EU Constitution

– in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 16 September 2003.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker 4:00, 16 September 2003

I have to advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary 4:15, 16 September 2003

I beg to move,

That this House
believes that the draft Constitution, presented by the Convention on the Future of Europe to the Inter-Governmental Conference on 20th June at Thessalonica, constitutes a fundamental change to the relationship between the European Union and the Member States and should therefore only be implemented if the British people have freely consented to it in a referendum.

This debate is essentially about trusting the British people. It is about letting the British people decide, and Sunday's euro referendum in Sweden was a healthy and welcome example of the pitfalls facing Governments who think that they know better than the people. I regret the bullying way in which the Eurocrats in Brussels have responded to that decision.

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

No, I shall make a little progress first.

The Government's ruling out of a referendum on the proposed constitution displays a similar hectoring disregard for the deeply held views of the British people, and I therefore make no apology for returning to this subject today. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, as we know, support a referendum; serious commentators argue for a referendum; and the people demand a referendum. Ironically, it was the Government who created that demand. They introduced referendums to our constitutional diet and gave the British people a taste for them. Even before they took office, they were promoting referendums as a central part of new Labour's political culture. Since then, they have held 34 referendums—on devolution, on mayors and now on regionalisation, not to speak of the yet again, if not permanently, postponed referendum on scrapping the pound.

In 1996, the Labour party was promoting the idea of referendums. As the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, now Lord Robertson, pithily put it while arguing for a referendum on devolution:

"Politicians should trust the people."

The Government trust the people on devolution. They trust the people on London. They trust the people on mayors. They trust the people on regional assemblies. They trust the people—until this one, the big one, the one that really matters. The Government then suddenly stop trusting the people and say no; but the British people will not take no for an answer, and nor will we.

The case for a referendum on the proposed European constitution is overwhelming. The principle behind holding a referendum is very simple: the draft constitution sets out to transfer sovereignty, both generally and specifically, from our national Parliament to the emerging political entity, which, in the Prime Minister's words, will be a European superpower.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

Those were the Prime Minister's words, not mine. The hon. Gentleman should perhaps read the speeches that the Prime Minister made in Warsaw in 2000 and in Cardiff last November, where he explicitly set out his desire to create what he called a European superpower.

Sovereignty does not belong to Parliament or to the Government. Sovereignty belongs to the people. Parliament holds sovereignty in trust. Parliament can exercise sovereignty, but it should not on its own authority alienate it. If sovereignty is to be transferred, alienated or surrendered, it should be done only with the consent of the British people, democratically and freely given, arguably in the context of a general election, but ideally in a referendum. There will be many arguments as to what constitutes such alienation in the context of the coming intergovernmental conference. I believe that anything that reduces the powers of domestic national Governments, and thereby strengthens the powers at the centre, constitutes alienation. The draft constitution before us is full of such instances.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that the powers of central Government of this country were significantly reduced under the Single European Act and other measures introduced in the past, and that there was no referendum at that time? Given the logic of his position, however, would it not be more honest to talk not about a referendum on a constitution but about a referendum on allowing the Conservative party to campaign, as most of its members seem to want, to get out of the European Union completely?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman reads the brief that his party produces for him. Helpfully, I also have a copy. It reads:

"Clear dividing line between a Tory party determined to take Britain to the exit door of Europe and a Labour Government working in Europe".

I say "well done" to the hon. Gentleman. He will get brownie points from the Whips for that. This document is wonderful. It says:

"The Convention of Europe was set up to propose changes in the way the EU works with the expansion of the EU to 25 members from May 2004."

If the Convention were only doing that, it would have done it very quickly. There is a lot more in the Convention report than that. The document continues:

"No precedent for a referendum on EU treaty change".

Even the Government, in the document that they produced as a White Paper the other day, accept that it is not a treaty but a constitution. That is the basic difference. Lastly—I will then finish with this document, as I would not want to steal all the lines of Labour Members—the document says surprisingly:

"The Government believes there is a strong case for a single, coherent constitution for the EU."

What happened to the Prime Minister's comments in Warsaw, I think it was, in 2000, when he said that there was no necessity for a single constitution or a single document? This document is a piece of propaganda, and I congratulate all hon. Members who are brave enough to try to make use of it.

We were told last year that a referendum would be unjustified because the treaty would contain nothing of constitutional importance. I repeat: nothing of constitutional importance. It is only a written constitution, which for the first time explicitly enshrines the primacy of EU law. It is a constitution that sets up a European Presidency for the first time, a European diplomatic service for the first time, and a European Foreign Secretary to oversee it. If those are not constitutionally significant, heaven knows what is. Even Mr. Hain, who I am pleased to see in his place today, apparently agrees. On 1 April this year, he told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he was not saying that the European constitution

"has got no substantial constitutional significance, of course it will have".

For once he was right. Can we therefore now have the referendum that we were told we could have if there was anything of constitutional significance? Apparently, we cannot, because now that the constitutional significance criterion has been met, another hurdle has been quickly slipped into its place. The truth is that those criteria are cosmetic. The Government have set their face against a referendum not because the draft constitution does not merit one but simply because they do not trust the people. As a result, their defence of their anti-referendum position becomes more and more frayed with every passing week.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is it not even worse than that? The Government will not hold a referendum on the pound and the euro because they know that they would lose it, as the British people do not want to give up that amount of power. They are therefore prepared to give up all the rest in this constitution, without a referendum, knowing that the British people do not want it. It would be the first case in history of there being a currency with no country to go with it.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He points out that this Government, who talk so much about trusting the people, when it comes to the crunch do not believe that the people trust them, and are not prepared to put that to the test. He makes his point very well.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Is the point made by Mr. Redwood also the right hon. Gentleman's point? Does he believe that it would be a currency without a country?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

I believe that there is no country called Europe at present, and if Conservative Members have anything to do with it, there never will be a country called Europe. At the moment, we are talking about a currency that does not have a country. The Swedes, in their wisdom, decided that that was not a game in which they wished to play a part, and if the Government were brave enough to hold a referendum on the same issue here, the British people would give them the same verdict.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes Labour/Co-operative, Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

The right hon. Gentleman, Malcolm Rifkind and I used to agree entirely on Europe—so much so that we wrote a letter to a newspaper together—but he has changed while I am consistent. He has not mentioned the other referendum, which was held in Estonia on Sunday. I was planning to ask him to condemn Mr. Heathcoat-Amory, Lord Lamont and all those MEPs for interfering in the affairs of another state. However, given that there was a resounding yes vote on joining Europe, will he send them to Latvia as well?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

The right hon. Gentleman has a selective memory. The letter that he, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and I wrote, against the advice of the Whips on both sides of the House, called for a free vote because a referendum was not available and we believed that the representatives of the people of this country should have as much free judgment as possible. I still take that view even if he does not. We have talked about the views of certain Conservatives on Estonia. It is strange that I am instructed that the views of people such as those whom he mentioned represent our party's policy. I could start suggesting that the views of Mr. Dalyell on Iraq are suddenly the Labour party's policy. Members of the Conservative party are free to express their opinions and I am here to explain the Opposition's official line.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

I shall not give way because I want to make progress.

The criteria that the Government have set are cosmetic. We were told in June that there was no need for a referendum because, according to the right hon. Member for Neath, who has sadly left the Chamber, the treaty was largely a "tidying-up exercise" and according to the Foreign Secretary, it was a "streamlining process". They were trying to get across the message that the constitution was not important and that it did not really matter. How may the incorporation of the charter of fundamental rights in the constitution or turning justice and home affairs into a supranational rather than an intergovernmental matter be described as mere tidying-up or streamlining? That defence was ludicrous, and as the details of the draft constitution became clearer the idiocy of the defence became clearer and even now it has been dropped.

Last Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary told the House that:

"the proposals in the current draft treaty do not change the fundamental relationship between the EU and its member states".—[Hansard, 9 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 174.]

He said that there was therefore no justification for granting a referendum. The new test was a fundamental change to the relationship between the EU and its member states. However, at the same time, we learned from an interview published by the right hon. Member for Neath that behind the closed doors of the Cabinet room, the Prime Minister told his colleagues that:

"the outcome of the Convention is absolutely fundamental. It will define the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, the prospects for the euro, and it would last for generations."

If that is not a declaration that the constitution will fundamentally change relations between the European Union and its member states, I do not know what is.

I thought that the right hon. Member for Neath might have been mistaken or that his memory was at fault, but the Prime Minister did not deny saying that when he was challenged in the Chamber last Wednesday. He was not being helpful to the Foreign Secretary when he said:

"Of course the outcome of the convention is absolutely fundamental".—[Hansard, 10 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 324.]

He used the word "fundamental" in the Chamber and when talking to his Cabinet colleagues. The last line of defence against the referendum has been washed away and the journey from "tidying-up"—the ludicrous first line of defence—to "fundamental" has been completed.

The proposed constitution is on any view a step change away from a Europe of nations to a European political entity or, to use the Prime Minister's word, a superpower. The EU will have a written constitution, a legally binding charter of fundamental rights, a single legal personality and a five-year presidency. There will be explicit primacy of EU law, an EU Foreign Minister who is allowed to represent member states at the United Nations, a currency, a flag, an anthem and, eventually, an army.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Of the many misconceptions that the right hon. Gentleman has uttered, one is completely and utterly untrue. A European Foreign Minister would not be allowed to represent the European Union member states at the United Nations, yet the right hon. Gentleman implied that France and the United Kingdom would lose their permanent seats as a result. That is simply not correct.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

If the right hon. Gentleman would listen, he would know that I did not say that: I said that the European Foreign Minister would be able to represent the European Union at the United Nations. That is what the words in the constitution say; all the Foreign Secretary's wriggling cannot disguise that fact. I say to him again: if all this does not change the fundamental relationship between the EU and its member states, what on earth does?

More important, the constitution is, on its own terms, irreversible. Once one is in it, one cannot change it back again—it can be amended only in an integrationist direction. Uniquely among constitutions, it can be fundamentally amended by the executive decision of the Council of Ministers without further approval from national Parliaments or any need for new treaties. It has none of the checks and balances or restraints that one would normally expect to find in a constitution. I ask once again: if this is not a fundamental change, what on earth is?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman may have misrepresented the Prime Minister's views when he quoted from his speech in Cardiff last year. He said, more than once, that the Prime Minister described Europe as a superpower. In fact, the Prime Minister said:

"We fear— he was talking about British fears—

"that the driving ideology behind European integration is a move to a European superstate, in which power is sucked into an unaccountable centre."

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should also have quoted what the Prime Minister said a few minutes later—that

"we should understand that our opposition to Europe as some federal superstate is not a British obsession. It is in fact the reasonably settled view of most members of the EU".

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

I can tell the hon. Gentleman what the Prime Minister said later in that speech: "We are trying to create a European superpower, not a European superstate." He made that distinction. Yet every time that I have mentioned the word "superpower" over the past six months, Labour Members have shaken their heads and said, "Not true." It is about time they started studying the speeches of their Prime Minister a little more carefully; otherwise, their chances of promotion will be severely damaged.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I am grateful. We must get this clear. Is my right hon. Friend saying that if the Government, as they seem to want to, intend to force through this new constitution against the wishes of the British people, and without seeking their support in a referendum, there is no way in which future elected Parliaments or Governments will be able to do anything about it? We should not play at party politics, but realise that we are discussing a very serious situation.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely essential point. This is a one-way street. When one signs up to such a constitution, there is no way back. That is why it is such a fundamental question that must be put to the British people.

