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European Constitution

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

1. What recent discussions she has had with the German EU presidency on reviving the European Constitution. (134731)

I have had regular discussions with my German colleagues during their presidency about many issues, including EU institutional reform—so, too, has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who met Chancellor Merkel most recently on 24 April. At present, there remains no consensus among EU partners on this issue, but we will discuss it at the European Council in June.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that she has received a letter from the German presidency and Mrs. Merkel, suggesting how to revive the European constitution by using

“different terminology without changing the…substance”

and preserving part 1 of the constitution

“with the necessary presentational changes”?

Is not this a deceitful way to proceed? Why are these negotiations taking place in secret? Will the Foreign Secretary make an urgent statement to the House about the Government’s intentions?

There is nothing to make an urgent statement about at the moment. I do not recall the letter that the right hon. Gentleman referred to, unless he is referring to some kind of questionnaire that came round a little time ago—[Hon. Members: “Questionnaire?”] Yes. I presume that Conservative Members know what a questionnaire is: people ask us questions and we fill in the answers, so that they can get a picture of the general range of views—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

As I was saying, that might be what the right hon. Gentleman was referring to. It is clear that the German Government would prefer to keep as much as possible of the constitutional treaty. As the presidency, however, the German Government will have to determine where the consensus lies among colleagues in the European Union, and do their best to give effect to that. As I have said, there is at present no such consensus.

The Foreign Secretary refers to the process of finding where consensus lies. In this House, we have found it extremely difficult to find out what the British Government’s position is, never mind determining where consensus lies. Will she at least acknowledge that one of the biggest difficulties for the British Government is that there is a huge division between the needs of the countries in the eurozone, which will require greater political integration from such a document, and the needs of those that are outside it?

I believe that we have been quite clear about this. The Minister for Europe has set out on a number of occasions the principles on which we base our approach to the issue. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Dutch Prime Minister recently made it clear that we would certainly be looking not for a constitutional treaty but for an amending treaty that did not contain the characteristics of a constitution, but which might tidy up the rules of the European Union to make it operate more effectively. With regard to whether there is a difference of approach for those countries that are members of the eurozone, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) takes a great interest in these matters, but, for my own part, I would be reluctant to say anything that encouraged the idea that there should be some kind of two-speed Europe.

Are not the mooted proposals for treaty change either so obviously in the interests of democracy and transparency, such as an increased role for national Parliaments, or so obviously in the national interest, such as reducing the numbers in the Commission while we keep a permanent seat, or reducing the current bias against us in the qualified majority voting system, that it is difficult to see how anyone could rationally want to oppose them? Furthermore, how could we possibly conceive of having a referendum on what are essentially procedural and administrative matters, or even on matters relating to personnel management and job description? If we are going to have a referendum on that kind of thing, surely we should simply put all the amendments in the Finance Bill this afternoon—[Interruption.]

Without agreeing with every syllable that the hon. Gentleman has uttered, I have to say that I find myself much in sympathy with his point of view. I would be unwise, however, to enter into what is clearly a degree of internecine warfare.

Following on from the interesting, predictable and common-sense view expressed by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important in the public debate to draw the distinction between the management of the European Union—especially in the Commission—and the powers of its respective bodies? Would not we make a lot more progress towards reaching consensus in this House and in the Council of Ministers if that distinction were to become more clear-cut?

My hon. Friend makes an entirely sensible point. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has identified, it is hard to see how a sensible person could disagree to a number of the propositions, especially the notion of an enhanced role for national parliaments. Members on both sides of the House have long called for a proper degree of greater subsidiarity. At the moment, however, it appears that not everyone wishes to draw the kind of sensible distinction that my hon. Friend is making. I suspect that we may get closer to that as people get closer to having to try to draw conclusions.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is out of step with the overwhelming majority of the people of the United Kingdom. Does she accept that the people of the United Kingdom do not trust the European Union and will not accept any further handover of powers to it without a referendum? I expect the Government to honour their commitment to the people of this country.

