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16 Jun 2009 : Column 233

I want to speak because I believe that the Council of Europe matters. It is the oldest of the pan-European institutions, and it still has a real role with regard to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It has done important work, and it still has more important work to do. In and among the work that it has done, there are some major and important successes for the continent of Europe. The most notable of all, and one that most people know a little bit about, is the European Court of Human Rights, although I keep being told that it belongs to the European Union. Nevertheless, there is something that the public recognise of the work that we do. Sadly, people do not know much else about it. People do not understand very much about why the Council of Europe is important.

Even more sadly, as I view it, all is not well with the Council of Europe. That is what prompted me to speak, and what I want to speak about. I urge this Government, and the next Government, to take the matter seriously, and to do their level best to make sure that things are put right. I fear that the Council of Europe has lost its way. It seems to wander ever further across subjects that are not its core business, and ever further across the globe. Of course, any organisation that believes in democracy wants to spread it, but we are talking about a Council of Europe, not a mini-United Nations. There is work to be done there.

Even more importantly, the Council of Europe, the oldest pan-European institution, the originator of the flag which has been hijacked by the European Union, is being upstaged—

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): And the anthem.

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend mentions the anthem as well.

The Council of Europe is being upstaged by the European Union and the European Parliament. Vast sums of money are being spent on duplication of the human rights work done by the Council of Europe. We have this great institution of human rights, which the European Union is claiming for itself, and huge sums are being put into duplicating the work of spreading democracy. Since that is the core work of the Council of Europe, all donations—I shall come to finances in a moment—would be gratefully received. If the European Parliament and the European Union have money to spare, they might like to give it to the Council of Europe to do the work that it was set up to do and continues to do so well.

My next concern is the funding issue, which the British Government and all other Governments seem to have got stuck into. The budget has been cut year on year, while the cost of the European Court of Human Rights has gone up and up. As a result of underfunding, money has had to be diverted away from the other core work of the Council of Europe to fund the European Court of Human Rights. It is crucial that the administration of the Court and its logjam of casework is sorted out.

The third aspect of the Council of Europe that concerns me is the current internal wrangle as the Council plays politics with itself. If my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I know he will elaborate on that, so I shall not bore the House with the details. The
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dispute is about how to appoint the next secretary-general, which has to be done this year. All I will say—I hope the Government will be able to respond to this—is that the work of trying to appoint a new secretary-general has been badly handled by both sides.

I have some sympathy with what the Committee of Ministers is seeking to do. Among those pushing that agenda have been the British Government. I understand only too well what is being attempted, but if I may say so as gently as possible, the way in which the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has set about it is not very clever. That is where the row started. On the other hand, the Parliamentary Assembly has allowed itself to be confused between principles and personalities.

I have to go to an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday to talk to Ministers and see whether we can sort out the problem. I fear that we will not be able to do so, and that at the part-session in June there will be deadlock. I plead with the Government. After that has happened, as I fear it will—I do not see how we can stop it—some cool heads need to settle down and find a way out.

As I said a moment ago, I still believe that the Council of Europe matters. It matters to the new democracies that came out of the Soviet Union and elsewhere and are trying to set up a pluralist democracy, which we want to help them to do. The Council of Europe plays a big role in that.

I have mentioned the European Court of Human Rights. It is almost self-evident that the Council of Europe has an ongoing job in protecting human rights throughout Europe, and it does a great deal of work, often unseen and certainly unsung, trying to help countries that have come out of a different type of regime where the rule of law does not mean very much. We try our level best to help people get rid of the corrupt legal system that they have and to establish a legal system that we would be proud of. That is important work and it still matters.

The Council of Europe is still the only efficient, effective pan-European forum. Jest has been made of Iceland’s bankruptcy. I have mentioned Norway and Switzerland. They are there already. They are part of that forum. Mention has been made of countries in the Balkans wanting to join the European Union. They are there already, and those are the sort of countries that we help. Mention has been made of Turkey. It is a major player in the Council of Europe. To the best of my knowledge, mention has not been made of the Caucasus and beyond, but those countries are there. Above all else to me—the Liberal spokesman mentioned that I have some connections with United Russia—the Russians are there. I could, if time allowed me, say a great deal about our relationship. In saying “our relationship”, I am talking about British parliamentarians, not just the Conservative relationship with the Russians.

There is a choice to be made when we deal with people whose democracy is far from perfect, whose rule of law leaves a lot to be desired and whose human rights record is bad. We can cast them into the outer darkness and say, “You’re awful. We don’t want anything to do with you,” or we can say “If people are asking for help, yes, we will help.” There is one school of thought in Russia that wants to go it alone to build a Russian sphere of influence in the world, and there are those who say, “The best way to improve Russian democracy
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and the rule of law in our country is to integrate into the continent of Europe.” I make no apologies for trying to help those Russians who want to do that, because that is the best way I can think of to share the values that we take for granted.