The best way of assessing fundamental change in the relationship between the member states of the Union is to examine the effects that it would have in practice. First, it is worth considering what we would not be able to decide for ourselves any more. We would no longer be able to decide on our own immigration and asylum policy; and we are to have our economic and employment policies co-ordinated—whatever that may mean. Secondly, we need to consider what we will, or can, be made to do against our will. Thirty-two vetoes are being given up, including those on judicial co-operation in criminal matters, establishing offences and penalties for serious crime, crime prevention, civil protection, intellectual property, and rules covering the self-employed. Those are all areas in which we are giving away and ceding our responsibility in the House to the European Union. The Government had better face up to that, as it is the reality of the situation.

Thirdly, we need to look at rights that we have retained but which can be eroded without further reference to treaties or the consent of national Parliaments in future. Under article I-17, the European Union may endow itself with the necessary powers to deal with any area touched by EU power, from defence policy to border controls. We could have the imposition of a common foreign and security policy, the creation of a European army, economic co-ordination leading to fiscal harmonisation, all without the agreement of Parliaments or peoples or even the usual treaty-making process.

All of those, whatever gloss is put on them by the Government, fundamentally change the relationship between the EU and its member states. We might have hoped that that would change during the forthcoming intergovernmental conference negotiations, but that is a false hope. Last week's White Paper clearly indicated that the Government have effectively swallowed the draft constitution hook, line and sinker, and that its reservations are cosmetic. There is no real threat of a British veto—the one negotiating weapon with which the Government should have gone into the IGC—either explicit or implicit if the so-called red lines are not met. We see that in the Government's new-found ambivalence about the legal enforcement of the charter of fundamental rights. Previously, we were told that that was a red line that they would not concede, but now we are told, "We will see what happens in the IGC and make our mind up at the end."

One of the major lines of defence of British interests—the Government amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Neath at the Convention—have simply disappeared off the table. There was a Government amendment dealing with asylum, which the right hon. Member for Neath described as fundamentally important, but it has been dropped. The Government said that they "did not accept" the title of "EU foreign Minister" because it was misleading, but that objection too has been dropped, along with the bulk of the 200 amendments that were tabled at the time.

When the right hon. Member for Neath said that there was no constitutional significance in the draft constitution, he was talking a language quite different from that of his colleagues in Europe. The German Minister of Foreign Affairs said:

"We have a draft constitution that is worthy of the word historic."

He went on to say:

"It is the most important treaty since the formation of the European economic community."

The Danish Prime Minister put it crisply:

"What is at stake is so new and big that it is right to hold a referendum."

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, when asked about the question of a referendum on "Breakfast with Frost" on 25 May, said:

"For France, we normally have a referendum when we change the constitution."

When asked about a British referendum, he said that

"we are not demanding a referendum, but we will be very pleased if there is."

He obviously regarded the draft as a change in the constitution.

Given all the evidence that there is a significant change in our fundamental relationship with Europe, will we get our referendum? All the qualifications set by the Government in their own words been met, but a last desperate defence has been concocted. According to the Prime Minister last Wednesday, those

"who call for a referendum want it as the first step in a two-step process to get us out of Europe".—[Hansard, 10 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 327.]

I remind Labour Members that that is simply untrue. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith said in Prague on 10 July,

"The Conservative Party does not want Britain to leave the European Union. We want to make it work."

Indeed, the logic of the Prime Minister's attack is mind-boggling—[Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary would do well to listen because he will have to explain this to his colleagues abroad. The logic of the Prime Minister's attack is mind-boggling, and suggests that withdrawal is the agenda of all those who seek referendums on the draft constitution. Does he really believe that that is the reason why more than 80 per cent. of the British people want a referendum? Does he really think that 87 per cent. of his own constituents who want a referendum are part of some anti-European conspiracy? Is he saying that the Spanish Government, who are voluntarily to hold a referendum, are suddenly motivated by anti-Europeanism? Or that the Netherlands and Italy, in considering referendums, are somehow involved in a two-step process to get themselves out of Europe? Was President Chirac seeking to take France out of Europe when he said,

"I am logically in favour of a referendum. It would be the only legitimate way".

Those Governments know what the constitution is about, and they are facing up to the need to consult their own people about it.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

I am coming to the end of my remarks.

The Prime Minister's attack on those who call for a referendum is laughable. It is an insult to the British people, it mocks their genuine desire to have a say and it trivialises what, in the rest of Europe, is a serious debate. That debate is about reforming Europe with the consent of its peoples. It is about involving people in decisions about their own future. Substituting puerile accusations for genuine argument indicates only fear of what the people might decide.

That is the real key. Unlike us, and unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Prime Minister and the Government do not trust the British people. They are prepared to ride roughshod over the views of the voters, and to drive through fundamental and irreversible reforms of the EU without seeking the consent of the British people. That is simply wrong. In their hearts and even, reportedly, in the Cabinet, according to one newspaper yesterday, the Government know that that is wrong.

The right hon. Member for Neath almost offered a referendum next June by way of the European parliamentary elections. In June this year he told the BBC that

"if people don't like what they get, they can vote against the Government in the European elections next year."

He went on to say:

"Then the people will decide."

He knows, and the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary know, that none of the arguments against a referendum holds water any more. The British people will not forgive a bullying rejection of their right to decide on something so fundamental, so irreversible and so far-reaching. The message of the motion is clear and simple: let the people decide.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary 4:41, 16 September 2003

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"welcomes the Government's commitment to keeping Parliament fully informed of the progress of the IGC negotiations, including through the publication of a White Paper, and to continued intense Parliamentary scrutiny of the draft Constitutional Treaty;
believes the proposals from the Convention on the Future of Europe are a good starting point for discussions between the elected governments of the EU's member states;
further believes that, as the proposals do not alter the fundamental constitutional relationship between the EU and its Member States, and the role of national parliaments is strengthened, there is no reason to depart from the precedent set by previous governments, which rejected referendums on previous constitutional treaties;
and notes that it will be for Parliament to decide on whether it should become part of UK law."

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, before I proceed to deal with the debate, I should like to pay a brief tribute to Anna Lindh as this is the first opportunity that I have had to do so in the House.

As the House knows, Anna Lindh was murdered in a Stockholm department store last Thursday, 11 September. For all of us who knew her, Anna was an exceptional individual. She earned huge respect in Sweden and well beyond its shores for her commitment to her principles, for her great skills and for the transparent honesty with which she pursued her cause. Her death is a tragedy, above all for her family, for she leaves a husband and two children of school age. I shall attend the memorial service in Stockholm this Friday, and I know that I will carry with me the sentiments of the whole House in conveying our grief and our condolences to her family, her friends and the people of Sweden.

The heart of the case presented by Mr. Ancram, as we heard, is that the changes proposed in the current draft of the European Union's constitutional treaty are of such a scale that a referendum to endorse them is necessary. We take a different view, and I want to use the opportunity this afternoon to explain why.

What the Convention proposes in its draft treaty does not represent a radical break with the past. It emphatically does not take us down the road to a European superstate. As I will explain—and nothing that the right hon. Gentleman said a moment ago suggests otherwise—the text does not alter the fundamental constitutional relationship between member states and the Union. If anything, the draft tilts the balance towards the European Council and national Governments.

The European Union Committee of the House of Lords has been assiduous in its examination of the draft proposals, producing 14 reports. Its report in May examined texts to give national Parliaments an effective role for the first time in European Union draft legislation. In commenting on those texts, which were very similar to the final treaty, the Committee concluded:

"it is clear that the balance of power in the European Union is going to shift from the Commission in favour of the Member States if the proposals . . . are adopted".

[Interruption.] Mr. Cash mutters that the Committee members are unelected, with the implication that they know absolutely nothing about these matters. Some of them have never served in an elected position, but they have something to say and understand about the European Union. That includes Lord Williamson, former secretary-general of the European Commission, and Lord Hannay, the former British Government permanent representative in Brussels. The list of members—there is no sign of any minority report—also includes the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, an individual not known as a raving Euro-fanatic, formerly Mr. Norman Lamont and now Lord Lamont. Evidently, having at least examined the text with care, he concluded that the proposals in the draft Convention will, if they are adopted, shift the balance of power from the Commission in favour of member states.

The purpose of the treaty is much more prosaic than the confection that the right hon. Member for Devizes has whipped up this afternoon. It seeks to consolidate much of the European Union's existing constitutional framework, which extends over at least four separate and overlapping treaties, and introduces new measures that aim to equip the Union with the institutions and decision-making processes that are needed to cope with the demands of 25 members. As I explained to the House last Tuesday—he refuses to face up to this point—the enlargement of the European Union is the engine of these changes. It should be as plain as a pikestaff that a Union whose institutions were designed to operate with six members has been creaking in trying to operate with 15, and would find it very difficult to operate practically with 25.

I shall deal in a moment with some of the key arguments that the right hon. Gentleman advanced in pursuit of his claim, but I should like first to pick him up on one comment, which, if it were true, would certainly be an argument for a referendum. We all heard him say that the treaty is irreversible. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] "Irreversible" was the word that he used, and there is approbation from Opposition Members. However, that is simply not the case. It is untrue and shows that he has not applied himself to the texts. Article IV-7 of the draft treaty, as reproduced on page 148 of the Command Paper, sets out very clearly procedure for revising the treaty establishing the constitution and spells out that amendments can enter into force only after being ratified by all the member states in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.

Moreover—I shall return to this point later—there is one measure that has not featured in previous treaties and that will be of huge importance to members of the true faith of the Tory party: explicit provision allowing for the first time a member state to withdraw from the European Union if it so wishes. In the past, there was an objection to the fact that the method for withdrawing was unclear, albeit that the document is a treaty among member states. There is now the most explicit provision through which, over a two-year period, if the British Parliament decided to withdraw from the European Union—in my judgment, it would certainly need a referendum to do so—it would serve notice and withdraw.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. When there is an EU Foreign Minister under the constitution, will not he or she be the boss and the British Foreign Secretary the office boy? Will not the important people around the world want to see the EU Foreign Minister, knowing that the British Foreign Secretary has to go along with anything agreed by consensus in Brussels and initiated by that Minister, who will be the man or woman with the power?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

It comforts me that the Opposition have to invent arguments about the nature of the text to oppose our actions. Shortly, I shall deal in some detail with the contents of the draft constitution and compare them with those of draft constitutions or constitutions on which Mr. Redwood voted 13 years ago. He voted against a referendum on a specific draft constitution.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Does not my right hon. Friend have the slightest anxiety that every time we take a step towards European integration without the British people's understanding or consent, we may unwittingly be preparing the ground for what he fears most: a British public who would ultimately be amenable to withdrawal?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

If I believed that my hon. Friend's supposition was correct and that we were moving further towards European integration, I would accept the burden of his argument. However, if he examines the draft treaty and the likely amendments, I do not believe that it is possible to argue that it takes us towards European integration.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The idea that President Chirac of France would relinquish control of his foreign and defence policy is ludicrous and gives the lie to the nonsense from the right hon. Member for Wokingham.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The President of France wants to eclipse NATO and establish an autonomous foreign and defence policy in Europe. The Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that he wanted NATO to remain pre-eminent in European security. Where is that written in the European constitution?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I shall happily turn up the reference. Conservative Members display much defeatism, as if they have no idea that a European Union of 25 members contains many more active supporters of NATO than people who do not want to be involved in it or its Defence and Security Committee.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Was it right for the President of the Commission to say yesterday that because Sweden had the cheek to reject the euro, it would have less power in the councils of Europe? Is it right for an unelected official to tell an elected Government that a country that has made a specific decision will have less influence in Europe?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I do not believe that it is right and I disagree with President Prodi, as I am entitled to do. I agree with the burden of the hon. Gentleman's comments. Although it is obvious that countries that have not joined the euro cannot be members of the euro group, I resist the idea that they lose influence over every aspect of EU policy. That is palpably not the case. I spoke earlier of my good friend, the late Anna Lindh. Sweden could exercise considerable influence in Europe's councils, and not only on my subjects of justice, home affairs and economic policy, because of the strength of its case and the allies that it was able build up. I believe that we can do that, too.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I shall do so later.

