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Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the Nice treaty transfers a further 39 areas of decision making to the majority vote process, and that 90 per cent. of EU decisions are now made by majority vote? Might not the fact that direct democracy is becoming increasingly irrelevant explain why poll turnouts are declining? Should we not warn the people of eastern Europe that the EU path does not lead to democracy, but away from it?
Mr. Straw: I accept, of course, that the treaty proposes an extension of qualified majority voting, but I do not accept, with respect, the hon. Gentleman's political arithmetic. There is a big difference between putting a unit of one on maintaining the veto on tax, which we still do, and putting an equal unit of one on accepting qualified majority voting, in place of a veto, on the registrar of the Court of First Instance. The two are not cognate.
If the hon. Gentleman reads the treaty, he will see that a range of bureaucratic issues on which it was ridiculous for the veto to be applied have been transferred to QMV. The other areas that have been moved to QMV concern trade, on which it is in our interests that other people should not exercise a veto. My experience in the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which does everything by unanimity, has been interesting. On some issues, we could, and have, maintained a veto, but a veto blocks change.
We are in the vanguard of change to reform the European Union. The Opposition's reasoned amendment states that they want reform, but they set out no method or process by which they can deliver it. On a range of issues, we need to ensure that we can override the slowest: those with the deepest vested interest in the existing structures, which everyone agrees do not work entirely satisfactorily.
The achievement of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, my predecessor as Foreign Secretary, was to ensure that if subjects went to the heart of our status as a nation statetax, defence, social security and other matters, including the signature of treaties such as the one before usthey should continue to be subject to unanimity. However, in other areas, where we have an interest in progress and reform, the QMV system was sensible.
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): The Foreign Secretary said that it was agreed by the General Affairs Council that each country should proceed with its ratification proceedings, notwithstanding the Irish referendum vote. Does he recall that in 1992 the shadow Cabinet, of which he was a member, urged strongly, in the similar circumstances of the rejection of the Maastricht treaty by the Danes, that the ratification Bill for that treaty should be postponed? The then Opposition leader urged the then Prime Minister that the Bill should be postponed until the matter was fully resolved. John Major accepted that urging and the Bill was indeed postponed. Why was postponement right then, but not now?
Mr. Straw: The answer is that life is a learning process, at least for this side of the House. I kept saying in the previous Parliament that Opposition Members should learn from our experience in opposition. I even offered them free seminars throughout the four years that I was Home Secretary, and I would have provided them, because I found it tragic that there were some Opposition Members of considerable talent who could have helped to improve Government by improving themselves as an Opposition, but did nothing about it.
The situation in 1992 was new, but the right hon. Gentleman quotes at me the position of the shadow Cabinet. I could quote back at him the position of the then Cabinet, which took the opposite point of view. The Opposition are now calling for all sorts of responses to the Irish referendum. He was a Minister in 1992. He actually signed the Maastricht treaty and then lost his seat.
Mr. Bercow: There was no causal link.
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman still lost. The General Affairs Council, which included his successor as Minister after the 1992 general election, agreed unanimously that the other 14 member states should proceed with the ratification of Maastricht. After discussion with Denmark, including some accommodation by the EU, and a further referendum, the Danes agreed to continue with the treaty.
Mr. Maude: The Foreign Secretary inadvertently misrepresents what the then Government did. They listened to the very proper concerns expressed by the shadow Cabinet and others that the Bill should be postponed, and it was. The House did not return to it until
Mr. Straw: My recollection of the mood around Maastricht in 1992 is that it was anything but consensual. One difference is that there was a Council decision before the Bill was introduced. The sequence of events was that the Council met on 11 June, the Monday after the election. We made a decision, in the light of that meeting, to introduce the Bill subsequently, and the timetable was different.
The other difference, if the right hon. Gentleman wants to argue the case, is that Maastricht, on any analysis, involved more significant and fundamental changes to the treaties and the basic constitution of the European Union than does this Bill.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) rose
Mr. Straw: I have given way a great deal and I should like to make some progress. If there is time, I shall take some more interventions.
I spoke earlier of meeting the Foreign Ministers for Croatia and for the Czech Republic over the past two days. The Foreign Minister for the Czech Republic is Jan Kavan, a man whose own life symbolises the huge change that has occurred in Europe in my adult lifetime. I first met Jan Kavan 33 years ago, in the Endsleigh street headquarters of the British National Union of Students. I was then the deputy president of the NUS, an organisation whose own politics had, to some extent, been dominated by the cold war.
Jan was a student leader too, from what was then Czechoslovakia, but he had none of our freedoms. Instead, he was a victim, along with thousands and thousands of others, of the cold warof the undemocratic authoritarian regimes imposed on one central European country after another. He effectively went into exile in London to muster support after Dubcek's reforms in the Prague spring had been brutally crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Today the Czech Republic is one of the most successful of central Europe's new democracies. Jan told me today of the huge efforts that his country and the other applicants have put into preparing to join the European Union. They see accession as putting the seal on their admission to the family of European democracies. Jan told me how important it was for the Czech Republic and for every other applicant that Nice be ratified on schedule.
If the right hon. Gentleman is interested in enlargement which apparently he is, according to the Opposition's reasoned amendment, he owes it to the applicant countries as much as we do to proceed with ratification. There is no basis for us holding up ratification because of the Irish referendum.
Over the coming years, we expect to complete negotiations with up to 12 applicant countries. I invite the House to imagine for a moment what a European Union of 27 member states would look like if we did not make
Mr. Bercow: You spent 18 years doing them.
Mr. Straw: Ours were very much betterthey included reasons. They were not contrary to reason.
The Conservatives' reasoned amendment says that the Bill fails to modernise institutions of the European Union. Yet that is exactly what the Nice treaty does. The Opposition have no policies that I have been able to discern that could conceivably command the support even of two or three other member states, still less of 14, on securing the modernisation inherent in the Nice treaty.
Without the Nice treaty and the changes that it makes, as each small new country joined the European Union, so relatively would the weight and influence of the larger countries diminish. Eventually, countries that together could not muster a majority of the European Union's population could, however, form a majority for the purposes of passing EU legislation. That would plainly be unacceptable.
As the Community grew, so, too, would the European Commission, until it resembled a mass meeting rather than the coherent, delivery-focused body that we want it to be. With 27 vested interests capable of imposing 27 vetoes on much new legislation, many areas of collective decision making that are vital to our interests would slowly grind to a halt. Therefore, at last year's intergovernmental conference, we set out with the explicit purpose of solving those problems. At Nice, we achieved a deal that did just that. Nice is necessary for enlargement.
The deal secured by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), was not only good for Europe but excellent for Britain. I normally refrain from quoting from leaked documents, but the European Commission's internal assessment of Nice is now a matter of public record. It said: