HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc155-71 12.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the forthcoming negotiation over the new European treaty. In parallel, the Foreign Secretary is today publishing a White Paper on Europe.

On 1 May, the European Union will enlarge from 15 to 25 members, which will be the biggest increase in Europe's size and will reunify Europe after the travails of Communist dictatorship in eastern and central Europe. It is an historic event that this British Government, and the previous Government, have championed. Whatever problems it poses—we see them in the anxiety over prospective immigration—let us be in no doubt that the prospect of EU membership, together with the courage of the Governments concerned, is the primary reason why those countries have been able to reform their economies and politics so radically and so beneficially, and such change is in the interests of all of Europe. I say unhesitatingly that enlargement is right for Europe and for Britain, and that this country should support it.

In addition, Bulgaria and Romania are set for membership in future years, taking the numbers to 27. Turkey is now taking extraordinary strides on democracy, human rights, economic change and the resolution of the conflict in Cyprus, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, under the impulsion of future EU membership. Within the space of a few years, Europe will be transformed, and it will be easily the strongest political union and greatest economic market in the world. Britain should be at the heart of it. That is its right and its destiny.

Because of enlargement, Europe is sensibly seeking to change the way it works. In a Europe of 25, 27 or 28, a rotating six-month presidency makes no sense. The use of the veto should be confined to the areas in which it is truly necessary; otherwise, decision making becomes paralysed. In certain areas—terrorism, security, economic reform and the environment—Europe must do more and do it better.

The new constitutional treaty is designed both to answer the challenge of enlargement and to bring together in one treaty what is currently found in two separate treaties. Indeed, a significant part of the new treaty is the repetition of articles that are already in force. I want to make it clear that Britain will co-operate fully in helping Europe to work better, but to work better as a Europe of sovereign nation states. Maintenance of control of our affairs is essential in certain areas of policy. The national veto must remain in areas such as taxation, foreign policy, defence, social security, how the essentials of our common law and criminal justice system work, and treaty change, and we will insist on the necessary amendments to the current draft treaty to ensure beyond doubt that it does. On that basis, the treaty does not and will not alter the fundamental nature of the relationship between member states and the European Union.

After ratification by all member states, the new treaty will probably take effect in 2007, with certain key provisions taking effect in 2009. Until then, the key provisions of the Nice treaty will remain in place. If the new treaty contains those essentials, we believe that it is in Britain's interest to sign it. It will replace the six-month rotating presidency with a full-time chairman of the Council—a vital step away from federalism—enabling the Council, which is, of course, the repository of individual European Governments, to become the body that sets Europe's agenda. For the first time, the new treaty will allow national Parliaments the right to object to Commission proposals for legislation, which is a big advance in subsidiarity. It adds a greater ability to co-operate on areas such as terrorism and cross-border crime which are crucial for the world in which we live, and it gives a bigger role for enhanced co-operation between some of the member states, where not all of them wish to participate in certain areas.

That is what the treaty, if amended in the way that we seek, will actually do. Ever since its inception, however, the myths propagated about it have multiplied in those quarters, political and media, which we know to be hostile not just to this treaty, but to the whole notion of Britain playing a central role in Europe. For example, that the EU will be renamed the "United States of Europe". No, it will not. It is to remain the European Union. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Her Majesty's Opposition wanted this statement to be made. It does no good to shout down the Prime Minister. I will not tolerate it.

The Prime Minister

That the Queen will be replaced as our head of state by an EU President of the Council. In fact, we already have a President of the Council, and always have had. Or that Britain will be forced to join the euro, without a referendum and regardless of the economic tests being passed. No, it will not. The existing agreements on the single currency remain in the new treaty. That Britain—this was said by the Opposition—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Yes, it was. That Britain could not mount a future Falklands war or Iraq campaign without permission from Brussels. Yes, we could. Defence is to remain unanimous and the prerogative of the nation state. Or that we will lose our seat on the UN Security Council. No such provision exists. Or that Brussels will seize control of our oil supplies. No, it will not, and the treaty will make that clear. Or that Brussels will have the power to set taxes in Britain. Taxation is to remain with the nation state.

Or—another myth from the Opposition—that our foreign policy will now be decided by the EU because the new treaty obliges member states to support Europe's common foreign and security policy in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity". I quote from the draft treaty. Actually, those words are taken from the Maastricht treaty; and in any event, common foreign and security policy is decided unanimously. Or—another myth from the Opposition—that we will surrender control over our borders. It is already agreed that our right to control our borders—secured by this Government in 1997—will be specifically retained in the new treaty. That the assumption of innocent until proven guilty in British law will be scrapped. No such provision exists.

