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European Union Bill

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 3 May 2011

Committee (3rd Day)

My Lords, we are about to enter the Committee stage of the Bill. I know that the House will wish to help the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. Will those leaving please do so quietly?

Clause 4 : Cases where treaty or Article 48(6) decision attracts a referendum

Amendment 20A

Moved by

20A: Clause 4, page 3, line 40, at end insert—

“( ) the accession of a new member State”

I thank the noble Baroness. It may be convenient for the House if I speak also to Amendment 23A.

It is extraordinary that the Bill should explicitly exclude a referendum on new accessions to the European Union. So far, many contributions to the debate have been concerned with minor changes, and that of course is correct. However, the issue of new countries joining the EU is surely a major matter of constitutional importance, as well as having policy implications.

The amendments would require a referendum to be held before the accession of any new country or group of new countries. Noble Lords will recall that in 1973 the United Kingdom joined a European Economic Community—it was then described as a common market—of six member countries. The electorate was told at that time that there would be no essential loss of sovereignty. At the subsequent referendum on whether the country would remain in the community it was told the same thing. The then Government of Harold Wilson assured the people that the veto protected Britain’s sovereignty, and that economic and monetary union had been specifically ruled out. We now know, of course, that it was not specifically ruled out, because it has since been ruled in.

The electorate certainly were not warned at that time that the EEC would grow into the European Union, with a threefold increase in membership, but there it is—the original six countries increased to nine and then to 12, and by increments the membership has now reached 27 members. The British electorate have had no say in these increases, and there has been only cursory examination, if I may say so, by Parliament. Yet the implications for Britain—financial, economic, social and political—have been profound. Many of the newly admitted countries have been poor and often backward, causing transfers of finance to be made between richer and poorer countries, to which the United Kingdom has had to make a very large contribution which the taxpayer has to meet. This year, that contribution will amount to £9.3 billion, and it will go on increasing over future years.

Then, of course, Britain’s influence in the EU is diluted as the number of member states and the total population grows due to the system of qualified majority voting, as well as social stresses and additional social costs arising from increased immigration. Noble Lords will also recall that during the most recent accessions, the Government gave assurances that immigration would be limited to about 12,000, but in the event it turned out to be hundreds of thousands.

Furthermore, experience has shown that as the EU has grown larger, additional significant new powers are demanded for the institutions of the Union on the basis that these are needed to cope with the additional size and complexity of the enlarged Union. Indeed, every new treaty has extended the power and influence of the European Union, especially the Single European Act, the TEU—the Maastricht treaty—Nice and Amsterdam, culminating, of course, in the Lisbon treaty which, according to Monsieur Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, incorporated everything, except for a few minor items, that was in the European constitution, which he masterminded.

So the issue of new accessions is of vital importance, and it is ongoing. There are at present four candidate countries—Croatia, the former republic of Macedonia, Turkey and Iceland. There are also five potential candidate countries—Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. They are all poorer countries; one of them is near-bankrupt and in danger of defaulting on its debts. Their combined population is nearly 100 million. Ninety per cent of Turkey, by far the largest of the applicants by population, is geographically in Asia, so the European Union would in my view—and in anyone else’s view, I imagine—be transformed by Turkey’s admission into a Eurasian union.

Furthermore, Turkey’s population at present is 77 million, far more than that of any other country in the present European Union. By the time Turkey is admitted, that figure will have increased to at least 85 million, on the basis of 1.5 per cent annual growth. The country is, by religion, 97 per cent Islamic. This is bound to have some effect on the ethos of the Union itself. It is also likely to be a drain on its resources. Turkey is already in receipt of €900 million a year.

We also have to consider the implications for social cohesion. The people of Turkey, as well all those from other applicant countries, will have the right to come to the United Kingdom to work and live, yet the British people who will have to deal with the consequences of a large influx of people will have no say as to whether Turkey or any other of the candidate countries should be admitted. In total, and at existing population levels, the potential increase in the EU’s population would be 20 per cent—from 500 million to 600 million. The total number of member states would rise to 36.

However, it is unlikely that the drivers of the EU will want to limit the number of countries to 36. Already, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are being groomed for possible membership. Their total population would add 55 million to that of the EU. The French clearly have ambitions for the incorporation, in some way or another, of at least some of the countries of north Africa into the Union. The long-term outlook for the EU is to grow and grow, mopping up formerly independent nations and moulding them into a polyglot centrally controlled empire. I do not believe that that is the sort of future that the British people wish for. Their long history of building a free and democratic society, with lasting institutions to ensure stability, continuity and prosperity, is too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of vastness. The British people should at least be given the opportunity to have a say in how big the Union should be, who should join it and, indeed, whether they should be part of it at all. I beg to move.

