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18 Jun 2008 : Column 1024

During the Lisbon debates, we heard from the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) who is now Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman. He told us that unanimity and consensus are one and the same thing. I ridiculed that at the time. We have a language, and there are distinctions, shadings and therefore different purposes for the use of words. However, in the minds of many Europeans, dissent cannot exist, so even if I say, “I don’t agree with this at all, but if you want to go ahead, I could just about live with it,” they call it unanimity. I do not consider it to be unanimity, and—I suspect like many millions throughout Europe—I know that the measures are no longer connected with accountability to anyone.

How can the president of a bureaucracy—no less—in Brussels announce the most intimate of political judgments by a nation? Let us just ask the question. It was inappropriate. But what he went on to say was even more inappropriate. He is trying to fix up unanimous acceptance by all the other leaders of Europe’s constituent parts, including the subordinate constituent parts, with the British, the French and the Germans leading. This constitutional necessity of Ireland’s could be the saving of the process. If the process were to falter and fail, I should care to think—however unlikely this is—that the people themselves might come into play. One cannot cede power.

Incidentally, despite what the Government say, the world now knows that we had only 19 hours in this Chamber to debate clause 2 of the Bill in respect of the treaty. I hear the propaganda roll, because this is a world of spin. It says that between the two Chambers, we have had 30 days, but we know how the guillotine was constructed. There was no opportunity to analyse, argue or develop a theme on Report for the legislation that went through this place. It denied the process legitimacy, and legitimacy was what the Government were seeking. The Irish vote also denies it legitimacy.

We are now being governed—it is intolerable, and we must have a new system—by a bureaucracy in Brussels which, effectively, has no check on it. The European Parliament has no check on it. Therefore, one thinks, “What is the problem?” Essentially, the problem is that that bureaucracy is trying to form a new political dream. We had that debate in spades with the curious proceedings during the treaty process. We discussed the legislation but 19 hours, yet we heard endless repetition of how we did not appreciate the value of the new world.

All the way through is a link that the Government shied away from. Even the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), perhaps dreaming of her ticket to Brussels, could not understand that democracy had anything to do with it. “This is intergovernmental”, they say, “We great leaders determine this matter for our people.”

Mark Lazarowicz: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shepherd: May I just finish this point?

I think of the different electoral systems in Europe. I think of Herr Kohl, then Chancellor of Germany, who was defeated in his own constituency but remained a Member of the Bundestag. That is unthinkable in what I call the British Isles political settlement.

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The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): It happens in Scotland.

Mr. Shepherd: The Minister for Europe makes a useful and cheering contribution. It does happen in Scotland, unfortunately. His Government brought in that unfortunate process, and the current Justice Secretary brought in the d’Hondt formula whereby we elect unaccountable MEPs to an unaccountable Parliament. To whom is anyone accountable? There is no national unity or national identity for Europe. Each of us is proud of who we are, and we want to defend that. We want to work in co-operation and comity, but we do not wish to be governed by what we cannot change.

Mark Lazarowicz: Tempting though it would be to follow the diversion of the situation in Scotland, you would not allow me down that road, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I will revert to the point on which I originally sought to intervene on the hon. Gentleman. It is about the powers of the European Parliament. Will he at least accept that one of the effects of the treaty, if it is finally implemented, will be to give the European Parliament more powers to scrutinise and control the Commission and the Council. Is not that to be welcomed?

Mr. Shepherd: This is about democracy. The European Parliament is accountable not to the British people but to many diffuse electorates. The point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. Who knows who these people are, given the d’Hondt formula that the Government foisted on us? The whole point is that the European Parliament is not accountable. No one can sack it.

There is no European common public opinion. There are no common European newspapers or common European political parties. We do not identify with the national institutions of France or Italy. We may admire them or respect them—we may even love them—but they are not ours and they are not accountable to us. We have therefore constructed for Europe an abomination—something that is unaccountable, and now arrogantly unaccountable. Who elected Mr. Barroso? Not the people of Europe. It was another stitch-up between these consensual people.