All those, and many others, such as the hardy perennials about being forced to drive on the right, the Germans taking over our nuclear weapons; and, no doubt, the shape of our bananas, too. Even yesterday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asserted that if this treaty were in place, I would be unable as British Prime Minister to go to Washington to talk to President Bush. I know that that might recommend itself to some of my colleagues on the Labour Benches, but it happens to be untrue.

It is all nonsense—myth designed to distance people's understanding of what Europe is truly about and loosen this country's belief in its place in Europe. It has been an unrelenting, but, I have to accept, at least partly successful campaign to persuade Britain that Europe is a conspiracy aimed at us, rather than a partnership designed for us and others to pursue our national interest properly in a modern, interdependent world.

It is right to confront this campaign head on. Provided that the treaty embodies the essential British positions, we shall agree to it as a Government. Once agreed—either at the June Council, which is our preference, or subsequently—Parliament should debate it in detail and decide upon it. Then, let the people have the final say. The electorate should be asked for their opinion when all our questions have been answered, when all the details are known, when the legislation has been finally tempered and scrutinised in the House, and when Parliament has debated and decided."—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 735.] If Conservative Members object to that, it is a quote from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, speaking about referendums in 1997.

The question will be on the treaty, but the implications go far wider—as I believe we all know. It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins. Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case. Let those of us who believe in Britain in Europe—not because of Europe alone, but because we believe in Britain and our national interest lying in Europe—make our case, too. Let the issue be put and let the battle be joined.

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

I begin by welcoming the fact that the Prime Minister has, at long last, seen sense and decided to give the British people their say on a question of such fundamental importance, even though he could not bring himself to utter the word "referendum" in his statement this afternoon.

Six months ago, the Prime Minister stood before his party conference and said, with all the lip-quivering intensity for which he has become famous: I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear. Today, we could hear the gears grinding as he came before us, lip quivering once again, to eat all those words that he has pronounced so emphatically for so long. Who will ever trust him again?

Last May, the right hon. Gentleman told us all: We do not need a referendum on whatever constitution comes out of the intergovernmental conference."—[Official Report, 21 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 1004.] Last July, he said: A referendum would be a gross and irresponsible betrayal of the true British national interest". Only last Saturday, he was insisting on the radio: Our policy hasn't changed. Perhaps he will tell us this afternoon when exactly it changed. Sunday? Monday? Have we all missed something, or was there a secret weekend Cabinet meeting to agree the change in policy? Was the Minister for Europe speaking for the Government when he told the House only last month that the Government would never surrender itself to the populist plebiscites of the Rothermere press"?—[Official Report, 30 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 1530.] Clearly, no one told him that the policy was likely to change.

No one told the 319 Labour Members, who all dutifully trooped through the Lobby only three weeks ago to vote against a referendum. They not only voted against it but wrote letters to their constituents, explaining why it would be wrong for Britain. I shall make them an offer: if they want help to explain to their constituents why a referendum is right for Britain, the Conservative research department will be only too happy to assist. There they all sit—having been marched up to the top of the hill only three weeks ago to oppose a referendum and marched down again today—the loyal foot soldiers of the Grand Old Duke of Spin.

Now that popular opinion and parliamentary pressure have forced the Prime Minister to eat so many of his words, let him answer the fundamental questions. First, why has he changed his mind? There was not a word of explanation in his statement. Is it because he knows that he is hurtling towards defeat in the European elections in June? Is it because he knows that he cannot win the argument in the next general election? Perhaps he will tell the House whether his change of heart is a product of principle or a decision based purely on opportunism.

The Prime Minister will remember telling us time and again, "I don't believe it's necessary to hold a referendum unless there's a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between the member states and the European Union." According to the statement, he apparently continues to believe that there is no fundamental change. Does he now therefore believe that a tidying-up exercise justifies a referendum? That, of course, is not how others see it. The Belgian Prime Minister called the constitution the "capstone" of a "federal state", and the German Foreign Minister says that it is the most important treaty since the formation of the European Economic Community", Why does the Prime Minister not recognise what is obvious to everyone else?

Why has the Prime Minister changed his mind about the timing of a referendum? After all, as recently as 26 March he was telling reporters in Brussels: The sooner we do this, the better", and that a "speedy resolution" would "safeguard Britain's interests".

