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EU Constitution

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2007

EU institutional reform will be discussed at the European Council later this month. We expect the presidency to issue a report on the way forward before, but quite possibly only just before, the Council meets. We have made clear to partners our belief that the EU should return to the model of an amending treaty that makes the EU more effective and better able to deliver benefits to EU citizens.

The Foreign Secretary will know that a group of countries within the EU—most notably the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and, to a certain extent, Poland—still have deep reservations about any revived form of the EU constitution.

Of course. Those countries look to Great Britain for strong leadership. I very much hope that the Foreign Secretary can give them some assurance from the Chamber today.

I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman and any of our allies who are looking for a lead that it remains very strongly our view that the only way forward that makes sense for the EU is indeed the pursuit of an amending treaty that does not have the characteristics of a constitution. It is not quite clear to me that all of the member states that he lists have exactly the same concerns as we do, but it is certainly true that they have concerns and that we, of course, have ours.

Will the Foreign Secretary help the House by letting us know whether it is the Government’s view that criminal justice should continue to be administered on an intergovernmental basis with national vetoes, and whether the Government will seek a referendum of the British people if there should be any change to that position?

We are some considerable distance from knowing what will be on the table with regard to the treaty and, therefore, whether acceptance of anything proposed would be likely to trigger a referendum in the UK. But I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that there is strong understanding on the part of the Government of the concerns that there would be about the area that he highlights in particular. That is certainly something at which we will look carefully to see where Britain’s national interest lies.

Do not the bellicose language coming out of Russia on the one hand and the failed foreign policies of the USA on the other underline the need for politicians across Europe to stop vacillating on the question of European reforms and to make sure we get the amending treaty agreed as soon as possible, so that we can act in a more unified way to meet the world challenges that we face?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It would be helpful if we got the right kind of amending treaty, but the EU is not paralysed. It is continuing to work; useful decisions on, for example, climate change continue to be made. But it would be good to get a good agreement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to persevere with certain parts of the original treaty, such as capping the numbers in the European Parliament and ending the rotating six-month presidency? This would contribute to a reduction in the bureaucracy of the EU, and by enhancing the decision-making powers of the Council, we could get on with discussing the real issues that Europe faces, such as climate change and security.

My hon. Friend is right that there are proposals that could improve the effective and efficient working of the EU. It is to such proposals that we are primarily directing our attention.

Will the Secretary of State indicate the extent to which there have been discussions between herself, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer—soon to be Prime Minister—and the Prime Minister himself on the basis upon which any treaty might be signed? I asked the Prime Minister about this issue the other day and got no answer. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will enlighten us.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that modest change is required to European treaties? We now have an EU of 27 states and we need changes to make it function effectively.

My hon. Friend is right; there are practical proposals of the kind to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) referred that could make the working of an EU of 27 more effective and efficient. Those are the kinds of changes that we hope our colleagues will wish to seek.

No doubt the constitution and EU matters were discussed this morning at the joint ministerial committee between UK Government Ministers, the new SNP Scottish Minister for Europe, Linda Fabiani, and other devolved Ministers. Could the Secretary of State update the House on the matters that were discussed and inform us of which issues proposed by the devolved Administrations she will take forward?

No, I cannot do that as it is not the practice to discuss the issues aired and the debates that take place at such meetings. However, the mechanism that exists for ensuring that everyone is aware of the different concerns of different players, including the devolved Administrations, has worked well in the past, and I trust that it will continue to do so in the future.

Is it not right that we should be at the forefront of the European Union reform agenda? I wish the Foreign Secretary well in the discussions that are to take place. Will she reject the scaremongering of Opposition Members who only seek to damage our position in Europe, and does she agree that it is right that in a Europe of 27 we should reform the institutions to make sure that they are better placed, in order that we can protect British interests?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The European Union is an important fact of today’s political life, and the United Kingdom is a major and important player within it. The more effectively the EU works together, the more that is in our national interest as well as our international interests.

I hope that the right hon. Lady accepts that there are no Conservative Members who are not greatly in favour of the EU reform agenda. Does she not think that it would have been helpful to her and the Prime Minister if we had had a proper set-aside debate to discuss fully the future of the EU and the position that they should take in Brussels?

