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To achieve a settlement of the ongoing constitutional process of the EU that is based on the content of the constitutional treaty, possibly under a different presentation.
Mr. Hands: Yes. The answer is that the hon. Lady should be careful about throwing stones in glasshouses. If she looked at what the Socialist group of MEPs was presenting in terms of a deeply federal Europe, she would be genuinely alarmed. If I were her, I would more closely examine her own side first.
I have been looking at the timetable for the past six weeks in the lead-up to this crucial summit. I have been going through all the press releases put out by the German federal Government, the Bundesregierung, and comparing the movements of Angela Merkel and her wheeling and dealing to try to secure a deal on the European constitution with the complete lack of such activity by our own leaders.
I mentioned earlier that the German Chancellor had had one to one meetings with the leaders of Poland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania and so on. It is fascinating to compare what she was doing with what the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Deputy Prime Minister were up to at the same time. For example, when Angela Merkel was meeting the President of Poland, the Prime Ministers office was trailing that, as part of his legacy tour, he would love to go back on Blue Peter. When the German Chancellor was meeting the new French President, our Prime Minister was on a plane to Washington. Obviously, going to Washington would usually be important, but as part of a legacy tour, when the constitution is up for negotiation, where was he? When the German Chancellor met the Danish leader, Mr. Rasmussen, on 22 May, our Prime Minister was doing an interview with Brian Williams of NBC, talking about how popular he is in the United States. On it goes. When the German Chancellor was meeting the leaders of Sweden, Ireland and Belgium, our Prime Minister was in Sierra Leone.
I also had a quick look to see what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been doing. I went to his website, Gordon Brown for Britain, which includes a section called Follow Gordon that allows people to follow his progress around the UK. The site helpfully includes a huge map of Europe that extends to Slovenia, Sweden and Italy. However, the map of Europe is absolutely blank, because he has not made a single visit to Europe or met a single European leader in six weeks, other than his conversation with Mr. Sarkozy on the telephone, because he has been too busy shadow boxing at the Labour party hustings. At a time when we have no Government to represent us and fight our corner in Europe, our right to govern ourselves is being given away.
The Government have been incredibly evasive. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) asked the Foreign Secretary to come clean on what discussions she has had with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on the constitution. Her reply was brief, even by new Labour standards:
All these issues are discussed among all members of the Government at all times.[ Official Report, 5 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 119.]
A new treaty is to prevent gridlock within the EU, even with 27 or more member states.
There is significant evidence that there is no gridlock in the EU. I happen to sit on the European Scrutiny Committee, and every week we consider an enormous pile of documents, including the latest directives, Green Papers and White Papers from the Commission. I shall pick out three examples from recent weeks, because all the evidence indicates that there is no gridlock in the EU.
First, there are the foreign prisoner repatriation regulations. I got in there on the right of UK victims of crime to be told whether a foreign prisoner who has been repatriated will be released, which is a fundamental part of UK law on victims of crime. Unfortunately, that particular EU document does not contain any regulations about notifying victims of crime in the event of such a prisoner being released from a foreign jail.
Secondly, there is funding for integration and community cohesion. It stands to reason that the integration of minorities into societies and countries is, almost by definition, a job for nation states and national Governments. It is difficult to conceive how a supranational body can be in charge of integration, but there is a new EU integration fund. I agree with exchanging best practice, but for the EU to have competence on the integration of minorities is fundamentally wrong and potentially disastrous.
Thirdly, we have already heard about the European security and defence policy. An amazing document on the progress made on the ESDP during the German presidency came before the European Scrutiny Committee last week. It mentions civilian capabilities, military capabilities, the European capability action plan, various battle groups and operational activities. A group of countries is effectively behaving like a state through the ESDP.
I want briefly to discuss one subject other than the future of the EU, namely, our relations with Russia, which, surprisingly, have not been raised in this debate. Relations are certainly worsening, which is a problem. Last week, I was interviewed by a Russian business magazine, Profil, and the interviewer could not work out why people in the UK are upset about the Alexander Litvinenko affair. I had to explain that the man concerned was a UK citizenwhether or not one agrees with aspects of our asylum and immigration system, he was, nevertheless, a UK citizen, and he should have been protected by the UK Government. In my view, he was badly let down. A British citizen was assassinated in cold blood in a restaurant, hotel or bar somewhere in London by the use of a radioactive isotope, which is deadly serious in every sense.
