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26 Feb 2008 : Column 946

One of the fundamental changes that the treaty makes was referred to by the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick): the change to the work of the European Council and the Council of Ministers. The rotating presidency has been a permanent feature of the EU since its inception as the European Economic Community. It has survived thus far because it has helped to root the EU in the member states—each country has had its chance at the helm to highlight its priorities—and it has helped to give people some sense of ownership of what is going on in Europe. It is fair to say that the EU’s enlargement means that the system would benefit from some reform; I can agree with the hon. Gentleman to that extent. Not every member state has the capacity to manage a presidency by itself, and the gap between presidencies has become very long. We support the sensible reform of introducing team presidencies for Council formations; the treaty allows for that. In my view, that should have been the pattern for the presidency of the Council itself.

Mike Gapes: The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that enlargement has not made it necessary to make the reforms in question. Will he confirm for the record that he and his party are still in favour of enlargement of the European Union to include Turkey and the Balkans? Such enlargement would result in the European Union having 34 or 35 member states, rather than its current 27. In those circumstances, would he still be against the institutional reforms set out in the treaty?

Mr. Hague: I was just dealing with that point; I acknowledged the need for some changes, but along the lines of the team presidencies that I mentioned, not along the lines of a permanent president of the European Council. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question fully, I can confirm that we are certainly in favour of enlargement of the EU to include the Balkans—we think that that is vital—and, indeed, Turkey. I think that there is agreement among the Front Benchers on that point.

It is worth noting that the reform of voting weights set out in the treaty means that after 2014, voting weights will be in proportion to population. Looking to the medium and long term and the need for Turkish accession, it would be difficult to come up with a system that makes Turkish accession more difficult, because it will be harder for other countries to accept a heavily populated but relatively poor country when the proposed system for voting weights is in place in the European Council. Turkey would of course have the largest single block vote in the Council of Ministers. Much as I agree with the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that the structures set up by the treaty help the cause of Turkish accession.

Rob Marris: Good.

Mr. Hague: Well, the hon. Gentleman says that, but most of us in the House are, I think, in favour of Turkish accession, and the measures will not help.

Ms Gisela Stuart: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that capping countries’ number of seats in the European Parliament, and guaranteeing small member states a minimum of six seats, would mean that Turkey’s
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accession could not take place under the Lisbon treaty, because large countries would be so disproportionately disadvantaged that they would not put up with it?

Mr. Hague: I had not thought of that point, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady for adding to my argument. Those hon. Members who think that the treaty is the way to bring about enlargement will find that it actually puts in place great obstacles to enlargement, particularly for Turkey.

Angus Robertson rose—

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman will say that Scotland needs accession to the EU, too.

Angus Robertson: No, my intention is to draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that many people in our neighbouring Nordic countries that are not part of the EU, such as Norway, Iceland and the Faroe islands, believe that in time they might want to join the European Union. Does he think that it is more or less likely that those countries will ever join if the common fisheries policy is enshrined as an exclusive competence of the EU?

Mr. Hague: That does of course make joining more difficult for those countries; I think that I can make common cause with the hon. Gentleman on that. Under the treaty, the management of marine biological resources is made an exclusive competence of the EU under the common fisheries policy, which as he and I both know, has been an economic and ecological disaster for the United Kingdom. One would think that the way forward for fisheries policy would be a more decentralised approach, to say the least. We may differ about how that might be achieved, but a more decentralised approach is likely to be more successful. To enshrine in the treaty the management of marine resources as an exclusive competence of the European Union seems to be going in absolutely the wrong direction. That is another major problem with the treaty.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for stiffening yet further my resolve to vote in favour of the Lisbon treaty, if he is right that it will make the accession of Turkey more difficult. Turkey has been messing the European Union around for 20 years. We have been saying, “Clean up your human rights act and we’ll let you in the European Union,” but it has done almost nothing in 20 years. We should tell it to get lost.

Mr. Hague: We may be getting away from the effectiveness of EU decision making, but I strongly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He is not being fair to some of the efforts made in Turkey in recent years, although of course it has a long way to go. It is of huge geopolitical importance that the European Union should be able to welcome Turkish membership in the coming years. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman and I will have to disagree on that, but I think that there is agreement in various parts of the House that the treaty will not help with Turkish accession, much though that might fortify the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the treaty.

