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The Prime Minister: That the Queen will be replaced as our head of state by an EU President of the Council. In fact, we already have a President of the Council, and always have had. Or that Britain will be forced to join the euro, without a referendum and regardless of the economic tests being passed. No, it will not. The existing agreements on the single currency remain in the new treaty. That Britainthis was said by the Opposition[Hon. Members: "No!"] Yes, it was. That Britain could not mount a future Falklands war or Iraq campaign without permission from Brussels. Yes, we could. Defence is to remain unanimous and the prerogative of the nation state. Or that we will lose our seat on the UN Security Council. No such provision exists. Or that Brussels will seize control of our oil supplies. No, it will not, and the treaty will make that clear. Or that Brussels will have the power to set taxes in Britain. Taxation is to remain with the nation state.
"in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity".
I quote from the draft treaty. Actually, those words are taken from the Maastricht treaty; and in any event, common foreign and security policy is decided unanimously. Oranother myth from the Oppositionthat we will surrender control over our borders. It is already agreed that our right to control our borderssecured by this Government in 1997will be specifically retained in the new treaty. That the assumption of innocent until proven guilty in British law will be scrapped. No such provision exists.
20 Apr 2004 : Column 157
All those, and many others, such as the hardy perennials about being forced to drive on the right, the Germans taking over our nuclear weapons; and, no doubt, the shape of our bananas, too. Even yesterday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asserted that if this treaty were in place, I would be unable as British Prime Minister to go to Washington to talk to President Bush. I know that that might recommend itself to some of my colleagues on the Labour Benches, but it happens to be untrue.
It is all nonsensemyth designed to distance people's understanding of what Europe is truly about and loosen this country's belief in its place in Europe. It has been an unrelenting, but, I have to accept, at least partly successful campaign to persuade Britain that Europe is a conspiracy aimed at us, rather than a partnership designed for us and others to pursue our national interest properly in a modern, interdependent world.
It is right to confront this campaign head on. Provided that the treaty embodies the essential British positions, we shall agree to it as a Government. Once agreedeither at the June Council, which is our preference, or subsequentlyParliament should debate it in detail and decide upon it. Then, let the people have the final say. The electorate
"should be asked for their opinion when all our questions have been answered, when all the details are known, when the legislation has been finally tempered and scrutinised in the House, and when Parliament has debated and decided."[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 735.]
The question will be on the treaty, but the implications go far wideras I believe we all know. It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins. Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case. Let those of us who believe in Britain in Europenot because of Europe alone, but because we believe in Britain and our national interest lying in Europemake our case, too. Let the issue be put and let the battle be joined.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I begin by welcoming the fact that the Prime Minister has, at long last, seen sense and decided to give the British people their say on a question of such fundamental importance, even though he could not bring himself to utter the word "referendum" in his statement this afternoon.
"I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear."
"We do not need a referendum on whatever constitution comes out of the intergovernmental conference."[Official Report, 21 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 1004.]
"A referendum would be a gross and irresponsible betrayal of the true British national interest".
"Our policy hasn't changed."
Perhaps he will tell us this afternoon when exactly it changed. Sunday? Monday? Have we all missed something, or was there a secret weekend Cabinet meeting to agree the change in policy? Was the Minister for Europe speaking for the Government when he told the House only last month that the Government would never
"surrender itself to the populist plebiscites of the Rothermere press"?[Official Report, 30 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 1530.]
No one told the 319 Labour Members, who all dutifully trooped through the Lobby only three weeks ago to vote against a referendum. They not only voted against it but wrote letters to their constituents, explaining why it would be wrong for Britain. I shall make them an offer: if they want help to explain to their constituents why a referendum is right for Britain, the Conservative research department will be only too happy to assist. There they all sithaving been marched up to the top of the hill only three weeks ago to oppose a referendum and marched down again todaythe loyal foot soldiers of the Grand Old Duke of Spin.
Now that popular opinion and parliamentary pressure have forced the Prime Minister to eat so many of his words, let him answer the fundamental questions. First, why has he changed his mind? There was not a word of explanation in his statement. Is it because he knows that he is hurtling towards defeat in the European elections in June? Is it because he knows that he cannot win the argument in the next general election? Perhaps he will tell the House whether his change of heart is a product of principle or a decision based purely on opportunism.
The Prime Minister will remember telling us time and again, "I don't believe it's necessary to hold a referendum unless there's a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between the member states and the European Union." According to the statement, he apparently continues to believe that there is no fundamental change. Does he now therefore believe that a tidying-up exercise justifies a referendum? That, of course, is not how others see it. The Belgian Prime Minister called the constitution the "capstone" of a "federal state", and the German Foreign Minister says that it is
"the most important treaty since the formation of the European Economic Community".
"The sooner we do this, the better",
If the Prime Minister wanted a speedy resolution to safeguard Britain's interests on 26 March, why does he not want one today? The Government will have our full support for the speedy passage of the legislation necessary to hold a referendum, but there is no case whatever for asking Parliament to spend months on ratification legislation before obtaining the consent of the British people. [Interruption.] After all, it was this Prime Minister who held referendums for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly before this Parliament had passed the necessary legislation. He did it, and while at that time many of the details remained unclear, on this constitution all the details will be clear. That is the difference: we shall know what they are. How can the Prime Minister say, "Trust the peoplebut not just yet"?
The Prime Minister has suggested today that the debate on this constitution is in reality about whether we stay in or out of the European Union. He knows that that is a complete misrepresentation of the facts. Will he now confirm that, in order for the constitution to be adopted, every country must agree to it? It is open to any country in the European Union to reject it, and if any country does so, the constitution will be dead. He knows that that is the position; everyone knows it. That is no doubt why the Foreign Secretary said that the constitution was "not . . . essential".
Will the Prime Minister confirm, once and for all, that Britain or any other country can reject the constitution and remain a full member of the European Union? If Ireland or Denmark vote no, they will remain in the European Union, and if Britain votes no, we will remain in the European Union.
So let us have no more of this nonsense. Let us have the honest debate about Europe that the Prime Minister says that he wants, not a debate about the Aunt Sallies that his statement was full of, or about bananas or driving on the right. Let us have a debate about the real issues that are relevant to the future of Europe. The European Union has achieved a great deal. Together, we have created a single market of 380 million people. But the European Union is failing to face up to the realities of the 21st century, and the constitution will make that failure worse. It will mean greater centralisation, more regulation and less flexibility. It is the exact opposite of what Europe really needs. Far from solving its problems, it will create more.
Conservatives have an alternative vision for Europe. We want a Europe that is flexible. If some countries want to integrate more closely, that is fine, as long as they do not force other countries to follow them if they do not want to do so. Our policy is simple: live and let live. That is a modern and mature approach that will allow Europe to succeed in the 21st century. It is a far better approach than the centralising, top-down constitution to which this Government are wedded, and which we will continue vigorously to oppose.
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