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3.51 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Whenever we prepare for European Council meetings, I am reminded of an old Jewish proverb—“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” We think about what is going to happen, and it is then overtaken by events that completely dominate the discussions. This time, the unexpected event was the Irish no vote. Typically, the result of that vote was declared not only on Friday 13 but on the saint’s day of St. Anthony of Lisbon, who is the patron saint of lost causes. I am tempted to think that God was laughing on that day.

However, perhaps the result was really a narrow escape. We should remind ourselves that the Lisbon treaty process started in 2001 with the Laeken declaration, which posited 64 extremely sensible questions that went to the heart of saying that the people of Europe were no longer connected to their institutions. We made the first mistake by suggesting that a constitution would be the answer to that disconnection. When the constitution was eventually produced, the people of France agreed with my laptop: whenever I typed in the word, “Giscard”, it suggested replacing it with “discard”, which is clearly what the French people did. However, we did not take enough note of that, and ended up with the treaty of Lisbon. We were given several reasons why we needed it, and people genuinely thought that we did, whether for enlargement, for greater efficiency, or because otherwise we would grind to a halt, but none of those things happened. We are now in great danger of expending even more political capital on trying to push through something that will not be in the long-term interests of the European Union.

The Lisbon treaty has always contained three fundamental tensions that will come back to bite us in the long term. The first—this is not about an la carte Europe or one of two speeds—concerns those countries that are in the eurozone and those that are not. Despite appearing to be a success, if we compare the development of the euro with that of the dollar, it is clear that it is not yet an effective single currency. We will see over the next few years what happens to the property market in Spain, in Greece, in Italy and even in Ireland. If the countries that are in the euro are to have a proper functioning currency, they will sooner or later require deeper political integration.

Kelvin Hopkins: To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, I understand that the Italian Government have had difficulties in selling bonds to raise money. When we ram together economies of different strengths, such tensions are bound to arise, and they could get much worse.

Ms Stuart: The first example of what Lisbon did not address, which needs to be addressed at some stage, is the tension involved in those two levels of economic
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integration. The second is that we never really addressed—even though it was touched on—the fact that the countries coming into the European Union were mostly smaller ones. The western Balkans were mentioned earlier, and the former Yugoslavia has to be included in some shape or another, if we look at the map of Europe. The disproportionate rights of smaller countries compared with those of larger countries has led to tensions increasing in the case of unanimous votes.

When we go to the next stage—and I want Turkey to come in—in which we have voting systems with an element of population weighting, we will have one very big problem. In other words, even for the most committed pro-Europeans who wish to see further enlargement, Lisbon would have run into the buffers. If Lisbon is driven through against the wishes of large sections of the population, we will not be able to come back to make further required changes, while obtaining consent. The problem is that for a long time, the European Union operated on the basis of implied consent, and when it asked for explicit consent, it did not get it.

We have to address most of those problems in national Parliaments, and we have to change the way in which we do business. I do not want to go into that point today, because Ministers are going to a meeting at the weekend at which extremely important issues will have to be dealt with. One of them is defence. The most significant announcement has been France’s declaration that it will fully rejoin NATO. I urge the British Government to welcome that and to take a close look at the French defence paper. It states that it wants to address what it calls the rather modest defence spending in the EU. We have to face up to the fact that it is no good wanting new defence structures, or saying that we need procurement agencies and so on, if countries keep cutting their investment, or more to the point, if they are not prepared to produce combat troops. It is futile to keep talking about peacekeeping commitments when we do not have troops to deploy to create the conditions where peacekeeping is required.

I hope that another issue will be addressed at the meeting, or that Ministers will engage the House on the matter. I understand that the European Commission has approved two policy documents calling for greater co-ordination of immigration policy between member states. There is a suggestion that a European support office on asylum will be set up, and that there will be greater co-ordination in dealing with unexpected inflows of asylum seekers on a Europe-wide level. That is, politically, an extremely sensitive matter. Such proposals are essential in some areas, such as dealing with our borders, but I say to Ministers that we need to debate the issue in this House—not in some obscure Standing Committee or sub-Committee—and engage the population at large. Such decisions require the consent of the House, and I hope that Ministers come back to the House on that point.

In the debate so far, quite apart from what was said about Ireland, we have heard a whole lot of platitudes. We are all terribly concerned that food prices should be cheaper and that energy prices should be cheaper. I find that particularly when I listen to the Lib Dem speeches. I know that English is not my first language, but I did not think that I needed comprehension lessons. I have no idea what they are saying—it is full of motherhood
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and apple pie, and I have no idea of where they stand. Their language is all about “making it better”, “making it more significant” or “going further”, but I never have any idea of where they are going, or what those things precisely mean. We can dismiss their comments for the moment.

