|A Europe 'Whole and Free' |
A Europe 'Whole and Free'
Speech by British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in the European Communities (Amendment) Bill Second reading debate, House of Commons, London, Wednesday 4 July 2001. Source: F&CO, London.
Mr Speaker, I beg to move, that the European Communities (Amendment) Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill before the House today implements the key decisions of the Nice European Council enshrined in the Nice Treaty. The Treaty was signed on 26 February but will not enter into force until it has been ratified by all fifteen member states of the European Union.
When that happens, we shall have put in place the final institutional reforms which the European Union needs to be ready for enlargement.
I therefore wish to open this debate by placing the Bill in its proper historical context.
Few have expressed that context more succinctly than President George W Bush. Visiting Warsaw last month, he said, ‘Our goal is to erase the false lines that have divided Europe for too long’. And he echoed his father, who talked when in office of building a ‘Europe whole and free’.
Enlarging the EU to take in the applicant countries of Central and Southern Europe has been a strategic aim of successive British Governments and our allies for more than a decade.
We believe that co-operation in the EU will bury the memory of Cold War divisions just as surely as it has laid to rest the ghost of warfare in northern Europe and the spectre of dictatorship in southern Europe.
This strategic vision carries with it immense practical benefits – for Britain and for existing EU members as well as for those countries which are soon to be the new member states. It will make all of us more prosperous, safer and stronger.
Enlargement will mean that British companies will be able to benefit from access to the largest Single Market for trade and investment in the world, a market with up to half a billion consumers – more than the US and Japan put together.
It will give us more allies to help us counter the cross-border threats which we all face – organised crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration. And it will give us a cleaner environment, because candidate countries are making major improvements in their air and water quality to meet EU standards.
I’ve described my approach as that of a ‘practical European’. That is because I recognise the practical as well as the strategic benefits that this Government has been a champion of enlargement.
We used our Presidency of the Council in 1998 to launch negotiations with the first set of six countries.
At every European Council since then, at which enlargement has been an issue, we have pushed for, and secured, rapid progress. As a result, twelve countries are now negotiating their accession. A thirteenth, Turkey, has been confirmed as a candidate for accession.
Most recently, at the Gothenburg European Council, we argued for, and secured, an affirmation that the EU’s commitment to enlargement was ‘irreversible’. Our aim is to complete negotiations by the end of 2002 for those candidate countries which are ready so that they can participate as members of the European Union in the European Parliament elections in 2004.
This timetable is bold and ambitious. If we are to achieve it, we must ratify Nice.
I have not concealed from the House my disappointment at the result of the Irish Referendum on 7 June. But we respect it. It is fundamental to the democratic legitimacy of the EU that changes to the founding Treaties do not take place until and unless the constitutional procedures of all fifteen member states have been satisfied. But there are clear lessons for all of us in the Irish result – we cannot afford to take public support for the EU for granted.
The Irish Government have made clear that they will need to address particular issues with their electorate, just as the Danish Government did when their electorate rejected Maastricht in 1992.
The other fourteen member states have formally resolved that they are ready to help Ireland to find solutions. And in the meantime all member states, including Ireland, have agreed that we should proceed with the enlargement negotiations and our own ratification procedures. Only by doing so will we be ready by the end of next year to admit new members.
If, however, Ireland does not ratify, the Treaty will not enter into force. The position is as simple as that.
This morning I met Jan Kavan, the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, a man whose own life symbolises the huge change which has occurred in Europe in my adult lifetime.
I first met Jan 33 years ago, in the Endsleigh Street headquarters of the British National Union of Students. I was then the Deputy President of the NUS, an organisation whose own politics had been dominated by the Cold War.
Jan was a student leader too. But he had none of our freedoms. Instead, he was a victim, along with thousands and thousands of others, of the other side of the Cold War, of the undemocratic authoritarian régimes imposed on one Central European country after another. He went into exile in London to muster support after Dubcek’s reforms in the Prague Spring had been brutally crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Today the Czech Republic is one of the most successful of Central Europe’s new democracies.
Jan told me today of the huge efforts which his country and the other applicants have put into preparing to join the EU. They see accession as putting the seal on their admission to the family of European democracies.
And he told me how important it was for the Czech Republic and every other applicant that Nice be ratified on schedule.
Nice: The Treaty for enlargement
Over the coming years we expect to complete negotiations with up to twelve applicant countries. I invite the House to imagine for a moment what an EU of 27 member states would look like if we did not make the changes agreed at Nice.
Each of the applicant states is smaller than Britain. And as each new small country joined the EU, so relatively would the weight and influence of the larger countries diminish. Eventually countries which together could not muster a majority of the EU’s population could, however, form a majority for the purposes of passing EU legislation. Clearly this would be unacceptable.
As the Community grew, so too would the European Commission, until it resembled a mass meeting rather than the coherent delivery-focussed body we want it to be.
And with 27 vested interests capable of imposing 27 vetoes on many new pieces of legislation, many areas of collective decision-making vital to our interests would slowly grind to a halt.
