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The realpolitik at the time was that the Labour Government would never allow a referendum on whether we should be members of the European Union. By not voting with us, the hon.
Gentleman's party lost a golden opportunity to give the British people a referendum on the constitution. Surely he knew at the time that the Government would never allow such a referendum.
The key issue-I am sure the hon. Member for Rayleigh will address it-is the Conservative party's decision to leave the European People's party in the European Parliament. Elected Conservative Members of Parliament and those in Brussels have described that as "stupid", moving the Conservatives to the "wild fringes", "crazy" and "head-banging", the final description being that of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).
Let us be clear. A vast majority of respected Conservatives believe that the party's current position is crazy. Why did it occur in the first place? The European Parliament does not have the power to change EU treaties, nor can it or MEPs make the EU more federalist. That can be done only by negotiation, subject to the unanimity laws, between member states. Why it was so difficult for British Conservatives to sit on the same benches as the MEPs of Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy is beyond me, particularly as Chancellor Merkel's views are probably the closest of any German leader since the second world war to those of the modern British Conservative party.
The situation is even more bizarre because the European People's party, after quite a big victory for centre-right parties across the European Union, is at its strongest in the European Parliament, and it is at this moment that the British Conservatives decided to leave, so they have chosen isolationism over influence. That will hobble a future Conservative Government.
Any grouping in the European Parliament must have 25 MEPs from seven member states. Following the decision of the Finnish MEP who had been recruited to leave the new grouping after a few days, having met his erstwhile colleagues, the new grouping has only seven member states represented and four of those seven have only one MEP.
Mr. Davey: Oh, there are eight-it changes day by day. We can never quite tell. One day, we have former leaders of the Conservative group, people such as Edward McMillan-Scott, who are members of the Tory party, and then we do not. We have to keep track, and I apologise for not being quite as up to date as I needed to be, but the key point remains that four members of the new group have a single MEP. It only needs two of them to leave and then the group folds, so the instability-the fragility that the member of the British Chambers of Commerce referred to in the Financial Times last month-is still there. That cannot be a sensible way of going on.
The Conservatives told us that the new grouping would mean a big voice for the British Conservatives, so what have they gained since the elections? They still have only one chair of a committee. That is all that they had in the past. They have not gained any new chairs;
their voice has not got any bigger. However, they have reduced voting strength on all the committees, so their voice cannot be heard when they are voting on legislation. Even the leader of their group, who was to be a Conservative MEP, has had to become a Polish MEP. The influence of the Conservative MEPs has been reduced.
I would have liked to go on about all the different members of the new grouping and their particular policy preferences, but I will not, because of time. They have already been rehearsed and I would like to give the Minister a chance to rehearse them, as I am sure he would like to do. I shall therefore end on an issue of policy that is relevant to how Britain is involved with the European Union, and to future issues that will challenge the next Government on both foreign policy and expenditure; we all know the expenditure problems. The issue relates to defence.
I refer hon. Members not to Liberal Democrat policy, but to an article by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) in the Financial Times last week entitled "Britain must work with Europeans on defence". In the article, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary talks about the importance of European colleagues working together far more effectively on issues such as defence procurement, and in terms of ensuring that commonality is achieved in equipment, weaponry, armour and so on. He talks about the huge savings that could be reaped. He also talks about making our own Army far more effective. He talks about it being able to work more closely with other armies, particularly that of France, which does take its defence policy seriously, but also with others as, it is hoped, they begin to do so as well.
That ought to go to the heart of political debate-the security and the finance of our nation. We have to work with our European colleagues, and with rather more enthusiasm and with some semblance of influence. I think that the British Conservatives are about to sell our country down the river.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate. He criticised the possible appointment of Tony Blair as President of the EU, and I will certainly want to return to that theme. I commend my hon. Friend for his assiduous membership of a number of all-party groups; he is clearly a very hard-working Member of Parliament.
My hon. Friend raised, among other things, Gibraltar. I can tell him that one of the first all-party groups that I joined when I came to this place in 2001 was the all-party group on Gibraltar. Gibraltar and the desire of the Gibraltarians to remain British will always be something that is close to my heart. I intend to fight very hard for that should I ever have the honour of becoming a Minister in the Foreign Office. I hope that my hon. Friend takes some reassurance from that.