This is a very important debate because it tells us everything about the weakness of our Government in their declining and last days. It tells us everything about how they cheated their way through the House of Commons and are dependent on the ridiculous position of the Liberal Democrats to thrust the conclusions of Mr. Barroso, the German Chancellor and the French President on to our on-the-back-foot—let me put it no more strongly than that—Prime Minister. The tide has gone out on this Government. We see that as we go round the country. If there is one thing that the Foreign Secretary will learn so that he does not give performances such as today’s or his statement on Monday, it is just how disconnected this Government are from the people of Britain. That is very important in itself. We cannot operate in isolation without carrying the people with us, and the Government are not interested in what the people have to say on these matters.

That is why we in this House should send a powerful message that we believe profoundly in democracy, even if this Government do not. They talk about the
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parliamentary processes when the very thing that got us into Europe in the first place was a referendum. There has been no popular expression on the question of whether the way that this has developed is appropriate for us. Deceiving and cheating on the question of a referendum will come back to haunt both the Labour Members who put it in their electoral manifestos.

Goodness knows what will happen with the Liberal Democrats; they will presumably present three candidates representing all views in each constituency. That should square matters. They have even deserted the Chamber now, although a Liberal Democrat is sitting there, pretending to read an important document, so that they can claim that they were represented in the Chamber.

I shall bring my remarks to a close because others wish to speak. This has gone too far. It is not good enough to have a Foreign Secretary who thinks it necessary to travel around Britain. He has a constituency, after all. Does he not meet his constituents? Are they so different from those in the rest of Britain? The same thing applies to the Minister for Europe. We heard from the former Europe Minister, and I must not work myself up about him. I was sitting here quietly in the Chamber, and he started his speech, referring to the usual suspects. This man did the first tour—do we remember that? He is the only man in Britain to say that he had met only two Eurosceptics. I can understand why. I was sitting here quietly and I should know that every time he comes into the Chamber, I will be drowned in treacle, or grease, or something, as he declares his unstinting adoration for his masters in office. That is the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the suspect Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee who got there by a device that required a suspension of the Standing Orders of the House.

That is the system of Government we are living under now. I am smiling, but most of us think that it is corrupt, denigrating and it belittles the country that we are sent to represent. The Government need to state clearly, “We cannot proceed with ratification. We will not proceed with ratification until such moment as there has been a referendum, which we promised.”

5.21 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Until the last few lines of the speech of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), which I felt were an unnecessary personal attack on my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), I would have recognised the sincerity and passion with which the hon. Gentleman presented his case. I hope that he will understand that if I were even to attempt to respond directly to the points that he has made, I would not be able to deliver the contribution that I have prepared for any reasonable length of time— [ Interruption. ] Maybe even longer, indeed.

I restrict myself to the observation that in the case that the hon. Gentleman has always made with passion in these debates, he paints a picture of a European Union that none of us recognises as existing. He paints a picture of a superstate—some kind of creature or creation that is imposing its will on the British people and the British state. The fact is that we are active and full members of the European Union. We play a role in formulating its decisions, and I want us to strengthen our ability to play an active role in it, which is why I
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hope that at the end of the process, the Lisbon treaty will come into force, although I recognise that that is much less likely following the decision of the Irish people last week.

I mentioned earlier that I had missed part of a speech because I was at an all-party group meeting. I was also present for some of the discussions of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. There is a delegation here at the moment, and interestingly, as part of its study of the governance of this country, and the influences on our Parliament, it paid a visit to the EU. When I speak to parliamentarians and others from parts of the world that are not part of the EU, I find that they almost invariably admire what the EU has done. They recognise it as a success story, and it is only within the EU, particularly within the ranks of the Conservative party in this country, that a picture is painted of an EU that is not a success story. It is regrettable that we continually hear that sort of negativity towards the EU from the Conservative party and others.

