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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilkinson rose—

Mr. Straw: No, I will not give way. [Hon. Members: "Give way."] I shall give way in a moment.

I shall deal with the first specific claim made by the right hon. Member for Devizes, which was that the draft treaty will result in the creation of a five-year presidency of the European Council. That is one of his central objections, and one of the things that he says will lead to a European superstate. It is true that the draft constitution would create a five-year presidency of the European Council, but I presume that he is suggesting that the post is tantamount to the establishment of an EU Head of State.

It is bizarre that a party, which has raised no objection to the principle of a presidency of the European Council during 18 years in government, now sees it as a threat to British sovereignty. There has always been a presidency, and this proposal is not about the further accretion of powers at the centre. Quite the opposite. There is now a problem with a rotating presidency. A senior political figure serving a term of two and a half or five years as Chairman of the European Council and responsible to Heads of State and Government—not to the Commission—would bring much needed coherence and continuity to the very body that, above all others, serves the interests of the nation states.

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The right hon. Gentleman is not thinking through his position. The current system of a six-monthly rotating presidency is a recipe for discontinuity, and in practice it weakens the Council of Heads of State and Government and it strengthens the Commission, which is exactly the opposite of that which he seeks. The result of that is to weaken the role of member states in the Council, which is why the opposition to the proposal for a full-time president has produced some weird bedfellows. On one side of the bed are the right hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party, and under the same duvet are the European Commission, President Prodi, the Liberal Democrats and every barking mad federalist across Europe, all of whom oppose this policy. I know that the Conservative party is now thinking about being more inclusive and caring, but I did not realise that it went this far. Conservatives should think about the company they keep before they come up with such ludicrous propositions.

Mr. Ancram: Does the Foreign Secretary agree that among those whom he describes as our bedfellows are many of the smaller nations that are joining the European Union for the first time? They believe that the five-year presidency will undermine intergovernmentalism and be damaging to them.

Mr. Straw: That is not what they believe.

Mr. Ancram: It is what they say.

Mr. Straw: It is not what they say either. I have had the benefit of listening to them. What they believe is that a full-time presidency might undermine the position of the Commission, which they see—wrongly, in my view—as a protector of small member states. Some, though by no means all, of those smaller states believe in the Commission and would like to be part of a European superstate. That is the opposite of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I, too, listened for 18 months to what those countries were saying, and my right hon. Friend is entirely right. Their point is that a rotating presidency makes the European Union more in touch with the people of individual countries. It does not accomplish that completely, but it goes some way towards it. A permanent five-year presidency—the addition of another presidency in Brussels—will, on the other hand, make the EU even more remote from the people of Europe, and do the opposite of creating a more democratic Union that is in touch with the people. That is why the smaller countries, and my right hon. Friend, oppose the absurd proposal to create yet another presidency in Europe.

Mr. Straw: There is already a presidency. It is called the presidency of the Council. The question is, how do we make it effective on behalf of member states?

The logical conclusion of what the right hon. Gentleman and the rest of the Conservative Front Bench are saying is that member states will be weakened within Europe and the Commission strengthened. That

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is why the European Commission—of fantastical proportions, in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman—is most vocal in opposing a full-time presidency. It is not possible for a single presidency serving for six months to co-ordinate effectively the policies of 25 member states—which, yes, will sometimes be opposed to those pursued by the Commission.

Mr. Bercow : Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: Yes, for the last time.

Mr. Bercow: Never have I heard so many words provide so little justification over such a long period for denying the people of this country the right to make a decision on this matter. Why does the Foreign Secretary not just admit that he opposes a referendum not on ground of constitutional principle, but because he thinks the British people do not understand the issues, or thinks they might reach a different decision from him—or both?

Mr. Straw: That does not happen to be my view.

The right hon. Gentleman's second claim was that the draft treaty would impose "legally binding rights" in relation to the charter of fundamental rights. If the Opposition are to be believed, here and elsewhere, that document will impose a heavy burden on British business and provoke chaos in our judicial system. It will not do that, however. For one thing, those who read the charter will see that it is a straightforward statement of British and, dare I say, conservative values, including such astonishing propositions as the right to a fair trial. Its legal implications are also much more prosaic—thanks to the changes that we negotiated in the Convention—than the right hon. Gentleman would have us believe.

The most important changes that we have secured are in title VII,


Article II-51 makes it clear that the charter


It does not, therefore, grant any new powers to the constitution.

Like the rest of the draft treaty, the section on the charter may be revised further in the intergovernmental conference. As I spelt out to the House this time last week, we reserve the right to make a final decision on the incorporation of the charter in the light of the overall picture that emerges.

The right hon. Gentleman's third claim is that the draft treaty will lead to a political union because it is based on—I am quoting what he has said outside the House—


Using the most awful weasel words, the right hon. Gentleman said that this would for the first time set out the primacy of European law.

The right hon. Gentleman is sufficient of a lawyer to know that that is simply not the case. It is totally untrue, and frankly he ought to be ashamed of making such

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claims. We can argue about other aspects of what is in the draft constitution, but for him to stand at the Dispatch Box and claim that it will assert for the first time the primacy of European law, thereby clearly implying that no such primacy currently exists, is frankly a deceit.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I will not.

The right hon. Member for Devizes knows very well that the whole argument 31 years ago as to whether we should join the then Common Market concerned the fact that this House would have to cede the primacy of our law to that of the European Union.

Mr. Ancram rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment.

For that reason, section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 was passed, establishing that primacy. It states:


by this House


The right hon. Gentleman knows that to be the case.

Mr. Ancram: The Foreign Secretary has raised this important point on several different occasions. I just want to remind him of the case of Macarthys v. Smith, in 1980, of which, as a lawyer, he will doubtless know. Lord Denning said:


he was talking about the European treaty—


Lord Denning was actually saying—this is a distinction that the right hon. Gentleman must appreciate—that the EU treaties signed in 1972 created a limited primacy because of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice and of our own courts, and because of the 1972 Act. What this document proposes is making European law's primacy explicit and enshrining it in a constitution in full for the first time. At the moment, Parliament has what could be described as a residual sovereignty. The provision in the constitution would abolish it.


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