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European Council (Seville)

3.32 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the European Council in Seville on 21 and 22 June. This was the last summit of the successful and very professional Spanish presidency—although, thanks to the World cup, the Spanish President and I unfortunately had more in common than we had originally intended.

By 2004, the European Union will have welcomed up to 10 new member countries, with more to follow. This is an historic opportunity that the Government welcome. Excellent progress on the timetable has been made under the Spanish presidency, and at Seville we reaffirmed our commitment to complete the negotiations by the end of the year.

In preparing for a union of 25 member states we need to reform the way we operate. We have agreed a series of measures that will allow us to streamline the Council agenda in order to shorten Council meetings and to make sure that issues decided by specialist Councils are only, exceptionally, put before the European Council.

We have set a limit on the size of delegations. In order to prepare meetings of the European Council, the General Affairs Council will become a General Affairs and External Relations Council, split into two separate parts with separate meetings, separate agendas and, if member states desire it, different Ministers taking part. We have now opened up Council legislative meetings to the public.

We have further reduced the number of specialist Councils. There were more than 20 three years ago, and there are 16 now. We will further reduce them to nine, concentrating in one Council the whole of the European Union's agenda of competitiveness, which is at the heart of the economic reform agenda. Our campaign for simpler, better regulation, with proper consultation with business and industry, was endorsed.

The European Council itself will henceforth set a multi-annual strategic programme for the whole of the European Union for the following three years, with the annual work programme set by the General Affairs Council. This is a significant evolution in the role of member Governments in setting the EU's agenda.

In a letter to Prime Minister Aznar a month ago, I proposed that at Seville we should give a remit for action to strengthen the EU's borders, including Community funding; make progress on returns to Afghanistan now that normal government is being restored; and benchmark the performance of third countries and use our network of agreements to improve co-operation in handling migration issues.

Since the Tampere summit we have, across the European Union, introduced tough penalties for people smuggling and people trafficking, and agreed visa security rules and a Europe-wide database for identifying illegal immigrants. We are setting minimum reception conditions for asylum seekers and have established a European refugee fund to help countries, including our own, deal with this problem.

At Seville, we decided, first, on measures to combat illegal migration, including action on visas, readmission agreements and a repatriation programme, including early

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returns to Afghanistan. Secondly, this year we agreed to take steps to achieve co-ordinated management of external borders, including joint operations at those borders.

Legal migration can and does bring real and substantial benefits to countries, including Britain. Our aim is not to prevent legal migration; on the contrary, subject to proper rules, we welcome it. It is to stop illegal immigration and asylum seeking that is not genuine, because that debases the system and harms the interests of the legal immigrant.

Our aim is also to ensure that the people traffickers, who trade in human misery, cannot exploit weaknesses. We need only look at the success of the joint Anglo-Italian operation in Bosnia to see what can be achieved. There, an airport was being used to transit illegal immigrants into the European Union. Unaccounted arrivals have now been cut by 90 per cent., but we are dealing with clever, organised criminal gangs. If we shut down one route, they come looking for the next. So the third element is about the integration of immigration policy into the Union's relations with third countries based on the following: all new co-operation or association agreements with third countries will have a migration clause and a commitment to readmission; readmission agreements with all relevant countries will be completed as soon as possible; and there will be a systematic review of relations with third countries to gauge the extent of their co-operation in migration issues.

A majority of states, including Britain, wanted to go further in hardening the language on third country returns. A minority were concerned that this looked as though we were prepared to harm our development objectives. In the end, the compromise was that, in respect of any new agreement, returns to third countries would be an integral part of the negotiation on all aspects of the agreement.

In respect of existing agreements, where there is non-co-operation, we reserved the right to adopt any measures or positions in respect of a third country that we decide upon, provided that they are consistent with our contractual commitments and development objectives. I have no doubt that this will now form a key part of our relations with third countries, although the test, of course, will be the practical effect of the measures proposed.

The world summit on sustainable development meets in Johannesburg in two months' time. We have made clear for the last year our strong commitment to the aims of the summit. Many leaders, including me, will be there. The European Council gave a strong message of support for the policies of sustainable development. We reaffirmed our commitment to breaking down trade barriers, including on agriculture. We called for initiatives at Johannesburg on water, sanitation, energy and health—all top United Kingdom priorities. I urge the House to give this programme its full support.

