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11 Dec 2007 : Column 259

The Government have not fulfilled that undertaking—but I should be delighted to hear otherwise from the Minister for Europe in his winding-up speech.

A few weeks ago, the European Scrutiny Committee made interesting visits to two former Yugoslav republics of approximately the same size. I refer to the size deliberately, and also to the fact that they are completely or largely landlocked. They are the republics of Slovenia and Macedonia. The contrast is incredible. Slovenia is doing well. I had last visited Ljubljana in August 1991, when there was graffiti saying, “Slovenia will rise again”. It was shortly after the Jugoslovenska narodna armija—JNA—had trashed most of the city. Slovenia has risen again, and is doing incredibly well. It recently overtook Portugal and Greece and it is about to overtake Spain.

The other landlocked former Yugoslav republic of approximately 2 million people is Macedonia, which is not doing as well. It has an excellent Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski. We also met the Deputy Minister for European Affairs, Gabriela Konevska-Trajkovska. They are impressive people, who are taking their country slowly but surely in the right direction. I believe that things will get done there.

I have mentioned two former Yugoslav republics of 2 million people that are both doing pretty well in different ways and can stand on their own two feet, because there is a third part of the former Yugoslavia, which also has a population of 2 million and is landlocked and mountainous: Kosovo. There is no reason why Kosovo could not go it alone. I believe that it can. It has far bigger problems than Slovenia or even Macedonia, but if we believe in self-determination, we must have some principles when we approach foreign policy. If a country of that size can go it alone, we should support it.

There are some problems in terms of guaranteeing access for Serbs, and concerning the Serbian enclaves that are left—which have been dangerously ignored by our Government and by other European Governments. We must engage a lot more there. There should, perhaps, be a plebiscite for the Serbs living in the north of the country so that they can determine their own future. We also need to guarantee access for the Serbian people to the cultural sites that they find of such value to their culture, and, as I have said, we must do something significant about the Serbian enclaves. If we can do those three things, I cannot see any real reason why we should oppose Kosovan independence. I look forward to seeing that day.

9.30 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to sum up for Her Majesty’s Opposition this often lively debate. We heard good speeches from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Mr. Cash), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) and for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). I shall, if I may, come to the Labour contributions a little later.

From the Opposition Benches, may I reiterate our condolences to the families of those who have been bereaved by the terrible tragedy in Algeria? I will go as far as to say that I suspect I speak for the whole House in expressing our sympathy.

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Members of all parties will appreciate that we face a potentially serious situation in the Balkans. Several Members have touched on that. As the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), said only yesterday:

The Ahtisaari plan represents a fair and sensible way forward. It is the result of careful and exhaustive discussions with all sides, and we must hope it can be brought peacefully to fruition in the months ahead.

Although we have touched on several themes this evening, the issue that has dominated the debate has been the revived EU constitution. That document has presented the Prime Minister with a considerable dilemma. He could have stood up for Britain’s interests and vetoed the treaty, but instead he lacked the courage to do so and decided to go along with it. However, in order to avoid the crystal-clear manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the constitution, he has forced his entire Government to go through the charade of pretending that the two documents are different, when everyone can plainly see that they are effectively the same. So let us nail this crucial point once and for all. Ministers are fond of quoting the sentence from the intergovernmental conference mandate which states:

However, they very rarely read out the exact following sentence, which might be characterised in the current context as the missing sentence, and which states:

the treaty on the European Union—

In other words, the constitution is effectively revived wholesale with just a few minor exceptions, which the mandate subsequently points out.

Other EU leaders have accepted that point almost without argument. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said that the two documents are 90 per cent. the same. The Spanish Foreign Minister said that they are 98 per cent. the same. The Spanish Prime Minister, perhaps seeking to outdo his Foreign Secretary—I am pleased that our Foreign Secretary has just now returned to the Chamber, as being outdone by the Prime Minister is something he is not entirely unfamiliar with—said that they are 99 per cent. the same. Valery Giscard D’Estaing, who chaired the convention on the original constitution and about whom the Foreign Secretary was rather dismissive, says:

In fact, Giscard has been berating EU leaders for their lack of courage in explaining to their people what is really going on. He summed up his frustration in Le Monde back in June in the following words:

That is an extremely succinct exposition of this Government’s position with regard to the people of Britain.