I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who made a typically passionate contribution. He raised several issues, including enlargement. He made the point that a number of countries look forward to the possibility of joining the European Union-of having an EU prospective, as it is
often put. He also raised what happened in Bulgaria and Romania. People in all parties in this country and in many other countries in the EU have learned lessons from that. In essence, the lesson is that if we attempt to bring in countries to meet an arbitrary timetable, the risk is that we bring those countries in before the process of reform has been fully completed. That lesson has been learned across the EU, and we now talk about conditionality rather than arbitrary timetables. In simple terms, if further reform has to take place, it is better that it takes place before a country is admitted to the EU rather than afterwards, because there is still a degree of leverage to argue for reform before it comes in and it is difficult to get that reform once it has been admitted. It is fair to say that that lesson has been learned by many countries of the EU. It is hoped that a number of the countries mentioned by my hon. Friend can undertake the reform that might be necessary to allow them one day to join the EU.
Mr. Evans: Will my hon. Friend also accept that it is important to take the peoples of those countries with us as well? If it is ever gleaned by the people that they are being dragged by the nose in a certain direction but the chances of them ever joining are remote-Turkey is a perfect example of that-we run the risk of those peoples turning against the European Union and against the whole concept of what we are trying to create.
Mr. Francois: My hon. Friend's point is well made. It remains the Conservative party's position that we support, in principle, Turkish membership of the European Union. He is right to raise the prospect of some frustration in Turkey about what I think people there perceive as problems being put in their way by certain other countries in the European Union. We run the risk that if those problems pertain for any length of time, people in Turkey will begin to lose faith in the possibility of membership. My hon. Friend therefore sounds an important warning in the debate, and I hope that the Minister will take that warning on board.
I want to follow the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham about the possibility of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, becoming the President of the European Union. That really came to light last Thursday following an extraordinarily candid admission by Lady Kinnock, the new Minister for Europe:
"The UK government is supporting Tony Blair's candidature for president of the Council."
The post of EU President does not exist at present, but the creation of the post by the Lisbon treaty and now the former Prime Minister's candidature have huge potential consequences for the way in which the EU is run, for our relationship with the EU and, given Tony Blair's relationship with the present Prime Minister, for British domestic politics as well. Of course, we are opposed to the Lisbon treaty, so we do not want the post to be created at all. It is particularly presumptuous of the Labour party to raise the prospect of his having the job before the treaty is even ratified.
The post of EU President, were it ever to come about, would, particularly in the hands of a well known and ambitious politician such as Mr. Blair, have the potential to become a very powerful yet, importantly, unelected office. That raises real concerns. I would therefore like, as part of this debate on how we might interrelate with the rest of the EU, to consider his record and what he might do were he ever able to assume that office.
The former Prime Minister will be remembered for many things. One thing that he will be remembered for is the surrender of £7.2 billion of the British rebate-that was British taxpayers' money-for very little in return. That surrender followed a now familiar pattern from Labour of initially defiant rhetoric for media consumption, followed by surrender and subsequent spin to try to make up for it. To summarise, Downing street assured us in 2005 that the rebate was not up for negotiation. The former Prime Minister promised Parliament:
"The UK rebate will remain and we will not negotiate it away. Period."-[Official Report, 8 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 1234.]
"there will have to be the rebate and the reason is that even if you decided to negotiate down the Common Agricultural Policy...there would still be that period where we were paying far more because other people were getting the benefit-not just of the Common Agricultural Policy but of Structural and Cohesion Funds."
"we have made it clear all the way through that we are prepared, not just to discuss and negotiate upon, but to recognise that the rebate is an anomaly that has to go, but it has got to go in the context of the other anomaly being changed as well."
"we also agreed on a fundamental review of all aspects of the EU budget, including the common agricultural policy...it is then possible for changes to be made to this budget structure in the course of this financing period."-[Official Report, 19 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 1564.]
In practice, however, that so-called fundamental review of the CAP, which was promised to Parliament, was downgraded to a non-binding health check, which has not led to genuine reform. We were sorely let down, and £7.2 billion of our money was given away with virtually nothing in return. If the former Prime Minister became the EU President, therefore, Britain would be left facing a powerful President with a track record of failing to stand up for Britain's interests in Europe.
The former Prime Minister's record should also be examined with regard to his role in forcing the Lisbon treaty on the British people without the referendum that he had promised them. As we know, the treaty represents a significant transfer of power from member states to the EU's central institutions. That includes the loss of 60 vetoes and the creation of a European diplomatic service, a Foreign Minister in all but name, a charter of fundamental rights and an EU President. The treaty is nearly identical to the EU constitution that Blair promised would be put to the British people in a referendum.
