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EU: Governance

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What proposals they have for a new constitution or pattern of governance for the European Union.

My Lords, there is at present no consensus among EU partners on the way forward with regard to the constitutional treaty or any new treaty. These issues will be discussed at the European Council in June. It is too early to speculate on the outcome of those discussions. The Government’s approach to the discussions was set out in a Written Ministerial Statement on 5 December 2006.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Will he reject out of hand any proposal originating from the German presidency and dressed up as a questionnaire that existing treaties could be amended by using,

“different terminology without changing the legal substance”?

Will he give an undertaking that any future EU treaty will be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny well ahead of the final text being agreed?

My Lords, I think that the questionnaire is a questionnaire. It will be open to all the member states to answer it in the terms which they judge to be in the best interests of their people, and so will we. I do not think that there are German proposals yet, although I confirm, because it is implicit in the question, that the German presidency may be being overambitious in what it seeks to achieve. Changes which we consider to be of merit will no doubt be fully discussed, and I confirm that the treaty would still require an affirmative vote in a referendum were it to be introduced.

My Lords, assuming that a positive European Council takes place in June, as I am sure the Minister hopes, the next four periods of presidency are likely to show growing moves among member states, 18 of them having ratified the previous text, for a modern treaty text which will improve the functioning, efficiency and democracy at the margin of the 27-member European Union. Will the Government play a full part in that process, to ensure that we meet the wishes of other partners as well as looking after our own national interests?

My Lords, we must try to ensure that the European Union works efficiently and effectively now that it has 27 member states. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken about the advantages of an amending treaty process rather than the constitution, which looks, to put it candidly, moribund. The reality is that we must find good ways of working, but I insist, and I believe that the Government will continue to insist, that the outcome, whatever it is, must be seen to be decisively in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom as well.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for giving way.

Is the Minister fully aware of the huge importance of proper parliamentary scrutiny, not just of the result but also of the process? Is he aware that we have a very small window of opportunity between the European Council on 21 and 22 June and the parliamentary Recess which starts on 26 July? Does he agree that it is extremely important that we are kept fully informed of the process and, as it comes out from the discussions at intergovernmental level, the substance of the discussion? There is absolutely no point in our being able to debate the matter in Parliament after the IGC under the Portuguese presidency has met, when the stable door will have been closed. Will the Minister therefore agree that it is very important that, in the short interim before the Summer Recess, as much information as possible is given to us so that your Lordships’ Select Committee on the European Union can begin looking at it and analysing what has been agreed?

My Lords, I certainly agree with that. The whole House will be aware of the invaluable work of the committee. I obviously cannot speak for the management of the House’s business, but my intention would unquestionably be to see the thorough scrutiny we have just heard described so well.

My Lords, it was encouraging to hear the Minister describe the constitution as moribund. It is also important, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, reminded us, that we should have a full debate and not merely be told to discuss it when the matter is settled. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has said that the Government have made it clear that there should not be anything that has the characteristics of a constitution. Can the Minister give us a broad idea of what those characteristics are, so that we know what to watch out for?

My Lords, the Prime Minister made it clear in April that it is not simply a question of the name or the words “constitutional treaty”; it is setting out an approach and giving effect to fundamental changes in the balance of government between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and the constitutional relationship between any member state and the European Union. That would be a fundamental characteristic, and quite different from arrangements—which might be sensible—to make the current 27 members work more effectively.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister would accept a permanent president of the Council, a Foreign Minister and a legal personality, as well as getting rid of most of the remaining vetoes? If that is so, will it not make a fundamental alteration to the nature of the EU? Under those circumstances, should not the promise of a referendum be honoured?

My Lords, I do not want to add to the recent words of the Prime Minister. I have just described them and cannot embellish them in any way.

My Lords, would it not be preposterous if Members of this House took an attitude on every single issue arising from the Convention on the Future of Europe and the consequential treaty approved by all heads of state, even though two countries subsequently rejected it in referendums, and we did not then take pragmatic steps to pick from that agenda the things that could improve the working relationship between the institutions of the European Union? Should that not be approved without any need for a referendum, but with parliamentary approval?

My Lords, whenever amending treaties have been introduced to make the work of the European Union more effective and give substance to the member states’ wishes, it has never been thought necessary to have a referendum. It would be extraordinary if that were to be changed now. It would be a volte-face by the Conservative Party, which negotiated many of the treaties on which we now rely. Having said that, that is why I have tried to make the distinction, which the Prime Minister has made, between fundamental matters and making things work well within the current treaty disposition.