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Not only has the Government’s line been exposed as patently false by EU leaders abroad; the Prime Minister’s argument has been betrayed by allies back home. Digby Jones—or Lord Jones of Birmingham, as we must learn to call him—let the cat out of the bag when he said:

Shortly after that, the Government promoted him, but it is difficult to blame Lord Jones when even the Prime Minister cannot keep to the script himself. After an Anglo-Irish summit with Bertie Ahern in July, when asked at a press conference what had been discussed that morning the Prime Minister replied that they had been discussing the EU constitution and how they could take it forward over the next few months.

Then, after months of detailed examination of the two texts, the Labour-led European Scrutiny Committee, whose Chairman made a good and detailed speech this evening, and which must be commended for its vigilance in these matters, concluded that the two documents were “substantially equivalent” and that to argue otherwise would be “misleading”.

The Economist, which is not exactly known for its Euroscepticism, concluded that trying to sustain the Government’s position was “a farce”. Is it any wonder, then, that a poll in yesterday’s Daily Mail reported— [Interruption.] This was a Global Vision poll in the Daily Mail—[Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but what matters is not where it was published, but what the poll said—and the poll reported that almost three quarters of the British people want a referendum and that only 9 per cent. of the public believe that the two documents are different. Before any other Labour Members mock, they should remember the tremendous amount of time that the Prime Minister has spent sidling up to the editor of the Daily Mail. I have some good news for the Government, however. Although only 9 per cent. of the people believe that the two documents are different, that is actually up from a previous poll of a month ago when only 6 per cent. of the people believed that. Perhaps by the end of the process, if the Government work really hard, they might be able to sneak into double figures.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend intends to come to this point later in his speech, but does he agree with me how baffling it has been to listen to the Liberal Democrats in this debate, in the sense that they want a referendum on whether we should be members of the EU, but they are not prepared to say whether they want a referendum on this constitution?

Mr. Francois: I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend, as it is often baffling to listen to Liberal Democrats as a point of principle. However, I have to say that their spokesman, who I admit was filling in this evening, was extremely unclear about what the Liberal Democrat position would be in the event of a referendum amendment to next year’s Bill. That was not missed on these Benches.

Mr. Davidson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Francois: I will, but if the hon. Gentleman is going to ask me what the Liberal Democrat position is, he is wasting his time.

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Mr. Davidson: I just wanted to say that I hope that Conservative Back Benchers will not seek in any way to take advantage of the innocence and naivety of the Liberal Democrats in not having a position on this matter. It would be absolutely outrageous if the Tories campaigned in Liberal Democrat constituencies, calling on voters to ask the Liberal Democrats what their opinions were.

Mr. Francois: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I believe that he intervened at least five times, if I counted correctly, on the Liberal Democrat spokesman; he persisted, in the words of Peter Mandelson, in “punching the bruise”. We will most certainly hold every Liberal Democrat MP to account in their constituencies for how they vote, as indeed we will hold every Labour MP to account in their constituencies for how they vote.

I believe that the Government have comprehensively lost the argument on the point that the two documents are different, but still they peddle the same sorry line to the public, the press and to their own Back Benchers, because they know that the Prime Minister’s intransigence leaves them with absolutely no choice.

Under pressure, the Government fall back on their much vaunted red lines, which are largely red herrings designed principally to distract attention from what is really being given up without a referendum. However, the European Scrutiny Committee in two very detailed reports picked apart the Government’s red lines. The Labour Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) told the BBC “Today” programme that the red lines would, in his words, “leak like a sieve”.

In fact, the Government have been in constant retreat on what is really at stake with this document. On 18 June, the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), stated that the reform treaty would just

A week later, she admitted that

By July, the new Minister for Europe was arguing that we should not

By October, his mantra had become

That is a massive change in public position: from a tidying-up exercise to a rearguard action to protect fundamental sovereignty, in only four months.

