European Union (Accessions) Bill

– in the House of Lords at 2:59 pm on 7th February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, although we on this side strongly favour the Bill, it would be a pity to let it now pass without a few comments on its historic significance and on some of the implications. I hope that the Minister will want to join in with a few comments. The Bill legitimises, at least in this country, our agreement to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union. The plan is that that should take place in January next year, which is only 12 months away—the Bill provides for the possibility that there might be some delay, as indeed there might be, because the schedule is obviously extremely demanding.

Allow me to note one or two implications and facts in relation to the Bill. First, the last big accessions Act, in May 2004, brought in 10 new countries, including eight from eastern and central Europe. In the 17 months that followed, some 293,000 workers from those new member states registered here. It is extraordinary how well the nation, or society, has succeeded in absorbing that colossal number. In that period, we have probably absorbed about three times the size of the entire Huguenot arrivals at the end of the 17th century. It has been one of the biggest and swiftest immigrations ever into this country—into which there have been immigrations for well over 1,000 years—and yet it has been absorbed in a way that has hardly raised any social comment or disruption anywhere. It has been one of the greatest inflows of modern times.

The nation can therefore pat itself on the back as we give the Bill its Third Reading. However, I am not sure that I extend such generosity to the Government, because their estimate of some 13,000 workers registering—which is not the same as immigrants for settlement, which might come later—was, to put it mildly, wide of the mark. Anyway, a very large number—some 300,000—have disappeared or settled into industries across the country. While the availability of the facts is not at all good, and there is a case for more illumination from the Government, we think that those immigrants have gone largely into the construction and service industries, such as restaurants and plumbing—the proverbial Polish plumber has featured on the scene.

My party colleagues and I believe that all of this has been of considerable benefit to the national economy, as will any additional flows that result from the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Why has this huge flow occurred? Why has Britain proved to be the obvious destination of choice? One reason was embodied in the previous accession Bill—namely, that Her Majesty's Government decided against any restrictions during the transition period, both before and after accession by the 10 countries involved, whereas most other EU countries decided to have restrictions. Indeed, 10 of those countries are now reviewing whether they should keep the restrictions, which will lapse if they are not renewed on 1 May this year. I hope that there are many other reasons why this country proved to be so attractive, but a clear reason was that restrictions were in place elsewhere. Presumably, lifting them might make some difference to the pattern of flows.

This is an important moment for Bulgaria and Romania. We all wish the negotiators well—those seeking to make a place for those countries in the European Union at a time when the EU is undergoing considerable transformation and is seeking new directions after the collapse of the ambitions for a detailed new constitution. We hope that Parliament will be kept very well informed as the flow of workers from Bulgaria and Romania who register here builds up, as it will. Indeed, I hope that we are better informed than during the previous round of accessions. We hear many figures and have many debates about non-EU immigration and worker settlement in this country, but my impression is that the availability of figures on the pattern of movements within the EU has not been so good. We might benefit from closer monitoring and more regular reporting to Parliament, which was the idea behind some of the amendments that we moved at an earlier stage.

These newcomers are an asset, as has been the case with most of the migrants who have settled here through the centuries. We welcome the Bill, as we welcome the skills that the new migrants bring, but it would be nice to know that Parliament will be kept closely informed about what happens over the next one, two, three and five years as these countries find their place inside the Union.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Spokesperson in the Lords (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, I rise to say only a few words, because there is some surprise at the limited, but none the less detailed, points made by the spokesman for the Opposition Benches, who has just spoken. These matters were thoroughly aired at all stages of the Bill. Quite rightly, no further points were made on Report, because no amendments had been made in Committee.

Quite legitimate anxieties were expressed at Second Reading and in Committee in the Commons and in our House, although not so much on the treaty accession points—important as they are—as on immigrants coming in from the two countries. To some extent, those points have been answered by the Government, although now that the matter has been raised again, I would welcome it if the Minister reiterated answers to reassure the House and if he said something about the fact that we are getting closer to the end of April and the beginning of May, when the Commission has promised its extremely detailed report on the monitoring activities and its recommendations about whether January 2007 or January 2008 should be the target entry date. Many opinions are floating around on this and much goodwill has already been expressed strongly in all parts of the House about the entry of those two countries, but, none the less, there is a wish to have further information, if that is available.