Let me deal with some of the specific objections raised by the right hon. Member for Devizes. He recently said that the draft treaty would lead to the creation of a "political union" because it was based on plans for a five-year presidency; that it would impose legally binding rights on all European citizens; that it would make European laws superior to national laws—he added today, "for the first time"—and that it would lead to the creation of a fully fledged diplomatic service.

In voicing his concerns about the creation of a political union, the right hon. Gentleman is fighting the battles of the past, because that term does not appear anywhere in the current draft. Nor, indeed, has it appeared in any of the European Union's constitutional treaties dating back to the 1957 treaty of Rome. But it was through Maastricht—the treaty for which he voted and on which he spoke so eloquently—that the European Community decided to turn itself into the European Union and to create the concept of European citizenship. Even on the most malign reading of the new treaty, all that it does in that respect is to replicate Maastricht's language. A fair reading of it, however, shows that the overall balance tilts more positively towards the member states.

It is worth recalling that the right hon. Gentleman gave the Bill to ratify Maastricht his resolute support when it passed through the House more than a decade ago. Furthermore, at that stage, he was not a pressed man but a Back Bencher. He therefore volunteered to do so out of a sense of conviction. In telling the House at the time that he feared the drastic consequences of rejection, he said,

"I fear that those who say that we should turn our backs on Maastricht are taking a tremendous risk—the black risk of a centralised Europe, the risk that Europe will go on without us if necessary, and even if we are part of it, our colleagues will say, 'You've had your chance. In future you can take it or leave it.' "

His commitment to Maastricht was so absolute that he was prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice British sovereignty—something that I would never do. He was willing to contemplate what he termed a country called Europe. I ask my hon. Friends to weigh his words, although the speech that he made is quite difficult to follow. Each sentence seems to be being weighed with care, especially by the hon. Member for Stone . In that same debate, the right hon. Gentleman said:

"I said at the beginning that I did not want to be part of a European superstate."

Fine. He went on:

"Equally, I do not want to find myself in a country that is outside a European superstate, with our industries unable to penetrate it." —[Hansard, 4 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 343.]

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

We have been through this before. What I was saying then is what I am saying now: I do not want to see a European superstate. I do not want us to be in one—which I would hate—or outside one, because I believe that such a superstate would be highly damaging to the interests of all the countries of Europe. That was the position that I held then, and it is the one that I hold now. That is why I want to stop a European superstate. The right hon. Gentleman keeps digging up quotations from the past, but in 1983 he was doing something that I have never done. He was arguing that we should withdraw from the European Union. He has changed his mind, has he not?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am perfectly happy to deal with that point; I have done so in the past. What we have not heard from the right hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: "Deal with it!"] Yes, I supported a manifesto that proposed that we should withdraw from the European Union, and we got the answer that we deserved at that election. I also supported a manifesto at the last election that spelled out our negotiating mandate for the inter-governmental conference, and did not promise a referendum. It did, however, say that we would stand up for Britain. Our policies in that manifesto were supported, and we are implementing them.

I shall go on quoting what the right hon. Gentleman said at the time of Maastricht, because he has never stood up and said that what he was saying then was wrong. The truth is that, on any analysis, he knows that Maastricht represented a more significant change to the powers of the Union and its institutions than does the current draft treaty. Maastricht enshrined commitments to a single European currency and to a common foreign and security policy. It also introduced many new treaty provisions, subject to qualified majority voting. Yet, despite the contents of Maastricht, the right hon. Gentleman opposed calls from within his own party for a referendum. He voted against such a referendum, as did the right hon. Member for Wokingham.

By contrast, the draft constitutional treaty drawn up by the Convention is much less far-reaching. Indeed, the House of Lords European Union Committee has recognised that the text seeks to strengthen the role of member nations. It states explicitly for the first time that competences not conferred on the Union by member states remain with them. Article 1.5.1 of the draft specifies that the

"Union shall respect the national identities of the Member States, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and self-government."

That is hardly the language of political union.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Secretary of State

As there as so many scrutiny reports from the European Scrutiny Committee in the House of Commons, will the Foreign Secretary be good enough to point to any statements such as he has referred to in the House of Lords that have come from the European Scrutiny Committee in this House?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

As a matter of fact, I cannot. That does not mean that the view of the European Union Committee in the House of Lords is wrong. It produced many more reports scrutinising different parts of the text than did the equivalent Committee in this place. It is uncomfortable for the hon. Gentleman, because the facts are getting in the way of his prejudices, but the reason it came to that view is that within the draft constitution, in an article and a protocol, there is provision by which national Parliaments, including this House and the House of Lords, will for the first time be able to play an effective role in studying draft legislation—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I do not believe that it is minor, because if a third of national Parliaments decide that they do not like a proposed draft law on the basis that it offends principles of subsidiarity, they will refer it back to the Commission.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

That is not true. That is linked with the necessity for there to be at least 60 per cent.—by population—of votes in favour of a proposal, so if a third of national Parliaments object to a draft law it is likely to be revised or rejected.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

No, I will not give way. [Hon. Members: "Give way."] I shall give way in a moment.

I shall deal with the first specific claim made by the right hon. Member for Devizes, which was that the draft treaty will result in the creation of a five-year presidency of the European Council. That is one of his central objections, and one of the things that he says will lead to a European superstate. It is true that the draft constitution would create a five-year presidency of the European Council, but I presume that he is suggesting that the post is tantamount to the establishment of an EU Head of State.

It is bizarre that a party, which has raised no objection to the principle of a presidency of the European Council during 18 years in government, now sees it as a threat to British sovereignty. There has always been a presidency, and this proposal is not about the further accretion of powers at the centre. Quite the opposite. There is now a problem with a rotating presidency. A senior political figure serving a term of two and a half or five years as Chairman of the European Council and responsible to Heads of State and Government—not to the Commission—would bring much needed coherence and continuity to the very body that, above all others, serves the interests of the nation states.

The right hon. Gentleman is not thinking through his position. The current system of a six-monthly rotating presidency is a recipe for discontinuity, and in practice it weakens the Council of Heads of State and Government and it strengthens the Commission, which is exactly the opposite of that which he seeks. The result of that is to weaken the role of member states in the Council, which is why the opposition to the proposal for a full-time president has produced some weird bedfellows. On one side of the bed are the right hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party, and under the same duvet are the European Commission, President Prodi, the Liberal Democrats and every barking mad federalist across Europe, all of whom oppose this policy. I know that the Conservative party is now thinking about being more inclusive and caring, but I did not realise that it went this far. Conservatives should think about the company they keep before they come up with such ludicrous propositions.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that among those whom he describes as our bedfellows are many of the smaller nations that are joining the European Union for the first time? They believe that the five-year presidency will undermine intergovernmentalism and be damaging to them.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

That is not what they believe.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

It is not what they say either. I have had the benefit of listening to them. What they believe is that a full-time presidency might undermine the position of the Commission, which they see—wrongly, in my view—as a protector of small member states. Some, though by no means all, of those smaller states believe in the Commission and would like to be part of a European superstate. That is the opposite of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

I, too, listened for 18 months to what those countries were saying, and my right hon. Friend is entirely right. Their point is that a rotating presidency makes the European Union more in touch with the people of individual countries. It does not accomplish that completely, but it goes some way towards it. A permanent five-year presidency—the addition of another presidency in Brussels—will, on the other hand, make the EU even more remote from the people of Europe, and do the opposite of creating a more democratic Union that is in touch with the people. That is why the smaller countries, and my right hon. Friend, oppose the absurd proposal to create yet another presidency in Europe.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

There is already a presidency. It is called the presidency of the Council. The question is, how do we make it effective on behalf of member states?

The logical conclusion of what the right hon. Gentleman and the rest of the Conservative Front Bench are saying is that member states will be weakened within Europe and the Commission strengthened. That is why the European Commission—of fantastical proportions, in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman—is most vocal in opposing a full-time presidency. It is not possible for a single presidency serving for six months to co-ordinate effectively the policies of 25 member states—which, yes, will sometimes be opposed to those pursued by the Commission.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Yes, for the last time.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Never have I heard so many words provide so little justification over such a long period for denying the people of this country the right to make a decision on this matter. Why does the Foreign Secretary not just admit that he opposes a referendum not on ground of constitutional principle, but because he thinks the British people do not understand the issues, or thinks they might reach a different decision from him—or both?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

That does not happen to be my view.

The right hon. Gentleman's second claim was that the draft treaty would impose "legally binding rights" in relation to the charter of fundamental rights. If the Opposition are to be believed, here and elsewhere, that document will impose a heavy burden on British business and provoke chaos in our judicial system. It will not do that, however. For one thing, those who read the charter will see that it is a straightforward statement of British and, dare I say, conservative values, including such astonishing propositions as the right to a fair trial. Its legal implications are also much more prosaic—thanks to the changes that we negotiated in the Convention—than the right hon. Gentleman would have us believe.

The most important changes that we have secured are in title VII,

"the general provisions governing the interpretation and application of this Charter".

Article II-51 makes it clear that the charter

"does not extend the field of application of Union law beyond the powers of the Union or establish any new power or task for the Union, or modify powers and tasks defined in the other parts of the Constitution".

It does not, therefore, grant any new powers to the constitution.

Like the rest of the draft treaty, the section on the charter may be revised further in the intergovernmental conference. As I spelt out to the House this time last week, we reserve the right to make a final decision on the incorporation of the charter in the light of the overall picture that emerges.

The right hon. Gentleman's third claim is that the draft treaty will lead to a political union because it is based on—I am quoting what he has said outside the House—

"an EU law superior to national laws".

Using the most awful weasel words, the right hon. Gentleman said that this would for the first time set out the primacy of European law.

The right hon. Gentleman is sufficient of a lawyer to know that that is simply not the case. It is totally untrue, and frankly he ought to be ashamed of making such claims. We can argue about other aspects of what is in the draft constitution, but for him to stand at the Dispatch Box and claim that it will assert for the first time the primacy of European law, thereby clearly implying that no such primacy currently exists, is frankly a deceit.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

No, I will not.

The right hon. Member for Devizes knows very well that the whole argument 31 years ago as to whether we should join the then Common Market concerned the fact that this House would have to cede the primacy of our law to that of the European Union.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment.

For that reason, section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 was passed, establishing that primacy. It states:

"All such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions from time to time created or arising by or under the Treaties, and all such remedies and procedures from time to time provided for by or under the Treaties, as in accordance with the Treaties are without further enactment"— by this House

"to be given legal effect".

The right hon. Gentleman knows that to be the case.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

The Foreign Secretary has raised this important point on several different occasions. I just want to remind him of the case of Macarthys v. Smith, in 1980, of which, as a lawyer, he will doubtless know. Lord Denning said:

"If the time should come when our Parliament deliberately passes an Act with the intention of repudiating the Treaty or any provision in it"— he was talking about the European treaty—

"then I should have thought that it would be the duty of our courts to follow the statute of our Parliament."

Lord Denning was actually saying—this is a distinction that the right hon. Gentleman must appreciate—that the EU treaties signed in 1972 created a limited primacy because of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice and of our own courts, and because of the 1972 Act. What this document proposes is making European law's primacy explicit and enshrining it in a constitution in full for the first time. At the moment, Parliament has what could be described as a residual sovereignty. The provision in the constitution would abolish it.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

That is completely not so, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it. In the small print of his comments, he actually admitted that the primacy of European law was enshrined by section 2(2) of the 1972 Act, and by a number of leading cases involving the European Court of Justice—with which he is very familiar—including Costa v. ENEL, and that of Simmenthal. Such cases established clear primacy. What the constitution is doing—it is doing no more than this—is to replicate within the draft treaty what is contained in case law and in section 2(2) of the 1972 Act.

