Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Straw: This is another example of the Conservatives adopting a position without reading the text. They claim that the charter will somehow undermine the right to strike, but that is complete and utter nonsense. They should know that the right to strike has long been a matter for national Governments under existing European Union acquis, and it is unaffected by the charter of fundamental rights.

Mr. Ancram: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should return to wearing spectacles, because he is obviously not reading our pamphlet very carefully. If he does, he will see that we are talking about the way in which this charter, under the constitution, will inevitably influence the European Court of Justice's adjudications on employment law. It will mark a significant transfer of power from elected national politicians to unelected judges, who will sit in the ECJ in
9 Sept 2004 : Column 887
Luxembourg. We also give examples of the powers that will be subject to that jurisdiction. The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is so, but he is trying to distort matters in order to avoid the fact that the Government have broken their word that this provision would not be legally enforceable.

Mr. Straw: To the extent that the ECJ does take into account the principle of equality between men and women in all areas—including employment, work and pay—I say, "Hurrah!" That seems to me like a very good idea. What is wrong with it? The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely wrong, however, to pretend that the charter will extend the European Union's and the ECJ's existing jurisdiction. Article II-52 makes it absolutely clear that the provisions apply only in respect of European Union laws. It states:

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I want to make some progress.

In the new treaty, we have agreed the framework for a reformed, more effective European Union of freely co-operating nations, in which Britain can prosper and increase our influence in the world. The Government have been more open than in any previous treaty negotiation about our objectives and what we cannot accept. By engaging with our partners and shaping the debate in our interests, we have delivered on those commitments.

But there is another important achievement of this treaty: the demolition of the myths put about by the Conservative party. Few issues over recent years have produced so much deliberate misinformation as the EU constitution. We have heard that it would mean giving up control of our armed forces; that border controls would be dismantled; that we would lose our rebate; that fundamental aspects of our criminal law, such as trial by jury and habeas corpus, would be surrendered; that the UK would lose its permanent seat on the UN Security Council; and that Brussels would be able to seize Britain's oil and gas supplies. All of that, as always, is complete and utter nonsense.

Indeed, when the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes responds, perhaps he can explain why, if the EU nations are about to lose their right to sit on the Security Council, Federal Germany is campaigning so hard for a permanent seat for itself. Perhaps he can also explain why the constitution, which he called "irreversible" during the equivalent debate on 16 September last year, is in fact the first EU treaty to include specific procedures for repatriating powers to the member states, or for withdrawal from the EU by any member state that wishes to leave. Even more bizarre is the fact that the Conservative party reserves its fiercest attacks for those aspects of the constitution that have been accepted elements of the way the EU operates for
9 Sept 2004 : Column 888
decades. We in this House have been told time without number that the treaty is the end of civilisation as we know it, because it includes the notion that EU law has primacy over domestic law. Yet primacy has been an accepted principle of British membership of the EU and of British law since a Conservative Government took us into the Common Market in 1973.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman always stands up on cue, and I am always happy to give way to him.

Mr. Cash: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary. On primacy, he is of course referring to article I-5a. I note that the word "constitution" was eliminated from the previous text. The text now makes it clear that

Does the Foreign Secretary deny that the expression

includes the constitution of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Straw: Of course it does, in so far as laws of this Parliament lay down our constitution; but part of our constitution—like the primacy of Parliament itself—is not laid down by any law of the constitution. Because we are a sovereign nation, Parliament itself will have the final right to decide, at any stage, whether it wishes us to remain a member of this treaty-based organisation. If the hon. Gentleman wants to persuade his party to propose that we leave the European Union as a whole, he is entitled to do so; and under the new constitution, there is good provision through which countries will be able to leave the EU.

As part of the wittering nonsense of the "alternative White Paper" that was published yesterday, the hon. Gentleman is trying to argue that the new primacy arrangements can somehow change other countries' constitutions. In any event, we do not have a written constitution that is superior to our law passed in Parliament. I should point out that there has been a long argument in Germany—the "Kompetenz-Kompetenz" argument—about whether the supreme court of Germany, the constitutional court in Karlsruhe or the ECJ takes precedence. It is irresolvable at the moment, and I suspect that it will remain so. No one on either side of the argument in Germany has said that this change will affect that situation.

The House of Lords European Union Select Committee, which includes many Conservative members, observed:

We are told that qualified majority voting is a fundamental dilution of our national sovereignty, yet it was a Conservative Government, under Margaret Thatcher, who provided for the first widespread use of QMV and extended it to major parts of national life that were previously the domain of member states alone. We are told that a statement of loyal co-operation with our European allies and the operation of a common foreign and security policy would prevent us from engaging in
9 Sept 2004 : Column 889
military action without the agreement of Brussels; yet it was a Conservative Government who signed up to both of these provisions, at Maastricht. They are virtually unamended in those particulars, and we remain able to decide where and how to deploy our troops at any time. That situation will remain under the new treaty.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): A cardinal principle of debate and of our constitution is, "That was then, this is now." [Interruption.] Well, it is the truth. For the Government to rest their case on past events—events that I fiercely opposed, as did Members of the current Government, in some instances—is an absurdity. We are considering the constitution before us, so we should not try to score silly points about the past. We are in the here and now, and this issue is of vital importance to most of us, and to the future of this country.

Mr. Straw: I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes the point that I was about to make. Essentially, most of the arguments that the Conservatives are now seeking to fight concern not what is in the new treaty, which includes some sensible organisational changes to how the European Union operates, but Maastricht.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that he has been consistent in opposing Maastricht, as he was in opposing the Single European Act and our membership of the Common Market before it. However, he cannot say, "That was then; this is now" with any degree of seriousness.

What we are debating here is whether or not the new draft treaty is an improvement on the existing arrangements. In the real world inhabited by the rest of us, I predict that if the new draft constitution does not go through, there will be no appetite in the UK for leaving or withdrawing from the EU. Instead, we would have to fall back on the existing treaties, including those Maastricht provisions to which the hon. Gentleman takes such objection. They—the objectionable bits—would still be in place, and those parts of the new treaty that even the hon. Gentleman would probably support, including stronger powers for national parliaments and a more accountable presidency, would be lost. That would be a bad bargain for the British people and the House.

Next Section IndexHome Page