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5.50 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who is invariably a fluent and entertaining speaker. He was straightforward about his desire to see a European Union superstate. Although I profoundly disagree with his sentiments, I respect his honesty. He probably shares my view that the real difficulty involves those who share his agenda but pretend not to, and approach the objectives espoused by him in a less than straightforward way.

In a debate on European affairs, it is important to step back a little and look at the big picture. Unlike my father and grandfather, who left school to go straight into world wars, I—along with the rest of my generation—have not had to go through that. We should pay tribute to the European Union for playing some part in the preservation of peace on our continent during its creation. As we should all recognise, it is the first duty of any Government to preserve peace and security for their citizens.

It is right for us to welcome enlargement. The Foreign Secretary was right to describe it as historic. The fact that 10 countries that were behind the iron curtain until 1989 are about to join the European family of nations is indeed an historic event that we should all welcome. Let me point out for the record that every member of the Conservative party supported it in the House, and that it can proceed without ratification of the European constitution should that not come to pass.

I also welcome the results of the single market, which was pioneered by the British Conservatives under Lord Cockfield. I pay tribute to successive Governments who promoted that agenda: a common market without tariffs, in which we can sell our goods, is enormously valuable to us.

I have a small caveat, however. I refer to the European Union's behaviour at Cancun. I do not think that it behaved well, in a moral sense, by taking such a protectionist stance in relation to the developing countries. That was raised by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) in a recent article in The Times. The European Union should be careful to maintain a good record in this regard; otherwise, the World Trade Organisation could easily take over its function in ensuring free and fair trade between all nations.

I am a new Member of Parliament, elected only at the last general election. I am well aware of my close link with the 71,000 or so electors of South-West Bedfordshire who sent me here, and to whom I am

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directly accountable. The relationship is very clear: they know who their MP is, and I have a duty to respond to their problems and to be their champion. That is very precious, but it does not happen so far as Members of the European Parliament are concerned, under the existing, regional-based system of proportional representation. When asked who their MEP is and who their MP is, most people are unable to answer the former question with anything like the confidence that they can answer the latter.

The European constitution contains a number of threats to our parliamentary democracy, and such concerns are shared by Members on both sides of the House, regardless of their political tradition. For example, my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), who sits on the Labour Benches, shares many of those concerns. As has already been pointed out, until the possible signing of the constitution this weekend, this country has always had the right to repeal the European Communities Act 1972. With the prospect of that constitution looming before us, it appears that we will lose that right. As a result, for the first time ever, European law will be supreme in this country.

Ms Stuart: The debate about supremacy of law has continued for months, and there seems to be no answer to it. But for the first time, an explicit exit clause will be provided in the constitution, spelling out the ability to leave. How does the hon. Gentleman combine the two arguments?

Andrew Selous: I can answer that question very easily. Neither my party nor I wants to withdraw from the European Union; my point is that we have always had the theoretical right to repeal the 1972 Act. The intolerable tragedy of this debate is that we have not had a straight answer, despite the best efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and many others, to the question of what the position will be after we sign the European constitution this weekend, if indeed we do sign it. This is a hugely important issue, and the lack of clarity should worry us all, whatever our perspective on these matters.

We have already talked about the importance of national Parliaments continuing to have a vital and meaningful role in the affairs of the European Union. Reference has been made to the fact that meetings of the European Scrutiny Committee are not terribly well attended on occasion, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) has the explanation for that. He says that when Members do attend those meetings and European Union documents are placed before them, the Chairman will often move at a fast pace, taking 100 pages at a time and asking whether there are any objections to them. On one occasion, my hon. Friend sat up virtually all night to examine such documents in detail. He raised objections to several of them on behalf of British business, and the meeting was duly adjourned. He is under the strong impression that subsequent meetings were set at times when he was unable to attend. Concerns certainly do arise as to how effectively we in this House are able to scrutinise European Union directives and regulations.

