Nice European Council

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 11th December 2000.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister 3:30 pm, 11th December 2000

After five gruelling days, victory was secured—I am sure the whole House would like to send our congratulations to the English cricket team on its triumph.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council which took place from 7 to 10 December. A copy of the conclusions has been placed in the Library of the House, and a copy of the Nice treaty will be deposited as soon as the final version is available from the Council secretariat.

This summit was the culmination of a year-long conference called to deal with issues on which agreement could not be reached at Amsterdam three and a half years ago. Agreement was essential to open the door to the enlargement of the European Union, the goal of successive British Governments. An agreement was reached in the early hours of this morning which removes all remaining institutional obstacles to enlargement.

It is extraordinary to think that, a few years ago, those countries in central and eastern Europe were still under the communist yoke of the old Soviet bloc. Today, there is the real prospect of uniting western and eastern Europe for the first time in generations.

The primary objective in the negotiation has therefore been successfully accomplished. But there were also key British interests. Our first priority was to get more voting strength for the United Kingdom.

The agreement reached increases the weight of Britain's vote. It raises the threshold for qualified majority voting up, when the EU comprises 27 members, to more than 74 per cent. of votes. It adds two further tests. Any proposal must have at least a majority of states on-side, as well as crossing the 74 per cent. threshold. And a new population threshold at 62 per cent. of the EU is also introduced. So the three biggest countries will continue, even as the EU enlarges, to be able to block together.

This now can be placed alongside the changes in Britain's financial contributions. Ever since we joined the EU, Britain has made a far greater proportionate contribution to Europe's finances than France or Italy despite, until recently, being a slightly smaller economy. By 2006, on the assumption of only six new member states, we shall be making a net contribution roughly equivalent to France and Italy's, for the first time in our membership.

Secondly, on defence, the European Council agreed the arrangements for European security that we have been negotiating over the past two years. It was made plain, first, that European defence would operate only when NATO chooses not to be engaged; secondly, that it be limited to peacekeeping, humanitarian and crisis management tasks; and, thirdly, as the text puts it, that the commitment of national assets to any EU-led operation will be based on "sovereign national decisions." Collective defence will remain the responsibility of NATO.

The next step is for the two organisations, the EU and NATO, to agree on the necessary arrangements. Any significant operation will require NATO assets and any such operation will be planned at NATO by the planning staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers EuropeSHAPE. This underlines the EU's aim to develop a strategic partnership with NATO. So here, too, Britain's essential national interest has been protected.

Thirdly, we have retained unanimity where necessary and extended qualified majority voting where necessary. Of the articles that move to QMV, 11 deal with appointments or changes in rules of procedure. One of these is important—the nomination of the Commission President, where it is essential that, in an EU of 27 or 30, one small state cannot block the right appointment. Nine of the changes deal with freedom of movement where we—that is, Britain—have an absolute right to decide whether to take part or not, thanks to the protocol that we secured at Amsterdam. The remaining changes are primarily about the efficiency of economic management and the single market, where majority voting is in this country's national interest: financial management of the EU budget, industrial policy, trade in services. All that means new markets for Britain's financial services and the jobs and prosperity that go with them. And within even these articles, we have kept unanimity where we need it: unanimity in respect of harmonisation and anti-discrimination measures, unanimity for passports, unanimity for anything to do with taxation and social security.

There were areas where it would not have been in our interests to agree to any QMV, in particular for taxation and social security. As we undertook to the House, those matters will remain subject to unanimity. In the field of justice and home affairs, the special protocol that we agreed at Amsterdam continues to mean that we—Britain—decide where to join in co-operation in our national interest, for example, in dealing with problems of asylum. On all these issues, we said that we would protect the national interest and, contrary to the dire warnings of the Conservative party, that is exactly what we did. The House will note with some amusement the Tories claims now that those issues were never under threat.

In an enlarged European Union, there will inevitably be issues on which member states can move ahead faster than others. It is in Britain's interests, as one of the leading partners of the EU, for that to be possible. We have secured conditions for this co-operation which fully safeguard the single market, prevent discrimination in trade between member states, cannot conflict with existing agreements, and are open to all. In the field of foreign policy, the common strategies of the Union, however, will continue to be set by unanimity. Any co-operation between groups of member states has to be consistent with a prior agreement reached by all, and is therefore subject to the national veto if necessary. These enhanced co-operation agreements, incidentally, will not apply to defence—another key British objective.

On numbers of Commissioners, those are unchanged up to 2005, except for one for any applicant country. Then, from 2006, there will be one Commissioner per country, up to a maximum of 27—at present there are 20—with an agreement to reduce numbers in 2010, following a review.

Since the Amsterdam summit of three and a half years ago, we have tried to rebuild British policy in Europe to get the best out of Europe for Britain while shaping Europe's future. On each occasion, we were told that it was impossible: that Britain v. Europe was the only game in town. At Amsterdam, we were told we could not protect our borders. We did. Two years ago, in Berlin, we were told we could not protect the British rebate. We did better; we put Britain's contributions on a more equitable footing for the first time. At Lisbon, we were told Europe could not accept the agenda for economic reforms. It did.

Earlier this year, at the June summit, we were told we could not win the argument on the withholding tax. It is won. The rest of Europe is now going to adopt exchange of information, not a new tax, as the way forward.

Finally, on defence, we were told that we could not improve Europe's defence capability—a vital NATO as well as EU interest—without undermining NATO, and that we would be isolated on tax and social security. We secured those objectives without its even being suggested that we were an obstacle in the way of enlargement.

It is possible, in our judgment, to fight Britain's corner, get the best out of Europe for Britain and exercise real authority and influence in Europe. That is as it should be. Britain is a world power. To stand aside from the key alliance—the European Union—right on our doorstep, is not advancing Britain's interests; it is betraying British interests.

Enlargement will now happen. British interests were advanced, but we cannot continue to take decisions as important as this in this way. That is not a criticism of the French presidency, which did well in immensely difficult circumstances, but the ideas for future reform in the European Union which Britain put forward a few weeks ago are now essential so that a more rational way of decision making is achieved. This, too, is a debate in which we should be thoroughly and constructively engaged; and we will be.

The Europe that this Government are striving for is one of nation states with their own traditions, cultures and special interests which work together in their own interests and in those of Europe as a whole. That means, on the one hand, making common decisions at a European level where that makes sense and, on the other hand, making decisions at a national or, indeed, regional level where that makes sense. It means embracing all the countries of Europe—east and west—in a way that would have been unimaginable throughout most of the troubled history of our continent. That is a goal that moved significantly forward at the Nice summit. I commend its conclusions to the House.