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5 Mar 2008 : Column 1802

Mr. Byers: Yet again, I must disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. The promise for a referendum referred to the new constitutional treaty, and we can then discuss what people believed that it stood for and so on. However, the promise concerned the new constitutional treaty, which, as we have heard, was voted down by voters in France and Holland and an attempt to resurrect it was effectively killed off. When we took over the EU presidency in July 2005, we had a period of reflection and, to everybody’s benefit, we managed to shift from the concept of a constitutional treaty to considering a measure that is far more modest in its effect—the Lisbon treaty. There was a period of reflection, and the view was taken that perhaps too much power was being given to the EU and that it was far better to get consensus from nation states, which the Lisbon treaty now reflects. That was the background to the manifesto pledge, and the commitment was to a vote on the new constitutional treaty.

There are many differences between what was discussed in 2004-05 and what we have as a result of the Lisbon treaty. The Foreign Secretary has taken us through some of the major differences in content. I was interested to hear the shadow Foreign Secretary on the radio this morning. It is unfortunate that he is not in his place, because he came up with the totally illogical argument that a referendum was needed not because of content but because of some great principle that there should be a vote. He failed to address the substantive differences between the constitutional treaty and the treaty of Lisbon, but he knows that they are major and significant. He is looking for an argument to escape from the difficult position he would be in if he had to compare the content of the two treaties.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that after the rejection of the constitutional treaty by voters in France and Holland Governments produced a document that would achieve pretty much the same things? They made what they felt were sufficient changes to deny that it is fundamentally the same. Will he not accept that this treaty is intended fundamentally to do the same job as the constitutional treaty, and that changes have been made cynically to avoid giving the people a say, not only in this country but in others across Europe?

Mr. Byers: No, I do not agree with that. Interestingly, there are different constitutional situations in different countries. My understanding is that nine countries planned to hold referendums on the old constitutional treaty, of which one was the United Kingdom. Because it was regarded as a constitutional matter, not just a political decision, many countries were legally obliged to do so. Because the Lisbon treaty is so different, there is no need to have referendums in most of those countries—I think that Ireland is the exception.

The view taken by the Dutch Council of State—an independent body that advises the Dutch Government on the steps that they must take to ratify treaties—is particularly instructive and helpful. It is a constitutional requirement that there must be a referendum on a constitutional matter, and that body advises the Dutch Government on particular measures. Its conclusion on the constitutional treaty in 2004 was that it had to be
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put to a referendum, because it would change the Dutch constitution. Its conclusion on the Lisbon treaty was quite different, stating that it

So there was a significant difference in the view and recommendations of the independent Dutch Council of State. There is clearly a difference between the two treaties, which is why eight of the nine countries that originally planned a referendum no longer do.

The treaty of Lisbon contains a modest set of proposals that will provide a stable framework to allow EU expansion to be more effective. The differences between it and the constitutional treaty are major and significant. The Foreign Secretary took us through a few of them, and, although I do not wish to detain the Committee by going through a long list, we should be prepared to recognise them.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Have not the Opposition chosen not to recognise those differences because they wish to kill the treaty? The fact that they do not have the numbers in Committee to kill it means that calling for a referendum is their last resort.

Mr. Byers: I agree absolutely. That is the hidden motive behind the Conservative party’s position. The 11 days of debate have shown the extent to which it remains divided on Europe and that a large number of Conservative Members want this country to leave the EU.

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

Mr. Byers: I will, but this will probably be the last time.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful. Is not the situation worse than the right hon. Gentleman says? The Conservative party is suggesting that, if the treaty were ratified, functioning and operational, and there were a change of Government in this country in two years’ time—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] They say “Hear, hear”, but they would disrupt the workings of 27 member states and effectively terminate Britain’s constructive engagement in Europe.

Mr. Byers: That is a helpful intervention, and the response of Conservative Members says it all. The Conservative party has no time for the whole concept of the EU, and it is turning its back on the EU just at the time when we probably need it more than ever, because of what is happening in the world in general. As I have said, I shall not go through the detail of the changes in the treaty, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did that very well.

