Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3.36 pm

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): It would be useful to begin by briefly examining the point that we have reached in the debate about the future of Europe. It is worth remembering that the Convention on the Future of Europe has not concluded its deliberations. When it does, it will present a report to the intergovernmental conference, which will begin its consideration. The IGC has not determined its timetable for consideration; it has not even met. Nobody is clear about the timetable or the exact way in which it will consider the Convention's report. However, it is clear that the British Government have made several points of principle clear. Time and again, they have made it abundantly clear that they oppose the idea of creating some European federal superstate. They have stated clearly that, if necessary, they will draw lines in the sand on the extension of qualified majority voting and will not accept it for defence, tax or treaty changes.

If hon. Members are not prepared to accept the comments of our Government representatives, it is worth noting the objective comments of the former President of France, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, who is president of the Convention. On "Today" on 16 April, he said:

In other words, if Britain does not want a set of proposals that other countries make—I do not believe that they will make such proposals—the Government have the right of veto. They can say no and that such proposals are unacceptable. Nobody can force them on the United Kingdom. Nobody can dictate to us. What we accept is up to the Government, and their position is clear.

Nevertheless, the Opposition claim that whatever comes from the Convention and whatever the intergovernmental conference agrees, a referendum must be held. I therefore deduce that they are articulating a point of principle: there must be a referendum, whatever the circumstances and terms. However, if the position is to be credible, it must have some consistency.

Let us consider the broad development of the European Union since the treaty of Rome in 1957. There are two historic landmarks in its development.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 737

Two significant treaty changes brought about fundamental alterations in the nature of the European project.

The first was the Single European Act in 1986, which was introduced and agreed when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. That was the treaty change that effectively brought about the European Union as we know it today, and made possible the single market, with the free movement of capital, labour, services and goods. That was all made possible by a huge extension of qualified majority voting—the biggest extension of QMV that we have seen to date. But did we have a referendum on that? No, we did not. Was a referendum suggested by the Government of the time? No, it was not. If the Conservatives had wanted to make a principled case for a referendum, they should have made it then. They did not. In fact, the opposite was the case. As I understand it, a guillotine was introduced by the Government of the day to get the measure through as quickly as possible.

That was one major landmark. The second was the treaty of Maastricht, which brought about a huge extension of the powers of the European Union. It introduced the pillar structure and brought about the basis for economic and monetary union, which we have been debating in earnest this week, and a still further extension of qualified majority voting. It also introduced the concept of European citizenship and a major extension of the powers of the European Parliament. I was an MEP at that time, and I remember being delirious with joy in Strasbourg at the new process of co-decision that was being introduced with the full support of the United Kingdom, which effectively gave the European Parliament the same powers as a nation state over certain issues of policy. But did we have a referendum on that? No, we did not. In fact, as has been mentioned, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) argued passionately against a referendum on that profound change in the European Union.

When we look back, from 1957 to the Single European Act in 1986 to the treaty of Maastricht in 1992, we see that Conservative Members argued against any formal consultation of the British people in the form of a referendum. Yet today they argue for a referendum on something that might come forward some time in the future when all the discussions and debates have come to an end. I have to say that that smacks of supreme political expediency.

I also have to conclude that many Conservative Members—there are exceptions—do not seem interested in having a debate on these complex issues. Sadly, they are not interested in having a treaty that will make the European Union function more effectively. That is a great shame, because it seems likely that 10 new countries will join the European Union next year, and they will want to join a European Union that functions effectively in their own best interests. I suspect that that is what all citizens in all European countries want. That is what the debate in the Convention has been all about, and it is what the debate in the intergovernmental conference will be about as well.

Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the new countries that will come into Europe in May, if their referendums go well, have already signed up to the acquis communautaire. They have, therefore,

11 Jun 2003 : Column 738

signed up to Europe exactly as it is today. What would their reaction be, having worked very hard to meet the criteria and to bring their people along with them, if there were any major changes in what they had signed up to? Will they not be able to use their own veto if they do not like some of the ways in which the European constitution is developing?

Mr. David: The hon. Lady asks an interesting question. It is worth noting that we have seen the prospective accession countries play a full and active role in the deliberations of the Convention. Without exception, their contribution has been positive. They have not agreed with every point, but they have not disagreed with every point either. They have been very involved in the process. I believe that that involvement will continue, and as soon as those countries become full members of the European Union in May 2004, they will have a full legal involvement in the intergovernmental conference. I welcome that.

It is also important to recognise that one interesting political configuration that is developing between the United Kingdom and many of the accession countries is a unity of purpose. I genuinely believe in the Government's vision of a Europe of people working together that is also a Europe of sovereign independent nations that decide to pool their sovereignty from time to time. Countries seeking to join the EU have the same vision.

I know that the Poles—who have suffered under German domination in the past and, in the more recent past, under the Soviet Union—will not celebrate their new nationhood by accepting domination from Brussels. They realise that that is not what the European project is all about. They are proud of their independent sovereign status, and want to celebrate it within the European Union. They believe, rightly and perceptively, that the EU will preserve and enhance their new sense of identity. I think that much can be learned from countries in central and eastern Europe.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) mentioned the attitude of the accession countries. It would be a huge shame if the House sent a negative message to other EU members and the accession countries, suggesting that some Members of Parliament wanted to destabilise the EU, provoke a crisis and make the Union dysfunctional. We must map out a way forward, sensibly and rationally.