I will finish because I have become rather tired of speaking in these debates, and the Minister has probably become tired of listening to me over the years.

Daniel Kawczynski: Have a go at the Lib Dems again.

Ms Stuart: I will— [ Laughter. ] We could unite the House along those lines.

I want to respect the Irish decision, which includes not bullying them into saying that the Irish Government have to come back by October with a timetable. If we respect the Irish decision, we have to say that it is back to the drawing board. That was the essence of the Dutch no and the French no. The Irish no is the same as those two.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The hon. Lady and I may have had different views about how good the Lisbon treaty was for Britain and for the rest of Europe, but does she agree that what we need this weekend is some kind of decision on whether the treaty is dead—if that is what the Irish Government say—or whether there is a clear plan for what they intend to do next? What Europe needs least of all is months and months of more uncertainty and institutional navel-gazing, which is not helping to achieve any of the objectives that we want to achieve within Europe.

Ms Stuart: I am very grateful for that intervention, which could have been made—and has been made—in this House for the last three years. It has usually been accompanied by, “Unless we have a decision, Europe will grind to a halt. We will not be able to do any of the things that we want to do.” Actually, we can. On defence, all the great progress has been made when Britain and France have come together and made the significant decisions, completely outside the European mechanism. Europe has gone on working. The big decisions are not concerned with institutional problems. Mainland Europeans think that if we create the institution, we will create the political will. Actually it is the other way round. The reason things do not work is often that we do not have the political consensus.

We have had a decision and certainty. Whether we shed tears about the fact that the treaty is dead or not is neither here nor there. We have a decision and we can go on focusing on all the things that are important. I could not see a single thing that the Foreign Secretary said was important that under the current institutional arrangements within the EU, provided we create the political will—separate from the institutional arrangements—we could not do. Let us stop talking about it and start delivering.

4.2 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): It is a familiar pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), just as we followed each other round Europe for 18 months in the fruitless attempt to find a way forward for Europe in the Convention
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on the Future of Europe. I agree with much of what she said, as I did then. From our different party perspectives, we concluded that that effort was doomed, simply because it was replicating the old Community method of top-down. That has now met its destiny with the Irish electorate.

For many decades, even centuries, the Irish question has haunted British politics, and successive British Governments through the 19th and 20th centuries had to grapple with it. Now it is Europe that has the Irish question, and the institutions of the EU have shown themselves to be quite unable even to comprehend the shock that has hit them. Those of us who have been to Brussels in an official capacity can understand this because the official mind is largely untroubled by questions of accountability and democratic control. The whole Brussels machine really can only go forwards.

The Irish are quite clearly signalling something different, and it is disgraceful that the British Government are colluding with others and with the Brussels elite to find a way round this, rather than respecting it. All the comment—we heard this from the Foreign Secretary earlier, and in his statement on Monday—has been about what the Irish have got to do next, but for an Irish voter there is no next step on the treaty. Irish voters have said that they do not want it. The Irish Government have suffered a defeat, too, so it is not for them to second-guess their people, either.

I find it rather chilling that people are now making excuses. Again, we have heard that in this debate. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who has now left the Chamber, said that the Irish were really voting on something different, and that many of them were deluded and mistaken, thinking that it was all about Irish neutrality and Irish abortion. I find that intensely patronising. We just have to respect the fact that people do not like what they were given.

What people were given was bafflingly complex. That relates to another excuse offered—that the issue was all too complicated to put to a popular vote—but whose fault was that? It was not the fault of the Irish; it was the fault of the people who drew up the document. Let us remember that the Laeken declaration of 2001, which started this failed reform process, instructed the Convention to simplify—that was not a suggestion; it was an instruction—instead of which it made the process more complicated.

I am sure that a lot of Irish voters—perhaps most of them—did not read the whole text. But then, did every hon. Member read all 290 pages of the Lisbon treaty? The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and I had to read it—we drafted the wretched thing—but sane people do not read hundreds of pages of Euro-jargon. The Irish perhaps should have been given the opportunity to read the treaty. Indeed, the no campaign asked that every Irish household or voter should be sent a copy. However, that idea was turned down by the Irish Government, because they knew perfectly well that the more people saw of the treaty, the less they would like it.

Daniel Kawczynski: Some of us had to read the treaty in French, because for a long time it was not published in English, which was even worse.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I sympathise with my hon. Friend for having to read the treaty in French, because it was probably a worse read than in English. What he
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says is true: the House was treated with systematic contempt, through the failure of the authorities to produce and publish a document in our own language. He therefore makes another telling point. If the problem of politics is complexity, which renders the people unable to express an opinion, perhaps we ought to abolish general elections, too, because they are quite complicated political matters.

