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Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I address your Lordships for the first time. This sense of pleasure derives both from the honour that I feel in joining your Lordships in this
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beautiful House and from the generosity of the welcome extended to me by colleagues from around the House, and in particular by the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg.
With the help of noble Lords and that of the excellent Attendants and other staff who serve this House and whom I sincerely thank, I am learning to find my way around the place. But since, as I am told by one of my aunts, I am "spatially dyslexic"I mean that in the literal as well as the intellectual senseI must confess sometimes to feeling a little like Theseus in the labyrinth and in need of a ball of wool to help me.
Today's debate gives me an opportunity to contribute to a topic close to my heartan opportunity to support the holding of a referendum, although not this Bill, on the proposed constitution for Europe and, in so doing, to highlight what I believe to be the remarkable political achievement of the European Union in bringing about the extension of democracy, the rule of law, including civil rights and ethnic rights, and an era of peace across Europe as well as prosperity.
I have listened to the speeches already made today with admiration and interest and with varying degrees of agreement. It is clear that not every Member of this House shares my enthusiasm for Europe. I suspect, however, that my own sentiments will not come wholly as a surprise.
That was written by my father in 1962 in a foreword to a pamphlet debating the future of Britain in Europe. Forty-two years later, the Liberal Democrats believe that. Forty-two years later, however, the debate, as we are hearing today, still goes on and consensus eludes this country. It is time that the crucial issue of the nature of the EU and our role in it is finally settled.
As a supporter of the Union, I acknowledge that it can appear distant and unaccountable, and that more reform is still necessary. But too little is heard about the successes of the European Union. In Britain, a largely Euro-sceptic press has meant that the positives have been buried. For 20 years, we have been exposed to the drip, drip, drip of shabby anti-European propaganda. A referendum, and the campaign that will accompany it, is an opportunity to redress that and to settle at last an issue that has bedevilled two generations of British politics.
The first half of the 20th century saw European conflagration. My grandmother's generation lost brothers, lovers and friends. Only 25 years or so later, it was happening again. My own first cousin never knew his father due to conflict within Europedue to European fighting European. It is now unimaginable that member states would employ the use of force to settle disagreements among themselves. When I was growing up, Spain, Portugal and Greece were ruled by dictators. That can never happen again as long those countries are members of the EU.
Only 15 years ago, British soldiers stationed in Germany still faced anxiously east. With the recent historic enlargement of the European Union,
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countries that were behind that Iron Curtain can now look forward to peace, stability and democracy. Of the 10 accession states, eight were formally Communist. They had to make enormous strides to meet the democratic requirements for membershipand they did. Across Europe the EU is locking in democracy.
A united Europe also provides the power to tackle problems that cannot be tackled by nation states alone. Euro-sceptics talk of the surrender of sovereignty, but we already pool sovereignty. It was NATO that kept Britain secure during the Cold War. Only pooled sovereignty can deal with the challenges we face today: economic globalisation, pervasive environmental pollution, and the threats of international terrorism.
Pollution recognises no borders and terrorists do not respect national boundaries, as we witnessed again so appallingly in Beslan and yesterday in Jakarta. In this shrinking world, the European Union is of our time. Britain can achieve more when it acts in partnership with our neighbours.
Let us look to our own future, to the generation younger than me. They are at ease with Europe; it is their holiday destination; they work there; their heroes on the football pitch have names like Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Vieira. And yet come Euro 2004, no-one was cheering harder than the Arsenal and Man U fans for an English victory. At the Athens Olympics we were for Team GB.
The proposed constitution for Europe modernises the EU; makes it more flexible, democratic, transparent and internationally effective. But it is, and will remain, a diverse European Union. It is a constitution for a union of nation statesabsolutely not for a European superstate.
I believe a referendum is the best way to ensure that the new constitution is widely accepted and understood. So I personally am in favour of a referendum but not in favour of the Bill. In a maiden speech one cannot be partisan, so I will leave it to others to make the argument that the Bill is playing party politics. But it must be for the Government to judge the timing of the referendum in light of parliamentary scrutiny and developments in other member states. I look forward to the campaign.
Lord Radice: My Lords, we have heard two excellent maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, made an excellent speech and we look forward to hearing what he has to say, particularly about education. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, has also made an excellent speech. She will not be surprised to learn that I agree with almost every word that she said.
The noble Baroness comes from a great Liberal family. Although I did not know her grandmother, I did know her father, who was a friend of mine. I
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worked closely with him in Europe and indeed in Poland and Hungary, which are now members of the European Union. I know he would have been delighted about that.
