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Mr. Leigh: On the wider political point, it is quite interesting that the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats agree. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman speculate on whether there is concern in the Government about what happened in Sweden and the fact that the European public are apparently increasingly convinced that Europe is run by business and political elites? Whether one is a Eurosceptic or a

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European enthusiast, surely there is a strong case for a referendum to overcome those doubts and give the Government an opportunity to make their case.

Mr. Campbell: The hon. Gentleman would find careful scrutiny of the Swedish campaign and the decision that was taken in Sweden rewarding, because much evidence suggests that many people who voted against the proposal were worried because they thought that the European Union provided far too much opportunity for the operation of the market. They were worried about the social standards in Sweden that are paid for by substantial tax rates—they are higher than those in this country—numbers of public sector jobs and that the role of the state would be substantially curtailed if the country became part of the single currency.

Mr. MacShane: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Campbell: In a moment.

Of course, that position would be somewhat inimical to the one that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and his party would prefer to adopt and indeed that of which the Prime Minister tried to persuade the European Union as a result of the Lisbon summit. Does the Minister for Europe wish to intervene? I appear to have satisfied him, so perhaps I should quit while I am ahead.

If the Government are not moved by principle, how about being motivated by pragmatism? Can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, imagine the disappointment in the editorial suites of certain newspapers if the Government announced that they were willing to hold a referendum, or the deep depression that would centre over Smith square? The Government should think again. They have been prepared to change their mind on the question of a referendum. Without prior warning or consultation, they determined, on a referendum, devolution to Scotland, which John Smith had described as unfinished business. There is still time for the Government to recant, but in the meantime we shall support the motion.

5.48 pm

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): I suppose that one's approach to the debate and the motion on the referendum will be affected by whether one believes that the draft constitution and the intergovernmental conference are simply tidying-up exercises and nothing to worry about because much has been agreed prior to the IGC and the constitution will simplify matters, or whether one believes those who say that the IGC and the treaty are of fundamental importance. I say at the outset that I take the latter view, not because I believe that it is impossible to make the argument that the process is a tidying-up exercise but because we are dealing with a treaty yet missing a fundamental issue: the European Union is a process. Events within the process determine the way in which the EU will move on in the next generation and, in my humble opinion, this is one such event.

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A single currency is not needed for a single market—I have never believed that, and we have proved it—but it is needed for a united states of Europe. Why do we need a constitution? A treaty similar to those of the past could have dealt with matters such as enlargement, changes to the Commission and the five-year presidency of the Council. We do not need a constitution for that, but we need one for a united states of Europe.

Those are the fundamental flaws in this afternoon's debate. Understandably, we are concentrating on the constitution, but, with respect, the Government are making a mistake in ignoring what has happened in the past. The Single European Act and Maastricht were the most important milestones in the development of the European Union. It is rather strange for Ministers to try to destroy Conservative arguments by saying, "We don't need a referendum on the constitution because the Single European Act and Maastricht were much worse, and the Conservatives did not have referendums on those." I do not follow that logic. We should look to consult the British people on the constitution because it is a milestone in the development of the European Union, and if we are prepared to face up to the compelling logic of that process it is clear that it has only one objective—a state of Europe. It is no good having a policy in the Labour party of saying that we are opposed to such a state, given that every step of the way we are bit by bit, piece by piece, putting in place the building blocks for it.

That is what we should be discussing today. I do not diminish the importance of the subject of the debate, but I fear that we are missing the target by a mile, as I suspect that the British people are beginning to understand. In view of that, how can we sustain the idea of a referendum on a single currency, which I support, yet not have a referendum on the other building blocks that are necessary to create a state of Europe? We are not being honest with ourselves or with the British people, and it is about time we were.

As far as I am aware, this situation is a first. I have been a Member of the European Parliament, as have hon. Friends sitting next to me, but I cannot remember a European constitution having been presented before. The Government clearly understand the importance of this IGC, because they say in the White Paper that it will affect all our lives and the way in which we govern ourselves. I cannot identify issues that are much more serious than that; the British people should therefore be consulted.

Mr. Hendrick: Does my hon. Friend not accept the words of our Foreign Secretary today that the constitution is effectively all the previous treaties rolled into one and that that constitutes about 80 per cent. of the text? The word "constitution" is just a label put on those treaties.

Mr. Stevenson: I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend, who has served in the European Parliament. I do not have to answer that question, because he knows the process that is going on better than I do—he served in the European Parliament more recently than me. One of the first things with which we were presented in 1984 when I became a Member of the European Parliament was a draft constitution of the European Union, by Altiero Spinelli. The arguments and objectives that we

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are now considering are not new. If Spinelli were alive today, he would be rubbing his hands with glee because his dream of 1984, which was too far reaching for us then, is now becoming a reality. It is not all being realised, not by a wide margin, but the constitution is an important step in the process.

I shall move on to another concern that I tried to raise the other day in my question to the Prime Minister—public perception. For years, we have tried as politicians to generate interest among the electorate in the European project. No matter what our perspective, we have all agreed that the turn-out at European parliamentary elections is abysmally low. We have failed to generate that interest, most importantly because the British people feel that these matters are the fiefdom of the political elite. I fully accept the results of the Swedish and Estonian referendums on Sunday, which demonstrate that while the people of Europe, particularly the British, are prepared to accept criticisms of apathy or lack of interest, they are no longer prepared to be ignored. If we ignore them on these vital issues I must tell the Government whom I support and whom I am, in the main, proud of, that we shall suffer. The gulf between the political elite—the people driving the agenda forward, whether nationally or internationally—and the people whom we serve is widening at a rate of knots, and that frightens me to death.

We can lose all sorts of things. We can lose elections because of sleaze and spin, but if we start to lose the faith and trust of the people whom we represent nationally and internationally, that is a recipe for a disaster. If we are serious about moving the European project forward and debating that in the House, a failure to hold a referendum now will alienate our people even more. In many ways, we should not be looking at the draft constitution, but should be considering what will come next. As night follows day, there will be another treaty, which will build on the constitution. We should consider what will happen in three or four years' time when another treaty comes along. As surely as night follows day, however, if we do not consult the British people now, they are not likely to trust us ever again when we do go to them on something like the euro. Not holding a referendum is therefore not in the Government's interest.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I am sure that he agrees that every time we get to one of these milestones and do not achieve the informed consent of the British people we lose their trust. The worst enemies of the European Union are those who claim to support it but who are not prepared to consult the people whom we are here to serve.

Mr. Stevenson: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. We got away with not holding a referendum in 1986 and in 1992. I am arguing as strongly as I can that we will not get away with it again. We have been rumbled—[Interruption.] I hear my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe mumbling. I said "rumble", not "mumble". There is a widespread feeling in my constituency—I am not saying that it is true—that the Government want a referendum only when they can win it. That may or may not be true; only the Government know. But that is

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people's perception, and in politics, as every right hon. and hon. Member knows, perception is an extremely powerful force.

I hope my contribution has been of some interest to my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. I have tried to express my views as positively as I can, though not uncritically. If we do not bite the bullet, we shall suffer as a result. I wonder whether we shall ever regain the trust of the British people so that we can move forward as we all want, not only in terms of national policy, but as regards the European Union, which is so important to us.

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