The conclusions of the summit have been placed in the Library of the House. I draw the House's attention to the declaration that we issued on India and Pakistan and to the statement of the Council, which takes note of a national statement by Ireland.

Finally, we discussed the grave crisis in the middle east. We agreed that there must be an end to the violence so that the Israelis and Palestinians can relaunch the peace process as rapidly as possible. As I have said many times, this must result in a secure Israel recognised by its Arab neighbours and in a viable Palestinian state.

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I repeat my praise of the six months of the Spanish presidency. On economic reform, reform of the Council and the sensitive issues of illegal immigration and asylum, it has made substantial progress. The direction of policy is clear—it is the pace that we need to quicken. However, that is a far cry from where the agenda of reform stood five years ago. For Britain, the policy of constructive engagement is right, it proves itself consistently and, under this Government, it will be maintained.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and join him in condemning the bombings in Spain over the weekend. Violence is no way to advance a political agenda, be it in Europe or the middle east.

We support the Council's declaration that a lasting solution to the conflict in the middle east must be based on Israel being recognised by its Arab neighbours, feeling secure within its borders and living peacefully alongside a Palestinian state. Does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time for members of the European Union to lend their full support to American efforts to bring about negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians?

We also welcome the Council declaration on India and Pakistan and the progress that it has made on sustainable development, although the latter message would carry greater conviction if the EU gave more aid to developing countries rather than to aspirant member states.

None of those things, however, can obscure the underlying message from Seville: that for all the Prime Minister's talk of leading in Europe and winning the argument, he has once again lost the argument and been left behind. He went to Seville seeking an agreement that would penalise countries that failed to co-operate with the fight against illegal immigration—as he and his Foreign Secretary put it. He was supremely confident. Only last week, he stood next to the Prime Minister of Spain and said:

Will the Prime Minister confirm not only that his plan was rebuffed but that the Swedish Prime Minister referred to the idea as stupid, unworkable and "an historic mistake"? Perhaps he had been speaking to the Secretary of State for International Development. The Prime Minister not only failed to carry the rest of Europe with him—he could not even carry his own Cabinet to Europe with him.

Instead, the Prime Minister has returned with an agreement that supports the principle of setting up an EU border police. Only last Friday, the Foreign Secretary boasted that

However, yesterday, after the welcome in the final declaration, the EU's Justice Commissioner said that he expected the border force to become a reality within five years. Is that what the Minister for Europe meant when he said yesterday that

I thought that this was supposed to be the post-spin era of the Government.

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I am also sure that the House would be grateful to hear what discussions the Prime Minister held with the Spanish Government on the Gibraltarians' right to a referendum to decide their legal status.

The Prime Minister tells us that Seville made progress on enlargement of the European Union, but it did not deal with the structural funding issue, and discussions on reform of the common agricultural policy have yet again been postponed. Given that his Minister for Europe maintains that quick reform of the CAP is imperative for enlargement to take place, can the Prime Minister seriously guarantee that negotiations with applicant countries will be completed by the end of this year?

Does the Prime Minister agree with NATO's supreme commander in Europe when he says that NATO should have primacy over the Euro army and that his deputy should have strategic control over EU-led operations? If the Prime Minister agrees—he has never made that clear—why has he allowed the Euro army to be described as operational when, again, no agreement has been reached on the sharing of military assets with NATO.

Like all summits, the meeting at Seville will be judged not by the spin of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Europe, but by what it actually delivers. The reality belies the Prime Minister's usual rhetoric and all the padding that came out of his statement today. For the past five years, he has constantly maintained that he alone could get things done and that he could get things from Europe that it did not want to give—a modern, outward-looking and decentralised Europe and an EU in which Britain maintains control over its own destiny.

Seville has shown that that is just another piece of shallow spin. The Prime Minister has been isolated on his own asylum proposals. He has been bounced into accepting EU border patrols. Once again, he has failed to get CAP reform on the agenda and he has stood by impotently as NATO's future has yet again been drawn into question. The

Those were the Prime Minister's own words in opposition. After last weekend, that is the one prime ministerial soundbite with which the whole country can agree.

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