Previous Section Index Home Page

7.59 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): For some of us, this debate and what it presages impart a degree of nostalgia. Those of us who went through the nightmare experience of Maastricht and the ratification process—I was a Europe spokesman for our party at the time—are returning, 15 years later, to something that may be similar but which we hope will not be too similar, in political drama and the hours involved.

I have two recollections from that period. One is of the emergence of the so-called night watchmen. Some are still with us, fellow survivors. I think of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who is sitting at the back of the Chamber now, and of others such as Sir Teddy Taylor, the up-and-coming young right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and Jonathan Aitken. The procedures of the House at the time meant that we sat literally throughout the night. My other recollection is of emerging, blinking, into the morning to observe the passage of the seasons as the process unfolded over the months and months that it took. I think that parliamentary procedures have changed for the better since then. Let us hope that the general tenor of our discussion over the coming weeks will also have improved over the intervening decade and a half, and that we do not experience another debate in which the indefatigable meets the interminable.

I do not want to make my brief speech in any particular party political context, because that has already been done. I want to say a few words in the context of my position as president of the European Movement, an all-party organisation that also contains many individuals of non-party political affiliation.

Mr. Hands: Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of party politics, will he be helpful and give us an explanation of the Liberal Democrat policy? He has said that the party is in favour of an in-or-out referendum, but that it is opposed to a referendum on the treaty because it is afraid that it will become an in-or-out referendum. Is he in favour of an in-or-out referendum or not?

Mr. Kennedy: The experience of all political parties suggests that when former leaders are asked to interpret policy on behalf of their successors they are rarely helpful to anyone, least of all the successor in question. None the less, my sense of parliamentary duty leads me to try to be helpful.

My answer is simply this. I voted for a referendum over Maastricht, for example. At that point our number were split almost 50:50, and the split was almost generational. Those who, like me, had not been around at the time of the previous referendum were enthusiastic about the idea, while those who had—people such as
21 Jan 2008 : Column 1289
David Steel, Russell Johnston and Bob Maclennan—were definitely not. It was an interesting gauge at the time.

I have always taken the view that, at some point in British politics, there must be a further redefining referendum on the European issue. What form it might take and on what hook it might have to be hung, whether it be Maastricht, a single currency or the original prospect of a constitution which has now evolved—I use that word to be as neutral as possible—into the treaty revision in Lisbon, a referendum to lance the European boil one way or another in British politics cannot be averted indefinitely. Indeed, I am surprised that it has not happened already.

To pick from the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) about discussing some of these matters during his private conversations with Tony Blair in the run-up to the last election, I remember having equivalent, separate private conversations along similar lines, when the then Prime Minister was trying to persuade me, as Liberal Democrat leader, to get the Liberal Democrats out of their stated position of favouring a referendum on the principle of a single currency. I said that I was not at all minded to do that, because I thought that it was the right policy and so did my colleagues. He said “But you do realise, Charles, that if we had a referendum the French would not touch it, the Germans would not want anything to do with it, and it would paralyse my entire Government for six months?” That was in the run-up to a period during which he decided to invade Iraq, which, I would suggest, paralysed his Government for a hell of a lot longer than six months. It is remarkable how the arguments can change.

I think that there will have to be a referendum. I also think that, whatever the issue, the argument will evolve, as many arguments have—they did when we debated Maastricht, and I suspect that they will again over coming weeks as the hours wear on and tempers become frayed—into, essentially, the question “Are you in and engaged with Europe, or are you disengaged and therefore effectively stepping back from Europe?” That is why I think that the position we are advocating in that respect is consistent and honest.

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

Mr. Kennedy: I am very short of time, but I like the hon. Gentleman. He is good entertainment value, and we will look to him in hope over the coming weeks.

Mr. Davidson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but surely he was guilty of gross exaggeration when he suggested that the Liberal Democrats were split 50:50. It was more like 6:6.

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify something for us? If I show him my motion, will he show me his? Can we hold both referendums together? I am quite happy to vote for us to stay in Europe if he is prepared to vote for us to abandon the treaty.

Mr. Kennedy: Even I, in my parliamentary and leadership dotage, can recognise that as not being a very good deal from either a personal or a Liberal Democrat point of view. I think I will pass on it, but I will refer it to the leader of my party.

21 Jan 2008 : Column 1290

It seems to me that there are just three big points of principle that should lead us to vote for the Bill’s Second Reading—as my party will—and to want the treaty to come into being and subsequently into operation. As the Prime Minister has said, that will enable us as a country to go beyond Lisbon and get on with the job of Europe, under the revised mechanisms envisaged here.

First, there is the issue of enlargement. Whether or not the present mechanism would lead to gridlock, as many fear—myself included—I think that everyone will acknowledge that it can be improved, and that the treaty offers a mechanism for such improvement. We hear concerns, expressed today with characteristic wit by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), about the accrual of power that can take place in certain positions in institutions at European Union level. Talk to people in and around the Commission—talk to the Commissioners themselves—and what do they say about the Cabinet style of Commission government? They say that the larger the Commission becomes—the more Commissioners there are—the greater is the propensity for items on the agenda not to be addressed properly, and to be referred back to the Commission President. There is a steady accrual and centralising of power in his office, simply because of the sheer growth in the size of the Commission. That office cannot be kept in check to the extent that is healthy and necessary, which is why the relevant provision in the treaty is so important.

