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content that is not essentially different from the constitutional treaty...All key institutional solutions remain...Some symbolic elements will be cleared up and some formulations toned down.
That is the truth of the matter, but such disarming honesty and, indeed, enthusiasm for the similarity between the two documents has not extended to the British Government. They have maintained that the constitutional nature of the first document is not replicated in the second, despite the fact that the elements of the constitution identified by the current Lord Chancellor as fundamentally constitutional, such as the creation of an EU president and Foreign Minister, are present in the new treaty just as much as they were in the old one. This has been their case: that the first treaty was constitutional in nature and the second one is not, so there is no need for a referendum.
Bob Spink: Does it concern my right hon. Friend that we are being asked to ratify a treaty whose full extent and powers we do not yet know? The powers and duties of the president, for instance, have not even been discussed so far.
Mr. Hague: That is a good point, which has been raised during our debates. According to some of the documents leaked from the Slovenian presidency, many matters such as the precise demarcation of the roles of the EU president and the EU high representative have not been resolved. The stage is set for a turf war in the European Union.
As I was saying, the Governments case has been that the first document was constitutional and the second was notor at least, that was the argument until the Foreign Secretary opined on the matter last Wednesday, when he made one or two statements on the subject that were rather revealing. He argued that manifesto promises were basically irrelevant to the question of a referendum. He argued that the decision on whether to hold a referendum should be made on the basis of the content of the treaty, irrespective of the
manifesto commitments givenin contradistinction to my argument that it is not just the content of a treaty that counts, and that the overriding issue of principle is the manifesto promises that should be upheld whenever possible.
a fundamental shift in the balance of power.[ Official Report, 5 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 1777.]
To talk of constitutional practice when only one United Kingdom-wide referendum has ever been held is probably a little premature. When questioned on whether a referendum on the EU constitution was promised in 2004 because it represented a fundamental shift in the balance of power, the right hon. Gentleman said that that was not the reason. The reason a referendum was promised on that occasion, and therefore was in the Labour partys election manifesto, was apparently to clear the air on the European issue. So after all the talk of constitutional practice and the necessity for a declaration of the contents of the treaty to be decisive in determining whether a referendum was held, it turned out that in the Foreign Secretarys own view, the Government of whom he was part promised a referendum not because of any constitutional practice or any particular contents of the previous treaty, but because they wanted to clear the air.
The constitutional doctrine now appears to be that a referendum is held when the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Ministerwho were both in the Government when a referendum was promisedwant to clear the air.
The potential for holding referendums when there is a need to clear the air is probably limitless, given the number of issues at any one time on which the air needs to be cleared. Whether it be the closure of thousands of post offices at the hands of an incompetent Government or the release ahead of time of thousands of prisoners, which is even more incompetent, there are many issues on which people would love to clear the air. If a national ballot is to be held every time we need to clear the air, how about having a general election, so that we can clear out the Government as well?
As the Foreign Secretary is perhaps the brightest member of the Cabinet, the confusion into which he entered by making this argument is a sure sign of the intellectual incoherence to which the Government have been reduced. The reason this is so revealing is that it confirms a truth that has been put to the Government several times during the course of our debates by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is not present today. I have always respected his support for the treaty and opposition to a referendum, because he has always been so clear about that, even in general election campaigns. He has called on the Foreign Secretary to
stop the nonsense of pretending that the two treaties are fundamentally different, and to admit that the early commitment to a referendum was entirely for short-term party motives, for which the term clear the air is the shorthand.
For the truth is that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister now believe that the former Prime Minister made a serious error in promising a referendum, and that that error has reduced them to arguing that something that is 90 per cent. the same is fundamentally different. The Government promised a referendum in 2004 because they were approaching a general election and the former Prime Minister thought he might even win a referendum, whereas today we are probably somewhat further from an election and the current Prime Minister thinks that winning a referendum is beyond him. That is the truth of the matter.
Mr. MacShane: If I am following the right hon. Gentlemans logic correctly, he is saying that the treaty that we are debating now is the same as the old constitution, and that a pledge was given to have a referendum on that constitution, which must be honoured. Is he therefore saying that if we pass into law tonight the treaty that he avers is the same as the old constitution, the position of his party will be to have a referendum on that? We need to know; the nation needs to know.
