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5 Mar 2008 : Column 1832

Mr. Duncan Smith: I agree. In the referendum that my hon. Friend mentions, I voted to go into the EEC. I do not resile from that; I was right to vote for what I did. I voted to go into a marketplace, and to share certain functions to create that marketplace, but we have gone a lot further than that. The problem is that there is dishonesty in saying, “You all knew about this when you first joined. You all knew, for example, about the supremacy of European law.” That is nonsense. People who say that know very well that they did not think about that issue when they voted on whether to join. That is the real reason why it is time to have a referendum on the treaty: it will allow us to tease out the fact that if we keep going down the road that we are taking, without making any change, things will go wrong.

Chris Huhne: Earlier, the right hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying that he would like the opportunity to amend the treaty. It has never been the practice of the House to amend treaties, particularly multilateral treaties. One has to accept or reject them, and there is no possibility of amendment. He says that the matter is final, but that is to disregard an important provision that I thought that he, and many of his more Eurosceptic colleagues, would welcome. For the first time in any European treaty, article 49A introduces the possibility of secession. It is possible for the House to avail itself of that provision, and to secede from the European Union, at any time. In that sense, the move is clearly not final.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, because there has never been a problem with seceding. We can talk about the details, but the reality is that nation states have always had the right to secede whenever they want, just by getting rid of the Act that brought them into the EU. I am not sure what he is saying; is he saying that the EU could have held on to us? If he is, and the EU is now giving us permission to secede, the situation is beginning to sound a little bit like the situation that faced the federal United States, and the battle between the confederacy and—

Mr. Gummer: Nonsense.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I agree that it is nonsense, but that is the nonsensical point made by hon. Gentleman.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Duncan Smith: I want to make progress, because I am conscious that other Members want to speak. Before I conclude, I want to say something about the Liberal Democrats. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] It is good to have a bit of light amusement at some point in a speech.

The Liberal Democrats have got themselves in a terrible mess. As has been pointed out time and again, they only agreed to hold a referendum because they thought that it would never happen. The moment that they thought that it would happen, they no longer wanted it. They can go on telling the public that one document is different from another, but as Lincoln said, you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. That
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is what the Liberal Democrats set out to do and they have been found out. How can they have a principled position of sitting on a fence? Those who do that get splinters in their arse and then they get into trouble. The Liberal Democrats are in trouble right now and the best thing for them to do is to get off the fence.

4.45 pm

In conclusion, I am in favour of a referendum because the arguments cannot be properly made unless the public are brought in. The Government gave a pledge to hold a referendum. I do not care what they called it; it is the same treaty. They may have behaved cynically, but they should be held to account.

I do not know what it is about Europe that seems to change the mentality of Governments. As soon as parties get into government, they dare not do anything that might upset the European Union. Immediately, their arguments go to the extreme. The Government panic and say, “We cannot hold a referendum because that would lead to the process of getting out. That would be a nightmare. We would be cast into the outer darkness. We would be on the periphery of Europe. Nobody will speak to us. We will be cast out, all because we want to vote on the treaty.”

Who told the French and the Dutch that? Who said that they would be cast out when they voted against the constitution? Surprise, surprise, they were not cast out. Everybody said, “Oh my God, we have to accommodate the French and the Dutch. Let’s start all over again and have another look at it.” As a sovereign nation state, we have every right to make that statement in exactly the same way as the Dutch and the French.

I ask the House to have a little self-confidence. All of us came here to state that we do not believe a word the Government say until they show it in the text, in writing and in detail. We do not believe or trust them until we see how the treaty will work. Too many Labour Back Benchers are too ready to trust their Government when the Government say, “Please trust us.” Tonight they should support the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West when he proposes his amendment.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I am firmly opposed to a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. The matter should be decided by Parliament. I have come to that conclusion not simply because all the previous EU treaties have rightly been dealt with in that way, but because of the different impact that a rejection by Parliament would have, compared with a rejection by referendum.

In the case of Parliament refusing to ratify the treaty, that would be after a comprehensive debate and the Government would be left in no doubt which measures in the treaty were unacceptable. In the case of a no vote in a referendum, the reasons for rejection would be unclear and would be subject to a wide range of interpretation. Nobody would have any idea which parts the public agreed with and which parts they did not agree with.

