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EU: Constitutional Treaty

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their definition of a constitutional treaty for the European Union.

My Lords, a constitution is a founding document of an organisation. The constitutional treaty would have repealed the existing European Union treaties and refounded the EU under a new, single constitutional order. The Lisbon treaty amends the existing treaties, as did the single European Act, Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam.

My Lords, I am very grateful for and fascinated by the noble Baroness’s Answer, but will she be kind enough to enlighten me on why the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place pointed out to people such as me that there is no material difference between the constitutional treaty and the Lisbon treaty? The Foreign Secretary, no less, thought there should be a referendum to approve the first, but on the second he has apparently changed his mind. What caused him to change his mind?

My Lords, I am delighted to fascinate the noble Lord. I shall make clear what was said in another place, by quoting the chairman of the committee in another place, who said that what was in the report was different from what the noble Lord said—that what matters is whether the new treaty produces an effect which is substantially different from the constitutional treaty.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Lord President agree that the report that came from the House of Commons is empirical proof that democratic elections do not necessarily produce all the wisdom that is available in a Parliament? Furthermore, will she have great confidence in the report being produced by your Lordships’ European Union Select Committee, which I am sure all Members of the House, including the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, will find of great value when it is published?

My Lords, I very much look forward to the publication of the report and hesitate to pre-empt it, for I have no idea what will be in it. I am quite sure that the debates in your Lordships’ House thus far and to come will demonstrate the expertise and experience of your Lordships.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is a perfectly common-sense answer to the Question, which is that the only treaty that has ever, on the face of it, been called a constitutional treaty was defeated in the French and Dutch referendums? That is surely the answer.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the words of Aneurin Bevan: “Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?”? Would it not be better if the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, talked to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, or another of the many former Conservative Ministers who saw the treaty of Maastricht through the Commons and sat in their places in government? They could explain to him why Maastricht—a far more powerful transfer of power than the Lisbon treaty—was handled by Parliament. Would he not think that good advice?

My Lords, I trust all noble Lords will have the benefit, as indeed I have, of talking to former Ministers who had the privilege of steering through an important piece of legislation to put the Maastricht treaty on the statute book. I hope noble Lords will take advantage of that in the same way.

My Lords, did not the Foreign Secretary say in the other place the other day that a referendum was promised, not because of the constitutional nature of the constitutional treaty but because there was a need to clear the air? If there was a need to clear the air before the 2005 general election, why is there not a similar need now?

My Lords, we need to be very clear. The other place has now passed the treaty. The reform treaty comes to your Lordships’ House. We will have great opportunities to do some air-clearing ourselves, as we debate and deliberate, but I am very clear on what the role and function of Parliament should be. It is absolutely right and proper that this comes before both Houses of Parliament to be debated and ratified appropriately.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, cast great doubt on the wisdom of the Select Committee of the House of Commons which declared that the Lisbon treaty was virtually the same as the constitution. If he is so concerned and has so little confidence in the House of Commons, would it not perhaps be better to test the wisdom of the people by going for a referendum?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was addressing his question not to me but to my noble friend. I am sure that outside your Lordships’ Chamber my noble friend will be able to answer him.

My Lords, we will all be trading quotations frequently in the coming weeks as to whether the Lisbon treaty is the same as the constitutional treaty or different and therefore whether it should have, as promised in the Government’s manifesto, a referendum to decide whether the British people want it. Since the Times tells us this morning that 70 per cent of the population want a referendum, since another poll tells us that 89 per cent of those polled believe that the Lisbon treaty is the constitution, since it contains 240 out of 242 of the provisions which were in the constitutional treaty, and since every European leader bar the leaders in the other place in Britain say that it is identical to the constitutional treaty—including the father of the whole thing, Valéry Giscard D’Estaing—would it not be much better to save ourselves enormous trouble and have a referendum straightaway on it? If it is such a marvellous thing for the British people, surely the Government can trust the British people to come to the right answer on it.

My Lords, the noble Lord had a number of points. Of course the Government trust the British people, but the British people also trust the Government and Parliament to do their job.

No, my Lords, you cannot have it both ways. I will not have figures bandied around about referendums. I am sure that the noble Lord has studied the figures, as I did. If he looks at the 88.8 per cent from the referendums that took place in the 10 marginals, he will know that of those voting less than one-fifth of the electorate—19.8 per cent of people—were actually in favour of a referendum. That is a substantial difference from the 88.8 per cent being bandied around. Equally, I will be able to quote—indeed, I look forward to it—figures about referendums over the past 20, 30 and 40 years. When invited, the population indeed enjoy the opportunity to talk about the use of referendums, but we are absolutely crystal clear that this is a reform treaty and, as with other reform treaties, it is Parliament’s job to ratify it. That is what we are here to do.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council explain, as a result of the large majorities in the Commons, why the Eurosceptics and the anti-Europeans—mainly on these Benches, I suppose—are so nervous and apprehensive about these matters? Would she not agree that two of the principal benefits of the reform treaty are that it enhances the working-together of the national Governments in the European Council and the scrutiny functions of the national parliaments?

My Lords, if one examines the reform treaty—or what Giscard d’Estaing said about the nine points he specifically refers to as similar or the same in the constitution and the treaty—it is obvious that one of its great benefits is the opportunity for greater scrutiny by Parliament. Noble Lords should welcome that.