I am not familiar with the term “set-aside debate”, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point that there is a need for discussion. However, there has been quite a lot of discussion, and there will be more in future. There are a number of Select Committee hearings and there will be a debate in this House before the Council meets. There is an issue that has not been fully appreciated in the House; that is not a criticism, as I understand why it is so. Colleagues have, perhaps, not fully appreciated that the debate on this matter has not moved on in recent weeks. We talk about frozen conflicts, but this has almost been a frozen debate; there has been very little change.

I very much hope that there will be an amending treaty. I urge the Foreign Secretary to look at an element of the way in which the EU currently works which is utter folly: the caravanserai every six weeks from Brussels to Strasbourg. That is a complete waste of time and money. Does she agree that it is the consequence of a political fix of many years ago which is now long outdated?

I have a good deal of sympathy with that point. However, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, this issue has been examined and reconsidered repeatedly under different Governments without a different decision having been reached.

I remind the Secretary of State that the previous draft treaty met considerable resistance in fishing communities because of its insistence that the conservation of marine biological resources should be a sole competence of the EU. Does she accept that that was an inappropriate extension of EU powers, and will she give us some undertaking to resist its inclusion if we are to have another EU draft?

To that I simply say, with some caution, that I am well aware that there are many issues about which various people have reservations and which they would like the opportunity to re-examine, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for stating that I hope that something of that level of detail will not be in the amending treaty.

Is it not part of the EU modus operandi that major changes in political power and democratic accountability are slid through piece by piece, with each piece portrayed as being of relative insignificance? Is there not a risk that the growing gap between what political leaders do and what electorates want will lead to a shrivelling of support for the whole political process and the European project?

To a certain extent, I take on board my hon. Friend’s point. However, I view with some irony the cheers of encouragement he receives from those on the Opposition Benches, since no Government in our history did more to slide through incrementally—bit by bit—changes in our relationship with the European Union than that represented by the Opposition party.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that there is huge dissatisfaction across this House at the Government’s persistent refusal to give their views and to express their goals for the forthcoming EU summit? The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote to her saying that

“the Committee regards the refusal of the FCO to provide a Minister to give oral evidence during this crucial phase of the discussions on the future of Europe as a failure of accountability to Parliament.”

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, on the vital question of the veto on criminal law, said

“It has not been easy for us to discover what the Government’s position is…We don’t know what it is.”

Is that because Ministers do not want Parliament to know what their position is, or because they are in a state of paralysis and do not themselves know what their position is?

I of course understand the concern and dissatisfaction of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. It is unfortunate that it was not possible for us to reach the kind of agreement that it wished to see according to the timing that it had in mind. However, the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), has just confirmed to me that he was able to go, and would have been prepared to go, before the Committee this week, last week or the week before. In May, when the Select Committee had hoped to take evidence from both of us, it was again not possible to find a mutually agreed date, so there is no unwillingness. As it happens, my right hon. Friend will be giving evidence, and I will be giving evidence to the Scrutiny Committee and to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and there will be a debate in this House, so we are very willing to make our views known. However, I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said a moment or two ago: there are perfectly understandable anxieties that the Government’s position has in some way changed without the House being informed, but the fact is that it has not changed.

If the Government’s position has not changed, the Foreign Secretary will recall that they were elected on a manifesto that promised a referendum on the EU constitution. Does she also recall that the Prime Minister said, when he finally agreed to hold a referendum,

“what you can’t do is have a situation where you get a rejection of the treaty and then you just bring it back with a few amendments and say we will have another go”?

So should the Foreign Secretary not honour the Government’s pledge by guaranteeing now that if the new treaty transfers competencies from Britain to the EU by incorporating parts of the rejected EU constitution, the British people will have their say in the referendum that they were promised?

First, there is no suggestion of bringing back the constitutional treaty in its previous form. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman talks about transferring competencies, but I am sure that he will recall that there is much in the constitutional treaty, which was drawn together from a whole range of sources, that is already in the existing treaties. The notion that there will be some huge transfer of competencies is not well founded. We will assess the position once the negotiations have taken place, but is certainly not the intention of this Government that a treaty that has the characteristics of a constitution is one that we would wish to see agreed.