With permission Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the European Union’s decisions on Monday last to open negotiations for full membership with Turkey and Croatia.

First, Turkey.

Turkey is part of Europe. It was a founder member of the Council of Europe in the late 1940s, and was invited by the United Kingdom, France and others to join NATO as early as 1952.

The prospect of European Union membership was first offered to Turkey some 42 years ago. That promise was repeated by the Union in ever more concrete terms in 1999 and in 2002. In December last year, and again in June this year, a specific start date of Monday last – 3rd October – was set. By that date Turkey was required to, and indeed had, introduced a further six laws and had signed the Protocol to the Ankara Agreement. In addition, the Turkish government had actively co-operated to encourage a yes vote from the Turkish Cypriots for the Annan plan to reunify Cyprus. So, over this summer, there was understandable bitterness and apprehension in Turkey as further obstacles appeared to be put in its way, and as some in Europe argued that Turkey should settle for less than full membership.

The result was that nine days ago, the European Union stood at a cross-roads. It had to decide whether it would honour its commitment to Turkey and begin accession negotiations; or whether it would turn its back on the Union’s largest and nearest Muslim neighbour.

In the event, and after 36 hours of almost continuous negotiations, I am pleased to say that agreement was reached in Luxembourg to enable negotiations to begin. And, happily, by sticking to what I described as "Presidency time" – that is UK time – we were able to do so, just, within the 3 October deadline.

The negotiations, which had begun many weeks earlier, were at times difficult and complex: and I am indebted to many Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers for the political courage which they showed.

I also want to express my gratitude to EU Commissioner Olli Rehn, High Representative Javier Solana, and their staff; and not least to Sir John Grant, UK Permanent Representative to the European Union, Sir Peter Westmacott, British Ambassador to Turkey, and FCO staff in Brussels, Ankara, London, and many other posts, for their sterling efforts to secure this profoundly important result.

And, Mr Speaker, I am grateful to this House for the consistent, all-Party support which Turkey’s membership of the EU has for so long received.

There is no doubt that Turkey and Europe as a whole will benefit from this decision in equal measure. For Turkey it represents another significant step on its long journey to becoming a fully European nation. The process will strengthen the wide-ranging reform programme already pushed through in recent years and it will give impetus to further improvements to the rule of law, respect for human rights and democratic institutions.

For the European Union the decision means that a close partner will be brought even closer. Turkey has long been key to the security of Europe as a whole. Turkey’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe; it is already a major market for European Union exporters. And Turkey plays a vital role in the fight against international terrorism, cross-border crime and drug trafficking. By standing by our promise to Turkey, we will make the European Union stronger, safer and more competitive.

But the decision on 3 October is even more significant than that. For more than a thousand years the boundaries between Europe and Asia have principally been decided by bloodshed and conflict. By welcoming Turkey with its large Muslim population we are embarking on a new era in which it is manifest that Europe is not some exclusive Christian club, at best cold to its neighbours, at worst actively hostile. Instead we are able to show that what binds this modern Europe together is a set of fundamental rights and freedoms combined with a common purpose; regardless of race or religion. This is a powerful message not only to the people of other faiths who live in neighbouring countries, but also to the millions who already live within the borders of the European Union.

I do not underestimate the challenges ahead. Some of those challenges are for Turkey. Turkey, like all candidate countries, has to align its legislation with the European Union’s. This is an enormous task, which is broken down into thirty-five separate chapters. They cover issues from justice and home affairs through to economic policy and the environment.

Some of the challenges are for Turkey’s neighbours – Greece and Cyprus – as much as Turkey. The accession process holds out the clearest prospect of a satisfactory resolution of a host of historic regional issues, including disputes over rights in the Aegean, and over the re-unification of Cyprus. Achieving these aims will require a positive approach by all concerned and a readiness to compromise. I have already spoken, since the decision on 3 October, to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan about the circumstances in which he would deem it appropriate to restart his Good Offices’ mission in respect of Cyprus, under UNSCR 1250. And I have also spoken to Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn about other measures which are needed – specifically the European Union’s commitments to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots.

And some of the challenges ahead are for Europe as a whole. This includes continuing in good faith to help Turkey prepare for full membership of the European Union. Equally it means setting out clearly to our own peoples why having Turkey as a member of the European Union will bring direct benefit to all of them. We need to show that the greatest threat to our European culture and heritage comes not from opening our doors to a vibrant, secular nation like Turkey, but from closing in on ourselves and allowing Europe to stagnate in the face of global competition.

Second, Croatia

At its meeting last December, the European Council decided that accession negotiations for Croatia should begin on 17 March. Croatia has made remarkable progress in recent years, and had been able to satisfy the EU Commission that it had met all the so-called "Copenhagen criteria" relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, which are prerequisite to the beginning of formal negotiations.

There was however one issue still unresolved, concerning the Croatian fugitive suspected of war crimes, Ante Gotovina. So the Council made the start date dependent on Croatia "fully co-operating" with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, in The Hague. In the event, it took until last Monday before the Chief Prosecutor of the Tribunal, Carla del Ponte, was able to say that such full co-operation had been forthcoming. The Union acted immediately in response by opening negotiations: and I am very grateful to Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and his government for this significant improvement in co-operation, which I hope will lead to the early arrest of Gotovina.

When the prospect of membership was first held out to Turkey, what became the European Union had just six members.

Since then, the European Union has acted as a powerful magnet for countries seeing the benefits of membership from the outside and wanting to come into the fold. Each successive wave of enlargement has strengthened and broadened the Union. Each wave has also demonstrated how the EU can be a great and powerful force for good in helping to spread good governance and human rights.

Former dictatorships in the West of Europe and former Soviet satellite states in the East have been transformed by the prospect of and then by the fact of joining the European Union, creating an ever wider community of stable, prosperous democracies.

I have no doubt that this same force for good will now benefit the people of Turkey , Croatia and of all Europe. I know the House will support every effort to achieve this result.