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20 Jun 2007 : Column 1386

Margaret Beckett: I understand the logic of my right hon. Friend’s comments. If we are able to agree an amending treaty, that will be a considerable achievement. For many member states it is a source of considerable discomfort that, having ratified a proposed constitutional treaty and having explained to their electorates—and in the case of the Spanish Government having had a referendum in which they succeeded in obtaining the approval of their electorate—that this was to their advantage, they may then have to go back to their people and say that there will not be a new constitution for Europe, but that there will be, as there has been in the past, an amending treaty. That would be no easier for them than it would be for us to say that we will go ahead with a constitutional treaty even though it has once been rejected.

However, whatever the logic of discussion about any potential referendum, one can only judge whether a treaty would require a referendum when one sees its content—assuming that it is an amending treaty; nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Secondly—I hope that my right hon. Friend will sympathise with this argument, which I feel quite strongly about—I see no reason whatever why we should have had a string of amending treaties from Conservative Governments that never attracted a referendum, no matter how much they extended, for example, qualified majority voting, but a Labour Government are somehow not allowed to do it.

Mr. Field: I am grateful for that answer, but two wrongs do not make a right. Again, I am anxious about how strong our negotiating hand is. Is the Foreign Secretary saying that if in these key areas we are not successful in negotiating, at the end of the day the Government will think of vetoing?

Margaret Beckett: I have already said that it is not inevitable that there will be an agreement this weekend. I very much hope that there will be, because if there can be an agreement that we can accept, Europe can put the issue behind us. I share the view, probably held across the House, that nothing more distances the peoples of Europe from the institutions of the EU than wrangling about legal texts and the division of powers.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I am blessed with a plethora of requests. I give way to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell).

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary bear in mind in all these negotiations that the great majority of our people do not wish to see any extension of EU powers over this country, but rather a major repatriation of powers that we have surrendered to the EU to this sovereign Parliament?

Margaret Beckett: I simply say that I always view these exchanges on this matter with some irony, since I am well aware of the many, many Opposition Members who campaigned vigorously for a yes vote in 1975 when I campaigned for a no vote. All I can say is, “Don’t come crying to me.”

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Several hon. Members rose

Margaret Beckett: If hon. Members will forgive me, I will continue a little further with my speech.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: All right then.

Mr. Brady: I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s indication that foreign policy must be unanimous. Will she be equally clear that the Government would reject the amalgamation of the roles of external relations commissioner and external relations high representative, and say emphatically that we would oppose the creation of an EU diplomatic service?

Margaret Beckett: I will not confirm that, because there is a great deal to be said for a more efficient means of operation. We will do everything that we can to ensure that it is made clear that the common foreign and security policy is an intergovernmental policy and that we retain the rights and powers that we believe that we should have.

Several hon. Members rose

Margaret Beckett: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman for old times’ sake.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Foreign Secretary has stated that she campaigned against ratification in 1975. I was only three years old at the time, so I was unable to vote against it. Millions of people in this country under the age of 40 have never had a say over changes to our relationship with Europe. Surely the time has come to consult the British people—people of my generation—on whether we are prepared to hand over any more powers to the European Union.

Margaret Beckett: It was only because of a Labour Government that anyone had a chance to vote. The Conservative party took Britain into the European Community and, despite having said that that would not be done without the consent of either a general election or a referendum, no such commitment was honoured. Perhaps we are seeing double standards here.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone—nevertheless, it was apparently a surprise to some—that the United Kingdom is strongly in favour of an amending treaty, not a constitutional treaty. Indeed, I think the General Affairs Council as a whole has at least tacitly agreed that that is the only course that we can follow. The type of amending treaty to which the United Kingdom would agree should be no different in style or importance of content from those brought to this House by previous Governments, including previous Conservative Governments.

In the past, such treaties have never been subject to a national referendum. Indeed, the only national referendum that we have ever had in this country occurred after the decision to join the European Community in 1972. An amending treaty of the sort
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that I have described would not involve a decision on anything like the scale of the decision in 1972, which the British people endorsed in 1975. Let me be absolutely blunt with the House and with the country: the UK will not agree to a treaty in Brussels that we judge would require a referendum in this country.

