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The Prime Minister:
The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on so long about the U-turn that I got the impression that he did not really like it. When he
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talks about changing one's mind on a referendum, I suppose it is rather like him and the Maastricht treaty, is it not?
The Prime Minister: Did he not vote against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty? I rather think so. I thought I remembered that he did. So I am afraid that I am not the only one who can change his mind.
The biggest change that the right hon. and learned Gentleman indicated today, however, was on the view that we should not have a parliamentary debate in the House on the detail of what is a 300-page document, before the people have their say. This is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said when we were debating Scottish and Welsh referendums:
"A pre-legislative referendum is designed to pre-empt parliamentary debate. It is not a new device. The device was the hallmark of continental dictatorships between the wars. European tyrants used the plebiscite to sideline their Parliaments; they used it to suppress the rights and liberties of their citizens."[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 736.]
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says it is a myth that he said yesterday that it would be not me but the president of Europe who would visit the President of the United States, but it is indeed what he said. He said:
"if . . . the constitution were in force, the president of Europe, not the British Prime Minister, would have met the President of the United States".[Official Report, 19 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 25.]
"Given that the Prime Minister is always eager to secure the maximum possible agreement in the European Union on such issues, will he confirm that, if such agreement existed and the constitution were in force, the president of Europe, not the British Prime Minister, would have met the President of the United States last week?"[Official Report, 19 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 25.]
These are the myths. In fact, if anything convinced me of the case for a genuine debate in Parliament and then in the country, it was the fact that not once in his response to me did the right hon. and learned Gentleman get down to the details of the constitution. There is a very simple reason for that. He is not against a particular provision of the constitution; he is against it in its entirety. Exactly: the Conservatives nod.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman's position is not that we should amend this phrase, this clause or that article in the constitutional treaty, but that we should get rid of the whole thing. [Interruption.] "Quite right," they say.
Let us just follow that through. This is why the debate will be quite interesting when it is under way. Not one of the 24 other Governments in the European Union agrees with that position: not one. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would have to convince all of them that they should change their position, because any
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treaty change must be agreed unanimously by the Council. In other words, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants the whole of Europe to agree to abandon the constitution completely, he will find himself saying either, "We will veto the whole constitution", or "You go ahead as 24 on this basis, without us".
The Prime Minister: I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong. That is precisely what the European Union would want to do in those circumstanceswhich is precisely why the case put by his right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who represented the Conservative party on the Convention, is that we should bring about a situation in which Britain is against the whole constitution and then, as he said, move to a form of associate membership.
The Prime Minister: That is the position of the Conservative party. That is where the right hon. and learned Gentleman will end up, because no one will support his attempt to renegotiate the conditions.
As the debate continues, it will become very clear what the choice is. Either we have Britain at the heart and the centre of Europe, able to play its full part in the European Union, or we end up opting to go down the road set out by the Eurosceptics who now dominate the Conservative party, and fundamentally change the relationship that Britain has with the European Union. That is what is at issuewhether Britain continues at the centre of European decision making, as we passionately believe it should, or we retreat to the margins, where we were when the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party was last in power.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has already said, for example, that he wants to opt back out of the social chapterhas he not? [Interruption.] That is exactly what he said. And what would that mean? It would mean British workers once more being the only workers anywhere in the European Union without the right to paid holidays.
That is the debate that we shall have over the coming months. I simply say to the House and the country that it is a debate that everyone who believes in Britain's true destiny in Europe will view with enthusiasm.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD):
We certainly welcome the Prime Minister's confirmation today that in due course there will be a referendum of the British people on the proposed European constitution. We welcome that, whatever the
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ultimate motives that led the Prime Minister to his overdue decision. I can only express the hope, at the outset, that the co-ordination of a European referendum campaign will be a bit more slick and polished than the co-ordination that led to today's announcement in the House of Commons.
Does the Prime Minister agree that when the referendum comes it must be based on an unloaded, unbiased question which will be subject to confirmation by the Electoral Commission, and that it is best decided after due parliamentary consideration? Does he agree, or at least acknowledge, that one of the subtexts of the dispute, or debate, about timing in which he is now engaged is thatwhile the other European member states have their own processes, which mirror or will act in parallel with ours, and that is obviously outwith the Government's controlthe timing of the next British general election is of course in the hands of the Prime Minister himself? The general election is the only race in the world in which a principal competitor also holds the starting pistol. When it comes to an issue as important as the timing of a referendum on a fundamental matter concerning Britain's role in Europe and the related timing of a general electionif ever there was a case for fixed-term Parliaments, this must surely be it.
It is clear from the exchanges so far that when the referendum comes it will set its own pace and develop its own character. Does the Prime Minister agree that, whatever the expressions of public support over the past year to 18 months, one thing that comes through loud and clear in every analysis of public opinion is that a great percentage of people repeatedly say that they want more unbiased, factual information on which to base their final conclusions about Europe? This campaign must represent the opportunity to provide that.
Does the Prime Minister also agree that, in one of the great missed opportunities of recent years, those of a Eurosceptical or Euro-hostile disposition have been allowed far too much of the running, and that therefore the more quickly the pro-European forces can co-ordinate and make a positive case based on the facts, the better it will be? Does the Prime Minister now propose to move quickly to re-establish a pro-European British campaign, drawn from all political parties and, indeed, from outside formal party politics itself? Does he acknowledge that if the referendum campaign, whenever it comes, were hatched, controlled and spun from No. 10 Downing street, that would not command the confidence of its participants and would not persuade the British public of the desired outcome?
Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that his negotiating position between now and June will be strengthened by today's announcement? Does he acknowledge that that applies particularly to his ability to guarantee the red lineswhich, as he knows, we supportespecially the maintenance of the national veto over matters concerning constitutional changes, defence, taxation, spending policies, social security and the like? Given his strengthened negotiating stance, will he, between now and June, push for further improvements in the treaty? Not least, will he stress that European Union action should be limited to specific objectives that make sense in the context of nation states, that there must be more enforcement of consistency in regard to EU rulings and laws across
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member states, and that there should be more decentralisation to local communities throughout Europe?
Finally, what discussions does the Prime Minister envisage will take place to decide what will be the umbrella organisation for a pro-European campaign to be registered with the Electoral Commission? Assuming that his Government are in power administering the proposed referendum, will he apply collective Cabinet responsibility or will he take the view of Harold Wilson in the 1970s that it can be suspended?
Surely this is an historic opportunity to settle at last an issue that has bedevilled two generations of British politics and each and every successive Government of whatever political persuasion across those generations. At the end of the day, it will come down, to use the phrase of the leader of the Conservative party, among those of us of all political persuasions where Britain's future engagement in Europe is concerned, to being between those who want to live and let live and those who will increasingly be exposed as wanting, where Britain's future in Europe is concerned, to live and then let die.
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