Mark discussing European Affairs and calling for a referendum on the question of whether the UK should stay in or get out of Europe

December 11, 2007 6:00 PM
By Mark Hunter

First of all, I associate myself with the remarks made by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs at the start of proceedings with regard to the tragedy in Algeria earlier today. Although details are still emerging, it is obvious that it was a very bad incident, and as the right hon. Gentleman said, our thoughts must be with everyone-the families and friends of all those who were killed or injured.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak from the Front Bench in this debate on European affairs, but the House should be aware that my party's shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), has written to the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to explain his absence from his usual place today.

As a proud advocate of internationalism and the European Union, I believe that the UK's role in the EU is vital in securing a stable and successful future for our country and for our prosperity. Self-evidently, we face a world in which more and more challenges have an international dimension. Climate change, terrorism and the international drug trade are just a few of the major international issues that affect the everyday lives of people in the UK. To resolve such problems requires co-operation between nations, and that must be our watchword for the future.

The European Union plays a critical role in combating those evils, as well as in improving the lives of many of our constituents. Unlike some hon. Members, who seem to be avoiding the issue of Europe like the plague at the moment, and others who are unashamed in their hostility toward anything European, I speak for a party that is proudly internationalist and pro-European.

I am keen to take a moment or two to look at some of the benefits the EU has brought to Britain over the years. Let us not forget that UK membership of the EU has given us the opportunity to co-operate on tackling cross-border crime, helped to provide strong economic growth and prosperity, helped to make our air cleaner, offered a co-ordinated approach to providing aid to the developing world, helped to make our beaches and rivers cleaner and provided regional development funds for deprived areas in the UK.

That does not mean that we claim the EU is perfect. We are certainly not blind to its faults; we simply believe that we are better off in than out. All too often, the positive benefits that the EU has delivered go unmentioned by politicians and unnoticed by the public. For too long, the Eurosceptics have controlled the agenda on Europe. Those of us in this House who are pro-European, whether present today or not, need to reassert our arguments and make the positive case for Europe. In that context, the recent relaunch of the European Movement under the presidency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) is a very good thing indeed.

With the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, the EU now has 27 member states, and we can all agree that the institutional arrangements derived from its original six members cannot function properly in such a union, which will no doubt have more members in the future. Although I do not intend to spend too long on this issue, because I am sure that it will be discussed at great length in January and I hope to be part of that debate-reshuffle aside-I want to say a few words about the institutional changes proposed in the EU reform treaty.

I have no doubt that the proposals in the reform treaty will make the EU a more effective and efficient institution. The reduction in the number of commissioners and reform of the EU presidency will make co-ordination on a variety of policies both quicker and more decisive, improving the EU's standing and power in the international arena.

The reform treaty also achieves what we have wanted for a long time: to make the EU more accountable to UK citizens, through the involvement of national Parliaments and their ability to object to EU policies on the basis of subsidiarity. The EU's policies will be fully discussed and scrutinised in Parliament, which I hope we would all agree is a welcome development for the UK. That said, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches will, as we have indicated previously, seek to table an amendment to the Bill when it is put before Parliament next year calling for a referendum, albeit not on the dry, technical detail of the treaty, but on the real issue, namely whether it is a good idea for the UK to stay in Europe or not. In or out-it is time that we sort it out.

I will mention just three things that have gone from the constitutional treaty. The first is the constitutional concept. The European Council has stated that the constitutional concept has been "abandoned" and that, rather than replacing previous treaties, the reform treaty will amend previous treaties, principally the treaties establishing the European Community and the European Union. That is the first thing that is different.

The second thing that is different is that there will be no symbols of the European Union. There will be no article in the amended treaty mentioning- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman asked a question, but does not seem prepared to listen to the answer. There will be

"no article in the amended Treaties mentioning the symbols of the EU such as the flag, the anthem or the motto."

