asked Her Majesty's Government:
When they anticipate that the first group of applicant states from central and eastern Europe will become full members of the European Union.
My Lords, successful enlargement of the European Union remains a central objective for the United Kingdom. So I am pleased to be able to confirm that the accession negotiations are on track. But it would be premature to try to predict now when the first accessions might take place. The overriding priority is for the candidates and the EU to concentrate on our mutual preparations for enlargement. If any timetable were to be set at all, it could only be done rather later in the process.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. She recognises that it is now seven years since the first of the applicants applied to join. However, if it is another seven years before they eventually join, disillusion among their publics, already evident in Poland, risks some of the underlying strategic objectives of British and other West European foreign policy. That policy is to ensure that we establish security, democracy and prosperity across central and eastern Europe. Can the British Government do more to ensure that negotiations proceed with greater speed than so far?
My Lords, I am sure we all hope that it will not be a further seven years. I believe that the British Government got the accession negotiations with Cyprus, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia off to a good start on 31st March last year. The initial phase of negotiations—that is the screening of the acquis—is going well. Substantive negotiations with the countries I have just mentioned on the first seven chapters of the acquis began on 10th November. We support the German presidency's aim of opening negotiations on the next eight chapters and bringing the total of 15 to some conclusion by the end of that presidency at the Cologne Council in June. So 15 of the 31 chapters will, we hope, be dealt with during that period. I believe that that is reasonably good progress.
My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the Government have carried out any objective research as to whether it is in the interests of the central and eastern European countries to have full membership of the EU? For example, have they examined the recent publication The Poisoned Chalice? If so, can they say why they disagree with it, if indeed they do?
My Lords, I believe that it is for the central European states themselves to judge what is in their interests. They have so judged, some as far back as seven years ago. They have been pursuing their desire to join the European Union. That is true not only of the countries to which I referred in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. It applies also to Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, which are now part of the enlargement process. Preparation for their membership continues. I believe that those countries, like ourselves, have assessed that enlargement will lead to greater stability, freedom and democracy throughout Europe and to the creation of the largest single market for trade and investment in the world.
My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied that the interests of the applicant countries are better served by their own counsel on the question of membership of the EU rather than by the views of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson? Can my noble friend comment on whether the present budgetary provision based on a percentage of GDP is likely to be sufficient to accommodate the interests of the applicant members, even though we hope that the common agricultural policy and expenditure thereon will be severely limited?
My Lords, I had hoped that what I said would be seen to accord with the remarks of my noble friend, although perhaps I said it rather more politely. It is for these countries to decide for themselves. In December the Vienna European Council welcomed progress made on the "pre-ins"—the countries not involved in active negotiations at the moment—but agreed with the Commission's recommendation that the Union was not yet able to begin substantive negotiations with those countries. There will be a review at the end of 1999. As to the other issues raised by my noble friend, we are making progress and hope to have further reports by the end of March.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that in respect of Latvia, with under 5 per cent. inflation, 95 per cent. of the privatisation programme completed, and 40, 000 of the ethnic minorities undergoing voluntary language training, it is high time for us to push for that country to start negotiations? Will the Minister suggest to her colleague in another place, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, that when he next speaks to the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Mr. Primakov, he extracts from him an assurance that the Russian Federation will cease to exert pressure on Latvia and that if he fails to receive such an assurance he will put down the receiver?
My Lords, I hardly believe that I am in a position to judge whether the Secretary of State would regard such action as appropriate. Many people have considerable sympathy with the points that the noble Earl makes about Latvia. When the matter was last examined it was agreed and confirmed by the Vienna European Council that Latvia had not quite reached the stage of development to enable it to begin substantive negotiations. But the country is making progress and the position will be reviewed again at the end of this year.
My Lords, given that the timing of the accession of central and eastern European applicants greatly depends on the readiness of the EU institutions, can the Minister inform the House what steps the Government and their European partners have taken to bring about institutional reform?
My Lords, a great deal is happening on institutional reform. We are committed to looking at all of these issues. The three main tranches of such reform are the common agricultural policy, the structural and cohesion funds and the stabilisation of expenditure. Those matters are being looked at under the auspices of Agenda 2000. We hope to have reports by the end of March, which is only weeks away, with final regulations being adopted before the European Parliament elections in June. I believe that we are making good progress on all three fronts.