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This six-monthly reunion is a poignant moment. It comes at the end of what was supposed to be a period of reflection that turned into a comedy hour reminiscent of the “Dead Parrot” sketch in “Monty Python”. The EU is trying to breathe new life into a dead parrot. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) said that Europe
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was being led in a new direction, but the truth is that it is being led back into the dead-end street that it tried and failed to enter in 2004.

The period of reflection became a prelude to the attempt to give a new birth certificate to what is nominally a new constitution. The German Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, has made what is happening absolutely clear. She has taken away the trimmings of the constitution, and put up some sops for the British Government to knock down easily, as long as they accept the substance of the proposals—which bring back the old constitution in the new form of a treaty. In fact, the old constitution was a treaty too, and the new proposals adopt the same form.

Of course, the word “constitution” is not used. To my great regret, the national anthem of the EU has gone too. I have a great fondness for Beethoven’s Ninth, which was also the national anthem of the failed Rhodesian state under Iain Smith. It has been misused many times, by Europe and various other entities, but I like the music and regret its deletion.

However, dropping the trimmings means nothing, as the promised treaty creates a legal entity to which this country will surrender some of its sovereign powers. We are bringing in by the back door what the electors in France and Holland threw out by the front. Our electors, if allowed to, would do the same.

I cannot see why the German Chancellor is going down this path, as Germany’s economic problems have been caused by the euro. As the dollar falls, the euro is bound to rise, thus making German industry and exports less competitive. The funny money flowing out of the dollar will go into the euro, and the consequential economic damage in Germany, which is already precluded from having the big expansion of demand needed to stimulate its economy, will be severe. Instead of dealing with Germany’s real problem, however, Mrs. Merkel is determined to go down the dead-end street that is the constitution and give the kiss of half life to the dead treaty.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the German economy is currently growing at 2.7 or 2.8 per cent. per annum? That is roughly the same as the British economy.

Mr. Mitchell: Certainly, and I am also aware that the Germans are already trying to deflate their economy by increasing value-added tax.

Mr. Davies indicated dissent.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, that has had a deflationary effect. I am alarmed by the rise in the euro. It will go on, because the dollar will continue to fall, and it is a simple statement of fact that a higher euro will damage the German economy. It has certainly damaged the French economy, and Germany exports a lot to France, so the two countries are tied together to that extent.

All the arguments for trying to revive the dead treaty have been put forward today, although the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk added some new ones, saying that we must agree to the new proposal in order to help Kosovo and deal with
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Hamas. I had not thought those matters were pertinent to the constitution, but all the other arguments are being trundled out.

Yet Europe moves in mysterious ways, even if it does not perform any wonders, and what has been happening is a perfect illustration of that. The EU constitution is an artefact and product of the European elite, who for a long time have imposed their views on the people of Europe. If the European people do not like the elite’s views, that is too bad: if they vote against a treaty, let them have another referendum and give them a chance to rethink. Alternatively, the result of the original referendum can be interpreted as a vote on another issue, and not on the pristine beauties of the constitution.

The constitution is an elite artefact and committing our country to it is to commit ourselves to the sort of imposition that I have described. It is the opposite of democracy; it is plutocracy as a system of government gone mad.

Mr. David: Will my hon. Friend clarify whether he is arguing against the treaty changes or against the EU?

Mr. Mitchell: I do not see why such a clarification is necessary. The tenor of my argument is that the constitution is unnecessary, and that it is being foisted on British and European opinion in an attempt to reintroduce it by the back door without a referendum. If that is not clear, I despair. The argument is not about the EU: it is about whether we should go further down the dead-end street of a stultifying constitution that will increase the power of the centre and diminish the sovereignty of the EU’s component parts. That is the essence of my argument.

No doubt at the end of the day, there will be a treaty called a constitution that will go further towards creating a Eurostate as a legal entity, which will mean further sacrifices of UK sovereignty. Our Government said that there are four red lines that must not be crossed—ils ne passeront pas. Unfortunately, they are an attenuated version of the six red lines we laid down in 2004, and although we did not actually achieve them then the Prime Minister still accepted the constitution and signed it. Now we are down to four red lines and I fear they will be surrendered just like the others. Two of the 2004 red lines have already been surrendered by acceptance of the constitution.

We have accepted even more than that in our efforts to show good will to Europe. At the end of the British presidency we accepted a doubling of our net contribution over the next seven years, which will be a horrendous burden on the British economy, yet it was blithely accepted in return for concessions on the common agricultural policy that we cannot obtain because it will not be renegotiated until 2013. That indicates a state of mind about Europe that gives me no great faith in the stand that is being taken.

