Previous SectionIndexHome Page

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

Mr. Straw: In a moment.

We stated at paragraph 66 of the White Paper that we would not sign any treaty that removed the veto for treaty change or for

In the 10 weeks of the intergovernmental conference process between October and December last year, we sought, and obtained, many important changes to the draft text—I moved the amendments and got them accepted. We have made it absolutely clear that the so-called European Foreign Minister remains responsible to member states through the Council of Ministers, and is not responsible to the Commission. We reached an agreement on defence co-operation, which will give the EU the capacity to intervene militarily—which I thought would be welcomed on both sides of the House—but only in a way that complements NATO, which remains the cornerstone of our territorial defence.

Among the other changes that we have made, we have altered the so-called escalator clause, which was of genuine concern, by ensuring that further treaty changes can happen only if all national Parliaments, as well as member state Governments, explicitly agree to them. The escalator clause was unacceptable.

The issue should be of particular interest to the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes. Last October, he was interviewed on "Today", and he spelled out in his

30 Mar 2004 : Column 1497

usual modest and understated way how the Government were about to sell out 1,000 years of history. It was put to him that the Government were successfully winning the arguments in the intergovernmental conference on the key areas, to which he said:

the Government—

Well, we have passed the right hon. and learned Gentleman's test because we got the escalator clause changed. The draft agreement proposed at Naples satisfactorily changed that part of the treaty, in a manner that I proposed. We will not sign up to any final treaty unless that change, and a number of others, are in it.

Mr. Cash: On the question of which court should have the final say on whether a matter is within the competence of the Union, the Foreign Secretary will know that the House of Lords European Union Committee report—I am sure that he has read it—states explicitly:

In line with the Foreign Secretary's assertion that this Parliament is supreme—at last he agrees with me—is not the only answer to introduce a Bill to put the matter beyond all doubt, so that, if Parliament decides that they should do so, our judges will bring into effect any provision that is expressly, clearly and unambiguously inconsistent with the European Communities Act 1972?

Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman every time he makes that proposition. We could have a Bill to that effect tomorrow, and no one could prevent us from passing it if it were the will of this House and of the House of Lords. However, all our actions have consequences, and although he could have such a Bill, he could not be a member of the European Union as it is constituted, and he could not be a member of the European Union as it would be constituted under any future constitutional treaty.

I have addressed the issue of primacy with great care because a number of Government and Opposition Members have raised it as a matter of concern. The purpose of the high level of scrutiny that the Government have established is to ensure that, when hon. Members on either side of the House raise issues that are worth pursuing, we pursue them. We did that on energy, for example, which the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), first identified. That issue had not been identified before, concern was shared on both sides of the House, and we got the article changed satisfactorily.

30 Mar 2004 : Column 1498

EU law has had primacy over domestic law since the European Court of Justice decision in 1964. So far as the United Kingdom is concerned, EU law has had primacy over domestic law since we signed up through the 1972 Act. We have been round this track, and I will not bore the House again.

Mr. Cash: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I will not. I am answering the hon. Gentleman's question, and I ask him to listen, as I listen to him.

Section 2 of the 1972 Act makes absolutely explicit this Parliament's decision to recognise European law as supreme. That was a condition of our entry to the European Union. We could withdraw from that if we wanted—the hon. Gentleman could have his Bill—but we cannot have our cake and eat it. He should bear in mind that there will be many opportunities to examine the issue of primacy further. Our judgment in the Foreign Office, and that of the Council's legal adviser, is that article 1(10) and the declaration alongside it mean that the status of primacy will not be altered. I am happy to examine in detail the House of Lords report and the additional points made by the hon. Gentleman, and if we decide that we are wrong, I will be happy to pursue them.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend clarify a matter that concerns me? If, in the course of demands for harmonisation, it was decided that the principle that the national health service should be free at the point of use was incompatible with health systems throughout the Community, which rely almost entirely on insurance-based schemes that are differently organised so that up-front payment is essential, would we be able to retain our system, or would we be told that it was incompatible owing to European law?

Mr. Straw: I very much doubt that that would ever happen. In any event, the issue of primacy is not affected by the draft treaty. Let me be clear, however, that if the European Court of Justice sought to do that, there would be a political crisis that would affect our membership of the European Union and be a matter for concern for all Members on both sides of the House.

The intergovernmental conference process was suspended last December because no agreement on the voting system was possible. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, we expect negotiations to resume shortly. Parliament has been involved in those negotiations to an unprecedented degree.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): The Foreign Secretary glossed over an important point. A few months ago, the Government were happy to see discussions at the intergovernmental conference run into the buffers. Now, they are very anxious to advance the issue. In the course of the past week or two, there has been a distinct change in the Government's approach. I would be grateful if the Foreign Secretary gave a detailed explanation for that, because in its absence many will conclude that it flows from events in Madrid a few weeks ago.

Mr. Straw: There has been no change in the Government's approach. Had Spain, Poland, France

30 Mar 2004 : Column 1499

and Germany been ready to reach an agreement on voting systems, it is highly probable that, by the end of the Italian presidency or very early on in the Irish presidency, we would have agreed on all the other outstanding issues, including those that were outstanding for the United Kingdom. That was impossible because of the total disagreement between those four nations. The position of two of those countries—Spain and Poland—has changed, and as a result the negotiations have opened up.

Mr. Trimble: The Foreign Secretary is identifying the changes in Poland that flowed from the changes in Spain—which changes were produced by what? We are left with the impression that this Government's policy and approach have changed as a result of the actions of al-Qaeda.

Mr. Straw: Of course I understand the high sensitivity to terrorism in Northern Ireland. I have no wish to subscribe to the view that is current in some circles that the Madrid bombing caused the change of Government in Madrid. All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that we will never know exactly what led to the late change in voting intentions in Spain. There have been many other examples of voting intentions changing at a late stage of a campaign. However, Prime Minister Zapatero has said repeatedly that, as far as he is concerned, he won the election as a result of four years of campaigning, not because of the events of four days. The previous Spanish Government might have changed their position after the elections in any event. We simply do not know. To pick up a point that the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes made, we must deal with where we are. It is where we believed that we might be in November and December but happened not to be—namely, with the negotiations in hand.

Let me deal with the fourth question, which is about our approach to a referendum. The main case for a referendum is founded on the assertion that a constitution for the European Union will be such a decisive step towards a European superstate that it will end Britain's sovereignty. The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes came close to asserting that this afternoon. Yesterday's Daily Mail put matters in its customary way and stated:

It continued by saying that it would

That doom-laden hyperbole is so far removed from the facts that it is tempting to ignore it. However, we cannot do so because that systematic exaggeration of the threat to our nationhood has, over the years, set the framework for a national debate on Europe. So the answer to the question, "Will the draft European constitution end the sovereignty of the nation?" has to be: no. The House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union explicitly stated that

Its earlier report stated that

Convention's "proposals are adopted".

30 Mar 2004 : Column 1500

Of course, that does not stop some Conservative Members wilfully misinterpreting the draft treaty. Let us consider the example of the proposed president of the European Council. The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes said that that was further evidence of development into a nation state, ignoring that there is already a president of the European Commission and a president of the European Parliament. The constitution as drafted will ensure that the Union's agenda is better set by elected representatives of national Governments in the European Council. Instead of the manifest inefficiencies and inconsistencies of the rotating six-month presidency, the member states will choose a president of the European Council to chair their meetings and ensure that their decisions are followed up.

Next Section

IndexHome Page