On the right hon. Gentleman's point about repudiating a treaty, under the terms of this treaty the House can of course repudiate a treaty whenever it wants. Under this treaty—not Maastricht, the Single European Act or the treaty of Rome, but this treaty—for the first time explicit provision is made whereby this Parliament can legislate to repudiate a treaty. He needs to understand the consequences of his argument. Is he now saying that European Union law should not have primacy over British law in areas of European legal competence? Let us be clear: if he is saying that, whether he likes it or not Britain would have to withdraw from the European Union, because it would be impossible for any British Government to operate within the European Union.

The fact is that all international treaties take primacy over national laws—the system of international law could not function otherwise. For example, how could the European Union single market—a creation of the Conservative party when it had a bit of sense—work if each member state could take its own decisions on the rules of the game, regardless of the rules to which it had already signed up? How could we guarantee British business a level playing field if other member states had the right to erect national tariff and non-tariff barriers, without any redress for British business? That is the natural consequence of what the right hon. Member for Devizes is suggesting.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

British statute takes precedence over treaties. That is established in our own courts and asserted by them. Where there is an explicit declaration by the House and Parliament through statute, it takes precedence over treaties, which are based on merely prerogative power.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am sorry to disabuse the hon. Gentleman, but that is simply not true.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

If the hon. Gentleman reads the leading case of Shah and Islam, which is connected with the interpretation of the UN convention on refugees of 1951, he will see the argument set out in every detail. It provides a clear exposition of the fact that, when a country signs up to an international treaty, that treaty takes precedence over national law, as long as a national Parliament decides to remain a member of the treaty organisation. Conservative Front Benchers simply misunderstand the point and I am waiting for the right hon. Member for Devizes to answer my question about whether the Conservatives are now asserting—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I shall give way to the organ grinder in a moment.

Is the right hon. Member for Devizes asserting that, if the Conservatives were in government, they would not accept the primacy of European law in respect of European competences?

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Secretary of State

The Foreign Secretary has to answer the question that he posed. What is the purpose of implementation of a treaty through an Act of Parliament if it is not, in the European context, to turn European treaties into domestic law?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The purpose of the Act of Parliament through which we joined the European Union was to say—with respect to the 1972 Act—that all future legal decisions of the European Union—[Interruption.] Mr. Shepherd needs to listen to what I am saying. All future enactments were given legal effect and recognised accordingly without further enactment by the House. [Interruption.] I find the degree of ignorance exhibited by Conservative Front Benchers astonishing.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Secretary of State

Let us examine what appears in the Foreign Secretary's own White Paper. Paragraph 104 states:

"When the IGC starts in October, it will cover . . . the way we govern ourselves."

How does the Foreign Secretary answer that?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman is confused, and I am not surprised that the Conservatives are in such a mess when they lack even a basic understanding. An initial Act of Parliament ratifies a treaty. That happened in the accession treaty of 1972, in the Single European Act, the Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam treaties, and it will happen again if we recommend the current draft EU constitution.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

No, I will not give way.

Under various Acts, and particularly the European Communities Act 1972, we accepted the primacy of European Union law. I note that the right hon. Member for Devizes has still not explained the Conservative position. He made a point about primacy, so is he saying that the Conservative party is now opposed to the position that it has supported for 30 years—the primacy of the EU in respect of EU law? Is that the right hon. Gentleman's point? He has no answer.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. It is evident that the Foreign Secretary is not giving way.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Let me return to another issue raised by the right hon. Member for Devizes—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

Article 10 is not just about the primacy of EU law, but the primacy of the constitution. The right hon. Gentleman cannot pretend that the problem is inherited from a previous treaty, because we have not hitherto—before what is currently proposed—had a constitution. How does the Foreign Secretary square the expressed and asserted primacy of the constitution over member state law with the supremacy of the House?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

It is because it is inherent in our membership of the European Union. I gather that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to withdraw from membership, and that is a natural consequence of the petition being advanced by many Opposition Members. I square my position by going back to the central issue of our membership of international organisations. The House decided—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The constitution is no more than a treaty labelled "constitution". It is a treaty that we shall ratify in the same way as any other treaty.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

No, I am answering the point made by Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.

This House, along with the other place, decides to enact legislation through which we join an international organisation. In doing so, we accept key obligations for as long as we remain in membership. If we decide to withdraw, by statute, we withdraw from those obligations. While we are members of the organisation, we accept the obligations.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

No, I will not give way because others wish to speak in this debate.

Another of the Opposition's invented concerns relates to the alleged extent of the Union's common foreign and security policy. Last week, the hon. Member for Stone thought that he had discovered the Achilles heel of the Government's case, when he alighted on a reference in the draft treaty, in article 15.2, that calls on member states "actively and unreservedly" to support the Union's common foreign and security policy and

"to refrain from action contrary to the Union's interests."

When he confronted me with that during a hearing before the European Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday, I suggested that he reacquaint himself with the language that his party had signed up to at Maastricht. The then Government agreed that:

"The Member States support the Union's external and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity."

The former Government also agreed to

"refrain from any action which is contrary to the interests of the Union."

In article 15 of the same treaty, member states agreed that they would

"ensure that their national policies conform to the common positions."

There is nothing new in the text on the common foreign and security policy that was not in the Maastricht treaty.

Indeed, as Lord Howe pointed out in a debate in the other place last week, the original proposition that members of the European Union should

"endeavour jointly to formulate and implement a common foreign policy" was a British product. Lord Howe said that it was

"handed by my noble friend Lady Thatcher to Chancellor Kohl in my presence on 18th May 1985"—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 179.]

Baroness Thatcher also said later that year that it is

"in the interests of all member states to act together if we can on certain matters because we are very much stronger by so doing."—[Hansard, 5 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 439.]

That is the principle behind the common foreign and security policy and I fail to understand why the right hon. Member for Devizes and his party now object to it.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour/Co-operative, Glasgow Pollok

The Foreign Secretary is making a fine speech scoring points off the Tories, but does he accept that that is too easy and certainly is not sufficient to justify the Government's refusal of a referendum to the British people? He mentioned earlier his condemnation of barking mad federalists, but that is ironic, given that many sit both alongside and behind him. Why are the Government afraid of giving the people of Britain a referendum?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the wholehearted support that he has just offered me and I cherish the compliment with which he began his intervention. If we felt that the draft constitution represented a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between ourselves and the other member states, we would of course put forward the case for a referendum.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The right hon. Gentleman is afraid of losing.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

It is not about fearing something. I have nothing to fear, let alone from the Conservatives. It is an issue of principle. We have had, and will continue to have, referendums when we join or leave—the issue in 1975 was whether we should leave—an institution or when we seek to create a new institution. We have never held a referendum to change the powers of institutions to which we belong. The previous Conservative Government consistently refused to do so—for very good reasons, in my judgment. I voted with the right hon. Member for Devizes and 12 other members of the present shadow Cabinet against a referendum on Maastricht. On any analysis, the arguments then used against a referendum apply still more strongly against the current set of propositions.

In view of the time, I shall begin my closing remarks. I accept that there is one area of change in the draft treaty, and that is in respect of justice and home affairs. However, that is very much a British agenda, and the Government have long advocated better co-ordinated action against organised crime, terrorism and illegal immigration. These are shared problems that require shared solutions—as I proposed, for example, at a conference in Avignon in October 1998.

The draft treaty would help us to achieve that, for example by speeding up decisions through greater use of qualified majority voting. However, we are not talking of grand new areas of Union activity. The Union already acts in these fields. That decision was made at Maastricht, which brought co-operation on justice and home affairs within the Union. The treaty of Amsterdam then extended co-operation on immigration and asylum issues.

Some of the Convention's proposals in the area of criminal procedural law could result in more significant change, but I have made it clear—in this House and in the White Paper—that these proposals would not be acceptable to us. We support the provision of minimum standards at EU level in some areas, such as access to an interpreter to protect British citizens facing criminal proceedings in other member states. However, we will oppose in the IGC any measures that would undermine our system of common law and criminal law.

It would be rash to predict the outcome of the negotiation in the IGC. What I can say, however, based on lengthy discussion with my EU counterparts in Italy 10 days ago, is that no member state will be seeking to surrender its national sovereignty.

As the IGC gets under way, there will no doubt be new ideas coming forward, some of which we will want to resist. Tomorrow, the European Commission will publish a white paper on its proposals. The Commission shared some of its suggestions with Foreign Ministers at our informal meeting 10 days ago. Let me make it clear that some of those ideas are not acceptable to us, nor to many others, not least any proposal that would remove Parliament's final authority over changes to international treaties. We are opposed to that, and we shall make that clear.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

For all the froth and fury, what we are witnessing today is a Conservative party not so much raging against the proposed constitutional treaty before us but against the EU—and, more particularly, Britain's place within it. The most impassioned comments of the right hon. Member for Devizes—complaints about the primacy of EU law, a common foreign and security policy, and many other matters—dealt with proposals that were not dreamed up for the future by the Convention. Those matters are existing elements of the EU and were signed up to by Conservative Governments—in 1972, 1986 and at Maastricht in 1992.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

No, as I am coming to a close.

Those were the issues that were before the House in 1992, and the House came to the decisions that we know about. The difference today is that the small group of zealots—I remember them very well— who did their best to bring down the previous Conservative Government in 1993 are now in charge of the party. And the greatest zealot of them all—the hon. Member for Stone—is now writing the script for the right hon. Member for Devizes.

I listened with great care to the right hon. Member for Devizes, who denied that the Conservative party was intent on a policy that would withdraw a Conservative Government from Europe. He should have seen the face of the hon. Member for Stone as he tried to assert that the Conservative party remains actively committed to Europe. We know that the hon. Gentleman would like Britain to be outside Europe. We also know that the leader of the Conservative party said, not many years ago, that the public was ready to go for Britain repatriating its powers from the EU, and that that could eventually mean pulling out. Mr. Duncan Smith also went on to say:

"I welcome everything that moves us closer to the point where we can say 'No' on Europe.

The truth is that the Conservative party today—and it should have the honesty to spell this out—is aiming to dismantle the existing EU and to undermine Britain's place in it, irrespective of the damage that would be done to Britain's interests, jobs and influence.

In his heart of hearts, I suspect that the right hon. Member for Devizes recognises the hopelessness of that cause. He knows that none of the 24 other countries that will be attending the IGC over the next few months remotely supports what he says; nor do they recognise the illusory utopia of "associate membership" to which his party is increasingly attached.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

There is a clear divide: between a party determined to take Britain out of Europe, undermining our living standards and our position in the world, and a Government who are working for Britain in Europe, to deliver peace and prosperity. I urge the House to oppose the motion and to support the amendment.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 5:30, 16 September 2003

The Foreign Secretary was visibly moved a little while ago when he paid tribute to Anna Lindh. He can most certainly be assured that when he attends her memorial service he takes with him the sympathy of the whole House and the sense of horror that some feel that such an event should have taken place in a society that prides itself on openness, tolerance and accessibility to politicians.

Mr. Ancram, who spoke on behalf of the Conservative party, sought to introduce a Scottish constitutional concept to the debate. He argued that sovereignty rested with the people. That is an entirely Scottish constitutional concept, as set out—as he will be well aware—in the case of MacCormick v. the Lord Advocate. However, it is not a British, or United Kingdom, constitutional doctrine, at least not since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. Furthermore, I am not sure that the concept assists the right hon. Gentleman in the case that he wants to make today. If Parliament is sovereign, it is entitled to repeal the 1972 Act and, as a consequence, the results of the passing of that Act would be rendered nugatory.