If the Prime Minister wanted a speedy resolution to safeguard Britain's interests on 26 March, why does he not want one today? The Government will have our full support for the speedy passage of the legislation necessary to hold a referendum, but there is no case whatever for asking Parliament to spend months on ratification legislation before obtaining the consent of the British people. [Interruption.] After all, it was this Prime Minister who held referendums for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly before this Parliament had passed the necessary legislation. He did it, and while at that time many of the details remained unclear, on this constitution all the details will be clear. That is the difference: we shall know what they are. How can the Prime Minister say, "Trust the people—but not just yet"?

The Prime Minister has suggested today that the debate on this constitution is in reality about whether we stay in or out of the European Union. He knows that that is a complete misrepresentation of the facts. Will he now confirm that, in order for the constitution to be adopted, every country must agree to it? It is open to any country in the European Union to reject it, and if any country does so, the constitution will be dead. He knows that that is the position; everyone knows it. That is no doubt why the Foreign Secretary said that the constitution was "not … essential".

Will the Prime Minister confirm, once and for all, that Britain or any other country can reject the constitution and remain a full member of the European Union? If Ireland or Denmark vote no, they will remain in the European Union, and if Britain votes no, we will remain in the European Union.

So let us have no more of this nonsense. Let us have the honest debate about Europe that the Prime Minister says that he wants, not a debate about the Aunt Sallies that his statement was full of, or about bananas or driving on the right. Let us have a debate about the real issues that are relevant to the future of Europe. The European Union has achieved a great deal. Together, we have created a single market of 380 million people. But the European Union is failing to face up to the realities of the 21st century, and the constitution will make that failure worse. It will mean greater centralisation, more regulation and less flexibility. It is the exact opposite of what Europe really needs. Far from solving its problems, it will create more.

Conservatives have an alternative vision for Europe. We want a Europe that is flexible. If some countries want to integrate more closely, that is fine, as long as they do not force other countries to follow them if they do not want to do so. Our policy is simple: live and let live. That is a modern and mature approach that will allow Europe to succeed in the 21st century. It is a far better approach than the centralising, top-down constitution to which this Government are wedded, and which we will continue vigorously to oppose.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on so long about the U-turn that I got the impression that he did not really like it. When he talks about changing one's mind on a referendum, I suppose it is rather like him and the Maastricht treaty, is it not?

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

Did he not vote against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty? I rather think so. I thought I remembered that he did. So I am afraid that I am not the only one who can change his mind.

The biggest change that the right hon. and learned Gentleman indicated today, however, was on the view that we should not have a parliamentary debate in the House on the detail of what is a 300-page document, before the people have their say. This is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said when we were debating Scottish and Welsh referendums: A pre-legislative referendum is designed to pre-empt parliamentary debate. It is not a new device. The device was the hallmark of continental dictatorships between the wars. European tyrants used the plebiscite to sideline their Parliaments; they used it to suppress the rights and liberties of their citizens."—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 736.] That is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. I have listened to him: he should be congratulating me.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says it is a myth that he said yesterday that it would be not me but the president of Europe who would visit the President of the United States, but it is indeed what he said. He said: if … the constitution were in force, the president of Europe, not the British Prime Minister, would have met the President of the United States".—[Official Report, 19 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 25.] That is exactly what he said. [HON. MEMBERS: "Read on."] I will read the whole paragraph. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman want me to? Yes. Given that the Prime Minister is always eager to secure the maximum possible agreement in the European Union on such issues, will he confirm that, if such agreement existed and the constitution were in force, the president of Europe, not the British Prime Minister, would have met the President of the United States last week?"—[Official Report, 19 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 25.] It does not get any better on a second reading.

These are the myths. In fact, if anything convinced me of the case for a genuine debate in Parliament and then in the country, it was the fact that not once in his response to me did the right hon. and learned Gentleman get down to the details of the constitution. There is a very simple reason for that. He is not against a particular provision of the constitution; he is against it in its entirety. Exactly: the Conservatives nod.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's position is not that we should amend this phrase, this clause or that article in the constitutional treaty, but that we should get rid of the whole thing. [Interruption.] "Quite right," they say.

Let us just follow that through. This is why the debate will be quite interesting when it is under way. Not one of the 24 other Governments in the European Union agrees with that position: not one. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would have to convince all of them that they should change their position, because any treaty change must be agreed unanimously by the Council. In other words, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants the whole of Europe to agree to abandon the constitution completely, he will find himself saying either, "We will veto the whole constitution", or "You go ahead as 24 on this basis, without us".