The Convention has brought a range of issues to the attention of the people of Europe. Although it has yet to reach definitive conclusions, I suspect that much will emerge that many of us will welcome. A few proposals may prove unacceptable, but we should recognise that such differences in opinion must be discussed by our representatives and the people of Europe, and that those discussions will be reflected in decisions made at the intergovernmental conference.

The Government's commitment to parliamentary democracy means that we will have a full and honest debate, on the Floor of the House and elsewhere, on the merits of the final treaty change and the new so-called constitution that will emerge from the IGC. If we engage in a sensible, rational debate rather than one laced with unfortunate nationalism, we can have a new constitution that will take the enlarged European Union into a new era of peace and prosperity.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 739

3.48 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): The Government's position, and the Foreign Secretary's typically sophistic speech, have been characterised by a fear of seeking popular endorsement of what the Government have set out to do. The Foreign Secretary ably charted the huge changes that have taken place in the character of what we have come to call the European Union. What was once a common market is now a European union. He made much of his argument that huge constitutional changes had taken place in the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, and that at each stage Governments had rejected the idea of a referendum.

Before the 1992 election I tabled a Bill demanding a referendum, and during the debates on the Maastricht treaty I tabled an amendment to the same effect. I believe that only through a referendum can the people to whom we are accountable express the oldest notion of democratic government: consent. We seek more than acquiescence. We seek consent—or, at least, that is what the Government should do.

In a very revealing response during Question Time today, the Prime Minister said that people want a referendum because they want to paralyse the European Union. That was part of the Foreign Secretary's argument—that, in some way or other, it would derail the European Union. There is no open mind when the fear is that what they personally believe in and personally promote may be rejected if it is put to the British people. That is the dichotomy that faces the Government.

I oppose these profound constitutional changes because they strike at the heart of our constitutional arrangements, bearing in mind that it took 200 years to bring about democratic and accountable government. A distinguished Member of Parliament left the Government Benches at the last election: Mr. Tony Benn. He used to ask the House, when looking at constitutions and Governments, what are their powers? Where did they get them from? In whose interest are they exercised? To whom are they accountable, and how do we get rid of them?

Under our constitutional arrangements, we know how to get rid of a Government and how to change the law. The Convention's constitutional proposals do not amount merely to tidying arrangements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) said, they set out a constitution—it quacks like a duck, it walks like a duck, it is a constitution. We heard the sophistry of the Foreign Secretary, who says that it is nothing very much, but we heard that sophistry from Lord Hurd and from John Major. That sophistry has run through the debate on the European Union. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, each stage is a salami stage. We used to call it a ratchet. One starts at a very low base, and each stage is gained and then claimed as absolute.

The Maastricht treaty sought something that this constitution could never countenance—no democracy could, in truth—and, similarly, these constitutional arrangements seek something that is, in the words of the Maastricht treaty, irrevocable and irreversible. Therefore, it is not a trivial matter. We know that the Convention is trying to overset deep constitutional

11 Jun 2003 : Column 740

principles of accountable government, whereby each generation may make provision for the matters and affairs of state that they regard as important, and legislation passed yesteryear can be gainsaid by the judgment of a new generation expressed through the ballot box.

I come back to Tony Benn's questions. To whom are these institutions accountable? To whom is the Commission, the sole initiator of legislation, accountable? How does the citizen in Aldridge-Brownhills say, "I will not wear this Bill"? They cannot. In what way can they sack these people? They cannot. That is why the aim is to make the arrangements irrevocable and irreversible. The principle—that is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the shadow Foreign Secretary, was arguing for—is that this generation should give or withhold its consent.

I am not a soothsayer, unlike the Prime Minister, who is now, ridiculously, trying to sell Europe. The former Minister for Europe went around the nation trying to meet Eurosceptics. I think that Kevin and Keith were the only two Eurosceptics whom he met when he did the Foreign Office bus trip around Britain to try to sell the euro. If we descend to those levels, things become farcical. The principle that is being enunciated is shared by those who deeply believe in the integration of Europe, and by those, such as me, who believe that this is an abnegation of democracy. That is the essence of this debate—not the fripperies of Ministers, who are playing around, as I have often seen Ministers play around before.

The Government need to raise their game. Yesterday, the Prime Minister suggested that they were going to sell Europe. Heaven only knows, we have had nearly 20 years of being told that everything that happens in the European camp is for the benefit of this country. If that is so, let the British people announce it loud and clear in a referendum—but no, the Government fear it.

The Liberal Democrats used to be in favour of referendums. I say that because I sought the support of their then leader, Lord Ashdown, for a referendum on Maastricht. He was for it, because the Liberal Democrats believed in these matters. However, we heard a very curious contribution from the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore). He spoke of wee advances, wee this and wee that, as though it were just a little matter. It is not a little matter; it is the gathering together of all that forms a constitution.

Next Section

IndexHome Page