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11 Dec 2007 : Column 241

Mr. Mitchell: I want a referendum because I promised a referendum in my election literature. The party promised a referendum on the constitution. This document is effectively the constitution. Some 96 per cent. of this document is the same as the constitution. The European Scrutiny Committee agrees with that. Angela Merkel says that it is the same as the constitution. So does Bertie Ahern. Who is right? Are they right, or is our Foreign Secretary right when he says that there is a fundamental difference? He did not tell us what the difference was, but he said that there was a fundamental difference.

If the House succeeded in amending the treaty, it might become more acceptable, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) should put that to the Government, not to me.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) suggests that we can amend the treaty, but we cannot. We either accept it or reject it. The Government can negotiate opt-outs, but they cannot amend the treaty. To suggest that we can is illusory. The people of Britain want a choice on whether to support this treaty. If it is defeated, we would revert to the status quo, although that is too far in my book.

Mr. Mitchell: I thank my hon. Friend for saving the situation. I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth does not want to modify the proposals from the Government in any way. That is a good position for a loyalist, but I did not realise that it was his.

Jon Trickett: My hon. Friend provokes me. My position is that the legislation is unacceptable as it is and, if it is unamended, we should attempt to secure a referendum. However, my first objective—it should be the first objective of us all—is to try to produce acceptable legislation. I realise that that gives the Government a problem, but it is not a problem for Back Benchers. My position is to seek amendments and, if we fail, to attempt to secure a referendum.

Mr. Mitchell: After saying that, my hon. Friend accuses me of being confused. Has he thought of joining the Liberal Democrats in their mess on this issue?

The truth is that our previous Prime Minister was naively enthusiastic about Europe and thought that, as a great persuader, he could persuade the people to accept the constitution, which he wanted. The present Prime Minister is more sceptical about the whole business—good on him—and regards it as a nuisance. It is something that he has to put up with, which is how the previous Prime Minister regarded Parliament. The present Prime Minister wonders why he should waste his authority on fighting a battle in Europe that he will lose because the majority will be against him and then on putting it to the British people in a referendum that he knows he will also lose. That is how people decide whether to have a referendum—they ask, “Will I win or will I lose?” The Government know that they will lose, so they are not having a referendum, but that displays an intellectual contempt for the British people.

Mr. Shepherd: It is more dire than that. The Government pledged to have a referendum. They have not so much reneged on that as completely changed their policy. They are denying the position that they held yesterday, and that is the greatest betrayal.

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Mr. Mitchell: In politics, we all stand on our heads from time to time. I came into a party in the 1970s that was sceptical about Europe. In the 1980s, the party was totally hostile to Europe and said that it wanted to come out of it in the 1983 manifesto. The party then grew warmer towards Europe, and under the previous Prime Minister it was positively enthusiastic about Europe. I have remained true and consistent. My view is, “Thus far and no further.” We are talking about powers that belong to the British people, which can be surrendered only by the British people.

I will not go on about it, but I have other criticisms of Europe, too. It has to be said that it is a major economic drag on this country. We do not receive the benefits that everybody claims we do. It must cost; membership costs. After 2013, contributions will go up to £20 billion gross, and £6 billion net—a doubling of the net contribution. That is a burden on our gross domestic product. It is a burden of about 0.5 per cent. on growth, and growth is cumulative. Had we had that 0.5 per cent. in the past 10 years of economic growth, in which the average was 2.5 per cent., we would have had 3 per cent. growth, and we would have been a much more powerful economy. We did not have it; is that a price worth paying?

Michael Connarty: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mitchell: I will not take another intervention; I provoke people too much. I love my hon. Friend, but I say “Thus far and no further” to him and to Europe. It is right to ask ourselves whether the price is worth paying—I do not think that it is—but that is not the issue right now. We need to co-operate with other states, but we can do that through multilateral negotiations. We do not need to finance gleaming palaces, a pretend Parliament, the Parliament’s huge carbon footprint, which extends from Brussels to Strasbourg, and all the other paraphernalia. We should reach deals with other countries, one by one.

Michael Connarty: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mitchell: Oh, all right.

Michael Connarty: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I knew that I could persuade him to give way. I respect his position, because he has held it for a long time and it is precious to him, but does he really believe that the European Union that we joined should have remained as it was, and should not have developed to allow the former Soviet Union countries to join and develop their economies? I have had the benefit of travelling to all those countries, both pre-accession and since they became members of the European Union. Portugal, Spain and Greece were poor countries, compared to us. Is it not right that we should spread that prosperity, or should we just hang on to our own little bit of wealth and power?

