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6.33 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): As always, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), and to conclude our debate, to which stimulating contributions were made by Members on both sides of the House. Our debates have become more interesting as the need to find a new approach to EU policy becomes more pressing. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made a characteristically good speech, and I can assure him that we will not persecute him. Indeed, I hope that he will participate in our debates more often in future. He rightly pointed to the growing consensus on deregulation and on economic reform in the EU, but a corresponding movement towards flexible structures and away from the burdens imposed by the constitution is sadly lacking.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) made an important speech about transparency and scrutiny, and reminded the House of the role of interparliamentary bodies such as the parliamentary delegation of the Western European Union. My hon. Friend the Member for North- West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) spoke about the extraordinary arrogance of European politicians, who are determined to ignore the will of the people, and he reminded the House of the pressing economic challenge faced by the EU.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Select Committee, warned that the constitution might rise from the dead at precisely the time of the next general election—surely an excellent reason why the Government might want to declare emphatically now that they would veto it, and that there is no point in bringing the constitution back at any time in the future. That view was shared, I think, by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley).

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) revealed that he has become addicted to European debates. It is a pleasure to see him back and contributing to them. He went on to highlight the folly of assuming that the constitution is dead, and warned that the Government are missing a golden opportunity to change the direction of the European Union—a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) made a thoughtful speech, which bodes well for the speech that she will make tomorrow at Open Europe, to which I look forward to listening. She spoke about buns and babies, big ones and small ones, ins and outs, but most crucially, she acknowledged the importance of making it possible to return powers to the member states, ending the process whereby the acquis communautaire is a one-way street. We would welcome such flexibility in the structure of the European Union.

Mr. Cash: On the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy, I note that in his
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important speech my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) stated that both policies

He also spoke about reasserting

Would I be right in thinking that the party’s policy would not be to rule out the idea of establishing national control with respect to the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy?

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is right. We have ruled out nothing in respect of the methods that we would use to achieve what all rational people must accept as a necessary objective—to find a system that works, instead of one that has failed so badly. He refers to our top priority, which is to return national control of our social and employment regulations. That is critical not just for us, but in leading the way in the European Union. Only when we have done that will we see the Lisbon agenda finally unlocked and others realising that they need to make real changes if they are to avoid the relative economic decline in which the continent is at present locked.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) spoke of the way in which the EU has changed over the past 15 years. He said that there has been more emphasis on the political structure, and he spoke in favour of a European defence structure, although he said that it could proceed only with popular support. It would be interesting to know where he believes that support will come from, as there is no evidence of it.

The only frustration in winding up for the Opposition is that the Minister for Europe always has the last word and I cannot reply to his speech. Today, I express my sincere thanks to him for taking the unusual step of making his speech this morning to the Centre for European Reform. He has been keeping us in suspense for some time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said, the Minister has refused to answer questions about the future of the constitution, for fear of having to say what he would like to see in its place.

I read the Minister’s speech with great anticipation and could hardly contain my excitement. He succeeded at least in making Europe more interesting for me. However, instead of the serious attempt that I had hoped to see to answer the burning questions of the day, there was a vacuum. Where was his position on the constitution? Does he believe it is dead or does he believe it can come back? Where was his position on the working time directive and the crucial need to regain control of our social and employment costs? Where was his answer to the question whether the Government are poised to surrender our veto over justice and police matters?

My right hon. Friend referred earlier to the written answer that I received from the Home Office a couple of days ago, which stated that when such a proposal was made,


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It is time the Government were prepared to come to a position of principle and say what they believe and where they stand on this important matter.

In his speech this morning, the Minister for Europe stated that public support for the European Union in this country has fallen from 57 per cent. in the early 1990s to 33 per cent. today. He pointed out that 37 per cent. of British people are now looking to buy property overseas—perhaps it is because they are so desperate to get away from the Labour Government. He said that huge benefits have derived from our membership of the European Union, but he also said that

He blamed the people rather than himself and his colleagues, who have not communicated the case. Support might have declined as the EU has moved further away from being a market and further towards being a political union.

He talked about the huge political disillusionment across Europe that leads to low turnout in elections. Does he agree that disillusionment is greater when democratic choices are ignored, as the French and Dutch referendums appear to have been, or when Governments, such as our own, refuse the opportunity to hold a vote in the first place? He discussed the need to create a Europe that addresses the priorities of the people, but he does not seem to understand that the wide priorities will come to the fore in European affairs only when we have finally consigned the constitution to the dustbin and recognised that that is precisely the wrong direction.

The British Government have been content to sit mute and vacillating showing no leadership and making no contribution to the debate. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston has hinted, there is a danger that they will look stupid if they continue just to sit. It would be better if we were represented at the summit by someone like the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, who is a man of real principle and who will be putting the arguments, which British Ministers should be making, for a more flexible EU.

We have supposedly had a national debate. According to a written answer from the Minister for Europe, it has been limited in the course of the past few months to

including

It was an event

He was unable to adduce any other evidence that the Government are leading a national debate.

In the analogy of the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), the water will carry on cascading down the hill because, as the burden of red tape continues to increase, the costs will continue to be piled on. As the council of British Chambers of Commerce in Europe has put it,

There is no point in Mr. Barroso, the Commission President, scrapping a few outdated directives if the growth of massively damaging directives, such as the working time directive, continues. The Minister for Europe may want to comment in his winding-up speech on the latest proposal from the Austrian presidency to increase the scope of the working time directive, which, according to the BCC, has already cost the UK £16 billion. Why did the TUC spokesman quoted in Labour Research on 1 February say:

Why? Surely that illustrates perfectly the damage that is being done through the extensive application of qualified majority voting in areas in which it is clearly inappropriate. Is it not also a compelling argument for our position, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks reiterated last week in his speech to Open Europe, that Britain should seek to take back control of our own social and employment legislation?