A report from the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies analysed and compared the comments of European leaders. It noted:

that is, Iraq—

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That describes a very unsuccessful performance, which I hope will not be repeated at the dawn of socialism next Thursday.

Kelvin Hopkins: Would not the Prime Minister have been much better in the game if he had chosen not to make a deal on the budget last time and taken a stronger line with Europe?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is exactly right. We would have been in a stronger negotiating position now if we had not been waffling about whether to have a referendum but had said adamantly that we would put the treaty to a referendum of the British people. It would have been clear that we would never get the British people to accept large chunks of the constitution, so as unanimous agreement was needed our negotiating position would have been stronger and the demands on the British Government would have been less. Our inability to take a firm negotiating position has weakened us all along.

I was not excited by the statement of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that we shall not agree to any treaty that requires a referendum. The Prime Minister has already told us—last week—that the treaty does not require a referendum so there will not be one, thereby abdicating the position before we had even reached it. We should have insisted on a referendum, because that is necessary for any sacrifice of the sovereignty and powers of the British people. We are giving up their powers, not ours. We are abdicating our responsibilities to them.

I regret the fact that in consideration of matters European the Labour party and, to a degree, the House do not speak for England. Our Euro-enthusiasm does not represent the people of the UK. I know that critics say that the people of this country are misled by Murdoch and Dacre, but that is to assume that the people are fools. In fact, they have basic instincts about Europe and they want no further surrender of powers. If we reckon to abdicate those powers without consulting the people we shall produce alienation and division that will tell against us in the long term.

My fear is that we shall climb down, as we did in 1939. Once again, Poland is on the front line. We are not even promising to come its aid this time, although it would be commendable if we did so; we are leaving the fighting to Poland and not putting up a very convincing argument.

Next week we shall probably discover that the red lines have turned orange and possibly even green, because Europe is reinventing itself as an environmental organisation that will lead the battle against climate change. The Government have the voting strength to put through almost anything they want, but if they accept the treaty that calls itself a constitution two problems will arise. First, we shall weaken UK sovereignty and hand over to the European state powers that belong to the British people. We shall strengthen the development of a European superstate and frustrate the possibility, which exists at present, of Europe developing along a new path, of looser and more flexible associations that are appropriate to a Europe of 27, and not a Europe dominated by France and Germany as it has always been. I want Europe to develop in a natural fashion, not
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to have solutions imposed on it by the European bureaucracy and the two dominant powers—France and Germany.

The second problem, which is more important for us, is that we shall increase the alienation of the British public. They no longer believe us and our conversations and statements about Europe are one of the main reasons why they do not believe politicians. We promise one thing but another thing happens. We talk in incomprehensible gobbledegook about transferring powers from an intergovernmental pillar to a bill of rights that is not a bill of rights, and to a court that will not adjudicate on them—although it almost certainly will. The whole dialogue is incomprehensible, and what the public see is a betrayal of their deepest instincts, which are not enthusiastic about Europe. The public are sceptical; they are saying, “Thus far and no further”, which is what we should be saying about the treaty.

2.57 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Listening to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), my great personal friend of more than 20 years, with whom I share almost 25 years coterminous service in the House, I reflected that this is the first time that we have spoken back to back. He will understand me when I say that the ghost missing from this feast is Sir Julian Critchley—we miss him much.

Although as I speak from an unashamedly pro-European perspective I largely and fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman, there is none the less a sense in British politics and in wider European politics that one door has closed, or is closing, and another one could be opening. The closing door is the ending of the Blair premiership, mirrored by recent events on the continent—the leadership changes in France, Germany and Italy, and even in Belgium—and the failed referendums following the earlier votes cast by the French and the Dutch.

As has been said before, despite the big obstacles that face us, Europe now has the potential for a fresh start. We have heard that phrase many times over the years, but we now have a real opportunity, although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the terminology and conduct of the debate, and the incomprehensibility of much of it, is in itself enough to put people off, never mind judging the merits or demerits of particular arguments. We need the arguments to be properly engaged, especially those of us on the pro-European side, because we have too often been guilty of allowing much of the case to go by default.

It is not good enough for us to lament the fact that we have a Eurosceptic press in this country, because Parliament could be doing a lot of things—they were referred to during the Foreign Secretary’s speech—that would improve the substance and quality of the debate about Europe. For example, we could have a regular designated European issues day on the Floor of the House, where many of the things that go through, and are never reported or analysed properly outside certain hard-working Committees and never really get the intensity of scrutiny that they should command, could be much more in the public gaze. We could have a Secretary of State for Europe operating at Cabinet level. I certainly agree that it would be extraordinary if
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the Minister for Europe were not at the summit. I hope that he can confirm that he will definitely attend, because it would be strange indeed were he not to do so.

