Constitution for Europe (Referendum)

– in the House of Commons at 1:37 pm on 12th November 2003.

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Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon 1:37 pm, 12th November 2003

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for holding a binding referendum on any Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe before any Bill relating to the Treaty is presented to Parliament.

I do not know how many Members of this House are aware of just how enthusiastic the Government are about referendums. If we were all taking part in a session of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and Mr. Tarrant were to ask us how many referendums the Government have introduced since 1997, I suspect that I am the only person who would get the answer correct—it is 34. We have had a staggering number of referendums. The Government are referendum junkies—except on the most important issue that faces this country at the present time.

Of the other 14 countries in the European Union, six are committed to holding a referendum and two—France and Italy—are debating the matter extremely seriously. The French Prime Minister has said that there should be a referendum, and Mr. Chirac has instituted a consultation process. France held referendums before, in 1972 and 1992. The United Kingdom Government are so worried about what the French Government are doing that our diplomats in Paris are apparently lobbying them not to hold a referendum because it would be extremely embarrassing to the Prime Minister. Yet polls show that 80 per cent. of people in this country—even in Sedgefield and among trade unionists—want a referendum, and that demand is growing. If France and Italy were to sign up to referendums, it would be unstoppable.

We have had a mass of referendums—some on very important issues such as the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and some on trivial issues such as whether Hartlepool should have a mayor—but apparently we cannot have one on this. We had one on the Good Friday agreement, which is a reasonably close parallel in that the constitutional arrangements for governing Northern Ireland were changed and the approval of its people was sought.

I wonder how many Members of the House—or indeed, of the Government—are aware of the very first sentence of the draft constitution, which begins:

"Reflecting the will of the citizens and States of Europe to build a common future, this Constitution establishes the European Union".

How do we know that it reflects the will of the citizens of Europe if we do not ask them? It is a bit presumptuous to include such a sentence if there is no intention of holding a referendum.

One of the canards that the Government put about is that the Conservatives support a referendum because they want a no vote so that they can get out of the European Union. That is not my view. I do not believe that one has to be in favour of the constitution and a never-ending process of integration to be a good European. A no vote in a referendum would tell the Government that people were not prepared to support the constitution and that the Government should negotiate a different constitution or a different relationship between this country and the EU.

It is clear that the process of change is accelerating. From 1956 until the Single European Act in 1985, the treaty of Rome remained substantially unamended. However, there were only seven years between the Single European Act and Maastricht, five years between Maastricht and Amsterdam and three years between Amsterdam and Nice. It appears that there will be three to four years between Nice and the constitution. For 39 years there was almost no change to an economic community, yet in a few short years we have advanced substantially towards a united states of Europe. The direction is clear.

I have much time for those who say, "I want to be part of a federal Europe." There is an argument for that and I can understand it. There is also an argument—with which I agree—that that is not the future of this country. However, there is no case for the people who pretend that what is happening constitutes nothing. The former Minister for Europe compared the constitution to the Beano and said that it did not introduce anything.

On examination, one can find what bothers people such as me about the constitution. It contains some big changes—no one can deny that. Whether they are good or bad is another matter. It provides for a president, a foreign minister, a public prosecutor, a charter of fundamental rights, citizenship, legal supremacy, the sole right to make treaties, more Europol powers, a diplomatic service, stronger language on common defence, harmonisation of criminal law and procedure, and co-ordination of economic and employment policy. There is also the fact of its existence. The European Union already has a Parliament, a supreme court, a currency, a central bank, a common foreign and security policy and military capability. They may not constitute all the characteristics of a state but they amount to a great many of them. It does not need more to reach that point.

The constitution collapses the pillar structure that Maastricht introduced so that there is no veto on justice and home affairs matters. That means a common policy, with qualified majority voting, on asylum, immigration and border controls. We will cede control over those matters to the European Union. The foreign affairs pillar, which has hitherto been kept as a separate intergovernmental pillar, will be compromised by the dual hatting of the foreign minister, who will be secretary-general of the Council and a commissioner. The Commission will thus get a role in foreign policy that it has not previously played.

