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EU Constitutional Treaty

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2007

I am delighted to be under your authority once more, Mr. Hancock, in this important debate on the case for a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. It could not be more topical. Today, The Times quotes Mr. Barroso, President of the European Commission, as saying:

“We are not the United States of Europe—we are unique in the history of mankind! Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empires. We have the dimension of empire, but there is a difference. Empires were made with force with a centre imposing diktat. Now what we have is the first non-imperial empire. We have 27 countries that fully decided to work together and to pool their sovereignty. I believe it is a great construction and we should be proud of it.”

The article’s next paragraph, even more tellingly, says:

“Nervous aides to the former Portuguese Prime Minister inquired after his press conference whether this description might feature in British media reports.”

They need not have asked. Clearly, it was going to feature in many British reports about exactly what that European politician had to say.

It is important to listen to what European politicians say, because it appears—I hope to expand on this later—that while the Government are saying one thing to the British people, politicians throughout Europe are proud of what they are creating in the European Union. They are not ashamed of parading it and advertising it as something that their people want. From what I can make out after talking to people from other EU countries, they do want to advance it. The big question—it is why I secured this debate—is whether that is what the British people want. That might not be the case. I do not know. I shall not pre-judge what the British people would say in a referendum; I only ask that they get that referendum in the first place.

This debate follows a week in which our new Prime Minister vowed to give

“more power to Parliament and the British people”.

However, the Labour party is going back on its manifesto promise, asserting that the treaty is not a matter on which the people need to decide. Ruling out the referendum in that manner shames the Government at the same time that it removes power from the British people, contrary to what the new Prime Minister said.

If the treaty is so good—we have been told on many occasions that it is a good treaty, and that it is what people want—then let us have a referendum to establish it. We were told that we would have one before the treaty referendums in France and the Netherlands, and we know what happened there. For France to say no is quite spectacular, and it should be listened to. The Dutch said no as well.

Dropping the word “constitutional” from the title does not mean that the promise of a public referendum on the subject can be broken. In two elections for the European Parliament and a general election, the promise of a referendum has been in the manifesto. It is disingenuous to play with words as the Government have done and to think that what is happening now is just an unimportant tidying-up exercise. Who would think that Tony Blair, in his dying days as Prime Minister, could renege so easily on that promise? It does not astound me that politicians in this country are held in such low esteem when a Prime Minister and a Government can promise a referendum, hold that promise through two elections and throw it away in their dying days. That is shocking.

The new Prime Minister even said that there was no need for a referendum, because there was no referendum on the Maastricht treaty. However, the new Foreign Secretary admitted that that treaty involved a smaller transfer of power and that the constitutional treaty would give away much more. More important than that, there had never been a promise of a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, so no promise was broken. However, there was a promise that the British people would have a vote on this constitutional treaty, and it is being broken.

We hear talk of red lines—and, of course, we should protect our human and social rights, foreign policy and tax benefits. However, that has always been the Government’s position. Everybody else is concerned about the rest of the treaty, the part that the Government seem determined to brush under the carpet. That smacks of back-door politics. The majority of other European leaders have been candid in their appraisal of the new treaty. I have managed to snatch a copy of Le Monde from the Breakfast Room; I shall put it back immediately after this debate. An article in it mentions Jo Leinen, a German Socialist who welcomed the outcome of the intergovernmental conference, which, according to him,

“préserve en grande partie la substance du traité constitutionnel”.

Broken as my French is, even I understand what that means: the bulk of the constitution has been retained. Angela Merkel said on 25 June:

“The fundamentals of the Constitution have been maintained in a large part”.

Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, said that the treaty would

“preserve the substance of the constitutional treaty”.

Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero said:

“A great part of the content of the European Constitution is captured in new treaties”.

Bertie Ahern said in the Irish Independent of 24 June:

“I think it likely that a referendum will be held…thankfully, they haven’t changed the substance—90 per cent. of it is still there.”

Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen said:

“That which really matters—the core—is left”.

Finland’s Europe Minister said:

“There is nothing from the original institutional package that has been changed.”

