Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary define for the House what exactly a shared competence is.

Mr. Straw: One that is shared between the EU and member states.

Now is a good moment to remind ourselves why we are negotiating in this IGC. As I said, the prize—a constitutional treaty that is right for Britain and for Europe—is very important.

On 1 May next year, eight of Europe's new democracies, along with Cyprus and Malta, will join the EU. Later, Romania and Bulgaria will follow, and the European Council should confirm the target of next year for the two countries to close negotiations, allowing them to join the EU in 2007. The Council will also discuss Turkey's progress towards meeting the criteria for opening EU membership negotiations. As the House knows, the Government strongly support Turkey's prompt accession to the EU once it meets those criteria.

The word "historic" is often overused, but I make no apologies for using it in the context of EU enlargement. Only 14 years ago, the iron curtain divided Europe, with central and eastern European countries trapped under communist dictatorship and sinking into economic and environmental neglect. Joining the EU will mark the culmination of those countries' transition to free and democratic societies and prosperous market economies. It is a tribute to their efforts and energy that they have made that transition so quickly.

Enlargement is overwhelmingly in Britain's interest, which is why successive British Governments have been its strongest supporters. Through enlargement, Britain will gain access to an expanded single market of 450 million people. New partners will help us better face the shared challenges of an uncertain and interdependent world. However, the problem is that the European Union of today has institutions essentially designed for six members, and it needs reform if it is to work effectively with 25. No reform is preferable to a bad reform, and, as I made clear in our White Paper on the constitutional treaty, the EU will carry on under its current arrangements if a new treaty cannot be agreed or ratified by every member state. However, if we can get the IGC right, the prize is a more efficient and effective

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1107

EU that can meet the challenges of enlargement and is focused not on institutional minutiae, but on delivering security and prosperity to its citizens.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I greatly welcome what my right hon. Friend is saying. Will he join me in expressing pleasure in the fact that the accession countries have been involved in discussions on the constitution, so they already have a sense of ownership in respect of areas where there is strong agreement? Does he also agree that all the talk about a superstate is complete nonsense, because the last thing that the new accession countries want is to be subordinate to a superpower, based in Brussels or anywhere else?

Mr. Straw: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend on her last point, and I shall return to that theme later in my speech. On the first point, it is extremely good—and thanks, not least, to our Prime Minister at Laeken—that the new states have been able fully to participate in the IGC. Their view, particularly their strategic view of foreign policy—based on a Europe of independent sovereign nation states— is similar to that of the UK, so I have been able to develop natural alliances with almost all of them.

In an article that I wrote for The Economist in October last year, I set out how the Government wanted a new constitutional treaty for the EU to look. I said then that it should explain

I continued:

I also said that the new treaty should

At the start of the debate on a new constitutional treaty, it was by no means clear that that was the sort of result that we were going to get, and there has long been a debate about how Europe should work. On the one hand, there was the federalist view, which was often the result of a different history from ours or a different political culture. On the other, there were more practical Europeans—similar, I believe, to the vast majority of the British people—who wanted and still want to enhance our prosperity and influence by working together with our neighbours. The sort of constitutional treaty that I described in The Economist last year was based on that practical view.

The Government were clear about what we wanted from the IGC negotiations, but we had a choice in how to get it. We could have accepted everything that the most committed integrationists want—the view of the Liberal Democrat representative on the IGC—or we could have tried to rubbish the whole thing, which, generally speaking, was the approach of the Conservatives. However, we rejected both approaches, making it clear exactly what we wanted and working

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1108

constructively with our partners to get there, while standing firm against changes that we could not accept. As a result, we already have many of the elements of a treaty that endorses our vision of a Europe of nation states that will work efficiently in Britain's interest. The idea of a federalist superstate is yesterday's fantasy, not tomorrow's reality. The treaty that we sign will be not a federalist blueprint, but a framework for a Europe of sovereign nation states working together to achieve common aims and to combat shared challenges.

Let me cite what the House of Lords Select Committee on the EU said in a recent report. It said:

Our European partners recognise that, too. The leading French commentator, Alain Duhamel, has said that the Convention's draft treaty set out a great British Europe

There is a myth put about by those who would take Britain out of Europe that paints the EU as a threat to British sovereignty. It is a profoundly defeatist view of what Britain can achieve, and it assumes that co-operation with our neighbours comes at the price of diluting our national character.

This is a moment to remind ourselves of what has been said in the past about various changes to the treaty base of our relationship with the EU. I understand fully why the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the deputy leader of the Opposition and shadow Foreign Secretary, cannot be present. I am sorry that he cannot be here because it is worth recalling that, back in 1992, speaking from the Back Benches on the Government side, he shot down those who claimed that Maastricht would lead to a superstate. Indeed, he argued eloquently and persuaded most of the then Opposition, including myself, that we should vote against a referendum on Maastricht. On any analysis whatever, Maastricht represented a much more profound change in the nature of the relationship—setting out the single currency and common foreign and defence policy—than anything in the current treaty.

There were some people—I shall not mention their names, but they can identify themselves—at that time who ranted about the fact that the Maastricht treaty would lead to the creation of a superstate. If we wind forward to the modest set of changes in the Amsterdam treaty, the position of Conservative Front Benchers had changed. Only 27 days after their crushing defeat in the 1997 general election, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—who had survived, I am happy to say—gave a balanced judgment on the Amsterdam treaty in The Times, when he wrote:

Other, slightly more nuanced statements—which would be easy in comparison with the dramatic and apocalyptic view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman—made similar points about the Amsterdam treaty. The country continued, after all, and was not abolished.

Then we came to the Nice treaty, and the right hon. Gentleman decided to ratchet up the hyperbole. On BBC Online, on 19 April 2000, he said:

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1109

The right hon. Gentleman is an intelligent and pleasant fellow, but he should think about what he predicted would happen after the Amsterdam treaty, which was signed more than six years ago, and what he predicted would happen after the Nice treaty three years ago. Far from our country being abolished or parliamentary democracy being blown up, our country has not only survived but prospered as never before, as was well illustrated by the silence and glum faces on the other side of the House when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor spelled out in every detail the brilliant record of this Labour Government on prosperity and our position in the world, especially compared with our predecessor.

Next Section

IndexHome Page