European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:26 pm on 1st April 2008.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson In the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Civil Service Reform), Spokesperson in the Lords, Ministry of Justice, Scotland, Scottish and Northern Ireland Affairs 6:26 pm, 1st April 2008

My Lords, earlier in this debate, in a notable speech, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, testified to my interest in this subject. I, too, was a member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, which prepared the draft constitutional treaty. It will therefore not surprise noble Lords that I have considerable interest in the outcome of this ratification debate.

My interest goes back a great deal further than that. I can bear personal testimony to the fluidity—shall we say?—of party opinion on the subject of the European Union, having experienced the switchback ride under the Wilson Government, which forced me in 1971 into the slightly quixotic position of resigning from the Front Bench after we lost office having been the only member of the Front Bench not to have held office. Subsequently, in the post-1979 period when, again, the Labour Party lost office, and espoused the doctrine of withdrawal from the European Union, I found that my loyalties had been tested to destruction.

I entirely support the view of my leader, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that it is time that political parties stopped enthusing—or at least trying to make the Union work—when in government and denouncing it and its works in the popular press when out of government. Consistency of British vision might have been thought to have been something that the Conservative Party would be prepared to align itself to.

The importance of this ratification is that if we as a country fail to pass the Bill, the treaty itself will come apart. Despite the implications set out by some speakers from the independence party representing the allies of the Conservative Party, that would not alter our position fundamentally. We would have to rely on the inadequacies of the existing treaty basis of decision-making. Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice will remain. Despite the fact that we have a much enlarged Union of 27 member states for which that framework of decision-making is wholly inappropriate, the immediate consequence of not ratifying the treaty would not be disintegration, but it would lead to great doubt about the effectiveness of the Union in tackling the global challenges that face us.

It has been suggested in some of the blogs that I have received—and I have had many—from members of the public that Parliament is not the right place to decide this issue. I beg to differ, and profoundly, for British reasons. We in this country have a long tradition of considering our treaties in this manner if they result in or require changes in the law to make our law conform to the decisions taken by our popularly elected Government in negotiations on treaties. We are acting entirely according to British constitutional practice in proceeding as we are, and the Government are entirely right to do it this way.

The circumstances that gave rise to the proposed alternative of a referendum and that preceded the treaty of Lisbon were quite different, not only because Britain's position has been altered by the Government's so-called red lines, which brought in opt-ins and opt-outs and were not in the constitutional treaty, but because this is a treaty of great complexity that has no aspirations to be produced by the founding fathers of a new generation. It is a complicated and difficult treaty to follow, but it is an amending treaty and no more. Does it have constitutional implications? Of course it does. It has significant constitutional implications, and it is my judgment that the proper place to deal with those is Parliament.

If we do not ratify the treaty, we in this country and in the Union at large face the problem of potential impotence. This is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, said, a question of regaining control. It is pure fantasy to suggest that this country has control over climate change and can pursue an immigration policy in the modern world entirely on its own. It is also pure fantasy to think that we can, through our lone voice in the councils of the world, influence trade policy to protect our citizenry without aligning others in support. These notions of self-control are 100 years out of date. They reflect back to the thinking of the pre-First World War Concert of Europe, to which the answer was 1914. When are we going to realise the reality and the limits of British power and the necessity of our country concerting its policies within the legal framework that the Union provides?

As to the competency of Parliament to scrutinise, which some of the bloggers doubted, I can only draw their attention, if they have the patience and stamina, to the report, which I had some part in writing, from the EU Select Committee. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, on a fine job of marshalling the detailed arguments that we will consider during the debates that are planned on the Bill. It is highly objective, and it is a remarkable achievement to have had it signed by Members of this House, regardless of whether they were for or against the European Union.

It has also been said by some of the opponents that this measure is a step towards diminishing our democracy. That is to overlook entirely the strengthening of democracy encompassed in this treaty—the provisions extending the powers of the European Parliament to co-decide with the Council legislation on agriculture, fisheries, transport, structural funds, justice and home affairs. It overlooks the parity that is now enjoyed by the European Parliament and the Council over budgetary matters and which has abolished the distinction between compulsory and non-compulsory CAP expenditure and has made the multi-annual financial framework subject to European parliamentary assent. That is an important democratic advance. It also provides that the presidency of the Commission can be influenced by the European political parties indicating to the electorate who their choice for president would be if they were successful in the parliamentary elections. That would make that so-called bureaucracy much more obviously a body influenced by the British public and by other electors throughout the European Union. It also enhances the powers of the national Parliaments. Others have addressed that issue, and no doubt we will again.

I conclude by referring to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester. It was very affecting, referring as it did to George Bell, the right reverend Prelate's predecessor, who was one of those to whom Germans rebelling against Hitler appealed—Adam von Trott was another—to act as a channel of communication for the democracy and the rule of law in which they believed. The right reverend Prelate spoke of the moral core of the Union. How right he was to emphasise that. I remind some of the Conservative noble Lords who are playing footsie with insularity and dressing it up as national interest of the vision expressed by Winston Churchill at The Hague in May 1948, when he spoke of the moral core of the Union. He said that we must proclaim,

"the aim and the design of a United Europe, whose moral conceptions will win the respect and gratitude of mankind and whose physical strength will be such that none will dare molest her tranquil sway ... We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and ... wherever they go in this wide domain ... will truly feel, 'Here I am at home'".

Those were Conservative words. Let them be remembered during the passage of the Bill.