Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): We have had a very good debate this afternoon. We have heard four excellent maiden speeches so far, including those by the hon. Members for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies).
We then heard an excellent maiden speech by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who represents one of the most beautiful parts of these islands. I am sure that he will be an excellent MP for his constituency, as he demonstrated this afternoon. However, I want to say a word about the success of his party in the general election. The success of the Democratic Unionist party, which is very much the largest party in Northern Ireland, places a great responsibility on its shoulders to deal with the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Members on both sides agree with it that those who fail to renounce criminality should not be part of the process. That view is felt as much south of the border in Ireland as it is north of the border.
I am sorry that the leader of the DUP is not in his place, but I want to make a plea. For all the time that I have been in the House I have been a member, in various guises, of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, which, sadly, has not had much representation from Northern Ireland in the past. It meets later this year for the first time in Northern Irelandin Belfast, in Novemberand I hope that for the first time, we will include members of the DUP in the UK delegation to that body, which has taken forward much of the peace process in the past.
This debate is very much about foreign affairs and defence, and I want to talk about a subject that was little raised nationally in the general election. However, at one or two hustings meetings that took place in my constituency, the whole question of Europe, the referendum and the European constitutional treaty was certainly an issue. It is ironic that my UK Independence party opponent in the election described me on many occasions as fabulously pro-European. That was usually after I had explained to him why I opposed to the constitution. However, the new Minister for Europe in his opening speech would have described me as anti-European, because he lumped together anybody who opposed the constitution as anti-European. I do not know whether he included in that definition the 54 per cent of the French population who look as if they are about to reject the European constitution. To describe them as anti-European may be stretching it a little.
Whether or not I am simultaneously fabulously pro-European and anti-European, I will restate what I have said to the House on a number of occasions. I have been a great supporter of Britain's membership of the European Union ever since we joined 30 years ago, but
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I am seriously concerned that in that time, we have failed to take the people with us on the journey of the EU's development and evolution. We have now reached the stage at which most people in this country have little understanding of, and little confidence in, what is being done in their name in the European Union.
Euroscepticism is not unique to Britain. It exists throughout Europe, and the democratic deficit with regard to the EU seems to be worse in a number of other states where people feel that things are inevitable and that they can do nothing about them. However, the French and the Dutch have yet to speak in their referendums later this month. They will have an opportunity to send a message to the political elites of Europe, saying that the people would like an explanation of what is going on and what has been done in their namesin the past 30 years in this country, and for somewhat longer in a number of other member states.
For all the Minister for Europe's spin on the treaty, it does not provide the answer. When I read the Laeken declaration in 2001, I thought that we were beginning to go in the right direction and posing some of the right questions. However, when I read the English language version of the treatyall 511 pages of itI remembered one phrase from the Laeken declaration:
There is no simplification in the constitution, and it contains so much detail that it can hardly be described as a constitution, but as a management textbook. Even the explanatory commentary that goes with it runs to 500 pages. If any of our citizens would like to buy the documents from The Stationery Office, the constitution itself costs £45 and the explanatory memorandum another £45. However, I somehow doubt whether they would be any the wiser after reading both documents.
The constitution is nowhere near being a simplifying treaty. It contains the minutiae of management detail that one would expect of those responsible for looking after our interests to come up with as their modus operandi, but it is not something to be put before the people in a referendum. Much of what is in the document could soon be out of date. What we now need is what the Laeken declaration referred to as
The constitutional treaty does create the provision for the Council of Ministers to make decisions in public. That would go some way towards making the institution more transparent and accountable. However, if one reads the documents and listens to those who understand the matter, one finds that decisions will be taken and votes will be held in public, but that the general proceedings of the Council will not be held in public. What is the point of that? It is rather like putting cameras in our Division Lobbies, but taking them out of the Chamber so that the public are not informed about the debate that goes on before a vote.
Most of our citizens support the broad aims of the Union, but they do not always see the connection between those goals and the everyday actions of the Union's institutions. We all know that Europe has changed and is changing. With the 10 new countries that joined last year, it now has 25 member states. Bulgaria and Romania are on track to become members. I hope
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that Croatia and Turkey will be there in the not too distant future. The enlarged Europe needs to be more effective and democratic, so we need a simple and transparent constitutional treaty, which is what the document that we shall consider was supposed to be.
An effective European Union is in Britain's interests. It is in our national interest to be a member of that Union because we have so many aims in common with other countries. However, we need a new treaty that spells out in black and white the powers of the various parties in the Union. It should state explicitly that the EU has only the powers that member states choose to grant it. It should clarify what the EU institutions can and cannot do.
The constitution is unacceptable, but that does not mean that I have becomein the words of the Minister for Europeanti-European, that I do not want the European Union to succeed, or that I want us to be relegated to the position of Norway and Switzerland, with an expensive, subservient and passive relationship with the European Union. That is not an option for the British people. We need a tidying-up and simplifying treatybut that is not what we have.
I can happily say that the leaders of Europe should face rejection in the forthcoming referendum, and the referendums in France and the Netherlands, and that they should go back and reconsider the constitutional treaty. I would support a treaty that made the EU more open and accountable. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (David Heathcoat-Amory) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for their work on the Convention and their subsequent comments in the House and elsewhere. Neither of them favours the document and, despite their efforts, we have not got the treaty that we need. As we move towards a referendum on ratifying it, we should be clear that conveying a message to the leaders of Europe that the document is unacceptable in no way means that we are anti-European or that we do not want the European Union to succeed. I stress that we want it to succeed, and I certainly want it to succeed.
There is a danger of overreacting to the undoubted success of the UK Independence party in last year's European elections and its participation in the no campaign, but we have to make it clear in opposing this constitutional treaty that withdrawal is not an option, and that rejection of the treaty does not imply any such action.
The anti-Europeans often tout the examples of Norway or Switzerland as attractive alternatives. We must make it clear in the debate on the constitution that those alternatives are not acceptable to the British people. We must reject such a fantasy. To gain full access to the single market, Norway has to implement all the EU regulations that we have to implement, but with no say in the way in which those regulations are set. In fact, the Norwegians often refer to their country as a "fax" democracy because the laws by which they live arrive from Brussels on a fax machine. Switzerland is bound by the same laws, as are Iceland and Lichtenstein.
Recent figures from the European Commission, however, show that Norway has a better record of implementing EU regulations than we do. Indeed, it has
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a better record than 14 other member states of the Union. It has failed to implement only 0.7 per cent. of those EU regulations. The UK's failure rate is about 1.5 per cent. When it comes to gaining access to the single marketthe most important aspect of the European UnionNorway must comply with the rules and regulations laid down in Brussels. So the option suggested by the UK Independence party for this country, whereby we would step back and adopt the same status as Norway or Switzerland, is totally unacceptable.
Do not let us forget also that both Norway and Switzerland must contribute to the EU budget. There is a myth about that as well. The Norwegians are committed to paying some €1.1 billion over the next five years. Last year, Switzerland agreed to pay €650 million over the same period. So that, too, is not an option.
I hope that it will become clear, as we approach the referendum that we are likely to get next year, that what the British people need and want, and what the peoples of Europe want, is a simplifying, tidying-up treatya short document that merely lays down the competences and makes the institutions and processes of the European Union both transparent and accountable. The constitution that the Government have negotiated, which will come before us and the British people, does not do that. It should be rejected by the people in a referendum. We should renegotiate it to bring about something much more in line with the Laeken declaration.