of expanded negotiations. Each of these teams will be headed by a senior Commission official (at A-3 level) to ensure that the process is driven forward at an appropriate pace.


  The Committee's Report sets out the strong arguments for and against setting target dates. The Government agrees that setting target dates would be counter-productive at this stage. But previous enlargements have shown that dates can act as a useful spur at a later stage of negotiations. The Government strongly agrees with the Committee that targets should not be missed simply because of a lack of readiness on the part of the EU itself, and supports the Commission's recommendation that the EU be institutionally ready for enlargement from 2002.


  The Committee suggests that the CAP Reform agreement reached at Berlin could have gone further. The Government agrees. But, whilst further reform of the CAP is clearly desirable, it should not be seen as necessary for enlargement to take place. Berlin did provide sufficient funds to finance the CAP in the new Member States, but only on the basis that direct payments are not paid to farmers in these countries. The Commission took the view that it would be better to provide aid to help develop the infrastructure in the candidate countries than to pay direct aids to their farmers. The Government will continue to press hard for more radical CAP reform and agrees with the Committee that the forthcoming WTO negotiations will add to the pressure for such reform.


  The Government agrees with the Committee that adequate provision for the cost of enlargement is extremely important. But it believes that the current arrangements are adequate, and does not see the need for re-negotiation. Substantial funds have been made available to provide assistance to the candidate countries both before and after accession. The agreement reached at Berlin will permit a first wave of applicants to join between 2002 and 2006 without an increase in the present ceiling on Own Resources (1.27 per cent of Community GNP).


  As the Minister for Europe said in his evidence, the UK wants a short and focused IGC. The main aim of the IGC should be to prepare the EU to receive new members from 2002, as the Commission's Composite Paper proposed. We will work together with other Member States to ensure that sufficient institutional reform takes place to make early enlargement a reality.


  The Committee's Report suggests that it would be best to recognise now that the target dates suggested by both the applicants and the Commission are "over-optimistic". It is true that the applicants' internal targets for readiness are ambitious. But they are internal targets, based on the applicants' own perceptions and needs. As such, they are a useful spur to activity in applicants' administrations. The Commission's proposed target date for EU readiness is also useful in focusing Member States on the need to complete the forthcoming IGC in good time.


  There has been no hardening in the Government's attitude towards transition periods. As before, the Government wants progress towards enlargement to be as rapid as is compatible with the maintenance of EU standards, particularly as they affect the integrity of the Single Market. Member States have to stand by the agreed common positions in order for the negotiations to be successful. The UK attitude towards the issue of transition periods is consistent with the EU negotiating position, which states that:

    ". . . acceptance of these rights and obligations may give rise to technical adjustments, and exceptionally to non-permanent transitional measures, to be defined during the accession negotiations. Such requests for any transitional measures shall be limited in time and scope, and accompanied by a plan with clearly defined stages for application of the acquis. They must not involve amendments to the rules or policies of the Union, disrupt their proper functioning, or lead to significant distortions of competition".

  The Committee's Report raises a number of issues in relation to the EU stance on transition periods for difficult and costly areas of the acquis. In this context, the Committee rightly observes that transition periods have played a part in every previous accession, including our own.


  The significant infrastructural investment required for certain Directives poses particular problems. The environment acquis is complex, and negotiations have not yet been opened in this chapter. When they are, it is likely that the EU will first seek further clarification on specific requests for transition periods. If these can be justified, the EU will consider how best to integrate the applicants into the acquis. But in many areas of the acquis it is important to pursue implementation before accession. These include the horizontal directives, such as the Directives on Environmental Impact Assessment and Access to Environmental Information, and those affecting the operation of the Single Market, trans-boundary pollution, and the protection of the natural environment. Many of the Directives in this area contribute to capacity-building and bring economic as well as environmental benefits, and their early implementation is very much in the interest of the applicant countries.