In terms of our relations with Russia, the key area to consider is how we are engaging, or not engaging, with the countries of the former Soviet Union. Almost all the disputes that are happening between the west and Russia have at their heart countries from the former Soviet Unionthey concern the war memorial in Estonia, the direction of political change in Ukraine, energy through Ukraine and Belarus, Georgias bid to join NATO, oil deliveries to Lithuania, gas pipelines, and so on. Britain and the EU need to engage a lot more.
Finally, I want to throw out an idea that brings the two things together: whether it is possible for Russia to join the EU. I think that that is fundamentally possible. Are we going to say that Russia is the only country in Europethe only Orthodox country; the only Slav country with a Slavonic tonguethat cannot join the EU? We should seriously consider that, because it would do the EU an enormous amount of good, as would the accession of Turkey when the conditions are right. Obviously, an awful lot has to change.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who is, as we have all seen and heard, as educated, cerebral and dextrous a contributor to our debate as we could hope for on this important occasion.
I confess that my starting point is somewhat different. For 34 years, under successive Governments of both colours, Britain has been a member first, of the European Community, and subsequently, of the European Union. That is because a judgment was made that it was in our interests to be so. My view is that it remains in our interests for two principal and highly compelling reasons, the first economic and the second political. The economic argument has not fundamentally changedif anything, it has strengthened. The arguments made in support of initial entrythe opportunity of massively expanded trade, the creation of a vast new raft of jobs, the deregulation of markets and increased consumer choiceseem to me, if anything, more potent now than they were back in 1972. That is because, first, a great deal has been achieved since then in terms of liberalisation, consumer choice and competitive capitalism, and secondly, there was then a market of 250 million or 350 million people, but there is now a market of well-nigh 500 million people.
Secondly, there was and is a political reason for our membership. We were conscious, as we are now, of a huge number of challenges which, with good will and flexibility among member states, can be more effectively tackled together than if we insist on choosing to consider matters only for our individual constituent nations. In the process of trying to overcome some of the transnational problems that beset us, we seek also to promulgate and disseminate essentially democratic values that we nurture and cherish in this country, and which we recognise as underpinning the democracies of other member states of the European Union. The reality is that if one is in government, whatever the anxieties, frustrations and disappointments, one probably acknowledges that when it comes down to it and one has to make a choice, it is more sensible to be part of the European Union than not to be part of it or so to detach oneself from the mainstream as effectively to neuter ones influence. We can all make Eurosceptic speechesI have done so myself and can do it virtually in my sleepbut I would politely suggest that there is a difference between what one does when one is charged with the responsibilities of government and what one does, or says, when one languishes in the impotence of opposition. My personal view is that we should put the issue of membership to bed.
Let me underline the argument for the avoidance of doubt. Of no fewer than six Prime Ministers Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the present Prime Ministernone has seriously entertained for one moment the notion of exit or departure from the European Union. That is the starting point. We need to be in there, punching our weight and making a contribution. We need to try to be constructive at all times on every issue.
Kitty Ussher: Let me try to pursue the point that I attempted to make earlier, but to which I did not get an adequate answer. Following the hon. Gentlemans chain of logic, would it not be unwise for the Conservative party to leave the European Peoples party if that means that the Chancellor of Germany will not speak to his partys leader?
John Bercow: That is a fascinating intervention, to which I would happily respond in appropriate detail and with all my arguments marshalled on another occasion. If the hon. Lady is interested in joining me for a cup of tea, for which I am happy to pay, I am willing to debate the matter with her at another time. However, I shall not be diverted, even by the quick-wittedness of her interventions, from the central thrust of the argument on which I should like to focus.
The logical corollary of accepting the principle and practice of continued membership is recognition of the need to co-operate. There must be a basic pre-disposition for members of the European Union to try to co-operate. Moreover, co-operation in the European Union is not a one-off instance or an isolated act but a continuous and recurrent process, which is implicit in our commitment to membership. It is striking and interesting that several hon. Members from different parties have acknowledged the merit of co-operation but paid lip service to or genuflected at it. They have not gone on logically to develop the argument and to explain in what respects, for what reasons and in what instances co-operating is worth while.
Let me therefore give some examples of working together on a co-operative basis, which is indispensable for the future interests of the United Kingdom, irrespective of the outcome of the forthcoming Council meeting and any subsequent intergovernmental conference. First, let us consider defence co-operation. European Union countries spend approximately £250 billion a year on defence procurement. I should have thought that it logically followed from that state of affairs that it is worth trying to co-operate to achieve better value for money and interoperability of personnel and kit, and to safeguard and promote this countrys defence industrial base. That argument is almost unanswerable. Perhaps that can be done under existing arrangements and does not require an extension of legislative power, but one does not need to take an absolutist stance. The issue is how to advance and bolster the UKs interests.
