European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 21st January 2008.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 6:00 pm, 21st January 2008

The former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, stood at the Dispatch Box and told the House of Commons that at his insistence, the question of a legal personality for the EU had been removed from earlier negotiations. He felt so strongly about the issue that the Government eventually went with the flow of the argument in Europe, rather than stick up for their view.

Let me move on, given the passage of time. Our next principal objection to the treaty is that it damages the British national interest and weakens democracy by setting up a process of continuing integration beyond the control of the electorate. When Ministers say they are happy to sign the treaty but are opposed to any further political integration after that, they are merely continuing the habit of deception that I detailed earlier. The whole point of the treaty is to create a process of further integration, not to bring a stop to it. As the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, put it:

"As long as we have more or less a European Prime Minister and a European Foreign Minister then we can give them almost any title".

That is how many other countries see the treaty, but it is not how it is described by the Government. The creation of a permanent President of the European Council, elected for two and a half years at a time by majority voting, is a major constitutional innovation in the European Union, and is intended as such. We are all conscious in this Parliament, or we should be, of the way in which the job of First Lord of the Treasury evolved in Britain, steadily developing a grip over Cabinet Departments previously independent of it, and developing into the post of Prime Minister.

The creation of that job took many years—and the present Prime Minister probably feels that it took almost as long to get round to his turn to hold it. To see how the post of a permanent President of the European Council could evolve is not difficult even for the humblest student of politics, and it is, of course, rumoured that one Tony Blair may be interested in the job. If that prospect makes us uncomfortable on the Conservative Benches, just imagine how it will be viewed in Downing street! I must warn Ministers that having tangled with Tony Blair across the Dispatch Box on hundreds of occasions, I know his mind almost as well as they do. I can tell them that when he goes off to a major political conference of a centre-right party and refers to himself as a socialist, he is on manoeuvres, and is busily building coalitions as only he can.

We can all picture the scene at a European Council sometime next year. Picture the face of our poor Prime Minister as the name "Blair" is nominated by one President and Prime Minister after another: the look of utter gloom on his face at the nauseating, glutinous praise oozing from every Head of Government, the rapid revelation of a majority view, agreed behind closed doors when he, as usual, was excluded. Never would he more regret no longer being in possession of a veto: the famous dropped jaw almost hitting the table, as he realises there is no option but to join in. Then the awful moment when the motorcade of the President of Europe sweeps into Downing street. The gritted teeth and bitten nails: the Prime Minister emerges from his door with a smile of intolerable anguish; the choking sensation as the words, "Mr President", are forced from his mouth. And then, once in the Cabinet room, the melodrama of, "When will you hand over to me?" all over again.

There is, of course, a serious point to be made. Occupied by someone with the political skill of our former Prime Minister, that post would become, in not so many years, a far more substantial one than the Government pretend. The President would be seen as the president of Europe by the rest of the world, with the role of national Governments steadily reduced and the role of national democracy and accountability steadily weakened. The naivety of Ministers, who think that by signing the treaty they are agreeing to a static constitutional position, is alarming in people with such senior responsibilities. "Ah," they say, "look at the enhanced role of national Parliaments set out in the treaty." If a majority in half the Parliaments in the EU object to an EU measure, they might be able to block it.

Again, it does not take much political analysis to work out that the chances of that mechanism being employed on any regular basis are vanishingly small. It could be used only if 14 different national Parliaments, nearly all of which have a Government majority, defeated an EU proposal, and did so within an eight-week period. We have only to consider that for a moment, as Members of Parliament, to begin to laugh about it. Given the difficulty of Oppositions winning a vote in their Parliaments, the odds against doing so in 14 countries around Europe with different parliamentary recesses—lasting up to 10 weeks in our own case—are such that even if the European Commission proposed the slaughter of the first-born it would be difficult to achieve such a remarkable conjunction of parliamentary votes.

The last defence of Ministers on the treaty is that they have achieved the defence of their red lines. As Michael Connarty, the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, has judged, the red lines "leak like a sieve". The red lines will be much debated over the coming weeks, but the central fact to remember about them is that the Government claimed to have achieved exactly the same red lines when they signed the European constitution and proposed a referendum.

That brings me back to our strongest objection of all to the Bill. The Government's contention that the treaty is so different from the European constitution that they are relieved of their promise to hold a referendum is shared by few independent observers, and not even by the members of their own party who have given the most time and commitment to the process. As Ms Stuart explained to the Prime Minister—I hope that I shall not embarrass her by quoting her:

"sticking to your guns in defence of a patently dishonest position is not leadership, but the soft option, and a cop-out from a specific promise made to voters."

Whatever the niceties of the argument, by no stretch of the imagination is the treaty so different from the constitution as to relieve the Government of their promise. Every survey on the subject has shown that the vast majority in our country would like to have their say. In the words of the Belgian Foreign Minister, the Government are banking on the treaty being too unreadable for people to worry about it. However, the treaty's constitutional innovations are sufficiently sweeping, and its erosion of our national democracy sufficiently serious, that many of us will have no hesitation not only in voting against it, but in voting for a referendum at every opportunity.

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Leslie Rowe
Posted on 5 Feb 2008 7:08 pm (Report this annotation)

As the Green Party candidate who opposed William Hague at the last election, I find myself in the extraordinary position of agreeing with everything he says in this speech. The dishonourable position of both Labour and Liberal Democrats MPs in reneging on their manifesto promise to support a referendum on the EU constitutional changes is shameful & indefensible. The picture William paints of Gordon Brown squirming in the face of an unelected (by European voters) Euro-president lording it over him is a masterpiece of parliamentary rhetoric. It will not stop my critical appraisal of most of his misguided Tory policies, but on this issue I can only wish there were more MPs with William's eloquence in the House. But come the next election, when Green MPs are elected, this will change!