Previous Section Index Home Page

Although he was clearly not envisaging the European Union, there is a resonance between his words and the debate here and throughout Europe on the kind of Europe that we are trying to create. Is it a Europe of close co-operation, close friendship and close amity with the wider world, or a Europe that is constantly seeking further integration with some distant aspiration and ideal? Debates in Britain and elsewhere in Europe increasingly show that the wider public simply do not give their consent to the more integrated type of Europe that many of its founding fathers assumed would be
18 Jun 2008 : Column 998
Europe’s destiny, and to which many in Europe, particularly continental Europe, still aspire.

Let me comment on some of the conclusions and implications that we ought to draw from the referendum in Ireland. My first point is potentially of domestic significance. If the Irish Government were to propose holding a second referendum at some future date, it would, at the very least, mean a major delay before final implementation of the new treaty; that would be an unavoidable consequence of the Irish saying that they wished to hold a second referendum. It would be perhaps another year, a year and a half, or even two years before all countries could ratify. Before then, there will almost certainly be a United Kingdom general election. If that led to a change of Government, one consequence would be that even if the treaty had been ratified in the United Kingdom, if it had not come into effect because an Irish referendum had not yet taken place, an incoming Conservative Government could reopen the whole issue by calling a referendum. That was not true until last week. Even if we had ratified, we could de-ratify if the treaty had not yet come into effect.

I have made clear my view that it would be absurd for a future Conservative Government to hold a referendum if the treaty had already come into effect; that would be a pointless exercise, and would be wrought with great difficulties. If, however, the treaty had not come into effect because the Irish had not ratified, my Front-Bench colleagues would be perfectly entitled to say, “The United Kingdom made a commitment that the British would have a choice”, and that the matter should not simply be up to the Government.” That is a profound consequence of what happened last week.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point, and his colleague, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), was, I think, nodding in agreement. To put the matter on the record, are we saying that if the House of Commons ratifies the treaty and Her Majesty gives Royal Assent, but the treaty does not come into force, a new Government would, before the British people, Europe and the world, hold a referendum to undo that work?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I cannot speak for the Conservative party; I can only express my view of what would be legally possible and appropriate. If a treaty is being— [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman wishes me to give way to him again, I do not mind doing so, but if he wishes to have a private conversation with my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), he might like to do it elsewhere. The simple fact is that once a treaty has come into effect, one cannot reverse it. If a country ratifies a treaty before it comes into effect, but wishes to change its mind and go through constitutional procedures to do so, of course that must be an option available to it.

Mr. Cash: I follow what my right hon. and learned Friend says, and agree with his principal point. It is, of course, one of the reasons I proposed a post-ratification referendum some months ago. I ask him to confirm that it is at any time open to Parliament, and to Government, to seek parliamentary authority for a referendum, irrespective of whether a treaty is effective or not.

18 Jun 2008 : Column 999

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Not for the first—or, I am sure, last—time, I do not agree with my hon. Friend. If the treaty comes into effect before there is a change of Government in this country, it would be pointless, absurd and wholly damaging to the country’s interests to go through with a referendum on a matter that had already been addressed. Other processes could be initiated, and other policies could be taken forward, but in the circumstances that I outlined, a referendum would be ludicrous.

I now come to the second consequence of the Irish decision to which we ought to be alert. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) and other hon. Friends asked the Secretary of State about it, saying, “Okay, the treaty cannot come into effect without ratification by every country, but will there be various ways in which aspects of the treaty are taken forward, in the coming weeks and months, by those in Brussels who have responsibility for such affairs?” We have seen how, in other areas, that sometimes happens. I have to say to the Government—I hope that the Foreign Secretary, in particular, will bear this in mind—that if hard evidence emerged to show that matters subject to the implementation of the treaty were being taken forward substantively in advance of the treaty being ratified, it would not only be controversial and outrageous in itself but would considerably devalue the Government’s assurances on the various opt-outs that had been negotiated over the years. If, in practice, opt-outs can be ignored or circumscribed as a result of other measures taken in Europe, that would be very serious for the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union.

The third point that I want to make on the Irish referendum—here I may slightly differ from some of my right hon. and hon. Friends—is that I do not believe that the treaty is dead. It is not for the Irish public formally to decide on ratification. The position is that the Irish Government cannot ratify unless the proposal is endorsed by the Irish electorate. It is a matter of domestic Irish politics whether the Irish Government believe that it is possible or desirable for them to go back to the Irish electorate at some time and ask them whether they are willing to reconsider. It is not realistic to believe that everything in Europe will stop as an immediate consequence of the vote in the Republic of Ireland. It is of course much more likely that if the Irish Government do not rule out a second referendum, there will be attempts to develop various assurances and protocols that are not in conflict with the treaty, in the hope that the Irish will come to a different judgment. We will have to wait and see whether that is appropriate, but it is not in itself an unreasonable way for the European Union to respond at this stage, if it is advised by the Irish Government that the matter has not been determined once and for all.