My Lords, I want Turkey and other states to accede but, like many others, I worry about whether a referendum would yield a yes vote. However, I must not emulate certain others and come down against referendums in this area for fear of the result. That indeed would be sinful. I want convincing arguments as to why referendums on accession treaties should be excluded, and I am worried about the strength of the arguments advanced so far. In particular, what about immigration? Do we not, when we agree to an accession treaty, cede more power to control immigration into this country? That is what worries me. I would just like an answer from my noble friend on that point.

My Lords, my name is to the amendment. I support it and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, on how he introduced it. In doing so, I put on record some of the background to new countries joining the EU, which will apply to any new country joining in the future.

One of the arguments put forward by those who support the project of undemocratic European integration is that all those eastern European countries voted for it and signed for it, Turkey and Croatia want to join, and so there cannot be anything wrong with it, can there? This argument avoids two essential ingredients in the story of what actually happened in those countries before they joined. The first was that the yes campaigns—the campaigns in favour of the country in question joining the EU—were massively better funded than the no campaigns. For instance, in Estonia, where I went once or twice in an attempt to help the no campaign, it was estimated that the yes campaign spent 60 times as much as the no campaign could afford and Brussels felt free to dispense taxpayers’ largesse on a large scale to the applicant nations’ yes campaigns. In Estonia, I regret to report that our Foreign Office funded a yes campaign battle bus, which distributed chocolate and whisky to happy Estonians. I saw that—it did happen, but I did not get any chocolate or whisky.

The second ingredient was less easy to spot and has received virtually no comment, which is that many of the political class in the applicant nations were keen for their countries to join the EU because they wanted jobs in Brussels, or at home, on the Brussels pay scale. The Polish ambassador in London at the time told me twice that 1,400 Poles got jobs in Brussels or Poland at a minimum of 10 times their previous salaries. Most of us would do quite a lot for 10 times our present income and so one cannot blame the politicians and bureaucrats in question in those countries for seeing EU membership as a very rosy project indeed. Whether it turns out to be so in the long term for the people whom they deceived remains to be seen. That is another of the powerful hidden factors at work with all those former communist countries and their desire to join the EU, and they will apply to any newcomers.

How does it look from our end? My noble friend Lord Stoddart has mentioned the 12,000 or 13,000 people who were estimated to come into this country after the applicant nations joined. I think that the final figure was more like 1 million. I hope that the Minister will give us an estimate of the number of people who came here. The Poles are wonderful people and I admire them tremendously. They are one of the greatest people on earth but I am not sure how the general influx from the new European countries affected our UK labour force. We had Mr Brown’s mendacious promise of British jobs for British workers, which never looked like being a starter while we remained in the EU and were unable to control our borders. More widely, we now know that our borders were deliberately taken down by the Blair Government. We are told by a civil servant who was involved at the time that they did so,

“to rub the noses of the right in diversity”.

What they may have done, in fact, is to condemn a great many of our working people to unemployment. I cannot believe that the present Government want to follow that route, so I would have thought that they would support this amendment.

Finally, we come to Turkey, to which my noble friend Lord Stoddart referred. I cannot see how the Government can say that they want to limit immigration to tens of thousands per annum and in the same breath say that they want Turkey to join the EU. I have to put another specific question to the Minister: if Turkey is admitted, will there be some long-term ban on Turkish immigration to this country? Will the right to free movement of persons be withheld from Turkey for a long period? Is that in the Government’s thinking when they say that they want Turkey to be in the EU, or are the Government saying simply that, “The project of European integration is wonderful; the more the merrier; and let’s have Turkey in”? One then has to ask, if there is to be such a hold on Turkish immigration, whether the Turkish people themselves will want to join the EU if they cannot come here—particularly here, given our generous welfare system. I look forward to the noble Lord’s answers. I support the amendment.

My Lords, fascinating though the discussion about chocolate and whisky has been, I should like to return to the substance of the amendment and begin by mentioning the concerns over the figures relating to QMV. We perhaps overegg matters relating to the percentage change to the UK’s influence over further accessions. The UK currently has 12.33 per cent of the EU population. If Turkey, Croatia, Iceland and the western Balkans all joined the EU, the UK’s population would represent 10.33 per cent. Would a shift from 12.3 per cent to 10.3 per cent really warrant a referendum? Accession does not mean that we are losing our veto.

This provision is not needed in the Bill, because accession treaties do not transfer power or competence from the UK to Brussels; rather, that is relevant for the country that is joining. When a country wants to join, an Act of Parliament is required, as is required for all treaty changes. As an aside, I should say that accession of a country does not lead to the loss of the British veto in any area. We covered that at length earlier in Committee.

