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European Constitution

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

10. By what criteria she will reach a view on whether a referendum should be held on any new EU constitutional treaty. (134741)

There is at present no consensus among EU partners on the way forward regarding the constitutional treaty or, indeed, any new treaty. Those issues will be discussed at the European Council in June. The Government’s approach to the discussions was set out in my written ministerial statement of 5 December 2006. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 16 April this year, we should return to the idea of a conventional amending treaty that makes a European Union of 27 work more efficiently and focuses on its citizens’ priorities. However, as we have made consistently clear, if the constitutional treaty comes back in its present form, the Government would want to hold a referendum.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not up to this Parliament, still less Ministers, to transfer any further powers from Britain to the European Union without the express agreement of the British people given in a referendum.

I will surprise the hon. Gentleman because I looked for some help and advice on this issue from the Opposition Front Bench. I received some useful advice from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who voted against holding a referendum on the Maastricht treaty on 21 April 1993—as, incidentally, did the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who asked a question earlier. That is significant because the Maastricht treaty established the European Union, as we now call it. It made significant amendments to the European treaties and, in that light, clearly affected the relationship between Westminster and Brussels, which is what the shadow Minister for Europe has been talking about. It introduced a common foreign and security policy, a European security and defence policy, a new competence for the EU in respect of co-operation in the field of justice and home affairs, qualified—[Interruption.]

On 20 March in response to my question, the Minister said that the Government’s policy had not changed and that if the constitutional treaty returned,

there would be a referendum”—[Official Report, 20 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 679.]

Yet on 20 April, the Prime Minister, when asked by Le Monde whether the modified treaty would be put to a referendum, said: “No. That is clear.” The Government’s position has changed, so who is correct—the Minister or the Prime Minister?

The Government have been quite consistent on this issue. We made it clear that, because of the constitutional nature of the constitutional treaty, it would require a referendum. Again, however, the hon. Gentleman should check with his own Front Benchers precisely what the Government’s policy should be. We have been asking them to set out their position, but unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks has changed his view quite dramatically. I suspect that he changed it 10 years ago—indeed, on 1 May 1997, when he went from being a Cabinet Minister into opposition.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there will be no EU constitution without a referendum in this country? The public out there are absolutely fed up with the creeping transfer of powers to Europe. We need a referendum: will my right hon. Friend give us that guarantee today?

I have already given the House an assurance that if the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, the Government would seek to hold a referendum.

Will my right hon. Friend resist the siren calls from both sides of the House for this constitutional referendum? May I say how pleased I am that there will not be one? If we are to join together in Europe to tackle the challenges of migration, terrorism, immigration, threats to public health and climate change, we need to work together incrementally to do so. I ask my right hon. Friend not to take any lessons from Conservative Members, whose sole promise to pull out their people from the European People’s party has been delayed while they find someone to sit with.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has pointed out the total inconsistency of the position adopted by the Opposition. That position varies according to whether they win or do not win elections. There is no principle involved, as far as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks is concerned; it is simply tactical opportunism.

The Minister may be aware that a large group of Labour and Conservative MPs, together with professors and academics, have formed the national campaign for a referendum, of which I am chairman. What words of encouragement will he give to that important body?

I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman: I must have missed the press release announcing the significant elevation that he has achieved. I take this opportunity of congratulating him on his appointment and I look forward to the long discussions that he will have with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks on referendums.

The Minister has said that if the constitution comes back, there will be a referendum. The leaked letter that Chancellor Merkel sent to the Prime Minister and other heads of European countries makes it quite clear that the only differences that are going to be proposed are purely presentational ones. Therefore, will we have a referendum if the Merkel proposals go forward?

The hon. Gentleman refers to it as a letter, as I think did the right hon. Member for Wells earlier. I have seen a series of questions that the German presidency has raised. Those questions are not necessarily answered in the document. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman logically recognises that, being no more than questions, they are not necessarily indicative of anyone position’s at present.