Europe debate

Mike Gapes made a major speech in the debate on Europe in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon (16 June 2009). Here is what he said.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): One problem with these European debates is that we are like two peoples speaking completely different languages—it is a dialogue between the deaf. One view, which we have just heard, is that this is somehow all a plot by the bureaucrats in Brussels. That takes no account of the fact that the real threat to democracy in the world is the unelected bankers, financiers and chief executives of multinational companies. The people of democratic countries need to find ways to co-operate, regulate and take control so as to minimise the worst effects of what those corporate individuals do.

However, there is another model. We have just had the fifth anniversary of the 2004 EU enlargement, and the conclusions of the EU Council of 5 May said that the“enlargement was not only a historic step in unifying a long-divided Europe but also a success from an economic point of view resulting in a win-win situation for the whole EU.”

If the EU is such a terrible organisation, why have 10 countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc or the regulated communist system, from the Baltic states down to Slovenia, joined it in a period of just over 10 years? Despite the fantasies of the Conservative friend President Klaus of the Czech Republic—who believes that the EU is somehow recreating the Soviet bloc in Europe—people in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia have come out of communism and said overwhelmingly that they wish to be part of the voluntary club that now consists of 27 nation states. They want to work co-operatively together: why is that?

There are 500 million people in the EU, and 6 billion in the world as a whole. There are more than 1 billion people in India, and in China as well. Japan has a massive economy, as has the US, so it is clear that we in Europe need to work together in world trade talks and, with the Copenhagen meeting coming up later this year, in the international negotiations on climate change. If we do not, the agendas will be set, and the conclusions written, by others. As Europeans, we have to get into the real world of the 21st century and stop pretending that we are still in the 19th century.

Sammy Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for interrupting the flow of his rhetoric, but perhaps we should get down to the reality. We need to look at the examples of the smaller countries that have applied to join Europe, which is something that the eastern European countries are now copying. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that they were attracted by economic bribes, with money being transferred from the larger countries to the smaller ones? Once those bribes dry up, the reality hits and those smaller nations realise that they are in a system that takes away their national freedoms, interferes in their affairs and imposes burdens on them.

Mike Gapes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as it allows me to develop an argument that I was going to come to anyway. However, I did not mention another interesting phenomenon: one of the countries that is seriously considering joining the EU, despite its historic problems with fisheries, is Iceland. The newly elected Government there have recognised that, in this global world, they need the protection of a big organisation.

Iceland is one of the most extreme examples of what the crisis of unfettered and deregulated liberalisation has caused. One consequence is that the Icelandic Government recognise that they need the support of other countries, but there is a problem, and the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) alluded to it. It is that the EU needs to get away from its obsession with the institutional agenda and think of ways that it can assist the many countries on its periphery to become members.

There is, of course, quite a lot to be discussed in that regard. One of the items on the agenda of the forthcoming Council will be a debate about the so-called eastern partnership. Unfortunately, there are signs that some of the bigger countries in the EU are growing cold on the future enlargement agenda. I think that that is very disappointing.

There is a growing queue of countries wishing to join the EU. I have mentioned Iceland already, but the others include Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier, the shadow Foreign Secretary referred to the difficulties that Bosnia and Herzegovina is experiencing with Republic Srpska and growing nationalism. The real danger is that, 14 years after the Dayton process, we could, through lack of attention, find ourselves with a new crisis in the heart of the Balkans. Then, of course, there is Serbia, and Turkey has had an outstanding application to join for many years.

I want to say something about the importance of the EU’s future enlargement. It would be a terrible tragedy if, at this time of economic uncertainty and crisis, we started to put up barriers to the future enlargement of the EU. If we create an arc of instability in the Balkans and say, in effect, that the existing EU is full and cannot have any more member states, that would send out very bad signals for the future stability of the Balkan states. In addition, it would also send out signals to those other eastern partnership countries which, although they may not be candidates for EU membership, are nevertheless important neighbours of the EU.

I refer the House to the crisis that is developing in Moldova, and to the authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies of President Saakashvili’s Georgia. If the EU does not provide economic and political support to the neighbour countries—I am not talking about membership—we will find that Russia will once again try to have a hegemonic role in the region.

Russia is not a pluralistic democracy in the western European model. It sees itself very much as a country with a near-abroad, and that is an area that it will want to dominate. That is not the kind of Europe that we want, the kind that will lead to the prosperity and peace that have been developed by the EU over previous decades.

