Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Hague: If the people of Ireland can have a referendum, the people of Britain have every ability to hold one. We suggest not a Committee stage throughout
5 Mar 2008 : Column 1766
the country, but that once the Bill has passed through Parliament, and before it receives Royal Assent, there should be a referendum so that people can give their verdict. The voters of France and of Holland had a referendum, and the people of Britain should have the referendum that they were promised.

Geraldine Smith: The right hon. Gentleman says that the people of France and of the Netherlands had a chance to vote in a referendum, yet he says that the treaty is the same as the constitution. If so, what did their vote achieve?

Mr. Hague: It certainly did not lead to their withdrawal from the European Union—some people claim that voting on the treaty is the same as withdrawal. The hon. Lady might well ask what the votes achieved. The European leaders went away and tweaked and tinkered with the constitution and brought it back under a different name, which brings me to a point that I wanted to make.

The treaty was designed to seem different. In the words of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who wrote the original document:

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): That is the French.

Mr. Hague: The Minister says that that is the French, but here come the Belgians. The then Belgian Foreign Minister put it honestly when he said:

I give full marks to Giuliano Amato, the former Italian Interior Minister, who said last year that it was

1 pm

At least that was a disarmingly honest admission of what was going on. Hardly anybody has been fooled—except, unfortunately, some of the party leaders in the House of Commons. In spite of the deliberate attempt to baffle the people of this and other countries, which should in itself redouble the determination of the people’s elected representatives to secure a referendum, it is not beyond the wit of interested human beings to come up with a comparative analysis of the constitution and the Lisbon treaty.

Malcolm Bruce: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I must complete this point, but I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman in due course.

5 Mar 2008 : Column 1767

A comparative analysis is, however, beyond the capabilities of the Foreign Office, it seems. Throughout last autumn, the initial answers to the written questions that I had tabled to the Foreign Secretary asking for a comparative, clause-by-clause analysis were simply delaying replies, as Ministers worked out how to avoid publishing something so deeply inconvenient to their argument. In the end, the Foreign Secretary just refused to do so, relying on the discredited mantra that the constitutional concept had been abandoned, which was not conducive to open debate. From a Government who are supposedly committed to freedom of information and transparency, that should not be acceptable to Parliament.

As a result, it has been left to others to perform the comparative analysis with intellectual rigour and honesty. The European Scrutiny Committee has published a table showing that the overwhelming majority of the constitution’s provisions are replicated in the Lisbon treaty. We always say that we will try not to get the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, who is reading at the moment, into too much trouble, but the Minister for Europe has told us that the hon. Gentleman is in so much trouble as it is that that does not matter any more. The hon. Gentleman said that

Another analysis showed that of the 250 main provisions in the constitution, 240 are replicated in the Lisbon treaty. Every cross-party analysis of the treaty has reached the same conclusion. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Hague: I must give way to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mike Gapes: Will the right hon. Gentleman also remind the House that my Committee decided in two specific votes—by nine votes to three and by eight votes to four—to reject moves for a referendum on this treaty?

Mr. Hague: It is well known that that was what the Committee decided on a referendum; I am discussing whether the Lisbon treaty and the constitution are the same. The hon. Gentleman’s Committee and the report, with which he presumably agreed, said that, on foreign affairs, the treaty and the constitution are exactly the same.

Malcolm Bruce: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I shall, because I promised I would.

Malcolm Bruce: Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that a constitution that would have swept away every treaty from the treaty of Rome to the treaty
5 Mar 2008 : Column 1768
of Nice, and incorporated them in a single document capable of being determined on a yes or no vote, is quite different from a set of rules that are bound to incorporate changes, if they are going to advance the workings of the European Union? That is the fundamental difference. If the right hon. Gentleman is successful tonight in the Lobby, secures a referendum and campaigns for a no vote, how will he explain and interpret what the British people want the Government to do next?

