HC Deb 15 December 2003 vol 415 cc1319-36 3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Mr. Speaker, with permission, before I make a statement on the details of the intergovernmental conference, I should say that the European Council also discussed Iraq. The presidency conclusions reaffirm the importance of the reconstruction of Iraq and condemn the recent terrorist attacks. These conclusions have been placed in the Library of the House. Perhaps this gives me the opportunity to update the House briefly on the events of the past 24 hours.

The celebrations on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and all over Iraq show once and for all how delighted the Iraqi people are that Saddam's rule is now history. The Iraqi people want their freedom, and support the principles of justice, democracy and the rule of law, just as people do everywhere, given half the chance to do so. I would like to pay tribute to the American coalition forces and the intelligence services, who brought about Saddam's capture. They have proved their professionalism, bravery and commitment. But let us also pay tribute to the Iraqi people themselves, who helped to capture Saddam. Thousands of Iraqis are now working in the new Iraq police and defence forces, and they are working to build a new Iraq. We will work with them to do so.

There is still a massive amount to do, but we have achieved a great deal in a short time. A political timetable is taking us through to a democratic, elected Government in Iraq—an Iraq where the public enjoy freedom of speech and religion for the first time in decades. Over 17,000 reconstruction projects have been launched. Oil production has risen by 320,000 barrels per day, with the proceeds used for the benefit of the Iraqi people, rather than stolen or squandered, as they were under Saddam's rule. Iraqis now have a new currency to spend in the increasingly well-stocked markets. Electricity has surpassed pre-conflict levels, and clean water supplies are improving daily.

But as we have seen yet again today, the terrorists and Saddam's sympathisers will continue, and although small in number and in support, their terrorist tactics will still require vigilance, dedication and determination. But the hope of a new Iraq is now clear and evident to all, and the final victory will be the Iraqi people's.

I now turn to the details of the European Council and the intergovernmental conference, which took place in Brussels on 12 and 13 December. The negotiations, which have been going on over the past 22 months, have been about the effective management of the European Union after its enlargement to 25 countries next year. That enlargement is a hugely important event, not just for the countries concerned, but for the whole of Europe. The stability and prosperity of our continent stand to gain enormously from enlargement. That is why we negotiated the Nice treaty three years ago to make enlargement possible. It is why we have been negotiating in the Convention, and now the IGC, on a draft constitutional treaty.

A negotiation among 25 sovereign countries was bound to be complicated, particularly on the issue on which the Nice negotiation itself almost foundered: the relative weight in voting terms that each country would have after enlargement. In the end, it was on that issue that agreement at the weekend proved impossible.

However, a great deal of progress has been made, and I pay an unqualified tribute to the Italian presidency whose skill and tenacity made that progress possible. Prime Minister Berlusconi was able to sum up at the end of the meeting that while, of course—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Prime Minister make his statement.

The Prime Minister

Prime Minister Berlusconi was able to sum up that, while, of course, in formal terms, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, there were some 82 points where consensus was close. Those included key changes on very important issues for the United Kingdom—[Interruption.] The truth is that the Opposition do not believe these things to be important at all.

If it proceeds on the basis outlined by Prime Minister Berlusconi, tax, EU finance, social security and criminal law will all remain the province of the nation-state—namely, subject to decision-making by unanimity—and any further treaty change will be subject to the approval of national parliaments.

I should also highlight the fact that the European Council welcomed the proposals put forward by the United Kingdom, France and Germany on the future of European defence, which is limited of course to peacekeeping and humanitarian issues. Those will strengthen the European Union's collective planning capacity while in no way duplicating, or conflicting with NATO, which remains the basis of Europe's territorial defence.

The draft constitutional treaty is also close to an agreement in other ways that are important for this country. It contains a clear statement that the European Union has only the powers that the nations give it. The Union acts only when objectives cannot be achieved by individual countries acting alone. There will be new powers for national parliaments to be involved in EU legislation. It will be for the Union's national leaders in the European Council to set the strategy of the European Union and there will be a full-time chairman of the European Council to drive forward that work. The European Commission will have all its necessary independent authority within that system.

As I said earlier, Mr. Speaker, the outstanding point of difference was over the relative weight of the votes that member states have within the EU. The Government made it clear in our White Paper published in September that we were content with the Nice system, but were equally prepared to move to a new one, if there were a consensus for that. However, it has been a particularly difficult question for Spain and Poland and I believe that it was right to take time to find a workable solution, rather than to plough on in the hope of an unsatisfactory compromise. That is particularly so since the voting provisions of the Nice treaty take effect only in a year's time and—something often not fully understood—under the Convention proposal those Nice voting arrangements would anyway last until 2009. So we have time to resolve the issue.

Above all, the negotiation was living proof that the European Union is and will remain an organisation of sovereign member states. We could not agree at the weekend precisely because agreement required unanimity. In time an agreement will, however, be necessary to allow enlargement to work effectively, but we now have a chance to reflect and consider before proceeding.

