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The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in Oxford last Thursday, the key issue now is for the European Union to face practical challenges, such as economic reform and energy security. As he acknowledged on Thursday, the effectiveness of a European Union of 25 is constrained by the current rules, but we judge that now is not the time to make institutional debates the focus of the EU's work.
Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for that answer. Now that even the Prime Minister acknowledges that the EU constitution did not address the needs of the citizens, will the Minister confirm that it is dead and will not be implemented by the back door? The British people think that the Government are rather feeble on the issue.
Mr. Alexander: There is little that I can usefully add to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box during Foreign Office questions last month, except to say that it is not for any one country to declare the constitutional treaty dead. We are, of course, in the midst of a period of reflection at the moment.
Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Irrespective of what happens to the European constitution, it is still possible to promote the democratisation of the European Union. Does the Minister have any proposals to enhance the role of national Parliaments in European decision making?
Mr. Alexander: The issue of transparency was one with which we dealt during our presidency, as was subsidiarity. We held a major conference along with the Dutch Government on sharing power in Europe. We must work on the basis of existing treaties, but, none the less, the British Government continue to work on the issue with other European partners.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): What is the view of the Minister and the Government on the proposal made by Andrew Duff in the European Parliament on setting up a parliamentary forum, which has apparently been endorsed by President Barroso? In that context, do not the Government have to look at existing treaties, which have been the cause of low growth, high unemployment, the failure of the stability and growth pact, regionalisation and a whole range of policies that are deeply unpopular in the United Kingdom? Will he make arrangements to review those treaties properly?
Mr. Duff has been working as a member of the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and has brought forward proposals based on his own thinking. While we will consider all representations, it would not follow precedent for us to go along with the letter of Mr. Duff's advice on constitutional matters.
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On the hon. Gentleman's more substantive point about what the European Union's priorities should be, I have taken heart from the fact that our agenda for jobs and growth is being advanced not simply by the British Government, but, increasingly, by the European Commission. Indeed, the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, was quoted in The Times on 10 January as stating:
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Did the Minister note from the remarks of the Prime Minister in Oxford last week that the process of European integration had become self-perpetuating and self-absorbing and that no one knew what the European constitution was designed to solve, which some of us pointed out at the time? Given the Prime Minister's change of heart, will the Minister put a stop to the implementation of the European constitution by other means? As the European Scrutiny Committee finds almost weekly, that option is being pushed by the Commission and augmented by member states, including the British Government.
Mr. Alexander: With unalloyed joy, as usual, I look forward to my appearance before the Committee later this week. On the right hon. Gentleman's substantive point about the implementation of the treaty, the British Government's position is unchanged: the draft constitutional treaty will not be implemented, except by means of a referendum in the United Kingdom.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that just as it is futile to try to revive the constitution at the moment, it is equally futile to scan through it to find bits that are worth implementing? The constitution was a package, so if we reject the whole thing, we should not try to revive its parts.
Mr. Alexander: I recently spoke about exactly that issue to a European colleague, who warned me that one country's cherry is another country's lemon. That point is well made in the sense that an aspect of the constitutional treaty that is judged to be perfectly sensible and prosaic in the United Kingdomthe question of transparency, or greater subsidiaritycan be highly contentious in the eyes of the other 24 member states.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): There seems to be some confusion in the UK Government's position on the EU constitution. Last month, the Foreign Secretary told me that it was difficult to argue that the constitution was anything other than dead. This morning, however, the Prime Minister talked about the need to return to the issue and spoke about a reasonably large hurdle that must be overcome if it is to be revived.
We agree with the Prime Minister that the big issues of energy security, economic decline, illegal immigration and organised crime are the real priorities for the EU, but if we want the other member states to focus on them,
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is it not now essential that the Government state simply and unambiguously that the EU constitution is dead? Although the Minister says that it is not for one country to say that it is dead and to end it, if he said that Britain would veto it if it came back, the whole thing would be finished and we could concentrate on the real priorities.
Mr. Alexander: I can assure the House that we are concentrating on the real priorities. The priorities set out by the hon. Gentleman were exactly the substance of the meeting that took place in Hampton Court last October; for example, energy security. We used the period of reflection to say that we needed a broader debate about how Europe could engage with some of the challenges that we face in the 21st century, whether climate change, energy security or indeed energy supply diversity. That is why, since Hampton Court, work has been taken forward both by High Representative Javier Solana and by the European Commission.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Were not the Foreign Secretary's words that the constitution was not dead but in limbo, somewhere between heaven and hell? On the Prime Minister's speech, although of course we accept that we cannot have a debate on institutions and constitutions in the present circumstance, surely there are practical steps that we can take with our European partners, to ensure that the European Union continues along the reform agendapractical steps that would be of great benefit to the people of Europe, including those of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is accurate in his reflections on the comments of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary at the last Question Time, when he stated that the constitutional treaty was somewhere between heaven and hell and that it was difficult to argue that it is not dead. He also stated, however, that the document was "in limbo". I will not go into the broader theological discussions as to whether limbo has altered as a result of the latest papal encyclical.
What I will say is that the practical steps that my hon. Friend urged on me are exactly the steps that the British Government are taking, whether on the issue of a common energy policy, on jobs and growth, where we continue to push the better regulation agenda, or indeed on the wide range of other issues, such as counter-terrorism measures, which it is necessary to look at not solely from the point of view of one nation state but in light of how we can work together effectively in partnership with other European countries.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I am sure that the Minister would like to know that people will be greatly alarmed that Europe is in a period of reflection. I assure him that all the reflection in the world is not going to raise the dead; regardless of a certain religious leader who believed in a certain place which has now been abolished, quite evidently the constitution is not going to purgatory, and if it is not in heaven and it is not in hell, it is dead. It would be better for the Minister now to reflect on the price of the funeral and then get a new constitution.
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