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative 3:15 pm, 7th February 2006

My Lords, my noble friend who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench said that it was important to keep Parliament informed as the negotiations proceed. I want to raise a narrow point that has not been mentioned hitherto in these debates. I refer to the unhappy decision to call off the proposed visit of Romanian parliamentarians by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I make no comment on the wisdom or otherwise of that decision, except to say that, ironically, it is extremely unhappy that, at a time when we ought to be able to inform ourselves of what the challenges might be for us, we should not be able to understand further what the upheavals that will inevitably follow within the administrations of Romania and Bulgaria will mean. My request of the Minister is that the Foreign Office will do all that it can to facilitate visits from those countries, obviously with co-operation from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and see that the visit from Romania will be reinstated as speedily as possible.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, over the various stages of the Bill there have been excellent debates in your Lordships' Chamber. Everyone is familiar with the terms of the Bill, but this is a moment at which to acknowledge and welcome the cross-party support that there has been at all the vital stages for the principle of European Union enlargement and accession. The noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Dykes, have made that point. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, used the word "historic", and I completely concur with him. This is such a moment.

Enlargement of the European Union is, of course, a policy that has made an enormous contribution to stability and prosperity across the whole continent. I am glad to say that it is an issue on which parties and the House have been consistently united. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is absolutely true. A large number of people have come to this country, bringing with them abilities and skills. They have been welcomed by this country in a way that demonstrates its civility and its ability to welcome people, to absorb them and to give them a place within our social order. Alongside that, more economic activity and prosperity have been created, all of which is a great reflection on what we, as a nation, are capable of and for which we sometimes do not give ourselves credit, much less receive it from others.

The ratification of the accession treaty for Bulgaria and Romania is only one aspect of the process. The real achievement has been the largely successful reforms of the political, judicial and economic structures of the two countries. I pay tribute to the remarkable work of both governments and both peoples. As has been said, that is of the greatest importance for those countries.

However, they are not there yet. The point has been made that there may be delay. There certainly needs to be the closest possible reporting and it is right that Parliament should hear those reports. I completely agree and confirm the proposition made by noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Biffen. Indeed, the European Commission's autumn monitoring reports found some worrying areas of concern, not least in the areas of corruption, organised crime, environmental pollution and the ability of both countries to absorb EU funding streams. I look forward to the next report—I believe it will be on time—to see whether we are making real progress. However, we are of the view that there is plenty of time in this process for Bulgaria and Romania to address the areas of most serious concern identified by the Commission and consequently to take their rightful place within the European Union on 1 January 2007. I am optimistic about that.

What would it mean for us? An enlarged EU is an EU better able to meet the challenges we now face. As your Lordships are aware, there is regional instability in our neighbourhood and on our borders. It is because we face these new collective challenges that we need and value Bulgaria and Romania as European partners. I will not go into detail—I am sure nobody would want me to do so—but counter-terrorism, the combating of organised crime, the provision of military support and the development of prosperous communities are all areas where the benefits of this enlargement will become clear. They will become even clearer if parliamentarians are indeed able to visit each other's countries and share in each other's understandings. I am certainly willing to say to the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, that I will do all I can to facilitate parliamentary visits in both directions, to ensure that that kind of discussion takes place.

I conclude by returning to the point I made at the outset: EU enlargement has always had the support of all parties across this House. This consensus has enabled the United Kingdom to play a leading role in driving forward a policy that is fundamentally in our interests, the interests of our EU partners and the interests of these two accession states. I am glad, once again, that the House has come together to send such a clear message in support of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union. Of course, we have to make sure that they are ready for membership, and we will do so, but today I believe that we can be optimistic that two important partners will soon become members of the enlarged, outward-looking Europe, seeking to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.