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14 Jun 2006 : Column 794

Keith Vaz rose—

Mr. Hague: Oh, go on then, let us fit in the former Minister for Europe as well.

Keith Vaz: Is the aggression that the right hon. Gentleman is unfairly directing at my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe partly due to the fact that on reshuffle day he issued a press release condemning the creation of a Department of European Affairs that was never actually created?

Mr. Hague: I think that the Minister thought that it was going to be created, which was one of the reasons why he accepted the job. Yes, there was certainly some confusion among the Opposition as to what was going on, but that was nothing compared with the confusion in No. 10. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks that this is aggression—it is merely good-natured advice to the Minister for Europe, to whom I bear no malice whatsoever. However, it is well known that he was offered a job and that, a couple of hours later, No. 10 had to ring up and explain that it was an entirely different job. That is doubtless because the Foreign Secretary asserted herself in no uncertain terms and I do not blame her for that.

Before the Minister for Europe says anything more about reviving the European constitution or refusing to rule it out, does not he realise the extent of the relief in the Government and the barely concealed sense of heaven-sent reprieve in 10 Downing street and the Foreign Office when the constitution was defeated in the referendums in France and the Netherlands? Does he believe that, if the constitution were put back on the rails and won approval elsewhere and the Government had to hold a referendum in this country, the Prime Minister or the Chancellor would think that that was a good idea? He has just experienced one downward move in his ministerial career—I say that in the continuing spirit of friendly advice—and if he comes back with the European constitution alive and kicking, he will be junior Under-Secretary for paperclips in no time.

Mr. Illsley: I probably share some of the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the constitution. However, in fairness to my right hon. Friend, recent press reports show that Italy, France, Germany and Austria have all spoken about the revival of the constitution. Indeed, the Belgian Prime Minister said that 15 states have already ratified and that, when we get to four fifths, the matter should be referred back to the European Council. The decision about reviving the constitution could well be out of my right hon. Friend’s hands.

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to efforts to revive the constitution in other parts of Europe—including, bizarrely, some countries where the people have rejected it, for example, France. That is all the more reason for our Government to make their position clear and speak out. This country would not be alone in rejecting the constitution in a referendum. Indeed, if the Governments of some of the countries that approved it had had the courage to put it to their people, it would have been rejected.

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Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Is not it the case that, since the referendums in those countries where the constitution was rejected, support for it has plummeted further?

Mr. Hague: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. That happens because there is a growing public and political sense in Europe that the combination of the vast enlargement of the European Union, the pace of globalisation and the rejection of the constitution require new ideas about the future of Europe that are different from the failed orthodoxies of the past 20 years. I should like the Government to move on to those new ideas.

Mr. Cash: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hague: I have taken many interventions and I have not finished with the Minister’s speech yet. To revert to what we gathered of it, he said—

Keith Vaz: We have not heard from the Minister yet.

Mr. Hague: Why did not the Minister give the speech in the debate rather than outside the House? I am the bearer of news of his speech and am thus doing the House a service, but it should not be necessary for me to do that.

The Minister said that the debate in Europe should be about globalisation, the developing world and environmental concerns. So it should. During the British presidency last year, where were all the proposals on globalisation, the developing world and environmental concerns? With the Lisbon agenda stalled, where were the new proposals from Her Majesty’s Government in their presidency to drive forward the European response to globalisation?

Margaret Beckett: Many discussions took place about globalisation and how it could be tackled. However, the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned development. Has he forgotten the Commission for Africa and all the commitments that were made at Gleneagles?

Mr. Hague: Of course I have not forgotten. We agree about much of that. However, when the Government caved in on common agricultural policy reform and agreed to a reduction of £7 billion in the British rebate with no guarantee of reform, where was the concern for developing countries which the Minister claims is at the forefront of the Government’s mind?

That is the trouble with what we have gleaned so far of the Minister’s speech. It represents the identification of vague priorities after a major opportunity has been lost. It conveys no sense of energy or vision in tackling those priorities, or of being prepared to stand up and say that the defeat of the constitution, the vast enlargement of the EU and the pace of globalisation require a change in the way in which Europe develops. The speech has all the hallmarks of Ministers sitting in a room, saying, “We will be accused of saying nothing in the debate, so let’s say something just before it, even if it amounts to very little.”

