Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, on his ministerial appointment, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on moving to a responsibility for foreign affairs, European affairs and international
19 May 2005 : Column 134
development—that is to say, for the problems of the whole world. I believe that blessed is the country that has no foreign policy; but as we have one, I am sure that he will serve us very well.

Although the debate on the Address is an occasion on which we all benefit from important and rewarding speeches, it is also in a sense a free-for-all. Once again, so many subjects are covered by the gracious Speech, which is not surprising at the beginning of a new government, that we can choose to speak on one of many different subjects. My main interest now as Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers is in parliamentary business and the constitution. I have tried in my six and a half years in the House to avoid being typecast as an actor on the European stage. However, I do not speak today as Convenor and wish to breach my own guideline by saying a few words about European affairs, now that we know that we are going to have a Labour Government in power for some years and that a Bill and referendum on the constitutional treaty, which the Government support, is in prospect.

This is a good moment to take stock. We need to establish a balanced and positive approach to the issues that will be raised during the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Union and in the constitutional treaty itself. The Union is changing substantially, with the bedding down of the recent enlargement to 25 sovereign states—quite well, in my opinion—and the probable early accession of Romania and Bulgaria, creating a Union of about 500 million people, with the almost complete disappearance of the old common agricultural policy. On the other hand, there has been insufficient progress on more flexible management and working practices—more so perhaps in some other member states than in Britain, but we must not be complacent in the face of the massive potential of China, India and other rapidly developing economic powers.

We need to give attention to the real priorities in how we respond to those questions and not limit ourselves to more theoretical arguments about the future of Europe. Subject to that point, I intervene in this debate for three reasons: first, because the gracious Speech tells us, as expected, that a Bill will be presented to give effect to the constitutional treaty, and we shall have to decide on that; and secondly, the long-announced referendum will finally reach the starting blocks, unless of course an unexpected hitch in another member state postpones or cancels the race.

In any event, we need to think now about the conduct of our referendum and informing our citizens, as it is well known that some citizens who do not feel themselves well informed are inclined to vote "Yes" or "No" in a referendum on the basis of other satisfactions or dissatisfactions that may have little to do with the treaty. I recall that I was in France at the time of the Maastricht Treaty, and when I asked a neighbour how he would vote, he said that he would vote "No" because of Portuguese shoes. Apparently, he thought that there were too many. I took a good look at the headlines relating to the current referendum in France. There was one that I really liked, which I draw to the attention of
19 May 2005 : Column 135
the House, which said, "Mr Le Pen recruits Joan of Arc for the No campaign". That shows that referendum preparations can go very wide, and we need to respond to that by providing good information.

The amount of factual material provided by the Government and other sources about the European Union and the constitutional treaty is in fact considerable, although you would not always think that from the comment. It is considerable, but it should be steadily supplemented; we need more in the coming months to make the referendum a truly well informed occasion.

Thirdly, I refer to some features of the preparation of the constitutional treaty, which seem to me to be already forgotten and to some features of its presentation, which have not been correctly commented on. I do not intend to speak in any detail on the many articles—God forbid; and as the House knows, God has not been included in the treaty—but the Government should press strongly for confirmation in the referendum of the European policy on which, indeed, they have just been elected.

I take the points in order. First, the Bill on the constitutional treaty is inevitably a step on the way to the referendum. We cannot amend the treaty itself, but no doubt the link with the referendum will be made explicit, either by a condition or by the date of coming into force of the ratification. I believe that one Member in another place is tabling 118 new clauses and 113 other amendments, so it seems that we may be busy here. But apart from the eventual specific amendments discussed in this House, I hope that the debate will enable your Lordships to highlight the policies or actions which they view positively or which they assess less positively or even negatively. I make that point because the constitutional treaty, if ratified, is not intended to be hung up like a trophy. It is to provide a base for a continuing improvement in the operation of the European Union, and in the United Kingdom's part in that.

Secondly, on the referendum, I have noted the approval of the constitutional treaty by the Bundestag—the German Parliament—by 569 votes to 23. That was typically reported in three sentences on page 15 of one of our quality daily papers. Of course, the attention here is concentrated on the possible result of the French referendum and the advisory referendum in the Netherlands. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government have their reaction well worked out if, as I do not expect, France were to vote "No" at the end of this month.

Our reaction, if the vote were "No", should not be to enter into discussion about the possible revival of the treaty but to stress our commitment to going forward positively on the policies that can be carried forward under existing treaties, avoiding a divisive situation. I am not sure that all Members of the House agree with me, but that is my view.

Thirdly, I return to themes that I have mentioned before in the House, which will be important in the run-up, if there is a public referendum, as we foresee. Unlike some earlier EU treaties, this treaty is not a
19 May 2005 : Column 136
bureaucratic or technocratic creation, although it is said to be. It is not; it resulted from the work of representatives of all the democratically elected parliaments, of governments and a wide consultation in the convention. That is already being forgotten, but it is misleading to give the impression that it is the creation of bureaucrats or that it is scarcely intelligible.

On the contrary, we need to explain to the British public that there is a short, very clear Part 1—it is actually only 14 pages in the Government's published text—broadly equivalent to the size of an average football match programme. Part 1 sets out the objectives and definition of the Union in terms that, I believe, the great majority of our fellow citizens would share. It sets out more clearly than in the past the powers and responsibilities—the competences—that the member states have conferred on the Union and which are mostly shared with the member states. It describes the institutions needed for the enlarged Union; it briefly sets out how the competences may be exercised with a simpler structure of law-making and potentially greater control over secondary legislation, which I welcome, as well as some specific provisions on foreign policy, security and justice. It sets out the principle of democratic equality and the limits on the Union's budget, currently less than 2.5 per cent of public expenditure in the Union and in any event capped as a small percentage of GNP, unless all the member states were unanimously to increase it after ratification in every member state.

Part 1 is the crux of the treaty. I think that that is the point we need to put across. It is certainly the point that has been put across in France, and I think that it is right. Part 2 is the charter of fundamental rights, already approved—I appreciate differently—but now for the first time included in the treaty. Part 3, I accept, is more difficult to understand, but that is because it is almost entirely and word for word the text of the policies and the functioning of the Union in greater detail, which already exists in earlier treaties. Some Members may want to change that, but that was not the agenda of the convention.

I sincerely hope that the Government, having decided to put a simple question to the people, will also explain that the serious issues about the treaty are not complicated. We shall have to strive to avoid the risk that domestic policies that do not derive from the treaty, or in many cases from the EU at all, are drawn into the referendum debate. To do that, we have to inform and to simplify when explaining the treaty. If not—if your Lordships will excuse a particularly awful pun on words—the citizen will feel that he has been badly treated.

12.40 pm

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page