Mr. Mitchell: The main aim of the Government and MPs of this country is to make this country richer and more powerful. If we become richer and more powerful, we can decide whom we help and support, and to whom we give aid. The country should go where we want it to go, rather than where it is compelled to go by the European Union. I am not opposed to helping the
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newly emerging states; I am just saying that there are other ways of doing it than by financing a huge bureaucracy in Brussels. I am not negating the case for aid, and I do not negate the aim of helping those countries. I said that I wanted multinational co-operation on those issues. However, we have to ask ourselves whether what is proposed is the best way of achieving that, and whether our aim is furthered in any way by the treaty that has been foisted on Parliament and the British people, although it should not have been.

8.23 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): I am in the happy position of agreeing with most of the preceding speakers, certainly on the great question of the referendum. In particular, I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said: political trust between the electors and the elected hangs by a thread, and grave damage will be done if all the political parties break the promise, so freely and so recently made, to consult the people on the question of the so-called European reform treaty. It is, of course, not a reform treaty; it was never seriously intended to reform the European Union institutions. It was intended to strengthen them. I also agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who has just concluded: we are considering not simply a European constitution, but a constitution for this country, because it defines and alters the powers of the House and, by extension, the powers of the people whom we represent.

When powers are transferred away from the House, not just our democracy, but the fundamental powers of the people, are degraded. Our democracy is not being replaced in any sense by a European democracy. There is no such thing as a supranational democracy, and it certainly does not exist in Europe. People have no sense of involvement in, or ownership of, the decisions made in their name in Brussels, and that is dangerous, particularly as issues such as criminal justice are now being involved. People assent to laws under which they may be imprisoned or fined if, in every sense, they are their laws, if they have a real and immediate opportunity to vote for or against them, and if they can talk to and consult the people who pass them. All that is absent in the European Union, and it will get worse, not better, if the treaty is passed.

In two days’ time, the Prime Minister will assent to the treaty. If he has the courage, he will sign it itself; if he lacks the courage, he will get someone else to do it for him. It is a disgrace that the motion before the House is

whatever that means. We ought to be debating a substantive motion. The truth is that we have not considered the matters in any real detail. The only opportunities that the Select Committees have had has been when it is all too late, and when the decisions have all been made.

To rewind a little, in January this year, two Sherpas were appointed by the Government. Well, they used to be called Sherpas, because they were there before a summit. I think that they are now called “focal points”,
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in the modern jargon. One was from the Foreign Office, and one was a minder from 10 Downing street. They were appointed to help the German presidency to draw up a successor to the European constitution. We know that the British Government did not like the constitutional treaty.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and I spent nearly a year and a half of our lives in Brussels, working on the Convention on the Future of Europe and negotiating the constitution. I sat one seat away from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who was representing the Government. An unfortunate, rather bemused but charming Romanian sat between us and kept us apart, but I watched the Government representative. He tabled scores, perhaps hundreds, of amendments on behalf of the British Government, only a handful of which were ever accepted. That is on the record, and we know from that that the British Government did not like the European constitution and much of what was in it, although they accepted and signed it. However, it failed; it was turned down by the electorate of France and Holland. They are now colluding in bringing it back.

Throughout the first half of this year, the Sherpas or focal points discussed matters with the German presidency, in order to revive the substance of the treaty while altering the terminology—those were the instructions given to member states. The Select Committees concerned tried to get information from the relevant Ministers. In an earlier intervention, I quoted from a public letter that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs had sent, reprimanding the Foreign Office for

That is a pretty serious charge. The European Scrutiny Committee, whose distinguished Chairman spoke earlier in the debate, said:

That is an outrage. For six months we were completely unable to get at what was happening in the negotiations in our name. Much worse was to follow. On 19 June, the German presidency produced a draft text of the revived treaty. Two days later, it was agreed at the European Council summit in Brussels. The Council agreed the text politically, and since then there have been no substantive amendments. It has become a little bit worse for the United Kingdom, but essentially the matter was all over at that Council meeting. For those crucial two days between 19 and 21 June, a text was available. It went around Whitehall, although we do not know to what extent. We have asked the Government which Departments were consulted, but they have not told us. The House was completely excluded, as were the public, so the only time that we ever saw a text was after it was agreed.

The European Council itself is a secretive organisation: minutes are not published, so we do not know who said what, what negotiations took place or what the British Government’s position was. Conclusions are published, which did not just agree the German presidency’s text but, remarkably—and I think that this is unprecedented—said:

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The Council did not only agree the treaty but told the subsequent intergovernmental conference to take it forward on an exclusive basis. No changes were therefore possible, as the treaty was agreed in totality.

