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7.9 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): It is right that there should be great passion in the House about Europe because Europe and Britain’s role in it is one of the great issues, for not only us but the rest of our continent. The question is not whether we should be in the European Union but the sort of Europe that we wish to develop and whether Britain can be comfortable in it.

The House is being asked to determine two matters today. The first is the referendum and the second is whether the treaty, regardless of the referendum, deserves the House’s support. The Foreign Secretary’s attempt to create a new explanation for why the Government committed themselves to a referendum is unconvincing. The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made it clear that he believed that the people should have their say on such an important matter. The Government’s fear of losing such a referendum has made them change their position. It is not a question of the legitimacy of the treaty if there is no referendum, but of severe damage and erosion to the public’s faith in Government.

However, the second matter is far more difficult—indeed, more difficult than some of the speeches have suggested. The question whether a treaty deserves our support is usually expressed in absolute terms. Many hon. Members are happy to describe themselves as hard-line Eurosceptics, who would be content for the country to leave the European Union and would oppose any treaty, whatever its terms. Others are instinctively sympathetic to whatever emanates from the EU and want to be positive towards it. For what it is worth, I describe myself as a moderate Eurosceptic. I am against the single currency and many of the EU’s aspirations. I have therefore tried to consider the matter objectively and ascertain whether the criticisms of the treaty have substance or are exaggerated.

The criticisms have some substance, but not as much as is often suggested. If, for example, one considers whether there is significance in going from a treaty to a constitution or a constitution to a treaty, the critics are right that 95 per cent. of the documents are exactly the same. However, I am delighted that the treaty is no longer described as a constitution. Although calling it a constitution did not make the EU a state, it nevertheless disclosed a state of mind that wished to move Europe in that direction. When the document
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was called a constitution, included a proposal for “a Foreign Minister” and referred to flags and anthems, it contained all the paraphernalia of a state or state in the making. Although the treaty is not substantively different, I welcome the change in terminology.

To those who disagree, let me say that I remember debates in the House when the European Assembly was becoming a Parliament. It was argued that the word “Parliament” was significant, regardless of any other change of powers. It is important to make such distinctions. The European Court of Justice may have to interpret the significance of the document one day. If it is a constitution, the court could grant it the same significance in overruling other legislation as the Supreme Court in the United States would grant to the US constitution.

The proposal for a president is unnecessary. It is not an absolute requirement and I would be happy if it was not there. However, I refuse to accept that it has the sinister implications that are sometimes suggested. The person concerned will be a President of the European Council and his powers will be substantively the same as those that the President of the European Council has held for several years. He will be appointed for two and a half years, and therefore undoubtedly have more influence. However, he will be more like a President of Switzerland than a President of the United States. He will be an ambassador. Perhaps Tony Blair would be an adequate choice because, as with his current job in the middle east, the President of the European Council will argue the views of other people. In the case of the European Union, that would be the view of Governments in the organisation.

I do not believe that a high representative is necessary, but most people should welcome the combination of two jobs—that of the External Affairs Commissioner and that of the high representative.

I set myself a fundamental test. If the proposals are accepted, would the British Government—whoever are the Government—be prevented from initiating British policy in the most crucial matters, which affect our national interest? If the terms had been in effect some years ago, would we have been unable—for good or ill—to go to war in Iraq against the wishes of most of the other countries of Europe? Would we have been able to defend our interests in the Falkland Islands or pursue our policy on other aspects of foreign policy? Only if the answer to those questions is no can we pass the rather dramatic judgment that is sometimes expressed. I am not keen on some aspects of the powers, but we should get them into proper perspective if we are not to do ourselves a disservice.

However, the most significant aspect is the opt-outs that the Government have negotiated, if they are watertight. The Government have a long way to go to prove that they are watertight. If they can do so, the facts that the charter of fundamental rights will not be justiciable and that we will not be bound by justice and home affairs matters unless we so wish, are important.