That was always the answer to those who said that there was no mechanism for withdrawal from either the European Economic Community or the European Union. If Parliament, which cannot by the constitutional tradition that applies here bind itself for the future, were to choose to repeal that Act, the obligations contained in it and the treaty on which it was based would simply fly off. Despite his determination to try to import a Scottish concept, about which I am pretty sympathetic, the right hon. Gentleman may care to consider whether it sits entirely favourably with the general position that he seeks to adopt on sovereignty.

There is a distinction in that the Convention proposals provide for an express right of withdrawal, but my view has always been that there was at least an implied right of withdrawal, because of the doctrine of Parliament's constitutional supremacy.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his courtesy. Unlike the Foreign Secretary, he has given way.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the provision allows for withdrawal only if the majority of member states in the European Parliament agree and if there is an acceptance of all the conditions laid down over two years of negotiations? The idea that there is an open exit clause is absolute rubbish. One can only get out if the others agree and if one accepts all the conditions.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I would read the provisions in the Convention proposals along with the principle upon which I have spent a little time addressing the House. Taking the two together, there is a right of withdrawal and, in my view, sovereignty is not irreversibly prejudiced.

We have discussed this topic on a number of occasions recently, to the extent that I cannot help but believe that a whole industry may grow up dedicated to an exegesis of the speeches made in this and previous debates. In my case, I hope that it will be found that there is little of academic interest as I intend, as far as I can, to say what I have said on at least three previous occasions in the past two or three months.

First, I believe, as does my party, that the United Kingdom should be at the heart of Europe. In that regard, I pray in aid the Prime Minister and his predecessor. I believe, notwithstanding the events of the weekend, that it is in the long-term interests of the UK to be a member of the single currency. I also believe that the current Convention proposals do indeed raise issues of constitutional significance in relation to the charter of fundamental rights, the passerelle clause and, indeed, the right to withdraw, about which we have just heard some exchanges.

I further believe that, if the Convention proposals survive the IGC in their present form, there ought to be a referendum of the British people.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I want to finish this part of my speech, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

It is my belief that, as a matter of principle, a referendum is necessary when a Government bring before the House proposals that involve a major shift in control, any transfer of significant powers from member states to European institutions or any alteration to the existing balance between member states and those institutions.

I give way to Mr. Cash. [Interruption.] For the first time in my political life, I appear to have satisfied the hon. Gentleman, but I am not banking on it.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that the case for a referendum would be undeniable if the current draft made it past the IGC without amendment. Given that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has clearly stated the Government's red lines, if the Government were successful in preventing us from going over those red lines, would the Liberal Democrats agree that there is no case for a referendum?

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully, he would have observed that I chose the charter of fundamental rights, the passerelle clause and the right to withdraw, none of which, I understand, will be subject to Government objection. Indeed, when the Foreign Secretary introduced the White Paper just a few days ago, I said that I thought that the so-called red lines drawn by the Government were entirely right and apposite and that defence, foreign affairs, social security and our own resources should remain the exclusive responsibility of the House.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I wish to make some progress if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

On this occasion, therefore, we shall support the motion, not because I wish to be part of some outer Europe or, indeed, to renegotiate in its entirety the European settlement, but because I want the United Kingdom's role in Europe to have the endorsement of the people of the United Kingdom. In particular, I want to re-energise the support of those generations who have no knowledge, even at second hand, of the carnage of the two world wars, which so disfigured Europe and which were an overwhelmingly powerful motive in the minds of those who began with the fledgling European Coal and Steel Community. I also want to inform better those who fail to understand the enormous political significance of enlargement, accomplished in 14 brief years since 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin wall and the subsequent collapse of the Warsaw pact.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I simply want to make it clear, as we do at paragraph 62 of the White Paper, that we intend to seek changes to the passerelle clause. I have made that clear before.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I shall wait to see what those changes amount to. I shall now refer to the charter of fundamental rights because the Government have been rather coy about that issue, and it might be helpful to the House to know precisely what is the meaning of the final paragraph of that section of the White Paper.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

On a point of information, the Government, who tabled more than 200 amendments to the draft constitution in the Convention, did not table an amendment to the passerelle clause, so, yet again, the Foreign Secretary is saying one thing here, but he did not follow it up with trying to amend the draft constitution when he had the opportunity to do so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that, by implication, the Government have accepted that damaging part of the draft constitution.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

It might be said to be my night, because I have satisfied Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

No, I will not give way. [Interruption.] No, I do not believe in the principle of third time lucky.

It is essential that we have some stability in Europe. We had the treaty of Maastricht in 1992. Before that, we had the Single European Act. We had the treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 and the treaty of Nice in 2001. It is as though Europe has been living through a permanent cultural revolution. There really ought to be some stability both in the institutions and the arrangements that are made for the regulation of European Union activities.

The enlargement to which I referred a moment or two ago is, as the Foreign Secretary rightly says, the stimulus for the Convention and its proposals. It is technically true that we could have enlargement without a fresh treaty. It would be a pretty peculiar union if we did, however, and it would essentially be a recipe for sclerosis, obstructionism and, ultimately, instability. Furthermore, those who see conspiracy at every turn—perhaps that has not been evident in this debate, although it features from time to time in the other place—should ask themselves whether it is conceivable that Estonia, which endorsed the principle of EU membership at the weekend, having broken out of the bonds and the yoke of communism, would voluntarily enter a conspiracy that would have the effect of denying it the freedom that has been so hard won.

Is the draft perfect? Of course it is not. On subsidiarity and proportionality, it is too weak and requires strengthening. There ought to be a red card rather than a yellow card, if I may use the colloquialism of the time. On freedom of information, I still do not believe that the Convention proposals go far enough.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Notwithstanding the Foreign Secretary's assurances about his future good intentions in relation to the passerelle clause, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think it significant that the Foreign Secretary made no such commitment to seek improvement in the subsidiarity and proportionality protocol, even though that protocol imposes no obligation whatever on the European Commission to scrap inappropriate legislative proposals?

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

The Foreign Secretary did not mention that topic today, but I have at the back of my mind that there may be provision in the White Paper. Certainly, on many other occasions when we have discussed this topic, I believe that the Foreign Secretary has dealt with the question of subsidiarity and proportionality, but, as I believe that Mr. Bercow and I have agreed in the past, talking about it is not enough. Measures must be found that ensure that the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality is applied and, in particular, applied rigorously. I have said already that in so far as the Government make no concession on defence, tax, social security or own resources that is entirely appropriate.

At least some of the debate has centred on the White Paper. I hope that it will not be thought churlish if I say to the Government that it is a great pity that we have not had a full-scale debate on it in Government time. I detect a certain amount of coyness in the Government's position as reflected in the White Paper, as I think that only 12 pages out of 60 deal with detailed consideration of the text. That coyness is particularly evident in paragraph 103 on page 39, which I raised with the Foreign Secretary during his statement following the publication of the document. It states:

"The Government will make a final decision on incorporation of the Charter into the draft Constitutional Treaty only in the light of the overall picture at the IGC."

When I described that language as delphic, the Foreign Secretary was unwilling to agree. Perhaps he might agree, however, with the description "elliptical". It is by no means clear what the Government's position is on the matter. The fundamental question—the word "fundamental" gets thrown about on these occasions—is whether the Government would be willing to veto the ultimate product of the IGC if they did not receive some kind of satisfaction with regard to that particular provision. For my part, I have no quarrel or difficulty with the rights that are contained within the charter. They mirror to a large extent, but not entirely, those provisions contained in the European convention on human rights. The distinction, as I have said previously in the House, is that the Government went to the country on a manifesto in which they said that they would repatriate into domestic law the right to vindicate rights under that convention, so that people would no longer need to go to Strasbourg but could seek to raise human rights issues in United Kingdom courts. On that, it is reasonable to say that the Government had a popular mandate, but they have no such mandate on the charter of fundamental rights. Given that that raises constitutional issues, it is one of the reasons why a referendum is important.

I confess to some difficulty understanding the Government's attitude to a referendum in general. There is no doubt that the process has gone beyond the tidying-up to which Ministers made reference earlier.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

On the wider political point, it is quite interesting that the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats agree. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman speculate on whether there is concern in the Government about what happened in Sweden and the fact that the European public are apparently increasingly convinced that Europe is run by business and political elites? Whether one is a Eurosceptic or a European enthusiast, surely there is a strong case for a referendum to overcome those doubts and give the Government an opportunity to make their case.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman would find careful scrutiny of the Swedish campaign and the decision that was taken in Sweden rewarding, because much evidence suggests that many people who voted against the proposal were worried because they thought that the European Union provided far too much opportunity for the operation of the market. They were worried about the social standards in Sweden that are paid for by substantial tax rates—they are higher than those in this country—numbers of public sector jobs and that the role of the state would be substantially curtailed if the country became part of the single currency.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

In a moment.

Of course, that position would be somewhat inimical to the one that Mr. Leigh and his party would prefer to adopt and indeed that of which the Prime Minister tried to persuade the European Union as a result of the Lisbon summit. Does the Minister for Europe wish to intervene? I appear to have satisfied him, so perhaps I should quit while I am ahead.

If the Government are not moved by principle, how about being motivated by pragmatism? Can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, imagine the disappointment in the editorial suites of certain newspapers if the Government announced that they were willing to hold a referendum, or the deep depression that would centre over Smith square? The Government should think again. They have been prepared to change their mind on the question of a referendum. Without prior warning or consultation, they determined, on a referendum, devolution to Scotland, which John Smith had described as unfinished business. There is still time for the Government to recant, but in the meantime we shall support the motion.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South 5:48, 16 September 2003

I suppose that one's approach to the debate and the motion on the referendum will be affected by whether one believes that the draft constitution and the intergovernmental conference are simply tidying-up exercises and nothing to worry about because much has been agreed prior to the IGC and the constitution will simplify matters, or whether one believes those who say that the IGC and the treaty are of fundamental importance. I say at the outset that I take the latter view, not because I believe that it is impossible to make the argument that the process is a tidying-up exercise but because we are dealing with a treaty yet missing a fundamental issue: the European Union is a process. Events within the process determine the way in which the EU will move on in the next generation and, in my humble opinion, this is one such event.

A single currency is not needed for a single market—I have never believed that, and we have proved it—but it is needed for a united states of Europe. Why do we need a constitution? A treaty similar to those of the past could have dealt with matters such as enlargement, changes to the Commission and the five-year presidency of the Council. We do not need a constitution for that, but we need one for a united states of Europe.

Those are the fundamental flaws in this afternoon's debate. Understandably, we are concentrating on the constitution, but, with respect, the Government are making a mistake in ignoring what has happened in the past. The Single European Act and Maastricht were the most important milestones in the development of the European Union. It is rather strange for Ministers to try to destroy Conservative arguments by saying, "We don't need a referendum on the constitution because the Single European Act and Maastricht were much worse, and the Conservatives did not have referendums on those." I do not follow that logic. We should look to consult the British people on the constitution because it is a milestone in the development of the European Union, and if we are prepared to face up to the compelling logic of that process it is clear that it has only one objective—a state of Europe. It is no good having a policy in the Labour party of saying that we are opposed to such a state, given that every step of the way we are bit by bit, piece by piece, putting in place the building blocks for it.

That is what we should be discussing today. I do not diminish the importance of the subject of the debate, but I fear that we are missing the target by a mile, as I suspect that the British people are beginning to understand. In view of that, how can we sustain the idea of a referendum on a single currency, which I support, yet not have a referendum on the other building blocks that are necessary to create a state of Europe? We are not being honest with ourselves or with the British people, and it is about time we were.

