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Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): It is a great pleasure to be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell)although I see that the Foreign Secretary is competing with meon his excellent maiden speech. He spoke eloquently about his constituency. He mentioned his predecessor, the Reverend Martin Smyth, whom many of us counted as a friend. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will enjoy as many friends in the House as his predecessor, and that his constituents will enjoy the benefits of peace, of which he spoke eloquently as well. He also showed that he has understood from the beginning that it is not necessary to shout in the House in order to be heard. That is a new insight for some Northern Ireland Members in particular, and I hope it will set a continuing example to many other Members.
The hon. Gentleman referredthis is relevant to today's European debateto the old saying "Fog in Channel, continent cut off". That may not be a fair comparison with the situation today. A closer analogy would be "Fog in Brussels, people of Europe cut off". One of the disappointments of the debate so far is that the Front-Bench speecheswith the exception of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)have not quite lived up to the drama of what has happened. I know that this is the third parliamentary occasion on which the subject has been discussed in the past nine days, and that may partly explain it; but the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) is still cheerily clinging to the view that Germany's economic problems have nothing whatever to do with the euro. He was right to point out that those problems had other origins, but it may now be time for the advocates of the euro to recognise that it may be one of the factors making economic conditions in the eurozone substantially worse.
"We're exporting stability within monetary union, and for the good of monetary union. We're paying for that, and it has to be said that the price is not negligible since we're losing the comparative advantage of lower real interest rates".
It was also disappointing to hear the Foreign Secretary continue to defend some of the supposed innovations in the European constitution as an
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improvement in democratic procedures. There should be a bigger role for national Parliaments, he said, quite rightly. Many of us throughout the House would agree with that. However, are we to believe the procedures outlined in the constitutional treaty, whereby if we get a third of all the other Parliaments in the European Union to object to something the Commission will deign to give it a second thoughtand not necessarily change it? Can anyone imagine telling the parish councils of Britain that only if a third of them passed a resolution objecting to a Government White Paper would we consider thinking about it again in the House? That would be regarded as extremely arrogant, yet we are meant to accept it in the national Parliaments of Europe as a democratic crumb from the Brussels machine. We are meant to rejoice in the idea that our views may be considered if we can get other Parliaments to come along with us. If the Government are to champion the role of national Parliaments in European democracy, they will have to be far bolder and more radical than that.
It was also disappointing to find evidence in the Foreign Secretary's speech that the Government's negotiating position for the European Council may not have been fully thought through. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) asked him about the implications of the Government's proposals at the Council for existing policy on the common agricultural policy and for the transition to a new system of farm payments over the next five or seven years, and it has to be said that the answer was roughly along the lines that the Government "haven't the foggiest" about those implications. Those, however, will presumably be among the first questions that French and German Ministers will ask when the UK rebate is discussed in the Council.
Nevertheless, I want to heap some praise on the Foreign Secretary today. Much ironic praise, no doubt deserved, has already been directed at the Minister for Europe, but it was the Foreign Secretaryor so it is said in press reportswho persuaded the Prime Minister during the course of last summer to commit this country to a referendum, and it was the Prime Minister's commitment, according to other press reports, that prompted President Chirac to hold a referendum in France. It just may be that if any one individual is to be thanked more than any other for the destruction of the European constitution, it should be the Foreign Secretary, who threw the pebble that created the avalanche. If that is the case, many of us would like heartily to congratulate him on doing so today. He has been a democratic catalyst and I hope that he will be one again.
Unfortunately, as a catalyst, he put the Prime Minister's policies on these matters through yet further changes. I believe that the Prime Minister is now on his seventh policy in 18 months on the question of holding a referendum on the European constitution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) compared it at Prime Minister's Questions to the Kama Sutra, but even with all the Prime Minister's skills of ambiguity, his endemic contortions and U-turns, he is not quite in that category. Nevertheless, there have been seven different policies so far.
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First, the European constitution was nothing more than a tidying-up exercise, clarified, when I asked the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) some months ago, into a three-quarters tidying-up exercise, which was not important enough to justify a referendum in the UK. Then the policy changed, when the Prime Minister decided that it was too important to be put to a referendum in the UK. Holding such a referendum, apparently, would have been a gross and irresponsible betrayal of our national interest because parliamentary scrutiny was required.
The third policy was that a referendum was not ruled out, after all. The fourth was that it was an excellent ideathis was after the Foreign Secretary had done his handy work of persuasionand the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box last summer to declare in ringing terms:
"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."[Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 157.]
Having failed to join the battle and having been understandably quizzed in the general election campaign on whether a referendum would happen, we were then assured by no less than The Sun on 20 April that Blair had given
Now, however, we have a sixth policy, which is a period of reflection. After a lengthy such period, we are told, we should take a leadership role in Europe. That is not exactly a stirring call to battle. A seventh policy is no doubt on the wayafter that period of reflection or perhaps after the European Council meeting.
It is clear that the European constitution is dead. Of course, it is right for the Government not to hold a referendum if other countries recognise that the constitution is dead, but we should not believe that there would not be a large turnout in a referendum or that a referendum should not be held in this country because people would not find it interesting enough. They would find it interesting and they would turn out in large numbers. The real reason for the decision not to hold a referendum is that the Government know full well that there is not an earthly chance of winning such a referendum in this country. As I said, however, if the European Council is to consign the constitution to where it belongs on the scrapheap, the policy would then be acceptable.
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It seems to be taking some European politicians a long time to realise what has happened. One French Minister on European Affairs said last week, in advocating that other countries should proceed with ratification:
That is a remarkable statement. Surely, in a treaty that requires unanimous agreement, it is indeed for one member to decide for the others. If that country wishes to do so, it can block ratification. It merely adds to the bizarre nature of the remarks that I quoted that it is that Minister's own country that has blocked ratification. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will ram those points homealbeit in a diplomatic stylewhen he attends the Council in a few days time.
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