Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.1 pm

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): The House listened with considerable sympathy to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). It will not surprise him to know that I approach the subject from a rather different starting point, but I arrive at a similar set of conclusions to those that he has just enunciated to the House.

I am an unapologetic pro-European. I believe that the United Kingdom was right to join the European Union, that our future is intrinsically tied up with the future of our partner countries in the EU, and that John Major was right when he said that Britain should aim to be at the heart of Europe. So far, for those who have followed my views on these subjects over the years, no surprises, but I think that those of my closest political friends who argue against a referendum now are profoundly wrong. If we are to proceed with the kind of changes envisaged in the draft constitution, it is essential that we first secure the support of the electorate, not just of this country, but of other countries in the EU—support expressed in a referendum. I shall set out the reasons why.

The first is the simplest one to explain. It seems likely that before we get to the end of the process, the majority of other EU member states will put the proposal to their electorates in a referendum. I do not know what language I shall use in Charnwood to explain why France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands will have referendums, yet my constituents, who put me in Parliament to represent their interests, will be denied the opportunity to vote on the proposals—an opportunity that is likely to be granted to the majority of other citizens of the European Union.

Mr. MacShane: On what authority does the right hon. Gentleman say that France has decided to hold a referendum?

Mr. Dorrell: I base my assertion on the words quoted earlier in the debate, the prediction of President Chirac, and the fact that when they introduced the euro, the French Government had a referendum—

Mr. MacShane indicated dissent.

Mr. Dorrell: I am sorry, but they did. The Maastricht treaty was endorsed by referendum in France by a very tiny majority. Given that history and the French tradition of referendums, in particular under the Gaullist party, it would be a brave Government in

16 Sept 2003 : Column 808

France who sought to carry the proposals through against the advice of a Gaullist President, without a referendum.

Mr. Tom Harris: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that he did not know how he would explain to his constituents why this country is not having a referendum, whereas other EU countries are. What excuse did he give to his constituents back in 1992 for the fact that there was no referendum on the Maastricht treaty, whereas France did have one?

Mr. Dorrell: It might not come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I want to develop the argument addressing precisely that point. However, I wanted to begin with the simplest point—it seems likely that, whether or not a referendum occurs in France, there will be a substantial number elsewhere in Europe.

Mr. Hendrick: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dorrell: I should like to make progress.

This is not just a matter of saying "me too", as there is an important issue of principle in saying that the member states choosing to take the referendum route are wrong. The traditional view of British Governments—from Ted Heath onwards—of opposition to referendums is wrong, and I want to explain why. I believe that referendums have an increasingly important part to play in modern democracies. In every western democracy, we face an increasing problem of divorce between our voters and the political elite—exactly the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South made.

Voters increasingly feel that the political elite do not take them seriously and that they think that democracy is about one collective act every four or five years, after which they should be left to get on with it. Increasingly, they are rebelling against that interpretation of how democracy should work. If we insist on maintaining our traditional commitment to a Burkeian representative democracy with only very occasional reference to the electorate through general elections, I believe that, as increasingly important decisions are taken by that route, we shall undermine the legitimacy of those decisions and ultimately put at risk the stability of our institutions.

I think that referendums will, and should increasingly be seen, as the means by which voters are engaged directly in decisions that affect them, but from which they currently feel increasingly divorced. That principle is most simple to apply in dealing with what are avowedly constitutional questions. It is one type of issue when a controversial decision is taken within a constitutional settlement, but a different one entirely when the question is not how constitutional powers are used, but who should have those powers. That is why, when a document described as a constitution is presented to me in a political climate that should increasingly embrace the principle of referendums, I find it easy to say that it should be the subject of a referendum.