Such a situation would undoubtedly undermine the United Kingdom's standing within the EU and would mean that, for the foreseeable future, the much needed
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structural changes to the EU could not be implemented, leaving the organisation to lumber on in its present unsatisfactory way.

Mr. Redwood: Then why did not all those arguments dissuade the hon. Lady’s party from putting the promise in its manifesto?

Geraldine Smith: What can I say? I spoke in the House in about 2004 and was not in favour of a referendum on the then constitution. There have been sufficient changes since then to make it a different document to be put before Parliament. If Parliament decided to abandon its responsibility this evening to determine the matter, it would be performing a great disservice to the country.

I am well aware of the widespread public concern in my constituency and elsewhere about the reform treaty. I am equally aware of the substantial demand for a referendum on it. I accept that people in my constituency say that they would like a referendum on the treaty. Although I understand the justifiable concerns that people have about the contents of the treaty, I firmly believe that many of those concerns are a result of wild speculation and misinformation from a multitude of sources, some of them in the House.

I firmly believe that, if a referendum were to be held, a no vote would be the outcome, not because of any perceived or real flaws in the treaty, but because many people are currently deeply dissatisfied with many aspects of the European Union and its bureaucratic institutions and procedures. I share most of that dissatisfaction and I understand the desire to express it in a ballot.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: Most of us acknowledge that some people in our constituencies are understandably uneasy about the treaty. However, does my hon. Friend agree that that is possibly because the Government have not put enough impetus behind explaining the facts to the public?

Geraldine Smith: It is difficult because the document is so complex. It is impossible to hold a referendum on a lengthy document such as the treaty. We would always end up with a no vote because there will always be things that people do not like, and they will focus on them.

Mr. Gummer: Does the hon. Lady agree that it is unlikely that many people have read the treaty of Lisbon—or would read it, were a referendum to be held? Would not they therefore get their views entirely from the press, which is dominated by a non-British individual who has opposed the European Union all his life?

Geraldine Smith: The right hon. Gentleman is right. There is no way that people would plough through the document.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Have you?

Geraldine Smith: Yes, I have. It is always wise when speaking in the Chamber to examine what one intends to speak about.

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The document is long and complex and I cannot see people around the country sitting in their houses reading it, and discussing it night after night in the pubs and clubs to the extent that we have done in Parliament. Yet Conservative Members still complain that we have not had enough time. If Conservative Members need so much time, why do not the people of the country?

Mr. Duncan Smith: How many of the hon. Lady’s colleagues have read the treaty, in her opinion? Should those who have not done so exercise their vote when the time comes?

Geraldine Smith: I have not conducted a survey of my colleagues, so I have no way of answering the question.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): On three or four occasions today, the hon. Lady has said that the treaty is complicated and the people are too stupid to understand it. [Interruption.] I paraphrase, but it is fundamentally what she is saying. In previous referendums in Europe on other treaties, especially in France, the entire treaty has been published to give the general public the opportunity to read it in full, as well as the commentaries, narratives and newspaper leader columns. Surely, even in Morecambe, people are smart enough to read and understand the treaty and reach a considered view on it. Why does the hon. Lady believe that her constituents, mine and others cannot do that?

Geraldine Smith: I do not believe that they cannot do it; I simply think that they would not bother because they would not find it relevant to their lives. I do not believe that they would have time—many people live busy lives—and that is why they elect representatives to make some decisions on complex documents that are placed before us. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the referendum in France. He cannot have it both ways. Either the referendum made a difference and led to a new treaty, which was not the constitution, or the treaty is the constitution, so the people getting a vote made no difference. What is it to be?

Stewart Hosie: The answer is what is in front of us. The referendum made a difference, but not in fundamentally changing the document. Its portrayal has changed to pretend that it is something different. That is what happened.

Geraldine Smith: The French and the people in the Netherlands must have thought that it made sufficient difference to them.

Mr. Graham Stuart: My constituents feel that they are capable of taking a decision on this issue. They feel that they have been promised a say and that the constitution has been changed only enough to get it below the bar, so that the European elite, of whom the hon. Lady is clearly a member, can stop the people from having that say on something that is fundamental and matters to them, and on which they have had a promise.

