Skip to main content

European Affairs

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

[Relevant document: The Twenty-fourth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee of Session 2002–03, on the Convention on the Future of Europe and the Role of National Parliaments (HC63—xxiv).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Heppell.]

2.29 pm

The Greek presidency of the European Union will host the European Council in Thessaloniki tomorrow and on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 June. Today, the House has its customary opportunity to debate the Government's priorities.

The summit is important. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the president of the Convention on the Future of Europe, will submit a draft constitutional treaty for the European Union to the heads of Government of the member states and the candidate countries. The draft is the culmination of 16 months of negotiation by national delegates and representatives of the European Commission and the European Parliament. I pay tribute to the British team, whose members are my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), Lord Maclennan, Lord Tomlinson and Baroness Scotland. Of course, representatives of different parties approach the issue from different viewpoints and that is entirely right. However, all members of the team sought assiduously to represent the interests of their party.

Brokering a text between representatives of 15 member states as well as the 13 candidate countries was never going to be easy, but the Convention's draft treaty provides a good starting point for the negotiations between the member states. I emphasise that the draft is simply a basis for negotiation. Like any draft, the constitutional treaty is open to improvement and amendment. In the tradition of EU treaties, the hard bargaining and last-minute agreements prior to a final deal will be reached by the democratically elected heads of the EU's constituent parts—the nation states—by unanimity.

At Thessaloniki, some EU leaders may offer specific comments on the text of the draft treaty, but the focus will be on the arrangements for the second, decisive round of the negotiations between the member states and the accession countries in an intergovernmental conference. I expect EU leaders to endorse a broad mandate for the IGC. Member states and the accession countries should be able to re-examine all articles in the text and not be restricted to any points of contention that Valery Giscard d'Estaing identified. That was the clear recommendation of European Foreign Ministers in their meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

I thought that I would ask my right hon. Friend a question while he is clearly in a good mood. He referred to the constitutional aspects of the Convention's proposals. He will remember that one of the other objectives of the Laeken summit was to try to connect EU citizens to the Union. Does he perceive anything in the Convention that is likely to forward that objective? 1, for one, cannot.

I can. I know that my hon. Friend shares my view that the Convention, if it is implemented as we would like through the IGC, will not be a magical instrument that suddenly transforms the EU's reputation for opacity into one for clarity. The structure is complex, not least because of member nation states' desire and determination to ensure that they keep control of the EU, which is their property. Whereas here, decisions are made by simple majority, which is clear cut, in the European Union they are rightly made either through qualified majority—almost the equivalent to a two-thirds majority in a national Parliament, but more complex—or by unanimity.

Let us consider the way in which the Convention could make the system clearer. First, there will be a clearer understanding of the nature of the institutions. That is already starting to happen. There will be a single text. As my hon. Friend knows, the Opposition go on about how dreadful the idea of an EU constitution is. However, there is currently not one EU constitution but a series of constitutions in four separate texts. It is far better to amalgamate them into one, with some intellectual and legal hierarchy.

Secondly, part of the purpose of a president—not a permanent president, as the Opposition claimed this morning, but one elected for two and a half years, with the possibility of a double term of five years—is better and more effective representation of the European Council, which is the council of nations, in the EU. That will affect the balance of power, and is therefore important.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House successfully pushed for national Parliaments to be much more involved in the proposals for European legislation. Any proposals for European law will have to be communicated to national Parliaments, which will scrutinise them. If more than a third object—that could easily happen with 25 national Parliaments—it serves as a yellow card, or warning, to the Commission. I want those arrangements to be upgraded, but at least we have a start.

Fourthly, there is greater clarity in the constitution because when EU powers exist, that is made clear in language that people can understand: for example, EU laws are called "laws". They are currently called regulations, and we tend to view them as resembling byelaws. However, EU regulations are a form of law, and they should be called laws.

I shall give way shortly.

Fifthly, there will be much debate about the fact that in some respects, EU law can override domestic law. "Benchmarks" today refers to
"the tests Blair must not fail".
Nobody could pass such tests because they bear no relation to reality. The Conservative party's document says that an EU constitution that overrides national constitutions must be excised. The idea that the French, Italian and German constitutions are overridden by an EU constitution is bizarre. However, on matters of EU competence, EU law, once agreed, must apply to every member state. Otherwise, we could not have a Union. There is nothing new about that; the Conservative party voted and fought for it since 1971 when it negotiated entry, and section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 provides for it. I do not understand the Conservatives' curious objection to the principle 30 years later.

Earlier, the Foreign Secretary said he welcomed what he described as the yellow card that national Parliaments could show to legislative initiatives from the Commission. He said that he wanted the proposal to be upgraded. Does he envisage upgrading it to a red card?

We are considering that. It ties into qualified majority voting, under which a proposal requires a minimum of between 60 and 65 per cent. support to get through. If half the national Parliaments object to a proposal, it is palpably obvious that it cannot get through the Council of Ministers.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make some progress, I shall do so later.