If the issue of a country joining were to be extremely sensitive, then of course a referendum could be called as part of the Act being passed by this Parliament. The referendum is there as a back-up on a particular issue, should our Parliament call upon it, but such a provision is not needed in the Bill.

My Lords, I remember the day some years ago when the A8 countries joined the EU. A celebration at Dublin Castle that I saw on television was a momentous occasion. Eight countries that had been under communism had opted for membership of the EU, a body that embraced democratic values. It demonstrated that those countries were turning their backs on their communist past and moving forward to join a Europe that was democratic and free. I was emotionally moved by watching that. I do not welcome much in the Bill, but I welcome the fact that the Government have sought not to require a referendum on the accession of new countries. That was a proper decision.

We have heard comments about some of the countries that would like to join. We have heard words such as, “the EU mopping up”, as if seeking to join was not the choice of those countries, but the EU demanding more members. We have heard expressions such as “polyglot” and “Eurasian”. They do not take the argument one jot further. The issue is surely whether it is appropriate to have a referendum, or whether decisions about accession should rightly be made by the British Parliament. I of course believe that they should be made by the British Parliament, which is a better place to make decisions, rather than by holding a referendum.

It is a lot easier when knocking on doors to say “Vote Labour for your local council” than it is to argue for the alternative vote, which I happen to favour. However, if one were to knock on doors and say to people, “Good afternoon; what do you think about Macedonia joining the European Union”, they would say, “Come off it, mate. What are you on about?” I cannot see the process happening or making any sense.

Turkey has been the subject of much discussion, and I hope that one day it will qualify to join the EU by meeting the standards of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, relative freedom from corruption, and so on. All of these will be positive assets and, in contrast to what has been said about Turkey being a mainly Muslim, albeit secular Muslim, country, its membership of the EU will be a positive source of strength to Europe, rather than a source of weakness. However, that is not the subject of this debate.

Decisions about future accession should be made by Parliament. They are not appropriate for referendums, and I hope that the Bill will continue to reflect that.

I speak briefly against the amendment, pointing out two or three things. First, it is often overlooked that the founding treaty stated that any European country that fulfilled the criteria has the right to request membership. The supporters of the amendment appear to be moving it in order to be able to campaign against the accession of a European country which has been judged by all the members to be fulfilling the criteria. This will probably not worry them unduly as they want this country to leave the European Union, but they are going against a fundamental precept in the treaty.

The second point is that everyone is meant to be concerned about public expenditure nowadays, but if the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is correct—I think he is roughly correct—that there are about eight candidates, he has just happily thrown away about £640 million, which is what it would cost to organise the eight referendums in this country, judging by the cost of the AV referendum. That seems a trifle feckless, if I may say so.

The third point, which is also relevant, is that if we were to have a referendum requirement for an accession, we would be saying that a British Government who had gone to whatever capital it was to sign the accession treaty which admitted country A would run the risk of being denied and having to go back to explain that country A could not become a member of the European Union because the referendum had come out negatively. That is an order of magnitude in damage to Britain's foreign policy rather greater than anything we have been discussing so far. Surely no one believes that our relationship with country A would ever be the same again after we had prevented it joining, following ourselves signing an accession treaty admitting them—that is the treaty in which all British interests, such as immigration, cost and so on would be taken into account, if the British Government of the day were worth their salt. That would be a really serious matter. I hope that the Government will not entertain the amendment.

My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and encourage him. There are respectable precedents for referendums on accession of members in the EU. Indeed, in 2005, Mr Chirac promised the French electorate a referendum on accession of any new member into the European Union. I believe that that has been negatived by the French Senate but, knowing French politics, it could easily come back. That does not square with what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said: that the amendment is against the words of the founding treaty. If the French can offer their people a referendum, surely we could do the same. I understand that Bulgaria has, under a citizens' initiative, now raised sufficient signatures to propose a referendum to their Government on the membership of Turkey, in particular, which may affect Bulgaria more than some other countries.

I hope that this modest amendment will be acceptable to the Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said that no powers are given away by further members acceding to the EU. That is not quite accurate. The more individual members there are, the more powers we are giving away on immigration, for example, because we no longer control our borders, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said, in his opening remarks. There are also financial implications, depending on the financial situation of the countries involved. We are definitely in danger of giving away powers by allowing new members in, without the British people having any say whatsoever on whether they want to give those powers away or not.

My Lords, in some of the things that have been said so far on this amendment—an amendment to which I am opposed—there has been an implication that every application for accession has been from a poor country coming along with its begging bowl. Since we became a member, Sweden, Austria and Finland have all joined the Community; it has not been a magnet attracting just poor countries. We have had the incredible spectacle of almost every country in Europe wanting to join the European Union not on the basis of what they can put into it or get out of it—one thinks of the famous Thatcher question, “Can we get our money back?”—but because they see it as an important political structure and believe that they will be weakened if they are not part of it.

