Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ancram: May I tell the Foreign Secretary that the debate is about letting people decide? We are prepared to let people decide, but is he? That is what we are waiting to hear.

Mr. Straw: We need to know about policy. I ask the right hon. Gentleman again whether the website outlines official Conservative party policy.

Mr. Ancram: The document is the view of Timothy Kirkhope. It is not Conservative party policy.

Mr. Straw: I have a final question: what the devil was the document doing on the Conservative party's official

11 Jun 2003 : Column 722

website? Why was Timothy Kirkhope described as the party's official representative on the Convention if his document is not official policy? Even the new model leadership of zealots in the Tory party cannot agree among themselves. The right hon. Member for Devizes protests about minor changes to the nature of the relationship but his colleague, the official representative, has produced page after page of proposals to give the European Parliament legislative power.

Mr. Cash: While the Foreign Secretary is praying in aid representatives on the Convention, will he repudiate the comments of the Labour representative, Lord Tomlinson, who said in the Standing Committee on the Convention the other day that the Laeken declaration did not give authority to the production of the constitution?

Mr. Straw: If Lord Tomlinson said that, he was wrong.

Angus Robertson: On the issue of party unity on key issues, the Foreign Secretary will be aware that the extension of exclusive competence over fisheries is a matter of controversy in Scotland. His colleague, the Labour First Minister of Scotland, told my friend the Leader of the Opposition in Scotland in the Scottish Parliament two weeks ago:

He also said that the UK Government had written to the European Union to oppose the extension of exclusive competence over fisheries. Have the UK Government written to the EU, or is there a split in the Labour party on the issue?

Mr. Straw: We are an indivisible whole, as ever. With respect, I do not claim expertise on the common fisheries policy but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Well, either he wants an accurate answer or he does not.

Angus Robertson: I wrote to the Foreign Secretary last week.

Mr. Straw: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Having established that the Conservative party has two policies—one against any change, one in favour of complete change to alter fundamentally the role of the European Parliament—let me say what we want. We want the Convention to define more clearly matters on which the EU has exclusive power, on which powers are shared between the Union and member states and on which the EU should act only to support national policies. There is an emerging consensus in support of the UK's position for the introduction of a new mechanism to ensure that the Union respects the principle of subsidiarity, acting only to achieve things that national or regional Governments cannot do for themselves. Under our proposed system, national Parliaments would quickly review each EU proposal, judging whether action is being taken at the right level and in the appropriate way. That would not amount to a veto, but should a majority of national Parliaments

11 Jun 2003 : Column 723

judge that a proposal infringed the principle of subsidiarity, the Commission would quickly get the message.

To deal with an issue raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, an EU-wide consensus on aspects of foreign policy is sometimes unattainable, as we saw during the months preceding military action in Iraq. As a country with global interests and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK firmly believes that the process must remain intergovernmental, recognising that national Governments have to be accountable to their own Parliaments for their decisions on foreign, security and defence policy. It is in our interests to arrive at a common policy with other member states wherever possible, but to attempt to manufacture a single policy on every issue would be absurd. We have resolutely opposed proposals in the Convention to "communitise" common foreign, security and defence policy. We will continue to do so in the IGC.

In other areas—not least the single market—qualified majority voting has long served our interests. That was why Mrs. Thatcher supported the principle of QMV. Indeed, the text of the draft constitution, which the right hon. Member for Devizes has clearly not read, proposes that QMV should be the standard method of making decisions unless the treaty provides otherwise. Judging by some of the remarks that we have heard, however, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Opposition are opposed to QMV in any way. One area that is ripe for an extension of QMV is asylum, to help provide firm, collective action to deal with illegal immigration and the criminality that underlies it.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) mentioned the constitution. It will include a statement of rights. I, for one, think that our citizens should be told the rights that they have vis-à-vis European institutions. We can accept such a statement provided that it does not extend the powers of the Union. We have not yet taken a final decision on whether we will agree to the proposals to incorporate the charter. Like much else, that will depend on the precise terms of the final package. Perhaps I should have told the House this earlier, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) are not here because there is an important meeting of the Convention in which both are participating. We still do not have the full text. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has decided to be here, but it is right that my colleagues remained in Brussels.

Mr. Maples: The point I was making was not whether the Convention extends the competences of the Union, but whether it gives rights to individuals or groups to challenge their domestic legislation on the ground of something that is contained in the charter, which is largely about political rights. If the European Court of Justice is able, on the basis of the charter, to review domestic legislation of a member state, that is a fundamental change.