Let me pick up the point that the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), made about the Lisbon treaty. He attempted to argue that the treaty and the constitution are markedly different, but they are not, and he does not need to take that from me. He can take it from the former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who said that they are 90 per cent. the same. He can take it from the Spanish Foreign Minister, who said that they are 98 per cent. the same. He can take it from the Spanish Prime Minister, who literally went one better, saying that they are 99 per cent. the same. He can take it from Chancellor Merkel, who has been mentioned several times today. She said:
"The substance of the Constitution has been maintained."
He can even take it from the Prime Minister. Shortly after taking up his new post, the Prime Minister had a meeting with the Taoiseach. At the subsequent press conference, he was asked what they had been talking about. He replied:
"the European constitution and how that can move forward over the next few months."
Even the Prime Minister therefore knows that the treaty and the constitution are essentially the same. It is-I choose my words carefully-disingenuous of the Liberal Democrats to pretend that they are materially different, so that they can get out of the referendum that they solemnly promised the British people in their 2005 general election manifesto.
Mr. Francois: I am sorry, Mr. Martlew, I appear to be enthusing my hon. Friends that bit too much. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats have tried to wriggle out of their promise. They tried to make the same case on the Lisbon treaty in the European elections, and they were ritually slaughtered for their trouble, so we will take no lectures from them about the treaty.
Tony Blair's possible candidature was not really an issue in the European elections, and I do not remember it cropping up very much. However, the elections were one example of the British people having at least some say over the European policies of this country's different parties. Although the elections saw socialist party policies across Europe being rejected, the people's rejection of the Labour party in Britain was particularly decisive. The Labour party did worse than its socialist brethren in France or Spain; it got just over half the MEPs that the Italian socialists did; and it achieved a similar result to that of the German Social Democrats, the SPD, despite the fact that the SPD had its worst election result since the second world war. In the new European Parliament, the British Labour delegation will rank as only the sixth-largest party in the Socialist group, only just ahead of the Romanian Socialists, who have 10 seats. As I understand it, although the Minister may correct me, the Labour party will have no committee chairmanships in the European Parliament. Given that my party has at least one, therefore, it is rich for the Government to criticise us.
On our relationship with the EU, we would like to hear from the Minister what the position of Labour MEPs will be on the working time directive in the new Parliament and perhaps under a new Commission-
whatever happens to the Lisbon treaty, there will have to be a new Commission. As the Minister knows, I have raised this issue with him before. The UK's opt-out from the working time directive-the opt-out is now used by 15 different EU countries-affects the jobs of 3 million people in this country. This is not, therefore, some esoteric debate, because the issue matters to the employment of millions of people in the UK. In the crunch vote a year ago, most Labour MEPs, including the woman who now leads them in the European Parliament, voted to get rid of the opt-out, although a few voted to retain it. It is likely that we will return to the issue, so it is important to press the Minister on exactly where Labour MEPs stand.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) became the leader of the Conservative party, he said that we would form a new grouping in the European Parliament. In effect, he gave three years' notice that we would do that, so it is not something that we decided to do overnight. Many people, including several Ministers, the Liberal Democrats and several commentators in the media, said that we would never do that, but we have. We have established a new grouping, which has 54 Members of the European Parliament representing eight EU countries. If we look at the balance of power in the Parliament-I know that the Minister studies these things-we can see that that grouping will have quite significant influence and could be a swing voting grouping on particularly important votes.
I will conclude now, so the Minister has a chance to make a contribution-[Interruption.] Well, I want to give him at least 13 minutes. I leave him with this thought. A GfK NOP poll at the weekend asked people whether they wanted Tony Blair to be the EU President. Some 25 per cent. said yes, but 54 per cent. said no. If the Government intend to take any notice of the slaughter inflicted on them in the European elections by the people of this country, they should pay some heed to those figures and change course.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): It is a delight to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I am afraid that I will have to rather rush through things because so many different matters have been raised.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. I should tell him that I do know who the Welsh MEPs are; indeed, I know two of them-Derek Vaughan and Jill Evans-personally, although I do not know John Bufton and Kay Swinburne. I also happen to know who the hon. Gentleman's MEPs are: Mike Nattrass, Malcolm Harbour, Philip Bradbourn, Nikki Sinclaire, Liz Lynne and Michael Cashman.
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