Geraldine Smith: I believe, if there is a bit of honesty, that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine would like an opportunity to vote on the treaty, and vote against it. However, I do not believe that that is because
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of anything that they have read about the treaty or any of its real or perceived flaws—it is because of their deep dissatisfaction with the European Union. I will come to that issue in a moment.

Mr. Chaytor: Is not the really significant thing about the French referendum that since the abandonment of the constitutional treaty and the development of the Lisbon treaty, there has been zero interest among the 60 million people in France in a referendum on the Lisbon treaty? That is surely the significant point.

Geraldine Smith: It is right to say that the constitution was abandoned.

I want to make progress. It is clear that the European Union needs a comprehensive overhaul of its operating procedures.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The treaty before us is the end product of a long process of renegotiation and failed reform set in train by the Laeken declaration of 2001. We have ended up with a treaty that, instead of reforming Europe, has consolidated more powers at the top. Why does the hon Lady think that her constituents and mine should be denied an opinion on whether they agree with that reform process and the treaty that has come out of it?

Geraldine Smith: I do not accept that the treaty is all bad and does not reform; there are some very good things in it. I believe that the number of EU Commissioners should be reduced, and I am pleased that that is happening. I am also interested that the treaty provides a mechanism for member states that wish to change their relationship with the European Union or withdraw from it; it means that they will be able to do so in a negotiated fashion. That has not existed before, and I would have thought that any Eurosceptic would welcome it.

I shall try to move on. The European Union now represents 27 countries with a combined population of more than 490 million people. Its institutions and working practices are hopelessly out of date and failure to reform them will continue to constrain their ability to function anywhere near as effectively as they should. I am sure that few people, in the House or outside it, would disagree that widespread reform is essential.

I should like to make it clear that I do not in any way perceive the Lisbon treaty as some panacea for reforming the European Union, but it will help it work slightly more effectively. It is difficult to see how an organisation that seeks to manage much of the economic, social and political affairs of 27 diverse nations—each of them answerable to their domestic voters with all their problems, aspirations and political agendas—could aspire to do anything else. However, I believe that a number of measures in the treaty will help. The Lisbon treaty offers significant improvements over the current arrangements, and that is why I am supporting it.

Finally, I want to comment on what I believe is a fundamental flaw in our relationship with and continuing membership of the EU. It is now 34 years since we joined the European Union and 32 years since we reaffirmed our membership in a referendum. In fact, nobody under the age of 50—I count myself in
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that group—has had the opportunity to vote on our membership of the organisation, which affects so many aspects of our lives, even more so in recent years.

The passage of time, allied to the enormous economic and political change that has taken place in the EU, has undoubtedly created a democratic deficit that needs to be urgently addressed—I accept that. Throughout the period in question, no mainstream political party advocated withdrawal from the EU, and I suspect that that will still be the case at the next general election. That state of affairs has left the British people with no realistic option other than to accept that membership of the EU, whatever its faults, is synonymous with UK citizenship. I do not believe for a minute that those who voted to join the EU in 1975 believed that they were making an irreversible commitment. It is high time that the question of our continuing membership of the EU was put before the British people, not as a simple yes/no question, but as a choice between clear alternatives.

5 pm

I believe that many of the perceived benefits of belonging to the EU are not dependent on our continuing membership of it, such as co-operation with EU partners on measures to deal with terrorism, people trafficking, drug and gun smuggling and other forms of international crime. Is that co-operation really dependent on our continuing membership? I do not think so. It is more likely that withdrawal from the EU would curb the ability of those who engage in such despicable practices to enter our country in the first place. Nor do I believe that the impact on trade, jobs or investment will necessarily be negative. There is plenty of evidence that if the UK’s economy was relieved—

The Chairman: Order. In the last few moments I have been listening anxiously to the hon. Lady, who now seems to be seriously off track as far as the amendments are concerned. I urge her to bring her remarks to a close.

Geraldine Smith: I will try to get back on track, Sir Alan.

Mr. Swayne: Although the hon. Lady may be off message, as the Minister might say, she is making a powerful case for the amendment of the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson).

Geraldine Smith: I looked very carefully at that amendment, but I am afraid that I will not support it because it mentions support for the Lisbon treaty.

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