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Before those interventions, I was speaking about possible ways of reforming the presidencies of the European Council. The choice that has been made in the treaty is the creation of a permanent president. That is a mistake. If Ministers are sincere in their apparent belief that that will strengthen the role of member states in the EU, their naiveté about how political institutions work is rather alarming.

A central institution will necessarily develop different goals and interests from the member states. To claim, as the Minister for Europe did last week, that that is nothing to worry about because there is already a president of the European Council is unconvincing. Having a national Head of Government preside over meetings for six months is not at all the same thing as having an EU figure separate from national Governments in place for at least two and a half years, nor does it convey the ambitious role that the presidency is set to play.

One explanatory memorandum submitted to the European Union Committee in another place helpfully set out the president’s role in some detail. It is worth taking note of the memorandum as it came from the Government, in the form of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). First, it said, the president is to chair and take forward the European Council’s work. That is fairly obvious, but anyone with the slightest familiarity with the way in which political institutions work, which surely includes all of us in the House, knows that whoever chairs a meeting and manages its agenda is, in effect, in charge of it. The chairing of the Cabinet, for instance, is fundamental to the power of the Prime Minister of this country and was part of the development of the power of the Prime Minister.

When that meeting is as important as the European Council, it makes its president in his capacity as chairman a very significant figure indeed. As the memorandum goes on, the president would provide

and would co-ordinate and prepare the work of the General Affairs Council. Taken together, the president would take the lead in setting and running the EU’s whole work programme from the Council’s side—a crucial role that would play a huge part in deciding what the EU actually does.

As we have pointed out before, in the hands of a skilful politician—it would be bizarre to think that future presidents would not be exactly that—the post-holder could use his or her powers to become the leading figure in the European Union. To take the role out of— [Interruption.] If the Government think they will ever succeed in nominating me for that, they have another thing coming. To take the role out of the hands of national Governments holding it by rotation and place it in the hands of a single figure sitting at the Council table not as the representative of a nation state, but in his own right, is a fundamental change to how the EU works and it is one further illustration why there should be a referendum.

The presidency is set to play an ambitious role. According to the Government’s memorandum, the president’s job is

and to be the person

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On this, the Government are in happy agreement with the European Commission which, in a briefing paper, explains explicitly that the president is designed to answer Kissinger’s famous question, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”

The Government know full well that there are others in Europe putting the case for, eventually, direct election to that position, who believe that the establishment of the position in the treaty will open the way to that in another 10 or 15 years. That would mean a huge shift of political authority away from national Governments, and in the treaty the Government are opening the door to that. Given the importance of the post, it is extraordinary that crucial questions about how it would work in practice, what staff or secretariat would be at its service, and how, given its foreign policy role, it would interact with the high representative, have yet to be decided after the scrutiny of the treaty has been completed and after we have lost any opportunity to have a further say about it.

It was noteworthy that of all witnesses that the Foreign Affairs Committee asked about how the two posts would relate to each other, only the current high representative thought there would be no problem—an interesting pre-emptive strike in the bureaucratic turf war that the treaty will set in play.

It is not helpful to the Government’s newly favoured candidate, Mr. Tony Blair, who, it is reported, is interested in the job only if it is sufficiently important, that even his ardent advocate, the Minister for Europe, is unable to tell him whether it is worth his while because its powers have not been defined. The former Prime Minister agreed to create a post whose powers had not been set, but which someone of his abilities could very easily expand.

Although the EU’s institutions are working, there is no doubt that they could work better. One or two improvements are even in the treaty. We welcome the provision for open voting in the Council of the European Union, and I am pleased that after supporting this move and then opposing it, the Government reverted to their original position. The reduction in the number of Commissioners is also welcome, although it would be naive to represent that as taking some great scythe to European bureaucracy. It is not a cost-free reform, because there would be times when some nations with tens of millions of citizens would have no representative on the European Commission. I suspect that when we come to 2014, that will not be the end of the story.