As others have said, we certainly must not seek to impose our views on the people of Ireland after their referendum. But it is also the case that the decision of the Irish people should not pre-empt our decision in the UK, or pre-empt how we approach the EU and the Lisbon treaty.

The Eurosceptics on the other side of the House and elsewhere who are now celebrating the no vote in Ireland—along with the unholy coalition, ranging from the extreme right to Sinn Fein, that got that vote—are saying that as a result we should immediately cease our ratification process. I note that when the Spanish people voted in favour of a previous treaty a couple of years ago, the same Eurosceptics did not immediately drop their Euroscepticism or suggest that all their hostility towards the EU should now be dropped. No; they continued to argue their position, just as those who want to see the Lisbon treaty ratified are perfectly right to argue for our position within our democratic processes here in the UK. The Government are absolutely right to proceed with ratification.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): How does the hon. Gentleman answer the point that it requires only one country to say no to veto the introduction of the treaty? Even if everybody else agreed, the absence of agreement on the part of one would mean that it could not proceed. That is the relevance and importance of the vote in the Republic of Ireland.

Mark Lazarowicz: I fully understand the position, although I believe, as would most impartial and dispassionate observers of the Irish referendum—if there are any such—that the reasons why the Irish people voted no were numerous. Some were related to domestic politics, although I am not disputing for a moment that the Irish people, for whatever reason, did say no to the European reform treaty. That cannot be got round. Equally it is fair to analyse the various reasons why they chose to reject that treaty. If in the negotiations that are to follow it is possible to address those concerns, that seems the reasonable type of negotiation that should take place between the member states of the European Union to try to get an outcome, which at the end of the day requires unanimity. If Ireland or any other state
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does not ratify the treaty, clearly it cannot proceed. No one is disputing that anywhere in the House; I certainly do not dispute it.

Undoubtedly the motivation for that rejection in Ireland was one that had its source in many different places. Whether the Lisbon treaty is eventually ratified or not, it is important that the undoubted scepticism that was expressed clearly by the Irish people, and has been expressed here in the Chamber and in other countries, be addressed and, where possible, addressed in such a way as to persuade people of the merits of our active engagement in the EU.

It is particularly important for those of us on this side of the House and elsewhere who want to see Britain playing an enthusiastic role in the EU to address the defects of the European system if we are to create greater confidence within the British people, as well as in other countries, in the EU and its institutions. That is why I shall spend most of the limited time available to me on areas that the EU, whatever happens, must address if it is to have a chance of gaining the confidence of the European people.

The first issue is that the EU must address the way in which it operates. Part of the motivation of the Lisbon treaty was to simplify the decision-making process to allow the citizens to be reached more quickly and effectively in a number of areas, for the betterment not just of Europe but of our national interest. Even without the Lisbon treaty—if it does not go ahead—Members across the Chamber, whatever their position. will have to accept that the EU is not always a model of effective political decision making. It is not always a place where the big issues are prioritised over the smaller ones. That is partly because of the institutional structure, but I must say bluntly that it is also because of political failures—not failures by any one country, but failures over a number of years to concentrate on the key issues that Europe should be concerned about. Whatever happens after the ratification process is completed—or alternatively, if it is not completed—the political leaders of Europe must ensure that they turn their attention to the key priorities for Europe and do not become deeply immersed in the minutiae of European internal politics. I suspect that there is agreement across the Chamber on that.

A second area that Europe must address much more coherently and consistently is the challenge presented to the older EU members by migration from the new member states. The suggestion from some of the reports of the campaign in Ireland is that one concern was the effect on Ireland of migration from the new EU member states. Everyone in the Chamber knows that the issue comes up at the grass roots in communities in our country, too. There are people who try to make political capital out of such concerns, but they are real concerns and they must be addressed, not just in Britain but at European level.