In the meantime, the business of the European Union will continue under the existing treaty framework. We are in contact with the incoming Irish presidency to take forward the Lisbon economic reform agenda at the spring summit next March. Eight central European countries, and Malta and Cyprus, will accede to the European Union on 1 May.

We shall turn our minds to the next financing framework for the European Union, to cover the period from 2007. I have today, with the President of France, the Chancellors of Germany and Austria, and the Prime Ministers of the Netherlands and Sweden, written to the President of the Commission to emphasise the need for budgetary discipline over the coming financing period.

Ultimately, these negotiations are about the stability, security and prosperity of a Europe of nearly 500 million people, living in countries that are our principal allies and our major trading partners. It would be a serious mistake for any British Government to absent themselves from those negotiations and to allow decisions vital to our security and prosperity to be made by others. We should therefore continue to shape the future of Europe in ways that reflect our national interest. We can either be on the touchline shouting our criticism, or on the field as an active and successful player. I have no doubt—and Government Members have no doubt—that we should remain fully engaged. That is why I commend these outcomes to the House.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)

We join the Prime Minister in welcoming the capture of Saddam Hussein. I congratulate fourth infantry division and others involved in that achievement. Those in the House who have always believed that the war was right in principle recognise that this momentous event is likely to hasten the day when we see a free and democratic Iraq.

Secretary Rumsfeld said this weekend that Saddam is being held by the Americans as a prisoner of war. Can the Prime Minister confirm that that is the case, and what restrictions does that place on such issues as the questioning of Saddam Hussein and his exposure to the media. Will the Prime Minister assure us that Saddam's trial will be fair, open and transparent? Will he take this opportunity to explain exactly how he expects that to be achieved? Will he also give assurances regarding the independence of any judicial process? Will he confirm that any trial is likely to take place in Iraq? Does he envisage its coming before or after the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi people? What is the Government's view on the possibility that Saddam Hussein might, if convicted, face the death penalty?

The Prime Minister also reported on the weekend's other developments. He was said this morning to have looked far from grief-stricken at the way in which the European Union summit turned out. We are not grief-stricken either. However, this lack of grief owes nothing to the Prime Minister: it was the courage of the Polish Prime Minister, alongside Spain, in standing up for their principles that stopped the Prime Minister returning with an EU constitution.

From the beginning of this debate, the Government's position has been characterised by dissembling. Just three years ago, the Prime Minister informed us, in his Warsaw speech, that the British way for Europe was not for a single, legally binding document called a Constitution". When did he change his mind about that? Then he said that a constitution was essential for enlargement; now it has collapsed, and he says that it is not. When did he change his mind about that? The Leader of the House said the process was all "a tidying-up exercise", but the Prime Minister told a Cabinet Committee that the outcome of the convention would be absolutely fundamental and would last for generations. Despite the Foreign Secretary's boasting to the Today programme on Friday that the phrase "ever-closer union" had been dropped from the draft constitution, has it not been replaced by the phrase "united ever more closely"? Can the Prime Minister tell the House precisely what the difference is between those two phrases?

In 1999, the then Foreign Secretary told the House: For the record, we are not proposing a constitution of Europe."—[Official Report, 25 May 1999; Vol. 332, c. 184.] When did the Prime Minister change his mind about that? Three years ago, he said that there was no proposal, no desire or decision for a separate European military planning capability". Now, there will be. When did he change his mind?

Three years ago, the Prime Minister told the House: Our case is that the charter of fundamental human rights should not have legal status, and we do not intend it to. We will have to fight that case."—[Official Report, 11 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 354.] When did he change his mind about that? When did he stop fighting that case?

In the convention, Government representatives proposed 200 amendments, of which just 11 were accepted. Will the Prime Minister tell us what happened to the rest? Did he fight and lose, or did he just give up? His representative, the Leader of the House, tried to delete seven sub-clauses on asylum and immigration that would enable policy on those matters to be decided by a majority of other states. His amendment failed; did he fight and lose, or did he just give up? He tried to remove the title "Foreign Minister", saying that the proposal was unacceptable as it stood. He failed. Did he fight and lose, or did he just give up? He tried to remove the EU Foreign Minister's right to take our seat on the Security Council. He failed. Did he fight and lose, or did he just give up? So much for his claim three years ago that the intergovernmental conference would deal primarily with issues of subsidiarity. Indeed, the Belgian Prime Minister describes the constitution as the "capstone" of a "federal state."

Why has the Prime Minister not listened to his own representative on the EU Convention, who said: Not once in the 16 months I spent on the convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want. whether it serves their best interests or whether it provides the best basis for a sustainable structure for an expanding Union. Will the Prime Minister take advantage of this weekend's failure to look again at the whole question of a constitution for the European Union? Will he admit that a constitution takes Europe in the wrong direction? Will he now use this opportunity to put the case for a modern Europe, for a flexible Europe, for a Europe whose nation states have room to breathe? If some wish to integrate more closely, why should we stop them? Why cannot we say to our partners in Europe, "We do not want to stop you doing what you want to do, so long as you do not make us do what we do not want to do."? Is there not a precedent for a flexible Europe in the single currency and the Schengen agreement and, indeed, in the social chapter, before he abandoned our opt-out?