The other small point that I want to make is that there has been some rather derogatory insinuation about countries such as Turkey. I seem to recall that just over 50 years ago Turkey was one of the founder members of the Council of Europe, and it has played an active role as a member of the Council of Europe throughout our time as a member. So successful has its engagement with the Council of Europe been that at present the Committee of Ministers is chaired by Turkey—a position that we will be taking over later in the year. Turkey currently holds the presidency of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and has been elected by the membership covering every European country except Belarus, which has been excluded on the grounds of its incapacity to fulfil the requirements of democracy and, in particular, to abolish capital punishment. Turkey plays a very active, involved, respected and well regarded role, and it is rewarded in terms of the power and authority given to some of our participants. Therefore, I hope that in future we can absolve ourselves from making cheap and snide remarks about countries which are in fact our allies, not only in the Council of Europe but in NATO.

My Lords, I wish to make three basic points. First, the whole essence of the European Union Bill concerns the transfer of powers and competences. As has clearly been stated by noble Lords before, the amendment does not relate to a transfer of power or competence and so remains firmly outside the scope of the Bill. Secondly, as has been made clear, the amendment, which is on the subject of accession, does not dilute the importance of the British veto, so again in my view it should not be taken forward. Thirdly, I align myself with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on the question that you pose about accession. He gave Macedonia as an example but what if several countries were joining and, having knocked on doors, you found that two people liked one country and one did not like another? What kind of response would you get to that? Therefore, let us put this issue into context. The European Union Bill is important but the amendment should certainly not constitute a key part of it.

I should like to make one or two brief points. I have listened with great care, as I always do, to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and the noble Lords on the back row behind me. They have an argument. Within the logic of the Bill, it is perfectly legitimate to argue that, if you are to have a referendum on the powers of the European public prosecutor, it is logical—indeed, it is perhaps more logical—to have a referendum on new entrants to the European Union. I can see that argument, although it does not take us very far because you then have to look at the logic of the Bill. As my view is very firmly that the Bill is pretty illogical however you look at it, that the way in which it is set out is absurd and that its demands of the country in terms of referenda is ludicrous, I cannot possibly support the amendment.

My Lords, the argument advanced in favour of a referendum appears to be based on the fear of European Union enlargement. It seems to me that to cite the circumstances in which a referendum were held in the days of Harold Wilson is to talk about a history that is, practically speaking, irrelevant to the present. That referendum was caused not so much by the issues which were in front of the British people, but by the recognition that the elected Government were drawing upon very divided views and did not have a coherent, united position to put before the British people. It seems to me that that was an exceptional circumstance and not one which should require us to have an automatic response built into legislation for circumstances which will be very different.

The fear of enlargement seems to be entirely misplaced. In a world in which decisions are increasingly being taken by economic superpowers—China, India, Brazil and the United States—surely it is very important for the protection of British trading and economic interests that we should come together to seek to exercise influence on the shape of global decision-making. Not to do something about that seems to me to be much more of a potential threat than the possibility of a number of people coming into this country to work, particularly when, for the most part, those who come here are either highly skilled and therefore add to the collective skills of the country, or carry out work which it is quite difficult to persuade other British people to do. Candidly, it seems to me that the prospects for the European Union will be considerably greater if we recognise that, in due course, Turkey and the other countries mentioned will add to our total influence and wealth as well as broaden our cultural base. That is not in any way to belittle the individuality of the nations of the United Kingdom; the Union is already a multi-ethnic body, which is concerned for its own defence, and which is concerned to influence the standard of living in other parts of the world and to bring to bear a beneficent concern for global matters. That is far beyond the original intentions. Of course, that is a natural development of a civilised continent.

In passing, I say that the greatest change in the well-being of the countries of Europe came about after the collapse of the Roman empire. If anyone doubts that, I suggest they should read the excellent book by Bryan Ward-Perkins on The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. North Africa had provided very considerably for the elevation of the standard of living of those who lived in Britain. It manufactured the china which was exported right around the Mediterranean. The concept that our standard of life or the employment of our people are at risk of being dragged down by enlarging the influence of the Union seems to me to be entirely unhistorical and misconceived.

On the immediate question of whether a referendum is appropriate, I cannot understand why parliamentarians take the view that plebiscitary democracy is more likely to operate in the interests of the British people and to reflect their judgments than the parliamentary system that we have all trumpeted, throughout the British empire when we were responsible for that, and subsequently, as an example of one of the better systems of government in Europe. The amendment is completely inappropriate.

House resumed.