European Union (Accessions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:17 pm on 20th December 2005.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 3:17 pm, 20th December 2005

The Bill relates only to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria and it is right that we should address directly the case for those two countries to join the European Union. I will try to bring a little more seasonal good cheer than the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, did.

In recent months the issue of further enlargement has become contentious in Europe, as has not been the case since Britain was twice vetoed by General de Gaulle in the 1960s. It makes sense to look more widely at the issue of further enlargement and try to draw some preliminary conclusions about the way ahead in what remains one of the most critical policy areas with which the European Union has to deal. This is all the more necessary now that the leaders of the Union have agreed that there must be a full discussion of that before any further accession negotiations begin.

The accession of Romania and Bulgaria is a subset of the major round of enlargement that has already taken place in May 2004. The two countries applied for membership at much the same time as the other central and eastern European countries which have already joined. It has taken longer to reach this point as a result of the greater complexity and intractability of the problems they faced in accepting the constraints and responsibilities of membership, and because, particularly in the case of Romania, they were slower to respond effectively to those challenges.

The institutional adjustments that were needed to accommodate them have already been taken in the Nice treaty and were approved by this Parliament in that context. Only one really important issue remains outstanding and that is whether they are to join on 1 January 2007 or 1 January 2008. That decision is not pre-judged in the treaties of accession we are considering today. My own view is that this decision should not be too heavily politicised, although I have no doubt that it will be seen, particularly in the acceding countries themselves, as highly political. I suggest that it should be considered objectively, with the greatest weight given to the assessment that the Commission will have to provide. If that assessment points towards 2008 it should be understood that it will be as much in the interests of the acceding country—or countries—to take more time in preparation and join one year later, as it will be in the interests of the Union. I would also hope that if a different balance of assessment is reached with respect to each one of the two countries, it will be accepted and not brushed aside in favour of arguments relating either to bureaucratic tidiness or amour propre.

Turning to the wider issue of further enlargement, the picture is a good deal less clear and the decisions are not for today or tomorrow, but for a more distant future. Negotiations with Turkey and Croatia have already begun, but actual accession, particularly for Turkey, is not foreseen before the middle of the next decade. All the other countries of the western Balkans—and there could well, in due course, be two more than exist now: Montenegro and Kosovo—are seeking membership. Macedonia has now been accepted as a formal candidate. Beyond them are a number of countries in the former Soviet Union, whose European identity can hardly be denied, and which also aspire to membership. We should never forget the remaining members of EFTA, who, if their electorates should ever so decide, would rapidly qualify to join and, I suggest, should rapidly be welcomed.

It is all too easy to throw up one's hands at this list, say "enough is enough" and call for a line on the map beyond which countries will not qualify for membership. That is what many politicians across Europe have been saying in recent months, using arguments ranging from respectable ones about the coherence of such a large body to far less respectable ones, based on ethnic and religious prejudice. It is easy to call for that line on the map, but, I would argue, highly irresponsible. A restrictive decision by the European Union, amounting to the pre-emptive exclusion of a number of countries, could have extremely far-reaching and damaging foreign policy and security implications, ranging from an upsurge of instability in the Balkans, to a drift back by former members of the Soviet Union into the embrace of a far from democratic or human rights respecting Russia.

What right does the Union have to take such a decision? The founding treaty, never changed, says clearly that membership is open to any European country. Since then the European Union has established the Copenhagen criteria for judging any application from such a country. The treaty already establishes the limits and trying to vary them would require treaty change by unanimity—an unlikely prospect, given the views of many member states. It is sometimes suggested that further enlargement, indeed, even the existing scale of enlargement, would have shocked and horrified the founding fathers of Europe, Monnet, Adenauer, De Gaspari and Schuman. I am sure they would have been surprised by it; they were, after all, operating in a Cold War dominated world. However, to suggest that they would have approved of the rejection of the candidature of free, democratic east European countries is, quite frankly, a travesty.

It follows from this reasoning that I very much welcome the support that the Government continue to give to further enlargement, but it is not sufficient to support that cause and simply assume that it will carry the day. We surely need to try to convince those who call for a restrictive policy that this is the wrong road for the European Union to take. If we cannot persuade people of that, we will drift towards that most dangerous of all scenarios, in which a country negotiates its terms of accession, is accepted by all the governments of the European Union and is then rejected by the votes of one or more of them in a referendum. That would surely be a disaster for all concerned. To avoid it we and the other supporters of further enlargement will need to explain much more clearly and cogently than has been done in the past, the advantages, both intangible and material, which have flowed from previous enlargement and which can reasonably be expected from further ones. I do not believe that we have anything to fear from such a debate; but we certainly need to have one if we are to avoid a shipwreck. I would welcome a response from the Minister about how the Government intend to carry forward their advocacy of this aspect of their European policies.

The transformation qualities of enlargement are really not in doubt. They have been demonstrated again and again, first in Greece, Spain and Portugal, then in central and eastern Europe. Countries freed from dictatorship and external domination have been helped to establish stable democracies and flourishing market economies. That is surely "soft" power in action and is achieving admirable and noble objectives in countries whose capacity to achieve those objectives on their own had not previously been too obvious, to put it politely. Of course, at the same time, there are costs which have to be borne by the existing members and we should not flinch from that. Listening to reasoned debates over the budgetary costs of the new member states in your Lordships' House yesterday and this afternoon, hearing phrases such as, "Why should we help to build the Warsaw Underground?", I detect distant echoes of that most deplorable of statements by a British Prime Minister, when he described Czechoslovakia as a,

"faraway country of which we know little".

I hope that we are not going to head back in that direction again.

To conclude, the Bill that we are discussing today deserves our wholehearted support. Romania and Bulgaria will be welcome new members so long as they keep up and intensify their struggle against their own internal demons, among them corruption and organised crime. I confess that I was startled by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that they should not be asked to accept the whole acquis communautaire. I am not sure that it is well appreciated that in such countries the acceptance of the acquis communautaire actually liberates them from the structures that they had before. The acquis communautaire contains legislation infinitely more liberal than what they had before. I am afraid to say that, even if it were not likely to take the whole of the noble Lord's Christmas holiday to work out which bits of the acquis communautaire they should and should not be let off, it would not be a good idea.

In any case, I hope that we can also from this debate send out a clear signal of our support for the further enlargement of the European Union beyond those two countries. This wider issue should surely be debated on the Floor of the House before too long, perhaps on the basis of a report from your Lordships' European Union Select Committee.