Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Biffen: My Lords, it is a privilege to be called so early in the debate. But I feel somewhat like a tethered lamb as I see I am being followed by the noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth and Lord Clinton-Davis, both former members of the European Commission—and by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, a
 
19 May 2005 : Column 130
 
very distinguished British civil servant who played such a crucial role in developing our relationships with the European Union. However, I travel hopefully, and hope that today's debate will produce some consideration of the statement in the Queen's Speech that:

I have some ambivalence about this at the moment, in the light of what has been said in the past 48 hours, but the smiling face on the Government Front Bench assures me that all will be made absolutely clear by the end of the debate.

I hope that we will have a referendum. I have always looked forward to these great occasions, when the political establishment wheels out its top people to persuade the lesser breeds how they should be voting. I have in mind the Prime Minister, with his arms lifted aloft by partnership, like in the triumph of Moses over the Amalekites. I see obviously in that role Charles Kennedy and, on loan from the Conservative Party, my noble friend Lord Heseltine. However, as that debate proceeds, I am sure we will echo the experiences of the French; the issue broadens very considerably until it is a discussion about not only the French relationship with the European Union and the character of the European Union but also the French analysis of France's style, history and destiny.

I am therefore greatly concerned that in this country, as the debate proceeds, we will take it on a wider vision than merely that of the proposed constitution, although a debate on the constitution, in its narrow terms, is very challenging. As has been made quite clear, the constitution embraces and consolidates the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice Treaties, all of which were centralising experiences. Therefore, we are talking about not creating a centralised Europe but consolidating a Europe which has very powerful elements of centralisation. Those elements have to be measured against the perceived success of Europe as it now is.

However, the issue goes rather beyond that. I am encouraged to make that judgment on the advice of no less a body than the Foreign Office—not an organisation I naturally turn to for encouragement. However, in its Guide to the European Union, it says that the European constitution would,

It is on the words "and more" that I should like to reflect.

The European Union's expansion to 25 countries was quite a leap. There is a certain homogeneity about the original six members, enhanced by the subsequent nine, predominantly from northern Europe. The figures I shall quote on per capita dollar incomes come from United Nations sources. The per capita income for the six plus subsequent nine nations was around $25,000, less for the Mediterranean component of that figure. The move to include the 10 countries from the east means that the per capita income drops from $25,000 to a mere $5,000. As for the future, as
 
19 May 2005 : Column 131
 
indicated in the Foreign Office pamphlet, discussions are already in train for the inclusion of Turkey and I do not think anyone seriously doubts that Ukraine will put in a strong bid to become part of the expanded European Union. In that case, we are talking of countries whose total per capita incomes are less than $1,000 a year.

In my view—and it may be a very simple view—you cannot put together countries of such disparate economic performances, with such differences in culture and social traditions, without presenting an enormous challenge for whatever partnership we have. All the wisdom coming from the Foreign Office rather assumes that these are within the compass of an enlarged European Union. I have advocated a large European Union precisely because I believe it would bring us up against the harsh realities that would necessitate a much looser form of partnership. I did not go to the Reform Club, the Traveller's Club or wherever Foreign Office officials hang out for their social occasions. I went to my village pub—the Horseshoe Inn in Llanyblodwel, where the people's homespun wisdoms are much closer to reality. They say that we are trying to set out this kind of organisation with these sorts of commitments, which strain one's credulity.

Above all, it is so dangerous because we are dealing with one of our most precious possessions—effective political authority. That is a precious commodity. If it is strained or diluted, we are all harmed by that process. That is what clouds the present drive for the European Union to be enlarged on account of the treaties of Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam. They are to be the basis of the legislation to encompass this much broader Europe.

It is foolish to assume that from the destruction and dilution of European nation states a phoenix in European harmony and comradeship will arise. It will not. We are walking dangerously and we should be aware of that.

12.21 pm

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, in the field of international relations, the gracious Speech could mark a watershed for the Prime Minister and the Government if they have the necessary vision and will take the opportunity. As has been said, the Prime Minister will chair both the international G8 meeting at Gleneagles later this summer and, more importantly in my present context, the Council of the European Union.