Above all else, if he refuses to listen and the constitution is agreed, will he at least listen to the views of the people and call a referendum? Even the former Minister for Europe has now called for a referendum. After all, it is not as though the Government are hostile to the principle of referendums: we have already had 34 of them. Why is the Prime Minister so determined to stop the people of our country having a say on this vital issue? Is it not time for a Government who are willing to listen to people's views, who will stand up for what is right for Britain and for Europe, and who will end the years of dissembling and trust people enough to tell them the truth?

The Prime Minister

We all remember exactly what happened the last time that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in charge of European matters. He put through the Maastricht treaty without a referendum, and he voted for it. I shall come back to that in a moment.

On Iraq, the US Secretary of State is correct: Saddam Hussein will be treated with all the rights of a prisoner of war. The trial process should be determined by the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people. It should be left to them. Of course we must ensure that the process is proper, independent and fair, but I am sure that the Iraqis have the capability to achieve that. We and other countries will work with them to ensure that that is correct.

As for what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about Europe, the extraordinary thing is that he thought that it was a terrible humiliation to go there and get an agreement. Now there is no agreement, he thinks that; it is a terrible humiliation not to have got one. Does he not understand that there is something increasingly absurd about his opportunism and opposition for opposition's sake? He is the person who said that there should not be an agreement. We come back without an agreement, and he attacks us for it.

Let us deal with some of the facts, not the myths. In respect of tax, social security, defence and foreign policy, we have made it clear—and there is now a consensus for this in Europe—that all those issues should remain by unanimity the province of the nation state. I shall quote to the right hon. and learned Gentleman from a member of his shadow Cabinet—[Interruption.] I think that that is fair enough. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who is in his place, said a few months ago:

The danger for us is not from a closer relationship from our neighbours but from those who would isolate us from Britain's largest market. That is exactly the Leader of the Opposition's policy. Or, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has appointed as one of his key advisers the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), here is what he said just a few weeks ago: What is being proposed will not herald the 'end of a thousand years of history', nor does it justify any other of the hyperbolic claims that are currently being made". That is an answer to the question from the Opposition's own side.

As for the charter of rights, we have made it clear that that should not have binding legal authority and that is precisely what we shall achieve in the course of the negotiation. National Parliaments are to be involved for the first time. That is subsidiarity in action.

As for Poland, the latest myth of the Eurosceptics is that somehow Poland is against the whole European constitution. It is not.

Mr. Howard


The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says no. Poland is against one aspect—on voting weights. That does not touch significantly—as between Nice and what is proposed in the Convention—the interests of this country. But Poland, were it not for that point, would be voting in favour of the constitution. That is why the absurdity of his position is this: he has said recently in interviews that he would seek to renegotiate the whole of the constitution even if it was ratified. Right. Let me put to him the point that I put to his predecessor and to the predecessor before that: name me one other country in favour of renegotiating the very principle of a European constitution. There is none—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. MacShane should calm down.

The Prime Minister

The truth is that there is none, so what would be the policy of the Leader of the Opposition? Supposing that we can, as no doubt in time we will, overcome the difference between Poland and Spain on one hand and France and Germany on the other and that we actually have a European constitution, the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he would renegotiate the whole of it—not one other country supports that position. What would that leave us with? He quoted to me what my representative on the Convention said. Let me quote to him what his representative on the Convention said, which is that in those circumstances, we should renegotiate our membership and retire to an "associate membership" of the European Union.

That is the worst that would happen, but what is the best? The Leader of the Opposition mentioned Maastricht and the European social chapter. Does he still think that it was of great benefit to Britain to have an opt-out from the social chapter? Well, now that we have signed up to the social chapter, what has it meant? For the first time, British workers had the right to paid holidays. That is what he is against. He is the person who told us that if we signed up to the social chapter—how many jobs would leave the country?—500,000 to 1 million jobs would leave the country. We signed the social chapter and we got 1.5 million extra jobs in the British economy.

The truth is that Britain should carry on playing a leading role in Europe in areas such as defence. It is important that Britain is part of European defence. Britain is blessed with two great alliances: one is our transatlantic alliance with America; the other, as a result of our membership of the European Union, is a European alliance—part of the most powerful union in the world. I say that we should give up neither; we should carry on working, as we have in the last year, for the transatlantic alliance, and we should continue to be a leading constructive, engaged member of the EU. To return to the margins, which is where we were six years ago when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in charge, would not be to the satisfaction of our national interest; it would be a betrayal of that national interest.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD)

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement.

