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Moving back, as you have guided me to do, Sir Alan, the Lisbon treaty contains mechanisms for member states to reclaim competences from the EU and to opt out of participating in a number of policy areas. It also provides machinery for member states to negotiate voluntary withdrawal from the EU or the establishment of a new relationship with it. That is what we should be looking at. We need to set up a royal commission to look at all the issues—[Hon. Members: “A review?”] It would not be a review; it would be a commission, which would look at all the options
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available concerning Europe. It might recommend options that would change our relationship, if necessary. We should not rush into anything, and we should carry out that process in an organised fashion. That is what the people of this country really want. They want a serious public debate on Europe, and at the end of that debate, they will want some options. I would also say that at the very end of the process, they should have a referendum on the options produced by that commission.

I can put forward such a view and still vote against a referendum on the treaty, and I suggest that the Liberal Democrats should do the same. If they are against a referendum on the treaty, they should vote against it. That would not prevent them from putting forward other suggestions, as I have done today.

Malcolm Bruce: Towards the end of her speech, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) was in danger not only of being out of order, but of putting across her preferred European dimension. The trouble is that there are 60 million people in Britain, and in practice, one cannot proceed to determine our relationship with the European Union in that way.

I have been following the most recent process closely. Indeed, I read the draft constitution before the French people rejected it. Personally, I thought that the contents were valuable, and I am glad to say that many of the most valuable parts are in the treaty of Lisbon, which is why I am happy to support that, too. Nevertheless, the constitution was an attempt to create a watershed moment in the European Union, which made it completely different in character from all the amending treaties that had gone before—from the founding treaty, the treaty of Rome, through all the others that have been mentioned, right up to the treaty of Lisbon.

That is why, as somebody who is not an enthusiast for referendums and who believes that many of the reservations that have been expressed today are valid, I nevertheless felt that a constitution that swept up more than 50 years of European Union history, from the founding treaty to the most recent amending treaty, was an appropriate moment to redefine the relationship and give people the chance, which they have not had for more than 30 years, to determine whether the new, reformed, relaunched European Union—that was the intention—was where we wanted to go. That is why I was happy to support my party’s commitment at the last election to hold a referendum on a constitutional treaty.

However, at the very moment that we were committing ourselves to that, the French and the Dutch were deciding that no such constitutional treaty was likely to exist. I do not wish to repeat the arguments, which have already been rehearsed today, about the processes by which we moved from there to where we are now. What is a matter of concern, however, is that the process that we are using is far less transparent and consultative than it could and should be. One of the things that I particularly welcome about the treaty of Lisbon is that it gives national Parliaments a more clearly articulated role in that process. In the future—I hope that this will be in the long term, before we get to the next reforming treaty—the process may well involve the 27 national Parliaments.

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At the end of the day, however, we must accept that treaties can be negotiated only by Governments. Governments can consult a lot better, but treaties cannot be negotiated by 27 Parliaments, and they certainly cannot be negotiated by 490 million people. There comes a point when, even with the best endeavours that have been made, people have to decide whether something is good enough for them to continue. The disingenuousness and dishonesty of many of the arguments come from ignoring the consequences of that.

It has been said—but it must be said again and again—that Conservative Members are asking for a referendum on the treaty of Lisbon, which is not a constitutional treaty, because they want to defeat it and because they know that, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) clearly articulated, the consequence of that would be to paralyse the Union and destroy Britain’s competitive and effective relationship within it.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 80 per cent. of voters in the north-east of Scotland want a referendum on the Lisbon treaty?

Malcolm Bruce: I do not think it possible to say that 80 per cent. of voters in the north-east of Scotland want any such thing. All tests of opinion, nearly all of which have been less than objective, have indicated that people want a treaty; but the majority of people would like a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, not on the Lisbon treaty, about which most of them have not been informed. As someone who reads and pursues the media of the north-east of Scotland every day, I have to say that people’s ability to be informed on the contents of the treaty of Lisbon is not very apparent.

Mr. Chaytor: For those of us who find the idea of an in/out referendum at some point in the future extremely attractive, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his party’s decision to abstain on the amendment has weakened its capacity to put forward the very pro-European views that he advocates?

Malcolm Bruce: Absolutely not. Our view is that if we vote against the amendment, we will be voting against the principle of a referendum. The referendum is a principle that we like; what we do not like is the question. I do not wish to test the patience of the Chair, but the House will have noticed that our party has unfortunately been considerably frustrated in our attempts to get the words that we want put before the House and debated in ways that would make our position abundantly clear. We have to live with that frustration, but it has put us in the position of having to deal with what is before the House rather than with what we wish was before the House. I have to say that that is too often the case.