During the Supply day debate on the Convention last week, I emphasised my commitment and that of the Government to maximum parliamentary scrutiny of the Convention's proposals. I said then that, as a start, a full day's debate would take place in Government time early next month. There is a great deal of expertise about the European Union in all parties and in both Houses, as well as Members with strong opinions. Many, but not all, serve on Committees that are relevant to European Union work. With my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I shall consult the Chairs of the Committees, and through the usual channels, about the way in which Parliament can best be involved in the work of scrutinising the Convention's proposals so that we have a better mandate at the IGC. One of the issues that can be dealt with in that way will be how better to upgrade what is currently a yellow card into a red card. Alongside that formal consultation process, we will of course welcome suggestions and proposals from any right hon. and hon. Members, both during this debate and outside the House.

The Foreign Secretary has identified the things in the Convention that he welcomes and those that he wants to build on when he gets to Thessaloniki. What are the two or three things that the British Government will absolutely not accept in the draft constitution?

In the light of what the Foreign Secretary has said about the role of national Parliaments, how does he justify article 108 of the treaty of Amsterdam, in which we are told that Governments of the member states undertake to respect the principle that the European Central Bank will take no representations from outside bodies? Does he think it acceptable in a democracy that the cost of mortgages and the price of business borrowings would hereafter be determined by people whom we do not elect, whom we cannot remove and whom it would be illegal to seek to persuade of the British national point of view?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important, if detailed, point. I confess that I am not as familiar with article 108 as he is, but I now have a copy in front of me. There is a case for greater transparency in the way in which the ECB operates, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has in any event made proposals for improvements in the monetary mechanisms inside the European Union. If, however, it is felt that there are ways in which we can improve article 108 or its successor at the IGC, let us have those proposals. If there is a strong point to be made on issues such as these, we have allies elsewhere in the Convention and among other Governments.

I do not want to disrupt the Foreign Secretary's flow, but there is one matter that should be considered with regard to the relations between this Parliament and the European institutions. It is the question of fraud in the Community. As a former member of the Budget Sub-Committee of the European Parliament, when it was indirectly elected, I know that this is a very difficult subject. There is not only the case of Andreasen; there are various others. The Public Accounts Committee of this House should surely have some locus in examining these difficult matters. I have received a long letter from the Chairman of the Committee, saying that it could not look at the particular case of a whistleblower who, in the serious opinion of his lawyers, had a good case against the Commission. Could the role of the Public Accounts Committee in such circumstances be considered?

My hon. Friend certainly makes a strong point. I cannot promise that I can deliver on his request, but I will promise to look into it closely. I recall that 20 years ago, when I was a junior Front-Bench spokesman on the Treasury, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), I looked closely at the level of fraud—and the paucity of detection of fraud—in the European Union. The situation has got a bit better since then, but it is still not satisfactory.

The achievement of the European Union over the past 50 years is something that people take for granted these days. Its case is often put in material terms—the end of customs, for example, and the single market in goods and services—and these are clearly important. But—to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall)—beyond that is what the Union has done to help to make a reality of human rights and democracy. That point is often missed when making the argument for the EU.

When I was a young man, eastern Europe was surrounded by the iron curtain, and there were three right-wing dictatorships in western Europe, in Spain, Portugal and Greece. What the EU has done—first in those three countries, then in eastern Europe—is to help to make a reality of human rights and democracy in those nations. Above and beyond that—as we can now see, 50 years on—the Union's most profound achievement has been to secure an absence of war.

I think about this matter a great deal, and I guess that because European nations have historically found their relationships with one another difficult, we resort to the most convoluted argument to avoid violence. That in turn has been translated into lengthy texts and sometimes totally opaque practices in the European Union. In some ways, that is a small price to pay for the avoidance of the killing fields of the Somme or Verdun, but these days it is not such a convincing excuse for unacceptable practices, particularly for those who have no direct memory of European war.

The European Union can, therefore, seem unjustifiably rule-bound and bureaucratic—it is a far from perfect organisation—so I hope that the combined effect of the Convention's proposals, its scrutiny by Government and Parliament, and the outcome of the IGC, will be a better functioning EU. But let me reassure the House about some things that will not happen. The result of any new constitution will not be to alter the fundamental relationship between the EU and its member states. Foreign and defence policy will remain intergovernmental. We will not accept qualified majority voting on tax, social security or criminal law and procedures, and "federal" will not feature as either a word or a concept.

Given that the Convention now appears to propose that the Union as a whole should accede to the European convention on human rights—a proposal that the Government have resisted up to now—does the Foreign Secretary now accept that that would be the best way to ensure commonality of human rights law rather than conflict? Will the Government now accept that proposal?

We are examining that issue, but there is already clear acknowledge of the European convention on human rights in the consolidated treaties, so this is not a completely new proposal.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the way in which he is involving Parliament a great deal in this process. However, does he not see the danger in the proposal in the current draft to have a very powerful unelected Foreign Minister for the EU, who would be senior to him and who would have the right to represent us in all important matters and to use our United Nations seat whenever he saw fit? Surely this represents a fundamental change in the relationship between us and the EU.

I have genuine respect for the right hon. Gentleman, and I tried to put him right yesterday in a meeting outside the House: this is simply not the case. Whether such a Minister would be senior to me would depend on the reputation he managed to achieve; he certainly would not be senior in terms of seniority.