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People throughout Europe have unfortunately become cynical about British ministerial pronouncements that are trumpeted and followed by little of the action for which they call. In the Prime Minister’s other recent speech about Europe—his speech to the European Parliament last year at the beginning of the British presidency—he said:

That caused some alarm among Members of the European Parliament, who thought that a crowd had formed outside for the first time in their experience. He continued:

One can imagine the Prime Minister with the crowd outside: “What do we want?” “Leadership!” “When do we want it?” “After an indefinite period of reflection.” That is the position that we have reached and it is time for the Government to give clearer leadership in Europe than they have shown so far.

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I am always grateful for career advice from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and I acknowledge that we are both in reduced circumstances these days. However, when he gave Conservative Members of the European Parliament advice as party leader, he advised them to remain allied to the group of the European People’s party in the European Parliament. What has changed since then?

Mr. Hague: On careers, I go down and up but the right hon. Gentleman goes down and down.

The Minister criticises us for trying to form a new group in the European Parliament and people ask, “Why do you want to talk to people in Poland and be allied with them?” Yet, only on Monday, the right hon. Gentleman said:

What on earth is wrong with political parties in this country aiming to forge closer links with other countries and political parties in Europe with which they agree?

Mr. Todd: I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s characteristically witty speech. Perhaps the answer to his question is that it depends on what those other parties stand for. I stand with him in wishing for closer alignment with Poland but surely parties’ ideology and commitments must be examined, too.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for fresh ideas. Although he always delivers wit and sometimes considerable acerbic grit in his speeches, I have not yet heard any substance. His remarks on the common fisheries policy suggest that we will not have any in his speech today.

Mr. Hague: If I could get on without so many interventions—

Keith Vaz: So it is my hon. Friend’s fault.

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Mr. Hague: Yes, it is the fault of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd)— [Interruption.] I am glad that he takes responsibility for it.

I want to ask several specific questions about the forthcoming summit. The Foreign Secretary referred to aid to Palestinian people and specifically answered the question about that. I hope that the Minister can enlarge on that in his winding-up speech, because the Quartet agreed more than a month ago that urgent delivery of aid to Palestinians was necessary and instructed the EU to take the lead on a temporary international mechanism. When I was in the occupied territories only a few weeks ago, I got the impression that the need was urgent, that the Palestinian economy is contracting more sharply than might have been expected and that that is likely to cause great hardship. Reports have emerged that the United States has rejected the European proposal. Is it true that the United States has asked the EU to go back to the drawing board? What is the state of the preparations for establishing the temporary international mechanism? Will the Foreign Secretary take steps—her speech implied that she would—to resolve the matter at this week’s summit? Will the Minister tell us more about the mechanism and when it is likely to be in place?

Secondly, may I press Ministers further on the transparency issue, which the Foreign Secretary addressed briefly in her opening speech? One item to be discussed at the summit is greater transparency at meetings of the Council of the European Union. We have long supported an end to closed meetings of the Council, for reasons that the European Scrutiny Committee set out in the relevant report. First, national Parliaments and electorates cannot hold Ministers to account if it is not clear how they have acted in the Council. Secondly, it is easy for Governments to blame Brussels for decisions that they might themselves have agreed to in closed meetings. Thirdly, closed meetings can result in deals that no Government fully accountable to their own Parliament would have agreed to. Lastly, the arrangement makes a large part of the EU’s business invisible to the citizen.

Margaret Beckett: I hope that I can clarify this matter for the right hon. Gentleman because this is an issue on which there might be some misunderstanding. What we proposed—and what was accepted—in our presidency was that legislative proposals, especially those that involved co-decision and perhaps others, should be open to much greater scrutiny than hitherto, and that the initial sets of proposals should be open to public scrutiny and on public view, as should votes, explanations of votes and so on. We proposed a great deal more transparency than we have now. However, what has been proposed in these Council conclusions is to take a significant—to my mind—step further and to say that every bit of deliberation on such detailed negotiations should be in the public domain.