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong. That is precisely what the European Union would want to do in those circumstances—which is precisely why the case put by his right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who represented the Conservative party on the Convention, is that we should bring about a situation in which Britain is against the whole constitution and then, as he said, move to a form of associate membership.

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

That is the position of the Conservative party. That is where the right hon. and learned Gentleman will end up, because no one will support his attempt to renegotiate the conditions.

As the debate continues, it will become very clear what the choice is. Either we have Britain at the heart and the centre of Europe, able to play its full part in the European Union, or we end up opting to go down the road set out by the Eurosceptics who now dominate the Conservative party, and fundamentally change the relationship that Britain has with the European Union. That is what is at issue—whether Britain continues at the centre of European decision making, as we passionately believe it should, or we retreat to the margins, where we were when the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party was last in power.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has already said, for example, that he wants to opt back out of the social chapter—has he not? [Interruption.] That is exactly what he said. And what would that mean? It would mean British workers once more being the only workers anywhere in the European Union without the right to paid holidays.

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

Yes, it would mean exactly that. In 1997 they did not have the right to paid holidays, did they? The Conservative party was against it, and against the social chapter.

That is the debate that we shall have over the coming months. I simply say to the House and the country that it is a debate that everyone who believes in Britain's true destiny in Europe will view with enthusiasm.

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

We certainly welcome the Prime Minister's confirmation today that in due course there will be a referendum of the British people on the proposed European constitution. We welcome that, whatever the ultimate motives that led the Prime Minister to his overdue decision. I can only express the hope, at the outset, that the co-ordination of a European referendum campaign will be a bit more slick and polished than the co-ordination that led to today's announcement in the House of Commons.

Does the Prime Minister agree that when the referendum comes it must be based on an unloaded, unbiased question which will be subject to confirmation by the Electoral Commission, and that it is best decided after due parliamentary consideration? Does he agree, or at least acknowledge, that one of the subtexts of the dispute, or debate, about timing in which he is now engaged is that—while the other European member states have their own processes, which mirror or will act in parallel with ours, and that is obviously outwith the Government's control—the timing of the next British general election is of course in the hands of the Prime Minister himself? The general election is the only race in the world in which a principal competitor also holds the starting pistol. When it comes to an issue as important as the timing of a referendum on a fundamental matter concerning Britain's role in Europe and the related timing of a general election—if ever there was a case for fixed-term Parliaments, this must surely be it.

It is clear from the exchanges so far that when the referendum comes it will set its own pace and develop its own character. Does the Prime Minister agree that, whatever the expressions of public support over the past year to 18 months, one thing that comes through loud and clear in every analysis of public opinion is that a great percentage of people repeatedly say that they want more unbiased, factual information on which to base their final conclusions about Europe? This campaign must represent the opportunity to provide that.

Does the Prime Minister also agree that, in one of the great missed opportunities of recent years, those of a Eurosceptical or Euro-hostile disposition have been allowed far too much of the running, and that therefore the more quickly the pro-European forces can co-ordinate and make a positive case based on the facts, the better it will be? Does the Prime Minister now propose to move quickly to re-establish a pro-European British campaign, drawn from all political parties and, indeed, from outside formal party politics itself? Does he acknowledge that if the referendum campaign, whenever it comes, were hatched, controlled and spun from No. 10 Downing street, that would not command the confidence or its participants and would not persuade the British public of the desired outcome?

Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that his negotiating position between now and June will be strengthened by today's announcement? Does he acknowledge that that applies particularly to his ability to guarantee the red lines—which, as he knows, we support—especially the maintenance of the national veto over matters concerning constitutional changes, defence, taxation, spending policies, social security and the like? Given his strengthened negotiating stance, will he, between now and June, push for further improvements in the treaty? Not least, will he stress that European Union action should be limited to specific objectives that make sense in the context of nation states, that there must be more enforcement of consistency in regard to EU rulings and laws across member states, and that there should be more decentralisation to local communities throughout Europe?

Finally, what discussions does the Prime Minister envisage will take place to decide what will be the umbrella organisation for a pro-European campaign to be registered with the Electoral Commission? Assuming that his Government are in power administering the proposed referendum, will he apply collective Cabinet responsibility or will he take the view of Harold Wilson in the 1970s that it can be suspended?