Thank you very much. If it were me, that would be fine; there would be no problems at all.

As for this canard, this confection, that we are going to lose our seat on the United Nations Security Council, let me tell the House that we are not. The United Nations is an association of sovereign nation states, and only nation states can exercise votes in the UN. The EU is an association of nation states; it is not a sovereign nation state.

I cannot predict what is going to happen in 100 years. I can, however, tell the right hon. Gentleman the terms of any proposition that will come before the House under this Government, and we will never vote for any suggestion of the European Union becoming a federal superstate. We are simply not going to do that.

In considering the relationship between the United Nations and European states, will the Foreign Secretary also have regard to the fact that the constitution of the United Nations is of course its charter, and that only the United Nations itself can alter its own charter?

There is another point that I have made often enough about the UN charter. Returning again to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South, there is a beautifully drafted document that is very clear and much smaller than the consolidated treaties and the IGC's result, but at least that result will be better than the current treaties.

The Foreign Secretary said that foreign policy would remain intergovernmental. That is the opposite of what the Convention is proposing. Does he intend to veto those Convention proposals at the IGC?

With respect, it is not the opposite of what is said in the draft constitution, which makes it clear that, while there is some subsidiary QMV, the main foreign policy decisions to achieve a common position have to be taken by unanimity. We object to some aspects of the proposals relating to a European Foreign Minister, and we will seek to have them changed. One of them, which is rather important, is in relation to the European Foreign Minister's so-called double-hatting. We believe that it should be made crystal clear that, although he or she may be a Vice-President of the Commission, he or she is not subject to the collective responsibility of the Commission, but is answerable solely to the Council.

The other area that the hon. Gentleman may have been thinking about is in draft article I-24, wherein, not only in relation to foreign policy but more generally, a power is sought, by unanimity in a six-month consultation period, to shift certain new areas to QMV. We do not find that acceptable and we will seek to change it.

If I may, I will make some progress, as I have already been on my feet for 22 minutes.

As for the charter of rights, the draft treaty includes a statement of rights. I think that our citizens should be told the rights that they have vis-à-vis the European institutions, and we could accept such a statement provided that it does not extend the powers of the Union. This, like much else, will depend on the precise terms of the final package, but in the Convention we negotiated important changes in articles II-51 and II-52, which help to define the scope and meaning of the charter's provisions. For example, member states would be affected only when implementing agreed Union law, and the net effect of our proposals is to ensure that the charter will not extend the Union's competence or powers.

As the House will see in a 10-point summary that I placed in the Library today, the treaty creates a framework for a Union of nations, not a superstate. I draw attention to six points in the draft treaty that emphasise the role of the nations. First, the treaty will include a statement that competences not explicitly conferred on the Union in the treaty remain with the nation states. Secondly, the draft specifies that the Union shall act only if the objectives cannot "sufficiently be achieved" by the nations. Thirdly, the draft grants a new power to national Parliaments to ask the Commission to review its proposals. Fourthly, the text includes a statement that national leaders, in the shape of the European Council, shall provide the union with its political direction and priorities. Fifthly, the draft creates a new post of a chair or president to drive forward the work of the European Council. Sixthly, the text includes a reference to the fact that the current veto on foreign policy will remain.

The Foreign Secretary has outlined how Parliament will be affected by the treaty. Will he comment on how Parliament will be affected as a result of article 107 of the Maastricht treaty if we go into the single currency? Does he accept that, as that article makes it illegal for democratically elected representatives or their respective institutions to try to influence the European Central Bank on the performance of its tasks, if we have a problem of poverty or unemployment in our community and we are not happy with how it is being dealt with, we will not be able to exert any influence on the Bank to change its policy? Is not that crazy?

I have just answered that question, but I will seek to answer it again. This debate, happily—or unhappily—is not about the euro. If and when Parliament passes a Bill to propose that we go into the euro, there will be the fullest possible debate in the country, because there are clear constitutional implications, and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend—unless he has a damascene conversion—will then make points such as the one that he has just made. Article 107 says that no members of the decision-making bodies

"shall seek or take instructions from Community institutions or bodies, from any government of a Member State or from any other body."
That does not stop them being influenced, reading newspapers and receiving information. The provision is there, as with the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, to ensure that they are not in anybody's pocket, and I think that in principle it is a good thing, not a bad thing.

The Convention's text seeks to settle the balance between the nations and the Union where it should be, with the nations as the anchor of the Union, and it makes it clearer than at any other point in the past half-century that it is the nation state that provides the Union's key source of democratic legitimacy.

The second main item for discussion at Thessaloniki will be asylum and immigration. EU leaders have long recognised the case for more concerted common action to tackle these issues. Four years ago, at the Tampere summit in Finland, an ambitious agenda was agreed, which was given a further boost at the Seville European Council last year. A joint Spanish-UK initiative set time-limited targets for the agreement of common minimum standards on asylum—

And it is in safe hands.

As I was saying, a joint Spanish-UK initiative set time-limited targets for the agreement of common minimum standards on asylum, and measures to deliver the Tampere agenda.