On Iraq, I begin by expressing unqualified congratulations on the skill, professionalism and bravery of those forces who apprehended Saddam Hussein. That is a most welcome development. Does the Prime Minister agree that it could send an important signal, both inside Iraq and globally, to those misguided enough to be adherents to Saddam's particular form of brutalised fanaticism that their time is over and that the emphasis must now be on the internationalisation of the position in Iraq and hastening that country towards stability and democracy?

Does the Prime Minister agree, given that Saddam's captivity has been achieved, that he must be tried according to internationally reputable standards of justice and in public, and that the process itself must be rooted in legitimacy in the eyes of those who will be judging, not least in Iraq and the rest of the middle east? Does he agree therefore that a significant international presence in the shape of the United Nations is required for a tribunal, or whatever method of legal procedure is arrived at, to have sufficient legitimacy?

If we want to internationalise the situation, does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to establish credibility for any war crimes trial would be for the Iraqi governing council to suggest setting up an international tribunal, perhaps along the lines of the one that was pursued in the context of Sierra Leone? If that IGC requested the setting up of such a tribunal, would the British Government give their support?

Yesterday, Sir Jeremy Greenstock ruled out British participation in any process that results in administering the death penalty. The statute of the existing special tribunal that was agreed last week, of course, includes the death penalty, so if the special tribunal that has been established for Iraq by the coalition forces tries Saddam Hussein as presently proposed, will the UK participate?

I shall now turn to the extremely disappointing events of the weekend in respect of the intergovernmental conference—it was disappointing for all of us across the political spectrum with a broadly pro-European mindset in the national discussions that are taking place. May I at least welcome the progress that was achieved on defence matters and draw attention to the fact—the Prime Minister has referred to this—that that has involved a compromise with the American Government and that that understanding between our country, the rest of the European Union and the Americans is to be broadly welcomed and built upon?

May I stress to the Prime Minister that the Liberal Democrats remain firmly of the view that there remains the need for a constitution—a codification of European operating procedures—not least because of the welcome enlargement that is now in front of us and that those who seek some comfort from the difficulties of the weekend overlook the much bigger picture? Those of us who were Members of Parliament at the time remember the Monday after the weekend when the Berlin wall came down and all those countries of central and eastern Europe that had been under the tyranny of the communist regime in the Soviet Union suddenly began to experience liberation. That was the big picture and the big prize for Europe, and we must not lose sight of the fact that, despite the political difficulties that were encountered at the weekend, the constitution will give effect to an enlarged Europe. That is a pivotal point, which those of us who are of a pro-European slant are correct to emphasise.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the spectre that has been raised during the weekend of a two-speed Europe—a two-tier Europe—is not in Europe—sinterests and is certainly not in British interests? That being the case, will the Prime Minister tell us how that sense of two-tierism will prejudice his ambitions on behalf of the Government for our country to remain at the heart of Europe? Finally, will he confirm that it remains the Government's intention to secure a decent and deliberative outcome to the Convention process, arriving at a workable constitution for an enlarged EU? That is in British interests, and it is profoundly in European interests as well.

The Prime Minister

On Iraq, I can do no more than repeat what I have said. I think that any trial of Saddam should be for the Iraqi Government and people and that it is for them to determine the penalties that might arise from that. It is important to recognise that it is only in circumstances where a country is incapable of mounting a proper tribunal that we have recourse to international tribunals. if Iraq has that capability, it would be wrong to mount such a tribunal. The governing council has already indicated that it wants a special tribunal to try those who are guilty of serious war crimes, so it is important to allow it to do that because it is part of Iraq's prerogative as a country. Of course, that would be done on the basis that such a special tribunal could be constituted.

On Europe, the truth is that we need to make changes if we are to have an effective Europe of 25. There is no way in which it will work as effectively as it should unless we make changes, which is why it is perfectly sensible to have the debate on the constitution and to try to resolve it. I do not believe that anyone wants a two-tier Europe, although there will no doubt be issues on which people will move ahead and enhance co-operation—that is already provided for by what was agreed at Nice. For example, we would want to be part of any movement forward on defence, but perhaps we would not on other matters, so we can deal with that case by case. I remain absolutely of the view that it is important to conclude the negotiations successfully, but there is obviously an impasse at the moment because of differences over the Nice voting system. I return to the point that I made: on the vast bulk of the stuff in the constitution, there is now agreement among the 25.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)

I totally support the stance that my right hon. Friend has taken at the European Council, which is realistic in difficult circumstances and will carry the full support of the British people. Does he agree that although the capture of Saddam Hussein is welcome, it will not necessarily lead to stability in Iraq. and that the crucial factor in establishing stability is building bridges with the whole of the Iraqi community to prevent degeneration into three separate countries? In that context, does he agree that it would be desirable to broaden the basis of the Iraqi governing council?

