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20 Feb 2008 : Column 395
2.50 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) began by parading his history of Euroscepticism; he then explained that he was going to support the Lisbon treaty. It would be better if we saw such open-mindedness in all parties in the House. He has made a judgment on the facts, not on the fantasy.

On the subject of fantasy, I should say that the speech made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) reminded me of my old scout leader—

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

Mr. Davey: No. My old scout leader had a great capacity for telling scary ghost stories around the camp fire, frightening the naive younger cubs, but amusing the informed and experienced. The right hon. Gentleman’s speech fooled no one, especially when he was forced to admit that the Conservatives oppose every single measure on common foreign and security policy in the treaty.

A feature of our debates on the treaty has been that the Conservatives have sounded their opposition to everything with great tales of alarm. They have given warnings of doom, like a Dad’s Army made up only of Private Frazers. Given our current position on European and foreign defence policies, the Conservatives are about as relevant and useful as Dad’s Army—out of touch, not only with Europe, but with NATO and the United States of America.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider his remarks about people, some of whom are still alive, who did this country a very good service during the second world war.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Lady has shown how out of touch she is; I was clearly talking about the programme “Dad’s Army”, which is a comedy.

As I will show, the Conservatives’ position is far worse than merely outdated—it is astonishingly inconsistent and incoherent, as was manifestly obvious when one listened to the gaps between the jokes made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I am happy to make it crystal clear that the Liberal Democrats broadly welcome the treaty’s modest changes on common foreign and security policy. Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I stress the word “modest”. Despite the hysteria being whipped up by some, the changes wrought by the treaty involve no new powers for Brussels, but a simple and sensible reallocation of powers between those responsible for that area of policy in Brussels.

Foreign and security policy remains in the control of member states, as it always has been. Britain retains its veto on all key decisions—that is how radical the treaty is on that point.

Ms Gisela Stuart: I urge the hon. Gentleman to be cautious when using the word “modest”; “modest” proposals have a rather strange history. He has talked about the coherence of policy. Will he confirm whether the Lib Dems in Westminster agree with the Lib Dems in Brussels, or whether there is a divergence of opinion?

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Mr. Davey: We certainly agree with most of our colleagues in the Brussels Parliament. I am sure that there are members of the Conservative party in the Brussels Parliament who do not agree with those in the Westminster Parliament. However, we will come to that.

The modest changes see the abolition of one foreign policy bureaucrat, a change in the chairing arrangements of one committee and the rationalisation of the management of existing policy levers and staff—real harum-scarum stuff. That is not to say that the changes are not useful and necessary; they certainly are. Why? Because the EU has rightly been criticised, and not only within Europe, for having confusing, inefficient and sometimes even chaotic foreign policy and defence structures. The organisational changes are long overdue and we must hope that they address the problems.

Mr. Harper: On the subject of clarifying confusing matters, can the hon. Gentleman confirm what the leader of the Liberal Democrats has been reported as saying on Fraser Nelson’s “Coffee House” blog? He apparently said that he has decided after all to allow his 65 MPs to abstain on the issue of a referendum. Is that true, or will they all be whipped to oppose it?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see how we vote on the night. However, what is interesting— [Interruption.] One of the interesting things in the treaty in respect of EU developments and procedures is the proposal for constructive abstention; I think that that is a very good idea.

Let us look at the problems of EU foreign and security policy and at the reforms and their benefits more closely. First, there has been the problem that responsibility for driving the EU debates on foreign policy was divided between three people—the holder of the current post of high representative, the Commissioner for External Relations and the six-monthly rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers. Does anyone seriously wish to defend that system? It was confusing enough for Europeans, let alone others from the US or China who wanted to talk to a genuine voice.

The new arrangement is not without its problems; the new president of the Council may try to usurp some status from the newly titled EU high representative, for example. However, when member states collectively and unanimously decide a position, they can now at least entrust the implementation of that decision to a more permanent, professional and coherent bureaucracy—and therefore hold it to account far more effectively.

There was the crazy problem that the policy levers of sticks and carrots—mainly through aid and trade arrangements—were under the Commission and not readily available to the high representative. That created delays even when there was strong political will and consensus. Quick, effective decision making can be essential during crises and the new arrangements give EU Ministers, acting unanimously, the sporting chance of achieving that more easily.

There was also the bizarre situation of the high representative not controlling the Commission’s delegations to non-member states, often having to rely on the embassies of whichever country held the presidency for that six months. It was a real hit and miss affair. The European external action service, although largely a rebranding of
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existing EU delegations and offices, once again has the potential to assist the new EU high representative and ensure that the operations are fit for purpose for an integrated EU foreign policy.

