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EU: Public Understanding

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In the light of the result of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty, what steps they are taking to promote greater understanding of the political and social aspects of the European Union.

My Lords, the Government take their role in promoting greater understanding of the work of the European Union seriously and continue to develop and review their activities in this area. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office informs the public about the role of the European Union in various ways, including a website, publications and activities to raise awareness and debate of European Union issues, for example, in schools.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for that reply, but it does not quite address the question which I thought I had put. Is it not the case that in the three referenda that have taken place, if the question had been whether people wanted to stay in the European Union, they surely would have said yes, they would like to stay in the Union, but they have voted no on the detail? The devil seems to be in the detail. Why, in this country, has there been so much emphasis on the economic aspects of this great European experiment and hardly any attention paid to the political and social aspects? The public are getting restive and it is about time that Governments—our Government are not the only ones to blame—put their cards on the table. The public deserve to know exactly what the European Union is about.

My Lords, I made it clear in the Statement that the Irish Government will be bringing forward their views in October to the Council to deliberate the underlying issues in the Irish referendum. I hesitate, with good reason, to suggest that I understand better than they would what some of those issues might be, though I am sure we will speculate. It is important for this country that we make as clear as possible the benefits of being part of the European Union in all its aspects.

My Lords, are not the Government getting into a ridiculous position where they appear to be denying the British people a referendum, but wanting the Irish to have two referendums? If money and resources are to be spent on education, should that education not be directed at a European elite—rather than the European people who have to pay for it—who need to learn the lessons from the feelings which have been legitimately expressed in a proper democratic event?

My Lords, I do not believe that the Government have said anything about whether the Irish should have a second referendum. I have made it clear that the Irish Government will come forward with their own proposals and thoughts at the October Council. In the spirit of what noble Lords have said about not bullying the Irish in any way, we should wait for them to come forward with proposals. As we are part of the European Union, education is important so that people understand what that means and what benefits and opportunities it brings for them.

My Lords, can my noble friend consider the Question that has been asked about promoting greater understanding of the political and social aspects of the European Union? Can confirm that 19 states have already confirmed that they understand the political and social aspects of the European Union? Is it not the case that the Irish have to learn that and it is not our job to provide it?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct that 19 states have been through the parliamentary process and/or have ratified the treaty as it stands. We will await what happens in the other nations. I disagree with my noble friend in the tone in which he describes what should happen in Ireland. It is very important that the Irish have time to reflect on what happened in the referendum and come forward with proposals.

My Lords, all nation states have to consider very carefully. At the Council meeting it was important to reflect on the consequences of what has happened with the Irish referendum, but also, as I think I indicated in the Statement, to further consider all the work that needs to continue as we work together on some of the major issues that face us all.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that one of the great failures in almost all member states of the European Union over the past 10 years and more has been a failure of political leader to explain to their publics and to each other’s public the advantages and the costs of membership and what the major priorities of European co-operation should be? Can we ask Her Majesty’s Government to invest a real effort in promoting a public debate at all levels from schools to other capital cities on what we see as the priorities of the European Union?

My Lords, the public debate is very important. When I was an education Minister some of the work, which has been continued since then, was to make sure that young people in education establishments in particular had the opportunity to debate the pros and the cons of being part of the European Union. I do not disagree at all with the noble Lord in that context. Noble Lords might suggest that a referendum is a way of doing that, but we have been through this issue many times. As far as I am concerned it is very important to make sure that people understand what being part of the European Union can bring.

My Lords, since the Irish understood that there would be a president of the European Union, a European diplomatic service and a European foreign minister and that they might get sucked into a European security system, is it not insulting to suggest that they did not understand the treaty?

My Lords, I would not suggest anything of the kind, although the noble Lord described a European diplomatic service, which is not what the treaty says; it says an External Action Service.

My Lords, it was significant in the debates on the subject in your Lordships' House that we made the distinction clear between the concerns that noble Lords rightly had that that service would take over the diplomatic services of this country or any other, and what was actually proposed. It is important that people of all nations get the chance to understand precisely that.

My Lords, would it not be in the interests of democracy if, instead of trying to persuade the Irish to change their minds and giving them special conditions, the European Council recommended to all the countries of the European Union that they hold referendums?

My Lords, again, I have been here before; there is a sense of déjà vu. As we have already indicated, it is for each sovereign nation state to determine the appropriate process. That is what has been done, and that is how it should be.

My Lords, would the Government be prepared to take an initiative in the Council of Ministers to try to lead the other member states into creating a European Union that is slightly less complicated? Surely much of the difficulty that all of us face dealing with European matters is the Byzantine complexity that has arisen over the last 50 or so years.

My Lords, one body that seems to have reached a greater understanding of the European Union is the judicial panel advising the Government of Sweden. It has ruled that the Lisbon treaty is identical to the previous constitution. In explaining the European Union, would it not be better to begin by telling the truth?

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord is not accusing us of telling untruths. In our debates, he and I discussed many times whether we would bring in opinion from other countries. For every opinion that he can bring from one state, I can bring another.