Surely this is an historic opportunity to settle at last an issue that has bedevilled two generations of British politics and each and every successive Government of whatever political persuasion across those generations. At the end of the day, it will come down, to use the phrase of the leader of the Conservative party, among those of us of all political persuasions where Britain's future engagement in Europe is concerned, to being between those who want to live and let live and those who will increasingly be exposed as wanting, where Britain's future in Europe is concerned, to live and then let die.

The Prime Minister

I can answer briefly on this. We are agreed on the basic position on the treaty and on the measures needed to secure further improvements in it. It is absolutely right that we engage in this debate in a way that allows people to debate the actual details of the treaty. I am sure that that is right. Obviously, the exact nature of any campaign can be decided later, and of course the position is a Government position. It is the Government's view that this treaty should be carried through, and I would expect that to be a Government position.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale) (Lab)

I welcome the Prime Minister's statement, particularly his announcement that full and proper parliamentary scrutiny will be applied to the Bill before any referendum. Perhaps history has been made today, because never in my 17 years in the House—and I cannot remember any previous occasion either—has the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition come to the Dispatch Box and argued against parliamentary scrutiny. It is a moment of history of which everyone should take notice.

In any publicity when we have the referendum debate, whether in White Papers or reports, may I suggest that we make an annexe of the situation before and after—the treaty as it is, and the treaty as it will be in future—so that we can have a proper debate? When Conservative Members criticise the changes in the draft treaty, they have a terrible habit of putting the blame as far back as the treaty of Rome.

The Prime Minister

What my hon. Friend says on these issues is absolutely right, particularly as he is Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. On issues of detail, given that the constitutional treaty is a 300-page document, it is surely right and better that the public have their say after an informed debate in the House in which we can thrash out some of these issues. I am happy to go back to some of the questions raised earlier, particularly about what the consequences would be if, say, we rejected in entirety the principle of the treaty. We can debate those issues here, and the country will then make its decision on an informed and better view.

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

Was not the Prime Minister's announcement today entirely consistent with the rest of his European policy, which is to give categorical and repeated assurances one way, followed by an ignominious retreat while pretending that everything is the same and that everybody has changed except him? Why does he continue to misquote and misrepresent deliberately my arguments in a pamphlet that I wrote last year? Is this to be the way he conducts the referendum when it is held? Will he give a straight answer to a straight question? If another member state—a small country—holds a vote and rejects a constitution before we hold a referendum, will he, assuming he is still the Prime Minister, go ahead with his promised referendum, or will he use that as an excuse to cancel the British national referendum, even though that other country may subsequently be bullied into changing its mind?

The Prime Minister

No, of course not. The referendum should go ahead in any event. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] Of course it should. May I deal with the issue that I constantly misrepresent the right hon. Gentleman about associate membership? I assume that I have an accurate quote. This is what he wrote in his pamphlet on this issue: In practice, if a country voted no to the Constitution, the matter would eventually have to be resolved politically. The state concerned would probably allow the others to go ahead, having negotiated an associate membership of some kind". That is why I keep saying that he is favour of that, and he is.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I was not advocating it.

The Prime Minister

This is where the Conservative party is very tricky. It says, "We are not actually advocating it." Let me explain why that is the consequence of its position. If its position is not simply to oppose one aspect of the constitutional treaty but the whole treaty, the political reality—as it has made it clear that it will be running for a no vote in the referendum campaign—is that no matter what emerges from the negotiation, it will say no. Therefore, it would not go back to the European Council and say, "We think this or that should be changed." It would be coming back and saying, "The whole thing should be scrapped." I will tell Conservative Members, here and now, that the political reality, which is why the right hon. Gentleman wrote what he wrote, is that the rest of Europe would say, "I'm sorry, we are determined to have a constitutional treaty. You move to a different form of relationship with the European Union." That is why he wrote: The state concerned would probably allow the others to go ahead, having negotiated an associate membership of some kind". That is exactly what he wants.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab)

May I thank the Prime Minister on behalf of the majority of Labour voters, who have longed to hear him make the statement that he has made today? I congratulate him on resisting those pressures from colleagues who argued that at all costs he should not concede a referendum on the constitution of Europe. May I also ask him now to resist those same people who will be asking him to knock this issue into the long grass until after the next election? Does he appreciate that Labour voters will see all the difference between a promise that can be delivered before the next election and one that may be delivered after the next election? If the Opposition are genuine about letting the people decide, he may get his Bills on the constitution and the referendum through in such quick time that it would allow him to call the referendum before we vote in the general election.