That is the second thing that is different, off the top of my head. The third thing that is different-I will move on after this-is that there is no explicit mention of the primacy of EU law. At UK insistence, mention of the primacy of EU law will be relegated to a declaration noting the case law of the European Court of Justice. That will, in effect, recognise that the principle has been upheld.

If we are to be honest with ourselves and the public, whether we are in or out is what the debate is really all about. In fact, we have already received some support from the blue side of the argument for our in/out referendum proposal. Iain Dale, the blogger extraordinaire and Conservative party activist, has advised the Leader of the Opposition on The Daily Telegraph's website to steal the Lib Dems' policy on the issue, arguing that it would

"settle the issue once and for all".

I am happy that at least one prominent Conservative has come to a sensible conclusion on the matter. I have no doubt that others will follow in time.

I assure the House that if and when such a referendum is called, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches will be the first on the streets, pounding the pavements to explain to our constituents not only why Europe is good for the future of the UK, but why it is necessary if we are not to become a marginalised irrelevance on the international stage.

When the Bill comes before Parliament in the early part of next year, we will table an amendment to call for a referendum on what we believe is the central question: whether we stay in Europe or whether we come out. No amount of flannelling from Opposition Members who want the Liberal Democrats to take a different view will change our position, which has been set out many times by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and other spokesmen. We are all well aware of the position.

would be very happy to spend the entirety of my speech on that one subject, but this European affairs debate allows us the opportunity to talk on many other subjects that are important, and I intend to do that.

The forthcoming summit will, I am sure, be a busy one, with the EU foreign policy high on the agenda. I am also certain that the issue of Kosovo will again be discussed, and rightly so. It is now eight years since NATO intervened there, and the "transitional" arrangements are beginning to look more permanent than they should. The Kosovars promise that they will eventually declare independence unilaterally-indeed, much earlier than next May. That is a clear indication of the tension in that region, which will not stay buried for too long. The EU needs to pre-empt a new crisis and act now.

: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he is not going to distract me from the issue that I am talking about, which is Kosovo. I am sorry if Conservative Members do not think that Kosovo is worth the attention of the House. I beg to differ; I think that it is, and I intend to proceed with my remarks on the subject.

In our opinion, the only solution to the crisis in Kosovo is the supervised independence plan proposed by Martti Ahtisaari. His proposal envisages that the EU will play an oversight role while Kosovo develops the institutions and stable economy that it needs to enable full independence. We welcome today's written statement from the Foreign Secretary on his desire for rapid discussions on a new Security Council resolution before the end of the year. His statement also recognises the slim prospects of securing a deal, however. If Russia remains the sole obstacle to achieving a new resolution at the Security Council, the EU and the US must swiftly take the lead in recognising Kosovo under the terms of the Ahtisaari plan.

This issue cannot be circumvented or ignored for much longer. We believe that Kosovo should eventually obtain its independence, but it must do so peacefully and under EU supervision. The Ahtisaari plan would facilitate that, and the EU should do all that it can to ensure that it is adopted as soon as possible. We have known that this day was coming for some time, and the EU must now come to a common position if it is to remain a credible player in the process. I hope that the Government will do all that they can to ensure that they get an EU agreement on this issue during the summit.

I am pleased to see that the European Union initialled a stabilisation and association agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina last Wednesday. I was also pleased to note the almost instantaneous injection of stability that that brought to the country. These are indeed positive developments. The promise of EU accession for the western Balkan countries is, as ever, an inspiring one. Just last week, I met Government representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina who impressed on me in the strongest language the importance of the possibility of EU membership and the positive effect that such membership would bring. The former high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, my friend and colleague the noble Lord Ashdown, has rightly said that the prospect of joining Europe and NATO is the glue that holds the Balkan states on the path to reform. While I would not suggest that they would immediately revert to conflict if we took that glue away, they would certainly retreat into dissolution and the black hole of lawlessness. Sadly, recent events in Bosnia and Herzegovina have proved that to be all too true.