Michael Connarty: If the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers to the evidence that the Foreign Secretary gave to our Committee, he will realise that my right hon. Friend made it clear that there is no opt-out from the charter of fundamental rights. It was never claimed to be an opt-out.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I accept that it is an opt-in, but that has—or is claimed to have—the same practical effect on the fundamentals.

My point is wider than the importance of such measures for justice, home affairs and the charter of fundamental rights. If we are to have a long-term future in the new EU, it can be only on the basis of a EU that accepts what is often described as variable geometry: different member states determining for themselves the amount of integration that they are prepared to accept. I can live with our membership of the EU because we are moving in that direction, not because I have a naive belief that many in the EU will not continue to strive for a federal outcome—I have no doubt that they will. As long as we in the UK are not forced to follow them, I can live with our membership.

We are not in the single currency and we are not in Schengen. If it can be demonstrated that the charter of fundamental rights will not be justiciable and cannot, therefore, overturn our national law; if we can make decisions about justice and home affairs; and if member states have a similar right to decide for themselves the parts of future proposals for integration that they are prepared to accept, we should find that sort of EU acceptable and be prepared to live with it.

I make this sober point to my colleagues: we are a party that remains committed to our membership of the EU. That means that, if one is a member of a European Union with 27 member states, conclusions will occasionally be reached that we do not like. Compromise is required because that is the nature of any international organisation. That should be acceptable to us in the context of our sovereignty and national interest, if we can opt out and decline to be part of the process on issues to which we attach great importance. That is the way that the EU is evolving. If—it is a big “if”—the treaty will move us further in that direction because of the opt-outs or opt-ins, we should welcome it.

The Government are acting in bad faith on the referendum. Regardless of the merits of the treaty, they made a promise to the British public and it is foolish and against their interests to deny that. They make themselves look petty, mean and unconvincing by doing that.

On the wider question of the treaty, we should be critical of those aspects that we do not like—I have not had time to refer to many elements that I personally do not like—but we do ourselves no service and do nothing to support our interests if we exaggerate the problem. The Government have much work to do.

7.18 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) because he started with the important point about the labels that we give people for their attitude towards Europe. We do not have the language to describe those of us who broadly agree with co-operation between European Union member states that goes beyond pure trade relationships but also make critical assessments. We immediately jump to calling people Europhobes or Europhiles or Eurosceptics. Just for the record, I find fault with the treaty and with the organisation, but I
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absolutely refuse to be labelled as a bad European or a Eurosceptic by anyone for that reason. I will take no lessons from anyone about that.

That leads me on to why we need to consider the substance of the treaty. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), because he started to describe the consequences of some of the provisions in the treaty and to explain what will happen. People might like it or not like it, but we need to start saying what is within the treaty.

I suggest that those on our Front Bench should look a little at the history of how we ended up with this piece of legislation, which started life with the Laeken declaration. The treaty started because there were perceived to be two problems in the European Union. One was to do with its bureaucratic efficiency—at that stage, by the way, a review was needed for enlargement, so let us park that one for the moment, because enlargement happened. The second and much more fundamental problem was a disengagement from the institutions by the people of Europe and the loss of the kind of democratic legitimacy that people had hoped for when we started direct elections to the European Parliament. In reality, all that happened was that fewer and fewer people either turned up for elections or related to the institutions.

Someone then came up with an answer—a constitution. That treaty—the constitution—was continuously changed. The French rejected it, and we started giving it different names, but we should waste no time today asking whether the treaty is the same as the constitution. It is a bit like Heinz baked beans: with more than 57 varieties, we know what the thing is in essence, and in essence it requires democratic legitimacy from all the people in the member states of the European Union.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree with what my hon. Friend has been saying. Does she agree that that disengagement is potentially dangerous, as was illustrated strongly by the French and Dutch referendums, where the elites and the political parties all recommended a yes vote and the people voted no? That disengagement could undermine democracy in Europe.