The Council of Europe has a further important role in conflict prevention. I know that we had a spectacular failure in conflict prevention because the Russians and the Georgians went to war together. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from that, and there are lessons that we can apply to places such as Nagorno-Karabakh, because Armenia and Azerbaijan are both members of the Council of Europe, and incidentally, both are members of the group that I lead. We can do something, I hope, about Transnistria, because the Moldovans, Ukrainians, Russians and Romanians are all members of the Council of Europe.

The most important thing about the Council of Europe at present is the human rights commissioner. I was in New York not long ago, where I was talking about the Russian-Georgian conflict. The message that I got from the United Nations was that of all the things that have happened to try to sort out that dreadful mess, one stood out above all else: the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe was somebody on the world stage who the United Nations thought was doing a magnificent job, and with whom it wanted to work more closely.

So we do matter. We do have a job to do, and we must take care of that. If we have problems and this Government and the next Government want to help, may I suggest a few things that they might like to consider? They might like to consider helping us build a higher profile for the Council of Europe, which is what the row about the secretary-general comes down to. If we have a higher profile, we will be taken more seriously and we will do more good. They could help us have a clearer focus, sort out what is core business and sort out the real geography of what we should be doing.

The Government could help us try to organise a new settlement between the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, which is what has, in many ways, given rise to the ongoing political infighting that I mentioned. They could help us stand against the ever-increasing encroachment of the European Union. They could help us get them to take their tanks off our lawn and let us do what we are good at, and we will withdraw from the things that we are trying to do which we could safely leave to the European Union to get on with. They could help us by providing sensible funding. This is not a pitch for vastly more money. If only the problems with the European Court of Human Rights could be sorted out, the budget would look so much better for the rest of us.

We have problems. We have done a great deal. All I would say to the Government, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) when he becomes the Minister in due course, is please, please do not let the Council of Europe wither on the vine.

7.39 pm

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a matter of great regret to me that the Government’s policy can best be characterised as “no compromise
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with the electorate.” Irrespective of whether we agree with the results of the recent European elections, we are beholden to pay some attention to them. It might very well be okay for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take the view that the people have let down the Government, but it is not appropriate for an elected Government to take that view. As the Foreign Secretary was outlining the Government’s policy on the forthcoming European Council, it struck me that not a single word, jot or comma had been changed as a result of the European elections. Not the slightest attention had been paid to those results, and that is a cause for considerable concern.

The party that secured the most votes would generally be seen by the public to be Eurosceptic, and the party that got the second highest number of votes would generally be seen to be “withdrawalist”. The Government were characterised in Europe by two things: first, that they were enthusiastically in favour of ever-greater union; and, secondly, that, having promised a referendum and then refused to provide one, they were damned by it. The party that is most enthusiastically in favour of the European project, the Liberals, came quite a bad fourth. That balance of voting was not just simply an act of God, random or due to the expenses scandal; it represented a clear pattern of political opinion in the United Kingdom.

Mark Lazarowicz: My hon. Friend draws attention to the political pattern in the United Kingdom. What conclusion would he care to draw, therefore, from the results in Scotland, where the party that came first was, of course, the Scottish National party, which I would not describe as Eurosceptic? The Labour party came second, the Liberal Democrats vied with the Tories down below and the Green party, which is generally pro-European, did better than the UK Independence party. So what conclusions would any analysis of the Scottish results draw?

Mr. Davidson: I would certainly draw on one point, because I remember that the Scottish National party was in fact in favour of a referendum on the European constitution. The SNP also had the great advantage of not being us in those elections, and that was undoubtedly helpful to it. In my constituency, it was noticeable that, such was the support for European integration, the Liberals were beaten not only by ourselves, and the nationalists, and the Conservatives, and UKIP, and the Greens, and the British National party— [ Laughter. ] The Liberals did, however, fly the flag for their position—the kamikaze approach to politics—and it had the merit of honesty if not of sense.

From the election results, it is perfectly clear that being associated with ever-closer union is toxic, and I should have thought that the Government would want to take that into account. We might deplore the results of democratic elections, but we must recognise them and take account of what people are actually saying to us.

For me, the only bright moment in the whole European election debacle was when I heard that the Minister for Europe had resigned. I thought that she had taken responsibility for the result but no, it was unfortunately not to be. She certainly wanted to remove herself from the ministry of Europe but, regrettably, she was not going to be moved in the direction that she wished. When I heard that the Foreign Secretary had been
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thinking of resigning, I thought that he had wished to take responsibility for the European election results, but apparently not. He quite rightly thought that other people should share the blame.

