Cardiff European Council

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:20 pm on 11th June 1998.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary 5:20 pm, 11th June 1998

My hon. Friend is one of the few hon. Members who is honest enough to say that a question has been answered. I am grateful to him.

The ethnic confrontation and violence in Kosovo provide a stark contrast to the security and peace enjoyed by the peoples in the European Union. It is because all the countries of central Europe hunger for the security and stability that we enjoy that they now seek membership of the European Union.

As I look back over the months of our presidency, I believe that the achievement of greatest strategic significance was the successful launch that we gave to the enlargement process. We were able to develop a process in which all 11 countries were in the same pipeline, moving towards the same destination—the speed at which they arrive at the finish will depend entirely on the urgency with which they make the necessary reforms. We were also successful in negotiating a formula that dissuaded France from blocking the start of negotiations with Cyprus, which could have provoked Greece to block negotiations with any country.

In January, I made giving enlargement a flying start one of the objectives of our presidency—we have done that, which will be of long-term credit to Britain. Over the next decade, all the countries involved will become member states with full voting powers at the Councils of Ministers. It is important to our interests that they should remember the United Kingdom presidency as a time when we proved ourselves advocates and friends of their membership and competent managers of the process of enlargement.

It is equally important that the peoples of those countries should associate Britain with the benefits that they will enjoy as consumers as they lower the barriers to trade. When I addressed the House in the European debate in December, I mentioned the strong enthusiasm that I found in Warsaw for my insistence that membership of the European Union would require Poland to abolish the unfair, discriminatory and punitive taxes on whisky. I am delighted to report to the House that, last week, I received a message from the Foreign Minister of Poland informing me that the Cabinet had approved a reduction in the duty on whisky, to give it parity with brandy. I am confident that that news will be as welcome to drinkers of whisky in Warsaw as it will be to distillers of whisky on Speyside.

Enlargement is not the only historic step that is being taken under our presidency. Last month, the Heads of Government agreed that 11 member states could proceed to the final stage of economic and monetary union. Britain has not joined that first wave. We will judge whether we are ready to join on the basis of a hard-headed assessment of the economic interests of the British people; the Government are united in their view that the decision on the single currency must be determined on that basis.