That 48-hour window is important, because it was the only opportunity for the House to break into the magic circle that negotiated and discussed the matters in secret before presenting a fait accompli to the Council. No public involvement was possible at all, which makes a mockery of all the promises and rhetoric about public involvement and building a people’s Europe. It even contradicts what the June European Council said:

How can we involve people in permanent dialogue if we do not tell them what is going on? Even their elected representatives in Parliament were completely unable to crack that secret circle and find out what was happening.

Ms Gisela Stuart: It is easy to be critical of the Government—and I agree with much of the right hon. Gentleman’s criticism—but the House must be extremely critical of itself. He will recall the Special Standing Committee that was set up during the Convention. It had a potential membership of over 1,000, because any Member of the Commons or the other place could attend. For 18 months, we struggled even to attain a quorum of 12 people, so the House needs to be very critical of the way in which it engages with matters European.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Lady makes a fair point, but she would accept that, although the Convention on the Future of Europe produced a terrible outcome, it took place in public. People could come along and find out what was happening. I agree that we must improve our scrutiny of procedures. It is extraordinary that the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member, should meet in secret. We must ventilate the whole system and let light in.

The hon. Lady would agree that there is a valid charge of hypocrisy to be made against the European Council, which proclaims the desirability—indeed it said that it is essential—of bringing the public along, consulting them and explaining what is happening, only to conduct all the discussions in secret. Now, it is all too late: the European Scrutiny Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee are conducting inquiries, or have already done so—the ESC has produced two very good reports—but essentially we are auditing something that has already happened. The Government persisted with their crime. An English text was not available for nearly a month and a half after the June summit concluded and the House had gone into recess. Remarkably, there is still no consolidated version of the text. There is only a confusing document with cross-references, which is completely inaccessible to the public.

At the time, we had a weak Foreign Secretary and a Foreign Office that was consistently overridden and excluded by No. 10. Someone in the Government or in the Cabinet should have tried to bring the lofty rhetoric about a people’s Europe into line with what was really happening. There is another doleful consequence. Relieved
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of the obligation of having to explain themselves to a Parliament or to a people, the Government acceded to a text that was, and remains, completely incomprehensible. Secretive and incomprehensible behaviour is the EU’s besetting sin, and instead of curing that disease, we have reinforced it.

As for the text that was produced, it is clear from today’s debate that the reform treaty—or the Lisbon treaty, as it is to be called—is not the son of the constitutional treaty but its twin, and probably its identical twin. If anyone is in the slightest doubt, I refer them to the table in the first of the two reports by the European Scrutiny Committee, which helpfully sets out all the articles in the constitutional treaty and all the articles in the reform treaty so that a comparison can be made. The Government were asked to do that, but they refused, so a Committee of the House undertook that laborious but important process. Anyone looking at that table would conclude that the reform treaty is almost identical to the constitutional treaty or, in the words of the report, “equivalent”.

There are a few differences, for instance, on symbols. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), in his truly dire contribution, advanced the proposition that it was a completely different treaty, because the symbols had been removed. He is right to the extent that the articles that mandate the stars on the flag and the anthem have been removed. However, they have been in use for 20 years, and they will not stop being used just because they are not in the Lisbon treaty.

Also, I am glad to say, 9 May is no longer to be the day on which happy European citizens are all to be on the streets thanking everybody for how lucky they are to be in the European Union. That has been dropped. Is it seriously the position of the Liberal Democrats that the dropping of the symbols in a treaty is such an epic event as to mean that we need not have a referendum on it now?

As the text is identical, the only real difference is that the structure has changed. It is only in that sense that the constitutional concept is abandoned. The constitutional treaty unified the two main European treaties into a single text. The Lisbon treaty does not do so. Only in that respect can we say that the constitutional concept is abandoned. So when the Prime Minister repeats that phrase from the conclusions of the European Council, and the Liberal Democrat spokesman did it to try and strengthen his case, they are referring only to the form—the packaging—of the treaty. In substance and legal effect, the treaties are virtually the same.

We are concerned about legal effect. The transfer of powers upwards from the House to the EU, the vast extension of majority voting, and the fact that EU goes into new areas such as criminal justice and a great deal further in foreign affairs and security—all that is the same. There are a few name changes. The Europe Minister is to be called High Representative. People impressed by names and cap badges will think that the treaty is different, but in substance, it is the same. The referendum promise that was made by the previous Prime Minister is as valid now as when he made it.

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