The Prime Minister

I agree with both points made by my hon. Friend. I thank him for his support on the European negotiations. On Iraq, he is absolutely right; the capture of Saddam is a momentous and important event, but it will still be necessary to defeat Saddam's supporters and the assorted foreign terrorists who are trying to prevent the progress that is being made. It is important that we give every power and strength to the Iraqi governing council and keep to the political timetable set out. In the end, the situation must be seen for what it is: the coalition forces and the Iraqi people against those who want to hold back the process.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)

It was a great day for Europe when the Poles did what the British Government should have done—block the wretched document. Since this may be only a reprieve rather than the end of the constitution, will the Prime Minister elaborate on his claim that he secured all his objectives, even though most were not fully discussed? Will he assure us that if the text is retabled next year, it will not include any of the red line objections that the Government have announced so far? Will he therefore assure us that any future constitution will not contain any of the matters to which the British Government object?

The Prime Minister

Of course, because we have made it clear that those things that are red lines for us cannot be breached, which is precisely why we negotiated on that basis. Negotiations on such issues as tax, social security, foreign affairs and defence have been going on for many weeks. The truth of the matter is that there is nearly a consensus on those issues in favour of the British position, although we obviously must await the final negotiations.

Let me point out the complete irrationality of the position of the right hon. Gentleman and Conservative Members. He says that Poland did what Britain failed to do, but Britain would have refused to sign a treaty that said, for example, that there should be no unanimity on tax matters. The Polish objection was to one part of the treaty, but the whole negotiating position of the Conservative party is the belief that lots of countries are saying that they want nothing to do with the constitution. If the right hon. Gentleman took his position and negotiated on behalf of this country, he would be alone in arguing that point. What is more, he would end up doing precisely what the Conservatives did at Maastricht, when everyone else determined how the single currency would work, the date it would take place and all the machinations that went towards it. All that the Leader of the Opposition got was his opt-out on the social chapter, which simply meant that British workers did not get the same rights as European workers.

I do not know when Conservative Members will learn from their experience. The last time they were in power, they did not stand up for this country's interests. Britain became a laughing stock in the European Union—[Interruption.] I am afraid it did. When we got to the table in 1997, we had no influence. Why? Because as a result of divisions in the Conservative party, we took the same positions as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) wants to take today. The idea that Poland or anywhere else will block the whole of the treaty over the years to come is a complete myth. That is why there are two alternatives: we either get on the pitch and play or shout from the stands: I know which I prefer.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)

I do not regard this weekend as a failure. We have an opportunity to address some of the imperfections of the Convention process in which, despite extremely hard work by the Government's representatives, we did not fully achieve what we wanted to achieve. Subsequent achievements, especially in relation to the passerelle clause, have not only removed the major reason for Conservative party opposition but introduced changes to give individual Parliaments the power of opposition that I could not have dreamt of achieving before. On that basis, I would have thought that the Conservatives would sign up to what is on the table. When the Prime Minister goes into the process of reconsideration and reflection over the next few months, he has a valuable opportunity to consider whether the mechanisms to enforce subsidiarity are strong enough or whether they should be improved.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. It was necessary to improve the original Convention text, on which we have been negotiating for the past few months. She rightly referred to the passerelle clause, for which the shadow Foreign Secretary laid down the test of whether we were we going to rid of it. He said just a few weeks ago: Are they going to get rid of the so-called escalator clause? Well, we have got rid of it. What do the Conservatives then do? They move on to the next thing. Let us be clear why: it does not matter what we get out of the negotiations, they will say no.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

There was obvious pleasure in Iraq and elsewhere when Paul Bremer announced the apprehending of Saddam Hussein. Will the Prime Minister take a bit of advice? It is better to refer to those who are suspected or accused of war crimes rather than to those who are guilty of war crimes. That would make a trial seem fairer and, probably, be fairer.

On the referendum on Europe, if people want a referendum, why can they not have one? Will the Prime Minister kindly arrange for a written statement to be made to answer the questions asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition? There were specific questions, but there were not specific answers.

The Prime Minister

The problem is that Conservative Members do not like the answers—[Interruption.] Yes, that is absolutely correct. As for a referendum, as I have said repeatedly, if the draft constitution altered the fundamental nature of the relationship between the member state and the European Union, there would be a case for a referendum, but it does not and it will not. If we meet all the positions that we have set out, and I am confident we will, there will be even less of an argument for a referendum. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the House of Lords Select Committee, a cross-party Committee, that reported a few weeks ago and then reaffirmed its position, which is that, if anything, the draft treaty tilts the power towards member states. It makes it clear that the European Union, from then on, will have only the competencies that are conferred on it by the member state. The truth of the matter is that the Conservatives want a referendum not in order to have a "debate" on the European Union, but in order to say no, to get a no vote and to bring Europe to a halt so that they can pursue their real agenda, which is out not in.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)

May I, as a long-standing pro-European, tell the Prime Minister that I do not share the Liberal leader's disappointment in the outcome? We can move forward in Europe only by agreement, not by bullying. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the Leader of the Opposition that discussions in Europe proceed by negotiation—by give and take? Is it not far better that we are in there, with a Prime Minister and a Foreign Secretary arguing our case, rather than standing on the sidelines like Switzerland or Norway, complaining about decisions over which we have no control?