But there have been further retreats. The red line concerning the charter of fundamental rights is just one example. After the June summit, the former Prime Minister assured us that we had an opt-out from the charter. The following day he was contradicted by the Swedish Prime Minister, who insisted that the United Kingdom did not have an opt-out, only a clarification. On 31 July, after a month of considerable confusion in the Government ranks, the Minister for Europe conceded in a letter to the European Scrutiny Committee that

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We have a clear pattern of confident assertion followed by internal confusion in the face of detailed examination followed by retreat, and we suspect that that pattern will be continued when we debate the ratification Bill in detail next year.

I expect the Minister for Europe to get to his feet in a few moments and tell us that the constitutional concept has been abandoned, and that there is therefore nothing to worry about. Perhaps he will also tell us that there is excellent data security at HM Revenue and Customs, that there is plenty of room in our prisons, and that the former Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister have always been best mates. All that would be about as honest as the Government’s position on the reform treaty.

The Labour party’s manifesto at the 2005 general election was very clear about the EU constitution. It said:

Given that clear pledge, the Government’s position is now dishonourable at best. Ministers are being not so much economical with the truth as positively parsimonious with it.

The Government continue to tell us that the two documents are different when they know full well—the Foreign Secretary knows, the Minister for Europe knows, other Ministers know—that they are effectively the same. Even the Prime Minister has admitted as much, in a memorable Freudian slip—and that from a Prime Minister who stated that one of his key objectives was to restore “trust” in politics, which, as he told the BBC specifically, included honouring Labour’s 2005 election manifesto. That same Prime Minister is now doing precisely the opposite, and treating the British people like fools along the way. The Prime Minister once famously told his predecessor “There is nothing you could say to me now that I could possibly believe.” The risk that he faces is that if he continues on this course, much the same will eventually be said of him.

I remind Ministers that three quarters of the British people want a referendum. Most of the national press want a referendum. The trade unions want a referendum: indeed, they voted for it by a margin of nine to one at the TUC conference. Many Labour MPs privately concede that there should be a referendum, and some of them have had the moral courage to voice their concerns in the Chamber today. Included on that roll of honour are the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). There are others in the Labour party who have not yet spoken out, but we believe that they are there, and their contribution could eventually be decisive.

The Government are clearly losing the argument on the EU constitution. The emperor has no clothes. All the parties promised the people who sent us to this House a referendum on the EU constitution. We say, let the promise be kept and let the people decide.

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9.44 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this evening’s debate. Before I do so, I wish to update the House on the matter that has concerned us all this evening—the terrorist attacks in Algeria. It is important to inform the House that al-Qaeda North Africa is claiming responsibility, according to a number of press agencies. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office website has been updated to take account of today’s tragic, grotesque and brutal murders. I encourage all those who are considering travelling to Algeria, for whatever purpose, to take account of the information on that website. The whole House will rightly appreciate that the Foreign Secretary has written to the Secretary-General of the United Nations regarding this dreadful loss of life, which potentially includes some UN staff.

A huge number of contributions were made to this evening’s debate. In addition to those from the Front Benches, we heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), who is no longer in his place—uncharacteristically, because he takes his role as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee very seriously. We also heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who has taken a great deal of care and interest in these issues for longer than she and I would care to remember.

I felt like a priest on occasions this evening as I listened to the confessions of my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) about their careers being thwarted as a consequence of their experience of, and attitudes to, Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall talked about being threatened with losing her job as a shadow Minister for the citizens charter—

Kate Hoey: No, I lost it.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend was not just threatened; she actually lost her job. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby joked, in a humorous speech, about potentially or actually losing his job as a shadow Minister for the cones hotline. Europe is blamed for many travesties, but those are two new heinous crimes. Never have so many cones died for a false purpose and never have so many charter mark ambitions been unfulfilled, as we have heard this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby spoke about his desire to travel during the detailed discussion on the Lisbon treaty Bill. If he is unsuccessful in that, may I recommend some travel brochures for him to consider?

Kelvin Hopkins: Was my hon. Friend hinting that if one shows enthusiasm for the European Union, one might be promoted to the Front Bench?

Mr. Murphy: All I say to my hon. Friend is that over the next few weeks and months one will not be allowed to travel anywhere.

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