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This debate has helped to clarify the question of shared competence. To many people, the phrase "shared competence" will suggest that a national Parliament has some role in the matters being debated by the country in question and the European Union. But it has been made clear during this debate what shared competence means: if and when the European Union decides to legislate in a particular area, at that point the United Kingdom and other EU members cannot. That should be a great worry to us, as should the charter of fundamental rights, which I and many others believe will simply lead to an increase in European Union, judge-led law.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said that she believes that the real reason behind the convention is furthering the political deepening of the Union. Given the 16 months that she spent as a member of the European Convention, she should know very well about that.

I think that we should look at the EU far more flexibly. If France and Germany wish to forge ahead and form a much closer relationship within the EU, neither we nor any other European country should stand up and stop them. By the same token, however, countries that want to go at a slower pace and retain more powers for their national Parliaments should not be forced to go further than they want.

Above all, we have to get rid of the absurd notion that Britain could be left behind in Europe—a point raised earlier in the debate. Europe is not a bunch of teenagers karting up the M1 to see who can get there first. It is very different from that, being about the relationship between the peoples of respective countries, how they are governed, democracy and accountability—all very important matters. The whole notion of being left behind has no real meaning in the debate. The duty of this Parliament and the British Government is always to secure in our relations with Europe the best possible deal for the British people.

What my constituents and I fail to understand is that if issues about the European constitution are—on the grounds that they are of significant constitutional importance—worthy of being put before the peoples of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and other countries, why not here? I was in Denmark last week, so I know that the Danes take the issue very seriously indeed. How, then, can the British Government say that these are not constitutionally significant matters, when they clearly are to so many of our EU neighbours? If they are constitutionally important there, why are they not here?

The whole process that led to the creation of a European constitution began with the Laeken declaration, but it had explicit principles and purposes, which we seem to have moved away from rather than towards. The Laeken declaration said that the EU should move closer to its peoples; become more, not less, democratic; and be made more efficient and transparent. No one from either side of the argument seriously believes that the European constitution before us at the moment achieves any of those objectives whatever. It is also important that for the last nine years, the EU's accounts have been qualified. We know that the EU does not even use double-entry bookkeeping. Can any hon. Member name a single reputable or

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properly constituted organisation that does not use such bookkeeping? I find it astounding.

At the start of my speech, I spoke about the importance of defence, which I personally believe is the prime responsibility and duty of any Government. I am very concerned that the current position of the British Government is to reverse a policy that has always been clear about never disrupting the operational importance of NATO. I speak as a former Territorial soldier who has participated as part of the UK delegation in NATO congresses. I remember the briefings that we received from British diplomats, which always stressed that it was important to boost the European capacity within NATO; that the European pillar in NATO was tremendously important, but under-resourced; and that we should always act under the operational command system of NATO.

In respect of those matters, we can say that the establishment of an EU defence headquarters is, at best, wasteful duplication and, at worst, runs the risk of decoupling Europe from the defence support of the United States of America. It could also aid those in the United States who would like that to happen. When we consider that American blood has been shed twice in the last century to keep our continent free, we should reflect on the seriousness of what that could mean. I do not think that we should always follow the United States, or that it is always right in everything it does, but history has shown on many occasions that we were right to act alongside the Americans and that their friendship is precious.

A Labour Member raised the issue of international development aid and made many points that also concern me. The European Union gives five times more aid to countries within Europe and its immediate neighbours than it does to the developing world. That has to be a travesty of the proper principles of international development aid that aid should always go to those who are most in need. The European Union gives India Euro14 million and Bangladesh Euro32 million, but it gives Morocco Euro130 million and Romania Euro690 million. Romania hopes soon to join the European Union, and no one would seriously claim that it has as much significant poverty as India and Bangladesh. That aid distribution displays a warped sense of priorities.

We have also heard about the real problems of our fishing communities and I was present yesterday when those issues were debated at more length. I am pleased that my party is committed to coming out of the common fisheries policy, because that is the right approach. I wonder how many people realise that the CFP does not apply to the Mediterranean. It applies to all the waters around our own country, but it does not apply to the Mediterranean. That is fine for Spain, Portugal and other countries because the CFP does not apply to some of their offshore waters, but they are able to benefit from the CFP in UK waters.

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