As far as I am aware, this situation is a first. I have been a Member of the European Parliament, as have hon. Friends sitting next to me, but I cannot remember a European constitution having been presented before. The Government clearly understand the importance of this IGC, because they say in the White Paper that it will affect all our lives and the way in which we govern ourselves. I cannot identify issues that are much more serious than that; the British people should therefore be consulted.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

Does my hon. Friend not accept the words of our Foreign Secretary today that the constitution is effectively all the previous treaties rolled into one and that that constitutes about 80 per cent. of the text? The word "constitution" is just a label put on those treaties.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend, who has served in the European Parliament. I do not have to answer that question, because he knows the process that is going on better than I do—he served in the European Parliament more recently than me. One of the first things with which we were presented in 1984 when I became a Member of the European Parliament was a draft constitution of the European Union, by Altiero Spinelli. The arguments and objectives that we are now considering are not new. If Spinelli were alive today, he would be rubbing his hands with glee because his dream of 1984, which was too far reaching for us then, is now becoming a reality. It is not all being realised, not by a wide margin, but the constitution is an important step in the process.

I shall move on to another concern that I tried to raise the other day in my question to the Prime Minister—public perception. For years, we have tried as politicians to generate interest among the electorate in the European project. No matter what our perspective, we have all agreed that the turn-out at European parliamentary elections is abysmally low. We have failed to generate that interest, most importantly because the British people feel that these matters are the fiefdom of the political elite. I fully accept the results of the Swedish and Estonian referendums on Sunday, which demonstrate that while the people of Europe, particularly the British, are prepared to accept criticisms of apathy or lack of interest, they are no longer prepared to be ignored. If we ignore them on these vital issues I must tell the Government whom I support and whom I am, in the main, proud of, that we shall suffer. The gulf between the political elite—the people driving the agenda forward, whether nationally or internationally—and the people whom we serve is widening at a rate of knots, and that frightens me to death.

We can lose all sorts of things. We can lose elections because of sleaze and spin, but if we start to lose the faith and trust of the people whom we represent nationally and internationally, that is a recipe for a disaster. If we are serious about moving the European project forward and debating that in the House, a failure to hold a referendum now will alienate our people even more. In many ways, we should not be looking at the draft constitution, but should be considering what will come next. As night follows day, there will be another treaty, which will build on the constitution. We should consider what will happen in three or four years' time when another treaty comes along. As surely as night follows day, however, if we do not consult the British people now, they are not likely to trust us ever again when we do go to them on something like the euro. Not holding a referendum is therefore not in the Government's interest.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I am sure that he agrees that every time we get to one of these milestones and do not achieve the informed consent of the British people we lose their trust. The worst enemies of the European Union are those who claim to support it but who are not prepared to consult the people whom we are here to serve.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. We got away with not holding a referendum in 1986 and in 1992. I am arguing as strongly as I can that we will not get away with it again. We have been rumbled—[Interruption.] I hear my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe mumbling. I said "rumble", not "mumble". There is a widespread feeling in my constituency—I am not saying that it is true—that the Government want a referendum only when they can win it. That may or may not be true; only the Government know. But that is people's perception, and in politics, as every right hon. and hon. Member knows, perception is an extremely powerful force.

I hope my contribution has been of some interest to my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. I have tried to express my views as positively as I can, though not uncritically. If we do not bite the bullet, we shall suffer as a result. I wonder whether we shall ever regain the trust of the British people so that we can move forward as we all want, not only in terms of national policy, but as regards the European Union, which is so important to us.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood 6:01, 16 September 2003

The House listened with considerable sympathy to Mr. Stevenson. It will not surprise him to know that I approach the subject from a rather different starting point, but I arrive at a similar set of conclusions to those that he has just enunciated to the House.

I am an unapologetic pro-European. I believe that the United Kingdom was right to join the European Union, that our future is intrinsically tied up with the future of our partner countries in the EU, and that John Major was right when he said that Britain should aim to be at the heart of Europe. So far, for those who have followed my views on these subjects over the years, no surprises, but I think that those of my closest political friends who argue against a referendum now are profoundly wrong. If we are to proceed with the kind of changes envisaged in the draft constitution, it is essential that we first secure the support of the electorate, not just of this country, but of other countries in the EU—support expressed in a referendum. I shall set out the reasons why.

The first is the simplest one to explain. It seems likely that before we get to the end of the process, the majority of other EU member states will put the proposal to their electorates in a referendum. I do not know what language I shall use in Charnwood to explain why France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands will have referendums, yet my constituents, who put me in Parliament to represent their interests, will be denied the opportunity to vote on the proposals—an opportunity that is likely to be granted to the majority of other citizens of the European Union.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

On what authority does the right hon. Gentleman say that France has decided to hold a referendum?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

I base my assertion on the words quoted earlier in the debate, the prediction of President Chirac, and the fact that when they introduced the euro, the French Government had a referendum—

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

I am sorry, but they did. The Maastricht treaty was endorsed by referendum in France by a very tiny majority. Given that history and the French tradition of referendums, in particular under the Gaullist party, it would be a brave Government in France who sought to carry the proposals through against the advice of a Gaullist President, without a referendum.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that he did not know how he would explain to his constituents why this country is not having a referendum, whereas other EU countries are. What excuse did he give to his constituents back in 1992 for the fact that there was no referendum on the Maastricht treaty, whereas France did have one?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

It might not come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I want to develop the argument addressing precisely that point. However, I wanted to begin with the simplest point—it seems likely that, whether or not a referendum occurs in France, there will be a substantial number elsewhere in Europe.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

I should like to make progress.

This is not just a matter of saying "me too", as there is an important issue of principle in saying that the member states choosing to take the referendum route are wrong. The traditional view of British Governments—from Ted Heath onwards—of opposition to referendums is wrong, and I want to explain why. I believe that referendums have an increasingly important part to play in modern democracies. In every western democracy, we face an increasing problem of divorce between our voters and the political elite—exactly the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South made.

Voters increasingly feel that the political elite do not take them seriously and that they think that democracy is about one collective act every four or five years, after which they should be left to get on with it. Increasingly, they are rebelling against that interpretation of how democracy should work. If we insist on maintaining our traditional commitment to a Burkeian representative democracy with only very occasional reference to the electorate through general elections, I believe that, as increasingly important decisions are taken by that route, we shall undermine the legitimacy of those decisions and ultimately put at risk the stability of our institutions.

I think that referendums will, and should increasingly be seen, as the means by which voters are engaged directly in decisions that affect them, but from which they currently feel increasingly divorced. That principle is most simple to apply in dealing with what are avowedly constitutional questions. It is one type of issue when a controversial decision is taken within a constitutional settlement, but a different one entirely when the question is not how constitutional powers are used, but who should have those powers. That is why, when a document described as a constitution is presented to me in a political climate that should increasingly embrace the principle of referendums, I find it easy to say that it should be the subject of a referendum.

That general principle is particularly apposite in the context of the current European debate in this and other European countries. Every observer of the European Union recognises that there is what is referred to in Euro-jargon as a democratic deficit. Anyone who is concerned about the operation of the European institutions must recognise that there is not only a divorce between voters and political institutions and politicians in general, but an especially acute version of that divorce between voters and institutions in Brussels. The tendency among some of my European friends is to say that that problem is easy to solve and can be dealt with by introducing enhanced powers for the European Parliament, but that is to avoid the subject, not address it.

The problem is that voters do not feel engaged with the institutions that have been set up to exercise power on their behalf in Brussels. The divorce that is a general problem with modern politics is a particular problem when applied to the institutions of the European Union. It is for that reason that, even if the Foreign Secretary's argument that there is nothing new in the treaty were true—I do not think that it is—it would not be a sufficient answer to the case for a referendum, as there is an urgent need to re-engage voters in what is happening in their name in the institutions of the European Union.

I have made the case thus far on the ground of principle, for which I make no apology. However, anyone who is engaged in practical politics should assert a principle and consider the practical consequences. It is blindingly obvious that if the constitution were subject to approval by referendum, it would be less likely to pass in its current form. I want to make a couple of comments about that.

First, it is a genuine mystery why people appear to expect the constitution to pass in its current form, given the sense of increasing willingness in the rest of Europe to contemplate subjecting it to a referendum. The history of getting electorates elsewhere in Europe to approve such documents by referendum does not support the view that the constitution is likely to pass unchallenged. It would therefore be doubly absurd for the British electorate to witness the fall of a constitution that we did not like at referendums elsewhere in Europe that we were denied.

The proposition that the constitution would be less likely to pass if we introduced the hurdle of a referendum is hardly a reason to draw back. Surely if we are interested in re-engaging the British electorate with the European process, acknowledging that the constitution would be likely to fall at the referendum hurdle should redouble our determination to tackle the reason for that. We should deal with such questions seriously rather than simply saying, "It's all frightfully difficult and we'll avoid the questions altogether."

Surely if we are to continue to develop Britain's role as an active member of the European Union we need to re-engage the public in the form of European Union that we want to create. It is instructive to consider what we would have to do to set out down that road. It is sad that the short answer is probably that if we achieved the purpose of the new constitutional framework—I should prefer to call it a new treaty for the European Union—as approved by referendum, we would have to start again.

We would have to start again the process on which my right hon. Friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory was engaged on the Convention. We would need to produce a document that more closely reflected the rhetoric about a union of states rather than the continued development of a set of institutions that were born in the political culture of the 1960s. The document would need to be focused much more sharply and demonstrate to the voters of this and other countries in Europe a clear-sighted commitment to providing added value on trade, the single market and the environment. European co-operation on such matters has a serious purpose. We would need an equally clear determination to withdraw the developing tentacles of the European Union from subjects on which its legitimacy is increasingly challenged by me as well as my constituents.

In the context of the modern, decentralised Europe, I do not understand the necessity for European legislation that aspires to tell me that I cannot work for more than 56 hours a week. That is an absurd extension that goes way beyond the common agenda that should be the shared purpose of all European Union member states. Most important, a redrafted document should include a genuine commitment to make accountable the power of the institutions in Brussels to the voters to whom they should be responsible. Accountability in the political cultures of all European Union member states can be realised only if it is exercised overwhelmingly through their institutions. That is how political power in Europe is currently held accountable.

It is profoundly unlikely that such a document could be written by a Convention chaired by an octogenarian former French President whose political instincts were formed in the 1960s. What is needed is a new view of the institutions required for a new, more consumerist, more individualist, and more market-oriented Europe. That is the kind of document that would sail through a referendum in this country and others in Europe, too.

I favour a referendum, first, because other countries are holding them; secondly, because it is right in principle to hold them; and thirdly—and probably most importantly—because a referendum would be the best way to reverse Europe out of a cul de sac and force on the political elites a requirement to move in a more benign direction.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith 6:15, 16 September 2003

I am glad that the Government have rejected the calls for a referendum on this issue; they were absolutely right to do so. It has already been pointed out by Labour Members that the previous treaties into which this country has entered were put through without any proposals for referendums by the then Conservative Government. One can only conclude, therefore, that the present calls for a referendum by the Conservatives are nothing less than opportunistic. At least Mr. Ancram had the grace to look a tad embarrassed when some of his previous statements were read out to highlight the change in his position in so few years.

We must also remember that it was not only the amending treaties that were not subjected to referendums at the instigation of the Conservative party when it had the chance to do so. The actual decision to join the European Union was not initially the subject of a referendum either. It was, of course, the then Labour Government who allowed the voters a referendum on that issue when they came to power.

What is particularly staggering about the present Conservative approach is that the treaty of Rome, to which we signed up in 1972, contained a commitment to moving towards an ever-closer union, and every amending treaty since then has reiterated that commitment, yet now that we have a treaty that replaces that commitment with a different formulation that strengthens subsidiarity and gives member states more rights and the ability to have a greater say in the European process, the Conservatives want to oppose that reform.

The member states will gain from the current proposals, and the larger member states in particular are likely to gain. I know that my hon. Friends the Ministers could not possibly say that, but hon. Members will know that criticisms of the Convention have come not only from the federalist wing but from the smaller states in the European Union. I welcome the fact that the member states, particularly the larger ones, will have the ability to express their views more strongly and effectively through the European Union mechanisms.