At Thessaloniki, the EU leaders will review progress on the package of measures agreed at Seville 12 months ago. Progress has been good. Legal instruments on minimum asylum standards have either been agreed or are due to be agreed by the end of this year. There has been an increase in operational co-operation between member states on border control initiatives. We welcome further concrete progress, and I am pleased to tell the House that it is in hand. A number of common projects are beginning to deliver results, most notably the Finnish-led common risk analysis centre, which is a vital element in the development of targeted intelligence-led operations.

In Greece at the end of the week, heads of Governments will consider three reports from the European Commission. The first is on more accessible, equitable and managed asylum systems, the second on illegal immigration returns and border controls, and the third on employment and the integration of migrants. The first report was initiated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the informal European Council in Athens two months ago. Our objective is to develop proposals for the better management of the asylum process globally, reducing unfounded applications and providing more equitable protection for refugees. We will continue to encourage the Commission to develop this work in parallel with member states and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

At Thessaloniki we will encourage member states to support the presidency's proposals for a European return fund, which will give financial support to activity linked to returns of illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers and implement the EU returns action programme adopted in November.

As usual, there will be a discussion of major foreign policy and security issues at the end of the week. Following the latest spiral of killings in Israel and the Occupied Territories, we will press for the European Union, as a member of the Quartet group responsible for the road map, to urge both parties to recognise that violence only strengthens the hands of extremists on both sides, and that dialogue is the only way forward.

On Monday, at my suggestion, EU Foreign Ministers agreed to examine new measures to isolate Hamas. We agreed that we should
"urgently examine the case for wider action against Hamas fund raising."
Following proposals that I made as Home Secretary, and separate proposals in the European Union, we proscribed Hamas IDQ, the so-called military wing of Hamas, which enables us to freeze its assets and take other measures, but at the time the evidence was not considered strong enough to justify proscribing the other part of Hamas, its so-called charitable and political wing. These days, there is an increasing consensus that both organisations are, in fact, one. That matter is being examined not only here, but, at my instigation, in the European Union.

The information that the Foreign Secretary has provided is helpful and encouraging. However, in the light of recent bombings, does he recognise that not only Hamas but Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad are involved, and that they are believed to be funded by other sovereign states in the region? Is there a role for the European Union to exert some pressure on those middle east countries that are helping to fund the terrorist groups, and will the Foreign Secretary raise the matter at the IGC?

We are going to raise it not at the IGC, but at the European Council at the end of the week. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is highly probable that some countries fund those rejectionist terrorist groups. Part of the dialogue between the EU and countries such as Syria and Iran is about ending their support for rejectionist terrorist groups.

I shall give way, for the last time, to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant).

Does not discussion of the role that the EU can play in the middle east peace process demonstrate that wherever the EU can develop a joint foreign policy, it can be far more effective?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Where we can agree, as 25, the result of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We have policies in respect of the middle east peace process—and of Iran, for example, to which I shall return in a moment. We can pursue such issues bilaterally and as a member of the Security Council, but where we can get our 24 European Union colleagues on board, we are immeasurably strengthened. I can also tell my hon. Friend that it has been interesting to see over the last three months how much difference the extra 10 countries can make. Most of them are instinctively in sympathy with the broad foreign policy positions of the UK Government, so the chemical balance inside the European Foreign Ministers Council has changed.

On Iraq, we will want to explore how the EU can play a significant role in political and economic reconstruction. There have been welcome signs in recent weeks that member states are prepared to set aside their differences and work together to deliver the prosperous future that the Iraqi people deserve. That will also he a theme for the discussion at the EU-US summit in a couple of weeks' time, when Greece will represent EU member states. Our advice to the Greek presidency is clear. The EU-US relationship has been the fulcrum of global order for more than half a century. It provides the strongest possible foundation for our collective effort to tackle the great strategic challenges of the 21st century, from international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to trade barriers and economic injustice.

At the weekend, the EU's High Representative, Javier Solana, will present a "European security strategy" covering WMD, international crime and instability on the EU's borders, and we expect it to form the basis for a policy toolbox. Any effective security strategy must be backed with credible military capabilities. Again at the weekend, EU leaders will welcome the significant progress made in the last six months, particularly the implementation of the so-called "Berlin plus" arrangements, under which the EU will enjoy access to NATO assets and capabilities, and the EU's first military mission in Macedonia.

In recent days, the people of Poland and the Czech Republic have voted by overwhelming majorities to accede to the European Union next year. Their peoples had to struggle for decades against the yoke of Soviet imperialism to gain national sovereignty, so they were voting not to lose their national sovereignty inside the EU, but to share their sovereignty in order to be stronger in international relations and in Europe. Eight of the 10 candidate countries have now confirmed their readiness to join the EU next year.

The UK has always been a leading champion of enlargement. It is not just a matter of historical obligation to the half of our continent that suffered most during the cold war; it is about our national interest. Enlargement will mean more jobs, more opportunity, increased prosperity and greater security for British citizens. For that reason, too, we will continue to make the case for the accession of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. I hope that December's European Council in Rome might agree a more precise framework for Bulgaria and Romania's remaining negotiations. I also hope that at the weekend, EU leaders will encourage Turkey to continue its progress towards fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria in time for the decisive December 2004 European Council.

