I am pro-European, as everyone here knows, and I will not labour my reasons for so being. Pro-Europeans should support a treaty that will improve the workings of the present institutions. I am persuaded that it is no
longer essential that an enlarged Community should have to have the new treaty, but the mechanisms for decision making in the Union will be very much improved if we adopt it, compared with what we have at the moment. For that reason, I support it.
I am in favour of the new arrangements for the presidency. It is nonsense to suggest that the President of the European Council will be some kind of giant political figure, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea has just said. I actually think that the new arrangements will be an improvement on the six-monthly national presidencies. Now that we have 27 member states, the present system would involve the Head of Government of each member state coming along once every 13 or 14 years with an agenda for the next six months. All too often, such agendas are aimed at domestic political opinion. Under the new system, we shall have some consistency.
I believe that having one foreign affairs spokesman, rather than two, is an improvement. The new arrangements are perfectly satisfactory because they confirm the intergovernmental nature of foreign policy making. I am all in favour of having a smaller Commission. That is essential and long overdue, although I am amazed that it has been achieved. The new treaty actually strengthens the power of the Councils of Ministersaccountable to Parliamentsat the expense of the Commission. I would have been worried if things had gone too far in that direction, because we need quite a strong Commission to keep the European institutions functioning. However, a smaller Commission is long overdue. I also approve of the improvement of the qualified majority voting system.
I also believe that, although I supported the original treaty, there were real problems with the precise status of the charter of fundamental rights. I was alarmed that quite sensible employers and a number of trade union leaders appeared to believe that a re-statement of the undoubted right to strike meant that, somehow, the European Court was going to reopen all our trade union law. I always thought that that was barrack room lawyer nonsense, butalthough I have been rude about the red linesthe changes that have been made between the Giscardian treaty and the present one represent an improvement that clarifies the situation and should put those arguments to rest.
Why do I take this view, when I find myself surrounded by colleagues who take quite alarming views? At least no one has yet gone as far as The Sun, which has declared to its readers that this treaty, if ratified, will result in the end of Britain as an independent state. I have heard that argument used against the European Communities Act 1972, against the Single European Act and against Maastricht. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) used it against the Amsterdam treaty. It is less likely to be true in this case than it ever was in any of the previous ones. People will conclude that we are going to lose control of our foreign policy, for example, only if they believe that the European Union is some kind of organised conspiracy in which the other 26 member states are prepared to sacrifice their sovereignty in order to destroy ours. I do not believe that, and I therefore support the Bill.
Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): Perhaps I should remind the House that although I am a simple soul, I am not stupid. I was soft enough, however, to allow myself to be persuaded to chair the Joint Committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons when our delegates to the Convention were bringing back their reports to the House. So I have some knowledge of this matter, albeit slightly second hand. That is why I found the tone of the original protestations that prefaced the debate today somewhat hollow. With the exception of the delegates who came back to present their reports, I do not think that the Committee ever saw more than six Members of this House. They would get up and make a statement, then get out as soon as they could. Alternatively, they would take advantage of the first Division in the House to go down and vote. I am sure that they did vote, but they certainly did not take the trouble to return to the Committee. We therefore found ourselves with a plethora of Members of the other place who were prepared to discuss these matters, but we did not get much feedback from this Chamber. I have therefore found todays protestations somewhat false.
However, I welcome the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). He put his finger on what this is really about. This is only the Second Reading debate, so these proceedings will go on for some time. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the debate was about two decisions: one on a referendum, and one on the treaty. Anyone who has been in the Chamber throughout todays proceedings will know that we have spent at least two hours, probably more, discussing a referendum. Only in the last three speeches have we been able to get down to the nuts and bolts of the treatythe essential matter that we should be discussing.
I am at a loss to know why we should have this problem with the referendum. Residents of Norton in my constituency told me that they wanted a parish council, so I told them to have a referendum, which they did. They knocked on doorsbut only on the doors of people who wanted a parish council, so they were disbarred for not allowing anyone to vote against it. However, the residents of Billingham had a lot more sense: they knocked on all doors, and got a resounding yes. They now have a parish council. Fine.
We had a referendum on having a north-eastern regional assembly; every door was knocked on then, but we ended up with a resounding no. I seem to recall that Hartlepool and Middlesbrough had referendums on whether they should elect a mayor. They both received yes answers, though the one voted in a monkey and the other a policeman. Stockton had much more sense in its referendum, saying that it did not want an elected mayor anyway. Then there was Scotland, which acquired an Assembly; as did Wales, but it had a referendum in which only half the people participated, and only half of those said they wanted a Parliament.