Daniel Kawczynski: My right hon. and learned Friend makes the point that once the treaty has been ratified by all the countries, a future Conservative Government would not, in his view, be able to start renegotiating it, but surely at some stage in future such a Government might be able to try to renegotiate aspects of the treaty, just as the American constitution is constantly changed and modernised.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: It is possible for any Government in Europe to open any issue that they wish, and to try to
18 Jun 2008 : Column 1000
persuade their colleagues to make changes; that, of course, is right. What I am saying is that holding a referendum in this country on whether the Lisbon treaty should be implemented would be absurd if the treaty had already been ratified by every country and had come into effect. That would be a pointless exercise. Of course, there may be other initiatives that a future British Government, or any other Government, might wish to take; that is entirely within their control and discretion.

I want to move on from the Irish vote and consider the wider implications of what is happening in Europe. Increasingly, in cases where the peoples of Europe are invited to give their judgment, they are saying no to proposals put to them by their Government. That has happened not in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Poland or any other countries that are thought to be sceptical; what is most significant and disturbing to those who believe in the European concept is that that has happened in France, the Netherlands and Ireland—countries that were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the European Union and still profess to be so. At the very least, the conclusion that we must draw if we are honest with ourselves is that, in those countries, and doubtless in other continental European countries, there is a developing mismatch between the political elites, who remain committed to the European Union and perhaps to further integration, and their populations, who do not, when given the choice, choose to give their consent.

The question must therefore be addressed, whether one is a Europhile or a Eurosceptic: what is the future of the EU, if it is not based on the genuine, whole-hearted, democratic consent of the people of the countries concerned? It is not good enough for political elites simply to say that they have found a clever way to implement a change that they are trying to achieve. They may succeed—in the short term, they may be remarkably successful, and be very pleased with themselves. If they increasingly use such methods, and if they make clear their contempt for their electorate’s views, they will come to rue the day, because ultimately they will destroy the belief of the vast majority of people—not just Eurosceptics, politicians and people who take part in our debates but the public as a whole in Britain and throughout continental Europe. That is a crucial point.

The question is therefore: how do we try to square the circle? In Europe, many people—not just politicians but many members of the general public—still want the process of integration to be taken further. There are many people, perhaps millions of them, who genuinely want that, particularly in Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and elsewhere. How do we reconcile that with something that is equally apparent: the fact that there are millions of people who take a different view? They are not anti-European: they want close European co-operation, and they want the EU to survive. They are not trying to dismantle the edifice, but they want to reconcile that with their own belief about what is possible and desirable in the modern world.

I think that it can be reconciled, which is why I come back to the question of what is often referred to as “Europe la carte”. That is not some artificial concept—it is not an attempt to achieve the impossible, but a recognition that Europe is totally different from the United States or sovereign states around the world. It is
18 Jun 2008 : Column 1001
a unique construct, as nothing like it has existed before: so many nation states have never before agreed to share certain degrees of national sovereignty. How do we reconcile that with the strong differences, which are increasingly evident, and unwillingness to go further by tens of millions of people?

The Europe la carte concept is important. It is not simply about opt-outs. There are opt-outs for various countries on the single currency, Schengen, home affairs, and a range and other matters. It is not just the United Kingdom that has opt-outs: Sweden, Poland and other countries claim and exercise such rights, which is important. Two fundamental changes, however, need to be made to achieve what I am talking about, which could be the basis for a more consensual Europe. First, we have to recognise that those opt-outs and others that may emerge are not temporary; they are permanent, or will be so in many cases. A phrase that has been used in the past week is “a two-speed Europe”. I do not believe in a two-speed Europe, because it implies that we will all end up at the same destination, except that some will get there a bit later than others. It is simply a transitional arrangement for countries to have opt-outs—as if the UK will one day join the single currency. I do not believe that it will do so, although I cannot prove that—it is simply my judgment.

It is not a two-speed Europe that we are discussing. It must be recognised that many countries—perhaps an increasing number—are not prepared to join parts of the European construct or acquis. That is a permanent factor, and it should be recognised. The second point, which is equally important, is that that must not be a matter for haggling, negotiation, bitterness and controversy. A dual right should exist in the EU. First, any country that wants to opt out of future integration proposals should not have to negotiate—it should have the right to do so. Equally, countries that wish to go further have the right to do so, and those who do not believe in that do not have the power to veto it. In both cases, that is not the situation today. At the moment, people haggle and negotiate. It is bitter and horrid, and eventually they achieve some sort of opt-out. That is not good enough. Equally, there is potential for enhanced co-operation to allow some groups of countries to go further. They have never been able to use that, as it is not a practical proposition at the moment.

Finally, I accept that anyone who wants to be a member of the European Union has to accept certain core responsibilities that go with membership. They have to accept the single market and the common agricultural policy. There are a range of other issues that it is necessary to accept if a country wants to be a member at all, but I am referring to what it does beyond that.

Ms Gisela Stuart: I am trying to follow the logic of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument about how we achieve deeper integration and his thoughts about opt-outs. Would he therefore advise the Danish Government against pursuing their proposal to hold a referendum on opt-outs, which they have been discussing over the summer?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I would not presume to advise the Danish Government at all. That is entirely a matter
18 Jun 2008 : Column 1002
for domestic Danish politics, and it is for Denmark to decide the appropriate way to pursue those views. It is a debate that must take place within Denmark and, as long as the conclusion satisfies the Danish people, far be it from me to exercise or offer any different view.