The second issue has already been touched on. Whether we call this a treaty or a constitution—I am not into the semantic argument—I have always told my friends of Eurosceptic outlook that they are the people who should be most emphatically in favour of some codification of the responsibilities of the institutions of Europe, the rights of redress of the citizens of Europe when they are dissatisfied with those institutions, and ultimately, if they take the most profoundly Eurosceptical view, the right of a nation state to have an agreed legal mechanism enabling it to withdraw from Europe. What we have before us provides that mechanism, and it therefore seems to me that the sceptics more than anyone else, if they chose to pursue a different argument from the one that they have pursued, could commend much of the treaty revision.

Thirdly, it depends on how we see our position in the world. Everyone agrees now, since the end of the cold war and all the rest, that we live in a multipolar world. As one who is both a pro-American and a pro-European, I do not think that the British position vis- -vis the United States or Europe is an either/or, and I hope that it never becomes that. However, whether there is a continuation of the style and substance of the present Bush presidency, which I hope does not happen, or whether the new president is a Democrat—and I am under no illusions there either—the fact remains that we cannot hope as an individual country to influence the direction of global United States foreign policy to the extent that we can as full top-table participants in the European Union. That is the choice that is increasingly opening up for our country, and I hope that this treaty provides a way of developing it through the foreign policy process that it will put in train with a view to the future.

My final point is on a matter that the Minister for Europe knows about only too well—as might the
21 Jan 2008 : Column 1291
Foreign Secretary, who made a commendably pro-Europe speech, unlike some Government Members. Let us use language accurately to commend the treaty.

8.10 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, referred in his contribution to the modern Conservative party, but I do not know quite what he meant by that. That said, we heard some interesting speeches from Conservative Members. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made a typically well thought-out speech outlining his particular, very progressive views, which have not changed over the years and which put Britain in the right context within Europe. We also heard a speech from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who described himself as a mild Eurosceptic. When he said that, I looked at the faces of some of his colleagues, and when he sat down having finished his speech I think they were thinking that he is not quite the mild Euro-sceptic he had claimed to be, as his views seem to be a lot nearer to those of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench, helped to clarify in my mind the nature of the modern Conservative party. It was clear that he could not command his party behind his position, and that there were too many influential members of the party who had taken a thoughtful and independent view about the role of Britain in the European Union. He made an excellent speech in technical terms, and it was very humorous in his usual fashion, but he expressed the views of the old Conservative party back when he led it, when he used many foreign policy wickets to bat against the EU, believing that that reflected the view of the British people. He got caught out then, and I predict that if the Conservative party continues on that track, it will get caught out yet again.

Kelvin Hopkins: The old Conservative party that I remember got us into the EU or Common Market in the first place, and it also got us into the Single European Act, the exchange rate mechanism and signed us up to Maastricht. That was the old Conservative party. The current party is rather different.

Mr. Henderson: I remember an older Conservative party that was colonialist and imperialist and wanted to impose little England principles throughout the whole of the world; it depends on what historical time perspective we relate to.

The issues before this House tonight are very straightforward. If a Member is to vote against the treaty, they must be convinced and be able to demonstrate that it is against Britain’s interests, and if they have any commitment to the European ideal of keeping peace, stability and economic prosperity in Europe, they must also be able to demonstrate that it is against Europe’s interests.

21 Jan 2008 : Column 1292

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Henderson: I think I have given way enough, as I know that other Members wish to speak.

Let us take the test of Britain’s interests. If a Member believes that Britain should be a modern, progressive European state and, as the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) said, that it should be able to speak convincingly in a European context even sometimes after having spoken to the Americans, it must be credible in its relationships with the other EU partners. We must be credible on economic policy, on the single market, on the environmental issues—which most Members would probably agree can only be resolved internationally—and on foreign and security policy. The red line in that area is important as I believe the British people want to be able to have a distinction on foreign and defence policy, but in terms of most of the current challenges we face in the world we have no option but to work with, not against, our EU colleagues. We have to work with them, and we will not be able to have influence unless we have credibility. The treaty passes the British test of having a modern Britain in Europe.

Is it the right treaty for Europe? If a Member wishes to vote against it on that basis, they must be able to demonstrate that it would cause more damage in Europe than it would cause benefit. The treaty’s proposals are reasonably modest. They help to bind the EU together, and to establish a stronger relationship with the larger EU countries, which is demonstrated in the new regulations on voting powers that will come into place. It is also important that those countries feel a common bond with the new, emerging states. There has been agreement on that. If we look at the responses of the emerging states in the EU at the various Councils where these matters have been discussed, it is clear that they more than anyone else agree—Poland, perhaps, excepted, although it has also come round—that this is an important contribution to moving forward and to helping bind them into what they believe the EU is about. They want to be part of an EU that seeks to live in peace and stability. They want to have a demonstrable say in foreign affairs, and to have a sensible economic system that allows enterprise and growth but also looks after social concerns. When I visit the new countries, those are the issues that they say are important to them. If Members believe that that is the case, they have no case to argue against the treaty on the grounds that it is not in the interests of Europe.