We have already used referendums, as I have shown, so why do we not just agree to have one, which would allow us to save all the time we have wasted on debate tonight? We could get into Committee, discuss the details of what is and is not in the treaty and achieve some sort of sensible resolution, without all the wasted breath. Ironically, while I am for a referendum, I am
also for the treaty. I shall vote for it on the basis that it is an improvement, moving towards regularisation and providing a more disciplined approach when an increasing number of nations are trying to work together. I therefore appeal to my Front Benchers: for heavens sake, reconsider having a referendum. If they did, three quarters of the people on the Conservative Benches would have nothing left to say.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I was thinking earlier of the night I sat here when the United Kingdom joined the European Union, or whatever one wants to call it. Members spoke very solemnly and seriously and many of them were laughed at when they described what the European Union would eventually look like, but their prophecies have all been fulfilled. I remember one Member saying that we were going to lose our fishing rights, and they laughed at him, yet we have lost our fishing rights. When the United Kingdom went into the Common Market, as it was called, we had the majority of the fishing grounds, but we were soon left with none.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) made a good point when he said that we should look into the future and try to find out what is really going to happen. There is no doubt that the power of this Parliament, as we know it today, is going to be removed. We have seen it in the past, and we were told that these things were all good for us. I believe in nations coming together, pooling their various views and offering help for the good of each one, but when it comes to a dictatorship where ordinary people do not have a say on what is done, we lose out completely.
Mr. Redwood: Given that the devolved Governments of Northern Ireland and of Scotland wish to have this referendum, cannot they use their powers and devolved money to hold referendums at least in those two parts of the United Kingdom in order to show up the Government and give England a real cause for anger?
Rev. Ian Paisley: I wish I could answer yes to that, but I cannot because there are some money limitations and we do not have the authority so farbut we are discussing that matter at the moment. If Northern Ireland wants to express a view on this, I feel that it should be entitled to do so within this United Kingdom. Even if it is only a consultative thing, it does not matter, as the people will be given the opportunity to express their views. I think that Scotland may like to do the same, but I would not dare to speak for Scotland, even though my mother was a Scot from Morningside in Edinburgh.
I sat in the European Parliament for a very long time. As we look to the future, it is sad to see that peoples ambitions to do something for Europe have been set aside and that tonight we are spending time debating whether the people of the United Kingdom are allowed to say yes or no. That is the real purpose of this debate. It is simple. Then, if they are allowed to say yes or no, it is settled. The people speak and if we are democrats, we have to bow to what they say. The people may do something that we may not admire, but that is democracy. We must hear what the people have to say.
From where I stand and as I look at it, I do not want to be an enemy of Europe. I know that because when I go abroad to sell Northern Ireland, I know how much we need the help and friendship of the rest of the globe. I want to be a friend of Europe, but I also want to be a good friend of my own country and I want to stand up for the principles that made our country great in the past and that can make her great again. As I go around the world, I find many people looking to the United Kingdom. They say, Yes, you folks succeeded in many waysand so we didand I trust that we will succeed again as a nation.
I believe that the Government should look very carefully at the question of the referendum and they should not be so hasty. After all, they were converted to it originally, back in 2005, when we heard that it was
a good treaty for Britain and for the new Europe.
It was said that it would be put to the British people in a referendum and that the Government would campaign wholeheartedly for a yes vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe. It was Labour that argued for that. Indeed, Mr. Blair himself said that we should not reject the treaty, only to bring it back with just a few amendments to have another go at it, yet that is exactly what the Government are now attempting to do. Those are their own statements and I could repeat many more.
I also mention the French President, who at a closed meeting in Europe said that he could not win a referendum. He prophesied that Gordon Brown could not win it either. He said that we would just have to hold out on this referendum. According to a survey conducted by the EU itself, only 39 per cent. of the people of Britain are reckoned to be in favour of EU membership, and that is not the majority of the people. That can be tested. The Government would be wise to think again. It is no skin off anybodys nose to lose an election. The person who loses an election had the guts to put his views and to say, Heres what I believe. I want you to endorse it. I have fought elections and lost them, and fought elections and won them. We should have our finality in the ballot box and let the people speak.
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): The reform treaty is not about making the European Union more powerful or creating a European state; it is about making the Union of which we are already part more manageable and effective. With 27 countries already in the Union and more queuing to join, it is essential that the EU institutions function better.
Many Members have spoken about a referendum, but there is a great deal of substance in the treaty to speak about. The commitment to a referendum, however, was based on the European constitutionthe constitutional treaty. We now have an amending treaty. A constitution would have replaced all existing treaties, effectively refounding the European Union, but the reform treaty does not do that. Therefore, it is not a constitution. The mandate for the intergovernmental conference in October spells that out:
the Constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing treaties and replacing them by a single text called Constitution, is abandoned.