Mr. Hague: The right hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a fundamental difference between the documents, but my argument is that there is no fundamental difference between them. Let me complete the answer to that, and I shall come to his second point in due course.

Faced with that onslaught of evidence and analysis from independent commentators and Committees of this House, the promise breakers have made their last stand on one forlorn but intriguing argument—the “mouse” argument, originally introduced, I think, by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will explain later who originally came up with it. That argument concedes that the Lisbon treaty is indeed 90 per cent., or thereabouts, the same as the constitution, “But,” it goes on, with an air of triumph inappropriate to the facts available, “a mouse is 90 per cent. genetically the same as a human being, and it is the 10 per cent. difference that really counts.”

The difference between a man and a mouse is indeed a fascinating question, and if Liberal Democrat Front Benchers vote for a referendum tonight, the performance of their leader might be part of the analysis of that difference. Even if we bend over backwards to accommodate that view, however, by no stretch of the imagination do the changes made between the two documents turn the man-like constitution into the mouse-like treaty of Lisbon.

Compared with the constitution, the Lisbon treaty contains some improvements, such as the explicit ruling out of European Court of Justice competence in foreign policy and the six words on climate change, which we debated last week. They are nice to have, but they make no material difference to the policies, powers or procedures of the EU. The changes between the constitution and the Lisbon treaty also take one important step backwards—the removal of the commitment to undistorted competition within the EU from the overriding objectives of the European treaties—but the vast majority of the rest is the same.

Mike Gapes: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I know that we are in Committee, and I am trying to give way as much as I can, but I must be allowed to make an argument.

Why have the debates in this House on this treaty over the past six weeks been in essence the same as the public debate that raged about the European constitution? We would not be arguing about the same things if the two documents were fundamentally different. The Government are fond of alleging that the Conservative party is alone in its view of European affairs—they always omit to mention that they
5 Mar 2008 : Column 1769
opposed vast tracts of the treaty to which they have now signed up—but on the issue of whether the constitution and the treaty are the same, it is the Government who are alone in Europe.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) rose—

Mr. Hague: I give way to the author of the “mouse” argument.

Hon. Members: Squeak, squeak!

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is as usual making an amusing speech. However, will he deal with the substance for a change? Will he give a proper answer about the difference between the provisions of the constitutional treaty and the Lisbon treaty on justice and home affairs, which are among the most significant changes proposed by the constitutional treaty? Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that there are now major opt-ins that make a complete difference to how the Lisbon treaty affects the United Kingdom? Will he agree with that on the record?

Mr. Hague: We had that discussion just 10 minutes ago. Of course there are changes between the Lisbon treaty and the constitution, and I have just listed some others. However, they do not equate to the difference between a man and a mouse, which is the argument here.

The Spanish Prime Minister has said:

The Finnish Europe Minister has said:

The German Chancellor has said:

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I must proceed for another few minutes.

The Government cannot argue that the treaty is different and that the referendum is unnecessary because they have met their four red lines, which relates to the point that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has just made. One of the red lines was that the treaty should have no impact on tax policy. The fact that the impact on tax is the same in the treaty as it was in the constitution is clear—there is no impact at all. It was only ever a red herring that Tony Blair invented when he was before the Liaison Committee.

The second red line is that there should be no loss of independence in foreign policy—that can be debated in respect of either document—but other than the renaming of the foreign minister as the high representative, almost nothing has changed between the two documents.

5 Mar 2008 : Column 1770

A third red line—claimed by Tony Blair at the Dispatch Box in front of me at the end of June in his last days in office—was a clear opt-out from the charter of fundamental rights, but the Minister for Europe has since told us:

That is a total reversal of what the former Prime Minister said, and he is no longer here to explain that to the House of Commons.

The final red line was the opt-in on justice and home affairs. The value of that has been debated, and the European Scrutiny Committee has cast doubts on parts of it. The Government claim to have met their red lines, although few objective analysts agree with them, but when they promised a referendum they made exactly the same claim about their red lines.