EU Commissioner Margot Wallström said:

“It is essentially the same proposal as the old.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in the Council of Europe when Hans-Gert Pöttering, the President of the European Parliament, said that the substance of the treaty remains. I think you were there, Mr. Hancock, when he said that in the chamber. Mr. Pöttering was somewhat disappointed at the fact that the symbols and hymn were not to be retained as part of the constitution. However, MEPs speaking in Strasbourg yesterday accepted that they will change the procedures of the European Parliament to ensure that there will be a place for the flags and the hymn. Irrespective of whether they are in the treaty, the flag and hymns will play an important part.

How is it that the leaders of Germany, Spain, Ireland, Denmark and Finland, as well as an EU Commissioner and the President of the EU Commission, can see that nothing has changed? It is a case of “cannot” or “will not” from our Government. What is important is that while our politicians here tell the British people that there are fundamental differences between what is being put before us now and the constitution, all those other politicians tell their people throughout the whole of Europe that nothing much has changed and the constitution’s substance has been retained. Either the Government here are not telling the truth to the British people, or all those European politicians are not telling the truth to their people. What is certain is that both sides cannot be right.

I have received from the Minister two parliamentary answers to questions about how many letters he has received on this issue and the main differences between the two treaties; frankly, neither answer says much, and I suspect that there will be a lot of that in the next couple of weeks.

We know that under the new constitutional treaty, there will be an EU President, that an EU diplomatic service will be rebranded as the “External Action Service” and that the EU Foreign Minister will instead be named the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. According to Bertie Ahern, that is the original job proposed but with a long title. We will still be signing up to cut our power to block EU legislation by 30 per cent. There will be a European public prosecutor, and safeguards on enhanced co-operation will be removed. There are new powers of veto for the European Parliament in 50 new areas. There will be new, increased EU powers over social policy, economic co-ordination, employment policy, trade policy, public health and public services; increased power for Europol; new powers for the European Court of Justice over asylum and immigration; the end of the veto on legal migration; and a new mutual defence commitment.

Given the time available, I have mentioned only a selection of the changes, but make no mistake, the British public will be hugely affected. They should be consulted. It looks as if the Government believe that if they ignore the issue long enough, it will go away. On 23 November 1990, Margaret Thatcher said of Labour Members:

“For them, it is all compromise, ‘sweep it under the carpet’, ‘leave it for another day’, and ‘it might sort itself out’, in the hope that the people of Britain will not notice what is happening to them, and how the powers would gradually slip away.”—[Official Report, 22 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 451.]

How right she was then, and how disappointing it is that now, 17 years later, the Government have not learned from their past mistakes.

The Conservatives have long campaigned for a referendum; we believe that the British people want one. As I said, European leaders have admitted that the new treaty is essentially the same document as before. I believe that we now have a Prime Minister who can show himself to be different from his predecessor. We know that he has been trying to do that at every stage. I have seen more of the right hon. Gentleman in the House of Commons Chamber since he became Prime Minister than I saw our former Prime Minister in the past 10 years.

We know that the new Prime Minister is trying to show that he is a House of Commons man. He has already said that he wishes to give a greater say to the British people. He has promised to listen, and he now has the opportunity to state that he has done so and will give the referendum that his predecessor always promised to the British people. If the new Prime Minister wants to ensure that his Government have any credibility and if he is serious about restoring faith in British politics, he could do both by simply changing the policy of the outgoing Prime Minister and bringing in the old policy—that the British people will have a vote.

As I said, I am not here to prejudge the outcome of a referendum on behalf of the British people. The Government believe that the constitutional treaty will be good for the United Kingdom and I suspect that all the other European Union leaders feel exactly the same. The Irish will get a vote because that is part of their constitution; I believe that the Danish will have a vote as well. All I am asking the Government is that they should stick to the referendum that they promised, and that will be the thrust of everything about this debate until, I hope, the Government change their mind. Let the people decide, and when they have made their decision, let us listen to them.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Hancock. I was not aware of your deep personal interest in and experience of the matters being debated, to which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) alluded. I am also delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), in his informal Front-Bench post for this debate. I should also like to put on the record my welcome for my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner). This debate, in this interesting period, is his first outing in his new role. He has a deep personal interest in the issues and will serve the Foreign and Commonwealth Office well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley on securing this debate. I know from experience how assiduous he is on this and many other matters. Debates are often more heated as a consequence of his involvement; on occasion, of course, they are more enlightened. I hope, perhaps, to differentiate between those two characteristics in my response.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me another opportunity to state absolutely that the constitutional treaty, as was, is no longer on the table. The draft intergovernmental conference mandate agreed at the June European Council specifically states:

“The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing Treaties and replacing them by a single text called ‘Constitution’, is abandoned.”

