Draft European Constitution

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 29th March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:00 pm, 29th March 2004

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the implications for the draft European constitution of the recent election result in Spain.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, the Government congratulate Mr Zapatero on his success in the Spanish elections and welcome his commitment to taking forward work on the constitutional treaty for the EU. The European Council agreed last week that negotiations on the new treaty should resume with a view to concluding no later than the next European Council in June. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, will make a full Statement on this to the House later today.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I realise that these matters will, to some degree, be covered in the Statement later. However, did the Minister note the Prime Minister's statement on Friday that, after the events in Spain, he is in favour of a quick agreement on the constitution and that the constitution is a good thing? Has she also noticed the excellent report about the European Court of Justice from this House's European Union Committee that confirmed that powers will be transferred to the Union by the draft constitution? That is contrary to what Ministers have claimed and asserted in recent months. How can the Prime Minister go on saying that that is a myth? How can he go on saying that it will be good to have this constitution when it means transferring powers to unaccountable central institutions? Can the Minister shed any light on the complete contradiction that confronts us now, quite apart from what will be said in the Statement later this afternoon?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, on the noble Lord's final point, I refer noble Lords to the 41st report of the European Union Committee, which states:

"The draft Treaty makes plain the intention that the European Union remains a union of sovereign member states . . . It is clear that the balance of power is going to shift from the Commission to the Member States".

That is what our own Peers have said. That is what we have discussed on a number of occasions. We have been over this issue. There may be differences of opinion but your Lordships' own peer group said something quite different.

On the other point mentioned by the noble Lord, we look forward to a swift conclusion to the negotiations. The treaty is an important step forward. It spells out that the EU is a union of nation states. We believe that it reinforces the role of your Lordships' House and another place in ensuring that the EU legislates only where it can provide added value.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that conferred competences are the basis of the draft treaty? It is very clear from the draft constitutional treaty that competences not explicitly transferred to the European Union remain with member states. Therefore, there is no transfer of sovereignty to be feared in this draft treaty that is comparable to the Single European Act passed by the previous administration.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, I emphatically agree. My noble friend Lord Tomlinson has spoken with his usual admirable common sense and I remind noble Lords that my noble friend is not alone in taking that view. I do not know many noble Lords are avid listeners to the "Today" programme. I listened to it on Saturday and was very pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, say:

"Why did Mrs Thatcher not have a referenda on the Single European Act?"

He went on to say that it was:

"far and away more significant in the surrender of British sovereignty than anything involved in the present constitution".

It was not a noble Lord on my side of the House who said that but one of the cardinal figures on the other side of the House.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, we saw the eurosceptic press winding itself up to its usual hysteria at the weekend, as soon as it seemed likely that there will be an agreement by June. We have not yet heard any positive speeches by Ministers arguing the advantage to Britain of this further change in the treaty. May we anticipate that Ministers will be making the case loudly and clearly in weeks to come?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, I do not know many times I have stood at this Dispatch Box arguing the case over the draft treaty. We have said on a number of occasions that nothing in this draft treaty is agreed until everything is agreed. Noble Lords know that there is still a great deal of work to do. I shall not mislead noble Lords for a single instant about the importance and difficulty of the work that still faces the European Union on this point. The Irish Presidency's report to last week's European Council identified a number of issues that are unresolved. As noble Lords know, there are a number of issues that are enormously important to the United Kingdom Government.

Photo of Lord Willoughby de Broke Lord Willoughby de Broke Conservative

My Lords, what powers of scrutiny of the treaty will Parliament have? Will Parliament be able to change a single word of it, or will it have to be accepted or rejected whole?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, the noble Lord has been in this House long enough to know the answer to that question. Once the treaty is presented to your Lordships' House and to another place, that is the treaty on which your Lordships will decide. We cannot tinker with a treaty that has been agreed elsewhere. I think that the noble Lord really knew that when he rose to ask his question.

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour

My Lords, is it not—

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour

My Lords, is it not a fact that the proposed new constitution will enhance the powers of scrutiny of national parliaments?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East)

My Lords, taken with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary's proposals on scrutiny, which I had the honour of repeating to your Lordships' House recently, there will be considerably enhanced powers of scrutiny by this House and by another place. I am sure that all noble Lords will take full advantage of that. At least, I hope that they will because in recent months when opportunities for discussion have been offered I have sometimes found noble Lords sadly absent from the meeting rooms.