Before I turn to the Bill, I want to say that I was not in favour of having a referendum. I was influenced by my Commons experience of watching Conservative governments carry through Parliament the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty without a referendum and, indeed, resisting very strongly the case for a referendum in words with which I very much agree. As any fair commentator on European issues would accept, the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty were very much more important constitutionally than the European constitutional treaty on which we shall have a referendum.
In my view the treaty is useful and valuable. It sets out the powers, rights and duties of the Union in a single treaty, which we have not had before. Indeed, the first 18 or 20 paragraphs are rather clearly set out. It provides a simple and fair voting system for the Council; it acknowledges the predominant role of the nation states; and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-MoggI enjoyed his speech, as one always doesthat I do not recognise the constitutional treaty that he described when I look through the text of the treaty that I have beside me.
Of course, for the first time it allows greater involvement for national parliaments. Frankly, it is far less significant than the Single European Act, which introduced a single marketa very revolutionary moveand it is far less important than the Maastricht Treaty, which introduced the euro and the European Central Bank.
After consideration, I think that there is merit in having a referendumnot just because my leader has announced that there will be one. We have not had a referendum on Europe since the membership referendum of 1975. A referendum on the constitutional treaty will give the British people a chance to vote on the treaty which contains the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, all the other developments since 1975 and the new features, of which there are not very many, introduced in this constitutional treaty.
Here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, that as such it will be a test of where the British people stand on the European Union. I welcome that. In that sense it is an important crossroads.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, a very constructive member of Sub-Committee A, which I have the honour to chair, of the European Union CommitteeI very much enjoy working with himthat I am against his Bill. I have always warned him that on this issue we would be arguing on opposite sides.
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I am against his Bill for a number of reasons. A Bill that concerns a treaty and a referendum as important as these should be introduced by a government Minister and not by a Back-Bencher. I do not want to make too much of that, but that is the way in which we operate in our democracy.
My main argument is against the haste that would be introduced by the Bill if it were passed. The referendum would be held within four months after 29 October. I think that that would prevent proper and full parliamentary scrutiny and debate. If the noble Lord says that it is quite a small Bill, I say so was the Maastricht Treaty. As he will well remember, given the fact that he gave advice to the government of the day, it took a whole year to go through the House of Commons.
We need proper time for parliamentary scrutiny because we are a parliamentary democracynot a democracy that is run by plebiscite. We would be introducing an element of that if we rushed to have a referendum straightaway. We need proper parliamentary input and, frankly, we cannot get that within four months.
The second point, which has already been alluded to by my noble friend, is that we need proper information. A fair and proper democratic referendum has to be based on full information about the treaty and the constitution. A recent MORI poll for the Foreign Policy Centre shows that there is considerable ignorance about the constitution. The noble Lord may say that that does not matter, but it also says that those polled would like to know more about it. So they are asking for more information.
It is proper that information should not be based on what people read in the Sun or the Daily Mail. That may suit the noble Lord, but we need to have the proper facts and to know what is not in the European constitution. We need to know, for example, that it will not abolish our seat on the UN Security Council, threaten control of our oil supplies and that our Army is not under threat; that it will not force us to join the euro against our will, raise our taxes or force us to have our foreign policy dictated from Brussels; and that it will not lead to a European superstate. That is not in the constitutional treaty.
So we need to ensure that people have their proper right to information and that it is simply set out. Indeed, I would urge the Government to publish a simple pamphlet setting out what is in the treaty and make that available across the country, perhaps in every post officeif there are enough post offices open for that to happen. I hope there are. I do not believe that a rush to a referendum can provide the proper informed debate that we need to have if we are to have a fair and proper referendum. That is my second point.
My third point is much more pragmatic: it would be wrong to mix up the referendum with the general election. Let us be honest and say where we are at the moment. The general election is likely to be held in the early summer of next year. When the party conference season is over we will already be in the run-up to the
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general election. I think that it would be quite wrong to mix up the referendum on the constitutional treaty with the general election.
In my view, the referendum should be held after the general election. I say that very clearly and not for partisan reasons but because I think that that is the fairest way to conduct a referendum on such an important topic for this country. So, for all those reasons, I would say to the noble Lord, whom I like very much, that his Bill is premature and that if passed it would not help an informed debate, nor lead to an informed decision. In that sense, it would weaken rather than strengthen democracy.
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