The Prime Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome for the statement. Even though we may be on different sides in relation to some aspects of the constitution, I am sure that he will conduct the debate in a sensible and reasoned way. The issue related to timing arises in this way: should the parliamentary debate come first or not? I happen to believe that this is a case par excellence of when it should come first, so that both Houses of Parliament debate it fully and properly, and the people then have the final say. That is the issue on timing, rather than other issues that must be decided at a different time.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)

Will the Prime Minister explain what is the difference between now and a few weeks ago when he was opposing a referendum? When did the change come? If this is a genuine conversion to the referendum, I applaud it. I would like to act as Ananias to him and say, "Welcome, Brother Tony, to the referendum supporters," as I believe that this nation should have a say. If it is an expedient U-turn, however, we find ourselves in great difficulty, in the country and the House. He owes the people of this country a solid explanation.

The Prime Minister

The position that I hold on the constitutional treaty is the same in terms of the details of that treaty. I believe the treaty to be right for Europe and right for Britain. I believe that the constitutional treaty is necessary if we are going to make the historic enlargement of the European Union work. I also believe that it does not alter fundamentally the nature of the relationship between the European Union and the member states. I would not agree to a treaty that put us on a path to a federal superstate. I will only agree to one that maintains the rights of sovereign independent states. I must accept that it is not merely that many people in this country want this matter decided finally in a referendum, but that, frankly, it is time to dispel the myths about Europe. The reason why I think people should have their say is not that I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I do not—but that the question of myth versus reality on Europe should finally be laid to rest.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and urge him to ignore the laughter from the Opposition parties for the time being. Once they have to explain their policies, the laughter will disappear quickly. I urge him to have a referendum on the constitution only and not to take this opportunity also to have a referendum on the UK's remaining opt-outs. Will he confine the referendum to that subject?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the referendum should be on the constitutional treaty. That is what we should do, and once we have cleared away all the arguments about process, we can have a proper argument about the substance.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con)

What is it about a referendum on a constitutional treaty that creates such chaos? The Liberal Democrats have called for one and are now gobsmacked that they have been offered it. Traditionally, my party has been against referendums but has suddenly decided that this one is a good thing. The Prime Minister has done a handstand so that the sun can shine out of part of his anatomy. A constitutional treaty is a complex document that needs to be debated and analysed by this House, and that should be the guidance to the public. Why has the Prime Minister suddenly changed his mind on such a fundamental principle of Westminster democracy?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman and I agree on the substance of most European issues. We agree on the importance of Britain playing its full role in Europe, on the need for this constitutional treaty and on making sure that it is adopted and seen through. But both of us must accept, as pro-Europeans, that the pro-European case has gone by default in many instances. People see that there is some choice or division between the British national interest and Britain's place in Europe. The reality is that when we get to the substance of the discussion of the constitutional treaty, we will be on strong ground. At the moment, the substance of the constitutional treaty is drowned out by the call that we are denying people a say because we are trying to conceal some terrible thing that the constitutional treaty is doing.

I have not changed my mind on the constitutional treaty, but it is the right moment for those of us—in the Conservative party, frankly, as well as on the Labour Benches—who believe passionately that Britain's place is at the centre of European decision making, particularly when Europe evolves into a European Union of 25, 27 and then 28, to make our case. We may believe, rightly, that parliamentary democracy is the normal way in which these things ought to be decided. Personally, I think that it is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition has said that Parliament should not debate this matter first. None the less, the hon. Gentleman and I must accept that if we are to make the case, we will have to take it out and make it to the British people.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), the chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. Having read parts of the draft constitution, I can say that it is difficult to determine what was in previous treaties and what is new. I cite article 51—a minor issue on the recognition of religious organisations and so on—as an example, because there is an addition to article 51. The first thing that the Prime Minister should do is to convince the Opposition not to go into a referendum campaign opposing our membership of the EU. From today's debate, it is not at all clear that they want to stay in.

The Prime Minister

The truth is that a very large part of the Conservative party will not want to say that it is going to withdraw from the EU, but will want to provoke a crisis out of which we will have a choice, one that will be a stark one for this country. I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition would prefer not to be put in that position—he has some experience of government—but the truth, as he knows, is that, in a large part of the Conservative party, the centre of gravity has moved to an extreme Eurosceptic position. That is the case and, after all his remarks about U-turns are out of the way, he will have to confront that within his own party.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)

I have never heard an initial statement of such transparent bluster. However, if the Prime Minister believes—as I do, profoundly—that it is a principled decision to have a referendum and not merely a question of tactical expediency, will he explain to the House and the country at large the principles by which he changed his view and is now having a referendum?

