European Communities (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 20th November 2001.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:30 pm, 20th November 2001

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out her reply so clearly to the amendments, which, in the case of those in my name, are narrowly focused on the weighting issues. I listened carefully to the Minister's remarks, but I do not think that she explained how, in an enlarged Community, eventually the voting power of the United Kingdom will be rather less. I do not attach too much weight to the issue of less or more voting power. It is my personal view that the real problem lies in the over-centralisation of power in the European institutions. If there had been any beef behind subsidiarity, which turned out to be an empty vessel, or any determination at Nice or at other summit gatherings to return to nation states some of the powers that in today's conditions it is inappropriate to deal with centrally, even though it may have been appropriate to do so in the past, the problem of weighting and the feeling that powers were going to be taken and important decisions made at a high level against national interests would be much reduced.

The arithmetic suggests that, while with the current members—the words that the noble Baroness used—the share of British votes is up, eventually, when the enlargement takes place, our share will go down. I do not know when that "eventually" will be. The Commission has produced an upbeat report about enlargement, suggesting that the whole thing can be tied up for 10 countries by 2004, which is not at all far away. At that point we shall have a shrunken role.

I do not make a major issue of that, but we should get it right for the record. The noble Baroness is right about current numbers, but for the longer term Ministers are not correct in saying that Britain will have a larger share of the votes.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, spoke with great authority and knows a great deal about the mood in the applicant states. We get different impressions from the different places that we visit. There is an opinion poll machine called the Euro-barometer—I find these things very inaccurate—that seems to indicate that popular support for the whole project is waning in a number of applicant countries. But if the noble Lord, Lord Watson, asks why we should believe such polls, he has a friend in me because I find that they can be extremely unreliable.

The generation who first took power after the velvet revolution, who hoped that enlargement would come soon, were driven by a very understandable essential impulse: they wanted to join the club of Western democracy, as expressed by the European Union, and to put as much political space as they could between themselves and the then Soviet Union. The older generation in many central European capitals remains of that view. Despite the new friendship and hand-clasping in Texas by the very skilled Mr Putin—whose Russian Government have been very helpful in the present global anti-terrorism campaign—there remains a deep feeling engraved in many minds by hideous memories that Russia is not the body to be politically associated with and the European Union will give some protection. Running alongside that is the equal wish that NATO should be enlarged still further.

We can see these debates unfolding. The Prime Minister recently made some interesting comments about whether Russia might become related to NATO in some form. This touches on that debate. The older generation wants to get away from Russia and join Western organisations, but the younger generation wants to wait and see whether the modern Russia is really as dedicated to dangers, expansion and territorial seizure as Communist and pre-Communist Russia was for hundreds of years or whether we have a new Russia. They are not sure that it is quite such a high priority to distance themselves from Russia. If they want to distance themselves, they want to ask a question that they did not ask at the beginning: what is the cost? They want to know how much they have to pay in the approval of the acquis to join the club. That mood is undoubtedly present. It leads to a lively debate. It is basically a pro-European—indeed, pro-European Union—debate, but it raises fundamental questions about the governance of Europe that were not addressed at Nice and towards which I do not believe that the Nice Treaty was helpful.

Of course I respect the extremely experienced views of my noble friend Lord Tugendhat. He speaks not only as an experienced business person but as an ex-Commissioner. His judgment is that the treaty is essential to enlargement. Other judgments are that the treaty may help if it works—as long as it works, as the noble Lord, Lord Radice, suggested. Some of my noble friends have argued all along that the treaty is heading for trouble and that before we are through we will have to think about recasting treaty arrangements to move the enlargement process forward.

We have probably quoted Mr Prodi too much and I know that the Minister is tired of my quotations from him, but he let the cat out of the bag when he said that if plan B is necessary and the Irish referendum does not turn Irish opinion round, we will have to come to other means of carrying forward these mechanical arrangements.

We feel that this is the wrong way to achieve the greater European unity and the re-unification of Europe that is now within our grasp. We are not convinced that giving a fair wind to the whole treaty, with all its warts and difficulties, is necessarily the best way to achieve that objective.

In the light of a number of comments, I shall not press Amendment No. 34, but I understand that my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke has another view on his Amendment No. 34A, which he will no doubt utter in a moment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.