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

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the skill with which he has worked in a question which I know concerns him closely. I am happy to say that I had a very good meeting with the representatives of the Organisation of African Unity and the Arab League, at which I explained why we have full confidence in the standards of Scottish justice. I expressed regret at the fact that those two organisations did not respond positively to our invitation to them and the United Nations to send observers to study our legal system, and I repeated that offer to them.

I think that it is fair to say that Stan Mudenge and his colleagues left with the impression that they had had a fair hearing, and that I had explained exactly why we are robust in our faith in Scottish justice and why we are determined to ensure that the mass murder of 270 people is not allowed to pass without those who have been charged being brought to justice.

We have acted to implement the commitment in the Amsterdam treaty to integrate the protection of the environment across the broad range of European policies. Our presidency has witnessed the first ever joint meeting of the Transport and Environment Councils. As a result of that joint work on the environment and transport, we have been able to adopt tougher standards on vehicle emissions, which will produce cleaner air for our citizens. The decision last week to ban the drift nets that drown dolphins has been broadly welcomed by the many people in Britain who support the campaigns to protect wildlife.

As we deliver on our commitments in our presidency of the European Union, we are constantly aware that Britain is a country with major ties of history and culture, and alliances around the globe, and not only in Europe. In particular, we have forged an excellent working relationship with Washington, and an effective partnership with both the White House and the State Department.

Britain's current high standing in Washington has been of direct benefit to Europe. At last month's United States-European Union summit, we secured an agreement that will protect European companies from US sanctions and commits the United States Government to resist any legislation that will result in extra-territorial penalties on European companies that are breaking no national or international law.

We have averted what could have been division between Europe and the United States over trade, and replaced it with unity in our approach towards countries such as Iran. I believe that the successful outcome of the summit, which is good for both sides of the Atlantic, was largely due to the fact that it was Britain in its presidency that represented Europe there.

In our presidency, it has been our job to speak for all the member states. I am happy to say that that does not prevent us, and has not prevented us, from also speaking for Britain. I noticed last Sunday that the Minister for Europe in the previous Conservative Government, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), complained that we had not given enough priority to tackling the ban on British beef. That was a compelling example of how out of touch Conservative Members can be with what is going on in Europe.

On 1 June, only a fortnight ago, the ban was lifted on exports of cattle from Northern Ireland under the certified herds scheme, and yesterday, the Commission agreed to propose to lift the ban on the export of beef under the date-based scheme for cattle born after August 1996.

We are not over the obstacle course yet: there are further hoops through which that proposal must go before it gets Council approval and comes into effect, and there appear to be elements in the Commission's proposals that we regard as unnecessary and unduly restrictive, but the fact remains that we now have in sight an end to the beef ban for the British mainland, as well as for Northern Ireland.

The fact that we have got this far is a striking illustration of how much better the Labour Government have been able to promote British interests through their constructive and positive approach to Europe. By contrast, the policy of confrontation pursued by the previous Government left Britain on the sidelines of Europe, with neither influence nor respect, and did nothing to further Britain's interests on beef or anything else.

I noticed last month that, one year on from the general election, The Times had discovered that Labour led the Conservatives as the party with the most popular policy on Europe by a margin of almost two to one. I freely admit that it was not always like this: at the previous general election, the same pollsters found the Conservatives leading on Europe by exactly the same margin.

The dramatic turnaround has happened because the public have had a year in which they have seen how much more can be delivered by a Government who have respect throughout the capitals of Europe and are taken seriously because the Europeans know that we are serious about doing business with Europe. In a spirit of fairness, I acknowledge the strong contribution made to our public support over Europe by Conservative Members, who have spent the past year unable to convince each other, never mind the public, what is the right policy for them on Europe.

The British public are much more sensible than many Conservative Members. They know that, in the modern world, we can make our way only by the health of our alliances and our trading links with the rest of the world. They know, too, that we shall not achieve security or prosperity in a global economy by being as rude as possible to our nearest neighbours.

The British public know that, if the Conservative party had, by some miracle, remained in power at the general election, the past six months of the UK presidency would have been squandered in the sterile and hostile confrontation that marked its last years in office. By contrast, we can look back with satisfaction on six months of steady achievement.

We have given a successful launch to an historic process of enlargement that will change the face of Europe; delivered real progress on our people's agenda of jobs, the environment and the fight against crime and drugs; developed a clear sense of direction for reform of the common agricultural policy; and injected momentum into the Agenda 2000 negotiations. Furthermore, we are winning the debate in Europe on subsidiarity, with the result that at Cardiff, we can launch a discussion that will confirm Europe's future as a union of sovereign states, not as one single, centralised state.

That is a record of achievement in which the whole of Britain is welcome to share our pride, including even the Conservative party, if it chooses to come out of the bunker, blinking into the light of the modern Europe. It is against that solid record of achievement through our presidency that we go to Cardiff, confident that we have set the right agenda for a constructive exchange and that it is we, not the Conservative party, who represent Britain at Cardiff, because it is we who represent the views of the people of Britain on Europe.