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EU Reform Treaty

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2007

6. What Government policy is on a national referendum on the new treaty reforming the constitutional arrangements of the European Union; and if he will make a statement. (156129)

The mandate for the reform treaty agreed by all 27 Heads of Government makes it clear that the constitutional concept has been abandoned. The reform treaty reforms the EU institutions just as previous amending treaties have done. In line with these precedents, ratification should be a matter for Parliament.

Given that today’s European Scrutiny Committee report describes the new treaty as “substantially equivalent” to the EU constitution, does the Foreign Secretary not accept that the British people should have a right to vote on that in a referendum? Does he not remember that that was his pledge at the last election?

I am sorry, but I think that the hon. Gentleman must have listened to the “Today” programme rather than read the document from the important Committee. Let me read to him exactly what it says. It says that the reform treaty is “substantially equivalent” to the constitutional treaty

“for those countries which have not requested derogations or opt outs from the full range of agreements in the Treaty”.

Whatever the shadow Minister shouts out, that is in the section of the Committee’s report labelled, “Conclusion”—which, I think, is rather important in this respect. The framework referred to earlier does not supersede the conclusion of the report, and I suggest he reads it more carefully.

I, too, have been reading the European Scrutiny Committee’s report, from which I quote, for the benefit of the Foreign Secretary. It states that

“references to abandoning a ‘constitutional concept’”


“likely to be misleading in so far as they might suggest the Reform Treaty is of lesser significance than the Constitutional Treaty”,

so will the Foreign Secretary ensure that he and his junior Ministers abandon that bogus argument, which has fallen apart under detailed examination?

We know the hon. Gentleman’s position. He says that leaving the EU would be a positive step. I suggest that he reads the legal draft that came out on Friday, which was put in the Library and given to the Clerks of the Committees of the House. It makes absolutely clear the direction in which Europe is moving, which is to respect the red lines that the United Kingdom has asked for. I commend to him the words of the chairman of his own party’s democracy taskforce, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who said that if Parliament cannot decide this sort of thing, Parliament is worthless. Parliament should not be worthless.

The treaty makes it clear that if it goes through, Britain will increase the number of votes that it has in the Council. In other words, it will increase our power to make decisions in Europe. It also makes sure that the French, who for years have been trying to prevent the liberalisation of their energy policy, to the detriment of British consumers, will have to comply with European policy. Would it not make sense for us to ratify the treaty as fast as possible, in the interests of the British?

My hon. Friend makes important points. I, for one, look forward to the treaty coming before the House and being debated at great length, so that the myths that have been propagated can be properly debunked.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new treaty gives the European Union the opportunity to put behind us procedural arguments about the changes required for enlargement, and instead gives us the opportunity to concentrate on the really urgent challenges that we face, notably climate change?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. If she has read, as I have, the report of the Dutch council of state, which is the only independent legal body to have looked at the treaty, she will know that it considers that

“these changes are aimed, as far as possible, at purging the Constitutional Treaty of those elements which could have formed starting points for a development of the EU in a more explicitly centralised or federal direction”.

In other words, it does indeed lay the basis for us to ensure that the EU gets on with its proper business, which is about climate change, jobs, crime and immigration.

As a member of the Select Committee that produced the report, I condemn the remarks made by the Foreign Secretary. He is coming to see us on 16 October and he will not have quite such an easy ride in front of the Committee as he may try and get away with on the Floor of the House. The document is substantially equivalent to the treaty and requires a referendum. The Foreign Secretary said the other day that we are a parliamentary democracy and that we therefore make such decisions in Parliament. The Referendum Act 1975 was passed by Harold Wilson and a Labour Government. It specifically returned, as it should, the right of the British people, through their representatives, to make a decision by referendum to enable the people of this country on an impartial question to come to a decision about a matter of massive importance to their future—

The fairest thing to say for the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is that he has been consistent on the issue. When the Maastricht treaty came before the House, dozens of Back Benchers who are still in the House, and Front Benchers, voted against a referendum. He voted in favour of a referendum. I look forward to talking with him and his Committee next week. He cannot deny that the quotes that I have given from his report are accurate.

Although some of us on this side of the House will take no lessons about referendums from the Conservative party because of its failure to hold one on the single market and on Maastricht, we still feel that this is a manifesto commitment. If anything, a referendum gives significant authority to the Foreign Secretary when he goes to talk about the red lines in respect of ensuring that at least those red lines are kept and that we seek further improvements. Will he stick to his guns and go for a referendum?