I would draw an analogy with the way in which we conduct ourselves in this place. Of course the decisions that are reached, what they mean, the extent to which they are considered to be an advantage, and how they can be defended are all in the public domain. However, the detailed deliberations of the parties, for example, on how they come to their views are not in the public domain and are never likely to be.

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Mr. Hague: I am not sure that the analogy with this place is to the Foreign Secretary’s advantage on this issue. The deliberations of Parliament are fully open to the public—not just the decisions reached. And the Council of Ministers is now, in effect, a legislative body. In fact, the Council of the European Union and North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly are now the world’s only legislatures that meet in secret. Those of us who are fond of our 18th century history will remember that, in the 1770s, the case was still being put in this House that its proceedings could not possibly be reported in public because Members would not be able to speak frankly and would be open to influence by the public. That is what people in this country thought more than 200 years ago. Now the same case is being made, as I understand it, by the Foreign Secretary in the Council of Ministers.

So strong has been the case for transparency that we have had cross-party consensus on the matter in this country. The leaders of all the British parties in the European Parliament signed a declaration to that effect and the Government put forward a paper during their presidency proposing to make Council meetings and business more open. Those proposals contained two options. The European Council agreed to partial openness, which is what the Foreign Secretary has just referred to. However, the then Minister for Europe, now the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), then wrote to the European Scrutiny Committee to assure it that the British objective

although the more ambitious option favoured by the UK would have required a change to the Council’s procedures. However, it seems that the Foreign Secretary has now thrown a spanner in the works by saying that there would be too much openness, so we might have to keep some of the same old secrecy.

Ms Gisela Stuart: May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to clarify something? If he is in favour of greater openness and transparency, and of the ability for people to understand what is being decided—I am sure that he has been in meetings where just throwing open the doors would not create understanding—would he, if there were ever a Conservative Government again, support the notion of a Europe Minister at Cabinet level to explain all the decisions made at Brussels level that have domestic policy implications?

Mr. Hague: I would support the Minister for Europe setting out his policy for Europe in this House rather than elsewhere. I cannot say that that would involve having a Minister at Cabinet level; I think that the Foreign Secretary and I agree on that issue. Those matters should be the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary in Cabinet. However, I do believe that this House’s procedures for scrutinising European Council proceedings and European legislation need many improvements, and that such improvements would be part of making the workings of the European Union more accountable to the people of this country.

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My question to Ministers on this matter is the same as that of the French Government, who are reported to have asked

of more transparency? The Labour manifesto of 1997 said:

We need Government U-turns on Europe, but this is not one of them.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall miss out some of the subjects that I was going to raise—[Hon. Members: “The substance!”] Hon. Members are so generous with their interventions.

Enlargement is an issue that we also need to address in the debate. This week has marked the opening of the first chapter of accession talks with Turkey. We strongly welcome that, and I offer my congratulations to the Government on the strong and consistent stance that they have taken in favour of Turkey’s membership. We should be proud of the fact that there is cross-party consensus in this country on this wider enlargement. Will the Minister confirm, however, that no member state can ultimately join the EU if it does not recognise another or give its vessels access to its ports and airspace? This is an area of extreme delicacy, but does he not agree that it is vital that we do not leave the Cypriot problem frozen while accession negotiations proceed, because in the end neither process can succeed without the other?

Does the Minister also agree that enlargement cannot stop with Turkey? The Foreign Secretary touched on this in her opening remarks. We want our European neighbourhood to be stable, democratic, rich and peaceful. We know that offering EU membership is the best incentive to persuade countries to make the hard political decisions that mark the road to that end. We also know the likely cost of refusing entry to the EU. In the Balkans and Ukraine, it would be nationalism, populism, corruption and criminality. So will the Minister join us in pledging that, while their accession might take many years, the western Balkans, Ukraine and Belarus have every right, in the long term, to join the EU, should they wish to do so?

The summit is important in many other ways, as the Foreign Secretary has made clear. It comes a year after the rejection of the constitution. We have had the period of reflection, which has now been extended for another year. The constitution is a subject that has not been sufficiently debated in this country, yet it is of profound importance. Some people in Europe want it brought back, while others want it left on the shelf while being implemented through the back door. Perhaps we should recognise that the peoples of Europe do not want this kind of integration, respect their verdict and look again at what the EU should be doing.

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