The treaty is in the interests of Britain and Europe, but there are other questions that must be resolved, such as the referendum. I must admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about having a commitment to a referendum. Now the question is whether there is a difference between the constitutional proposition that was initially put forward and the treaty. That relates to what the original constitution and the treaty have to say about security policy and the role of the nation state. Those are important points, which we might address in more detail in Committee. However, the basic issue is that the constitution brought together the previous treaties and established a constitutional basis for the future of Europe so that if anyone wanted to amend it, they knew what they were amending. It was a
21 Jan 2008 : Column 1293
fundamental constitution that would bind together the EU countries. The treaty is not that; instead, it represents the same kind of development that came about as a result of the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, and it is of far less consequence than the Maastricht treaty, whose impact was much more fundamental.

Should there be a referendum? I know we will come on to that in our 20 days of consideration. If the treaty is different from the constitution, the commitment that the Government gave does not carry forward to the treaty. Therefore, it is proper that this House should say, “Setting that aside, is it valid for us to allow the British people a referendum on the treaty that is currently before the House?” If it was not valid to have a referendum on the Maastricht treaty all those years ago, what is the case for having one now? In anyone’s calculation, this treaty is far less significant than the Maastricht treaty. If we have a referendum on this treaty, the EU will become ungovernable in the future should other countries want to have referendums on every single development and change that the EU must make in order to bring itself up to date with whatever are the issues of the day.

The House should support the Second Reading, and I see no case for a referendum.

8.19 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): When the Second Reading goes through tonight, as we assume it probably will, the European caravan will move on and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and a number of others will doubtless cheer, but the issue of principle is clear. We should oppose this treaty because it undermines this country and its voters, it was pushed through by deceit in the first place and it was rammed through by the Whips.

The Government pretend that they are drawing red lines. Tony Blair, whose last defiant week in office was dedicated to his potential future as President of Europe, had the last laugh on the Prime Minister as he substituted Europe and his own potential supremacy in place of that of his former Government. The red lines have as much chance of holding back the tide of European law as King Canute had when he predicted that it would be possible to hold back the sea.

I see an avalanche of European laws in the European Scrutiny Committee week after week. It is like a tsunami of the kind clearly predicted by Lord Denning in those legal cases so many years ago.

Mr. Morley: I do not think it fair to say that there is nothing of benefit in this treaty. The House has heard, for example, the child protection benefits in terms of development. Most importantly, it contains big environmental improvements in sustainable development and climate change. How can the Conservative party be taken seriously on the environment when it is prepared to vote against those improvements in the treaty?

Mr. Cash: It is because the issue of principle, for me at any rate, on this Second Reading is whether the articles of this treaty should be implemented into United Kingdom law or whether they should be renegotiated,
21 Jan 2008 : Column 1294
and where the boundaries should be between the European Union and the UK as regards our freedom, our democracy and our daily lives. The treaty, merging all the existing treaties into a new European Union, is a fundamental change, whatever the Foreign Secretary may say. It merges those treaties with the mass of accumulated functions since 1972 and would, combined with the new type of primacy that that has imported, transform the constitutions of Europe and the United Kingdom.

Bob Spink: My hon. Friend referred to an avalanche of EU law. I wonder whether he is aware of this quote from Jacques Delors, the former EU president. He said:

Does my hon. Friend think it time that we brought that day forward?

Mr. Cash: I certainly believe that we must renegotiate the treaties.

This treaty is more important than the Maastricht one. We have waited and seen for far too long. We must stop this caravan and send it back. The issue in Committee will be to decide which articles of the treaty must be renegotiated. The Government must be put to the test, and we must use the time available to be direct and effective in this battle.

Today is not exclusively a debate about a referendum, essential though that is in the national interest. A referendum is the solution to the issue of principle, because political parties, Parliament and much of the media have for so long failed to give proper time and attention to the issue, in the context of the European Union, of the great democratic principle of who governs us and how.

I am delighted that the Conservative party and its new leader are firmly behind a referendum. The Labour party was right in 1975—the Foreign Secretary should take the smile off his face—as indeed was Tony Blair on his commitment on the original constitutional Bill, persuaded into it as he was by the present Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Justice. To their shame, they have reneged on both matters. The issue is a matter not only of law, but of policy, economics and sovereignty. It is about the impact on the daily life of every person in this country, in virtually every area of policy. It deals with questions relating to schools, hospitals, public services, local and central Government—through the control over the economy—defence, foreign policy, immigration, business, law and much else besides.

Next Section Index Home Page