I will certainly stick to my guns, but that involves saying that the decision should be taken in this House. My hon. Friend is right to say that we still have a couple of months before the treaty is finally signed in December. We shall work right up until that final agreement to ensure that the red lines are properly respected. The Prime Minister said that yesterday and I am determined to repeat it today. I look forward to taking on the discussion with my hon. Friend, because it will become clear that Europe and the Heads of Government have rejected a centralised or federalist future. We have the opportunity to make the European Union work for people and I think that that is what unites the two of us.

On the question of the treaty being substantially equivalent to the constitution, should not the Foreign Secretary have read on to paragraph 45 of the Committee report? It states:

“Even with the ‘opt-in’ provisions on police and judicial cooperation…and the Protocol on the Charter, we are not convinced that the same conclusion does not apply to the position of the UK”.

Given that the report says that his central argument on the treaty’s constitutional characteristics is not helpful and is even likely to be misleading, should he not now drop this specious line of argument? Is he not simply padding along in the footsteps of the Prime Minister at the weekend and trying to treat the people of this country like fools?

The Committee’s report was written and printed before the legal text was published on Friday. I am happy to go through the detailed arguments about justice and home affairs, and other issues raised by the Committee with it—I shall do so next week—because I think that if one examined the treaty, one would see that the red lines are being respected.

No one believes the Foreign Secretary any more when he argues that this is not the EU constitution. When the Prime Minister met the Irish Prime Minister on 17 July, even he referred to it as the European constitution. Do we not now have an extraordinary double of a Government who are too scared to hold a general election that they had planned and too scared to hold a referendum that they had solemnly promised the people of this country? Is it not time that the Foreign Secretary summoned up the courage that his predecessor but one showed to the previous Prime Minister and told the Prime Minister that he needed a democratic mandate for such a far-reaching treaty, rather than colluded in this cynical betrayal of the promises made to the country?

I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned predecessors, because he has recently recruited Lady Thatcher back to his campaign team. I suggest that he listens to what she said:

“Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.”

The right hon. Gentleman will never be a dictator; how does it feel to be a demagogue?

In my reply to the three constituents who have written to me about this matter, I made it clear that it is the historic role of this Parliament to scrutinise and consider in detail treaties with other nations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a profound abrogation of responsibility on the part of this House to set that detailed scrutiny aside in favour of a ludicrous tick-box referendum?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not wish to damn his or my political career by saying that we agree with the chairman of the Conservative democracy taskforce but it is the role of this Parliament to undertake that work. I point out to Conservative Members that every previous amending treaty, Labour or Tory, has been presented to and passed by Parliament. That is our job and we should get on with it.

At the centre of this debate is the status of the charter of fundamental rights. The timely and useful report from the European Scrutiny Committee raises a number of issues about it. In particular, it highlights the potential imbalance between the general obligation on the Court of Justice to ensure the uniform application of union law and the protocol secured by the Government, which seeks to ensure that the charter does not extend the ability of the court to find that UK law is inconsistent with the charter. On reflection, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the current text is robust enough? Will he ensure that we get a stronger set of words before the final treaty is developed?

The hon. Gentleman approached this issue in a serious way and he deserves a serious answer to his question. [Hon. Members: “A boring approach.”] Conservative Members describe a serious approach as being boring; that says a lot about the modern Tory party.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about article 1 of the protocol, and it is significant to consider it because the protocol is legally binding. It says:

“The Charter does not extend the ability of the Court of Justice, or any court or tribunal…to find that the laws, regulations or administrative provisions, practices or action…are inconsistent with the fundamental rights, freedoms and principles that it reaffirms.”

In other words, it is for these islands, and for this Parliament, to set their own laws in respect of the issues covered by the charter. We shall certainly see that through in our negotiations.

Recognising that any change to a European treaty is, in effect, a constitutional change, does my right hon. Friend agree that deciding how to deal with such a change is a matter of balance and, perhaps more importantly, workability? I urge him to stand firm and act against some of the hypocrisy we have heard this afternoon from colleagues who argued that there was no need for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, which retained far more power for the European Union than the current treaty. I urge my right hon. Friend to stand firm.

My hon. Friend will be amused to know that a number of the Opposition Members chuntering away during his question were actually there in 1992, voting against a referendum. One of the things we shall be able to do as the debate proceeds is to ask them how they could be against a referendum in 1992 and in favour of one in 2007. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as a former Minister for Europe, will ensure that his historical experience is brought to bear on this debate.