HC Deb 25 October 1995 vol 264 cc1001-3
2. Mr. Whittingdale

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what are the objectives of his Department for the forthcoming intergovernmental conference; and if he will make a statement. [36853]

Mr. Rifkind

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out our priorities for the intergovernmental conference, notably in this House on 1 March. We want a European Union which is open, flexible, free-trading, efficient and responsive to popular concerns.

Mr. Whittingdale

Will my right hon. and learned Friend continue to do all that he can to promote our vision of an enlarged and outward-looking community of nation states? Will he utterly reject the proposals published by the Labour party earlier this month which would result in that party giving up the British right of veto and would remove our right to opt out permanently of European proposals such as the single currency and the social chapter?

Mr. Rifkind

I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. I thought it remarkable that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who speaks for the Opposition on foreign affairs, made no reference in his speech to the Labour party conference to what appeared in a document published by the Labour party on the same day, which said that there will be no permanent opt-outs with regard to any future Labour Government. The only question appears to be when Labour would surrender British interests, and not whether.

Mr. Donald Anderson

Following the remarkable speech by the Defence Secretary to the Conservative party conference, the Foreign Secretary told a group of Conservative Back-Benchers that he had "learnt the lessons". What lessons has he learnt?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not recall seeing the hon. Gentleman at that meeting. Therefore, I had better simply say to him that I do not recollect making any such remark.

Mr. Whitney

May I first, as chairman of that meeting, endorse my right hon. and learned Friend's reply to the previous question? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there are a number of indications that the Government's hope for a sensible approach at the IGC is shared by our European partners? Does he agree that the best way of achieving agreement is for the Government to continue to approach the IGC in a constructive and positive spirit?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I do believe that that is right. We have specific proposals in a number of areas that the conference will consider. We have already published our proposals with regard to the Western European Union and defence matters, and the Government are currently considering a number of other matters also. I assure my hon. Friend that we will always approach such a sensitive and important issue constructively: seeking to identify areas where there is the prospect of agreement, but making clear those matters upon which the United Kingdom might not be able to support proposals from other quarters.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

What is the Government's objective at the IGC with regard to the extension of qualified majority voting? As the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have committed themselves to securing reform of the common agricultural policy—which all hon. Members support—how will the Foreign Secretary achieve it without extending QMV in that context?

Mr. Rifkind

As the hon. Gentleman knows, qualified majority voting exists already in many areas. We believe that those areas that currently require unanimity do so because of the profound importance of the matters covered. Therefore, we do not believe that it is appropriate to extend qualified majority voting beyond its present remit.

Mr. Renton

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it would make good sense for the Government to go to the IGC with some detailed, positive proposals that are likely to find favour with a number of our European Union partners? For example, I refer to the question of the number of commissioners, or the length of time and the interval that major countries may hold the presidency of the European Union, and those other areas where my right hon. and learned Friend will be carrying his thinking further forward.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is right to say that a range of practical improvements can be made with regard to the workings of various institutions. In addition to the areas referred to by my hon. Friend, we are also considering the European Court of Justice very carefully. We believe that we will be able to make a number of useful proposals in that sphere which would result in the improvement of the court and that might respond to certain recent concerns. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has made a viable and constructive contribution on the reflections committee, which is helping to prepare the ground for the intergovernmental conference.

Ms Quin

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the statement passed at the Labour party conference, which was referred to by his hon. Friend? It says: a common approach on foreign and security policy needs to bind all member states and believes therefore that decisions must continue to be taken by unanimity". If the Foreign Secretary agrees with that statement, why does he continue to misrepresent our policy?

Mr. Rifkind

I have no need to misrepresent the Labour party's policy. While the Labour party has indicated its views on common foreign and security policy, in the same document it says that it wishes to abandon Britain's right of veto in the: areas of social, industrial, regional and environmental policy". I could ask why the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends do not give the same publicity to that declaration as they give to other assurances that they make occasionally.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my right hon. and learned Friend then confirm that the Government will not give up the veto under any circumstances?

Mr. Rifkind

That is, indeed, right. We believe that one of the great strengths of the European Union will be the creation of a Europe with which the peoples of Europe are comfortable. That requires all the people of Europe—not just those in the United Kingdom—to believe that, when important national interests are at stake, changes that could have profound implications for their well being and quality of life will be made only on the basis of unanimity.

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