The essential message in the treaty is actually quite simple. The Lisbon treaty was about transferring more powers from people who are elected and can be removed to people who are not elected and cannot be removed. I discussed the matter with those connected with the Irish referendum after the event, and they told me that that was the general theme running through people’s concerns. There was a feeling among the Irish electorate that in future, if the treaty was enacted, their choices, in general elections or otherwise, would not be reflected in the decisions that affect their lives. That is ultimately a matter for democracy, which must be respected. The Government are in bad company in proceeding with ratification.

We were all entertained again by the Liberal Democrats trying to explain their lack of principle over this whole episode. It is almost comic that amendments that they not only supported but promoted in this House were rejected by their colleagues in another place. The Liberal Democrats do not even have the consistency of their lack of principle. Perhaps I can therefore consign them to the sidelines, which they are always doomed to occupy.

What concerns me rather more is that the Government are apparently colluding with some bad company abroad, in other member states. Senior politicians, Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers have already been quoted in the debate as saying effectively that the Irish decision should be ignored. We heard from Mr. Barroso, the President of the European Commission, that the treaty is still alive. I am reminded of President de Gaulle’s description of the Commission as a

so perhaps we should not be too surprised. Of much greater concern is the President of France saying that Europe now needs a “special legal agreement” to try to get around the problem, and a number of German politicians, including the Foreign Minister, Mr. Steinmeier, saying that the way forward is somehow to get the Irish to withdraw from the process of integration, at least temporarily, so that the rest of Europe can go ahead.

I find it very worrying when German politicians suggest that treaties should be broken. Europe has seen a lot of that in the past. If we have learned anything, it is perhaps that we have the glimmerings of a rule of law in Europe that all countries respect. It is, I think, intolerable when senior Ministers even suggest that the clear requirement in article 48—that all treaties require unanimity—should somehow be ignored or forgotten.

If I were to make a prediction, it would be that the attempt to get the Irish to vote again will fail, but that Brussels and a number of member states will segment and disaggregate the treaty of Lisbon into smaller parts in order to get it through in a series of smaller measures. They will meet first to see what can be done without treaty change; they will then see what can be done to get as much as possible through with treaty change, but
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without triggering another Irish referendum; then they will try to get the residue through, possibly triggering an Irish referendum, but attaching it to an enlargement treaty, defying the Irish to vote no to such a treaty, which on many other grounds they would probably support. In other words, they will do everything possible never again to allow the peoples and electorate of Europe to vote on a full treaty change. I think it terrible that the European Union, which likes to lecture other people about democracy, is so contemptuous of democracy in its own territory.

There is an opportunity for the Government, and I want to be a little more positive about that. The Government have an opportunity, if only they could take a lead. The first thing they must do, apart from respecting the Irish result and not proceeding with ratification here, is to stop all the preparatory work. During the Foreign Secretary’s speech, I asked him whether he would stop the work that we know is being done on setting up the European foreign ministry—what is now called, in Euro-speak, the external action service. We know that such work has been going on for two months, as we discussed it last week in the Foreign Affairs Committee. In answer to my intervention, the Foreign Secretary said that the lunchtime discussion on Monday had been cancelled. That is not a full answer to my demand that all work anticipating the treaty must now stop. The Government have an opportunity to do that at the Council meeting at the weekend. Will the Minister for Europe give the House an assurance in his concluding statement that on this, as on other matters, the anticipatory work going on at the official level will stop forthwith? Otherwise, the suspicion will persist, in Ireland and elsewhere, that whatever people do or however they vote, the treaty and its provisions will go forward.

As for the future, we must recognise quite candidly that the seven-year reform process has failed because it was never tried. The Laeken declaration, which I have mentioned, was quite a radical document. It accepted that the Europe that existed then was too interfering and too complicated, and that it lacked democracy. It said, portentously, that Europe was at a crossroads and had to choose. It indicated that democracy was at least as important as efficiency, but that was entirely forgotten when the Convention started to meet. I know, because I was there.

There was never the slightest effort to simplify or, as the Laeken declaration said, to create a Europe closer to its citizens. Instead, decisions were to be taken further away from the citizen, because more powers in more policy areas were given to yet more powerful institutions in Europe, which had created the problem in the first place. The Government are now fond of saying that they are against too much institutional tinkering, but that is exactly what they were doing in the Convention—very unsuccessfully, of course. They tabled more than 200 amendments to the draft constitution, of which less than 10 per cent. were successful, so we know that they did not agree with the outcome. However, they had to make the best of that, and with full help from the Liberal Democrats they are denying the people of this country a vote on it.


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