When I see the opportunism of the Conservative party on this issue, I am convinced that its strategy is now motivated—at least for a significant number of its Members in this House—by a desire to block the reforms of the European Union and an attempt to prevent changes that would allow it to work more effectively. The objective of that strategy, in some quarters of the party, would be to lead us to total withdrawal from the Union, or at least to a redefining of the Union so that Britain became part of an outer circle of member states.

That is precisely the kind of development about which Mr. Campbell expressed concern. I believe, however, that he and his colleagues are playing into the Conservatives' hands by supporting the undermining of the European Union in the way that he has done today.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman was not in the House during the long and lengthy progress of the legislation on the Maastricht treaty, but Mr. Brian Gould MP, as he then was, introduced new clause 57, which sought a referendum. The Liberal Democrats supported that new clause.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to refer to what happened in the past, but now he is playing into the hands of the Conservatives, who are seeking to diminish the role of Britain in the European Union. That was not the position of the majority of Members previously.

Voices from the Labour Benches have been calling for a referendum. I accept that those Labour Members and the Liberal Democrats are not motivated by a wish to undermine the European Union, but the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Stevenson showed the danger of the position that he is taking. As he said, in two, three or four years there may be another amending treaty. Does he believe that every time there is even the slightest change in the European treaties there will have to be a referendum? He may not take that position, but if we went down that road it would be impossible to avoid the argument for a referendum every time there was even the slightest change to one of the European treaties.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is no. I can think of occasions since we joined the Common Market when referendums should have been held: the European Single Act, the Maastricht treaty and this proposal. I referred to building blocks and milestones. There will be another treaty, and we will have to examine it to see what effect it may have. I do not accept that every small change should necessarily be subject to a referendum, and I have never argued for that.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

The problem with my hon. Friend's formulation of the argument is that he may not see a minor change as a milestone, but others may see it as such or, more likely, represent it as a fundamental constitutional change. The entire British political debate on European Union membership would end up being dominated by a never-ending series of referendums, pre-referendums and post-referendums, which would have the precise effect of making our participation in the European Union an impossibility and would lead to the ungovernability of the EU, which I am sure is the motivation of at least some Conservative Members.

I agree with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that a dangerous gulf is developing between the European elites and the peoples of Europe. Every politician in every Parliament in Europe must recognise that, and must draw conclusions for the operation of our political systems. This problem is not unique to European politics: it is a feature of politics even at local level, as turnouts in local elections frequently prove. There is undoubtedly disenchantment with the European political process. There are many reasons for that. I am not one of those who always blame the media for problems when politicians are not very popular. However, when it comes to the issue of Europe, the diet in some parts of the media of continual Europhobia and of refighting the battles of the second world war is hardly conducive to mature and sensible political debate.

Much more significant than the role of some sections of the media is the fact that we are now living in a dangerous world. Many people are fearful for the future, and worry about the direction of their own country and the wider world. It is not surprising that in such a climate there is a tendency in some quarters to go for the tried and trusted political solutions rather than to take new directions and find new ways of organising international relations. That tendency is more likely to develop, given that many international organisations—not just the EU, but the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations as well—are seen to be failing to meet many of the challenges that they face.

In my view, however, the way to overcome the alienation of the European peoples from the European elite is not to unleash the never-ending series of referendums implied by the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South. We need a twofold approach. First, it is for those of us who support active participation by this country in Europe and European institutions to get out there again and sell the benefits of EU membership—the jobs, trade opportunities and rights for consumers and workers that it has brought us. We must send that message more strongly, emphasising the gains from membership and the dangers that would result from the withdrawal or disengagement favoured by the Conservatives.

Above all, we need a European Union that works more effectively and meets the challenges of the time. Following the changes in eastern Europe in the 1990s, many Members will have been struck by the fact that the banner displayed by demonstrators in those towns and cities as they moved towards democracy was most commonly the flag of the European Union rather than their own traditional national flags. That was because they saw the EU as the hope for the future of not just Europe as a whole, but their individual countries.

As we all know, the hopes placed in Europe by many of those peoples in the 1990s were dashed. The failure of the European institutions vis-à-vis the former Yugoslavia highlights the inability of European structures to deal with the challenges of that time. We can trace much of the disenchantment with the current European arrangements to that failure of the European Union and European bodies to respond to the challenges posed by civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and to the changing political and economic structure of Europe from the 1990s onwards.

Given all that, it is more important than ever for the European Union to be made to work more effectively. The changes proposed by the Convention are necessary for that to happen. It is because so many Conservatives do not want the EU to work effectively and to succeed that they oppose those changes. The issue today, therefore, is not just our continuing membership of the EU; it is whether we stay in the EU or travel down a road that would lead inexorably to our withdrawal in the not-too-distant future.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 6:28, 16 September 2003

I do not think most Members who oppose the Government's present policy of not holding a referendum are interested in slight changes. We are interested in a fundamental change.

I remind the House that deceptions have come from Europe time and again. I have no problem with my European seat, as I received the most votes ever cast for an MEP in my area, so it is possible for me to engage in a real debate about this issue. Mr. Lazarowicz said that we wanted the slightest changes to be subject to a referendum. The constitutional charter of fundamental rights, which in the past had no legal force, will now have full legal effect. When this proposal was first mentioned, however, the Prime Minister told us that it would have no binding force of that kind—that it was only a declaration. Some declaration, today! That is how the ordinary people have been deceived.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I promised not to use too much time, so the hon. Gentleman will have to be quick.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. How many people in North Antrim have said to him, "Well, I'm not very happy about this charter of fundamental rights"? How many have said, "We don't need a constitution", or, "We should at least have a referendum on a constitution"? How many people know what is in the constitution? How many people care?

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

They do care, because I keep them informed. As the Member for that constituency, I tell them what Europe is up to. We need to feed people the facts, and the fact is that this issue is fundamental. It is not a petty matter to tell the people in one breath that this is only a declaration, and then to enter into a thorough programme to turn it into a law that will be applied by a court that is entirely outside this country. The time has come for this Parliament to say, "We are appointed to rule the United Kingdom, and before we can part with any authority we must know how we can deal with wrong decisions coming from Europe." We do have wrong decisions coming from Europe, and everybody knows it.

In order to become part of the new constitution, we are going to duplicate the European convention on human rights. The matter will go the European Court of Justice, and there will be an overspill of much legislation and much argument. How will that benefit the people of this country?

In the past week, we have had an argument about Sweden. Some were saying that the unfortunate murder of the Swedish Foreign Minister would change the people of Sweden, but they had an issue to deal with and their minds were not to be changed. That issue was concern about their country, regardless of the pressures that were applied. Mr. Prodi had the cheek to say, "What has Sweden done! It has put itself outside the heart of Europe." What right has he, an Italian, to tell another country that it has put itself outside the heart of Europe? The Swedish people exercised their democratic rights. People are entitled to those rights, and they must be contested for.

Certain issues—I raised them in a previous debate—are conveniently forgotten, namely the constitutional and religious issues at the heart of each nation. We have heard not a word about them. They have been glossed over because they lead to controversy, and the Europe of today does not want to talk about controversial issues. So we need to have this debate. If the people of these islands want this new constitution, why do we not seek their support for it? Certain Members of this House say that the people want it, so let us find out whether they actually do. If the Prime Minister were convinced that he could win such a referendum, we would have it, but he is not.

The euro gives rise to problems far worse and more dangerous than just the single coinage, which I am against. We are dealing with matters that are at the heart of centuries of development of democracy in this country. We have to take a stand, and the day to do that is when we say, "Let us put the question to the people." As democrats, we will have to accept it if the people vote for it. However, I have learned that, in Europe, we always get rigging. The British public are being refused a say in their own political destiny. The Government of our country are still resisting a referendum on the constitution, and it seems that thousands of citizens from continental Europe may get the chance to vote on whether we in this country should have the single currency. According to the Financial Times of 3 August, 725,000 EU citizens are being negotiated with, so that they can vote on an issue that has nothing to do with them. If they belong to Sweden, let them vote in Sweden, but why should we add to our numbers on the electorate almost a million voters to swing it against what many of the people of this country want? That is not democracy at all; it is rigging the answers. The House should be aware of that and take a stand.

Let us see the negotiations. Let us hear what the country and the Government are going to do. The Government have asked the questions, so how are they going to answer them? If the Government say, "We want this" and Europe says, "Well, you are not having it", will the Government cave in? That is what we want to know. Will they make a stand anywhere along the line on that issue? I say to the Government that they need to take a stand on this issue and they need to make it speedily, because we are drifting into a position in which ordinary people do not want to talk about it because they do not trust us. When trust between Parliament and the people disappears, the result will be anarchy.

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East 6:36, 16 September 2003

Time is short, but I should like to add a few remarks to this important debate. I should like to quote a former Prime Minister who said:

"I am the first to say that on many great issues the countries of Europe should try to speak with a single voice. I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the World."

That Prime Minister was, of course, Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher, and the speech was the one she made in Bruges. It is highly relevant to our debate today. On great issues, the countries of Europe should speak with one voice. That is particularly important when we reflect on why we are debating the draft constitution and why a draft constitution or treaty exists at all.

Next year the 15 members of the European Union become 25. A Europe that was divided in 1988 will now come together again at last. The countries of central Europe will come back into the heart of the European family. That is a historic change, which is why we are having today's debate. As hon. Members have said, the rules and treaties agreed when there were six, nine or 12 member states have been difficult to make work when we are 15, and they will not work with 25. That is why we, as Europeans, have had to return to the treaties and associated issues. That explains the draft constitution and the draft treaty. We are not changing our constitution or our nation. There is no proposal to do that, so there is no need for a referendum. It is unnecessary.

What has been the response of Margaret Thatcher's party to the changes? Have they joined all good Europeans in welcoming the historic event of the coming together of Europe? Are they pleased that Europe is one again? No. Their response to one of the most important events in European history is to carp and to nitpick. They have opposed referendums in the past and their natural position is to continue to oppose them. I find their stance today to be in bad faith, which is what we Europeans must not have. We must have good faith and work together.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk 6:38, 16 September 2003

May I first associate my colleagues and myself with the remarks made by the Foreign Secretary and Mr. Campbell about Anna Lindh? It was indeed a terrible tragedy for a remarkable politician and a personal tragedy for her family. We all feel powerfully moved at this time.

At the heart of this debate is the issue frequently raised by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the current Leader of the House: how do we reconnect the peoples of Europe with the EU, how do we return to them a sense of ownership, and how do we rid them of the sense that the European project is being driven inexorably and undemocratically by the elites of Europe? Indeed, on the Foreign Office website we are reminded that at the heart of the Convention's considerations was the reconnection process, to make the EU's institutions more effective, efficient and democratically accountable, thus increasing transparency and simplification.

Well, we know what has emerged. The question is how what is proposed achieves those key objectives. How will that sense of ownership be returned to the citizens of the member states? Most importantly, can the draft constitutional proposals be significantly amended to achieve that? How can the public express their legitimate views?

In the foreword to the IGC White Paper, "A Constitutional Treaty for the EU", the Prime Minister confirmed that Governments had said that the treaty

"will be the starting point for negotiations."

However, the Foreign Secretary appeared to suggest that the essential text had been agreed. At the IGC, many European leaders certainly do not expect or favour substantial changes. It is worth remembering that the Prime Minister, in his Warsaw speech, originally rejected calls for a single, legally binding document called a constitution, and called instead for a charter of competences. In an excellent speech, Mr. Stevenson recalled that sentiment.