Let us consider co-operation on energy policy. It is manifestly clear that it is to our advantage for energy policy purposes and in the attempt to combat climate change to try to pool our resources and hunt as a pack.
We all know that we need significantly to free up the energy market and that there is a commitment to try to ensure 20 per cent. renewables use in future. That requires collective action. We also know that there are huge gains to be made in energy efficiency. Several hon. Members have alluded to the reality that China is a growing power, that there are concerns about Iran, that India is an increasingly significant force in the world and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham pertinently reminded us, there is Russia.
Mr. Hands: On defence co-operation, it is worth thinking about a project such as the Tornado fighter, which was set up by four sovereign countries. Indeed, when it was first set up, Spain was not even a member of the EU, so it is perfectly possible to have co-operation and joint effort without having the EUbut my hon. Friend has already said that.
The point that I would like gently to underline to all colleagues is that one does not need to die in the ditch on an abstract principle, which is in a sense a violation of the Conservative tradition, unless one needs to do so.
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I hesitate to say this because I so rarely disagree with anything that my hon. Friend says. I am listening very carefully to his argument about the importance of co-operation. Does he agree that one of the biggest concerns of the people of this country is that all too often, co-operation within the EU is about doing deals behind closed doors? It feels to many people like decision-making power through their elected representatives is being taken away from them and becoming a process over which they have no control. Will my hon. Friend address that concern, about which many people feel strongly?
John Bercow: I understand the point, I recognise the concern and there is an extent to which I share it. I politely suggest to my hon. Friend, however, that that concern does not invalidate the merit of or need for co-operation. It underscores the importance of having greater transparency, which is partly a matter of scrutiny by this House. We need dramatically to improve our procedures in that regard and perhaps those of the EU as well.
I would like to warm to my theme of co-operation, which I think is true in respect of a number of aspects of the challenge to tackle crime. Cross-border crime, for example, is estimated to cost the EU something in the order of £20 billion a yeara huge sum of money. If we ask people, Do you want the European Union to control criminal justice policy? they will say no to that, but if we break down the issue into a series of bite-sized chunks, people are much more amenable to the argument. If we ask about the exchange of data, the contribution of Europol or the role of Eurojust, I
believe that there is growing recognition that it is simply not sensible to die in a ditch and insist on the preservation of complete independence where that independence tends to entail an element of impotence [Interruption.] Others have had their opportunity to contribute and I am going to develop my argument.
I happen to believe that asylum policy is also an area on which we should co-operate. It was referred to en passant by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who spoke from the Front Bench about the pursuit of a common European asylum policy as though that were somehow a bad thing. Actually, as I have been arguing for the last two years in pamphlets and elsewhere, it would be a good thing. Why? Asylum is a phenomenon that confronts all EU member states and a great many other countries to boot. If we want seriously and effectively to tackle the growing phenomenon of asylum shopping, to share the responsibility for people seeking sanctuary, and to sign up to and enforce the principle of non-refoulement, we need some sort of collective agreement.
Let me simply say that I do not know whether there will be a deal; I do not know whether it will be a deal worth having; and I do not know whether the House will judge it to be a worthwhile deal. What I do know is that the issues will not go away. We really have to take a hard-headed, pragmatic and self-interested view of how we can advance the cause of United Kingdom plc.
I strongly agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) had to say. The Commission is too large and it should be reduced. I happen to think that merging two rolesof the High Representative and the External Affairs Commissionerthat currently operate entirely separately would, as my hon. Friend suggested, make a great deal of sense. Like my hon. Friend, I am a member of the International Development Committee and I believe that it is manifest and arrant nonsense for the European Union to be represented by two separate individuals giving conflicting impressions. I also think that the rotating presidency as it operates at the moment is corrosive of the interests of the EU and, yes, we can look for a simpler, better and more efficient deal in terms of qualified majority voting.
There is a slightly neurotic strand to some of the critics arguments. On the one hand, people are hugely critical of the European Union and flay it at every turn, but on the other, when suggestions for reform, improvement, transparency and efficiency are made, they then seem somehow to retreat into the laager that suggests that any change must necessarily be for the worst. That seems to be a mistake.
Let us return to the best tradition of British foreign policy making, which entails a degree of pragmatism, of jealous regard for the national interest, and of recognition of the need for flexibility. The British national interest should come first, second and third in our deliberations over the next few weeks, and in the months and years ahead.
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