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The Governments position on a referendum has shifted back and forth. In announcing a referendum on
the original European constitution back in April 2004, the Prime Minister clearly stated:
Parliament should debate it in detail and decide upon it. Then let the people have the final say.[ Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c.157.]
We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign whole-heartedly for a yes vote.
Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend please be a little less kind to the Prime Minister? The history of the referendum is nonsense. The Prime stalwartly upheld the principle that one should not hold referendums until the press pushed him into saying that he would have one. He used precisely the same arguments for both positions. One either believes in referendums, in which case one holds them, or one does notas I do notso one does not hold them. One cannot have them when it is convenient and not have them when it is inconvenient.
Mr. Francois: I hear what my right hon. Friend says but, for the past 10 years, this country has been graced with a Prime Minister who can passionately believe several different things at the same time. So, at first, the Prime Minister adamantly opposed a referendum, then he was adamantly in favour of letting the people have their say. Now he is adamantly against a referendum because that suits his purposes. I am not responsible for his mental machinations. [Interruption.] That is for others to judge. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is worried that I am being too nice to the Prime Minister, if he will just wait two minutes, I will resolve his worry.
Mr. Francois: I will come on to that in just a moment. Now that the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has finally joined us, let me say that I was hoping that he might turn up. I have with me a copy of an interview that he gave to the New Statesman on 13 December 2004. I quote the article:
MacShane admits that he was won over after a Commons debate in which not a single speaker discussed the substance of the constitutional treaty, but merely the question of whether people were to be given a say. When the Liberal Democrats demanded that it be put to a vote, I turned to Jack and said, Jack, were
Weve got to go for a referendum. I dont think we can hold out.
Let me focus briefly on the position of the Minister for Europe. He was Secretary of State for Europe for 15 minutes, but he is the Minister for Europe now. At the weekend, he effectively defied No. 10, hinting that there might be a case for a referendum after all. He told the BBC:
Clearly a judgment has got to be made in terms of what is in the final package. It is important not to prejudge the outcome of the negotiations.
That is what he said last Saturday on The World this Weekend. Subsequently, that was brutally contradicted in a No. 10 briefing, which described that suggestionif you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speakeras
a load of old cobblers.
Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Government would probably be able to give a decision on whether or not to call for a referendum by Mondaypresumably when the Prime Minister makes his post-summit statement to the House. We would welcome that clarity, but I noticed that in her opening speech, the Foreign Secretary appeared to be rowing back slightly from that position, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks picked up earlier.
In the meantime, whom are we to believe? Is it the Prime Minister, who now seems firmly opposed to a referendum? Is it the Chancellor, who is now apparently committed to open and transparent Government, but who remains as opaque as ever on this question, as indeed he was yesterday morning on GMTV? Is it the Foreign Secretary, who I am afraid to say is struggling to remain in the loop at all on this, or is it the Minister for Europe who is tacking between No. 10 and No. 11, just struggling to remain in a job? [Interruption.] While we have the Minister for Europes attention, when he replies, will he tell us whether he is going to the European Council or not? Given that he is supposed to be the Minister for Europe, some of us would like to know whether he is going to be present. Perhaps he could provide a simple yes or no answer on that!
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): This will be better than a mention in a trade magazine. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that in the unlikely event of a Conservative Government, each time there is an additional alteration in the management and stewardship of the European Union, that Government would, on every occasion, put the matter to a referendum?
Mr. Francois: Our positionI will reiterate it later, but the hon. Gentleman has asked me nowis that if the new treaty represents any further transfer of powers from Westminster to the European Union, we demand that it be put to the British people in a referendum. I hope that that is quite clear.
Mr. Francois: No, I am not giving way again. The hon. Gentleman has had his go. I gave way to him, not least because he is a fellow Essex colleague, but I have just made quite clear what our policy is.
Mr. Francois: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that I am not courteous, but it is not courteous for someone to turn up an hour before the end of a debate and to start intervening on people when he has not even attended for most of it. [Interruption.]
Mr. MacShane: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been waiting at Milan airport for four hours trying to get back because a plane did not deliver me. The hon. Gentleman is therefore doubly discourteousand not for the first time.
Mr. Francois: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Having flown to Italy several times because of my mothers family, I realise that there are a number of problems with Italian air traffic control, but I am not responsible for them any more than the right hon. Gentleman is.
Given the apparent confusion of the Government, we might wish to bear in mind the perspective of a senior Foreign Office official who was quoted in The Sunday Times last week. He told the newspaper that he sat in on the weekly strategy meetings relating to all this, which started as long ago as Christmas. He stated that the bottom line for the Chancellor of the Exchequer was to avoid having a referendum at all costs. As the official put it,
We cant have one because wed lose. Its that simple.
The whole process has been badly handled from the start, and the House has largely been kept in the dark until almost the last moment. We in the House and those in the nation outside are now left in the unenviable position of seeing an unpopular Prime Minister at the fag-end of his premiership playing games with our birthright in a desperate search for any legacy at all other than Iraq. We are witnessing what amounts to a deception of the British people as a result.
Even Valéry Giscard dEstaing, who led the original constitutional convention that devised the original treatyand whom even the Minister for Europe would struggle to describe as a Eurosceptichas been scathing about the methods being employed to mask the true nature of this new document. He said in Le Monde on 14 June:
The public are being led, without knowing it, to adopt the proposals we dare not put to them directly.
The question is whether or not a package of fairly weighty changes that will undoubtedly affect Europes shape and destiny shouldin this country at any ratebe decided in a referendum. The answer is simple: it should and it must.