Ms Stuart: Indeed, and that leads on to the referendum. When our then Prime Minister promised a referendum in 2004 on the new package of changes to the European Union, he did not do so for constitutional reasons; he did so because it was the right thing to do. The second point about that is that this Labour Government, more than any other Government, have used referendums to settle certain questions—we used one in Scotland and Wales, and we even used one to decide whether Birmingham should have an elected mayor. The notion that using referendums undermines parliamentary democracy therefore does not sit easily with those on our Treasury Bench. Given that we had a promise about the use of a referendum, and given that one of the most fundamental problems in the European Union is a disengagement and a lack of democratic legitimacy, I cannot for the life of me understand why our side is reneging on its promise.

Even though I am not surprised, neither can I understand what the Lib Dems are doing. They are the most pro-European party when they are here at Westminster,
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but when they go back to their constituencies, especially to some seats with fishing communities, they might as well be to the right of the UK Independence party. Now, rather than honouring what is a question on the treaty, they are asking, “In or out?” To me, that is using blackmailing, bully-boy tactics, which for a mature democracy is a sign of real intellectual and political poverty. If the Lib Dems really think that we should be asked, “In or out?” please let them go and ask that question, which is a perfectly legitimate question.

That takes me back to my opening remarks. It is perfectly possible to wish to be a member of the European Union, but to find significant fault with the treaty, which may be sufficient for people to say no. However, the fundamental argument about democratic engagement is this. Our Parliament and other national Parliaments are not being given more real powers; we are simply being given more information. We are being given a mechanism that, as any Committee that has considered it or anyone who really thinks about it will know, is completely and utterly ineffective. This mechanism requires two thirds of a national Parliament to arrive at a view opposing that of their own Government. However, this House, for example, has no tradition of being given a mechanism for arriving at a view opposing the Government. The Government can always whip anything through.

For that reason, if those on the Treasury Bench are serious about some of the changes, I urge them to consider, for example, one of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recommendations, which was that rather than having a vote, should there be further extensions to qualified majority voting, there should be primary legislation, which would be required to pass through both Houses. Let those on the Treasury Bench look at how this House could scrutinise things with much greater power or at what the European Scrutiny Committee said about who should trigger the mechanisms.

At the end of the day, however, if we are really serious about restoring democratic accountability and faith in the political process, about bringing people closer to the European Union and about what the Foreign Secretary said in his opening remarks—I wrote this down; he said, “This is good for Europe and it is good for Britain”—when he prayed in aid the NSPCC, the bishops and so on, how about praying in aid the people of this country? If the treaty is good, let us go out and ask them. Then the Foreign Secretary will have a mandate and an endorsement, which could not be undermined by any successive Government, of whatever shade. Let us ask the people and have faith in them.

7.26 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): I am in favour of the ratification of the treaty of Lisbon, so I shall be supporting the Second Reading of the Bill. I am also totally opposed to the whole idea of a referendum on this or similar treaties. Referendums are not part of our British constitution, and I regret the fact that they are in constant danger of becoming such.

My views should come as no surprise to anybody—I am sure that they do not—as I spoke and voted accordingly on the 2004 treaty that was originally put forward. I am astonished to find, three years later, that
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we are having such an agitated debate. As we have had a general election since, I am one of the few Members of the House who fought the last election on the basis that I am now putting forward. It is true that my party’s manifesto said differently, but no person who follows politics in my constituency can conceivably have imagined that I supported that part of the manifesto. Indeed, I was quite clear about that to the very few people who bothered to raise the subject with me—I have received six or seven letters on the subject in the past five years. I therefore feel no sense of a lack of democratic legitimacy in putting forward my view.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Surely my right hon. and learned Friend can have no principled objection to a referendum, because he was a member of a Government who agreed to have one if Britain should ever join the single currency. Indeed, that is now the established position of all the political parties. If it is right to have a referendum when we export monetary policy, surely it is also right to have one if we are contemplating exporting our political powers.

