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6.15 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I am glad that the Government have rejected the calls for a referendum on this issue; they were absolutely right to do so. It has already been pointed out by Labour Members that the previous treaties into which this country has entered were put through without any proposals for referendums by the then Conservative Government. One can only conclude, therefore, that the present calls for a referendum by the Conservatives are nothing less than opportunistic. At least the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) had the grace to look a tad embarrassed when some of his previous statements were read out to highlight the change in his position in so few years.

We must also remember that it was not only the amending treaties that were not subjected to referendums at the instigation of the Conservative party when it had the chance to do so. The actual decision to join the European Union was not initially the subject of a referendum either. It was, of course, the then Labour Government who allowed the voters a referendum on that issue when they came to power.

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What is particularly staggering about the present Conservative approach is that the treaty of Rome, to which we signed up in 1972, contained a commitment to moving towards an ever-closer union, and every amending treaty since then has reiterated that commitment, yet now that we have a treaty that replaces that commitment with a different formulation that strengthens subsidiarity and gives member states more rights and the ability to have a greater say in the European process, the Conservatives want to oppose that reform.

The member states will gain from the current proposals, and the larger member states in particular are likely to gain. I know that my hon. Friends the Ministers could not possibly say that, but hon. Members will know that criticisms of the Convention have come not only from the federalist wing but from the smaller states in the European Union. I welcome the fact that the member states, particularly the larger ones, will have the ability to express their views more strongly and effectively through the European Union mechanisms.

When I see the opportunism of the Conservative party on this issue, I am convinced that its strategy is now motivated—at least for a significant number of its Members in this House—by a desire to block the reforms of the European Union and an attempt to prevent changes that would allow it to work more effectively. The objective of that strategy, in some quarters of the party, would be to lead us to total withdrawal from the Union, or at least to a redefining of the Union so that Britain became part of an outer circle of member states.

That is precisely the kind of development about which the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) expressed concern. I believe, however, that he and his colleagues are playing into the Conservatives' hands by supporting the undermining of the European Union in the way that he has done today.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: The hon. Gentleman was not in the House during the long and lengthy progress of the legislation on the Maastricht treaty, but Mr. Brian Gould MP, as he then was, introduced new clause 57, which sought a referendum. The Liberal Democrats supported that new clause.

Mr. Lazarowicz: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to refer to what happened in the past, but now he is playing into the hands of the Conservatives, who are seeking to diminish the role of Britain in the European Union. That was not the position of the majority of Members previously.

Voices from the Labour Benches have been calling for a referendum. I accept that those Labour Members and the Liberal Democrats are not motivated by a wish to undermine the European Union, but the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) showed the danger of the position that he is taking. As he said, in two, three or four years there may be another amending treaty. Does he believe that every time there is even the slightest change in the European treaties there will have to be a referendum? He may not take that position, but if we went down that

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road it would be impossible to avoid the argument for a referendum every time there was even the slightest change to one of the European treaties.

Mr. Stevenson: The answer to my hon. Friend's question is no. I can think of occasions since we joined the Common Market when referendums should have been held: the European Single Act, the Maastricht treaty and this proposal. I referred to building blocks and milestones. There will be another treaty, and we will have to examine it to see what effect it may have. I do not accept that every small change should necessarily be subject to a referendum, and I have never argued for that.

Mr. Lazarowicz: The problem with my hon. Friend's formulation of the argument is that he may not see a minor change as a milestone, but others may see it as such or, more likely, represent it as a fundamental constitutional change. The entire British political debate on European Union membership would end up being dominated by a never-ending series of referendums, pre-referendums and post-referendums, which would have the precise effect of making our participation in the European Union an impossibility and would lead to the ungovernability of the EU, which I am sure is the motivation of at least some Conservative Members.

I agree with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that a dangerous gulf is developing between the European elites and the peoples of Europe. Every politician in every Parliament in Europe must recognise that, and must draw conclusions for the operation of our political systems. This problem is not unique to European politics: it is a feature of politics even at local level, as turnouts in local elections frequently prove. There is undoubtedly disenchantment with the European political process. There are many reasons for that. I am not one of those who always blame the media for problems when politicians are not very popular. However, when it comes to the issue of Europe, the diet in some parts of the media of continual Europhobia and of refighting the battles of the second world war is hardly conducive to mature and sensible political debate.

Much more significant than the role of some sections of the media is the fact that we are now living in a dangerous world. Many people are fearful for the future, and worry about the direction of their own country and the wider world. It is not surprising that in such a climate there is a tendency in some quarters to go for the tried and trusted political solutions rather than to take new directions and find new ways of organising international relations. That tendency is more likely to develop, given that many international organisations—not just the EU, but the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations as well—are seen to be failing to meet many of the challenges that they face.

In my view, however, the way to overcome the alienation of the European peoples from the European elite is not to unleash the never-ending series of referendums implied by the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South. We need a twofold approach. First, it is for those of us who support active participation by this country in Europe and European institutions to get out there again and sell the benefits of EU membership—the jobs, trade

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opportunities and rights for consumers and workers that it has brought us. We must send that message more strongly, emphasising the gains from membership and the dangers that would result from the withdrawal or disengagement favoured by the Conservatives.

Above all, we need a European Union that works more effectively and meets the challenges of the time. Following the changes in eastern Europe in the 1990s, many Members will have been struck by the fact that the banner displayed by demonstrators in those towns and cities as they moved towards democracy was most commonly the flag of the European Union rather than their own traditional national flags. That was because they saw the EU as the hope for the future of not just Europe as a whole, but their individual countries.

As we all know, the hopes placed in Europe by many of those peoples in the 1990s were dashed. The failure of the European institutions vis-à-vis the former Yugoslavia highlights the inability of European structures to deal with the challenges of that time. We can trace much of the disenchantment with the current European arrangements to that failure of the European Union and European bodies to respond to the challenges posed by civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and to the changing political and economic structure of Europe from the 1990s onwards.

Given all that, it is more important than ever for the European Union to be made to work more effectively. The changes proposed by the Convention are necessary for that to happen. It is because so many Conservatives do not want the EU to work effectively and to succeed that they oppose those changes. The issue today, therefore, is not just our continuing membership of the EU; it is whether we stay in the EU or travel down a road that would lead inexorably to our withdrawal in the not-too-distant future.

6.28 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): I do not think most Members who oppose the Government's present policy of not holding a referendum are interested in slight changes. We are interested in a fundamental change.

I remind the House that deceptions have come from Europe time and again. I have no problem with my European seat, as I received the most votes ever cast for an MEP in my area, so it is possible for me to engage in a real debate about this issue. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) said that we wanted the slightest changes to be subject to a referendum. The constitutional charter of fundamental rights, which in the past had no legal force, will now have full legal effect. When this proposal was first mentioned, however, the Prime Minister told us that it would have no binding force of that kind—that it was only a declaration. Some declaration, today! That is how the ordinary people have been deceived.

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