The pillar structure will go and there will be much more qualified majority voting, including on implementing foreign policy. There is a drive, which the Chancellor says that he will resist, to include social security and tax in qualified majority voting. Competition law is becoming an exclusive EU competence. We shall have no status in competition matters in the future.

We have come a long way since 1956, when we all happily signed up to an economic organisation. I am happy with the Single European Act, which introduced the single market. However, no one then signed up to what we are now approaching. A referendum took place in the 1970s. Before the next stage in the process, the British people should be consulted; there should be a referendum.

Perhaps there should have been a referendum on Maastricht. However, we had opt-outs from the two biggest items in the treaty—the social chapter and the single currency. Nevertheless, perhaps there should have been a referendum. Perhaps referendums should have been held on Amsterdam and Nice. However, the fact that there were no referendums strengthens rather than weakens the case for one now. It will not set a precedent. We have travelled an enormous distance since Maastricht. Since we did not hold a referendum then, it is imperative to have one now. At some point, people must be asked whether they want the process to continue.

One may hold the view that our future is an increasingly centralised European Union. I believe that that will inexorably lead to a single state. That is a tenable view and I understand the people who hold it, especially those who are honest about it and advocate it openly. We may see our future as an independent state in a more flexible European Union, co-operating on an intergovernmental basis to advance common interests. However, the issue bedevils British politics. It bedevils politics between parties and within parties. [Interruption.] There is no point in pretending that the problem does not exist.

The issue bedevils not only British politics between and within parties but British policy making. We have already witnessed that. For example, on defence, the Prime Minister is trying to do two incompatible things at once. He signed up to the St. Malo agreement and subsequently spent four years trying to ensure that European security and defence identity is pulled back into NATO. In the aftermath of the problems in Europe over the Iraq war, a little more leeway is being given on European defence. The Prime Minister must pull that back, too. We are becoming schizophrenic about the matter and that makes for bad policy. It is bad for the country because we are not clear about our destiny.

I would vote no in a referendum, but I would accept a yes vote because the direction of the country and our public policy aims would then be clear. A no vote would also make matters clear. However, if we continue as we are, we shall have schizophrenia in policy making—trying to be in and out, a good European and a good Atlanticist. The dilemmas, whatever they are, will lead to confusion. The issue must be settled so that the policy direction is clear, and that can happen only through a referendum. The time and the issue are right. If the Government are so confident that they are right, let us have a referendum.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda 1:45 pm, 12th November 2003

I am delighted that Mr. Maples has given us an opportunity to debate the issue. However, I am saddened that he appears to have been hijacked by the extreme right of his party.

I confess that I am not a big supporter of referendums. I believe that they are especially inappropriate when trying to deal with the intricacies of creating a treaty. Let us examine the facts. The draft constitutional treaty has 565 clauses, five protocols and two declarations. The vast majority are almost identical to those in previous treaties, but it is important to scrutinise the document line by line, clause by clause, not simply subject it to a question of yes or no. Although a referendum might be appropriate for "Pop Idol" when deciding whether Gareth Gates or Will Young should win, it is unsuitable for examining a treaty. That needs to be done with due diligence and only Parliament can do that. [Interruption.]

Referendums in many parts of the world have often left countries and regions—[Interruption.]

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Referendums can render countries ungovernable. Let us consider California, where subsequent referendums were passed on a cut in taxes every year and on an annual increase in education spending. That made California almost ungovernable. I note that the policies are remarkably similar to those that Conservative Members are trying to advance—a miracle of increasing spending and cutting taxation—but I do not believe that the people of the world will subscribe to it.

A principal problem with referendums is that, on the whole, people do not answer the question that is put to them. Let us consider the 1986 referendum in Spain on whether it should join NATO. I do not suppose that many Conservative Members wanted Spain to vote against joining. However, many people voted according to whether they liked the Government of the day, not on the issue. [Interruption.] I believe that we should hold referendums on only two conditions—[Interruption.]