The Swedish Government are about to take over the presidency of the EU. Sweden, along with Poland, has developed the concept of the eastern partnership, and it will no doubt be trying to take that concept forward over the coming six months. I believe that we need to take seriously the Swedish and Polish initiatives on these matters, as there is a clear need for EU countries to extend their focus beyond their internal problems. We must recognise that neighbouring areas—the applicant countries in the Balkans or the partnership countries to the east—provide very important lessons. We must not allow our internal obsessions to cause us to fail to provide co-operation, assistance and help for our European neighbours.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman is saying with great interest, especially with regard to the western Balkans. I visited Kosovo last year, and I was struck by the impasse that exists between Kosovans and Serbians. It is hard to imagine how they will ever manage to live side by side, but the one thing that I heard from both was that existing together in the EU might offer some route to peace in the future. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the EU has been successful in that way over the past 50 or 60 years, and that creating peace and security could be extended to the western Balkans in a very important way?

Mike Gapes: I agree absolutely with everything that the hon. Lady said. The Serbian Government have a clear foreign policy priority of integration into the European Union, but progress has been slow, and not just because of the difficulties with regard to Kosovo. The European Union Foreign Ministers have not activated the trade-related parts of Serbia’s stabilisation and association agreement, following the arrest by Serbian authorities in July last year of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader. Serbian politicians of all kinds ask, “Why not?” They feel disappointed. The reason why progress has been slow is that the Dutch Government, in particular, have continued to oppose the unfreezing of the SAA for as long as Ratko Mladic, the former military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, remains at large. He is one of the two remaining indictees of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

There have been reports in the press recently that the issue of Mr. Mladic is resurfacing in debates and discussions, and it may be that steps will be taken to deal with that issue in the near future. Similar action was taken in Croatia a few years ago, and that accelerated the opening of the talks with the Croatian Government, but sadly there are now problems with Croatia’s application for membership because of a territorial dispute to do with a bay between Slovenia and Croatia. That is causing difficulties, and is unresolved. The Czech presidency has failed in its efforts to make any progress on that issue; it will have to hand that on to Sweden, too.

In other parts of the Balkans, the situation is more positive. Montenegro submitted an application in December. On 23 April, the Council of Ministers invited the European Commission to submit a formal opinion on that, as a first step towards possible enlargement. Similarly, Albania applied in April. Hopefully, the first assessment of that application will take place in the near future, in the autumn. So there is progress in some areas, and it is important that that progress continues. In a sense, if we are to resolve the problems that came out of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the best solution is, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) says, to recreate a mechanism within the European Union through which there is trade and free movement of peoples, so that borders, and historical animosities, are overcome within the context of an enlarged European Union.

The European Union is the way forward for many in Europe, but it is sad that debate in this country is dominated by an obsessive Eurosceptic media. It is absolutely the case that in the European elections, the Labour party had dreadful results, but the votes for the other main parties were also down significantly. There were different results in different European Union countries in the elections. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) gave the impression that the Eurosceptics had won everywhere in the European Parliament elections; that is not true. In some countries, the pro-European parties of the centre right had very good results. In France, an ecological, green party led by Dany Cohn-Bendit did extremely well. One cannot say that there is a generalised trend. In some countries, the percentage poll went up. In other countries, it fell drastically. The problem, I suspect, is that because there is not a general European media, in every country, the elections were reported and campaigned on in national terms.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory rose—

Mike Gapes: I will give way, but I am conscious of time. I want to make one more point, and I do not get any more injury time for taking interventions.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Just a quick question: how does the hon. Gentleman square the wave of Euro-enthusiasm that he describes with the fact that the turnout was the lowest ever for European elections?

Mike Gapes: I did not say that there was a wave of Euro-enthusiasm. I said that the situation was complex, and much more sophisticated than was suggested in the impression that the right hon. Gentleman gave. Overall turnout in the European elections was 43 per cent., which is down 2 per cent. on the 2004 elections. That is disappointing, but in some countries, the percentage turnout was over 60 or 70 per cent., whereas in others it was around 20 per cent.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Gapes: No. I cannot give way any more. The reality of the situation in the European Union elections was complicated, and different in different countries. It is, after all, a 27-country organisation. It is sad that people are trying to write a narrative based on selective quotation of data from different parts of the world.

I will conclude with a point on the UK results. I am pleased to say that in London, we resoundingly rejected the Nazi British National party. It did not get anybody elected. In my constituency and other constituencies in east London, there was a significant reduction in the share of the vote for the far-right party. In Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP has 12 or 13 councillors, its share of the vote was significantly down. That indicates that where people were prepared to go out and put the arguments, that made an impact. That does not in any way minimise the fact that, to our shame, we in this country have elected, in areas where the turnout went down significantly—Lancashire and Yorkshire—people who stand for small, unrepresentative groups. In a proportional representation list system, when there is a low turnout, such groups are always liable to get people elected. That is why, if we are to have constitutional change—this comes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Wells about such change—and if we bring in different electoral systems, we have to keep the link between the Member of Parliament and the constituency. We must have a system that does not provide for a top-up list for extremist parties that cherry-pick issues and are not capable of being elected in any single constituency.

posted 20 June 2009

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