So the Government's difficulty is now simply one of trust. As the former Italian Prime Minister and Convention delegate, Lamberto Dini, has observed,

"Anyone in Britain who claims the Constitution will not change things is trying to sweeten the pill for those who don't want to see a bigger role for Europe. The Constitution is not just an intellectual exercise. It will quickly change people's lives, beginning with the Human Rights Charter . . . After that it will bring changes in many other areas. Eventually the Union will be able to make legislation of its own. It will become an institution and organisation in its own right."

Joschka Fischer made a similar comment, when he said

"We have a draft constitution that is worthy of the name historic."

That is indeed the case.

So we have a problem. There is absolutely nobody of any consequence who agrees with the Government's interpretation of the impact of the constitutional treaty. The simple starting point to remedy the sense of alienation that so many British people have from the EU and its powers is to tell the truth, and thus give the debate true legitimacy. If people believe that they are being told lies, invariably some will simply switch off or, more disastrously, take on extreme postures.

For example, let us look at the charter of fundamental rights. We heard that it would not be incorporated into the treaty, that it involved no new set of enforceable rights, and that it was not legally binding. It is now in the treaty, game, set and match. All the way through, other European leaders have made it clear that it would be incorporated and have powerful legal resonance, but the British repeatedly said that the reverse was the case. There is a legitimate argument about all this, but the starting point must be honesty. The idea that what is now before us at the IGC is of no constitutional significance is just untrue, and it ill serves the Government to say otherwise.

At the heart of the problem in the relationship between this country and the EU has been our almost total lack of influence under this Government. It would be inconceivable that the substantial budgetary rebate, the creation and driving forward of the single market and the opt-out on the single currency—so welcome to our people—could ever have happened under this Government, whose policy on Europe appears to be no policy at all. They are just carried along in the slipstream of others. What really significant part of the constitutional package before the IGC was driven by the British Government? It was not the written constitution, which they originally opposed. Nor was it the incorporation of the charter of fundamental rights, the EU diplomatic service or the collapsing of the three pillars.

Before the Convention, European leaders and Governments clearly set out their stall—their vision and view—about what an enlarged Europe should look like. It was others who drove this agenda, certainly not us. It has been a cataclysmic failure of British nerve and influence that Britain has been on the sidelines of the debate. Mr. Hain, the former Minister for Europe, proposed amendments to the Convention that were thrown out with monotonous regularity.

At Nice, a campaign should have been started to see off the important constitutional changes. Similarly, in six years not one power has been returned to the member states and our national Parliament in the name of subsidiarity—a principle instigated and fought for by a British Government who talk so freely about the democratic deficit.

However, we are where we are, and the policy of denial continues. I echo the point made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell, who spoke so tellingly. We know that Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain will hold referendums, and that Portugal, Italy, France and the Netherlands may follow suit. The matter is now also being examined in Austria and Germany. Only the British Government deny the importance of this constitutional architecture, and they also want to deny the British people the chance to express their view, whether for or against. The idea that the matter is somehow of less significance than the mayoralty of Hartlepool is beyond parody.

Opposition Members have been scouring the media for a rational explanation from Government Front Bench Members, to give us an insight into their thinking. At a time when the Prime Minister has admitted that the matter is of fundamental importance, the Minister for Europe gave us an entirely risible insight into this debate in an article in the New Statesman dated 25 August.

There is no time for me to quote from the article, but I invite hon. Members to read it. It is incredible that this should be the justification—the background, the mood music—for the huge constitutional change that is before us. His notion that cultural identities have not been undermined by the EU has nothing to do with the constitutional problems that beset us. If the Minister for Europe is so confident about his assertions, I invite him to let the people decide.

Additionally, there is a functional flaw in the Government's position. The Foreign Secretary has spelled out a series of red lines, or "insistences", that he will put before the IGC. Of course, our Government have the right of veto but I simply put to the Minister for Europe the very obvious point that, in the inevitable discussion and horse-trading at the IGC, we have already effectively sold the pass. How much better would it be if the Foreign Secretary were able to say that he could not accept a particular proposal because it has to go before the British people to seek their approval? Even the Adrian Mole school of diplomacy might suggest to the Foreign Secretary that that would greatly strengthen his hand. It might, for example, enable him to win much clearer rights for national Parliaments, including a power of referral back to the Commission, and real powers of rejection that would give real meaning to the principle of subsidiarity.

Finally, let us remind ourselves of how this Constitution opens. It says:

"Reflecting the will of the citizens and states of Europe to build a common future . . . "

How can the Minister for Europe explain how it does that if the people have not been asked? How have the Government divined the citizens' will? They have certainly not done that through their website on the draft constitutional treaty, and the matter was not even in the Labour party's manifesto. They cannot have made the divination from opinion polls, because the polls' message is clear, or from talking to constituents, because we know that constituents do not want the constitution. There is some sort of Mystic Meg influence guiding the Government's thinking.

We believe that the constitution takes the EU in the wrong direction. Others certainly disagree with that point of view, but no rational and honest individual can deny that the matter has immense constitutional significance for a country that has never had a written constitution before. It will be to this Government's unending shame, when history makes its judgment, if the people of this country are denied the opportunity to express a view. To deny them that is a dereliction of the Government's obligations to the people of this country.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 6:49, 16 September 2003

This has been a good debate. We have just heard a fine speech from Mr. Spring, the shadow Minister for Europe, although I think that I may have read it in the Daily Mail about nine months ago; apart from the invitation to read the New Statesman, which I thoroughly endorse, he read it out with considerable vim and vigour. I shall not read from a prepared text, but will try to reply to the debate itself.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk yet again made the point that this matter was not included in the Labour manifesto, but we actually put it to the British people:

"Labour wants the next Inter-governmental Conference in 2004 to address public concerns about the way the EU works, spelling out in a clear statement of principles what should and should not be done at European level."

That is precisely what we shall now begin to do.

Occasionally, it is important to read the motions before the House. The Opposition motion refers to the constitutional draft presented by Mr. Giscard d'Estaing as though it were a given—a settled end text—but it is not.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Sir Michael Spicer should have done the House the courtesy of being in the Chamber for more than two minutes of the Rothermere speech that we have just heard. Mr. Francois has been here for the debate so I willingly give way to him.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the Minister for giving way.

The Government's position, with which I disagree, is that they will not grant a referendum on the current draft of the treaty. However, may I ask the Minister a question about principle? Because of the nature of the IGC there are bound to be some changes in the draft before it finally emerges as a definitive text. When the Government have the definitive text, post-IGC, will they at least reserve the possibility of granting a referendum after the IGC process?

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it clear that if in the Government's opinion there are such fundamental changes in the relationship between the UK and its European partners as a result of the end text from the IGC, Parliament can clearly take a view of how it then wants to discuss or ratify the matter.

May I return to the points made by hon. Members who gave considered speeches? I do so as someone who, like most Members, actually loves being a Member of this place, who likes the House of Commons, enjoys sitting on these green Benches and thinks of all the other right hon. and hon. Ladies and Gentlemen who have sat here over the decades and centuries. When I do not have a final text to consider or to discuss with the House, I am honestly reluctant to accept that several hundred years of parliamentary tradition should be thrown out of the window by conceding the cause for a Rothermere referendum—a plebiscite—that will hand most power to the press.

The Opposition have been clear from day one that the campaign was launched by the anti-European press; they said that they wanted a referendum to say no to Europe, not to test the will of the British people. Mr. Campbell, who spoke after the two main introductory speeches, called for a referendum as a matter in principle, but in another place his colleague, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said:

"I am bound to say that I remain rather an old fogey regarding national referendums: I prefer to see parliamentary democracy work if it possibly can."

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is obviously a young fogey, as he wants to throw away parliamentary democracy and sign up for a referendum.

Another of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's colleagues, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dahrendorf, said that

"this is not a constitution, and no national referendum will change the fact that it is an international treaty to set up a limited number of supranational procedures and institutions."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 180–204.]

I invite the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider that point. What will be brought back to the House will be a treaty, which the Government will seek to sign, and its translation into law in this place.

If we believe in parliamentary democracy, we should wait and see what is in that treaty. The former Prime Minister, Mr. Major, put that point well when he spoke on the "Today" programme. He said that he was in favour of a referendum if the treaty so changes our relationship with the EU, but he said that we should wait and see. I invite the House to be a little patient.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, as he has been in the Chamber throughout the debate.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

I thank the Minister for giving way and for his references to centuries of parliamentary democracy, but perhaps he can tell the House what the point was of the referendum in 1975, proposed by a Labour Government who had renegotiated the treaty. They were not proposing to leave the EU; they were seeking affirmation of their renegotiation.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Of course if people had voted no, we would have left. Frankly, the 1975 referendum should be examined, as it relates to the point made so strongly by Mr. Dorrell, who argued that the process of holding referendums somehow reconnected people to their elected political representatives. Well, I wish I could tell the House that I was persuaded by that argument. I have some experience because I worked in Geneva for some years—as hon. Members used to remind me—where referendums are held on every subject at national, cantonal and city level. I have to say that the turnout at elections and the standing of political leaders in Switzerland is—believe it or not—lower than in this country, so I fear that the notion that a referendum is somehow a magic key, a Harry Potter spell, to reconnect politicians and the people cannot be sustained.

My hon. Friend Mr. Stevenson argued very strongly that we were going towards a state called Europe. I think that I quote him accurately. With all due respect to my hon. Friend—we have been friends for many years—I have to say that I am not sure that people could make that speech in almost any other European country and have their argument taken seriously. The notion that the eastern European countries that have voted so overwhelmingly to join the EU have done so because they are joining a state that somehow replaces their own is simply not a receivable argument. It is receivable in the Rothermere press and on the Conservative Benches, but it could not be made in Paris, Ireland or Spain, or in any other EU country.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The hon. Gentleman has been here as well, so I shall give way.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

The first sensible thing that I have heard the Minister say is that Mr. Stevenson made a fine speech, as many people would agree. Will the Minister clarify the position on the passerelle clause, because the Foreign Secretary told the European Scrutiny Committee the other day that the Government would seek to get it changed? Did any member of the British Government seek to table an amendment to the passerelle clause in the Convention on the Future of Europe?

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The clause in question was inserted very late in the day. It was not introduced during the flow of things, as Mr. Heathcoat-Amory—who is not here, alas—would acknowledge. That is exactly what we shall have to discuss on 4 October, and those in other European capitals all want changes, as I know from my all my contacts with them.

Many institutions and individuals want changes. I have here a letter to sign off tonight to the Royal National Institution of the Blind, which wants more QMV in EU anti-discrimination legislation. We are saying that that should stay a question of unanimity, so I will have to disappoint the RNIB, but I expect that, as it represents the blind people of Britain, it would rather have more authority at European level to produce Europe-wide legislation, covering the problems that blind people face. The right hon. Member for Charnwood would say, "Oh well, that isn't really a European competence." He should discuss that with the RNIB.

Rev. Ian Paisley insisted on the sovereignty of Parliament. I think that I quote him correctly, so I am not quite sure, because I did not quite follow the thread of his argument, why he is proposing to transfer that sovereignty to a referendum. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) made the good point that we, as Members of Parliament, need to discuss—

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 177, Noes 250.

Division number 313 EU Constitution

Aye: 177 MPs

No: 250 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 241, Noes 165.

Division number 314 EU Constitution

Aye: 241 MPs

No: 165 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


"That this House welcomes the Government's commitment to keeping Parliament fully informed of the progress of the IGC negotiations, including through the publication of a White Paper, and to continued intense Parliamentary scrutiny of the draft Constitutional Treaty; believes the proposals from the Convention on the Future of Europe are a good starting point for discussions between the elected governments of the EU's member states; further believes that, as the proposals do not alter the fundamental constitutional relationship between the EU and its Member States, and the role of national parliaments is strengthened, there is no reason to depart from the precedent set by previous governments, which rejected referendums on previous constitutional treaties; and notes that it will be for Parliament to decide on whether it should become part of UK law."