Mr. Hague: The right hon. Gentleman says that the nation needs to know. I am saying that a referendum should be held on this treaty; that is the clear implication of everything I am saying. As I have frequently explained, quite a lot of water has to pass under the bridge before there will be any possibility of moving on to the question raised by the right hon. Gentleman, to whom I should also have paid tribute for his many interventions in these debates, including the most memorable one, when he said that the Prime Minister had been wrong about the weight of European regulationwhich means that we look forward to his interventions from the Back Benches for many years to come; we have all that to look forward to.
I hope that the Foreign Secretary will spare us the lectures about constitutional practice. The promising of a referendum and then the refusal to give one are nothing to do with constitutional practice or Ministers weighing matters in the balance, but are everything to do with the sharp practice of Ministers focused solely on what they could or could not get away with. Thus they have found themselves not only denying a referendum when a commitment to hold one was given, but denying it for different reasons from those that they usually give in public. On any assessment of transparency and integrity in politics, their sequence of arguments has been about as low down the scale as it is possible to get.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to chide the Labour Government for the confusion they got themselves into, but does he accept that some Conservative Members have seen in both the constitution and the treaty positive benefits for the United Kingdom? Indeed, in many cases the treaty was rejected by the French because it was seen as too Anglo-Saxon. I also ask my right hon. Friend to accept my apologies for not staying through the whole debate, as I shall this evening be chairing a meeting of a vibrant but small body, the Conservative Group for Europe.
Mr. Hague: As my hon. Friend and I have discussed these matters for a decade and more, he knows that I entirely respect his view on the merits of European political integration, although it is different from mine in many respects. I bracket him with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe in never having said there should be a referendum, and in always having advocated the European constitution. That is a straightforward approachalthough I believe in many respects a wrong onewhich is in stark contrast with the approach of the Government Front Bench.
Mr. Cash: I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend for fumigating the Governments speeches on the whole question of the treaty and the referendum. Does he accept the importance of stating, in line with my reasoned amendment, which was not selected, that we will defend and protect this Parliaments supremacy to ensure that we are not overridden by the European Court of Justice, or by our own courts, and that we have a sound constitutional position for any further renegotiations?
Mr. Hague: Given the growth of the EUs powers, British sovereignty and the ultimate supremacy of Parliament need a constitutional safeguard, but I also say to my hon. Friend that the legal implications of any such provision must be absolutely clear. More work would need to be done in the future on the context and formula by which it is achieved, but I have great sympathy with the constitutional safeguard of ultimate supremacy.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I clearly understand the difference between the right hon. Gentlemans view and that of the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), but what is the difference between his view and that of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)?
Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend the Member for Stone could easily take the hon. Gentleman aside for several hours to explain the difference. That may be the best option. If he would like to meet my hon. Friend in the Tea Room afterwards, he would be happily occupied for the evening.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I was a Member of the European Parliament for five years. One of the things that was apparent was that the Conservative group was profoundly uncomfortable with other nationalitiesindeed, some of its natural allies did not want to be its allies, because they considered it to be too extreme. When Peter Sutherland, the chairman of BP, was asked by the Financial Times whether Britain wanted to be in or out, he said:
Those demanding a vote on the EU reform treaty should have the courage to state where they truly wish to end up.
Mr. Hague: I wish to end up in the European Union but not with this treaty. That is why there should be, and should have been, a referendum. That is in no way an illogical position to take, because many of us have maintained for many years that we should be in the European Union but we should not increasingly be taken over by it. It is the majority view of the people of this country, and it gains additional authority as a result.
Mr. Davey: The right hon. Gentleman seems to be extolling a new potential Conservative policy when, in response to the hon. Member for Stone, he talked about a new constitutional safeguard. Does he mean the possibility of using article 49A, which, as he knows, gives member states a right to secede from the Union, or does he have something else in mindpossibly something that he might wish to renegotiate with our colleagues if he were to pull out of this treaty?
Mr. Hague: I mean none of those things. Only the Liberal Democrats have gone on about the article that allows a withdrawal from the European Union. It is one of the least likely treaty articles to be employed, which is why our consideration in these debates must be on the many other articles that will be employed. I am simply saying what I said a few moments ago: given the steady growth in the EUs powers, I can see the case for a constitutional safeguard. I would have thought that many Members across the House would also be able to see that.
