Cardiff European Council

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:48 pm on 11th June 1998.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Secretary of State 5:48 pm, 11th June 1998

I shall have a word to say about what the hon. Gentleman describes as the European central bank fracas. His view that it had nothing to do with the UK presidency is by no means shared in the European Parliament or elsewhere in the councils of Europe.

The vote of the European Parliament two weeks ago was a humiliation for the Foreign Secretary. Behind that humiliation lies another truth: the presidency has been a flop. What a contrast with the high hopes set out six months ago. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were going to transform the continent. The Foreign Secretary told us that the presidency would provide a clear opportunity to demonstrate that Europe can deliver on the concerns of our people. The Government, he said, were to offer active leadership in the world."—[Official Report, 4 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 521–22.]

The Foreign Secretary was so full of the prospects for the presidency that he quoted from the European press, telling us that we should read what the European papers said about the new Labour Government. I am always keen to take the Foreign Secretary's advice, and I have been reading the foreign press. The French journalist Pierre Beglau, writing for the magazine Le Point, said: The British Presidency of the European Union is … one of the most timid and poor in recent years. The Italian newspaper Il Sole Venti Quatre Ore discovered what we have long known. There seemed, it said, to be a growing disparity between proclaimed intentions and reality.

Nowhere was that disparity more marked than in the half-term report that the Government published in March. I am not surprised that the Foreign Secretary did not refer to that half-term report. The House will understand why in a moment. The report was a British innovation. There is no tradition of half-term reports, but the Foreign Secretary was so keen to trumpet his achievements that he was determined to break new ground. The report was introduced by the Prime Minister in typical fashion. Great progress was being made, he said, on a number of policy issues. He added: Robin Cook has done a brilliant job in bringing together Ministers quickly and reaching agreement to help sort things out rapidly.

What were the 45 successes attributed to the British presidency in that report? The Secretary of State for Education and Employment had chaired a meeting about life-long learning. The need for measures to lower telephone bills was highlighted. A seminar of Government press officers was held, at which agreement was reached to disseminate more information on the EU via the internet. And what of the Foreign Secretary? Well, he was praised for "injecting new impetus" into the middle east peace process. Not a lot of people saw it that way at the time.

The whole ludicrous, self-serving exercise was viewed with incredulity by our European partners. One German diplomat said: It's funny, we always thought the British style was understated. It is little wonder that we are now told, and perhaps the Foreign Secretary will confirm it, that the Government have abandoned their intention to follow up the ludicrous half-time report with a full-time assessment of their performance. There is not going to be a full-time report. The Government have at last recognised the only appropriate verdict on their presidency—the least said, the better. That did not stop the Foreign Secretary producing a half-time report, but he is not producing a full-time report because there is very little to say.

It is little wonder that, instead of dwelling on the achievements of the UK presidency—only three weeks from its end—the Foreign Secretary chose to spend much of his time today on the problems of Kosovo. Those problems are, of course, acute, and I do not underestimate them for one moment. The whole House will want to join him in expressing our dismay at the emergence once more of violence, murder and rape in the Balkans.

However, the Foreign Secretary should have made a separate statement on Kosovo so that hon. Members could question him. I hope that he will do so next week. Meanwhile, I hope that the Minister of State will tell the House why, when we have known about that problem for so long, the military options for NATO have even now not been prepared. The Secretary of State for Defence talked on the radio this morning about the need for quick action, but it was known months ago that difficulties were likely to arise in Kosovo. Why was work not put in hand then to prepare options for action? When do the Government intend to approach the Security Council for authority to take action? What action do they have in mind? Will the Minister of State assure us that any such action will have clear objectives, and that the Foreign Secretary will return to the House to make a proper statement before action is taken?