We could, of course, talk about many other changes, although I believe that they are even less controversial or substantial. Other speakers have touched on them. I am thinking, for example, of the extension of the operational remit of the EU in common security and defence policy, to take on all the so-called Petersberg tasks—for example, humanitarian and rescue tasks and crisis management, including peacekeeping and conflict prevention. There is also the extension of qualified majority voting in some aspects of the implementation of foreign and common security policy decisions, themselves taken by unanimity. However, as the Foreign Secretary said, that is not in itself novel to the treaties.

Then there is the new article on the United Nations Security Council, which so perturbed the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. The dramatic, the amazing, the quite extraordinary change that that treaty amendment makes is to ensure that when France and Britain have already agreed with our other 25 partners in the EU on a common position, we should, as a matter of course, always ask the Security Council whether the high representative can present the EU’s common position. Does that “revolution” mean that Britain will have to stay silent? No. Will it mean that we forfeit our right to vote? No. Will we be excluded from all the back-room, corridor dealings that inevitably precede a meeting of the Security Council? No. It simply means that a policy position that we support gets presented again, with the force of a spokesman who represents 27 member states—only modern-day Conservatives would oppose that minor change that is in our national interest.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): If all the changes are so minor and modest, why is the hon. Gentleman breaking his pledge, made to his constituents at the last election, on a referendum? Why does he think some of his colleagues will not join him in abstaining or voting against a referendum, but will join the Conservatives to get a referendum?

Mr. Davey: I am not breaking my pledge, because I will be backing a referendum on whether we are in or out. That is the closest question to a referendum on a constitutional treaty.

The constitutional treaty will contain the treaties from Maastricht, from Rome, from Nice, from Amsterdam and from the Single European Act. A referendum on that treaty was in effect an in-or-out referendum, as we said at the time. We are keeping our pledge; the problem is that the Conservatives are trying to pretend that a pledge for a referendum on the reform treaty—a minor amending treaty—in any way meets their proposal. That is because the Conservatives are totally split on Europe. They would not be prepared to go to the people on the question whether Britain should be in or out.

Mr. Burns: Could the hon. Gentleman just for once, and uncharacteristically as a Liberal Democrat, be honest? In his election literature in 2005, did he say to his electorate that he would campaign for a referendum
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on whether to be in or out of Europe, or did he campaign for a referendum on the constitutional changes, which is a completely different thing?

Mr. Davey: I am not saying that they are exactly the same, and I did not say that. I campaigned for a referendum on the constitutional treaty, which is not the Lisbon reform treaty. Let us be clear about this. The two treaties are 90 per cent. the same. The genetic structures of a mouse and a human being are 90 per cent. the same, but the 10 per cent. difference is significant. If the hon. Gentleman cannot see that, he does himself a real injustice.

Mr. MacShane: Was the hon. Gentleman in the House when the shadow Defence Secretary, who was for about six months the shadow Foreign Secretary, said that, as a doctor, he recognised death when he saw it, and that after the French and Dutch no, the constitutional treaty, as then written, was dead? Now we have the miracle of Lazarus in front of us saying that it has been brought back to life and must be voted on again.

Mr. Davey: The right hon. Gentleman’s interventions are always very amusing.

We broadly welcome the Lisbon treaty and the changes in it, but there are inevitably a number of unresolved issues that raise legitimate questions, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary—or his colleague, the Minister for Europe—can address them as they respond to the debate. In seeking those answers, he should not think that Liberal Democrat Members suspect some dark conspiracy is afoot—we just ask him in the spirit of genuine inquiry.

Perhaps the least clear element of the package before us is how the European external action service will work. I hope we can get some clarity on that, as I believe that it has the potential for delivering tangible benefits for UK citizens by increasing the availability of consular assistance while reducing costs to the taxpayer. What chance will this House have to scrutinise proposals for taking forward the European external action service? How will it be monitored in the future? For example, will the European Parliament, or this Parliament, have a role in the overview of its budget? What specific steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to ensure that our own diplomatic service—and the rest of Whitehall, from the Department for International Development to the Ministry of Defence, and so on—can engage fully with the newly structured European external action service, so that UK civil servants play their usual starring roles?

In terms of policy development in the UK now, how will the UK national security strategy be assisted by the new apparatus? Will the European security strategy, which received such a broad welcome, feature in whatever new domestic ideas are under consideration?

Finally, on defence aspects, do Her Majesty’s Government have any plans to launch any particular initiatives under the permanent structured co-operation arrangements when the Lisbon treaty comes into force?

