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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I will in a moment, but I have something that I feel the House ought to listen to, if I may say so, with respect—

Mr. Bercow: As opposed to the rest.

Mr. Straw: As well as the rest.

The right hon. Member for Devizes, the shadow Foreign Secretary, he who voted for Maastricht and against a referendum on Maastricht, said when he was making an impassioned speech in favour of Maastricht and against a referendum—I ask the House to weigh these words with great care—

He went on to say:

which seems to imply that he was content, if necessary, to be a member of a superstate, because he regarded that as preferable to being outside it. If he has a better explanation of that, I am happy to give way to him. I see that he remains silent.

Keith Vaz: My right hon. Friend will recall the letter that the Prime Minister and Gerhard Schröder sent to Prime Minister Aznar on 25 February 2002. It set out our stall on the reform agenda. Is he confident that we have made progress on achieving the points in the letter?

Mr. Straw: Yes, we have indeed made progress and we shall achieve more.

The Convention on the Future of Europe has been examining how to make European institutions work better for the past 15 months. Representatives of this House, the other place and the Government have participated in that. It is increasingly clear that the accession countries broadly share the United Kingdom's vision of the Union's future: a Europe of

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sovereign nations, proud of their distinct identities but co-operating for mutual good, and a partner, not a rival, of the United States.

We have always been clear about our objectives for the Convention. We want delegates to agree a constitutional text for the Union, which enables it to work efficiently at 25 members, sets out what it is, what it does and how it does it, defines the role and powers of its institutions and their relationship with member states, and improves its ability to deliver practical benefits to Europe's citizens. Some contend that the Convention is about none of that but signals the demise of the United Kingdom as a sovereign independent state. It does not. If it did, none of us—except the right hon. Member for Devizes, who appears to be dallying with the idea of a superstate—would have anything to do with it.

Given all the recent comments, it is worth recalling that of Giscard d'Estaing, that the outcome will not be a European superstate but a "union of states". Some—not me, but Opposition Members—may say, "Oh well, he's a former President of France and we should take less notice of him." The idea that France, with its separate seat in the United Nations Security Council, and a history and foreign policy that are as distinctive as ours, would be willing to give up its national identity for a European superstate, in which it would be overwhelmed by countries non-sympathetic to it, is nonsense.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): The Foreign Secretary said that one of the Convention's aims is to make running the EU more efficient. I apologise for taking him from the higher echelons of the ether that he is currently inhabiting to the practical consequences of running an organisation of 25 member states. Like me, he will have sat through Council of Ministers meetings that worry about minutiae. Unlike me, he will not have had to do that in an organisation of 12 member states. That was difficult enough, but I suggest that doing it in an organisation of 15 is almost impossible, given the detail to be considered in, for example, the Agriculture Council. What sort of arrangements can be devised to pare down the detail, involvement and the sheer number of hours that a body of 25 member states would require?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady raises important practical issues. When we considered justice, home affairs and foreign policy, we were dealing with second and third pillar arrangements whereas she had to deal with first pillar arrangements. I recall one occasion on which I was almost driven completely mad when we were arguing about the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications. The minimum for which the directive allowed was 31 days. That was also the case in every member state except Austria, where the period allowed under its domestic law for driving disqualification was 28 days. It was a wonderful, Rubik's cube of a challenge without a solution. We found one in the end.

Mr. Bercow: Give us all the details.

Mr. Straw: In time-honoured fashion, we settled on a month, which could be 28 or 31 days. It was 6 o'clock on a Friday, I was chairing the session and I claim some credit for the outcome.

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The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) made an important point. We should all consider the Convention carefully, and the need to make Europe work more effectively. Let us consider the operation of a Union of 25 member states, some of which have skilful Ministers to take the chairs of the Councils, but only for six months. To be frank, there are less skilled Ministers, from countries with no collective memories in their systems or from tiny countries, who tell us that they do not have the capacity for such an extraordinary undertaking. Unless we do something practical about that, power will shift to a centralised Brussels Commission. That will happen if we do nothing.

Some people claim that we should have voted against the Nice treaty and that we should now hold a referendum on the Convention. For them, the point of a referendum is to say no to it. [Interruption.] Of course that does not apply to everyone. However, those who suggest that the Convention is a terrible nightmare need to examine the proposals and the requirements of a future Union. Those requirements mean that we must ensure that member states, through their Ministers in the Council of Ministers and the Council's secretariat, can rebalance the Union's institutions in the interests of our citizens.

That can be achieved through several prosaic methods. First, we could appoint a full-time president of the Council, who would be answerable to the Council and sovereign nation states, just as the President of the Commission is answerable to the Commission. Secondly, there could be team presidencies. Instead of every country having all the presidencies once every 12 and a half years, member states would be placed in blocks of four, and each country could share two presidencies for two years. I am happy to provide the grid for hon. Members. Many other, mostly prosaic, things can be done to make the Union operate better. That will enable rebalancing.

I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Wells that the proposed mechanism is not as satisfactory as it should be to ensure a block on Commission proposals that national Parliaments regard as unacceptable. That is important. I do not agree with the proposal for a single legislative council that is emanating from part of the Convention, but although the idea is overblown, more effective scrutiny of the drafting of directives and regulations and a check on too many regulations is in the interests of member states.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the advantage of the rotating presidency is that it puts the reins of the Community in the hands of directly elected national politicians every six months? Which country does he find deficient? Luxembourg, which has a population roughly the size of for Wolverhampton, has been able to run a professional presidency for the past 30 or 40 years. Which country does the Foreign Secretary believe to be incapable of performing that function?

Mr. Straw: Seductive though the hon. Gentleman's invitation is, I shall not be drawn into naming names.

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Luxembourg is the exception among very small countries. It was significantly supported and, as a founder member of the European Union, it has a specific expertise and skill that are not available to others. It is not only tiny countries that are sometimes unable to provide effective presidencies. Like any other Minister, I am happy to chair the bodies, but from my experience, which is shared by some hon. Members on the Conservative Benches, if the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure that the House and the Government answerable to it are better served in Brussels, in the Councils in Luxembourg and in the Commission, our rather prosaic proposals are likely to deliver greater efficiency.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key matter in reforming the European Union is the power of the Council of Ministers? If that power is retained as it is, with the ability of the sovereign countries to determine whether they will go along with foreign and defence proposals, the identity of the president and the officials and the nature of the systems in the committees are secondary matters. The issue of principle is the power of the Council of Ministers. If that does not change, there is no case for a referendum.

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