The Prime Minister

That is precisely why this country has always been at its best when playing its full part in Europe, which we must continue to do. Pretence patriotism says that the best way to defend this country's national interest is to retreat to the margins of Europe. It is not. It is perfectly obvious that we must be on the pitch playing. The classic example is European defence. Of course we could opt out of European defence, but it would not mean that European defence did not happen; it would simply mean that it happened without us. That would not be in the interests of Britain, Europe or NATO.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

The Prime Minister referred fleetingly in his statement to the accession of the island of Cyprus. Does he agree that the elections held in the occupied northern part of the island over the weekend demonstrated extremely clearly that the puppet regime has no mandate whatsoever? If he does, what steps will the United Kingdom take as a guarantor power to ensure that Turkish Cypriots have a proper say in the accession of Cyprus as a united island to the European Union next spring?

The Prime Minister

It is important that we try to use the elections to move forward on the terms set out by the United Nations Secretary-General. I think that those form the proper basis on which we can find a solution for a united Cyprus, and they make the entire process much easier. That is what we will be working for. If we can achieve that, it is in no sense a barrier to accession, but undoubtedly it makes life much easier if we can have that unity. I hope very much, on the basis of the elections that took place at the weekend, that we are able to make progress.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)

As a member of the Labour party who, with Neil Kinnock, formulated the Labour policy that supported the removal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, who opposed Saddam Hussein long before he seized Kuwait, who has opposed Saddam Hussein since he was removed from Kuwait and who supported the means whereby he was captured over the weekend rather than opposing the means but snivellingly praising the end, may I ask my right hon. Friend, with that background, whether he will accept from me, and people like me, our utter opposition to the use of capital punishment against Saddam? I hope that he will be able to state the position of our Government on that.

The Prime Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend for his long and principled opposition to what Saddam Hussein stood for and did in Iraq. Of course this country remains opposed to the death penalty, but its use must be decided by the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people. Whatever our own tradition and position here and the position that we lobbied for at an international level, there is an important point of principle, which is that the special tribunal, correctly constituted, should be in the hands of the Iraqi people.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing view among all the parties in Britain that the basic reason he is opposed to holding a referendum on the new constitution is simply because he would be hammered? Is it not right and proper in a democracy that, before imposing a written constitution, he should seek the opinion of the people? Would it not help to remove much of the anxiety and depression about the whole affair if he said that we will have a referendum and let the people decide whether they want a written constitution?

The Prime Minister

As a result of what happened at the weekend, we do not have an agreement. Surely it is better to see whether I am right in saying, when the agreement is finally promulgated, that it does not alter the basic constitutional relationship between member states of the European Union, or whether the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that it does. It is surely on the basis of the agreement that we should make the judgment.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Saddam Hussein will at last face the justice that he denied tens of thousands of Iraqi people and of many other nationalities as well, including British hostages taken in Kuwait? I remind anyone in this House or anywhere else who has any lingering sympathy for Saddam Hussein or his regime of just one witness statement taken by Indict: One of the President's bodyguards brought 30 prisoners out. They were Kurds. The President himself shot them one after another with a Browning pistol. Another 30 prisoners were brought and the process was repeated. Saddam Hussein was laughing and obviously enjoying himself. There was blood everywhere—it was like an abattoir. That is the regime that we have brought to an end.

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and thank her again for her brave and courageous stand for many years against Saddam Hussein and all that he stood for.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con)

The Prime Minister will know that the Germans and the French said that they would go ahead with the constitution only on their own terms. The Prime Minister said, and he repeated it today, that he agrees with the constitution in principle. Together, that would betray not only Poland's democratic sovereignty but the United Kingdom. Delaying a decision on the voting system until 2009 does nothing for the situation and is mere camouflage. By failing to veto the constitution, the Prime Minister, far from being a peacemaker, will have to meet his own Munich.

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that that sums up the sentiment in today's Conservative party. Let me repeat the position, and the hon. Gentleman can go and look at what the Poles said. The President and Prime Minister of Poland oppose not the constitution but one aspect of it that affects their country's interests.

Mr. Cash

In a referendum.

The Prime Minister

No, they are not having a referendum on the constitution in Poland.

Mr. Cash

They had a referendum.