Opponents of enlargement often point to the risks of dilution of the EU's founding ideals. They argue that in a union of 25 or more member states, agreement will be possible only on the least contentious issues, and the Union will lose direction and strategic coherence. I have always believed that the reverse is true. Only an enlarged European Union, stretching to the geographical boundaries of the continent, can realistically hope to tackle the problems that do not respect borders. Nor do I think that an enlarged EU will succumb to an endless power struggle between so-called federal and nonfederal visions of Europe.

The draft that EU Heads of Government will receive at Thessaloniki provides a basis for a constitutional treaty that will be clear, help its institutions and member states manage the EU more effectively, and enable us to co-operate more closely in foreign policy and the fight against crime. That will be an effective Europe with strong institutions that attract the support of Europe's citizens, and a more democratic Europe, anchored in the legitimacy of the nation states. That is what we shall be working for at the European Council this weekend.

3.6 pm

Today's debate is more significant than the regular European tour d'horizons that we have in the House every six months— we can use foreign language on this side of the House, too. After the Foreign Secretary's speech today, we shall have to reach some agreement on the pronunciation of names, or we shall find ourselves talking about our trips to "Paree" and "Firenze" and meeting President Putin in "Moskva". I am sure that we do not want to get into that. I hope that the Foreign Secretary agrees that, where an English pronunciation of a place name is available, we should use it.

The summit in Thessalonica is no run-of-the-mill summit. It will receive, and begin the discussions on, the recommendations of the Giscard d'Estaing Convention.

I listened with growing amazement and disbelief to the Foreign Secretary. I cannot understand whom he is trying to kid. He is too intelligent to take seriously the false analysis of the outcome of the Convention that he keeps repeating. What he has sought to do once again is to create a false debate. The only reason that I can see for that is fear of the real debate. We have heard him claim once again that the outcome of the Convention does not amount to very much—not enough to get hot under the collar about, and certainly not enough to justify a referendum.

The Foreign Secretary knows that that is arrant nonsense. I make no accusation of dishonesty against him; in many ways, he personifies sincerity. We can all recall the sincerity with which he presented the dodgy dossier to the world in February, and he was praised by Secretary Colin Powell. Today we have seen him present, with equally wide-eyed sincerity, what I believe will become known as the dodgy debate.

The Convention set out to achieve a new status and direction for the EU, and it has achieved that. I cannot understand why the Government are so keen to deny that fact. It is not as if they believe, at the end of the day, that they can get away with it. For a start, their colleagues in Europe will not let them.

On 21 May, the Foreign Secretary told the House:
"No one should get obsessed about the fact that it will be called a constitution."—[0fficial Report, 21 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 1030.]
Not so, says former Italian Prime Minister and Convention member Lamberto Dini, who warned on 1 June:
"Anyone in Britain who claims the constitution will not change things is trying to sweeten the pill for those who don't want to see a bigger role for Europe. The constitution is not just an intellectual exercise. It will quickly change people's lives … Eventually the union will … become an institution and organisation in its own right."
That is one voice.

On 11 June, the Foreign Secretary told us:
"What the Convention is proposing … will not alter the fundamental constitutional balance between the European Union's institutions and the member nation states."—[Official Report, 11 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 712.]
However, on 28 May Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated:
"What is at stake is so new and big that it is right to hold a referendum".
And Inigo Mendez de Vigo, a Spanish Convention member, announced:
"This is the most important text since the Treaty of Rome in 1957."
While the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister strive to persuade us that the proposed constitutional change is nothing—that it alters no relationships and merely tidies up—German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer proudly proclaims:
"We have a draft constitution that is worthy of the word historic."
He continues, even more forcibly:
"It is the most important treaty since the formation of the European economic community."
Those are not the words of someone welcoming a tidying-up exercise or something that will not fundamentally change the relationship between ourselves and Europe. Why should we believe the Foreign Secretary when the weight of comment from Europe contradicts him? Are there rogue elements in Europe as well as in the security services seeking to undermine the Government?

I know whom the British people believe on this, and it is not the Government. To be fair to the Government, at least the Chancellor knows the score. The Treasury's single currency assessments, published last week, on page 220, state:
"Many of the issues being considered by the European Convention could have far reaching consequences for the future performance of EU economies whether they are part of the euro area or not."
That means us, and it does not sound like tidying up.

Why is the Foreign Secretary so reticent? The Prime Minister has frequently called for the building of a European superpower—and that is not my word, but the word that he uses. That is what the proposed constitution lying on the table in Thessalonica is, at the very least, proposing. The truth is that the draft constitution constitutes a step change away from the Europe of nations to a political entity in its own right.

I have listened with care to the right hon. Gentleman, whose speech has obviously been drafted by the Leader of the Opposition's speechwriter. He has given several quotations, but if he wants more authoritative observations from people who are keen federalists, I offer him the following. Romano Prodi said that the text

"lacks vision and ambition. It is in some respects a step backwards"—
meaning a step backwards to the nation states.