The Prime Minister

I explained that in answers to the Leader of the Liberal Democrats and to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). If we both agree that it is right that the people have the final say, let us get on and have the debate about the issue. It is extraordinary; I have done what the Conservative party clamoured for, month after month, but it is now terribly interested in skewering us on the reasons without getting to the substance of the issue. That is the most telling aspect of the debate.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab)

As a fervent believer in further European integration, I reluctantly accept the proposition that we need a referendum to dispel the distortions being put out by the Conservative party. But will the Prime Minister undertake today that, on the successful negotiation of such a treaty, the Government will wage an aggressive campaign for entry into the constitution based on Labour's commitment to the European ideal and on Labour's values of internationalism, and that the campaign itself will not seriously impede the move to a referendum on a common currency for Europe?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend will understand, those are separate issues and we have set out our position on the single currency. However, he is right that we need to get across what the treaty does. The truth is that large numbers of people in this country think that, if we sign up to the draft constitutional treaty, we will give up our right to set our taxation rates, conduct our foreign and defence policy and do those things that a nation state should be able to do. That is simply untrue. I do not know of any country in Europe—especially not, incidentally, the new members coming into the EU, who have only, just escaped from the dictatorship of a supranational body—who want to do such a thing. The idea that I or the Prime Minister of the day will not be able to conduct our foreign policy as we would wish or set out own tax rates, or that our pension provisions will be determined by Brussels, simply are not true. That is why I agree with my hon. Friend. When people know that there is a referendum at the end of the parliamentary debate, public awareness and interest in it will be rather greater.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his statement and on the decision, which—for whatever reason it was taken—is the right thing to do. Could I advise him not to get too dug in at this stage on when the referendum should be? There is still a lot to be sorted out yet. We do not know that there will be an agreement. In my view, it would have to be completely rewritten to be a satisfactory constitution. But if there is agreement, it is only right that one should proceed as quickly as possible to have the debate and a decision. The last thing the Prime Minister wants is to be seen to be trying to deny or delay the decision; the words of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) were wise on that. May I further advise him not to be too influenced by the rather foolish comments of the chairman of the Electoral Commission, if it should prove convenient to have the referendum on the same day as the general election?

The Prime Minister

On timing, the issue is whether the parliamentary debate precedes the referendum, which is the key thing for us. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we do not yet have the treaty; it is not yet agreed. There is a general assumption that the Polish and Spanish positions have completely changed since the previous negotiation. That may or may not be true about the Spanish position; I simply do not know. I rather doubt whether it is true, in quite the way people think, about the Polish position. Incidentally, it is not merely Britain that has concerns. Virtually every country around the table has concerns about the existing draft. There is still a lot of negotiating to get right, which is why it is sensible to set out a process at this stage, but I agree that the timetable is open.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

As the last of the 69 Labour Members who went into Ted Heath's Lobby to go into the Community and as a hardened veteran of the constitutional arguments that occupied 47 days on Scottish devolution in 1978–79, may I say gently to the Prime Minister that scrutinising temporary legislation is not a quick business? It guzzles up parliamentary time. Has he had a word with the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip on the crucial question of the time available and at what point the guillotine will be put in? Experience of recent devolution Bills has shown that, frankly, huge chunks were unscrutinised and, we now find, unsatisfactory.

The Prime Minister

There is no one in this House who has greater experience of constitutional debates than my hon. Friend, and I shall listen carefully to what he says. The main point is that we must be able to debate the details of the constitutional treaty properly, although I think that in the end that will fall around certain key provisions of the treaty. That will be essential. Let us be quite clear: neither the country nor Parliament will think that we should not sign up to the constitutional treaty on the basis that we have qualified majority voting on patents, on the rules of parts of the European Central Bank or on many of the other issues on which we are moving towards qualified majority voting. On the other hand, the House will want to be sure that, on the issues that I mentioned, such as taxation, foreign policy and defence, the rights of the nation state remain.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the referendum will not be about Britain's membership of the European Union but about the constitution? Will he confirm that, if the British people were to say no, all that would happen would be a renegotiation, as happened when Denmark said no? Will he confirm that, under the existing treaties, no one could force us into associate membership and no one could proceed without unanimity? That is what the treaties say.