I am slightly shocked to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is out of step with opinion, even in his own party, let alone the country, since, as he pointed out, much of what he said was simple common sense. I certainly accept that many people would be concerned if they felt that massive transfers of powers to the European Union were taking place—

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s concern, as I know the point of view that he has long expressed. I wonder, however, how he managed to contain himself during the passage of the Single European Act and the many steps taken by the Conservative party in government that did indeed hand over powers to the European Union.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that what we need now is not the waving of letters by Angela Merkel, as the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has done, but a sensible and practical discussion with our European colleagues? Given that the constitution has been defeated in the referendums so far, such a discussion will allow us to proceed with the reform agenda so that a Europe of 27 can be governed in an efficient and effective way.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. He will recall, as will many Members of the House, that we are committed by existing treaties to, for example, reconsider the numbers in the European Commission now that Romania and Bulgaria have joined the European Union. People are bound to consider whether sensible improvements can be made to the way in which Europe works, of a kind that have been made on several occasions in the past without a referendum having been held.

It is obvious that two years in the deep freeze has done nothing to alter the flavour of this debate, in this place and elsewhere. Does the Foreign Secretary at least accept that we must have a proper public debate about the issues? Any significant changes, other than overdue institutional alterations, cannot be introduced by stealth. Will she publish the answers to the questionnaire that she has received? Will she set out clearly what parts of the existing constitutional treaty would have to be removed for the Government to believe that we had gone below the threshold at which a referendum would be required?

As the hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate, I am not intending to do so, as I have pointed out already that the opinion of member states has moved little hitherto. I am certainly not going to conduct, in public, negotiations that have yet to commence seriously. We have made it clear that there should not be anything that has the characteristics of a constitution. There would be merit, however, in having an amending treaty, which could tidy up some of the ways in which the European Union works—[Interruption.] Well, for example, we must consider the issue of the number of members of the Commission. There is also merit in considering whether the practical working and efficiency of the European Union can be improved in the interests of this country. We certainly have not the slightest intention of consenting to decisions that would not be in the interests of this country.

If my memory is correct, it is 33 years since an incoming Labour Prime Minister received an electoral boost from announcing that there would be a referendum on the United Kingdom’s future in Europe. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is an historical parallel that might be beneficial to us? Would she urge such a course on the Chancellor, on my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), or on my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher)—whichever of them will lead our party in years to come?

My hon. Friend is entirely right in saying that that was the only time when we had such a referendum. A Labour Government did indeed invite the British people to make that basic decision—which was not done by the previous Government, in breach of every undertaking that had been given. Nor did the Conservative party in office ever hold a referendum on any of the changes made to the European Union. That includes the introduction of qualified majority voting in the Single European Act and its extension to 12 areas, and its extension to—I speak from memory—some 30 areas in the Maastricht treaty. The Conservative party did not believe in referendums then, and to be perfectly frank I do not believe that it really believes in them now.

I think that the Foreign Secretary acknowledged receipt of a questionnaire from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, which set out 12 propositions on how to proceed with the EU constitution by making presentational changes such as replacing the full text of the charter of fundamental rights with a short cross-reference having the same legal value. Will the right hon. Lady now publish the Government’s response, following cross-party support for that step? Does she understand that people will view these cosmetic changes as spin and deception while the EU constitution is introduced through the back door? Will she now match our unequivocal pledge that we would give the British people a referendum on any treaty that transferred powers from Britain to the EU, whether it was called a constitution or not?

All I can say is that the British people would be very ill-advised to take the hon. Gentleman’s assurance any more seriously than they took the assurances that were given and broken in 1972.

No, I will not publish any response that we may make to the document that has been circulated, which I presume to be the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It was intended to give the German presidency an overall picture of the views of member states. The hon. Gentleman is leaping to a conclusion on what will be the outcome of the discussions in a way that is wholly unjustified by the facts.