I know, but he is saying the Convention is a step backwards. That is exactly my point. He is indeed a federalist, but he sees it as a step backwards, not forwards. The even more extreme federalist, Giuliano Amato, who has been vice-president of the Convention, said—according to The Daily Telegraph on 24 May—when he saw the texts:

"I want to kill myself."

I hesitate to suggest that he must have just heard a speech by the Foreign Secretary before making that remark. If we are to have an honest debate, we must consider the proposals as a whole. There is no point in producing, time after time, arguments suggesting that this enormous document, which calls itself a constitution, is not a constitution. The Foreign Secretary said that it did not have primacy, but the document itself, in paragraph I-10.1, states:

"The Constitution, and law adopted by the Union's Institutions in exercising competences conferred on it, shall have primacy over the law of the Member States."
That is precisely what I suggested and what the Foreign Secretary contradicted.

We must look at the proposals as a whole. The constitution creates constitutional primacy, a legal personality, a president, a foreign secretary, fundamental rights—including the right to strike—that will be legally enforceable at European level, a common foreign and security policy, plans for a European army, the explicit primacy of European law, an increasing role in criminal law, control over immigration and asylum, expanded powers in transport and energy, and a common currency. That is no tidying-up exercise. It is at worst a collecting of pieces to construct them into something new and at best the beginning of the fulfilment of the dream of those who have always seen the European Union as the route to a politically united Europe.

I have some sympathy with the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but he overstates his case when he represents an agenda presented by individuals, or even countries. He must understand that that is not how the constitutional power of the European Union has increased over the past 40 years. It happens when the Foreign Ministers and Heads of State start negotiating and horse-trading at the intergovernmental conferences. Some say, "We don't want this," and others say, "Well, we don't want that." In the end, they all give a bit. It is through that process of accretion that constitutional change takes place and the power of the European institutions increases.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Our experience is that the change happens with a ratchet effect, and power rarely passes the other way. What concerns me—and it is why I said earlier that we have moved into a new phase—is that the construction of the constitution, which calls itself a constitution and has all the features of one, is now no longer in the hands of the Convention but in those of the IGC. That is where the bartering and the arguments will begin.

I am concerned that the Government have already decided the outcome, because they have said firmly that they will not allow a referendum, whatever comes out of the IGC.

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that a ratchet effect is at work. I put it to him that there is a close and compelling analogy between the process of European integration and the process of seduction, and the consequence in both cases is the same.

I need to give a little thought to the deeper meaning of those remarks before I venture a reply. However, we agree that we need to be aware of the dynamic of the situation. That is the reality that our partners in Europe understand, and I do not know why the Government do not have the honesty to admit it. Let us consider the totality of what is proposed. If that is not a fundamental change, I do not know what is. The saying goes that if you see an elephant on your doorstep, you should recognise that fact before you get trampled on. This constitution is an elephant and its capacity to trample on us is growing all the time.

The right hon. Gentleman displayed his prowess in the French language earlier, and I confess that I am not so competent in it. He will undoubtedly have been reading Le Monde, Le Figaro and other European journals, and they have praised the skills of the UK negotiating team, because it has won the best deal not only for Europe, but for Britain. If that had happened under a Conservative Government, the right hon. Gentleman would have been singing its praises to the highest heaven.

Indeed, I join Le Monde in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) for the work that they have done in the Convention, but I would not take French newspapers as a judge of whether British interests had been best served. In fact, I would be concerned if they thought that I had been acting in the best interests of Britain. Knowing the way in which French newspapers operate, I would sup with them with a very long spoon.

I always like to give way once to the hon. Gentleman, but I always know what question he will ask, and I shall give the same answer as I usually do.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I am troubled that he admits that he always gives the same reply, whatever the question might be.

I have a specific question that relates to the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the primacy of the Convention constitution over the constitutions of Europe. Does he accept that that applies only in certain competences, such as the regulation of state aid and competition, for which it is essential that the EU has primacy? Indeed, it has had such primacy for a long time, as originally agreed by a Conservative Government.

The Foreign Secretary, when he read out what was said this morning about constitutions, suggested that the Convention constitution would not have an effect over other constitutions. What the hon. Gentleman has just said disproves that. Words must mean something, and I shall read out the words in the constitution again. It states:

"The Constitution, and law adopted by the Union and institutions in exercising competencies conferred on it, shall have primacy over the law of the Member States."
The Foreign Secretary was denying that primacy, but it is written into the constitution.

How, in substance, does that differ from what has been in the treaties since the treaty of Rome and what is encapsulated in section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972?

I am sorry to have to repeat myself, but we must look at the totality of what is being proposed.

Before I give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I must make it clear that he and I know, from our experience as lawyers, about circumstantial evidence. We have told juries to look at the evidence as a whole because it might not amount to anything if each bit is looked at separately. We know that putting all the evidence together reveals what it can achieve. That is when one sees the reality.

The right hon. Gentleman said a moment ago that the words used must be given a plain meaning. In his view, what is the plain meaning to be ascribed to the phrase

"in exercising competencies conferred upon it"?

The plain meaning is that in those competencies, which are very wide, there is a primacy over the laws of the member states. That is absolutely clear.

