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20 Jun 2007 : Column 1392

No doubt there are some areas of agreement between what the Foreign Secretary said and the case that I want to put to the House. Nevertheless, as she acknowledged at the beginning of her speech, matters have now moved on sufficiently in European affairs that we have all had to prepare a new speech for this occasion. Very important things may be about to happen in the European Union over the next few days. Tomorrow, the European Union’s Heads of State and Government meet to try to negotiate a treaty of fundamental importance to the EU’s future. The European constitution, which was emphatically and rightly rejected by French and Dutch voters two years ago, is in many substantial senses being revived. That constitution was, as the Belgian Prime Minister put it at the time, the “capstone” of a “federal...state”. The German Europe Minister of the time said that it was the

If the Government accept parts of that constitution under another guise, let us be clear that they risk taking another significant step away from what the European Union ought to be—a community of nations working together intimately for mutual benefit—and towards the integrated state that some in Europe honestly wish for, but that has never been the desired goal of the people of Britain.

The Government’s response to the efforts of other Governments to revive the constitution has been, in our view, truly extraordinary. As French and German leaders have proclaimed their views and sherpas have rushed round EU capitals, our Government have spent a great deal of time denying that any negotiations have been taking place. That has demonstrated neither forethought nor leadership. After the constitution’s rejection there was, understandably—the Foreign Secretary referred to it—a pause for reflection. There has since been a debate about Europe’s future to which the Government have made no notable contribution over the past two years.

I believe that this will go down in history as one of the great wasted opportunities for Britain to set the terms of debate on Europe’s future. The federalists had seen their great achievement—a constitution for Europe, to which this Government agreed—rejected by the voters. It was clear that the goal of ever closer political union was out of tune with what many of the peoples of Europe wanted. That was the time for British leadership to push for the only model of European Union that can work for all of Europe in the long term—a flexible, open Europe. It was time to look again at some failing policies.

Today’s Europe is ready, in large parts and for the first time, to listen to that alternative vision. Enlargement has profoundly changed the dynamics of the European Union. Countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland do not want ever closer political union; they have been calling for a different direction. In the Netherlands, political leaders have reflected deeply on the referendum result and the relationship between the European Union and the nation state. Yet instead of taking the lead, the Government have buried their head in the sand for most of the past two years. On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary said on the BBC that she now finds the prospect of the summit “nerve-wracking”—not something to strike terror into other
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countries’ negotiators, I am afraid. This should have been a time for a confident British Government to give a lead to those who question the need for a new treaty.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would expand on exactly what constitutes an open Europe before moving to personal attacks. I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s views and he knows that I like his writing, too. Are you saying that you wish to repudiate the Single European Act and Mrs. Thatcher’s work in Europe? Is that what you mean by going back?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am not saying anything. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman means the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

Mr. Hague: No, I do not repudiate the Single European Act. I do not make personal attacks on the Foreign Secretary; I merely make personal teasers now and again, simply to pick up on her comments from time to time. I am not one for personal attacks.

I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that there is a strong case—which I have set out in lengthy speeches; I am happy to send him copies—for a more open and flexible model of the European Union, which allows some powers to come back to the nation states of Europe and some powers to pass down from the European Union to the nation states. The Czech Government are asking for that in proposing their flexibility clause. There is a different model and this country should be its champion.

Angus Robertson: Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the Conservative party’s position on fisheries? It has done a flip-flop on its policy on that subject in the past 12 months. Is it in favour of withdrawing from the common fisheries policy? That was the position just over a year ago.

Mr. Hague: We want great change in the European Union’s fishing policies because the CFP has been a disaster environmentally and economically. We have ruled nothing out in the way in which we achieve those changes. We will have more to say about that in future.

Ms Gisela Stuart: I agree with some of the right hon. Gentleman’s ideas on the way to create a reformed European Union. When did his party leader last discuss them with Mrs Merkel?

Mr. Hague: My right hon. Friend will have discussed them when he met Mrs Merkel during the leadership election. I discussed them with her when I met her in Berlin last year. My right hon. Friend discussed those plans with other European leaders such as Mr. Sarkozy, who has since become the President of France. There is no shortage of discussion between the Conservative party and European leaders. Indeed, those discussions moved Mr. Sarkozy to send a good wishes message to the Conservative party conference last year. The hon. Lady need not worry about such matters.