Let us consider our own procedures in the House. I remember being here for Question Time one Monday afternoon at half-past two, all those years ago. The Berlin wall had come down that weekend. William Waldegrave was the Minister at the Dispatch Box and an emergency request was moved by my colleague at the time, Russell Johnston MP, as he then was, saying that surely the House of Commons could debate the implications of that monumental development, which was way beyond our wildest imaginings—but alas no. Speaker Weatherill was very sympathetic, but the procedures of the British House of Commons did not allow us to discuss in the mother of Parliaments the fall of the Berlin wall the Monday after the weekend it happened. We are right to make our critiques of Europe, but we should look in the mirror sometimes and consider the way in which we do things here, as well.

Mr. Hands: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned that. I also checked the Hansard for the debates in the weeks following the fall of the Berlin wall. Will he confirm that the first person to call for the new eastern European democracies, as they were to become, to join the European Union, was my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), the current chairman of the Conservative party?

Mr. Kennedy: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct and I am happy to say so. Without wishing to be over-partisan, I have to say that that shows a clearer reading of the situation following the fall of the Berlin wall, vis- -vis the former East Germany and West Germany, than Mrs. Thatcher achieved at the time—if the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) recalls his history.

Mr. David: On the point about improving the procedures of the House, does the right hon. Gentleman think that it might be worth exploring the possibility of establishing a European Grand Committee to bring together Members of this House and of another place, Members of the European Parliament and perhaps our British Commissioner from time to time?

Mr. Kennedy: In the words of the song, “What a swell party that is.” Anything that gave greater legitimacy to those with an elected parliamentary position—or I suppose, where the House of Lords is concerned, an as yet unelected parliamentary position—and enabled them to come together and scrutinise what is coming out of the European Commission would be a healthy development. Under the new Prime Minister—I want to refer to him in a moment—we may see some more imaginative thinking in that respect.

There is no doubt that every British premiership—of successive parties—since de Gaulle famously first said “Non” to Macmillan has been profoundly affected by
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Britain’s role in Europe. We saw that with the success of Edward Heath in getting us in and with Harold Wilson’s machinations in holding his party together while Callaghan carried out the supposed renegotiation—whether it was or was not—and the referendum that followed. We saw it with Mrs. Thatcher’s rather schizophrenic relationship with Europe. She was the person who pushed through the single market—in reality, probably something more far reaching than anything that will be decided this coming weekend—but at the same time she was an arch Eurosceptic. We saw it with John Major, who started out by being friends with Helmut Kohl and by saying that we must be at the heart of Europe but who ended up in the quagmire of Maastricht. Those of us who were involved remember that night without end, when the Conservative nightwatchmen, in particular, kept the House going and going—quite properly—using parliamentary procedures to put their case.

In terms of the coming summit and the change of premiership in our country that accompanies it, I want to point out that the present Prime Minister missed two golden opportunities if not to finalise, certainly to largely settle down much of the European debate in domestic British politics. Following the 1997 general election victory, I think he could have carried a referendum on Europe. That is also true of the 2001 general election victory. The referendum might have been on the principle of a single currency or, later on, the issue of a constitution. Either way, he would have carried the case. More lately, British politics has been largely a case of waiting for Gordon. However, with the current Prime Minister, it has been a case of “Waiting for Godot” in so far as European policy has been a two-act play—the only problem is nothing happened twice. I hope that the new Prime Minister will learn that lesson.

The present Prime Minister became a bit like the Grand Old Duke of York. He kept assembling all the pro-European forces from across the political spectrum and outside formal party politics. He marched us up to the top of the hill on more than one occasion, only to march us all down again. It was dispiriting and a great waste of time. My neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), who was involved with Britain in Europe, will remember as vividly as I do the high hopes at the launch in December 2001. What became of it all? It was a campaign, but it did not appear to have a figurehead or a cause, even though there was so much talent available.

Broadly speaking I endorse the Government’s red lines and their stance on the referendum generally—that is, I did until I heard the Foreign Secretary today. I do not know whether this is deliberate or whether it is simply a cock-up, but over the last week every time a Minister, from the Prime Minister downwards, has opened their mouth about a referendum—this could be clever, subtle tactics, although I have to say I am not sure about that—the picture has become more muddied. Every utterance seems hellbent on sowing more seeds of confusion about the Government’s position.

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