Commons Amendments and Reasons

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 13th July 2011.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 5:45 pm, 13th July 2011

My Lords, this is a very revealing debate. The Government have behaved rather dismissively towards this House. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, has said, rather pro forma, that the Government have carefully considered our arguments. In actual fact, there has been no attempt whatever to come even 5 per cent of the way to meet us. I hope that, as a result, your Lordships will have the courage of their convictions and continue to stand by the principles we voted on previously. I particularly support this new amendment, brought forward by my noble friend Lord Triesman and so ably and vigorously argued by my noble friend Lord Liddle.

I said that it has been a revealing debate. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell-the only Conservative to have taken part in this debate, so far at least-really gave the game away. He entirely supported the point I have been making all along: that no Government have a referendum voluntarily at all. If they can possibly avoid it, no Government ever have a referendum; that is exactly what the noble Lord said and exactly what I have been saying. That means that the apparent intention to have referenda on any or all of the 56 subjects in the Bill is entirely hypocritical. There is no such intention whatever. We all know that it would be quite absurd to have a referendum on almost all of them-on 50, at least, out of the 56. The British public would think it a ludicrous waste of time and money, and they would be completely right.

The intention is really entirely obstructionist, which is what I am so worried about. It sends the worst possible signal to our partners in the European Union. Indeed, it presages a period of great difficulty for us in our relations with our EU partners and our ability to positively influence the EU. It is so important that we influence the EU in the right way because it is such a vital element in the modern world, where in so many contexts we cannot possibly achieve our national purposes acting on a purely national basis. We need to form an effective, cohesive bloc with our European partners and argue with them in the relevant international fora.

What does one make of this argument that the Government keep on coming up with-the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, repeated it this afternoon-that this extremely obstructionist concept of having referenda on all those subjects is somehow indispensable in better communicating to the British public the virtues and merits of our membership of the European Union? The noble Lord's argument really does not have any conviction at all; it does not ring genuine or true. Anybody who knows the first thing about marketing knows that if you want to sell something, the one thing you can never do is be negative about it. If you want to sell it at all, you have to sell it with enthusiasm and genuine conviction. Once you start saying, "Well, this is a problem so we need to apply brakes and think of new blockages", and so forth, you have lost it completely. The noble Lord was a very distinguished professor of international relations but if he had chosen a marketing career, he would have been an absolute disaster. He would never have sold a single car or tube of toothpaste on the basis of the approach which he outlined this afternoon.

Our enacting this Bill will have two effects. One is that there will be substantive damage done to the interests of this country in specific areas. In an amendment on Report, I raised the issue of a single market in the defence industry. That is quite clearly in our national interests, but we would not now be able to agree to it unless we had a referendum. I went through that and explained that we really would shoot ourselves in the foot-that was the expression I used-if we went ahead with that. The Government did not seriously argue against that case at all. They simply said, "Sorry, we are embarked upon this course and there may be a few things to be thought of". The noble Lord, Lord Howell, was nice enough to say that I may have some arguments there but that they would carry on regardless-that was more or less the response I had.

Let me give another case, because it is important to look at specific, concrete cases where it may be in the national interest to transfer powers or competences to the institutions of the European Union, particularly the Commission. A few years ago the Commission made a proposal that it should have the right to audit and monitor the accounts of member states. That was opposed by a number of member states, including ourselves and the Germans, and it did not go through. Had it been able to go through on a qualified majority voting basis then we would have had the Commission monitoring the national accounts of Greece. The scandals and mistakes that have occurred with devastating consequences-going into tens of billions of euros, as we all know, and the threat of a banking crisis which undoubtedly will affect us if it arises, and so forth-would have been avoided, because somebody else would have been able to go through those accounts. The European Commission would have been able to do so. Of course all the Eurosceptics in this Chamber and in the other place would have said, Oh, this is a terrible thing because it is somehow another integrationist step forward", but it would have been enormously in our national interest.

Such occasions can easily occur in the future. We all know that we cannot predict the crises and challenges of next year or even six months hence, let alone five or 10 years hence, but we are now denying ourselves definitively an effective possible weapon to deal with such challenges and crises. That is the effect of the Bill. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell: there ain't going to be no referenda on this Bill. We all know that was complete rubbish. What this Bill is actually doing is enacting a complete blockage so far as we are concerned.

The second consequence of this, of course, is that it will give a great boost to the enhanced co-operation agenda in the EU. Our partners will know in advance that there is no point in bringing the Brits into the discussion-because they are paralysed; because they have got to say no; because no Minister could possibly even say yes subject to a referendum, because no Government are ever going to want the referendum. Therefore they will not want the Brits in the room from the beginning: that is quite clear. So, they will say we have got to make progress on this, we have got to take a decision on this, we have to do it ourselves, under the enhanced co-operation procedure-which is now of course available under the treaty. We are going to give a tremendous boost to that. This means, of course, that we will not be present at that discussion. We all know that the European Union is a horse-trading organisation, and agreements are often in terms of packages-a perfectly natural thing in human affairs. If we are not part of the discussion in one particular area, it may make it much more difficult for us to do an advantageous bargain or deal in another context which is very important for us. We are going to be steadily and progressively left out of the mechanism of decision-taking in the European Union. That is a very serious prospect and we are bringing it not only closer but so close that it is a damned racing certainty if we enact this Bill in its present form.