Skip to main content

European Constitution

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

At present there is no consensus among EU Governments on the future of the constitutional treaty. The German presidency has been asked by EU leaders to present a report to the European Council in June on possible next steps, following consultation with all EU Governments. I set out the Government’s approach in my written ministerial statement of 5 December 2006.

Will the Minister give an assurance that no Labour Government would sign a European Union treaty that would give permanent EU competence over United Kingdom affairs by removing the right of Parliament to amend or repeal European Union treaties through the relevant Acts of Parliament?

I am not entirely sure that I follow the reasoning behind that question. What is important is that successive British Governments have supported section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972, which was taken through the House by the then Conservative Government. Subsequent Conservative Governments—incidentally, they were supported by the shadow Foreign Secretary—have argued for extending the competence of the European Union, for example at the time of the Maastricht treaty. They have never argued for a referendum on the subject—I have checked—and neither did the shadow Foreign Secretary during all the time that he was in government. The people whom the shadow Foreign Secretary opposed during the Maastricht process are now running Conservative party policy on Europe.

The process is apparently being driven by Chancellor Merkel in Germany. Two decisions have been made by democratic vote in France and Holland, rejecting the constitution. When my right hon. Friend next meets Chancellor Merkel, will he remind her about those democratic decisions, and say that we respect democratic decisions even if she does not?

I think that my hon. Friend is being a little harsh on other EU Governments, who of course supported the idea of consultation and encouraged the German presidency. The reason why Chancellor Merkel is so interested in the subject at present is that Germany has the presidency. It is important that all member states find a way forward; there is no agreement at present, as I have said, but that is the purpose of the efforts being made by the German presidency—as, I suspect, efforts will be made by subsequent presidencies.

Will the Minister confirm that it is still Government policy that if there is any new European constitution, it should be put to the British people in a referendum?

It is absolutely clear that there should be a referendum on the European constitutional treaty, and that remains the Government’s position.

May I be helpful to my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] May I be helpful—as always—and ask him whether, in a constructive mood, we could cease to accept any more transport directives until we have carried out an audit of the effect of European directives on safety for aviation, maritime affairs and, specifically, inland waterways?

I have long learned to appreciate help from my hon. Friend, and it is important that proper audits be carried out before any future directives are accepted on the subjects that she mentions.

In the same constructive spirit, may I too be helpful to the Minister? I suggest that he take Chancellor Merkel to one side for a cup of coffee and tell her that if she is looking for consensus, we have consensus in this country on the subject: we are agin it.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. I cannot help but notice that immediately behind him is the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who, I understand, has been given permission by the Leader of the Opposition to campaign for the Conservative party to advocate leaving the European Union. There appear to be 57 different policies among Conservative Members, and that of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is only one of them.

My right hon. Friend will know that the German presidency has suggested a meeting on 25 March in Berlin, at which it hopes to make a Berlin declaration, which will consist of a statement of the fundamental values of the European Union. Will he tell the House that the Government will fully support such discussions, and that where there are matters on which Governments can agree, and that do not require constitutional change, we will move forward in a spirit of co-operation?

My right hon. Friend is right. The 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome, which will be marked by a declaration in Berlin next March, is an important anniversary in the history of the European Union. It is right that we should not only celebrate the achievements of the European Union, but look to the future, as regards the principles that guide the decisions that we will take. It is vital that the United Kingdom should participate enthusiastically in that process, as we will, and I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will join us in that celebration.

Does the Minister for Europe remember the serious disquiet in Scotland, Norway and Iceland following the enshrining of fisheries as an exclusive European Union competence in the constitution? Does he not agree that if there is a renewed constitution or similar treaty, it should command the support of nations inside and outwith the European Union, and those who might seek to join at a future date? Bearing that in mind, will the Government give a commitment to revisit the issue, should such negotiations be started?

We are constantly reviewing policies in those areas. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman is thinking about his party’s position going into the Scottish elections, as it advocates leaving not only the United Kingdom but the European Union.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what the European Union requires is not a grand constitution but modest pragmatic change?

My hon. Friend is quite right. What is important as we take the European Union forward—and the British Government have consistently advocated this—is step-by-step developments and benefits for the citizens of Europe. That is the best way of acknowledging the significant changes that Europe has made in the interests and for the benefit of citizens of the UK and elsewhere.

In reply to my written question, the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that he responded to the German Chancellor’s request by appointing Mr. Kim Darroch and Ms Nicola Brewer to liaise with the German EU presidency on the drafting of the new political declaration and

“possible ways to take the constitutional process forward.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 788W.]

What terms of reference have Mr. Darroch and Ms Brewer been given? In particular, will they be told to make it clear to the German presidency that the EU constitution is not acceptable to Britain, and that a referendum would have to be held on any new treaty containing significant elements of the constitution?

Two very distinguished civil servants have been appointed to deal with the questionnaire that the German presidency will circulate to all member states. It is vital that member states find a way forward, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in acknowledging that, because it is in the interests of both the European Union and the United Kingdom. We want to ensure that the UK is constructive and positive, and finds a way through the difficulties facing the EU. I have already made clear our position on a referendum in the UK.