I must press the right hon. Gentleman on that. Of course, he is right that the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. We all know that, but I am making a specific point about the particular text that he has read out. What, in substance, does the new text produce by way of change, compared with the provision that has been in our law and in the treaties since section 2(2) of the 1972 Act came into force? That Act makes it equally clear that, in respect of legal instruments exercised at a Union level under EU competencies, Union law overrides the domestic law of Britain or any other member state. What is the difference?

My argument—which I shall continue with—is that it is important to look at the totality. If it is accepted that, where there are competencies, the constitution shall have primacy over the law of the member states, then we must look at what will happen with those competencies in the future. We must determine what the effect of that provision will be, and how much wider and broader those competencies will become. That is why we must look at the whole, as I said earlier, but I am prepared to look at some of the details.

I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells, who published a compelling analysis of the proposed constitution two days ago. Most of us will be grateful to him for having clarified some of the issues that have been the subject of rather muddy debate in this Chamber on previous occasions. He identified some areas of concern that I want to explore.

The constitution endows the EU with a legal personality. For the first time, the EU becomes an autonomous entity in relation to the member states, with the ability to conclude international agreements by itself. We have a constitution that has primacy over the laws of member states.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the EU has a legal personality at the moment? That is what has enabled it to agree all sorts of treaties internationally.

It has done so in respect of trade, but—[Interruption.] This is where I think that the Foreign Secretary is trying to create a false debate. We are looking at what the constitution, if it ends up in the treaty, will confer on the EU, with a view to determining what its total effect will be. We are looking not at the small changes that it may make in some respects to the position as it was in the past, but at what the overall effect will be. I challenge the Foreign Secretary to say that the changes are not fundamental and significant in their totality. That is the argument that he seeks to make.

I am going to make some progress, if I may.

I turn now to the new powers. The list of EU powers is to be expanded. Formerly, only the customs union was an explicitly EU power, but now there are four. Amazingly, the conservation of marine biological resources is one of them. Where is the rationale for that? Under the EU, the common fisheries policy has been a disaster. Our seas have been emptied of fish and many of our fishing communities have been sent to the wall. Surely we should be working to retrieve our fishing waters from the EU, rather than entrenching them within it?

I turn now to the new areas in which member states cannot legislate if the EU chooses to do so. These are the areas of shared competence—that is,
"where the Union has not exercised or ceases to exercise its competence in the area of shared competence, the Member States may exercise theirs."
If one turns that around to get away from the Euro-speak, that means that, where the EU has exercised its competence, the member states cannot. The shared competencies include justice and home affairs, transport, agriculture and fisheries, trans-European networks, energy, social policy, economic and social cohesion, the environment, and consumer protection. Those areas are now open-ended.

I will give way in a moment, but I want to deal with the co-ordination of economic and employment policies. Article II-3 states:

"the Union shall have competence to promote and coordinate the economic and employment policies of the Member States."
I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary—or perhaps even the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston—will be able to tell me what that means. As I understand it, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), when he was Minister for Europe, tried to have the clause about the co-ordination of economic and employment policies deleted. I wonder whether it is still a red line for the Government.

Given the right hon. Gentleman's concerns about shared competencies, which will be defined clearly in part 3 of the constitution, does he welcome article II-2, which for the first time provides that, when the EU ceases to exercise its competence in respect of shared competencies, those competencies can be exercised by the nation states?

I welcome, as small crumbs from the table, any demonstration that there are movements back from the centre towards the nation states. However, I come back to the totality of what is being put forward. I hope that someone on the Government Front Bench will be able to answer my question about the coordination of economic and employment policies, as I believe that it is a key matter when it comes to looking at the totality of the proposals.

I shall make a little progress and then give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I turn now to the harmonisation of criminal justice rules and procedures by qualified majority voting. One of the most far-reaching extensions of power is in judicial co-operation in criminal matters. The proposals are all subject to QMV, and provide for EU laws on admissibility of evidence and the rights of individuals and victims in criminal cases, as well as for sanctions in cross-border crimes. I hardly think that that is tidying up.

There are also many areas where national vetoes will disappear. They range from asylum and immigration to culture. Henceforth, asylum and immigration will come under the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. The House must realise that, quite simply, we will no longer be able to decide our own asylum and immigration policy. That is what the provision means, and it is precisely what I fear in the totality of what is being produced.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the totality of the constitution. Will he give an example of where that totality alters the competencies already listed in previous treaties? Will he give an example of where there will be a new power?

I am in the middle of giving some specific examples of where there has been an extension of competence by the EU, according to the details of the constitution. However, the totality of the proposals will change the nature of Europe, which will go from being a Europe of nations to a Europe that is a political entity.

Let us look at what might be called the icing on the cake—the question of the European president and the European foreign minister. Our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, understandably, have their eyes on good retirement jobs. However, I must warn the Foreign Secretary that the German Foreign Minister has his eye on the European job, so the competition for the post might be great.