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Mr. Hands: I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Government have had their heads in the sand. That is especially true in recent weeks, when according to the diary of the Bundesregierung website, Mrs Merkel held one-to-one meetings with the Polish leader—on 15 May—the French leader, the Danish leader and the Swedish leader, and also had discussions with Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania and so on. Meanwhile, our Prime Minister has been on a legacy tour and failed to stand up for Britain’s interests when he was most needed in the past six weeks.

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend makes the fair point that the farewell tour has distracted the Prime Minister.

Margaret Beckett: Let me make two points. First, extensive conversations have taken place on the telephone—which exists—between the German Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman might have noticed that the Prime Minister attended the G8 meeting.

Mr. Hague: Now we know that conversations have taken place, but they are distinct from negotiations in the Foreign Secretary’s world. Earlier, she said that discussions had taken place about the future of the constitution, and now she says that there have been conversations. That sounds suspiciously like negotiations, which she denies, to the rest of us.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): My right hon. Friend refers to conversations and discussions, but we require action. It was noticeable that the Foreign Secretary was unable to give an example of what she has done during her tenure and Great Britain’s presidency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government could have achieved the introduction of a common European gas market, which would have helped control gas prices in the UK, especially given that Russia has an increasing influence over prices?

Mr. Hague: That is another thing that people may seek. I do not claim that the Government have achieved nothing. Under the German presidency, with our Government’s encouragement, an important achievement, to which the Foreign Secretary referred, was made at the European summit a few months ago on climate change. However, on constitutional change and the run-up to the summit, the Government have not made the case for an alternative vision of the future of Europe.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hague: The debate is becoming a Conservative party Question Time, which is premature, although it will be necessary in future. I shall therefore give way only once or twice again.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): The thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s critique of the Government is rightly the proper use of British influence. If, in due course, he found himself occupying the post of Foreign Secretary and exercising powers and authority on behalf of a future British Government, his early days would be dominated by his leader’s wish
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to withdraw from the European People’s party and cast the new amorphous and intriguing group that might emerge from the British Conservatives in the European context. Will he give us a wee update on how he is getting on with that interesting scenario?

Mr. Hague: Speaking of amorphous groupings, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is one of the Liberal Democrats who is looking to be in the Cabinet next week. That grouping would be very amorphous. Perhaps his interest in how a Foreign Secretary should behave is partly motivated by those negotiations.

Mr. Kennedy: For the record, given that we are both former leaders, I am delighted to say that answering such questions is now well above my pay grade, as it is above the right hon. Gentleman’s.

Mr. Hague: I see. The right hon. Gentleman’s successor as party leader might agree to his joining the Cabinet. That is especially interesting. The Conservative party’s commitment to forming a new group in the European Parliament with our Czech colleagues in 2009 is categorical. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will show even more interest in it at that time.

Mr. Frank Field: The shadow Foreign Secretary has made much of an open Europe policy, which devolves power downwards. Does he accept that there are instances when power should be centred in Europe and that the way to build a new Europe is on an agenda such as climate change, on which there is agreement in Europe that sovereignty sometimes needs to be given to a greater authority? That is the way to build a new Europe—on an agenda of genuine issues rather than the theoretical basis with which the bureaucrats endlessly confront us.

Mr. Hague: I largely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Climate change should form an important part of building a genuine European agenda. However, he should not believe that that means that more power should be located in the European Union. The Foreign Secretary told the European Scrutiny Committee last week that everything on climate change

That is the way to proceed. Institutional change is not required.

Mr. Cash: I am much encouraged to hear my right hon. Friend say that we want some repatriation of powers, which is crucial. However, that poses the question of how we can achieve that, because we also want to achieve economic competitiveness. If we could not achieve our objectives through negotiation with other member states by tackling the problem through invading the acquis, will he reconfirm the party’s vote last year on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, in this House and in this House of Lords, to override the European Communities Act 1972 when necessary and require the judiciary to obey the latest inconsistent Act of the Westminster Parliament?

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Mr. Hague: In that vote, we simply recognised what we understand as the constitutional position, which the Prime Minister restated last week: that the House has ultimate sovereignty. However, it is not necessary to expand on that further today.

The Government are again faced with substantial parts of the constitution, which they privately but forlornly hoped would go away if they said nothing about it. The German presidency’s approach was spelled out in the questionnaire that it sent to European capitals a few weeks ago. It referred to preserving the substance of the constitution while making the necessary presentational changes. Such an approach is a profound mistake. I think that the Foreign Secretary believes that it is a mistake. As the Laeken declaration in December 2001 recognised, the crucial question is how the EU can be brought closer to its peoples. There can be no surer way of worsening the democratic deficit and disconnection between EU institutions and peoples than ignoring the verdict of the voters.