The Prime Minister

They had a referendum on whether Poland should become part of the European Union. We, too, had a referendum, and it was offered by Labour, not the Conservatives. I point out to the hon. Gentleman once again that there is no way in which Britain will gain from the process of what is happening in Europe if it absents itself from those negotiations. Yes, France and Germany will argue their corner, and we should argue our corner. For goodness' sake, we do not have to worry about being beaten by the French and the Germans every time. We have shown in many negotiations in the past few years that when we fight to get our own way we can get our own way. We can do so without the Eurosceptic nonsense that too often emanates from the Opposition.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab)

Will the Prime Minister speculate on why fewer Members turned up to hear this European statement? Does he think that that may be because views in the House reflect views in the country and that an increasing number of people feel that the agenda set in the immediate post-war years to deal with the situation then has now largely run its course? May I make a plea to him not to apply the usual European technique when issues have been rejected of grinding down opposition? Will he pick up the ball and run with it, take the issues that people in this country believe are crucial to our well-being and that of Europe—trade and the environment—and make sure that we are at the centre of Europe in dealing with those two key areas?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the last part of what my right hon. Friend said and think that it is important. An issue such as trade is a classic example of where we should be driving through the single market and so on, but obviously we can do so only as part of the European Union. In many areas of trade and commerce, we need qualified majority voting to make sure that, in a Union of 25, small states do not block change. When one looks back at the history—I know that my right hon. Friend was not doing this—one can see that part of the Eurosceptic myth is that these things are never going to happen and that somehow it is never going to arrive, so we do not lose by staying at the side. However, that is not the way in which it has ever worked.

Maastricht was a classic example of that. When the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues were in power they went to Maastricht and let everyone else determine the terms, then got their opt-out from the social chapter and the single currency. Sweden never had an opt-out from the single currency, but had a referendum on it. We, of course, have said that we would have such a referendum here if we recommended joining. The truth of the matter is that what happened at Maastricht is a classic example of everything that was wrong with the Conservative party and its former leadership in Europe. We were utterly marginalised. We got an opt-out from the social chapter—a fat lot of good that did anyone, frankly—and the rest of Europe went ahead, and we should have been there determining how it was shaped right from the beginning.

If we did what the Leader of the Opposition wants us to do, we would make exactly the same mistake on European defence. If Britain does not play its full part in European defence and shape it in a way that is consistent with NATO, it will be taken forward by others, perhaps in a way that is inconsistent with NATO. That is why we must remain at the centre of Europe, not on the sidelines.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

Up to now, many of the attacks on coalition troops in Iraq have been blamed on former regime loyalists. Is there not now a danger to the coalition case in Iraq? What will happen if the terrorist attacks continue, perhaps unabated? Will that not lend credence to those who argue that despite the undoubted merits of getting rid of a gangster regime, when it comes to the big issue—the issue of dealing with international terrorism—an attack on a sovereign Arab nation has made the threat from international terrorism worse, not better?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid I do not accept that at all. Let us consider some of the terrorist acts that are happening around the world today. Attacks by extremists are happening in countries of which some supported the action in Iraq and many opposed it. These people will carry on fighting their war until we defeat them—and Iraq is merely the latest battleground.

Why do they want to stop us making progress in Iraq? It is because if we make progress in Iraq, their entire argument—their lie that somehow this was about oppressing Muslims or defeating the Arab world—is exposed for what it is. If Iraq gets on its feet as a stable, independent, sovereign state, democratic and prosperous, that will be the best political argument against the extremists. That is why they are in there trying to bomb and kill innocent people—most of whom, incidentally, are Iraqis—and to stop us.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the only way in which we will defeat this menace is, wherever it may be in the world, to go after it, and to take the security and political measures that will allow us to defeat it at every single level—in terms of intelligence, in terms of military capability, in terms of security, but also in terms of the political vision for the world.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

It has not been a bad weekend really, has it? First they drag Saddam out of his rabbit hole, then they knock this European constitution into the long grass—longer than Saddam's beard. Do not send a search party to look for it. We have had two Christmas presents; should we not take them and be thankful?

The Prime Minister

I wish my hon. Friend a happy Christmas as well.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister please convey our best wishes and congratulations to the Polish Prime Minister? Will he please tell him that we all wish our Prime Minister had the courage that he showed last weekend?

The Prime Minister

It is amazing—I make a point to the Conservatives, and they simply do not listen or take it on board. Let me repeat this again. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes, he can go and look at what the Polish Prime Minister said. The Polish Prime Minister said that he supports the constitution for Europe and disagrees with this one aspect—just as there are points with which we disagree. The idea that somehow the Poles were saying no to the whole constitution is a myth, and I am afraid that if we based our foreign policy on that myth it would be a foreign policy based on sand.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

The Prime Minister will be aware that the senior Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Sistani is calling for early elections instead of an appointed Government in Iraq. Many supporters of early elections believe that the World Food Programme could be used to organise such elections. The Prime Minister said this afternoon that he thought the best thing for the Iraqi people was democracy and freedom. Will he therefore give them the right to those early elections?