The proposals epitomise the draft constitution's centralising tendencies. Having a president who will be Mr. Europe for two and a half years or five years is very different in respect of what I understand by the term "intergovernmentalism" from having a rotating presidency, either singly or in teams, supplied by the member states. The constitution departs from that sort of intergovernmentalism. It creates an identifiable figurehead, and that is its whole purpose. In doing that, it underlines the nature of the changes that are being made.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been generous about giving way, but I must tell him that, if I thought that the result of the proposal would be a centralisation of power within what we normally call Brussels—that is, the Commission—I would be against it. However, the reverse is the case. At present, the presidency is rotated between the 15 member states, of which there will soon be 25. That means that the Council of Ministers, whether at Heads of Government level or, more particularly, at a functional level, has less influence and power than it should have in comparison with the Commission, which is permanent in terms of the civil service and, effectively, of Commissioners. The result has been an attempt to rebalance the Union in favour of the council of nations, namely the European Council.

As I understand it, the president will not necessarily have to be a serving Head of Government.

I am glad of that confirmation. The president will not, in that case, be part of the Council of Ministers, but a centralised figure at the top of the pile within the European Union. That is what I mean by saying that we should look at the totality of the proposals. There will be a foreign minister, and, as we read in the constitution, he will conduct the Union's common foreign and security policy. Those are not words describing devolution down to the nation states; they are words of centralising up. That shows the nature of the changes being made.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the constitution says that those

"member states which sit on the Security Council shall request that the Minister for Foreign Affairs be asked to present the Union's position",
it means exactly what it says? That means effectively that we have lost our UN Security Council seat, because whenever he wants to, the minister for Europe will do that.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. To my mind, the constitution goes a stage further. The Union would take on itself the mantle of a sovereign state in that all the other members of the UN Security Council will be sovereign states.

Will my right hon. Friend reject with contempt continual complaints that our powers are not being reduced? Will he consider page 4 of today's Evening Standard, on which a representative of the Foreign Office states that the Home Secretary's plans for transit camps for asylum seekers are being chucked out because the European Union will not allow them? Will my right hon. Friend make it abundantly clear that we have had non-stop interference with our right to decide things as a Parliament? Members of Parliament should be more concerned about the democratic rights of the people than about speaking nonsense and saying that Europe is not a problem. Our democracy has been undermined year after year, and Members of the House of Commons should be concerned about that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a point at which I had hinted. The Government are voluntarily giving away control over asylum and immigration policy. I am delighted to hear that he reads English papers rather than the French papers mentioned earlier. His judgment on that is very sound.

May I make some progress?

Underpinning the whole constitution is the charter of fundamental rights. The Prime Minister said in October 2000:
"It has been agreed that [the charter] is a political direction which is not legally binding."
Now, it is to be legally binding. That is the move that has taken place. On top of that, we now have the so-called escalator clauses, which allow areas currently subject to veto to be moved to qualified majority voting without any treaty change or reference to national parliaments. That is to be allowed in any area.

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if he reads the constitution, he will find that that is so.

The truth is that the Government's assurances on red lines are worthless. Most of what any federalist wants, including QMV in foreign affairs, can be obtained without any need for a new treaty. Indeed, the whole thrust of the constitution is towards ever-deeper integration. For instance, article 17, the so-called flexibility clause, will, with no consultation of national parliaments, allow the EU a virtually unfettered remit to expand its powers. That is the reality, on which I ask only that the Government come clean.

The Government should also come clean on how much power the constitution transfers to the judges of the European Court of Justice. They will decide the impact of the charter of fundamental rights on European and national law. They will decide how the shared competencies will work. They will decide how far the EU will end up running our asylum and immigration policies. They will influence our criminal law. They will adjudicate on our energy supplies. Far from fulfilling the Laeken aspiration of bringing European Union institutions closer to EU citizens, the draft constitution succeeds only in taking power away from the people's elected representatives and giving it to distant and unelected judges.

Those are the elements of a fundamentally changed Europe. If the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are sincere about defending British interests and preserving a Europe of nations, they must set down markers in Thessalonica to say that those elements are unacceptable in any forthcoming treaty, starting with the constitution itself, which the Prime Minister told us in Warsaw only three years ago was not needed.

We want an effective, responsible and more flexible Europe that can genuinely meet the challenges of enlargement and of the 21st century. We want an EU that is accountable, democratic and connected to its people. We believe that that is best accomplished by working with the nation state, not by trying to supersede it. We need constructive reform that does more than enhance power structures at the top. We want a Europe that works for its people, not its elites. We want a Europe that takes real account of national variety and aspirations. We want a Europe that is genuinely accountable to the national parliaments from which its power springs. At the end, we want a Europe that must seek to work in partnership with the United States rather than in some fanciful rivalry to it.

That is the Europe that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary should pursue at Thessalonica rather than turning a blind eye to the real meaning of the draft constitution. If they are not prepared to face up to that reality and to start defending British interests—if they are irrevocably set on marching down the road of the constitution towards the Prime Minister's aspiration for a superpower—they should at least have the courage of their convictions and seek the wholehearted consent of the British people.

In the week in which the Government have announced referendums on regional assemblies in the north, and in the week in which an enormous opinion poll has shown that the British people want to have their say, the Government should announce that they will trust the people.

We who sit across the Floor will, in debate after debate, almost certainly continue to disagree on what the draft constitution means. Why not ask the people? Promise a referendum, and let the people decide.