Hon. Members: Resignation.

Malcolm Bruce: Regarding the comments from those on the Benches behind me, one thing that I am proud of is that, in all the time that I have been involved in my party, it has clearly and consistently been in favour of our joining the European Union, being a constructive and engaged member of the European Union, and
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supporting progressive reform of the European Union. The nationalists, however, have never known which way to turn. They voted no in 1975, then they claimed that they wanted independence in Europe, and now they want to vote against the treaty of Lisbon while somehow or other saying that they are still pro-European. They are utterly and totally confused; they are in a totally tartan dwam as far as this issue is concerned.

Ms Gisela Stuart: The right hon. Gentleman is a genuinely committed European, and I believe that he would like to take the people with him in his vision of Europe. Does he not think that a referendum would provide a much better opportunity to extol the benefits of, and to make the case for, the European Union, rather than blackmailing people by simply asking, “In or out?”?

Malcolm Bruce: No. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the way in which the hon. Lady’s relationship with, and attitude to, Europe has changed because of her experience of the negotiating process. I would have thought, however, that she would understand that if the United Kingdom decided now, in the present circumstances, to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and if we failed to ratify the treaty as a result, we would be faced with an internal dilemma, in that two thirds of Parliament would have voted one way, while the people would have voted the other way. That would be a domestic problem, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe has articulated. Also, we would certainly have created a degree of resentment among our European colleagues for having held up a difficult process at a crucial moment. I think that the hon. Lady knows perfectly well that those would be the consequences of such a decision.

I am articulating my party’s view, which is that after 35 years, it is appropriate to say to people, “The European Union has been modified by treaties. This is actually a good reforming treaty, which will leave it in better shape than most of the previous ones—certainly Nice and Amsterdam—did,” and to ask them, “Will you vote for Britain to be in Europe, but as a package, on the understanding that that is with the Lisbon treaty?” The Lisbon treaty is not optional. We cannot be in Europe and not ratify the Lisbon treaty.

Michael Connarty: It seems entirely consistent, given the policies of the Lib Dems, that they would want both to stay in Europe and to give people a choice in a referendum. I can see how that is consistent. I do not particularly support referendums; I do not think that they fit with, or should be part of, the parliamentary process. Is it true, however, that the Liberal Democrats intend to abstain this evening, rather than voting for the treaty to go through, and against a referendum?

Malcolm Bruce: We have made it abundantly clear that we are voting for the treaty, but that we are not voting for a referendum on it. As I said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), I believe that it is fundamentally disingenuous and dishonest seriously to suggest that it is possible to vote against the Lisbon treaty while maintaining that Britain’s membership of the European Union would not be compromised by such an act—

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Michael Connarty rose—

Malcolm Bruce: The Conservatives’ position is quite simple. They do not wish Britain to continue as an effective member of the European Union, and the purpose of their amendment is to start that process—

Hon. Members: Give way!

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Order. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) could make it clear whether he will give way to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty).

Malcolm Bruce indicated assent.

Michael Connarty: I asked the hon. Gentleman what I thought was a simple question, but he did not quite answer it. Following the logic of what he has just said about consistent support for the European Union and getting the treaty through, will he explain why he and other members of his party are going to abstain tonight?

Malcolm Bruce: My colleagues and I have repeated the explanation ad nauseam. If it is impossible for people to hear or understand it, that is their problem, not mine.

We are engaged in a process to determine whether this country is going to be a leading member of the European Union or a continually moaning, peripheral country that is increasingly becoming a tiresome irritant to the 26 other member states that want to go forward. That is why we believe that there is a case for having a defining referendum, in which we can ask the people of Britain whether they want to continue with this enterprise, as we do, or to put themselves on the margins of Europe and accept the consequences of so doing.

5.15 pm

In September last year, I visited Estonia with a group of liberal democrat parliamentarians and had a very constructive meeting with the Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip. He is, of course, a leading member of the liberal parties of Europe—as, indeed, is the leading opposition party in Estonia— [Interruption.] It would be fair to say that Estonia is probably the most liberal country in Europe. It is worth listening to the voice of the people of Estonia.

