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Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate on the important subject of the European Union, but also to have heard the maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) and for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). I must confess that I have never heard of the link between Croydon and "Star Wars"the actor who played Darth Vader comes from Croydonbut I note with relief that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central did not claim the support of the dark side of the force for his arguments.
The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) mentioned, I think with a slip of the tongue, the supernatural element of the European Union. I certainly hope that there will be no false effort to resuscitate a constitution that is well and truly dead.
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Representing as I do the first party in the House to call for a referendum on the constitution, I nevertheless believe that a corpse is a corpse. It would be odd to hold a referendum on a constitution that is as dead as Monty Python's parrot. That may not be pining for the Norwegian fjords, but, as the new Minister for Europe knowsI welcome him to his placeNorway's advantages from being outside the common fisheries policy reflected the SNP's main objection to the constitution.
Despite our objections on the incorporation in the draft constitution of the common fisheries policy as an exclusive competence, we believe that there is much to merit further consideration. I strongly warn against the tabloid approach taken in some quarters, which seems to rule out any change to the European Union that may have been within the draft constitution. For example, the idea that we should not think about proposals to open up the Council of Ministers and make it meet in public because the draft constitution is dead and almost buried has been raised a number of times and the same applies to pursuing an enhanced role for national Parliaments. Not considering those things would be folly. We need to consider all these proposals on their merits and not paint them as discredited. They are not.
I firmly believe that we should regard where we are as an opportunity to redefine the European Union that we want. We do not want a negative, anti-European attitude, but one that recognises the need for a confederal European Union that reflects a very real, 21st-century independence. Such independence is not the same as the 19th-century, outdated idea of autarkic independence, but it none the less constitutes independence. The idea that the Slovaks and the Slovenes, who regained their independence from larger incorporating unions, have thrown it out the window within 10 years by joining a supranational united states of Europe was folly before and it is folly now. We have, and should continue to have, a confederal Europe. However, we need to look hard at what does need reforming, and I want briefly to talk about our responsibilities in this House in that regard.
Angus Robertson: A confederal Europe resembles the constitution definition, which describes the EU as a union of states that decides to pool sovereignty in various areas, while retaining the principle of subsidiarity. I firmly believe that powers should be handed back. Someone asked what should be handed back, and first on my list would be the common fisheries policy. That has been an absolute disaster, yet no mention has been made of it today.
I return to what we in this House should be doing about reform. The esteemed Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood), who spoke at the beginning of the debate, talked about the important role that it plays in ensuring that this House is properly informed about proposals from the European Commission, the
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Council of Ministers and elsewhere, and about important regulations, directives and communications. Every week, the Committee goes through as many as 30 to 40 documents, some of which are profoundly important. Yet for the past two months, it has not met. There has been no scrutiny whatsoever of European business during this Parliament. Does that mean that the Council of Ministers was not meetingthat it was not deciding whether such regulations and directives should be introduced? Of course not. Such regulations and directives were introduced. What happened to the scrutiny reserve, or has everything been put on hold? I do not know, but if we want to reform the EU we must lead by example. I am sorry to say that we have failed in that regard.
We also failed in terms of turnout. During the debate on the draft constitution, a Standing Committee that brought together Members of this House and of the other place had twice to be declared inquorate because Conservative members did not attend. That is extraordinary. We can take European business seriously or choose to grandstand once or twice a year on our hobby-horse subjects. We need to get on with the nitty-gritty work and to take our scrutiny function much more seriously.
Another issue that has not been touched on is the role of devolved Administrations and institutions. Some 60 to 70 per cent. of the European legislation that gets handed down to the United Kingdom relates to shared sovereignty with the Scottish Parliament, not to this House, yet no mention has been made of how we might choose to improve that situation. Members might not be aware that the relationship between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations is currently secret. Concordats on intergovernmental relationships between the central authority and devolved Administrations say that Ministers should not talk about their discussions on important policy issues. How can we talk about an improved EU when scrutiny Committees do not meet, interrelationships are secret within UK governmental structures and the European Scrutiny Committee itself, on the most important times that it meets, does so in secret? That is indefensible. The Dail Eireann can work out a way to meet in public and go through the various issues, so why cannot the European Scrutiny Committee do the same?
I am mindful of the time, so I will be brief in discussing my final point. I am concerned that, in the current climate of megaphone, gunboat diplomacy on the rebate, we might be missing out a very important element of the budgetary debate that is of profound importance to UK areas that receive EU funding. I do not know whether, given the large amount of paper in his in-tray, the new Minister for Europe has had a chance to examine what is known as statistical effect. Let me try to explain a rather complicated development.
Because of enlargement, money needs to go from the older, richer EU states to the poorer, new member states, but 17 regions throughout the old EU are very much at the margins of EU funding, and may lose it. The EU has been considering ways of dealing with that difficulty. One of the affected areas is the highlands and islands, part of which I represent.
If statistical effect does not operate, there will be an estimated £350 million loss from the next programming period. If that is compounded with the accountancy
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error on the part of the Office for National Statistics, which has denied the highlands and islands objective 1 fundingit amounts to a loss of between £200 million and £250 millionand the potential loss of cohesion funds, the Scottish economy alone will lose up to £1 billion. That is confirmed by a document drawn up two days ago by the Scottish Executive. When I asked the Foreign Secretary about it, he said that he was not aware of the exact numbers. I should be grateful if the Minister for Europe could confirm that that would be the position. The document says:
I noted carefully what the Foreign Secretary said earlier in reply to a question from me. He said that the UK Government had given a commitment to the regions and nations that they would not lose out. I should be grateful if, when summing up or indeed now, the Minister could confirm that the UK Government will coveras a minimumthe nigh on £1 billion that will potentially be lost from the Scottish economy, given the detrimental impact that that would have on the highlands and islands in particular. Can he give that minimum guarantee that the Government will stump up £1 billion of additional funds to close the gap?
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have had an opportunity to discuss the impact on the highlands and islands. Indeed, I paid a visit to Highland regional council and spoke to its representatives about exactly these matters. Does he accept that, given the terms of the Treasury guarantee that has been offered on structural and cohesion funding, there is a genuine statistical difficulty? The bases on which the numbers can be calculated rely on European statistics that are not yet available to this or any other EU Government.
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