We set out in the IGC last year with the explicit purpose of solving these problems. At Nice, we achieved a deal which did just that. Nice is necessary for enlargement.
Benefits of Nice for Britain
The deal the Prime Minister and my predecessor as Foreign Secretary secured at Nice was not just good for Europe, but excellent for Britain too. Normally I refrain from quoting from leaked documents. But the European Union’s internal assessment of Nice is now a matter of public record. It said, ‘It was a European Council of strong emotion, with winners (this time the UK and Spain) and losers (Belgium, Portugal, Germany and the Commission)’.
For the first time since we joined what was then the Common Market in 1973, we won an increase in the UK’s voting weight. Our nominal voting power in the Council will go up from 10 to 29 votes, and though the total votes increase too, we shall have significantly more influence relative to the smaller countries. For example, where previously we had three times as many votes as Denmark, under Nice we shall have four times as many.
This also means that France, Germany and the UK together will still be able to block any proposal they dislike. Moreover, the UK will retain voting parity with Germany, despite Germany’s greater population.
We also succeeded at Nice in providing for a smaller and better Commission. From 2005 there will be one Commissioner per member state. Once the EU has 27 members, the number of Commissioners will be capped below that figure and there will be a system of equal rotation.
We secured more qualified majority voting in areas where that is in Britain’s interests.
In short, Mr Speaker, my Rt Hon Friends secured for Britain all of the goals which we had set out in our White Paper of February last year. This was an outstanding result, which was deservedly praised in the national press and media and in most parts of this House.
Facts not myths
Having set out what the Nice Treaty does for the UK and for Europe, I should now like to set out what it does not do.
Despite the warnings of some anti-European commentators, the Nice Treaty does not mean the end of the British justice system, a ban on political parties nor an end to freedom of thought or religion.
Nice is not a recipe for federalism, if by that is meant a centralised entity. Nice reinforces the role of national governments and nation states because it ensures that we can go on taking decisions in the Council of Ministers and at European Councils even in a greatly enlarged EU.
Nor does Nice represent a fundamental alteration in our relationship with the EU or a radical restructuring of the EU. It rather preserves and enhances the UK’s ability to influence decisions and take initiatives for the benefit of our citizens.
For that reason it would be absurd to break with our tradition that Parliament decides whether and if so how to amend the Treaties, and hold a referendum on Nice. The more so since there was not a referendum on Maastricht, which involved much more wide-ranging changes.
Future of Europe
But, Mr Speaker, to revert to the point I was making about the Irish referendum, we do have to find more effective ways of connecting the institutions of the EU to the people of the EU.
There are many activities and services which are best carried out at the European, rather than the national level. But unless and until the EU institutions become as responsive and accountable to our citizens as their national governments, it will always be hard to convince public opinion of that fact.
We need to deal with this democratic deficit. Therefore we agreed at Nice that there will be another IGC in 2004. It will be different from its predecessors because it will be preceded by a wide and deep public debate about the purpose and scope of EU activity.
We need to ask the question: What is the EU for? And to get to the answer, we need to look at what the EU actually does, and analyse rigorously and frankly the tasks it does well, those it does not so well, and those it does badly. Only once we have a clear sense of our citizens’ priorities can we sensibly ensure the EU’s institutions are properly organised and equipped to deliver them. The European Union is for the citizens of Europe, not the political elites of Europe.
That means focussing discussion not on the process but on the results of EU co-operation. Only ideologues and specialists are impassioned by esoteric technical issues like the extent of qualified majority voting or the limits of co-decision.
People care most about the practical benefits they can derive from the EU: more jobs, cleaner streets, less crime. This is where the debate should begin.
The next IGC is an opportunity for us to decide what the EU does best and which decisions are better taken at national level. It is a chance to simplify the Treaties so that they are easier to understand, and to give national parliaments a more defined role in the EU. We are determined to improve the democratic legitimacy and transparency of the EU.
The first and best way to bring the EU closer to the people is to make sure they are fully informed about developments.
More than any previous IGC, the Nice negotiations were carried out in full view of the British public and of this House. A year before Nice, our White Paper set out the issues at length and outlined our negotiating objectives in detail before the negotiations even got under way. The key documents, including successive redrafts of the draft Treaty, have been available on the Internet at every stage. Members of the Government have given many speeches and taken part in debates up and down the country to get the messages across and to listen to people’s views, both before and after Nice.
The issues have been raised at several debates in Parliament over the last year and a half and of course it is Parliament, as always, which will decide whether the UK will ratify the Treaty by passing this Bill into law.
Passing this Bill will give a clear signal to Jan Kavan, his colleagues in the Czech Republic and to all the applicant nations of Eastern and Central Europe, to Cyprus and Malta that Britain is committed to righting the wrongs of history and reuniting Europe. And it will strengthen Britain’s influence at the heart of this Europe of nation states. I therefore have no hesitation in commending this Bill to the House.