Mr. Harper rose—

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab) rose—

Malcolm Bruce: Let me make this point. One thing that the Estonian people will tell us is that they spent 700 years trying to escape from outside oppression—most recently, escaping from the Soviet Union. They are certainly not interested in buying into some kind of European superstate, which the Conservative party is so afraid of. What they want is a functioning, effective, working Europe in which decisions can be taken by 27 countries, and in which a small country such as Estonia can have its proper place and influence. The Prime Minister of Estonia told me that he sincerely hoped the UK was not going to be instrumental in delaying or
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obstructing implementation of the treaty of Lisbon. For my part, I said that I would do everything I could to ensure that that did not happen, and that the treaty would be ratified, because I shared his view that ratification was in the best interests of Europe.

Mr. Harper: It is interesting to note that the hon. Gentleman is willing to listen to the people of Estonia, but not to the people of Britain. Leaving that aside, however, will he clarify his earlier comment that if the House were to grant a referendum and the British people were to vote against ratification of the Lisbon treaty, it would in some way compromise our membership of the European Union? That did not happen when the French and Dutch refused to ratify the constitutional convention: they are still members of the EU and no one called that into question, so why does the hon. Gentleman think that it would be any different for Britain?

Malcolm Bruce: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman travels at all in Europe or talks to our political colleagues— [Interruption.] Yes, we need to bear in mind that our Conservatives do not have any! Those of us who talk to mainstream political groups in pretty well every country in Europe could tell the hon. Gentleman quite categorically that the process by which the constitution was abandoned was painful enough. The follow-up process whereby 27 countries sought to reach agreement by delivering the Lisbon treaty and its many constructive and practical measures—the British Government, along with the German Government, played a constructive role—was also hugely difficult. If the hon. Gentleman believes that it would be willingly acceded to if the UK Government stood up and said, “Sorry, guys, I know that 26 of you are already going to adopt this treaty, carry it forward and start working with it, but we are not, as we want another couple of years to rethink the whole thing,” I have to tell him that he is living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is that we do not know what the consequences of a no vote in a referendum would be, but it would certainly not be in the interests of the United Kingdom, of our reputation or of our influence within the European Union.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: Not knowing the consequences has not stopped the hon. Gentleman from asserting them very vigorously—and, in my view, inaccurately. Amendment No. 296 provides for an enabling power to have another referendum, so would that not satisfy the Liberal desire to have their in/out referendum?

Malcolm Bruce: If the hon. Gentleman had been in his place earlier, he would have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) explain that an amendment that would allow the Government to write any question, or no question, as they liked, does not tell the House what is wanted clearly enough. That makes it a non-workable and non-functioning amendment.

To be honest, I take a very simple view. First, we as a party are unreservedly and unapologetically pro the European Union, pro Britain’s membership of the European Union and pro a functioning Union of 27 states that can take decisions in an intelligent format. At the same time, we believe that the British people
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deserve the right to have a real debate about what kind of Union it is—because we cannot create it in our own image—and whether they want to continue with the enterprise.

That is a risky venture, but one that we as a party would be willing, indeed enthusiastic, to take to the people. If we had been given a vote on it and the House had supported us, that is the referendum that people would have had—and I believe that it would have been won—rather than a referendum in which there is an attempt to persuade people that it is possible to vote for continued membership of the Union without ratifying the treaty of Lisbon. That is a dream world: it is not reality, it does not make political sense, and it will not be supported by our party.

Several hon. Members rose

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. As the amount of time left for Back-Bench speeches is very limited, I make a plea to all Members who are hoping to catch my eye to make their contributions concise.

Kate Hoey: Anyone observing today’s debate will have been surprised by the contributions of Members who suggested that the treaty, the constitution or whatever it is called is so complicated that the people could not possibly be asked to become involved with it, or could not possibly understand it. I do not think that people will like being told that, and I do not think that they will like the implication of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) that we are somehow so different that it was okay for the people of Germany and the Netherlands to reject the constitution.

Michael Connarty: And France.

Kate Hoey: And France. I was there as well, so I am sorry that I got that wrong.

It was implied that if our people were given a referendum and had the audacity to vote no, it would completely change our relationship—

Chris Huhne rose—

Kate Hoey: I am not going to take any interventions, because I know that many Members wish to speak.

Let me make a simple point. In April 2004 the then Prime Minister and leader of my party, Tony Blair, announced that the EU constitution would be put to a referendum. He said:

The Prime Minister was emphatic:

He went further, and said something that has not been mentioned so far today:

The problem is that we have ended up with a situation in which the treaty has been brought back.

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