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European Council, Stockholm

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:35 pm on 26th March 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington President of the Council, Privy Council Office 3:35 pm, 26th March 2001

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Special European Council held in Stockholm from 22nd to 24th March.

"At Stockholm there was from all our partners sympathy over the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain and support for the measures we are taking to contain and eradicate the disease. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be making a Statement to the House tomorrow on the latest developments.

"The purpose of the council was to take forward the process of economic reform launched at Lisbon last year. This involved setting performance targets for the first time, benchmarking both between the nations of the EU and in respect of our main competitors outside Europe; and a massive programme of liberalisation in opening up our markets.

"As American growth slows, this policy is even more vital for growth and jobs in the future. Since March last year, 2.5 million new jobs have been created in the European Union. In the United Kingdom we have created over 1 million new jobs since 1997.

"The European Union spending on information and communications technology as a proportion of GDP has outstripped the United States for the first time. The proportion of homes with access to the Internet has doubled to 28 per cent. The figure for the United Kingdom is 41 per cent. But we must go further. Prior to the summit, we had agreed already rules for electronic commerce, which mean that a company registered in its home state can operate on the basis of those rules everywhere in the European Union. Rules allowing businesses to operate as a European company were agreed after years of negotiation. A programme has been agreed for the liberalisation of rail freight. We have now taken the final steps in telecoms liberalisation in a way which will bring full consumer choice, cheaper bills and cheaper Internet access.

"At Stockholm we further agreed to liberalise financial services and to stress openness, transparency and consultation with markets and their users. Consumers will benefit from cheaper financial services and businesses will be able to raise capital to start up and grow their own firms across Europe. The City and the CBI have welcomed this breakthrough as good for jobs in the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union.

"We have made a commitment to open up the electricity and gas markets across the European Union. Most member states support the commission's proposed timetable of full energy liberalisation by 2005, with intermediate targets for commercial liberalisation of electricity by 2003, and 2004 for gas. That proposal goes forward. There is widespread support for it in the Council, and crucially it can be agreed by qualified majority vote. So, while I regret that France's difficulties in particular mean that we could not go further at Stockholm, the prospects for agreement at European level are good. Our aim is for the Council of Ministers to reach agreement before the end of the year.

"We agreed to reform competition policy and eliminate unfair state aids. For example, we expect British consumers will benefit from the changes to the so-called car block exemption in 18 months' time where our aim will be to secure a fall in UK car prices.

"We agreed to finalise this year's plan to deliver a Europe-wide patent. At present it can take nearly four years for a patent to be agreed right across the European Union, twice the time it takes in the USA and at five times the cost.

"Hopefully, we seek to agree in June the single European sky. This is a way of improving air traffic management in Europe, which will improve safety and reduce delays. A 25 per cent reduction in delays would save Europe's air transport industry and the public 2 billion euros a year.

"In addition, the council took further steps on employment, especially for women and the over-fifties; on vocational skills; and on new technologies including third generation mobile communications and biotechnology.

"On trade, we renewed our commitment to work towards a new world trade round later this year, an issue we will be pursuing when President Bush meets EU heads of government in Sweden in June.

"Taken together, these changes are further steps along the way to an efficient and competitive economy.

"President Putin of Russia met members of the European Council in Stockholm and I had a good separate bilateral meeting with him. Discussion focused on economic issues. We expressed our support for continued Russian economic reform and for Russia's bid to join the WTO. We also underlined the importance of further steps by Russia to improve the investment climate.

"President Trajkovski of Macedonia joined us in Stockholm at a critical moment for his country. We offered him our support and condemned the activity of armed Albanian extremists. Macedonia has started to build a multi-ethnic society and it is in all our interests that the country succeeds and does not polarise into separate Slav and Albanian communities.

"The United Kingdom has acted quickly to help to shore up democracy and peace in Macedonia. In Kosovo, NATO has diverted an extra 500 KFOR personnel to the Kosovo/Macedonia border and I can announce today two new steps. First, we are creating a new UK/Scandinavian battle group of some 400 troops from within our existing contingents for deployment by the KFOR commander to help to secure part of the Kosovo/Macedonian border. Secondly, to reinforce KFOR's capacity to control Kosovo's borders, we are sending out a unit of Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicles, with its 120-strong support team, to provide extra aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering assets to KFOR. The unit will be operational next month.

"The EU also reaffirmed strongly our joint commitment to the Nice Treaty and its ratification. Failure to ratify would put at risk the entire enlargement process. While we must, of course, go further in pursuing the policies of economic reform, the fact that this is now the clear economic focus of the EU is itself a huge advance. The agenda for it is being led by the UK. Once again, it shows the advantages of constructive engagement and the folly of a policy of isolation.

"That is the approach which we took in Stockholm. It is a policy which is delivering economic reform in Europe and jobs for this country. It is the policy I propose to pursue with the support of this House and the country".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.