The important thing about not paying attention to the election results, however, is that it undermines completely the Government’s initiative on democratic renewal. All the stuff that we are told about how Parliament is going to refresh itself to gain public support is completely undermined and treated with absolute and utter abject cynicism if the public so clearly express a view on a major subject, as they have, and we then pay absolutely and utterly no attention to it.

The Government’s commitment to democratic renewal will not be taken seriously unless we revisit the question of a referendum, which we promised, on the European constitution. When is a constitution not a constitution? When it is a scam. Everyone believes that the constitution is no longer called the constitution simply to get around the democratic roadblock that was placed in its path by the decisions initially of the French electorate and then of the Dutch electorate. When politics is dealt with so cynically, it undermines any support for the Government’s European policy and their credibility on democratic renewal issues.

When the constitution, and then the Lisbon treaty, progressed through Parliament, we were told that change was not possible, that no amendment was possible and that no qualifications were possible. Now, however, we find that, for the Irish, changes, qualifications and amendments are all possible in order to persuade them to vote “for”. The assumption is, quite clearly, that the Irish were too stupid the first time around to do what they were told and therefore, have to do it again.

Will the Government clarify how they intend to pursue the question of Irish renegotiation? Will the Irish be given legally binding commitments? If they are legally binding, the issue will have to come back to the House, because such commitments would either change the whole nature of the previous treaty or require a new treaty to which we will be obliged to give assent. If, on the other hand, the commitments are not binding, they will be absolutely and utterly worthless and would, I predict, be eroded over time by the ever-growing centralisation of the European Union. I want the Government to clarify their position on the matter. Are they prepared to offer the Irish legally binding commitments, or are they simply trying to help the Irish Government fudge the position with their own people, so that they can persuade them to undo what they previously did?

On Britain’s financial position, I heard with great interest that, apart from in a couple of areas of the Budget, the main Opposition party would make a 10 per cent. reduction in all headings. However, I seek clarification about whether it, in government, or the current Government, will seek to renegotiate our financial contribution towards the European Union. The Public Accounts Committee has agreed a report spelling out yet again how the EU’s accounts have failed to be properly audited and passed, and such extravagance is not justifiable or supportable in the present economic circumstances. I therefore hope that the British Government will, as a matter of urgency, seek to reduce considerably our contribution to the EU. I support some solidarity payments but, in a time of austerity, can see no justification for such extravagant expenditure as that which the EU undertakes in many areas of its economy.

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Kelvin Hopkins: To reinforce my hon. Friend’s points, I should say that recent estimates of the total misappropriation of common agricultural policy money vary at between 30 and 50 per cent. of the entire fund.

Mr. Davidson: I am always glad to have my points reinforced. It is perfectly clear that the level of extravagance in the European Union at present is not justifiable.

Finally, I want to pursue the question of the Opposition’s position on the referendum. I was not satisfied by the response given to me by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who spoke on behalf of the Conservative party. I genuinely do not understand what the Conservative party intends to do. I do not accept that it will inevitably form the next Government, but if it does, and if the treaty has been ratified, will it hold a referendum or will it not?

The issue is of particular importance because there are substantial numbers of UKIP voters in my constituency, as there are in many other constituencies. I have discussed the matter with them; many said that they voted UKIP in the European elections but that they will vote for the Conservatives in the general election because they think that they will give them a referendum. I do not believe that that is necessarily true.

Mark Lazarowicz: Is not my hon. Friend being untypically charitable to the Conservative party? Given the number of times that the shadow Foreign Secretary was asked the question and dodged it, is it not patently clear that there is no such intention and that there is no possibility whatever of a future Conservative Government, if there were to be one, holding a referendum if the treaty had been ratified?

Mr. Davidson: As my hon. Friend knows, I am much more charitable than he is on almost all issues, so I am inclined to give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt until there is confirmation to the contrary. The issue is still unclear. What do I tell UKIP voters in my constituency?

Mark Lazarowicz: There are only two of them.

Mr. Davidson: There are more than two of them; in fact, there are more UKIP voters than Liberal Democrat voters. Did I mention earlier that the Labour party, the nationalists, the Conservatives, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP came ahead of the Liberals in my constituency? That shows how much Eurofanaticism there is there.

Let us be clear. What exactly is the Conservative policy? Perhaps I am not as charitable as my hon. Friend thought, because my view is that the Conservatives cannot be trusted on the question of a referendum. In my view, anybody who believes that the Conservatives will hold a referendum on the European constitution/Lisbon treaty if they win the general election is deluding himself.

I look to the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who is summing up for the Conservatives, to make his party’s position clear. This far out, people are entitled to know. If the Conservatives said that they would do one thing if the treaty was ratified and another if it was not, that would be fair enough. Let them be open and honest and spell out exactly what they intend to do. Otherwise, it will be a case of, “You can’t trust the Tories on Europe.”

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