European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 7:26 pm on 21st January 2008.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee) 7:26 pm, 21st January 2008

I regret having to turn my back on one of my oldest personal friends in the House. I agree with him entirely: we would have wished to have negotiated this treaty following the enlargement of the Community. Mrs. Thatcher always regarded referendums as instruments that were useful to dictators and others who wished to get round Parliament.

I want to ask myself how we got into this situation. I now find myself in the Chamber surrounded by people who are wildly agitated about the question of a referendum when actually a majority of them went through the last election saying that they wanted a referendum on this subject. I am afraid that I blame the previous Prime Minister. He entirely shared my view of referendums on European treaties. Indeed, he told me so when I had a conversation with him on the subject. More importantly, however, he told more important people than me that he was against holding a referendum—most particularly, President Chirac, whom he assured that he would not have a referendum.

I now move into theory, rather than reporting what Tony Blair told me, but I am quite convinced that the only reason that he startled me, and most of his own party, by completely changing his position on this question was that he had had conversations with Mr. Rupert Murdoch. With the approach of a general election, he was absolutely desperate—as new Labour Ministers, for some curious reason, always are—to have the support of The Sun, and a deal was done that he would hold a referendum on this treaty, which, for some reason, he was confident that he would win, in exchange for Murdoch not turning The Sun against him at the election. I do not regard that as the basis for a great move forward in the British constitution.

I personally think that referendums are a way of weakening Parliament and getting round parliamentary authority on key issues of this kind. I have never accepted that they should be the way forward. For example, the House should vote this evening that it is in favour of the Bill and of the treaty. If we were then to hold a kind of organised opinion poll in which the right-wing press would seek to achieve the result that it wanted, and if ratification of the treaty were defeated, would we all be expected to come back to the House and vote against our judgment of the national interest in line with the result of the referendum? And who on earth is going to tell us what to do in the circumstances that would follow that? That is a question to which I hope briefly to turn in a moment.

I am not remotely impressed by the absurd argument that the treaty is different from the last treaty, although I welcome some of the changes. That is a theological nonsense from people who regret having got themselves into this position and are now trying to get out of it. They are at least now moving to a better position. Nor do I agree with all this red line nonsense as a way of describing the negotiations. It has been a mistake made by British Governments over the years to present their European policies as though they are always going to Brussels to fight demons, and to achieve great victories by beating off threats to our interests. The fact that every Prime Minister since Edward Heath has used that approach to describe such negotiations is one reason why the public have turned so Eurosceptic over the years.

Instead of going through the pantomime of refusing to sign a treaty—that he had negotiated and agreed to—in the company of the other Government leaders, the present Prime Minister should have concentrated, as should the previous Prime Minister, on presenting the public with his argument on why he had negotiated and signed the treaty, and why he believed that it was in the British interest to ratify it. Instead, he followed inglorious precedents by trying to pretend that he was not really there at the time when the document emerged, which is no way to sell it.

I am pro-European, as everyone here knows, and I will not labour my reasons for so being. Pro-Europeans should support a treaty that will improve the workings of the present institutions. I am persuaded that it is no longer essential that an enlarged Community should have to have the new treaty, but the mechanisms for decision making in the Union will be very much improved if we adopt it, compared with what we have at the moment. For that reason, I support it.

I am in favour of the new arrangements for the presidency. It is nonsense to suggest that the President of the European Council will be some kind of giant political figure, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea has just said. I actually think that the new arrangements will be an improvement on the six-monthly national presidencies. Now that we have 27 member states, the present system would involve the Head of Government of each member state coming along once every 13 or 14 years with an agenda for the next six months. All too often, such agendas are aimed at domestic political opinion. Under the new system, we shall have some consistency.

I believe that having one foreign affairs spokesman, rather than two, is an improvement. The new arrangements are perfectly satisfactory because they confirm the intergovernmental nature of foreign policy making. I am all in favour of having a smaller Commission. That is essential and long overdue, although I am amazed that it has been achieved. The new treaty actually strengthens the power of the Councils of Ministers—accountable to Parliaments—at the expense of the Commission. I would have been worried if things had gone too far in that direction, because we need quite a strong Commission to keep the European institutions functioning. However, a smaller Commission is long overdue. I also approve of the improvement of the qualified majority voting system.

I also believe that, although I supported the original treaty, there were real problems with the precise status of the charter of fundamental rights. I was alarmed that quite sensible employers and a number of trade union leaders appeared to believe that a re-statement of the undoubted right to strike meant that, somehow, the European Court was going to reopen all our trade union law. I always thought that that was barrack room lawyer nonsense, but—although I have been rude about the red lines—the changes that have been made between the Giscardian treaty and the present one represent an improvement that clarifies the situation and should put those arguments to rest.

Why do I take this view, when I find myself surrounded by colleagues who take quite alarming views? At least no one has yet gone as far as The Sun, which has declared to its readers that this treaty, if ratified, will result in the end of Britain as an independent state. I have heard that argument used against the European Communities Act 1972, against the Single European Act and against Maastricht. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard used it against the Amsterdam treaty. It is less likely to be true in this case than it ever was in any of the previous ones. People will conclude that we are going to lose control of our foreign policy, for example, only if they believe that the European Union is some kind of organised conspiracy in which the other 26 member states are prepared to sacrifice their sovereignty in order to destroy ours. I do not believe that, and I therefore support the Bill.

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