The Prime Minister

It is important for us to make progress as quickly as possible. I think people understand that after years of Saddam there is a process that must be gone through—but yes, of course we want democratic elections as swiftly as possible: I echo my hon. Friend's call for them. I cannot forbear to point out, though, that if Saddam were still in power there would be no question of any elections.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister explain why he is prepared to give away more powers over foreign affairs, economic policy, asylum and immigration and many other important issues when it is crystal clear that none of those things is needed for enlargement, contrary to his original opinion?

The Prime Minister

For enlargement to work effectively, it will be necessary to make changes. For example, I believe that qualified majority voting would be in the interests of the country for a series of subjects. However, we are not giving up the power to set our asylum laws—that is simply not true. As a result of our negotiations at the time of the Amsterdam treaty, we are not giving up the right to independent foreign and defence policies. Of course we shall not give up any such rights.

It is right to work with others in the European Union because a Europe of 25 needs a different way of working. Let me give one example. We currently have rotating six-monthly presidencies, which make it difficult to achieve continuity in the agenda that the member states adopt in the European Councils. If we do not have a full time chairmanship, a series of states—possibly small states, one after another—will preside and it will not be possible to make the European Union work effectively. That is why it is ultimately important to make changes. However, we have said before, and I say again, that we shall not yield any of Britain's essential attributes as a nation state.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the commitment to Europe of not only the Polish Government but the Polish people. Poland does not regard itself as the heart of Europe for nothing.

However, is my right hon. Friend aware that since the largest accession country fought a referendum campaign in May based on a specific voting strength, it is dismayed to find that it has to accept a lesser voting strength the following May? How does he believe that that could be resolved?

Will my right hon. Friend also take the opportunity to pay tribute to Polish troops who played such an important part in the coalition in recent months?

The Prime Minister

Let me pay several tributes. First, I pay tribute to the Polish troops for their magnificent work in Iraq, where we work closely with Poland's immensely fine soldiers. Secondly, I pay tribute to the courage of the Polish Prime Minister for attending the summit after a serious accident. He showed enormous stoicism.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend is right. Poland's difficulty was not with the vast bulk of the constitution, with which the Polish Prime Minister agreed, but with the specific element that Poland had secured as an agreement at Nice. What was on offer for Poland in the Convention appeared less good to the Prime Minister and that was obviously difficult for him to accept. We must therefore pause and reflect on a possible way forward. As was implicit in my hon. Friend's remarks, if we base British negotiating strategy on blanket opposition to the constitution by other countries, we base it on a serious misapprehension.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)

There is genuine relief in our coastal communities that we will not have a constitution that entrenches the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy as an exclusive European Union competence. The Prime Minister spoke repeatedly of national interest, but he and the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties did not mention the fishing industry once. Is that because it is not a matter of national interest for the UK or the UK parties?

The Prime Minister

It is important to ensure that we secure the right fisheries deal for all parts of the UK. Important negotiations are taking place this week. However, as I have said to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), the hon. Gentleman's party leader at Westminster, it would not be wise for us to withdraw from the common fisheries policy because that would mean a free-for-all.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab)

The Prime Minister consistently referred to the defence issues that were discussed at the conference, and the transatlantic and European alliances. Will he confirm that the military planning centre that has been set up for a limited goal of humanitarian and peacekeeping aims does not need to be covered by the treaty, will be up and running and will form an appropriate bridge between the two alliances?

The Prime Minister

Yes. Moreover, as my hon. Friend rightly implies, there is no standing operational capability. That was one of our agreements. However, it is important that, in circumstances in which America does not want to be engaged and NATO assets are not used, Europe has the capability to act. We have only to consider events in Macedonia to realise how sensible it is for Europe to have such capability in limited circumstances and when NATO is not engaged. European defence is therefore sensible, provided that it proceeds only when it is strictly complementary and does not duplicate NATO's actions.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

Why did the British Government not oppose the proposal by the French and German Governments that the EU should lift its embargo on arms sales to the People's Republic of China? That proposal was encouraged by Mr. Prodi, who welcomed such a review. What military threat do the Chinese face that could be seen off with weapons from Europe? Is it perhaps the possibility of a referendum on Taiwanese independence?

The Prime Minister

I think that it is perfectly sensible to review the embargo. The situation in China today is different and changing: the suggestion that we should reconsider it is sensible, and was not put forward for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman states.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab)

The capture of Saddam Hussein is welcome for Iraq, for the middle east and for the whole world, but is the Prime Minister in a position clearly to tell the House whether he believes that Saddam Hussein should be indicted for war crimes or on other charges?

The Prime Minister

The precise nature of the indictment that is made against him should, as I say, be left to the Iraqis. I emphasise that Iraq has a governing council, whose members said just a few days ago, before the capture of Saddam, that they wanted to set up a special tribunal to try people who were accused of various crimes against the Iraqi people: they should be allowed to get on with that process. We should give whatever support we can in ensuring, for example, that the judiciary is properly independent and properly staffed. The terms of the indictment and the way in which any charges are framed are for the Iraqis themselves that is part of the whole process of saying that Iraq is run by the Iraqis.