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already asked that the hon. Gentleman be given the privilege of presenting his opposing view.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I cite one of the late Enoch Powell's points of order? He said that an hon. Gentleman is entitled to speak but not to be heard.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I shall not comment on that matter.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Conservatives are clearly in quite a state today.

I believe that a referendum should be held only when the question is susceptible to a yes/no answer, and I maintain that this treaty is not susceptible to such an answer. Let us take article I.14. I believe that that article needs changing, and I hope that it will be amended. I am certain that the Government are trying to get it amended. But let us say that it stays in. Would that be the issue on which people voted yes or no, or would it be some other part of the treaty? Would people vote against the quotation from Thucydides that starts the treaty because they had hated Thucydides at school? Why would people vote? Would it put Britain in a better position, after a referendum, to argue for a stronger treaty on our behalf, or would it put us in a weaker situation because we would not know what we wanted?

The first condition, then, is that if we are going to have a referendum, it should be susceptible to a yes/no answer. Secondly, it should be advanced only when a substantial change in how we are to be governed is being proposed. I would point out to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon that the ink is not yet dry on the draft constitution document. I should like to quote someone that he might have heard of, who said a few weeks ago in the House of Lords:

"I am concerned also that my own party . . . has so misled itself that it is ready at this stage to commit itself to a referendum on anything that may emerge from the constitutional Convention, not before the ink is dry but before half the wet ink has been put on it. We do not yet know what is going to emerge. It may prove to be an issue so dramatically different from those we have subscribed to in the past as to deserve that response. But I hope very much that my own party will consider carefully the wisdom of committing ourselves in advance to a referendum on this issue".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 179.]

That was no wild lunatic; it was the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe.

If the ink is not yet dry on the document, how can the Conservatives already call for a referendum? They do not know whether the constitution will involve a substantial change. I believe that, so far, the document does not propose a substantial change in the way in which Britain is to be governed—certainly not as substantial as the changes in the Single European Act in 1987, or in the Maastricht treaty in 1992.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon tried to tell us that we were going to have a president, and that we would therefore be entering a superstate. Perhaps he studied a little bit of French at school. The word "président" in French just means "chairman". It is very simple: there is not going to be a president of Europe. The hon. Gentleman is misleading the House.

Let us deal with the pro-referendum—

Hon. Members:

More! More!

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

They will be appearing in panto later in the season, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Let us deal briefly with the pro-referendum arguments. The argument that has already been advanced by so many Conservatives is, "It's good enough for all the other countries of Europe, so why can't we have one here?" For a start, that is factually wrong. I shall correct the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon. Only three countries have so far committed themselves to holding a referendum. Five have said that they are thinking about it, two have said that they will definitely not hold one, and 15 have said that it is extremely unlikely that they will do so. The hon. Gentleman's argument does not hold water in terms of the facts, but it does not do so in terms of logic either.

The logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that, since everyone else is doing it, we should do it too, but that would take us down the route of having qualified majority voting for treaty ratification processes. Why is he not arguing for a single European referendum? That is where his logic is taking him. I believe that it is much better for each country to follow its own tradition. Ireland's tradition means that it will have a referendum because it has to. Germany, following the tradition that we enforced on it in 1948 that it should not have plebiscites, will not hold a referendum because it is constitutionally impossible to do so.

It is particularly interesting that the Tory leadership and Front Benchers are arguing for a referendum. They did not do so for Maastricht. On 21 April 1993, 85 Conservative Members who are still Members of this House voted against a referendum; only 13 voted in favour. Mr. Howard argued forcefully against a referendum, and he was practically manhandling people through the Lobby.

The truth is that the Conservatives want a referendum for nakedly opportunistic reasons, so that they can say no—as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon has already suggested that he would—and so as to start a complete unilateral renegotiation of all the treaties. But it takes two to tango, and it takes 25 to start a renegotiation of the treaties of Europe. The Tories have no one else to tango with or to renegotiate with. All that they are really talking about is withdrawal, and I urge the House to vote against this Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 145, Noes 233.

Division number 359 Constitution for Europe (Referendum)

Aye: 145 MPs

No: 233 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.