In the light of these modest but welcome changes that were secured, it is particularly regrettable that the reactive way that the Government have approached the matter from the beginning left them unable to secure highly desirable reforms. It is astonishing that the Government made such vast concessions on so many subjects to which they attached great importance in the strongest possible terms, but they were unable to obtain even mild concessions commanding wide-ranging support in the EU, such as the establishment of a single seat for the European Parliament which, by ending the current nonsense of the endless procession between Brussels and Strasbourg, would have saved the European taxpayer €200 million a year.

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Mr. Hendrick: Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that the decision on the matter should no longer require unanimity and that the veto on the seat of the European Parliament should be given up?

Mr. Hague: No. I am saying that that should have been one of the Government’s negotiating objectives, but they never raised a whisper about that in the treaty negotiations, while giving up many other points that they had tried initially to defend.

To illustrate the point further, we do not tire of pointing out that the Government objected in the strongest terms to much of the content of the treaty. The delineation of competences, to which I have already referred briefly, is yet another example. The Government’s chief negotiator described the article on shared competences as the “worst of all worlds”. There were repeated failed attempts to have the wording changed from what the right hon. Member for Neath described as an “illustrative but not exhaustive” list. Far from providing certainty as to what powers are the EU’s and what powers are member states’, the treaty, reproducing the Commission’s text word for word, allows a vagueness that can only tend to allow the EU’s institutions to enlarge their competence at member states’ expense.

It was not just how the EU’s competences were delineated that the Government objected to, but their distribution. In repeated failed amendments the Government objected at the Convention to making competition an exclusive EU competence. It should be a shared competence, they insisted. They said that if the Community had exclusive competence in that area,

All those objections apply equally today, but it is in the treaty.

The Government also strongly and repeatedly objected to what is now proposed new article 2B(2) of the treaty, which provides for the EU to have exclusive competence to conclude international agreements under a range of circumstances. They rightly called for the deletion of that article, pointing out on this doctrine of implied competence:

yet it remains in the text. Absent, too, is the caveat that the Government called for on the common commercial policy.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: This is an extremely serious part of the treaty. Under the doctrine of exclusive competence, member states will not be able to legislate or to make bilateral agreements with other member states if the subject matter touches in any way on an internal competence of the Union, which is a very long list. How does my right hon. Friend think that this will affect the ability of the United Kingdom to conduct an independent foreign policy, given our extensive bilateral agreements with a host of other countries and organisations throughout the world as a result of our global legacy?

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Mr. Hague: We discussed foreign policy last week, and we must acknowledge that the definitions set out in the table of competences are predominantly not about foreign policy, but they do create an exclusive list. For instance, in competition, which I have just mentioned, it undoubtedly reduces the sovereign power of the nation states. So it is not adequate for the Minister to say that this is simply a clarification. There is a change going on here in the powers of the nation states.

Mr. Cash: As ever, my right hon. Friend makes an extremely good case. Does he agree that although “competence” sounds rather bureaucratic, it really means power, because it is the ability to legislate in that field that is the right of this House and of the British voters? That is the real problem, and it is draining away under the Government.

Mr. Hague: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Of course it means power. Competence here is a euphemism for power, because it is an attempt to convey to people that the recipients of this competence might also be competent at it, which is not always the case. It means a shift of power. It means exclusive power over some of these areas. I had intended to list many more, but in the interests of time, I will not.

On shared competence, the Government attempted to have trans-European networks and consumer protection kept as supplementary competences, which they are now, but again they gave way on this extension of EU power. This is equally true of the single legal personality. For the first time, the EU is explicitly endowed by treaty with its own legal personality—something that Tony Blair boasted of blocking as a potentially damaging proposal when the Amsterdam treaty was agreed.

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

Mr. Hague: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman twice, and half of the debate has gone by, so I want to skip through much of what I was going to say.

If we take these matters together—this movement of competences, the creation of the single legal personality, the creation of the presidency, the abolition of intergovernmental safeguards on criminal justice and policing, and the EU’s new powers and role in foreign policy and defence, which we discussed last week—this paves the way for a more powerful role for the EU at the expense of nation states across the board.

This enhancement of the EU’s powers should be of particular concern to the House, because for the first time an EU treaty seems to impose—the Minister discussed this in his speech and it can be argued in different directions—a legal duty on national Parliaments to the EU. He partly had that debate earlier with the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, so I will not go further into that now.

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