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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I also start by paying tribute to Lady Blatch. I agree with everything that has been said about her. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the experience of having come to the House—in those days, representing higher education lecturers—and having some very robust arguments with her, which she invariably won. She was a doughty fighter; she had friends and admirers on all sides of the House; and I join with all others in expressing our sympathy for her family and friends in this House and way beyond it.

I shall try to do my best to answer the comments made from the two Front Benches. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, the Prime Minister is in Washington—which I imagine is one reason why he was unable to make the Statement in the House of Commons—dealing with preparations for the G8 conference. Incidentally, I have no reason to believe
 
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that he will come back empty-handed and I take that to have been a light-hearted comment, rather than a serious one.

I want to dwell on some points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. In many ways, I find it hard to understand the thrust of the argument that he put to the House. I think that he said that putting matters on hold is the worst option—I hope that I cite him accurately. Rather, he invited us to declare that the constitution is dead here and now. Most interestingly to me, he pleaded in aid the sentiments of French voters. I was in France last week and had a great deal of enjoyment from being cut off from English media and just watching French television and reading French newspapers.

One thing was absolutely clear to me: the potential for a more liberalised market struck most of the French Left and large voting blocs within it as an erosion of arrangements that they wanted and a setback for what they called social Europe. I do not think that I have ever heard that model advocated with any great passion from the opposition Benches in this House, but it appears to have been advocated, at least to some extent, today. The question of enlargement to include Romania, Bulgaria and potentially Turkey was a significant issue in the poll in the Netherlands, where enlargement towards Turkey was thought to be a significant problem.

The issue is really this: the treaty is plainly in serious difficulty. No one could possibly deny that. It is a moment to look at the implications in a very calm and measured way and to recognise as we do so that it is not the property of any one nation. It was agreed as a mode of moving forward by 25 member states and 10 of them have approved the treaty. I will not run through the list of those 10, but it includes Austria, Germany and Greece. For us to declare that we are going to stop the process before any of them have had the opportunity to discuss it or to reflect on the reasons that may have led to the defeats in the two referendums would create a division in Europe that would take decades to overcome, rather than being a route back to a semblance of health.

However, I can give the noble Lord an assurance that he sought, which is that the treaty will not come back by the back door, as some newspapers have described the process. There will be a referendum on any constitution. That remains the Government's commitment; we repeat it. I know that my right honourable friend Jack Straw has repeated it today.

We most certainly do not blame the people. I probably ought not to admit it, but if other noble Lords had been sitting in a small bar in a French village which, curiously enough for a rural area, voted yes—almost uniquely, I think—they would have heard and taken part in a rigorous discussion about many of the key features of the constitution, not some of the things that people in the media here have said were talked about. It was clear that decisions were taken by the peoples of those countries. Those decisions have to be understood and respected. That is why we need a period in which to consider them very carefully and
 
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ensure that we have understood what has been said—not least from the political representatives of those people.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, of course some useful steps may be taken, as long as we avoid the possibility that anyone should say that we are reintroducing the treaty by the back door. The issue about working in public is extremely strong. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, for his maiden speech. I know that that is not strictly a matter for this Statement, but he raised such tremendously important questions. I cannot believe that the European Council would not feel that it might be right for national governments to scrutinise legislation rather more carefully in advance. There are things that could be done in the present circumstances to considerable benefit in Europe.

We must discuss the balance of EU priorities and we need sound processes by which to do that; I confirm that. We most certainly should try to avoid the temptation on the part of anyone anywhere in Europe to see the process of liberalisation, the Lisbon process, as being in some sense hostile to traditions across Europe. The success of Europe economically will be dependent on being able to create economies with Lisbon process characteristics. If we do that, the prosperity of previous decades will be carried forward and, with it, if I may dare to suggest it, the sense of peace in Europe that we have enjoyed in a way that my parents and grandparents certainly never did.

4.27 pm

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us who share the view that the constitutional treaty would be good for Europe and good for Britain none the less think that, in current circumstances, to proceed with the referendum would be not only futile but counter-productive? Does he further accept that the right focus of the British presidency, about to start, should be to seek to persuade our partners to move away from constitutional and institutional issues and to focus on the problems of Europe and to persuade them to adopt the liberalising agenda and economic reform process that he mentioned? Does he also accept that the best chance of having any success in persuading them to do that would be to avoid the triumphalist tone that has characterised some of the debate in this country in recent days?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, if I may say so, those are very wise observations. There is no place for triumphalism—least of all when the peoples of countries have expressed their views. They are their views and we should not, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, say that this is the moment to change the electorate. Those sentiments are genuine. We can and, I am sure, will use our presidency to further the wider debates mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, which are vital to Europe's advancement and should lead to greater liberalisation and a greater understanding of what makes for a prosperous economy. That must be the direction in which we try to take Europe during our presidency. I use
 
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the words "try to take Europe" not in the sense that I believe that we have a monopoly of wisdom but, rather, in the sense that a good presidency should provide guidance through difficult debates.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I welcome the key phrase in the Statement that,

Does not the Minister agree that, as it is a fundamental principle of a union of sovereign states that all must ratify a treaty, there is absolutely no purpose in passing the parcel on the responsibility for the present situation? Evidently, the responsibility rests with the citizens of France and the Netherlands. They are absolutely entitled to take that view. So it is really back to basics for us. Our duty with our presidency is to carry forward the business of the Union on those matters which do not depend on the constitutional treaty; and that is a big enough task.

Finally, I should like from these Benches to join noble Lords in expressing our sadness at the death of Lady Blatch and our appreciation of her contribution to the House.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, those comments in every respect are quite right. Let us make sure that we all understand the basic facts about the position we are in. It is true that all 25 states must ratify the treaty if it were to come into force; and the treaty specifically refers to ratification by all the high contracting parties, to enter into force only after all have ratified.

That is plainly not the present position. Two of the founder members have decided not to ratify. I think that there is every reason to pause and to hear what their governments have to say in a full meeting of all those who own this treaty process; to hear the views of those 10 who have ratified, including one—Spain—through a referendum; and to make sure that we understand the entire dynamic before we plunge ahead. It would be very easy for almost any one of the 25 so to aggravate the others that any further progress was almost impossible. What on earth would be the merit in that?

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, perhaps we on these Benches may also be associated with the remarks about Emily Blatch. The whole House not only had huge respect for her skill in the contributions she made to this House but I am sure also carried a great deal of affection for her as a human being. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends today.

Will the Minister accept that there is at least one piece of good news in all of this? That is, the people of Europe want a say. Will he note that a higher percentage of people turned out for the referendums in France and Holland than bothered to vote in the general election in this country? I am told that up to 10 per cent of the people of France had read the whole of the constitution. Given that we all accept that having a referendum may not be the most sensible thing to do in the present context, how do the Government propose to help the people of this country to get their minds around the choices and issues that
 
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face us in Europe today? Will he accept that, at a moment of difficulty and even division, reaffirming the common values and vision that hold us together and which have brought us together in European life is very important from those who exercise leadership in our country?


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