So, what has really changed between Tony Blair standing at the Dispatch Box and saying

about a referendum in April 2004, and the current Prime Minister saying, “Let battle be avoided at any cost, and please don’t let me be photographed at the signing ceremony”? Only two things have changed: the general election of 2005 was got out of the way, and the Government decided that a referendum could not be held because they did not think that they would win it. The Prime Minister who did not have the bottle to call a general election he had prepared for is the same Prime Minister who does not have the courage or honour to hold a referendum that he has promised.

As a result, this treaty is devoid of any democratic mandate or legitimacy, which is a rarity in the history of European treaties. The authority of the Wilson Government in the ’60s to pursue entry negotiations into the then European Economic Community derived from a clear commitment in their election manifesto. The mandate of the Conservative Government elected in 1970 to complete those entry negotiations was based on an explicit manifesto commitment. The Labour Government elected in 1974 said that they would hold a referendum, and they did. The Conservative manifesto in 1992 included the intention to ratify the treaty of Maastricht. However, nowhere did the Labour manifesto of 2005 say that if the constitution were defeated elsewhere in Europe, it would be brought back with a few tweaks or that a commitment to a British referendum would be abandoned.

The opportunity to call a general election last autumn, with the ratification of the treaty proposed in the Government’s manifesto, was not taken up. Given that the treaty brings about major changes in the way in which Britain is governed, the Government have nowhere—neither in a general election nor in a referendum—requested or received the authority and consent of the people. The absence of such authority damages the democratic legitimacy of the European Union in the eyes of the electorate. The unwillingness of those who favour a treaty of this kind to submit their views to the electorate contributes neither to democracy nor to the quality of argument.

In a speech last month to the Centre for European Reform, the Foreign Secretary was reported to have
5 Mar 2008 : Column 1771
said that once the new EU treaty had been ratified, pro-Europeans in Britain, as he termed them, would have no more excuses in trying to combat public hostility to the EU. The implication is that, once the treaty is ratified without the voters’ consent, Ministers must start working on the voters in order to encourage them to favour such things. What is wrong with trying to persuade the voters of the merits of the case before ratification, rather than afterwards? What does it say about the convictions of politicians when they reserve their arguments for following quietly in the wake of decisions, rather than arguing boldly for them in advance? It tells us that their calculations are more important than their convictions. As one commentator wrote yesterday in The Independent:

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I think that the United Kingdom negotiated a good deal. Indeed, many in France would say that the rejection of the constitutional treaty in a referendum has led to a worse deal for France on the Lisbon treaty. If the right hon. Gentleman had his way, and there were a referendum and it were lost, what evidence does he have that the UK could renegotiate a better treaty for itself? In that case, would he wish to return to the status quo ante, with, as he believes, the EU functioning not very well?

Mr. Hague: Of course, there are many arguments, which are probably beyond the scope of the amendment—they are certainly beyond the time available for my speech—about what could be achieved in different situations and through different negotiations. We could go into all the arguments about what would have happened if the Government had actually taken a lead in the past two years, rather than sitting immobile and allowing this to be done to them—declaring the constitution dead two years ago. They could have negotiated many things more successfully. The argument that we cannot possibly ever say no for fear of what would happen afterwards is a strange argument in a democracy. This House must be able to come to a judgment, and the country should be able to come to a judgment, when it has been promised the opportunity to do so. The Government’s refusal to call a referendum—

Mr. Davey rose—

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD) rose—

Mr. Hague: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), then I shall try to conclude.

Mr. Foster: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. On the answer he just gave, he has been asked about that matter three times already. One of the great merits of an in/out referendum is that there is total clarity about the implications, whatever result is obtained. There is a total lack of clarity about the referendum he proposes. Just once, would he answer this fundamental question: what would be the implications of a “no” result in the referendum he seeks?

Next Section Index Home Page