European Affairs

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 3:11 pm on 3rd June 2010.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 3:11 pm, 3rd June 2010

That opens some big questions. I do not oppose considering the repatriation of some powers-it depends on the power. I do not take the view that we should only ever have one-way traffic of power from member states to the European Union, but we have to be careful that we make the right judgment. Some things clearly need European responsibility-aviation, for example, which cannot be dealt with on a purely national basis as the boundaries do not permit that. Environmental issues are another example. There are many issues on which the European Union is a better sized organisation to compete in the world. It is better that we have a common market when it comes to taking on China, India and the US. So there are advantages to the European Union, but I am not against the repatriation of individual issues and subject areas. I hope that we can consider that sensibly and with as little partisanship as possible.

The one big point of difference between us and the Tories during the election campaign, Europe, has been resolved in the coalition agreement, which is testimony to intelligent draftsmanship and savvy political work. In passing, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Laws, who was one of the authors of the agreement, and whose service to our party and-already-Government I hope will be continued before too long, following his recent difficulties. The Liberal Democrats made it clear that we need Europe to ensure that we deal with criminals better, and the European arrest warrant and other mechanisms are important parts of a wider European collaboration.

There are organisational matters to deal with too. We must keep on the agenda the fact that it is a nonsense for the European Parliament to meet sometimes in Brussels and sometimes in Strasbourg. That has to be sorted. I understand why we are where we are, but it is right that it should be on the agenda, and it is also right that we continue to look at the EU budget. It is unacceptable that it has never been adequately audited, and we need to ensure that the rules are complied with. There is also a continuing issue about agricultural subsidies, but that does not stop us being proactive and helpful to rural communities that need us to support people moving on to the land and being able to inherit tenancies.

I am clear, too, that we now have a clear, popular and reasonable position on future referendums: we will not have one if, for example, Croatia wants to join, but we will have one if there is a major political change. I welcome the fact that both coalition parties have said that they believe in the expansion of the EU, but expansion should come with a transition period for every country, as in the agreement, in relation to the right to move freely around the EU-the Bulgaria and Romania example. I have always been suspicious, privately and publicly, about whether we should have opened the doors immediately to all the previous accession states, at the time that Poland was given free access. Mr Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, argued for immediate access, and on the basis of the figures projected, we went along with that, but I was clear that it was a risk. A phased admission of people from new countries would be a much better process and reduce the fears about immigration and migration that the public naturally express.

I would like to raise a few issues about individual countries. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us the latest news on the conversations with Iceland, which is now an applicant country, and with Turkey. I welcome very much the fact that Turkey should be seen to be an important part of the EU. I ask him to give our condolences, concern and support to the Government and people of Poland after their terrible national tragedy of the air crash only a few weeks ago. I also encourage him to do what his predecessor as Minister for Europe did: understand that sorting out the Cyprus problem is a big priority. It is a nonsense that the EU has not yet been able to resolve that issue.

I ask the Minister publicly, as I have done in private, to pay attention to Russia and the Russian issues that have been raised on the Floor of the House. The relationship with Russia is important, but so too is that with Ukraine, which is an important European country that has not fulfilled its potential. There are economic issues, as well as human rights issues, in relation to both. Finally, the wider European concerns must be that the EU is proactive in the world in leading on conflict prevention; in dealing with the situation in the middle east, which is a crisis and a tragedy; in continuing to sort out the legacy of the civil war in Sri Lanka; and in promoting human rights in Africa, Iran and China. I welcome this debate and wish Ministers well.

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