Before the European Council, the UK made it absolutely clear that what was needed was a conventional amending treaty, like the Nice, Amsterdam and Maastricht treaties and the Single European Act, none of which required a referendum in this country. The reform treaty will amend the existing treaties, allowing important institutional reforms and improving the functioning of the European Union.

We also set out four central demands in those deliberations. First, on the charter of fundamental rights, we secured a legally binding protocol that was specific to the UK and applicable to the British courts and to the European Court of Justice. The protocol confirms that a binding charter will have no new impact on UK domestic law and will create no new powers for the EU to legislate. In particular, the charter will not extend the ECJ’s or national courts’ power to challenge or reinterpret UK employment and social legislation, nor will it change the rights that we already apply in the UK through the Human Rights Act 1998.

With regard to criminal law and police and judicial processes, we obtained an extension of our existing opt-in rights on migration, asylum and immigration issues. We can therefore opt in to individual measures, where it is in our interests, or stay out, if we want to.

I thank the Minister for his kind words earlier. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing this important debate. The charter of fundamental rights has seven titles, or chapters. Can the Minister confirm that the IGC mandate exempts us from title IV of the charter of fundamental rights but not from the other titles?

The draft agreement exempts us from all chapters—that is my understanding of the position that we reached. We are exempt not only from chapter IV but from the others, too. The European Scrutiny Committee has rightly taken a keen interest in that, and of course that conversation will continue. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

As I was saying, in respect of criminal law and police and judicial processes, we obtained an extension of our existing opt-in rights. Further to that, we secured a provision that allows us to insist on unanimity if we have concerns that a proposal will affect important aspects of our social security system. Finally, the common foreign and security policy will continue to be treated separately from issues covered under the first pillar Community method. Unanimity voting will remain the rule. We also obtained a declaration stating that the treaty

“will not affect the existing legal basis, responsibilities, and powers of each Member State in relation to the formulation and conduct of its foreign policy…and participation in international organisations, including a Member State’s membership of the Security Council of the UN.”

The posts of Commissioner for External Relations and High Representative will be amalgamated in a single job—the Union representative for foreign affairs, not a Foreign Minister. The Union representative will operate within a policy framework set by EU Foreign Ministers by unanimity. So, our red lines were secured and that is another reason why the reform treaty is not the constitutional treaty by another name, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley suggested.

The treaty introduces other measures that the Government support. I want to set the record straight on some of those changes, which do not represent a threat to the UK or a fundamental transfer of sovereignty. The new treaty confirms for the first time, explicitly, that national security is the sole responsibility of member states. There are new powers for national Parliaments to object to Commission proposals on subsidiarity grounds. The reform treaty will formalise the EU’s legal personality, but a declaration will confirm that that does not authorise the Union in any way to legislate or act beyond the powers conferred on it by member states in the treaties.

The treaty does provide for some extension of qualified majority voting, as the hon. Gentleman said. In the most sensitive areas—justice, home affairs and social security—the UK has the right either not to participate or to insist on unanimity. A number of other qualified majority voting measures, such as those about rules within the eurozone, do not apply to us.

Will the Minister confirm that the new constitutional treaty contains a measure for a self-amending treaty and that

“The treaty will include mechanisms that will enable the treaty to be changed without the need for fresh treaties and IGCs”?