The Governments game plan is now fairly evident for all to see. Whatever is agreed at the EU Council, they will declare it a great victory. They will insist that their red lines remain fully intact and say that such a tidying-up exercise, as they would describe it, does not require a referendum. I do not believe that the British people are so gullible as to believe that; they will see the stitch-up for exactly what it is. In contrast, our position remains clear. If this new treaty, whatever it is to be called, represents any further transfer of power from Britain to the EU, we will demand that the people of this country be allowed to have their say in a free and fair referendum.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Todays debate on the forthcoming meeting of the European Council has been lively, familiar and only occasionally repetitive. Despite what the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, I have heard his speech before. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) observed that it was a single transferable speech. I suspect that most of us could have recited the speech made by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) for him; I have certainly heard it a number of times before, starting as long ago as the Maastricht debate, when he was at the extreme edge of what was then a pro-European Conservative party. He now occupies the centre ground of what has, sadly, become an anti-European party. At least he can say that he has been consistent, however, which is not something that can be claimed for his Front Bench with any confidence.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and for Buckingham (John Bercow). They are rare and exotic creatures these days, in that they are pro-European Conservatives who are prepared to speak up. It is rather sad to see the emasculation of the pro-European Conservatives. Even the noble Lord Heseltine ducked a question on Europe on the Today programme the other day.
I might have begun to think that such pro-Europeans were extinct, had it not been for the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) bobbing up and down and asking good questions, if I may say so. He has experience of government, however, and he knows that these questions on constitutional change are important. The Conservative party needs to think about that. If it claims that it wants to be a party that seeks to protect our environment, it must recognise that
it might be necessary to change the rules in order to do so. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal has had that experience, and understands that one country out of 27 blocking measures to deal with climate change is a totally effective way of stopping the kind of progress that is necessary. The Conservative party must choose. If it is a party that wants to protect the environment, it must decide whether it will engage with the European Union to try to ensure that there are the kinds of rules that are necessary to achieve the policy changes required.
Daniel Kawczynski: The Minister is deliberately oversimplifying what took place over the past five hours. It is wrong to suggest that Opposition Members who have expressed concerns about the constitution are anti-European or anti-European Union. I believe in the European Union and I want us to continue to be members of it. Just casting doubt on the constitution does not make me anti-EU.
Mr. Hoon: I asked the hon. Gentleman a question. He spoke eloquently about the need to take effective action to deal with immigration. Others among his colleagues have talked about the need to protect this country from international terrorism. The truth, however, is that measures to take effective action in those areas can be blocked by one member state out of 27. If we are serious about dealing with international terrorists who cross borders, we must take decisions by qualified majority voting; otherwise, a single country can stop it. He cannot speak eloquently in favour of dealing with immigration and tackling terrorism unless he is prepared to will the means to do so. So far, he has not done that.
After the United Kingdom joined the European Community under a Conservative Government, the first treaty changes took place in 1986 when the Single European Act was ratified by Parliament. Despite the then Prime Ministers reputation for being a hard-line Eurosceptic, the noble Baroness Thatcher agreed to the substantive changes introduced by that Act, which set out a timetable for the creation of the single market, with most legislation being voted on by qualified majority. The Act considerably extended the scope of European decision making and the use of qualified majority voting in key areas, from the environment to health and safety at work. The latter is, for example, the legal basis for the working time directive. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) claimed that double majority voting would lead to the loss of our opt-out on the working time directive. I assure him that that is simply not the case. It would not change our blocking minority.
In fact, the Single European Act gave rise to almost 300 pieces of legislation as part of the efforts between
1986 and 1992 to complete the single market. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said that the Single European Act contained only 12 new areas of qualified majority voting. Actually, it gave rise to hundreds of different directivessignificant legislation transforming our relationship with the European Union. The Single European Act also gave extensive new powers to the European Parliament. For the first time in our history, Members of the European Parliament could have a real say on European legislation, rather than simply being consulted, as was the case previously.
Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.
I sometimes wonder whether those anti-Europeans on the Conservative Benches who kneel at the altar of Baroness Thatchers reputation have read those words. The approach of Opposition Members has changed dramatically. Far too many of them seem to believe that little Englanders can somehow solve the cross-border problems of the 21st century in splendid isolation.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, for example, talked of the need to create a flexible European Union. He probably dreams about it, but that is the only thing that he is capable of doing at the moment, as he seems to have failed to notice that in order to get a flexible European Union, we would have to change the treaties. Those treaties would have to be changed by unanimity, there would have to be a constitutional debate, and he would have to secure the support of 26 other countries. So far, he has secured the support of oneon a good day, with the wind in the right direction, and with an R in the month. All subsequent treaty changes have been ratified through Parliament: the Maastricht treaty in 1993, the Amsterdam treaty in 1998 and the Nice treaty in 2002.
The Maastricht treaty, arguably the most fundamental of all existing European treaties, involves the most extensive transfer of power, or competence, from Westminster to Brussels. It provided for the introduction of a common and foreign security policy and a European security and defence policy, and a new competence for the European Union in justice and home affairs. The first reference in the European Unions history was made to the European convention on human rights, on which the charter of fundamental rights is based. Qualified majority voting was introduced in 32 articles, 15 articles were moved to co-decision, and for the first time in history the European Parliament was given legislative powers equal to that of the Council on a range of policies. The Maastricht treaty introduced European citizenship and the European Union. It was ratified by this House in July 1993.
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