HC Deb 06 March 1996 vol 273 cc340-2
15. Mr. Jim Marshall

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the Government's priorities for the European Union's intergovernmental conference. [17273]

Mr. David Davis

The Government have set out their approach to the forthcoming intergovernmental conference in the House on a number of occasions. The forthcoming White Paper will provide a comprehensive review.

Mr. Marshall

I thank the Minister for that reply, but will he give greater priority to introducing greater openness in the decision-making process within the various institutions of the European Union? If he agrees with that basic proposition, will he give some idea of how greater transparency could be introduced into the decision-making processes of the Council of Ministers?

Mr. Davis

We are already at the forefront of increasing transparency in the European Union. So long as it is within our practical range, we are always willing to pursue that. By "practical range", I mean that I do not want to see transparency to the extent that it drives negotiations into corridors, which would be self-defeating. An example of what we have done is that, after each Council meeting, we always put down a parliamentary answer that reflects our votes and opinions in the Council.

Mr. Sumberg

Should not one of our priorities at the IGC be to deal with the widening gap between public opinion and Governments throughout the European Union? Would not that gap be closed in this country if we were to offer the people a referendum on any substantial change to the Maastricht treaty or if there were a single European currency?

Mr. Davis

The position on a single European currency has been made very clear by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I have already made clear our position on the IGC. I do not expect the IGC to create a major transformation of the Maastricht treaty. It should therefore not lead to a major constitutional change, which is usually the premise on which referendums are based. However, the idea of trying to bring together the Union and the peoples of the Union—trying to make people understand, or allowing them to understand, the benefits of the Union and what it is trying to do—is very much part of our strategy in dealing with the IGC and one that is crucial to the success and longevity of the European Union.

Mr. Skinner

When the Minister goes across to the next conference and, subsequently, to the intergovernmental conference, will he make it plain—it is time somebody did—that the majority of the British people are fed up to the back teeth with talk of federalism? They are fed up with fraud in the Common Market, they are fed up with the fisheries policy which is throwing thousands of people out of work, and they are fed up with all the talk about a single currency. The truth is that the threads that held the Common Market together are now falling apart. It has been an unmitigated disaster and it will be a good job when we have got rid of it.

Mr. Davis

I am not wholly clear whether the hon. Gentleman was addressing those remarks to me or to his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although my constituents feel annoyed when judgments from the European Court of Justice overrule sovereign law made by the House, they are maddened and enraged when retrospective judgments are made, especially those with the potential for large amounts of compensation? Will my hon. Friend make it a priority that this country should seek a treaty change at the IGC to outlaw all retrospective judgments of the European Court?

Mr. Davis

My hon. Friend may have seen some proposals that I put forward on behalf of the Government, when I attended the reflection group in the summer, for reform of the European Court of Justice. Two of the items put forward addressed directly the judgment that was made yesterday against us. One was about retrospectivity, and I shall supply a copy of the paper to my hon. Friend; indeed, it is in the Library. The other item made the point that Governments should not be subject to damages if they act in good faith or, in other words, they have not deliberately transgressed the law. Had we had that change before yesterday's decision—although that was not possible—it would not have arisen.

When those proposals were published, we did not get one jot of support from any of the Opposition parties, whatever hypocritical nonsense they produce in the next few days. They gave us no support on the solutions to those problems.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

Is the Minister aware that, last week, the Foreign Secretary was good enough to meet an all-party delegation from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats on behalf of the European Movement? The Foreign Secretary told us that the forthcoming governmental White Paper would be mature, constructive and positive and would make a serious contribution to the debate about the European Union. Given that, plus the Foreign Secretary's positive speech in Paris last night, with its interesting foreign policy ideas, could the Minister confirm that he now shares the new-found Euro-enthusiasm in the Foreign Office?

Mr. Davis

After my previous reply, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman stood up next, because he and his party are the best demonstration of the sort of unthinking Euro-centralism that will end up destroying faith in Europe, thereby undermining Europe's best achievements.

Sir Roger Moate

Will the White Paper clarify the role of the new European Union foreign affairs spokesperson? Will that person speak only when there is general agreement and then will he represent our views? In those circumstances, will our Foreign Secretary agree not to speak? What happens when there is disagreement? Is it then understood that the spokesperson will say nothing and our Foreign Secretary will be allowed to speak? Will my hon. Friend clarify the relative positions?

Mr. Davis

I venture to say that there are few circumstances in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary would undertake not to speak on matters that relate to the important interests of this country.

My hon. Friend should read the excellent speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend in Paris yesterday. It makes the status of that spokesman very clear: he will work solely under the control of the Council of Ministers, he will not have the right of initiative, and he will not be able to overrule individual countries because there will be unanimity at all points. In other words, he will be the servant of the Council of Ministers and, therefore, the servant of the national interests of all the countries of the European Union.