To help countries such as Bosnia along the road to greater institutional, economic, political and social stability, the EU must be prepared not only to offer the prospect of EU accession to those countries but to be proactive in helping them to fulfil the accession criteria. It is no longer enough for us to sit on the sidelines watching and waiting for them to catch up with us. While we must ensure that the accession criteria are stringent and are fulfilled, we must also be prepared to devote real time and resources to the process. Widening EU membership will not only bring peace and security to eastern Europe; it will also be beneficial to the UK, create greater prosperity for the region as a whole and allow greater co-operation on key issues such as combating organised crime and illegal immigration.

The EU also has a key role to play in co-ordinating defence and foreign policy. I hope that, during the summit, time will be given to a discussion on the situation in the middle east and, in particular, on what role the EU can play in the wake of the Annapolis conference and how it can help the parties involved to reach a conclusion before the end of 2008. The process will not be easy, and I am sure that there will be moments when negotiations will stall. However, it is the only hope for the region. It is also essential that the EU explore ways to ensure that the aid to the region really does reach the innocent civilians who need it, both in the west bank and in Gaza.

Similarly, I hope that there will be a discussion on how the EU can improve its collective impact in Afghanistan. EU member states play a critical role in strengthening governance, delivering aid and, in some cases, fighting to improve security in Afghanistan as part of the NATO ISAF mission. Too often, however, effectiveness is hampered by poor co-ordination and caveats on military engagement. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree with us that a stable, peaceful and secure Afghanistan is in the European as well as the British interest.

We welcome the fact that the Secretary of State turned his attention to EU defence capabilities in his recent speech at Bruges. The Liberal Democrats have long called for a European defence review to assess the military needs and capabilities of European nations. I shall be interested to know whether he will be advocating this agenda at the forthcoming summit.

The EU also plays a crucial function in providing aid and trade to the developing world. Africa and most of the European Union agree that decisions about the future of the EU-Africa relationship need to be Africa-centred. It would be folly to imagine that we should be imposing solutions on Africa from our positions of post-colonial comfort, and I hope that the change in direction that the EU-Africa summit was meant to bring will be borne out in practice. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that, when brutal dictators such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe wilfully mistreat and abuse their own people on such a massive scale, we have a right and a duty to speak out. That is why we urged the Portuguese not to invite him to the EU-Africa summit, and why we supported the Prime Minister's position of boycotting the summit once it became clear that Mugabe would attend in person.

During the summit, discussions will take place on the economic partnership agreements. Along with many others, we have real concerns about the practicalities of those agreements and about their effect on the developing economies in Africa. We fully support proposals to remove restrictions on goods and services coming into the EU from Africa. Indeed, allowing greater trade from African countries and businesses will undoubtedly do more to change the trajectory of development than a generation of aid hand-outs. However, Africa nations must be allowed reasonably to protect themselves against the influx of imports from the EU countries, which is likely to have a devastating effect on the least developed economies over a short period. The conditions imposed in the agreements cannot solely be for the benefit of western and European countries.

The worst scenario would be that no conclusion were reached before the World Trade Organisation deadline of 31 December. The result of that would be an increase in tariffs and severe damage to the fledgling economies of Africa. I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will agree that discussion of these issues needs to be a top priority for the forthcoming summit. The EU has a responsibility as a global power to do all that it can to work with the developing world and to help those countries to achieve their full potential.

The EU has a vital role to play in our society, in our nation, in our continent and throughout the world. Together, we have greater strength and influence on the international stage than we could ever have apart. Co-operation and cross-border issues have proved to be beneficial for the citizens of all EU member states and all benefit from EU policies in a variety of areas. We need to carry on working to ensure that the EU is doing what is right and is doing it well. Only by playing a central role in shaping the future of the EU can the UK ensure that that is the case. Now that the discussions about the future structure have been progressed and are being dealt with nationally, the upcoming summit will give the UK the opportunity to set the agenda for EU policies for the future, so that the EU can continue to be an active player on the international stage and maintain a strong economic presence for the benefit of all EU member states.

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