Europe must recognise that there are certain core activities to which, if we are to have a European Union, all member states must sign up. But, if we wish to go beyond that, and many still do, it is crucial that we have a system that is flexible enough to recognise that fact.

Mr. Jenkin: I am listening very carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend’s presentation, but the European Commission’s own Sapir report, for example, recommended the common agricultural policy as an area that might be re-delegated or even returned to the sovereignty of member states. I do not think that there are any complete—untouchable—shibboleths that should prevent two-way traffic. On the existing treaty, the question is how we prevent the institutions—particularly the European Court of Justice—from constantly extending the meaning and import of what we have already signed. The precise problem already exists, because what we thought was an effective opt-out from the social chapter turned out not to be so with regard to the working time directive.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I entirely agree. If one wanted to move towards what I call an la carte Europe, there would have to be an intense debate about the irreducible core that that membership implied.

Mr. Cash: What is it?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I do not want to take up too much time. We can each have views on that subject. My own view is that the single market has to be a part of that irreducible core. I could give several other, personal, views, but that is a separate debate that will have to be held.

I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that it is very dangerous if the European Court is given too much power, because unlike all other courts, including national courts, the European Court cannot be overruled by national Parliaments. A European Court judgment can be overruled only by a treaty amendment ratified by all 27 countries, and for all practical purposes that is non-deliverable. The whole issue of democratic consent comes to the fore again.

When the Government—possibly successive Governments—have looked at the question of Europe la carte, they have always shied away from it. It is not just the people in Brussels who do not like it; the Government also tell us that the concept is unattractive, because if there were a two-speed or la carte Europe, Britain would lose influence in Europe, we would be in the outer core and it would be dreadful. I acknowledge that if we do not go the whole way with other member states in new areas of integration, we lose some influence. By not being part of the single currency, we have lost some influence compared with what we might otherwise have had. But people who make that argument seem to ignore a fundamental part of the issue: influence is not an end in itself; it is normally the best means by which one protects and advances one’s national interest. One is obliged to one’s electorate to protect one’s interests, not one’s influence. Influence is simply one means to an
18 Jun 2008 : Column 1003
end, so one should never give up one’s interest in order to maximise one’s influence. However, the opposite may occasionally be true: sometimes it is worth accepting a reduction in influence if that is the only way to protect one’s interests, which are much more fundamental.

A reference was made earlier to the French Government’s decision on NATO and joining the integrated military structure. Fifty years ago, General de Gaulle decided—rightly or wrongly; I pass no judgment—that it was in France’s national interest to opt out of the integrated structure of NATO. As a consequence, for the past 50 years, France has lost influence in NATO. De Gaulle knew that that would happen, and indeed, it did. Over many matters, France has had less influence than it would otherwise have had, but, until President Sarkozy, successive French Governments concluded that, nevertheless, the national interest justified the decision. If they come to a different view now, it is again a matter for the French to decide in terms of their own perception of their national interest today.

Let us not therefore hear that the argument against an la carte Europe is that if the United Kingdom were not in the inner core and part of a two-speed—or some other phrase that may be used—Europe, it would lose influence, as though that were somehow the end of the debate. We must identify our interests, but the public will ultimately tell us what they are, and we must respect that.

Those of us who are not diehard Eurosceptics trying to get Britain out of the European Union either directly or indirectly as quickly as possible must do some fundamental thinking. I say to my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and to his shadow Cabinet colleagues that in the weeks and months that lead up to what may be the next Conservative Government, we must ensure that we not only give very careful thought to what we will do in the first few days, weeks or even couple of months after we have come to power, but make a very careful judgment about how we can be respected members of the European Union—not by abandoning our principles and beliefs, but by giving much greater and more careful thought to the kind of Europe that we are trying to construct.

We must not spend the next couple of years merely saying what we dislike about the present European Union and about the way in which the Government are carrying out their responsibilities—although those criticisms are justified, and I share them. It is precisely because there is, for the first time in 10 years, a serious prospect of our becoming the Government of the United Kingdom, and because we say that we remain committed to our membership of the European Union, that we must, I humbly suggest, do even more work to articulate the kind of Europe that we wish to see—not merely in terms of aspirations but of how it will function and how it will, if we are successful, enable the people of the United Kingdom to be content with our membership of the European Union so that we do not have more generations of this kind of discussion and debate and this kind of alienation. It is painful and disturbing if British membership of the European Union has become so dysfunctional. It must be articulated and progressed in a way that can make us be at peace with our membership of the European Union, or the whole operation will be hardly worth having.

18 Jun 2008 : Column 1004

I believe that there is a solution. It is not more integration or the giving up of national sovereignty but a flexible European Union that respects the right of each member state, not only the United Kingdom, to determine the degree of integration that it is comfortable with. I hope that the Conservative party can take the lead in articulating in some detail what that means and why it is a practical, realistic and attractive option for this country and for Europe as a whole.

Next Section Index Home Page