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EU Constitution

8. Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): If he will make a statement on negotiations concerning the proposed EU Constitution. [164127]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, the European Council last week requested the Irish presidency to continue its consultations and as soon as appropriate to arrange for the resumption of formal negotiations in the IGC.

Mr. Shepherd : I am obliged for that answer, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that under the proposed constitution the European Court of Justice has the power to strike down an Act of Parliament in conflict with European law or the European constitution?

Mr. Straw: That power has existed within the treaties since we joined the European Union in 1972, and it is reflected in the treaties that gave primacy to European law over United Kingdom domestic law. It is reflected in existing decisions of the European Court of Justice, and it is reflected in section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, which was pushed through the House by the Conservative party. Article 10 of the draft constitution, which deals with the primacy of European law, has been confirmed and will be confirmed in a declaration as doing no more than restating the existing state of the law.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agree that this is an important subject about which we should have a big conversation with the British people? How better could that big conversation be terminated than by a referendum?

Mr. Straw: I agree—[Hon. Members: "Stop there!"] If I am allowed to conclude my sentence, I shall say what I agree with. I agree not only that we should have a big conversation about the issue, but that we have been doing so. I have ensured that it has been the subject of a far greater degree of parliamentary scrutiny—by this House, its Committees and the other place—than has ever happened before on any draft constitutional treaty emanating from the European Union, and long may that continue. It is for each individual Member to have a big conversation with his or her electorate. For my own part, I never stop having big conversations with the people of Blackburn, including in Blackburn town

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centre, where I can often be found at 10.30 on a Saturday morning talking directly to my electorate. I recommend that to all Members.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the UK Government is content to allow the common fisheries policy to be enshrined as an exclusive competence within the new constitution? Will he confirm that fishing is not a red line issue for the British Government and that they do not think that it is important enough to put to a referendum for the people of Scotland to decide on?

Mr. Straw: We have discussed this before. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but he is wrong. There is no change in the competences in respect of fishing. Under article I-12 on exclusive competence, there will be—as there is today—exclusive competence in respect of the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy. However, in respect of article I-13, every other aspect of fishing remains a shared competence.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Given that the European Union will be enlarged on 1 May, does my right hon. Friend agree that if agreement were reached on the constitutional treaty, it would help to make the Union function far more effectively?

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend in every particular. The case for the constitutional treaty is that it will help make the Union more effective. It will not transfer powers, in any substantive degree, to the European Union. Indeed, the reverse point was made when the House of Lords European Union Committee examined the matter. The Committee spelled it out in detail:

That is true.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): When will the Government come clean about the constitution? When will they decide whether it is essential if enlargement is to work, as we were told yesterday, or not necessary for that purpose, which is what we were told in December? Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to disown the absurd suggestion that came out of Brussels last week that the constitution was somehow central to the fight against terrorism? The Prime Minister was quoted on Friday as saying that he wanted to dispel what he called "the myths" about the constitution. Why not start with the Government's myth, which is not believed by anyone else in Europe, that the constitution is not integrationist and admit, as the Belgian Prime Minister has done, that it is

Mr. Straw: I advise the right hon. and learned Gentleman not to pray the Prime Minister of Belgium too often in support, because that could lead him down some dangerous rabbit holes. We have never suggested that the constitution is essential to enlargement. It is a self-evident truth that enlargement will take place on 1 May before any draft treaty could conceivably be put in

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place. What we have said is that it is highly desirable to make the enlarged Union work effectively, which is the case that we have put forward.

I am aware of all the right hon. and learned Gentleman's bluster on the draft constitution, but he has never given us clear further and better particulars of how he believes that the draft constitution—amended, as it will have to be if we are to recommend it to the House—could conceivably lead to the creation of some kind of super-federal state, because the simple truth is that it will not.

Mr. Ancram: For the record, at column 1263 in Hansard yesterday the Prime Minister actually said that the constitution was essential to make enlargement work. That is what I said, and the Foreign Secretary has denied it. He had better make up his mind because he and the Prime Minister seem to be at odds.

What is so different about this country that the British people, unlike the Irish, the Portuguese, the Danes, the Dutch or the Poles and many others, are not to be trusted with taking a sensible decision in a referendum? On Friday, the Prime Minister said that he wanted a real debate on the constitution, yet it appears that he intends a guillotine process, excluding the British people, designed solely to get this thorny issue out of the way before a general election. Will the Foreign Secretary deny reports that the Government intend to steamroller ratification of the treaty through Parliament in the current Session? Does he not realise how unacceptable that contempt for democracy would be to the British people?

Mr. Straw: I am very happy to deny those reports because they are not true; there is no constitutional treaty before the House. Any draft treaty would be examined with the greatest of care by the House and the other place in accordance with the constitutional arrangements that the Conservatives put in place—

Mr. Ancram: This Session?

Mr. Straw: I cannot say whether it will be in this or the next Session; it very much depends on when and whether—if and whether—a draft constitutional treaty is agreed politically. We should then have to wait for the final text to be cleared by the linguist jurists in Brussels before bringing it to the House. We shall examine it, and the House will be invited to examine it, in accordance with procedures laid down by the Conservatives when they were in government.

I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the two biggest sets of changes in the way that the European Union operates and in its powers—particularly qualified majority voting—are to be found in the Single European Act 1986 and the Maastricht treaty of 1992. There was no referendum on the Single European Act. There was a proposal for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty—but what did the right hon. and learned Gentleman do? He spoke against the proposal for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty and he marched into the Lobby against the referendum on the Maastricht treaty even though the Maastricht treaty

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vastly extended powers to a degree that this draft will not do. We will take no lectures on the issue of a referendum—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Chris Bryant.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Notwithstanding the circumstances, does the Foreign Secretary welcome the election of the Spanish Socialist Workers party, which unblocked the logjam in the process for bringing about a constitutional treaty? Obviously, if a constitutional treaty is brought forward, national Parliaments in Europe will have a much greater role in scrutinising EU legislation, so does he agree that the House will have to improve its act to do that effectively?

Mr. Straw: Of course we welcome the election of a sister party into government in Spain. That has already been made clear.

There is indeed a strong requirement for far better scrutiny of proposals emanating from the European Union, and it is for that reason that I made a statement to the House about four weeks ago, with all sorts of proposals about how scrutiny by the House, the other place and our Committees could be strengthened.

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