The Prime Minister used to pride himself on seeking to put Britain at the very heart of the European Union. That was before he allowed himself to be seduced away to the very heart of Texas and separated from his major European partners on what has turned out to be an ill-starred Iraqi conflict. That is now behind us, to some extent at least, and the six-month presidency of the European Union later this year is a chance to return to the priority that the Prime Minister once gave to Britain's role in the European Union. It will come at
 
19 May 2005 : Column 132
 
a time, as has already been said in this debate, of great uncertainty within the European Union, when all the Prime Minister's skills and convictions will be much in demand. Immediately ahead lie the referendums in both France and Holland and beyond them the UK presidency and the UK's own referendum. Whatever the outcome of these referendums, it will be a fateful 12 months for the future of the European Union.

I have had a curious personal history of twice being a Labour Minister preparing the way for Britain to join Brussels. For good measure, I ended up as the first British Commissioner from the Labour Party—which had by that time become deeply divided and the majority of it was hostile to British membership of the Community. It is therefore a personal satisfaction that over recent years at the end of my political life, I am in a party that has shown a principled consistency over the years in urging British membership of the European Community.

However, these periods of uncertainty about the next step forward in Europe, of which I have had ample and bitter experience, are a familiar phenomenon for Europe. To use a golfing memory from my Scottish golf links, they are par for the course and we should not get too alarmed by current fears about the present situation. The lesson is not to take one's eye off the ball.

The Labour government's first effort to join the European Community in 1966 and 1967 ended in de Gaulle's second veto on British membership. I well remember on that occasion that there were members of the Cabinet who privately—and perhaps not so privately—gave a sigh of relief that the general had got them off the hook of a difficult decision. I also remember the late George Brown, the then Foreign Secretary, fighting like a tiger at the Cabinet meeting to keep Britain's application on the table despite the humiliation of that veto. The Cabinet rather reluctantly gave way, believing that it did not really matter. However, it did matter. When de Gaulle later resigned, we were able to resume our application to join the Community without taking a fresh and no doubt divisive Cabinet decision once again.

I therefore profoundly hope that the French and Dutch referendums will be positive. But, if by narrow margins one or other were to vote "No", I hope that the Prime Minister and Cabinet will not shrug it off as happened in 1966 as relieving them of a difficult decision. Instead, I hope that they will give a positive and vigorous lead of confidence to Europe by going ahead with our legislation for our own referendum. I have been greatly reassured by some of the noises that have come from the Government on that matter.

The decision to go ahead with the legislation should set alight the great debate that ought to take place on these great results and has been most curiously muffled in British politics for far too long. The Prime Minister's period of presidency in the second half of the year will therefore be crucial. The underlying reality of the European Union of 25 and more nation states—I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, whose most interesting speech I listened to with great concern—is that it is here to stay for the 21st century.
 
19 May 2005 : Column 133
 
The issue for national parliaments throughout the European Union is whether they can organise themselves more effectively than at present to protect and enhance the welfare of their citizens and contribute their united experience to maintaining world peace and prosperity.

The only question for the United Kingdom is what part we play in that. The present treaty was not designed for a union of 25 and more member states. To seek a unanimous decision from 25 nation states through a whole series of national referendums when those states are often distracted by temporary domestic issues is not proving a practical way to bring about long-term constitutional change. We are stuck with this process at present of course but the new treaty, once it is finally agreed—and finally, in one form or another, the European Union will come to an agreement on its future arrangements—will create a union of nation states. That should give some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who expressed concern in his opening speech because for one thing it gives a much more significant role to national parliaments. That offers an alternative to the referendum route as a method of seeking unanimity on the way for this European Union to make progress.

I confess an old-fashioned personal view about referendums not shared, I am bound to say, by my own party. I share the view of Prime Minister Attlee, one of the great Prime Ministers of the century just ended. A referendum might suit the peculiar historic circumstances of Swiss cantons, or, at the other end of the spectrum might represent a detestable device of European dictators, but parliamentary democracy, in Lord Attlee's view, "warts and all", is the best way forward. I am reinforced in that view by the troubles of running a European Union of this magnitude.

Having got that off my chest, I appeal to the Prime Minister that if he wants to be remembered as an historic holder of that great office after he retires later in this Parliament, it will certainly not be over Iraq. I doubt that it will even be over the "respect and reform" policy, which is a worthy policy in itself but, looking backwards, I am bound to say not of the great historic magnitude of the Beveridge report or Aneurin Bevan's creation of a great National Health Service. "Respect and reform" is a long way away from those monumental changes.

The Prime Minister would leave a much bigger footprint in history if, arising out of Britain's presidency of the European Union in a crucial six months in the second half of this year, he succeeded in relaunching Britain to be permanently at the heart of the European Union making a distinctive European contribution to a more prosperous and peaceful world.

12.30 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page