Mr. Clarke: I can reassure my right hon. Friend that I personally regard myself as bound by the commitment, which I was persuaded by the then Prime Minister to enter into, that we would have a referendum on the single currency. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) took part in persuading me and the now Lord Heseltine to agree to that, but I have frequently said, and I repeat now, that it is the biggest mistake I have ever made in my political career.

I have consistently argued and voted against referendums on the European Communities Acts, the Single European Act, the Maastricht treaty, and the treaty of Amsterdam and so on. I am quite sure that had a Conservative Government remained in office after 1997 and had we negotiated a treaty of the kind that eventually came to pass in Lisbon, we would not even have contemplated having a referendum. We were always consistent in the past, and I remain consistent now.

Mr. Gummer: Does my right hon. and learned Friend not agree that, had the Lisbon treaty been negotiated by the right hon. Baroness Thatcher as she negotiated the Single European Act, she would have come back to the House and claimed it as the kind of treaty for which we ought to vote? There would have been no referendum on the matter, and we would have marched into the Lobby at her side.

Mr. Clarke: I regret having to turn my back on one of my oldest personal friends in the House. I agree with him entirely: we would have wished to have negotiated this treaty following the enlargement of the Community. Mrs. Thatcher always regarded referendums as instruments that were useful to dictators and others who wished to get round Parliament.

I want to ask myself how we got into this situation. I now find myself in the Chamber surrounded by people who are wildly agitated about the question of a referendum when actually a majority of them went through the last election saying that they wanted a referendum on this subject. I am afraid that I blame the previous Prime Minister. He entirely shared my view of referendums on
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European treaties. Indeed, he told me so when I had a conversation with him on the subject. More importantly, however, he told more important people than me that he was against holding a referendum—most particularly, President Chirac, whom he assured that he would not have a referendum.

I now move into theory, rather than reporting what Tony Blair told me, but I am quite convinced that the only reason that he startled me, and most of his own party, by completely changing his position on this question was that he had had conversations with Mr. Rupert Murdoch. With the approach of a general election, he was absolutely desperate—as new Labour Ministers, for some curious reason, always are—to have the support of The Sun, and a deal was done that he would hold a referendum on this treaty, which, for some reason, he was confident that he would win, in exchange for Murdoch not turning The Sun against him at the election. I do not regard that as the basis for a great move forward in the British constitution.

I personally think that referendums are a way of weakening Parliament and getting round parliamentary authority on key issues of this kind. I have never accepted that they should be the way forward. For example, the House should vote this evening that it is in favour of the Bill and of the treaty. If we were then to hold a kind of organised opinion poll in which the right-wing press would seek to achieve the result that it wanted, and if ratification of the treaty were defeated, would we all be expected to come back to the House and vote against our judgment of the national interest in line with the result of the referendum? And who on earth is going to tell us what to do in the circumstances that would follow that? That is a question to which I hope briefly to turn in a moment.

I am not remotely impressed by the absurd argument that the treaty is different from the last treaty, although I welcome some of the changes. That is a theological nonsense from people who regret having got themselves into this position and are now trying to get out of it. They are at least now moving to a better position. Nor do I agree with all this red line nonsense as a way of describing the negotiations. It has been a mistake made by British Governments over the years to present their European policies as though they are always going to Brussels to fight demons, and to achieve great victories by beating off threats to our interests. The fact that every Prime Minister since Edward Heath has used that approach to describe such negotiations is one reason why the public have turned so Eurosceptic over the years.

Instead of going through the pantomime of refusing to sign a treaty—that he had negotiated and agreed to—in the company of the other Government leaders, the present Prime Minister should have concentrated, as should the previous Prime Minister, on presenting the public with his argument on why he had negotiated and signed the treaty, and why he believed that it was in the British interest to ratify it. Instead, he followed inglorious precedents by trying to pretend that he was not really there at the time when the document emerged, which is no way to sell it.

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