The Government have also been engaged in promoting as largely innocuous a treaty that was of sufficient concern to them for them to have opposed large parts of its content for some years. As I pointed out on Second Reading, they opposed the EU high representative chairing a meeting of Foreign Ministers; they also opposed the obligation to ask the high representative to speak for the EU at the UN Security Council when there is a common position. They
opposed the creation of an EU diplomatic service and said that they could not agree to the self-amending nature of the treaty. They opposed the election of the President of the Commission by the European Parliament. They tried to prevent employment, public
health, consumer protection and transport networks from becoming shared competences with the EU. They objected to the article on a common defence policy, and they opposed the collapsing of the third pillar on justice and home affairs, but they eventually settled for those and many other things that they had maintained were wrong or unacceptable.
Many of the objections that right hon. and hon. Members have made to the treaty in these proceedings were objections that Ministers made themselves until recently, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) pointed out. Once again, the Government have not been straight with the country. They have taken to arguing that such things are now of little importance, but the truth is that they decided to give way on them rather than not have an agreement.
What is worse is that the Government have also taken to arguing that certain concepts introduced in the treaty have been knocking around for a long time. The Foreign Secretary argued last Wednesday that
the provisions on legal personality have been around since Maastricht, which was pioneered through the House by the Conservative party.[ Official Report, 5 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 1778.]
Again, the implication is that nothing much is going on. In fact, the Lisbon treatys provisions on the EUs legal personality, which are identical to those of the EU constitution, are a major change to the current situation. Since Maastricht, the EC has had legal personality, but the EU has not, hence the three-pillar structure. That is why the proposal at Amsterdam to give the EU a single legal personality merited this remark from Tony Blair at the Dispatch Box:
We have also ruled out other potentially damaging proposals. For example, others wanted to give the European Union explicit legal personality across all the pillars of the treaty. At our insistence, that was removed.[ Official Report, 18 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 314.]
If that was a potentially damaging change in the view of the then Prime Minister in 1997, it cannot now, in 2008, have been around since Maastricht. Part of the case against the Third Reading of the Bill is that a Government who have been through so many contortions, inversions of principle and twists of logic have emerged with a case in favour of the treaty so peppered with holes that they have shot themselves, and so accompanied by unsubstantiated assertions that the treaty should not be passed without the holding of the referendum that these Ministers promised.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My right hon. Friend mentioned the self-amending treaty. Does he think that it takes a bit of cheek for the Foreign Secretary to say that institutional change is not on the agenda for the foreseeable future, when the Government have signed up to a whole range of passerelle clauses that will make institutional change, which would at the moment need intergovernmental conferences, possible without such conferences and with little ado?
My hon. Friend, who has played a frequent and excellent part in these debates, once again makes his point very well. He took part in the debate
on the passerelleor ratchetclauses, about which I shall say more in a moment. They will open the door to further institutional change.
Mr. Hague: I believe that the Government should have put the case for their own vision of the future of Europe in the past two or three years, between the rejection of the constitution in 2005 and the agreement on the Lisbon treaty in 2007. Instead, they sat immobile, saying that the constitution was dead, that it was a parrot that had died and that no negotiations were taking place. They allowed the negotiations to happen to them, rather than influence the negotiations and put forward their own vision of the future. Tragically, the opportunity was missed.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is curious that we were not allowed line-by-line analysis and scrutiny of the Bill, but that we spent a whole day on one line of it, on climate change?
Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The six words on climate change, which involved no new procedures and powers, were debated for several hours under the Governments procedural motion, which meant that some five minutes were spent on each letter. The 13 pages on justice and home affairs, however, had the same amount of time for debate, which worked out at 45 seconds per line.
My hon. Friend brings me to the next part of my case against Third Reading. The line-by-line scrutiny that a Bill of this nature should receive and that the Government promised, partly as a response to the demand for a referendum, has not taken place in the way that the nation had every right to expect. The media were informed by the Government last autumn that 20 full days of debate would take place in this House, but today we come to the end of those debates after 14 days, compared with 29 days of debate on the treaty of Maastricht. The Bill has only eight clauses yet clause 4, on the increase of the powers of the European Parliament, was debated for less than 15 minutes and clause 5, on the amendment of the founding treaties, was not debated at all.
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