The Prime Minister

Of course the question should be on the constitutional treaty, but let me just say this to the hon. Gentleman. Ireland recently first voted against the Nice treaty, then came back to have a further referendum. Of course, it then came back and negotiated certain changes. That is wholly different from the position of the Conservative party, which wants to come back and say, "We are not going to have this treaty at all". That is the Conservative party's position. That is why there are two steps. I agree that the point of associate membership or withdrawal is not reached immediately, but I have to tell the Conservative party that if we were to come back and say that we would not have the treaty at all—not in any shape or form—the other countries around the table would not accept that. If I were in that position, I would not accept it.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend made a powerful and convincing case over the past year that there was no need for a referendum, and there is every reason to think that by June, there will be something of a triumph of British diplomacy in that intergovernmentalism will be enshrined and our red lines maintained. He will not, therefore, be surprised if some of us ask what new and major factor has arisen. There are constants. In my judgment, there has not been a major change in the constituencies. The mythmongering of the newspaper magnates is as before and, even worse, the opportunism of the Opposition, who held no referendum on Maastricht or the Single European Act, is maintained. The so-called alternative vision, as my right hon. Friend has said, is not shared by any other country, and can only be a recipe for either withdrawal or isolation. What is new?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend and I share the same position on Europe, and however much we disdain the position taken by the Conservative party and believe—as I do—that most of its members want to have a fundamentally different relationship with the European Union from our existing one, I am afraid that we must accept that the fact of the matter is that this argument is not yet won in the country. We must accept that. We should not alter in any way our view on Britain's place in Europe but, on the contrary, should be prepared to go out and fight for it. That is what we should do.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister recall taunting a previous holder of his office with weakness over the management of his party and his Government in respect of Europe? Is he not in exactly the same position? Given the abandonment of everything that he has ever said about the constitution—always with characteristic biblical certainty—does not that description now rightly apply to him: "Weak, weak, weak"?

The Prime Minister

I have not altered my view on the constitutional treaty, its importance, its terms or our negotiating position on it. The right hon. Gentleman, again, is someone who shares my view on Europe, but unfortunately does not share the view on Europe of his Front Bench spokesmen and his party. As he knows, his party wants to take Britain in a fundamentally different direction in Europe. In the end, this is not a question of pressure in the party or anywhere else, but there is now a real desire among the public to debate this issue. As pro-Europeans, we have to accept that.

I have watched matters accumulate over a period of time, including the myths about Europe. When I read those myths out, members of the right hon. Gentleman's party say that of course they are all nonsense; but in fact, some of them are exactly what they have been saying. For example, when the shadow Chancellor stood for election, he said not merely that he was against the single currency, but that he wanted to repatriate powers from Brussels. If that is the case, that negotiation, which is not supported by anyone else in Europe, will have to be conducted. That is the nature of the argument that we now face and if we are serious about winning the argument, now is the time when we have to go out and make it to the public.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op)

May I express my complete and enthusiastic support for Government policy on the referendum? I am sure that the Prime Minister will accept that as genuine, because I am not always as enthusiastic about every aspect of Government policy.

I particularly welcome the fact that the Government have been prepared to listen to the people. Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us on the Labour Benches know that there is no merit in intransigence for its own sake and welcome the change? However, I ask him not to be too hasty in moving to the necessary debate and exploration of the measure, because it involves complex matters that need to be properly scrutinised. Will there be scope for any amendment or does he intend the measure to come before Parliament and the country entirely on a take-it-or-leave-it basis? Many of us want parts of the constitution to be amended, while we accept other parts thereof.

The Prime Minister

I welcome what my hon. Friend says about wanting to scrutinise this matter carefully in Parliament. That is the right thing to do. In respect of what Parliament can do, anything that we amend that goes to the heart of what is already in the treaty must be negotiated with people. However, it is right to say that we will have the fullest opportunity to debate the treaty, as we would any constitutional treaty, on the Floor of the House—and not just here, but in the other place.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)

As an historic European nation, Scotland and the Scots have always sought to play a significant role in our continent—but not at any cost. It is right and proper that voters north of the border will be able to cast their ballots on whether the constitution is in Scotland's and Europe's interests, but does the Prime Minister understand that it will be impossible to win a referendum in Scotland unless unacceptable provisions on key industries such as fishing and energy are radically amended?

The Prime Minister

Fishing, is still a shared competence, and we believe that that is right. In respect of energy, concerns have been put to us, but there is already agreement in principle to changes being made on energy to make the position clear. As far as I am aware, the changes have the agreement of the oil industry.