The British Government failed miserably to set out a new vision for the European Union during their presidency, and they also squandered the following six months. The so-called period of reflection has been a period of silence for Britain. While other EU Governments have variously ratified the EU constitution, called for the French to vote again and said that the treaty should be cherry-picked or that it should proceed for some countries and not for others, the British Government have said nothing.

Can the Minister now start to fill in some of the facts for the House? Will the Government support the establishment of a fundamental rights agency? If so, what assurance can he give us that it will have no powers to interfere in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom? Can he be certain that it will not duplicate the work of the Council of Europe?

Will the Minister spell out in detail the Government’s position on police and judicial affairs? Are the Government prepared to surrender that crucial veto, or will they hold firm against one of the biggest proposals from the constitution being allowed in through the back door? I hope that he will indicate that co-operation in policing matters is acceptable, and indeed desirable, but that national control over these areas must be maintained.

Will the Minister share with us the Government’s assessment of the UK debate in the period of reflection, which, according to a recent written answer that he gave me, will be placed in the Library tomorrow? Will he make it clear that Britain will veto any moves towards an EU diplomatic service? Will he clarify whether a common European energy policy can be achieved through co-operation between member states and confirm that there is no need, and no case, for a new EU competence in this area? I do not expect much by way of reply, because if the Government had a real vision for the future they would not have been so
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coy about sharing it with the British people over the past few months. Indeed, they have been content to allow others to make the running and to see the process of integration resume.

Our vision is based on the fact that we have seen and understood that the EU, as it is, is failing. We have begun to set out how the EU must change if it is to prosper in future. It should not be an ever-closer union pursuing an outdated dream of increased integration; instead, it should be a structure to aid and encourage co-operation between free democratic member states. At the core of the EU should be a truly open internal market. Our aim should be to remove the remaining obstacles to trade and to widen boundaries. The creation of a new transatlantic free trade area would be a better goal for Britain to pursue than the absurd obsession with a constitution for Europe.

Britain will devote its energy to that goal only when the constitution has finally been declared dead. It is time that the British Government and our EU partners were prepared to confront the stark choice that lies before us—to continue in relative economic decline under the current model of centralisation and over-regulation, or to create a flexible, open, deregulated European Union fit for the challenges of the 21st century. Nothing that we have heard from the Government today or in the past 12 months gives grounds for optimism that they have the vision or energy to lead the European Union out of its current crisis.

6.47 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I am delighted to see that debate on Europe’s priorities is very much alive in this House. As I highlighted in my speech this morning to the Centre for European Reform, it is a debate that has not always been taken up by the people of Europe, and it is clearly something that we need to encourage.

If I may say so, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was uncharacteristically unkind to those of his hon. Friends, and mine, who contributed to the debate, because we have had a lively, thoughtful and serious debate about the issues. I would not suggest that anyone has repeated arguments that they have advanced before, although it is fair to say that there was a tinge of familiarity from days past about the speech by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

Among Labour Members, we heard serious and thoughtful speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood), for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell).

Hon. Members asked several questions relating to other key foreign policy issues, which I will attempt to answer in the short time that I have available. First, I should like to conclude our discussion on the EU’s priorities and the opening of tomorrow’s European Council. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary comprehensively set out the discussions that we expect to take place over the next couple of days and the UK’s objectives in those discussions. Our ambition, at this
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Council and in the future, is to ensure that the EU continues to deliver real outcomes on a programme designed to address the serious problems of the day, which are of course also the issues that our citizens care passionately about. The 39 per cent. turnout at the 2004 European elections shows that despite the fact that we are working more closely with EU institutions than ever before on an agenda that has been very much driven by the United Kingdom, our citizens do not always see the benefits and opportunities that our EU membership provides. I am not in the business of apportioning blame, but deeply sceptical media in this country and, nowadays, a rabidly anti-European Conservative party have not helped.

I made the point to the hon. Member for Stone that when he and I first debated Europe in 1992, when I was first elected to the House of Commons and was still a Member of the European Parliament, he was in an isolated minority on the Conservative Benches. There was a handful of supporters for such views but the great majority of Conservative Members, including Front Benchers—such as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, who was about to become a Cabinet Minister—were essentially pro-European, supportive of the Maastricht treaty and arguing for its acceptance by the House and the country. Now, the hon. Member for Stone represents the mainstream of Conservative thinking on Europe. I detect little difference between what he used to say then and what Conservative Front Benchers say today. To that extent he has met with great success, but the other side of the coin is that Conservative Front Benchers have met with great failure.

Mr. Cash: Will the Minister for Europe come into the present and acknowledge that today’s Order Paper contains an order for Second Reading of the European Union Bill, which would implement the European constitutional treaty that the Government have put on ice? Will the Government clearly state before tomorrow’s summit that they will take it off the Order Paper?

Mr. Hoon: No. What interested me about contributions from the Conservative Benches was the subtle, sophisticated and straightforward speech that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made. He always speaks eloquently and clearly. Let us contrast that with the position of most other Conservative Members. In the hon. Gentleman’s plea in favour of his unrequited passion for the German Chancellor, he did not seem to see the logic of the position that he was setting out. He said that the German Chancellor, a Christian Democrat, was setting out a vision for Europe that Conservatives should adopt. What is the reaction of the leader of the Conservative party? He does not want to meet the German Chancellor, who is the leading light on the centre right in Europe today. I have had more meetings with the German Chancellor than the leader of the Conservative party has. I have probably held more meetings than most Conservative Members have with leading members of the Christian Democrats throughout Europe. That demonstrates the Conservative party’s isolation in Europe.


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