There are those who say that the EU is a project pushed forward by a political elite who do not care what ordinary people want because they think they know better, so what better way to confirm that argument than by saying that if the people democratically reject the EU constitution, we will just bring it back with a few presentational tweaks? If people do not feel ownership over the EU, they will steadily turn against it, which would not be in Britain’s or Europe’s interest. Further political integration must have the people’s permission. In our view, political integration has already gone too far. Either way, however, it should be for the British people to decide.

The Prime Minister appeared to recognise that when he agreed that there should be a referendum on the EU constitution. He famously discovered his reverse gear—we all watched him doing it in the House in April 2004—by saying, “Let battle be joined”. With the zeal of a convert, he gave cast-iron assurances that the British people would have their say. During the general election campaign, he told The Sun:

and that, he told The Sun, was “a Government promise”. He went even further by saying:

The Government have absolutely no democratic mandate to bring in parts of the constitution without a referendum of the British people. That is why, if there is a new treaty that transfers competences from Britain to the EU by bringing back parts of the constitution, we are clear that there must be referendum. That must apply whether the transfer of competence is handed over on day one of the new treaty or whether a ratchet effect is initiated that will see power shift to the EU as decisions and judgments are made over the years.

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Did the Maastricht treaty transfer competences to Brussels?

Mr. Hague: It most certainly did, and I shall make three points here. First, the Minister is clearly trying to make a point about consistency. He will recall that
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Labour MPs voted for a referendum on that occasion, so the argument about consistency can be made either way. Secondly, I remind the Minister that the most important thing in the treaty was the provision to join the euro if the Government wished it in the future—and on that, the Government of the time offered a referendum. Thirdly, I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the situation is different now from what it was 15 years ago because the arguments have changed and the peoples of this and other countries have moved on in their belief that political integration has now gone far enough. That is why further political integration requires their democratic consent.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I was one Member who voted against the Maastricht treaty and who wanted a referendum. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it might help Labour Members who want a referendum if any changes are made to give more powers to Europe if he admitted that sometimes the Conservative party as well as the Labour party can get it wrong? Perhaps the Conservatives were wrong not to allow a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

Mr. Hague: I readily admit that politicians of all parties get things wrong, but I would have to give longer thought to the particular question of whether we were wrong about Maastricht. As I said, however, the consistency argument can be levelled against the Minister for Europe, but the hon. Lady has made her point.

The Government’s position on whether there should be a referendum is more than a little unclear, and the Foreign Secretary has just added a twist to it in her speech. Perhaps the Minister for Europe will be able to expand on it when he winds up the debate. The Prime Minister has said that there will not be a referendum on the treaty. The Foreign Secretary said a few days ago—despite having stood on a manifesto promising a referendum—that she preferred a model of Government without referendums. I believe that she said yesterday to the Select Committee that we would be able to tell on Monday whether it would be necessary to have a referendum, but today she has said that the Government will not agree to anything that requires a referendum in their judgment, which means, of course, that it will not be necessary to work anything out on Monday. There are several contradictory statements there.

The Chancellor has said that we will have to wait and see and the Minister for Europe, who is now being touted as the Chancellor’s close ally—I have to tell him, however, that the Chancellor has about 330 close allies on the Government Benches at the moment, all hoping for what the right hon. Gentleman is hoping for next Thursday afternoon, namely, a telephone call with encouraging news—says that it will all depend on the final package. What is the Government’s view? Will they keep or break their promise? Will they let the British people decide or will they try to ignore them?

While they are at it—again, the Minister could deal with this in his winding-up speech—can someone in the Government clear up another intriguing point in their position? Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made much of the fact that the new treaty will not have the “characteristics of a
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constitution”, but what are those characteristics? The Government have persistently refused to say what those characteristics are. It is wholly illogical to claim that a treaty does not require a referendum because it fails to pass the test of characteristics, and then be totally unable to say what that test is. That is wholly of a piece with the Government’s utterly confused and disjointed approach to this matter.

The Government have had eight different policies in the past seven years. In 2000, the Prime Minister explained:

In 2002, he said that

By 2003, the current Northern Ireland Secretary was saying it was just a “tidying-up exercise”, and not important enough for a referendum. Later that year, the Prime Minister said that holding a referendum would be

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