I would like the European Union to play a much more active role in ensuring that people’s concerns about the realities of the challenge posed to older EU member states by migration in the European Union are addressed. I would like a greater concentration on tackling racism in Europe and on working towards social cohesion among the different populations in member states, to try to reduce some of the potential for conflict, which undoubtedly could arise if migration in Europe is seized upon by various political forces for their own extreme
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reasons. That is something that we have seen happen in some countries, as many hon. Members will be aware.

A third issue that must be addressed is the relationship between the Members of the European Parliament, and the British people and Members of this Parliament. The issue is not just about addressing the relationship between MEPs, and the British Parliament and people, as well as the other constituent member states of the European Union; rather, we must be blunt and recognise that one of the biggest factors leading to cynicism towards the European institutions stems from the revelations about the behaviour of some MEPs in relation to their personal lives and their parliamentary expenses.

It is obviously rather dangerous to venture on to that territory, when we in this House rightly come under scrutiny in connection with our expenses. We all know that we have to put our house in order. However, there have been many reports of what some European parliamentarians have been doing. It would appear that hundreds of thousands of pounds in expenses from some Conservative MEPs have gone into family companies. I even understand from press reports that one Liberal Democrat MEP—it may even have been the leader of the Liberal Democrat MEPs, and I am sure that his claims may be right—has said that for years it was common practice for parliamentary expenses for travel to be claimed at the full price, even though he had to pay a lower rate, and for the difference to be donated to the party. That has not been challenged. That kind of behaviour, whether by a Liberal Democrat or any other MEP, is not only wrong in itself, but understandably leads to public cynicism about how those institutions operate.

Mr. Hands: The hon. Gentleman is talking about some of the alleged practices of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MEPs. How confident is he that Labour MEPs will be entirely exonerated when such practices are investigated?

Mark Lazarowicz: I was about to say that the Prime Minister and others have made it clear that Labour MEPs are expected to have their accounts audited. The point I am developing is that there is every reason to believe that across the political framework of Europe as a whole—I will not go beyond that—there are issues about the behaviour of MEPs that have to be addressed, as they challenge the credibility of European institutions. We all know that this is one of the factors that feeds into the general public disillusionment with politicians, whether at UK or European level. That is a symptom of a much wider issue, mentioned by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), which is the disconnect between MEPs and the British public and Parliament. That does not lead to the conclusion that MEPs should have no role at all, but that they should be more closely involved not just with their own electorate but with Parliament. We need to build up more institutional means of allowing us to hold MEPs to account here in Parliament, so that they are involved in the scrutiny process that we try to implement to ensure that the European decisions in which we participate are genuinely in the best interests of our country. The Government need to be held to account in what they do in that respect.

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I now come to my final point. Too often in British politics, debates about our involvement with Europe and how we negotiate with Europe are framed in such a way that British interests are always presented as being best served if we can extract concessions from Europe. Our Ministers are portrayed as going over to Brussels, waving a handbag or whatever else they want to wave to fight off the evil Europeans, and extracting concessions that they can bring back to the UK. It is always framed in terms of a conflict between us and the evil European superstate, which is trying to do us down. That has been a theme from time to time under both Conservative and Labour Governments, but we need to move away from that kind of negative approach towards our participation in Europe. I give credit to the Minister for Europe as well as the Foreign Secretary for not adopting that approach, as I see it, in their dealings with Europe. I believe that they have played a very constructive role in putting forward Britain’s case in Europe, and I hope that that model will continue for the future.

I end where I began, by saying that I want to see positive engagement by Britain in Europe, and to see us getting away from year after year of conflict with Europe. Yes, we stand up and fight hard to defend our national interest, but we should also try to promote it in a spirit of co-operation in order to achieve objectives on which we should all agree—energy security, tackling climate change, effective security within Europe and meeting the challenges of globalisation. Those are the priorities we need for Europe, rather than the sort of internal debate that has dominated discussion about Europe in the UK for far too long.

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