It is worth repeating that any treaty that results from this European Council and any subsequent intergovernmental conference would, of course, be laid before Parliament, where it would be subject to extensive examination and debate. It could not be ratified until any necessary amendments to the European Communities Act 1972 had been passed by this House.

On one point, I suspect that the shadow Foreign Secretary and I agree—it will not be sufficient simply to change the title of the document. An amending treaty must be different from the constitutional treaty that preceded it in content, in form and in purpose.

The European Union as a whole must acknowledge, as this Government have done, that the reality on the ground has changed. We accepted the constitutional treaty, and we were prepared—indeed we were preparing—to recommend it to the British people. We thought it was, on balance, a good deal for Britain—incidentally, so did many of our European partners, in many cases with considerable frustration and regret. However, the treaty was rejected by the voters of France and the Netherlands, two founder members of the European Union, which not only changed things, but changed them dramatically.

The people of those countries had spoken, and the leaders of Europe had to take heed. So we embarked on a so-called “period of reflection”. During that time, we deliberately shifted the focus of the European Union back on to those things that we judge matter most to our citizens, not least through the informal summit at Hampton Court held during the UK presidency. We made it clear that our priority was not internal institutional wrangling, but the challenges of globalisation—climate change, energy security, jobs and growth. It would serve Europe very ill indeed if now, two years down the line, we acted as if we had simply not listened, as if the period of reflection counted for nothing and as if we wanted simply to turn the clock back to before summer 2005.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is making admirable efforts to distinguish what is on the table now from the treaty, but the reality is that Chancellor Merkel, Mr. Barroso and others are determined to get through what they had before either piecemeal or all in one go. My right hon. Friend is making the case strongly, but is it accepted in Europe and is this not just a way to manoeuvre ourselves past the possibility of a referendum?

Margaret Beckett: This is not a matter of manoeuvring. In the conversation on Sunday night among the General Affairs Council, it was clear that for a large number of member states that have ratified the constitutional treaty the notion of abandoning that treaty and instead having an amending treaty of the kind that we and others have suggested is extremely painful and difficult. Indeed, that idea has been resisted
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until this present time. We must all recognise what is required, if we are to reach an agreement over this weekend.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): If there is an agreement such that the Government feel able to say after the weekend that there will no longer be a need for a referendum, may I take it that that position will be made explicitly clear to the House next week? If so, will the Government, in view of the importance of parliamentary and public engagement on those matters, set out how Parliament will be involved in any process towards an intergovernmental conference under the Portuguese presidency, particularly if that might be held during the recess or shortly after the House resumes in the autumn?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend has made an important point, and I will certainly take heed of his concerns. I was about to send a note to the shadow Foreign Secretary and others who are particularly concerned stating that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement on Monday. I will not be here, because I have an engagement in the United States that I am unable to change. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) that my right hon. Friend is aware of his questions.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The Foreign Secretary is making a powerful and important speech. May I ask her a specific question? When she said that the Government will not accept any new treaty that would require a referendum in this country, did she include in that any new treaty that provides opt-outs for the United Kingdom but that ensures that many of the aspects of the original constitution are still in place for the rest of the European Union?

Margaret Beckett: The balance of treaty proposals is a judgment that we can make only at the weekend, when we will see the proposed amendments to the ideas advanced by the German presidency. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we can only make that judgment at that point.

If it comes down to deal or no deal at this European Council, the UK Government are clear, as I said on record in Brussels on Monday, that no deal might be better than buying any old pig in a poke.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend has said about the possibility of no deal. Does she agree that if other countries choose to put the revised treaty to their people in a referendum after a deal is done, the British people should also have that opportunity?

Margaret Beckett: No, I do not accept that. Apart from anything else—my hon. Friend may not be aware of this—the Irish Government have a constitutional requirement to have a referendum, so there is no question but that there will be at least one referendum. Whether there will be more than one is entirely another matter.