Nor does the reform treaty surrender any vital powers over issues of sovereignty. We retain national control
over justice and home affairs, social security, tax, foreign policy and defence. The treaty is much less significant, as colleagues have said, than the Single European Act signed by Margaret Thatcher, and the Maastricht treaty. We did not have a referendum on those treaties or any others.
Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend has just rather dismissed the view of the trade unions. Is he not aware that the TUC voted by a substantial majority for a referendum last September, and voted against the constitutional treaty in the previous year?
Much has been made of the similarity between the reform treaty and the constitution, but there have been many changes. Unlike the constitution, the reform treaty contains no symbols of statehood, such as provision for a flag or an anthem; it includes an explicit provision for EU competences to return to member states if countries agree; it makes no reference to the primacy of EU law; it strengthens the powers of scrutiny for national parliaments; it keeps the common foreign and security policy in a separate treaty; it adds two declarations confirming that all member countries see foreign policy as the responsibility of member states; it contains new clear language excluding European Court of Justice jurisdiction over CFSP affairs; it contains a UK-specific legally binding protocol on the charter; and it states for the first time that national security is the sole responsibility of member states.
Under the reform treaty, the European Council will have a full-time chairperson or President. European leaders will choose a President for up to two and a half years. The present system whereby a member state has the presidency for six months might have worked with 12 or 15 states, but with 27 member states it becomes unworkable: smaller countries struggle with the overwhelming task of running a complex agenda; bigger countries mix up national priorities with the EU interest; and rotation means too little follow-up. The President of the Council will be appointed as the servant of the leaders of national Governments and the purpose is to strengthen the Council of national Governments in relation to other EU institutions; and that is similarly the case with the high representative. The EUs national leaders, not the president, will take all the final decisions when they meet together.
Increasingly, the concerns of British citizens lie outside our borders. The challenges of climate change, international terrorism and economic migration mean that international relations can no longer be separated from our day-to-day lives.
Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the EU reform treaty enshrines fisheries as an exclusive competence of the European Union. Will he explain what advantages that will bring to fishing communities?
The reform treaty will merge two external affairs posts, giving the EU a more effective foreign policy unit and a clearer voice internationally. The reform treaty includes a declaration signed by all 27 members that specifies that the new EU position will not affect member states ability to conduct their own foreign and defence policy. As is the case now, the European Council, acting on unanimity, will set the strategic interests and objectives of the Union. The Council will then task the high representative to take forward activity or make proposals.
The Council of Ministers currently takes decisions under the complex triple majority voting system of the Nice treaty. The reform treatys double majority system is fairer and clearer. It will give countries with larger populations more weight. That is in the interests of the UK, which will have 29 votes in the Council, which is the same number as Germany, Italy and France. Under the new system, a measure will pass if it is supported by 55 per cent. of member states provided that they represent 65 per cent. of the population of the EU.
Most decisions in Europe are already taken by majority vote. Prime Ministers from Margaret Thatcher onwards have supported the move to qualified majority voting because it stops smaller countries blocking legislation that is beneficial to the UK, for instance on the single market. While the Council always tries to reach consensus, QMV will allow quicker voting in a Union of 27 states. However, the UK has retained the right to opt out of decisions on major issues of policy such as justice and home affairs, which is a major difference from the constitution.
To enforce the principle of subsidiarity, the reform treaty will, for the first time, give national Parliaments the right to challenge a piece of European legislation. If a third of national Parliaments object to a proposal, the Commission must consider whether to maintain, amend or withdraw it. If a majority of Parliaments object to a proposal and the Commission still wants to press ahead with its proposal, the European Parliament and the Council will have to consider both sides of the argument before reaching a decision.
It is worth remembering that the UK is a member of the EU because, in certain areas, we get better results than if we were to act alone. Without the EU, Britain would be poorer. As a trading nation, we rely heavily on membership of the EU single market of 480 million consumers. More than 3 million British jobs and 60 per cent. of our trade would be directly affected. It is therefore crucial that we continue to engage in the EU and that we develop the leading role that we play in setting its agenda.
Angela Merkel said recently that it would be impossible to imagine the EU moving forward without Britain. It is easy to see why. The UK has demonstrated its importance
in many ways: on climate change and energy; on security and defence; and on Africa. As a result of Britains special relationships with the United States and now with China and India, given the Prime Ministers recent visits, that influence has been enhanced. Those connections will ensure that the UK will always have influence in Europe. This treaty is good for Britain, good for the country as a whole, and good for the European Union.