Mr. Straw: We have negotiated two important safeguards. To pick up on a point raised by my hon.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 724

Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), those should be examined in great detail once we have the Convention's final proposals before we go to the IGC. We want to ensure that what we are doing at the IGC has the support of the House.

The two safeguards are amendments to the so-called horizontal articles, which apply across the board to all treaties, to help define the scope and meaning of the charter's provisions, in particular those that correspond neither to the European convention on human rights nor to community law. We have also secured agreement to give the commentary on the charter's provisions enhanced status. That, too, is vital in guiding an interpretation of the charter. The net effect of that should be to ensure that the charter does not extend the Union's competence or powers. Those are important safeguards and I hope that we discuss them much further in due course.

Contrary to much of the hysteria and hyperbole that we have heard today, the current draft constitutional treaty shows that we are making progress towards our kind of Europe: a union of sovereign nations, not a superstate. The Convention's text is a good starting point for the lengthy negotiations in the IGC. It should help to settle the balance between nations and the Union to ensure that it is where it should be—with the nations as the anchor of the Union.

In the IGC we will continue to play a central role in the process of reform aimed at making Europe more efficient and more easily understood, not least so that we can use it more effectively to advance the interests of the British people. We are not talking about substantive fundamental change in EU-wide powers. There is therefore no case for a referendum. We are talking about a treaty that can bring much needed clarity to European citizens and equip the Union with the machinery that it needs to embrace the challenge of enlargement. This is a great prize for Britain, a prize that we will pursue unrelentingly in the coming months.

I urge the House to accept the amendment and to reject the motion.

2.56 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): In recent debates on Europe we have heard plenty of arguments about the principle of having a referendum on the proposed developments in the European Union. Today that issue is right at the heart of the debate. Once again we have had history lessons which, not for the first time, reach opposing conclusions from the same basic set of facts. I do not want to dwell on those spats between those on the Conservative and Labour Front Benches. What is surely of importance now is that we make clear how we should assess the need for any future referendum, and at what stage that might take place.

In the absence of written constitutional guidance, the development of the use of referendums in this country has been haphazard. On Second Reading of the European Union (Accessions) Bill on 21 May, the Foreign Secretary gave a fair account of the complexity of the issue. Indeed, he was in danger of plagiarising his own remarks when he repeated much of the same argument today. He said then, and again today, that the gravity of the issue should not be the sole determinant:

11 Jun 2003 : Column 725

we may hold a referendum on Sunday drinking in Wales, but have not, and would not, on the issue of going to war. However, he also said:

That may not be an iron rule, but it is surely not a bad basis for the tests that we should set.

We also need to understand the context. Talk of referendums tends to get people rather excitable—so before we all get too carried away we need to reflect on what is at stake for the United Kingdom. Last week we completed the Commons stages of the European Union (Accessions) Bill, welcoming 10 new states into the Union, and so marking the most significant development in Europe in decades.

The impact of enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 has yet to be realised, or even to sink in, but it will be unlike anything we have seen before. For many of the accession countries it is a further symbolic and real break from their communist past. It offers unprecedented opportunities for them to enjoy greater security, for their economies to grow significantly and for democracy to become further entrenched. As we see from the referendums held so far in the new member states, those benefits are widely recognised and supported by the people in each country. Existing members, too, stand to gain from significantly enhanced trade and greater European security.

The scale of change is unprecedented. Never before have so many new members been admitted at one time. Indeed, more countries are expected to join the EU in one go next May than in all the previous enlargements put together. Nobody can fail to realise that that scale of development requires significant change in the way in which the EU operates. In the Convention on the Future of Europe, delegates have been toiling for months to produce a new template. In a few days' time, it will be offered to Heads of State and Governments as a draft treaty for consideration. At that point, we will be able to begin the assessment of what the treaty may mean for the United Kingdom.

Regardless of enlargement, the EU is in need of reform. Successive treaties and laws have made the European institutions hugely complex, bureaucratic and increasingly remote from the people whom they are meant to serve. What is needed is clarification and rationalisation—a codification of the purpose of the European Union making clear links with its citizens, setting out what it can and cannot do, enshrining the principle of subsidiarity, and making it clear that it is a union of sovereign nation states, not a putative European superstate.

Next Section

IndexHome Page