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is referring to the ratchet clause and the passerelle. I understand that any move of that nature will always have to happen by unanimity, so the UK would have an effective veto in any case. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The treaty provides for some extension of qualified majority voting. On the most sensitive areas—justice, home affairs and social security—the UK has the right to participate or to insist on unanimity. It is worth remembering that qualified majority voting is often in Britain’s interest. The biggest move to qualified majority voting came with the Single European Act, which allowed the creation of the single European market. More recently, we have secured liberalising reforms, such as the services directive, through qualified majority voting, and they would almost certainly have been blocked had we relied on unanimity.

A fixed term, two-and-a-half-year presidency of the European Council, accountable to the leaders of the member states, will replace the current rotating six-monthly arrangements, boosting the EU’s efficiency. This new treaty will allow the EU to move on to focus on the issues that really matter: energy security, climate change, tackling terrorism and organised crime, and making Europe more effective internationally in an era of globalisation.

One of the things that struck me before I came to this job less than two weeks ago was the extent to which a debate about Europe was an endless conversation, important though such conversations are, about structures and powers. It is entirely right that the structures and powers should be in balance and appropriate. Before I took up this post, however, the debate about Europe was, for me, about delivery. It was not about the issues for which we, who are all elected, have a passion from our different perspectives. I hope that once the reform treaty is resolved we will move away from a conversation that seems to rely on a sense that the major problem in the EU is a democratic deficit and towards a better assessment of how we will move away from the bigger problem, which is the delivery deficit. The fact is that on occasions in the past under both parties that have been in government, visionary words and bold statements were too often not transformed into action on the ground that helped to improve people’s lives.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not ashamed of saying that I am positive about Europe. I am not ashamed of saying that we should co-operate across national boundaries when it makes good sense to do so, adds value to the UK national interest and can improve the lives of our citizens. There is an enormous list of examples of where that is the right and proper thing to do.

On climate change, we achieve much more by working together with our EU allies—the Germans, the French and others. We can also achieve much more through a united effort on relations with Africa, justice, trade and economic liberalisation. We can achieve an awful lot more on reform that is good for our economy. It is in the interests of the United Kingdom’s economy, prosperity, employment and social justice for there to be a more liberal, flexible and economical model that delivers the type of economic improvement that there has been in the UK in recent years, with a record number of people in employment. I think that I recall rightly that more than 90 million people across the EU are economically inactive. To me, that must be one of the great challenges.

We do not surrender our individual policies or seek a uniform approach to overcoming problems in our sovereign states, but we can learn from one another and co-operate when that is the right thing to do.

Will the Minister confirm that we will still have a referendum on the single currency if the Government decide that we should enter it? Secondly, I do not dispute what the Minister has just said. As a member of the Council of Europe we co-operate with and talk to 47 countries, not just 27. I feel a lot for the 20 countries that are outside the European Union and seem to be ignored and unable to obtain access to some of the things that the Minister has just spoken about. They have the same aspirations for themselves and their peoples and want them to share in wealth and learn from good practice. The only good practice that they will not learn from this Government is that when a Government promise a referendum, they should not renege on that promise.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who I understand chairs the democracy taskforce in the Conservative party, said:

“I think the idea we have a referendum…is frankly absurd…some of the Eurosceptics will have demanded a referendum just about the date on the top of the piece of paper, but they are flogging away, I think, at a dead horse.”

Today the dead horse has been dragged out of the stable and flogged again. I suspect that its carcase will be taken from the stable regularly in the next few months. The fact is that the treaty is a traditional amending treaty, and we have not held referendums on such treaties.

I hope that I can overcome at least some of the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. The European public prosecutor will have to be agreed to by unanimity, and the UK does not see a need for such a body, so I hope that that matter will perhaps not find its way into the hon. Gentleman’s future speeches.

On the observations of other member states and prominent politicians across the EU that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, what they have signed up to, as they are entirely entitled to do, is not the same approach as that of the United Kingdom’s, which has a series of opt-ins, protocols and specific arrangements that the UK secured as part of its negotiation on the reform treaty.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on securing the debate, which I am sure will be continued, and on securing a copy of Le Monde. I see from reading through Hansard that this is at least the second time that he has done so—in the previous debate he secured a copy from the House of Commons Tea Room. I hope that he returned it and will do so again today. I look forward to continuing this conversation in the weeks and months ahead.

Thank you all for your participation in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Five o’clock.