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Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Having been a Member of the European Parliament I agree with the thrust of the Foreign Secretary's remarks and pay tribute, too, to Conservative MEPs. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is a particularly futile gesture, given that the Conservative party's objection, as I understand it, is to the commitment of the EPP to ever closer union, which will of course be determined in treaty negotiation between the member states, and Members of the European Parliament will have no influence over that matter?

Mr. Straw: Indeed. The Labour party is a member of the party of European Socialists. No one is suggesting that those are wholly disciplined parties or that we have to agree to every last jot and tittle of what is said, and we do not. All of us accept that ultimately it is for the national group to determine its approach. I make the point seriously, and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks agrees with it, because that has been his position consistently over many years: the European Parliament exists and it has certain powers. It is important that we work with it in the national interest. There is nothing disingenuous in my saying that I applaud the way in which Conservative MEPs have worked with those on the Liberal Democrat Benches and on ours in the national interest. Much of that influence will be lost if they go the way not of the right hon. Gentleman, but of the hon. Member for Witney.

I turn briefly to the wider progress that has been made in the European Union during the UK presidency. I mentioned the accession negotiations with Turkey. We have also opened accession negotiations with Croatia. The arrest last week of Ante Gotovina, the indicted war criminal, underlined the importance—in this, again, we had all-party support—of sticking very firmly to clear conditionality with Croatia, unless and until it assured its co-operation in delivering up Gotovina. That has been achieved.

We have reached agreement on reform of the European Union sugar regime, which will save between €3.5 billion and €4 billion each year. We have embedded the principles of better regulation, which I dealt with earlier. We have agreed REACH, the directive on the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals.

In the field of justice and home affairs, Ministers have agreed a new Europe-wide counter-terrorism strategy and to manage migration and illegal immigration better. We have pursued an active common foreign and security
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policy, aid commitments have been doubled and a strategy for Africa has been introduced. We have also launched the international finance facility for immunisation.

We have done a huge amount on Sudan, Aceh and the middle east peace process. At the beginning of our presidency, we inherited a Union coping with the Dutch and French rejection of the constitutional treaty and the failure of the Luxembourg budget proposals. We have used our presidency to help set a pathway for a modern, competitive Europe, and we have taken practical and measurable steps along that path. Now we want to secure a fair budget. In the negotiations, which start tomorrow, the Prime Minister and I are determined to do everything that we can to secure a deal that is good for Britain and good for Europe—building a stronger, wider, more prosperous Union in which our citizens, British and European, can thrive.

1.20 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the kind remarks with which he began his speech and for his welcoming me back to the Front Bench. He attaches an importance to the Darlington & Stockton Times that is appropriate for any Foreign Secretary of this country.

I am delighted that my mere presence on the Front Bench has produced the radical reinterpretation of the Government's policy on the euro so that the pound has now been saved. When the Foreign Secretary discusses that reinterpretation of policy with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, he may be carrying out a job rather like the one that he described for me, which involved doing a lot of travel but taking very few decisions.

I am sure that we will have some vigorous debates across the Dispatch Box. My comments to the Foreign Secretary will be entirely free of personal abuse. According to the new convention in the Foreign Office, we can leave that to retiring ambassadors, who will no doubt continue to dish it out, so there is no need for the Opposition to indulge in such things.

As there will inevitably be much disagreement, I shall start on a note of concord and congratulation to the Foreign Secretary. The negotiations on Turkish accession were protracted—they must have been very difficult and undoubtedly required hard work and skill—and he successfully steered them to the conclusion that we all wanted. I have no inhibitions in congratulating him on that achievement and hope that future blockages in the process of admitting Turkey to the European Union can similarly be overcome.

There may be other areas of agreement across the Floor of the House and it is entirely possible that one of them is the fate of the European constitution. In addition to his role at the last hour in saving the pound, the Foreign Secretary played a key role on the European constitution, because if, as was reported, he persuaded the Prime Minister to commit the Government to holding a referendum in Britain, and if, as was reported, the British commitment prompted President Chirac to make the same commitment in France, then the Foreign Secretary did more than any other individual to ensure that the constitution was wrecked in May and June by voters in France. Although he is careful not to show any
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pleasure about that outcome, I cannot recall him issuing any words of regret, and even now there is no sign that it is causing him undue distress.

If the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were happy to see the deeply flawed constitution collapse, why were they prepared to recommend it to the British people in the first place? That they should keep their quiet satisfaction quiet is understandable. What is not understandable—my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has made this point—is that they should make no use of the impasse on the constitution to take the initiative, to show leadership in Europe and to put forward ideas of their own.

It is six months since both France and the Netherlands gave the constitution a resounding no. Within days, the Foreign Secretary announced a "pause for reflection". We have been having the pause for six months, but where is the reflection? He was unable to enlighten us on that point in his speech. Is this not the time, buttressed by grave anxieties about the remoteness and unresponsiveness of EU institutions revealed by the referendums, to champion fresh ideas about a more flexible Europe with a stronger role for national Parliaments, which many hon. Members on both sides would be happy to support?

Was not that six months the time to speak the much needed truth that ever mightier central institutions in a tightly integrated bloc are an idea whose time has gone? Instead, in the absence of any alternative, the new German Government say that they will "seek to advance progress" on actually adopting the constitution once Germany takes the presidency in 2007.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comments. Does he remember that the first attempt to promote the constitution collapsed because of the resistance of Spain and Poland? At that time, the press reported that the champagne corks could be heard popping in Downing street. This time, the Government were more modest in their reaction to the collapse of the constitution, which is welcome.

Mr. Hague: I do not know about welcoming the Government's modesty—we would welcome a bit of vigour in saying what they would do instead of the constitution. However, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman and I agree about the Government's policy.

Perhaps the Minister for the Middle East, who is winding up for the Government, will tell us how long the pause for reflection will last. Is it a pause or has it become a way of life? Are the Government content to see those democratic verdicts one day ignored and the whole process revived? Would it not be a great shame if the Foreign Secretary's excellent work in doing such damage to the constitution were of no avail in the end? If the Government are not happy to leave a vacuum in which others will insert their own ideas, when will they propose something different of their own?

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Do the accession negotiations with Turkey indicate the future viability of the constitution? The constitution would have entrenched a relationship between small and large states that would be unsustainable if Turkey were ever to enter the EU.
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Mr. Hague: Having served on the European Convention, the hon. Lady learned a lot, which appears to have reinforced her hostility to many of the ways in which Europe is developing or trying to develop.

Is the Foreign Secretary content to see the charter of fundamental rights, a document which, in the hilarious but notorious phrase of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)—we cannot debate these matters without mentioning it—has the legal status of The Beano incorporated into new EU laws? The famous Beano document has even been cited in the European Court of Justice, although it is part of the constitutional treaty, which has been rejected.

Why did the Government not raise more than a whisper of protest when the ECJ created the power to introduce harmonised criminal law across the EU, a judgment that was fought by 11 Governments, including ours, but which brought forth from the Government only the response that

Is that it? Are they going to say that it was "inappropriate" and leave it at that, without any attempt to put right in the future the relentless extension of EU competence by the ECJ that has been taking place in recent years? Are the Government entirely happy to see the steady loss of their own power to govern this country in its own best interests? Is it not time to stop going neatly along with an orthodoxy of integration that is not only out of favour with the peoples of Europe, but seriously out of date in the 21st century?

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