European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:23 pm on 19th May 2008.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:23 pm, 19th May 2008

We now pass swiftly to Clause 6, which is a long clause, and in doing so I note that we are making good progress in a very complex area. Therefore, we need to focus on the most crucial issues which cause the most concern, and this is one of them.

The amendment should gain the support of most liberally minded people, but what I say next, I say more in hope than from experience. I hope that the Liberal Democrat party will support the amendment, as it did with vigour in the other place. In the words of its spokesman, the eloquent Mr Davey:

"We intend to support the right hon. Gentleman's amendment"— that is, my colleague Mr William Hague—

"because we believe that parliamentary control should be retained in those areas".—[Hansard, Commons, 4/3/08; col. 1681.]

No doubt we will learn later that something has changed, although we do not quite understand what. It seems to be pretty straightforward that parliamentary control is parliamentary control and belief in it is belief in it, but no doubt some contortions will be devised to tell us different. Even so, it is sad that we cannot rely on those of a liberal slant of mind to support what is clearly both liberal and democratic and in favour of the good parliamentarian's cause.

These areas, as Mr Davey describes them—the so-called passerelle or ratchet provisions—are of widespread concern because they provide prominently and precisely for the treaty to be self-amending and therefore obviously, in the case of any such self-amendments, to reduce the powers of member states and national parliaments, perhaps not unilaterally but by methods which do not necessarily embrace parliaments sufficiently. They could do so on a substantial scale.

I note in passing that the words here are identical to the words in the rejected constitution treaty, as are almost all the words in this treaty. When they first appeared, they were strongly opposed by Ministers, and it verges on the insulting to be told again and again that they are not the same words when they patently are. The Government have a lot more explaining to do to try to sustain their weak case that all this is somehow different from what went before. Jack Straw, the Secretary of State for Justice, when he was Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs warned starkly how late at night at a European Council some concession could be easily traded for a concession on moving from unanimity to QMV and said that that was not acceptable. Mr Denis MacShane MP, as he passed colourfully through his Foreign and Commonwealth Office ministerial role, added:

"We think that a self-amending constitutional treaty does not make a lot of sense".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference, 20/10/03; col. 20.]

Nor does it. Most noble Lords know that. It certainly invalidates the misleading claims by the Prime Minister that the Lisbon treaty marks the end of a period of EU institutional change. On the contrary, if passed, it would mark the beginning of a process of institutional change by the self-amending process and by the clear reading of comments being made throughout Europe that more institutional changes and integration are needed. Indeed, there is even some talk of the next round of treaty-making on top of this treaty, which will have its own internal momentum. Looking ahead, we could be in for a substantial volume of further change rather than a settled period without institutional change. It could change the position quite radically, even on common foreign and security policy, over and above the fact that there are 11 areas where QMV already intrudes in foreign-policy issues as proposed in the treaty, despite Ministers' constant assurances to the contrary.

The Government were obviously worried about this and about safeguards. Their worry is reflected in Clause 6, which provides that a motion must be approved by both Houses before Ministers go along with the passerelle self-amending procedure—the new simplified revision process. Our contention behind the amendment is that that is not nearly enough. A treaty change which plainly transfers powers away from our Parliament requires not just a motion in the two Houses but an Act of Parliament. We are not the only ones who say that. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee—an excellent committee I had some connection with in the past—recommended, in a very thorough review, that all treaty changes under passerelle procedure should be the subject of primary legislation. Is it to be pushed aside as just another committee—"never mind about it"? Incidentally, I notice that our own EU Committee in your Lordships' House seemed rather more content with the proposal that there should be a mere motion in both Houses. But the Foreign Affairs Committee of the other place is a powerful and respected Committee and carries enormous weight. I do not think its very firm, unqualified proposition that primary legislation is needed in this area can just be disregarded.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is right and the present Minister of Justice—the former Foreign Secretary—is right. It is ridiculous that the powers of our nation and our Parliament should be curtailed further. They obviously would be curtailed one evening on a whipped vote, on a wide range of issues such as visas, family law, police co-operation, the right of police to operate in other countries, the EU financial framework—an enormous area—and a possibility of changing the rules involving CFSP as well. It cannot be right that all that should be done without Acts of Parliament. Everyone opposing the Government in the other place—all the opposition parties—knew that it could not be right, whatever the changed conditions and whatever some people may conclude.

This is just an amendment which seeks to correct that situation. It does not alter the treaty. No one can say this is wrecking the treaty. It does not touch the treaty; it is concerned with our own affairs. It does not alter what has been agreed in the Lisbon treaty, but it strengthens our democracy. This is a time when it needs strengthening and, for those reasons, I beg to move.