My final point concerns the responsibility of Members of this House. I have no doubt that, because of my speech today and the way in which I will cast my vote this evening in the Division, I will lose votes in my constituency. Some people will not vote for me at the next general election because of the position that I am taking. That is part of the democratic process and a
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representative democracy, and I am prepared to accept it. I will make the case as best I can, but I recognise that in a democracy, we take decisions in the House and take responsibility for them.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that at the last election, given the manifesto pledge on which he stood, people who felt strongly on the European issue would have felt that they could still vote for him? They were materially misled and are not being represented as they would wish.

Mr. Byers: Clearly the hon. Gentleman was not listening to the points that I made earlier. I hope that my constituents will pay me a bit more attention than he has. We made the promise in relation to the new constitutional treaty, which is no longer in place, and we shall see whether people are prepared to accept that. The hon. Gentleman confirms my point about the nature of our democratic accountability as Members of Parliament. I do not think that every single issue must be subject to a referendum, because referendums can be an excuse to hide divisions in political parties.

I agree very much with the point that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made last year:

I agree absolutely with that statement of the position. We need to take a decision here in Committee and be accountable for so doing.

The debate has shown the divisions in the Conservative party and, more importantly, the failure of its leader to bring it into the centre ground of British politics. He is a hostage to his Eurosceptics, and it is interesting to see that the hostility towards Europe in the Conservative party is still so powerful that a new leader, who is trying to remodel and reposition the party, has totally failed to do so on Europe. As time goes by, the other policy areas on which he has failed to move the party will be revealed.

We need Europe more than ever at this time of globalisation and rising protectionism, which we are seeing in the American presidential debates. We need measures to tackle climate change and deal with mass migration, and we need a functioning and effective EU to meet those challenges. Now is not the time to walk off the stage; it is the time to be at the heart of Europe arguing for our national interests. That is what Labour Members intend to do, and that is why the treaty should be ratified by this House.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful for the chance to take part in the debate. I had hoped to speak about the referendum on Second Reading, but unfortunately I was suffering from flu and had no voice that day, so I had to leave my comments until today.

The debate on the amendment will be remembered most for the impressive sight of the Liberal Democrat party marching with sound and fury courageously towards the fence on which it has been ordered to perch tonight. The other thing that has struck me during the debates on the Bill is the backcloth of the Labour
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strategy towards Europe; it is based on the extraordinary belief that if they do not allow the British people the chance to express through a referendum their growing doubts about the European Union they will somehow come to love the European Union. That is gravely to underestimate the British people.

3 pm

We are told that a referendum is not needed because the treaty does not, in effect, do very much. That has been the main argument. It was even the argument when we were talking about the constitutional treaty: we were told that it, too, did not do very much. However, even if that were true, which it is not, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary impressively indicated earlier, it takes only a small step to walk through a doorway into another room; it takes only a small step to cross a dividing line. I believe that the treaty is the latest and the most significant step down the road of ever-closer union to the project of a united Europe which is at the heart of the policies of so many other Governments in Europe.

We fool ourselves if we believe that somehow the treaty is not actually taking us one step further down that road, yet the British people have never been allowed to say whether they want to go down that road. Each step—each of the recent treaties—has been described in the House as insignificant, as not doing very much, but each, like grandmother’s footsteps, edges us closer and closer towards the goal of a united Europe.

My growing disillusion with the way in which Europe is developing is shared by many others in the UK who, like me, did not start out as Eurosceptics. I supported the Common Market in the first and only referendum but, over recent years, my Euro-friendliness has been increasingly tested by a series of treaties, each incrementally diminishing the sovereignty of this Parliament and, therefore, of the British people without the British people ever being asked whether they wanted that to happen.

Chris Huhne: I am intrigued by the argument that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is developing, but what is his response to the facts? He is talking about a federal superstate, but the entire professional staff of all the European Union institutions is smaller than the staff of Hampshire county council. Will he also respond to the point that on average 40 per cent. of gross domestic product goes on public spending, yet the European institutions spend only 1 per cent. of GDP? Where does the paranoid delusion that he is attempting to articulate come from?

