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House of Lords

Thursday, 23 June 2005.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

EU Constitutional Treaty: Referendum

Lord Palmer asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the estimated cost of holding a referendum on the draft European Union constitutional treaty is in the region of £78 million, which is similar to the cost of a UK-wide general election. In addition, there would be costs arising from the Electoral Commission's expenditure on the referendum.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for that explicit reply. Can she confirm whether any of those costs would be met by Brussels, if it offers any money, and whether Her Majesty's Government would accept any contribution to the costs of a referendum from the Commission?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I understand it, the Department for Constitutional Affairs would make a bid to Her Majesty's Treasury for the money, which would come out of the Consolidated Fund.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that, unless and until the treaty is ratified, Her Majesty's Government will oppose absolutely any action taken by the EU to take steps that would have been authorised, had the treaty been ratified, but which, without ratification, will have no legal authority? An obvious example is the appointment of Mr Solana as EU Foreign Minister. Can I have an absolute assurance that the British Government will see that he does not act as if in office? If he were to do so, he would be acting without any legal authority.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, without ratification, the treaty, of course, does not come into effect and the constitution does not come into effect. That is very clear.

In the post-Council Statement of 20 June, the Prime Minister said that,


 
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It follows that the elements of the constitution that have not yet been agreed could not continue.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, they are continuing. The human rights centre in Vienna continues to set itself up and operate. Is the noble Baroness aware that there are EU troops operating under the EU flag, which can be justified only by the constitution, in the Congo? Some £7 billion a year is spent on the new satellite centre, in competition with the American GPS system. The question to which some of us have been looking for an answer in recent days is: "Do these initiatives stop, or do they continue as part of the process in which the Eurocratic elite finds itself involved?".

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have read with great interest all the discussions and debates that have taken place in your Lordships' House. They kept me amused for some time last evening.

I shall take one example. The noble Lord talked about what was happening in Vienna; I am on my way to visit colleagues in Vienna this afternoon to discuss the Fundamental Rights Agency and the work that is going on in Vienna on human rights. If the noble Lord looks carefully at the different articles in the constitution, he will see that many of the issues about which he is concerned are already part and parcel of European Union policy and action that has been taken either by the European Council or, in the context of the work that I do, by the Justice and Home Affairs Council is not necessarily directly attributable to the constitution.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does not the Treasury owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the French voters for saving it all that money? Given that this year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, might a suitable way of showing that gratitude be to donate a full-size replica of Nelson's column to the city of Paris?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister will note the noble Lord's suggestion with great interest. More generally, I do not think that one can put a price on democracy.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I hope that the Minister has a nice time in Vienna this afternoon. Does she recall—I am sure that she does—the Prime Minister saying in the Sun on 13 May:

Is that still a government promise? If so, if is there is a referendum on the current constitutional treaty, which side will the Government be on?
 
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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I quote the Prime Minister's remarks of 20 June. He said that,

or "referenda", as I prefer—

I draw noble Lords' attention to the speech given by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister this morning to the European Parliament. I believe that it is available.

Lord Elton: My Lords, could the Minister return to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Waddington and tell us the legal status of the alleged diplomatic representative of the EU in Washington at present?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I would need to write to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, to clarify that precisely.

Lord Elton: Oh!

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: It is no good the noble Lord, Lord Elton, looking at me like that. The question that I was dealing with related to the cost of a referendum, which is a DCA matter. On the broader issues, I would want to seek advice from the appropriate Foreign Office Minister and from the Prime Minister's Office.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, do I understand the answer that the noble Baroness gave me to mean that the European project intends to continue, using existing wording in the Nice Treaty? Given the defence initiatives, including the satellite programme and the troops in the Congo, is there any possibility that Brussels hopes to root these continuing military initiatives in the words in the Maastricht Treaty,

Are they relying on the Court to say that those words justify these actions?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, with whom I very much enjoy our regular conversations on other issues and I am delighted is continuing to debate with me, will understand that from my perspective that is a rather wider question than I am able to answer, simply because my brief does not extend that far.

One has to be clear that the European Union is a very important part of the future of this country in a global economy. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said this morning, the issue is not about the idea of the European Union, it is about modernisation and policy. This is not a debate about
 
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how to abandon Europe but how to make it do what it was set up to do— improve the lives of people, a worthy and right thing to do.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, the other day in a constructive speech the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, put 16 points for the future—I am sure that he was speaking for the whole of the Opposition. He said that any future treaties of whatever size would have to have a referendum. Does my noble friend agree with that?


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