That general principle is particularly apposite in the context of the current European debate in this and other European countries. Every observer of the European

16 Sept 2003 : Column 809

Union recognises that there is what is referred to in Euro-jargon as a democratic deficit. Anyone who is concerned about the operation of the European institutions must recognise that there is not only a divorce between voters and political institutions and politicians in general, but an especially acute version of that divorce between voters and institutions in Brussels. The tendency among some of my European friends is to say that that problem is easy to solve and can be dealt with by introducing enhanced powers for the European Parliament, but that is to avoid the subject, not address it.

The problem is that voters do not feel engaged with the institutions that have been set up to exercise power on their behalf in Brussels. The divorce that is a general problem with modern politics is a particular problem when applied to the institutions of the European Union. It is for that reason that, even if the Foreign Secretary's argument that there is nothing new in the treaty were true—I do not think that it is—it would not be a sufficient answer to the case for a referendum, as there is an urgent need to re-engage voters in what is happening in their name in the institutions of the European Union.

I have made the case thus far on the ground of principle, for which I make no apology. However, anyone who is engaged in practical politics should assert a principle and consider the practical consequences. It is blindingly obvious that if the constitution were subject to approval by referendum, it would be less likely to pass in its current form. I want to make a couple of comments about that.

First, it is a genuine mystery why people appear to expect the constitution to pass in its current form, given the sense of increasing willingness in the rest of Europe to contemplate subjecting it to a referendum. The history of getting electorates elsewhere in Europe to approve such documents by referendum does not support the view that the constitution is likely to pass unchallenged. It would therefore be doubly absurd for the British electorate to witness the fall of a constitution that we did not like at referendums elsewhere in Europe that we were denied.

The proposition that the constitution would be less likely to pass if we introduced the hurdle of a referendum is hardly a reason to draw back. Surely if we are interested in re-engaging the British electorate with the European process, acknowledging that the constitution would be likely to fall at the referendum hurdle should redouble our determination to tackle the reason for that. We should deal with such questions seriously rather than simply saying, "It's all frightfully difficult and we'll avoid the questions altogether."

Surely if we are to continue to develop Britain's role as an active member of the European Union we need to re-engage the public in the form of European Union that we want to create. It is instructive to consider what we would have to do to set out down that road. It is sad that the short answer is probably that if we achieved the purpose of the new constitutional framework—I should prefer to call it a new treaty for the European Union—as approved by referendum, we would have to start again.

We would have to start again the process on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) was engaged on the Convention. We would need to produce a document that more

16 Sept 2003 : Column 810

closely reflected the rhetoric about a union of states rather than the continued development of a set of institutions that were born in the political culture of the 1960s. The document would need to be focused much more sharply and demonstrate to the voters of this and other countries in Europe a clear-sighted commitment to providing added value on trade, the single market and the environment. European co-operation on such matters has a serious purpose. We would need an equally clear determination to withdraw the developing tentacles of the European Union from subjects on which its legitimacy is increasingly challenged by me as well as my constituents.

In the context of the modern, decentralised Europe, I do not understand the necessity for European legislation that aspires to tell me that I cannot work for more than 56 hours a week. That is an absurd extension that goes way beyond the common agenda that should be the shared purpose of all European Union member states. Most important, a redrafted document should include a genuine commitment to make accountable the power of the institutions in Brussels to the voters to whom they should be responsible. Accountability in the political cultures of all European Union member states can be realised only if it is exercised overwhelmingly through their institutions. That is how political power in Europe is currently held accountable.

It is profoundly unlikely that such a document could be written by a Convention chaired by an octogenarian former French President whose political instincts were formed in the 1960s. What is needed is a new view of the institutions required for a new, more consumerist, more individualist, and more market-oriented Europe. That is the kind of document that would sail through a referendum in this country and others in Europe, too.

I favour a referendum, first, because other countries are holding them; secondly, because it is right in principle to hold them; and thirdly—and probably most importantly—because a referendum would be the best way to reverse Europe out of a cul de sac and force on the political elites a requirement to move in a more benign direction.

Next Section

IndexHome Page