Mr. Ancram: I am not talking about the bureaucracy of the European Union, but about the wishes of the British people. That is, in essence, what the debate is about. The Europe achieved by the treaty of Lisbon is unacceptable to the British people; it crosses the dividing line. However big or small a step it is, we are moving into a new Europe where, as we have already heard, we will have a president, a foreign secretary,
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diplomats and all the trappings of what so many of the Europhiles in Europe want—the beginnings of a European state.

If I am wrong about the treaty being unacceptable, why do the Government not ask the British people whether they believe it is unacceptable? If I am right—as I have every reason to believe that I am—the Government have no mandate to force through the treaty without any form of consultation with the British people, either in a general election or a referendum.

David Howarth: I, too, am intrigued by the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument. If he is saying that all the other countries in Europe are moving along a federalist path and he wants to stop moving in that direction, does that not imply not just voting no to the treaty but withdrawal from the EU?

Mr. Ancram: I shall deal with that point later. I believe that the European Union as currently constituted is unacceptable. That is not a new view of mine; I expressed it many times from the Dispatch Box when I was shadow Foreign Secretary. At the last election, I stood on a manifesto that called for renegotiation to create a more flexible Europe, and I still believe that that is what we should do.

Refusing the British people a referendum will not diminish their doubts about the Europe that is being imposed on them, it will strengthen them and, paradoxically, it will increase Euroscepticism in the UK.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): I am extremely grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way, especially as I was unable to be in the Chamber for the earlier part of the proceedings. I am interested in his repetition of his view that there should be renegotiation not only of the treaty but of Britain’s terms of membership. Would he care to name the parties and Governments in the rest of the EU who share his view, and would be interested in entering into such a renegotiation?

Mr. Ancram: I am putting forward my view and I shall explain why in a moment. As we get nearer to an election, my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary may put more flesh on the bones of what he has described as not letting things rest where they are.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend for delaying him, but the question was ridiculous. It provokes two points. First, what would be the point of being elected to this place if we always felt scared that we might be a lone voice, even if we believed passionately in something? There would be an end to democracy. Secondly, in Holland and France a majority of people rejected the constitutional treaty. How alone is that?

Mr. Ancram: I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend. Our point is that, to talk in the terms used by Labour Members, the debate ignores the views of the British people. I give this serious warning: if we continue to ignore the views of the British people as we advance down the road towards what in Europe is
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euphemistically called “the project”, the British people will become angrier and angrier about the decisions that emanate from Europe and Euroscepticism will become stronger.

Mr. Hendrick: The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the sovereignty of this place, yet he wants to give power to make decisions about whether we accept the treaty to the citizens of the UK—to back-heel it. Sovereignty is either with the House or the people.

Mr. Ancram: I do not know what the hon. Gentleman thought he was doing when he fought the last election, when he was asking the British people to support him.

Chris Bryant rose—

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Mr. Ancram: I want to make some progress.

What would be the consequences of not holding a referendum? The question what would happen if there were a referendum and the vote was no has been asked a lot. The answer to that is that the provisions of the treaty would not apply across Europe as a whole. The status quo would be maintained. I would regard that as unacceptable, but a no vote would not change the situation; it would leave the European Union where it is at present. However, if we do not have a referendum and the treaty is implemented, creating a Europe that is unacceptable, the only option for changing that situation would be renegotiation. The failure to hold a referendum now would strengthen the moral right of the British to ask for renegotiation to create and secure a more acceptable Europe. We do not have to do that aggressively—I have always been someone who believes that reform rather than confrontation is the right way in Europe—but the treaty will create a running sore, not just in the UK but in other parts of Europe, which can be dealt with only by renegotiation.

Chris Bryant: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not accept the basic political facts of life? It takes two to tango and 27 to renegotiate, otherwise he is arguing for leaving the European Union—whether he says it in a loud voice or, like the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), in a quiet voice.

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