I partly single out those arrangements because I have been astonished by how hostile the Conservatives seem to be towards them. Their party argues for a multi-speed Europe; it invented the idea of opting out in Europe. Its
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defence spokesman has had the brass neck to attack the proposals for permanent structured co-operation, saying that it

I thought that that was the Conservatives’ approach to the European Union. It is simply breath-taking.

Then we come to the inconsistency of the position adopted by the shadow Foreign Secretary. I have been fascinated to see how often he demands or supports action by the EU on one day, but on the next opposes anything and everything that increases the EU’s ability to act—he is always willing the ends, and never willing the means. So, on one day, he says, on Russia and the Litvinenko affair:

Then he says, in opposition to the proposed EU high representative in the Lisbon treaty:

On another day, he says, on Darfur, that Britain

but then on another occasion says that an EU diplomatic service is “unacceptable”. On Iraq, on one day he will say,

Yet back in his leadership days, he complained that the then Prime Minister had signed up at Nice

I am afraid that he is wriggling, writhing and, above all, wrong on those issues.

Perhaps it has something to do with the right hon. Gentleman having three former Conservative Foreign Secretaries sitting with him in Parliament, with 14 years of office between them, who support the Lisbon treaty’s foreign and defence policy proposals, and having to reconcile their views with those of his Back Benchers and, often, his Front-Bench spokespeople.

Mr. Burns: On the question of inconsistency, what does the hon. Gentleman say to his senior colleagues, and some junior ones, who perhaps do not have the luxury of a leafy suburb constituency in London but represent seats in the south-west, and who may not be going into the same Lobby as him on a referendum on whether the treaty should be enacted?

Mr. Davey: I would say to them that they should ignore everything that the hon. Gentleman ever says.

It is interesting to read what the Conservative Member of the European Parliament, Caroline Jackson, said this week in the Financial Times, when she called the Conservatives’ attitude to Europe a “poisonous fungus”. She said that they are getting a reputation for bad manners towards their continental allies, and that the time warp of the party’s European attitudes has two damaging effects, one being that the right-wing, “nasty” and dogmatic aspects of the party—so off-putting to
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voters from 1997 to 2005—are still alive; and she makes it clear that she thinks the Conservatives are unelectable until they sort this out.

We are sometimes told that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has been searching for his clause IV moment. Some said that he found it, then bottled it, over grammar schools. Yet the truth is that the Conservatives’ real clause IV is Europe, and the fact that so few of them realise that shows how far away they are from power. When Lisbon is ratified, as it will be, the debate on EU foreign and defence policy will move on, leaving the Tories beached once more. Yet that debate is crucial. Take Kosovo. Whisper it for now, but the EU may be the secret that unlocks sustainable peace in the western Balkans, with many nations acting together—yes, with their differences, but still able to act together peacefully to help other people on our shared continent through the largest civilian European security and defence policy mission to date.

Take the relationship between the EU’s defence initiatives and NATO—one of the Conservatives’ bêtes noires. Here President Sarkozy, with his rapprochement with Washington and his clear desire to return France to NATO’s structures, is showing leadership that Britain should surely respond to and encourage. The choice that the Conservatives say that we must make in defence policy—either the US and NATO or the EU—has always been a false one, but the new incumbent at the Élysée palace is making that ever clearer. Then take what is perhaps the EU’s most significant new strategic relationship for this century—that with China. There is now a steady stream of works attempting to divine what the Chinese think of Europe. Inevitably, it is hardly conclusive, nor should it determine our policy. However, from the perspective of a country the size of China, with the diversity of China, the view that Europe needs to get its act together and speak and act more coherently comes across loud and clear.

In the debates on the amendments, I hope to say more about defence, particularly missile defence, but let me now touch on the most crucial EU relationship of all—that with the US. When we look at the rapidly reducing field of candidates for US President, we can clearly see that the days of a White House full of unilateralist neo-cons have gone. The next US Administration will not seek to conscript a coalition of the willing—it will seek to coax a co-operation of colleagues. Europe must prepare for that.

The many failings of Europe in foreign, security and defence policies in the past need to be addressed, so that we can renew and strengthen Europe’s relationship with the US. Yes, that does mean challenging others about their investment in military capacity, but it also means building trust, commitment and structures, so that Europe can be a better partnership. Of course, NATO is essential to that process, but the experience of Afghanistan must surely make those who thought NATO was the unique answer to an EU-US partnership want to review their position. An EU that can agree common positions on foreign and defence policy will be a bulwark and a bolster to NATO.

Indeed, it is through close relationships developed throughout the policy arena within the EU that the chances of building more effective and sustainable alliances will be made stronger, not weaker. The most anti-American
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thing one could do is to reject the proposals before us, and retreat into a balkanised bilateralism that has often failed us in the past.

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