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As I said a little earlier, this Council meeting will also acknowledge the wider achievements of the German presidency: things that Europe’s citizens will actually see and feel. Those include an agreement to open up Europe’s energy market and make it more competitive, action to cut mobile phone charges, and sharing information between police forces to tackle cross-border crime. And, of course, at the last European Council in spring, we saw Europe at its best. The EU took a vital step not only in leading the global response to one of the greatest threats that we face—climate change—but in so doing beginning the process of creating the world’s first low-carbon and energy- efficient economy. If we make that transition successfully, it will mean that Europe, and the UK, will have a competitive economic advantage for perhaps a generation to come. Similarly, the EU has recently agreed the services directive, which is set to add £2.5 billion, and up to 135,000 jobs, to the UK’s economy.

So Europe as it now stands can deliver and is delivering. It would not be in crisis—it would not be paralysed—if no agreement on institutional reform were reached.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): If the European Union is working so well in the way that the Foreign Secretary describes, why do we need an amending treaty or any extension of majority voting?

Margaret Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman has perfect timing, if I may say so. We on the Labour Benches are absolutely clear that we want such an agreement because it would mean that Europe could deliver even better and more efficiently. It would not be a crisis if we were unable to secure an amending treaty, but it would be an opportunity missed.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: I will, but for the last time.

Mr. Chope: If Europe is working as well as the Foreign Secretary says, what harm could be done by putting the whole issue of whether we wish to retain our status as a member of the European Union to the British people in a referendum?

Margaret Beckett: I do not intend to get involved in yet another wrangle about whether Britain should leave the European Union, but I notice that the Conservatives are, as ever, perhaps not entirely of one mind on the matter.

When this Government came to power in 1997, we inherited from the Conservative party an acrimonious and stagnant relationship with our European Union partners in which Britain had mostly been represented by, at best, an empty chair, with our voice not even being heard. The rest of the European Union viewed us with a mixture of confusion and frustration. The result was that we had little or no influence in the European Union and could not lead the European debate in the directions that we wanted. The attitude that the Conservatives had then, which some clearly still hold, was not only an abdication of responsibility, and with
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it influence, but was based on a circular argument. So sure were they that Europe was a bad thing and that the UK could never achieve anything in the European Union that they very rarely did. That was, and is, a self-fulfilling prophecy that did immense damage to our national interest.

Under this Government, the position is very different.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must get on.

Last week, the French Minister for Europe, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, told Le Figaro:

Can anyone in this House imagine such an opinion being aired in Paris when the Conservatives ran this country’s European policy?

Mr. Hands: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: I will not do so any more.

Positive engagement leads to positive action: the biggest reform of the common agricultural policy for 50 years; reform, after 40 years, of the sugar regime; and, for the first time ever, a budget whereby similar-sized economies such as France and Italy are making payments on a par with our own, which, despite all Margaret Thatcher’s talk of rebates and hand-bagging, is something that the Conservatives never came even close to achieving. We have, for the first time, European security and defence policy missions beyond Europe’s borders. We have, as I said, bold action on climate security and energy security. Through the Hampton Court agenda, we have brought a new focus on reinvigorating the European economy and on investment in the future. Just last year, UK exports to continental Europe were up by 24 per cent. to £150 billion.

Over the next two days, the European Union has the opportunity to agree improvements that will make it work even better. If it takes that opportunity, Europe will be stronger and more effective. That would be good for this country and for the people of this country. This Government have always recognised that a strong UK in a strong Europe is the only way in which to face the challenges of the next decade and the next century. It is for exactly that—a strong UK in a strong Europe—that the Prime Minister and I will argue in Brussels.

1.15 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I have, as ever, listened with care to the words of the Foreign Secretary. The part of her speech when she reminded us that she was opposed to British membership of Europe in 1975, and that we should not therefore come crying to her about its faults, was said with some feeling, by contrast with the other parts of the speech, which were perhaps drafted in the Foreign Office and gave the rest of us a lecture about being more positive in our attitudes to engagement with the European Union.

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