  The Government agrees that agricultural arrangements are a particularly difficult area for negotiations. Negotiations on agriculture are unlikely to begin until late in the Portuguese Presidency at the earliest. We will need to see how the discussions develop. There may well be pressure for transitional periods for some elements of the CAP.


  A successful expansion of the Single Market is one of the key objectives for Enlargement, and the Government agrees that State Aids and Purchase of Land are two important areas where we will want to minimise any disruption. Specifically on State Aids, the Government does not currently anticipate any significant transition periods for this part of the acquis. On purchase of land, while the Government appreciates the sensitivities which have led to requests for substantial transition periods, we will want nevertheless to look very closely at the potential for disruption of the Single Market as we develop our position for the negotiations ahead.


  The Committee's report underlines the need for existing Member States to maintain the momentum of reform so that the process is not undermined. As already stated, the Government welcomes the Commission's proposed target date for EU readiness, which will help to focus Member States on the need to complete the forthcoming IGC in good time. The adoption of this target will also demonstrate to applicant countries that the EU really is working towards a swift and successful enlargement.


  The Committee rightly notes that public support for enlargement, in both the Member States and applicants, will be essential to its success. It is primarily up to applicant state governments to ensure that their citizens understand the benefits of EU membership. UK Ministers visiting applicant states invariably refer to enlargement, the benefits associated with it, and UK support for it. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office produces information on enlargement, and on UK support for it, which is available to applicant country citizens through UK embassies and over the Internet.


  The Committee suggests that the Government seek observer status for the applicants at the IGC. The Government is already investigating with the Presidency how the applicant countries can be consulted during the IGC process. As well as consultations at the EU level, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will offer them regular briefings (supplementing their monthly briefings after each General Affairs Council). These briefings already offer them a chance to raise questions of particular concern in relation to the GAC—they will in future have the opportunity to do this in relation to the IGC.


  The Committee's Report highlights difficulties for the countries of the Western Balkans if economic and political relations between them and the applicant states have to be severed. The Prime Minister called for expanded negotiations in May to help stabilise the region. The EU has not asked applicant states to sever their political relations with Balkan countries. It is currently negotiating Stability and Association Agreements (SAAs) with Balkan countries, which will give them preferential trade access to the EU. The applicant states and the rest of the EU will all have the same relationships with countries signing SAAs. These Balkan countries already enjoy favourable access to EU markets and the applicant countries are free to align their own trade arrangements with these existing EU arrangements.

  In negotiations, the EU has emphasised the importance of maintaining the acquis. Transition periods in the External Relations chapter could affect the proper functioning of the Common Agricultural Policy, the uniform implementation of the Common Customs Tariff, disrupt the Free Movement of goods within the Internal Market and lead to distortions of competition. The UK successfully pressed for the EU's common position in this area to recognise that the SAAs introduced a dynamic element into this part of the acquis. The Government will continue to monitor developments in this area closely to ensure that enlargement does not impact adversely on the Western Balkan countries.


  As to opinion in the Member States, the available statistics are imprecise. The Eurobarometer survey on which the Committee's report draws asks only whether enlargement is seen as a priority for the EU, not whether respondents favour it. But there is a lack of public engagement with the issue, which the Government intends to address. Plans have been drawn up for an enhanced information and media strategy on enlargement, which is being carried out as the negotiations become more advanced and the prospect of accession draws nearer.


  The Committee has given a perceptive analysis of the areas of difficulty in the enlargement process. The Government agrees with the Committee's views on the political imperative of enlargement and on the need for the EU to ready itself to receive new members.

  But, as the Committee recognises, it is important that those new members are able to play a full part in the expanded European Union as soon as possible. For that reason, the question of transition periods will require careful scrutiny. The Government does not favour the development of a two-tier EU, and believes that this would not be in the interests of the applicants. But as previous enlargements (including the UK's own accession) have shown, the acceptance of limited transition periods does not imply a two-tier Europe.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

November 1999

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