European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 19th May 2008.

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Photo of Lord Owen Lord Owen Crossbench 9:00 pm, 19th May 2008

I am afraid the noble Baroness shows how little time she has spent in the small hours negotiating in the European Union. The European Union makes decisions by unanimity in the European Council in many diverse ways, quite often not actually in the Chamber. It is usually a case of three or four people who are having difficulty with a particular issue being called into the president's room where they make the decision on whether they are going to vote unanimously—this is in terms of their own collegiate decision—and whether another person will make a deal. That is the nature of the animal and I personally understand it. It is a continuous negotiation. Votes are negotiated over and concessions are made in one area quite removed from another. In a situation like this, even seven years on under the complex circumstances in which I am considering the question, most British Prime Ministers would be reluctant to go to qualified majority voting. But the argument will be made: "It doesn't make very much difference. Only just a little bit further. Not many more. We've already made this concession in some areas". Then a great prize will be offered to them. They will perhaps be told, as we saw only a few months ago, that a new reform will be offered on the common agricultural policy—which you can be sure will be in exactly the same position seven years on. A few more spectacular inducements will be put before them. That is the way that it happens, and they make that decision. It is the only decision that really matters. It is an agreement between individuals that they will do something if the others agree to do likewise.

Then they have to come back to the House of Commons and put it to the vote, but does one think that it will be a free vote? It will be said that the Prime Minister has given his word on this issue and that this is a matter of confidence in the Government. It will be argued, "If you don't do this, there will be some disadvantage", because some commitment will perhaps have been given that will bring jobs to some constituency. And so up will get some MP in the debate who, as part of this wider deal, is able to say, "If the vote does not go through, there will be job losses in my constituency". We have been through this.

It is sometimes a disadvantage in this Chamber that so many of us have served in another place—in my view, too many of us come from that place—but, every now and then, it brings an air of reality as to how decisions are really taken. Decisions on a matter as serious as this are taken as a result of a negotiation between Heads of Government. When they have made them, they come back. Of course, there was no particular moment when the previous Prime Minister gave assurances to the others that there would be no referendum on the Lisbon treaty, but does anyone believe that he did not make a commitment that there would be no referendum? That was the deal, and he negotiated it. He was not going to give it away unless he got various things and the so-called government red lines. He does not come back and tell everybody, "I've made this wider deal". But we know that that is how decisions are taken inside the European Union.

I shall not call the noble Baroness the Lord President a word beginning with "n", because I do not believe that it applies to her. However, I believe that, when we have to consider this, we know—and there is certainly nobody of any other party who comes to this Chamber from the House of Commons who does not—that this one vote in the House of Lords and the House of Commons is a democratic and parliamentary brake that is very much inferior to having full legislative authority. I hope that we will eventually return this Bill to the House of Commons with a clause stating that there has to be primary legislation.