Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Fox: Will the Minister tell us, given the events of recent times, whether the Government are still committed in principle to joining the euro?

Mr. Alexander: The position in relation to the euro stands apart from the constitutional treaty and remains as stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1997. Although, in principle, we support a European single currency, in Britain's case, it has to be based on an economic assessment—the five tests—and, ultimately, on the judgment of the British people. There would be a decision in Cabinet, in Parliament and, ultimately, a decision by the British people. There has been no change whatever in the British position in that regard.

This debate takes place just a week before the customary debate preceding the European Council meeting, which will take place this year on 16 June, and two days after the Foreign Secretary addressed the House on its return from the Whitsun recess on the Government's response to the referendum results in France and the Netherlands. The House has been and remains divided on the merits of the constitutional treaty, as we have heard again today. The Government believe that it represents a sensible set of rules for the enlarged European Union, including a reduction in the size of the European Commission; a much better voting system, which benefits the UK; an end to the six-month rotating presidency, with replacement by a full-time President of the Council and team presidencies; and better arrangements for involving national Parliaments in EU legislation. The treaty, of course, requires ratification by every EU member state before it can come into force. To date, 10 member states have approved the treaty and, as the House is aware, two member states—France and the Netherlands—have, in recent days, rejected it in referendums.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): May I congratulate the Minister on the magnificence of his achievements since his appointment? In only four weeks, he has transformed Britain's relationship with Europe. When I heard that he had been appointed, I did not anticipate that he would be able, in such a short period, to preside over a French no, a Dutch no and the destruction—although he cannot possibly say so—of the constitution. Can he tell us what he is going to do for an encore?

Mr. Alexander: The warmth of that intervention gives the lie to the idea that Labour Members are divided on the issue, as the shadow Foreign Secretary suggested.

The constitutional treaty was the subject of detailed negotiation between member states, was agreed by all European leaders and is the property of the European Union as a whole. It is not, therefore, as the Opposition have suggested again today, for the UK alone to decide the future of the treaty. Rather, it is for European leaders to reach conclusions on how to deal with the situation that has now arisen in light of the French and Dutch referendums.
8 Jun 2005 : Column 1259

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that the European Defence Agency was nowhere mentioned or conjured up in the Maastricht treaty, in contrast to what was put on the record in the House yesterday by the Foreign Secretary? Why is it that the British people could not have a vote on the establishment of the European Defence Agency and its rearmament programme, which is set out clearly in the draft constitution? Under the Conservatives, it was rightly said that the main point of the Maastricht treaty, the euro, would always require a referendum, and I am glad that we never made the mistake of joining it.

Mr. Alexander: The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of points. His point about the Foreign Secretary has already been dealt with by Mr. Speaker. As for the European Defence Agency, it is worth bearing it in mind that the legal basis on which it was established preceded the new constitutional treaty. It is headed by a British civil servant and is undertaking important work on European procurement.

It is also worth bearing it in mind, not least in the light of the wide-ranging speech by the shadow Foreign Secretary, that the idea of a European common security and defence policy was first mooted by Baroness Thatcher in 1984. If we look at the Maastricht treaty in terms of a common security and foreign policy, it was a Conservative Government who advocated at that stage working more closely with European partners. That emphasises further the extent to which the Conservatives have moved from the mainstream of debate on Europe to the very margins. Macmillan led the discussions with de Gaulle in the 1950s. In the 1970s, Edward Heath was central to the debate about Britain's future with Europe. It is not a coincidence that the period when the Conservatives have moved into Euroscepticism is the period when they have been in opposition.

Mr. Jenkin: When the Minister has been in the job a little longer, he will discover that there was no question of any autonomous defence capability in the European Union until the Prime Minister made the agreement at St. Malo. That was a fundamental change in policy. Before the Minister starts taking instructions from the former Secretary of State for Defence, who is sitting beside him, they both know well that that has put the cat among the pigeons in NATO. It is undermining NATO. We should have a referendum on it before it goes any further. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).

Mr. Alexander: The common defence policy was referred to in the Maastricht treaty. It is worth bearing in mind the long journey that the Conservative party has been on since the hon. Gentleman's time in the shadow Cabinet and beyond. It is for the Conservative party,   rather than the Government, to explain the contradictions between its position a few years ago in opposition and today.

Mr. Salmond: We all understand why the Prime Minister has put the referendum into cold storage, but why was the Minister so definite in the House only two
8 Jun 2005 : Column 1260
weeks ago in saying that there would be a referendum, come what may? Other Ministers at the time, even senior ones, were equivocating.

Mr. Alexander: If the hon. Gentleman were to reflect on the words in Hansard, he would see that I simply quoted the words of the Prime Minister, who set out the Government's position that, in the UK, the process of ratification for a constitutional treaty would be taken forward by means of a referendum. That continues to be   the Government's position. Notwithstanding the speculation, there is no suggestion otherwise than that a constitutional treaty would be ratified in the UK by means of a referendum. The Prime Minister was drawing a distinction between the position in the UK, where we have said that that would be done by means of a referendum, and the position in other countries, where other procedures are being adopted. It is for other countries to determine the process of ratification to be followed in their countries.

Mr. Salmond: The quote from the Prime Minister was not that at all. The quote from the Prime Minister that the Minister used two weeks ago was:

That is not the position that the Minister has just outlined. Will he explain why he was so definite two weeks ago?

Mr. Alexander: I am happy to trade quotes from the Prime Minister with the hon. Gentleman. On the same day, the Prime Minister said:

That sums up the position exactly. If there is a constitutional treaty that we are taking forward and ratifying, it will be by means of a referendum.

Dr. Fox: To help the Minister perhaps out of the dog's dinner of a policy that he finds himself in, since he is so close to the Prime Minister, will he tell us whether, at the summit next week, the Prime Minister, on behalf of the British Government, will press the other Governments, in light of the Dutch and French referendums, to drop the ratification process?

Mr. Alexander: We have recognised that the process of ratification is in serious difficulty in light of the decisive votes in the Netherlands and France. In the first instance, the Prime Minister will, appropriately, want to hear from the French and Dutch Governments about how they will respond to the decisions by the French and Dutch peoples. Clearly, as I have set out, there is a need for further discussions with EU partners and further decisions by European Union Governments on the matter. The first opportunity for that collective discussion, as has been anticipated in today's debate, will arise at the end of next week when Heads of State and Government meet in the European Council, before which there will be a further opportunity for debate in this House.

That is the context in which the Government have decided not to set a date for Second Reading of the European Union Bill until the consequences of the
8 Jun 2005 : Column 1261
French and Dutch decisions, and their effect on the process of ratification of the treaty, are clarified. As the Government have already informed the House, we reserve completely the right to bring the Bill back for consideration if circumstances change, but we see no point in doing so at the moment.

Next Section IndexHome Page