European Union (Accessions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:12 pm on 20th December 2005.

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Photo of Lord Bowness Lord Bowness Conservative 4:12 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, I support this Bill, although I must say to the Minister that the one argument I felt was not dreadfully compelling was that it enabled Tesco to go marching across the Continent. Although the treaty of accession has been signed by Romania, Bulgaria and the other member states, I know those two countries will be anxious to hear that the treaty has in effect been ratified by the Parliament of the United Kingdom by the passing of this Bill.

I must declare an interest, in that earlier this year I was a guest at the Romanian senate for three days. The people who were kind enough to see me when I was in Romania emphasised just how important membership is for the process of reform. Those with whom I spoke, including their former negotiator in Brussels, did not view the European Union in quite such depressing terms as my noble friend Lord Howell—who unfortunately is not here—described it this afternoon.

As has been said, the treaty envisages the possibility of the accession date being delayed until 2008. Everyone I spoke to said that such a delay would have a profound effect on the work that was being done to bring the country to the standard required by membership. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the problem Croatia had with General Gotovina. When their accession process stalled briefly, public support plummeted, although, happily, I believe it has come back. I found in Romania that there were worries that the decisions on accession might be more political than objective, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, and that the European Council might not be looking closely at how far Romania had been able to meet its obligations.

We were told when we were there, and people we spoke to accepted, that there were problems with administration and judicial reform, competition and environmental issues. However, they all emphasised that the reform had been accelerated through the prospect of joining the European Union. At that time, in the summer, the government's efforts were focused on judicial reform and competition policy. There were still problems with the judiciary. The relevant Bills on competition had gone through parliament but there was a need to ensure that they were enforced.

Others to whom we spoke referred to the large rural population, who hoped that the European Union could offer advantages since, they believed, Romania was more competitive than many CAP countries. Apparently Romania does not subsidise agriculture at present, although it imports subsidised goods. Accession would help to create a fairer playing field. There was a need to change the agricultural pattern from one of subsistence farming to a market economy. Interestingly, they foresaw farms getting bigger yet remaining organic. Everyone agreed that Romania clearly needed to implement all its commitments to join the EU, but that the actions taken have been costly in some areas. It was therefore important that it proceeded. Others whom I met said that the economics of accession were less important than the message that integration would send to the public and to investors, and that the process of change was quicker if you were inside an institution, where certain objectives had to be met.

It is critical that the problems of the constitutional treaty, whether it sits on the bottom of the sea or not—and we should recall that there are often successful expeditions to salvage the best of what has been sunk—are not allowed to stand in the way of enlargement, particularly in the case of the western Balkans. It is, as other noble Lords have said, a driver for peace and stability in all countries. Macedonia's acceptance as a candidate country at last weekend's European Council was important. I hope that the enlargement strategy paper, which has changed the rules since the last enlargement round, will not be used as a political weapon to delay and restrict enlargement. Dashed hopes in the western Balkans could have disastrous results.

I suspect that the presidency conclusions of 15 and 16 December to which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred could be used to delay all future enlargements—especially, the sentence which refers to:

"The absorption capacity of the Union", which,

"has to be taken into account".

If the European Union, and in particular its large member states, were to play with the hopes of the countries in the western Balkans—never mind those that are the subject of the European neighbourhood policy—it would be not only unfair but, in my view, also potentially dangerous for Europe.