HC Deb 21 June 2004 vol 422 cc1079-96 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council that took place in Brussels on 17 and 18 June. At that Council, the European Union—now of 25 nations, soon to be 28—agreed a new treaty for Europe that sets out for the first time, in one single treaty, the powers, rights and duties of the European Union. I have placed a copy of the presidency conclusions in the Libraries of both Houses. I thank the Irish presidency, under the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, for its skill in negotiating a successful conclusion.

As the Taoiseach said, the constitutional treaty makes it clear that Europe is

not a super state; not a federal state but a group of nations". This treaty makes it plain, again for the first time in a European treaty, that the European Union has only the competences conferred on it by member states, and it states expressly, also for the first time, that member states can withdraw from Europe should they want to.

This treaty makes clear where the European Union can and cannot act. It provides for qualified majority voting where we need it, for the single market, for reform of the common agricultural policy and for action against international crime and terrorism. It keeps unanimity for the most important decisions and, at our insistence, in particular for tax, social security, foreign policy, defence and decisions on the financing of the Union affecting the British budget contribution. It keeps our ability to opt out of measures affecting our laws on asylum and immigration, and extends that so that we cannot be obliged to co-operate on criminal law procedures where we do not want to do so. For the first time ever, it provides a power for national Parliaments to scrutinise proposals from Brussels at the draft stage and to send them back if Parliaments are not satisfied.

The treaty provides, through the route of enhanced co-operation, for a flexible Europe in which groups of countries can take action together within the framework of the European Union provided that they do not damage the interests of others. That is a flexibility within the framework of law, not the tree-for-all that some have advocated.

Above all, the treaty provides for the reforms in the working of the European Union that are necessary if it is not to fall into gridlock with 25 members. It reforms the system of the six-monthly rotating presidency to provide greater continuity and co Terence in a Union of 25, and replaces it with a full-time Chairman of the European Council, who will serve for up to five years. This is crucial in placing the power to set Europe's agenda in the hands of Europe's intergovernmental body.

The European Union treaty includes, in the charter of fundamental rights, the rights of the citizen under EU law. The charter expressly rules out establishing any new power or task for the European Union or any change in the powers of the European Union. In each area the rights are expressly limited to those available under existing national law and practices and under existing Union law. For example, article 28 of the charter says that workers and employers have the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels, but only in accordance with Union law and national laws and practices". In addition, the charter contains explanations for each article—making it clear, for example, that the — limits for the exercise of collective action, including strike action, come under national laws and practices, including the question of whether it may be carried out in parallel in several member states". The treaty requires those explanations to be given due regard by the Courts.

Some have expressed concern at the references in the treaty to the primacy of European Union law.

In fact, the primacy of European Union law has existed since we joined the European Union and is there in the European Communities Act 1972. But, of course, European law only takes precedence where member states have agreed that Europe should have a competence. The idea that this is something new is therefore nonsense. This treaty also completes and consolidates the existing treaties of the European Union, and 75 per cent. of it is a repetition of what is in earlier treaties.

Among the many myths about the constitutional treaty that have been published over the last few months have been accusations that we would lose our rebate and our seat on the Security Council; that Brussels would seize control of our oil supplies; that the UK taxpayer would pay for other EU countries' pensions; that we would have to give up control of our Army or be forced to join the euro or to raise our taxes; that we would lose control of our borders or have our foreign policy dictated by Brussels. Now the British people have before them the text of the treaty as agreed—and it demolishes those myths. However, the myths, and the propaganda that goes with them, are not really about the constitutional treaty. They are about whether Britain should or should not be a leading member of the European Union.

The new Europe of 450 million people is a success for Britain. The new countries of Europe share our view that it should be run by sovereign nation states. They have joined the European Union for the stability, security and prosperity that it provides—the same stability, security and prosperity that we have enjoyed as members of the European Union for the past 30 years.

We are in the European Union for the single market and customs union that it provides for our goods and services, for the extra 1.8 per cent. of GDP that membership brings us every year and for the 3.5 million jobs that depend on that single market. We are also in the EU for the strength that it gives us in trade negotiations with powerful countries, such as the United States and Japan. We are in it for its network of aid and trade relationships with China, India and the countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Those relationships make an important contribution to international peace and security and development.

Of course, there are frustrations and compromises, but the European Union is the most successful way anyone has yet devised of managing relations between European countries whose national rivalries had, until 60 years ago, only ever been settled in a series of bloody conflicts. Now we not only manage those rivalries; we pool our combined strength for our economic advantage, for influence in the world, for peace, for security. The power of the European Union has helped eight countries of eastern and central Europe achieve democratic stability. It is transforming Turkey into a modern democratic state and it is helping to achieve peace in the Balkans. Not a single Government of a single nation—either those in Europe now or those wanting to join—opposed this treaty. All welcomed it. All want it to work. Many share the British view of Europe's future.

All that is what the opponents of this treaty would put in jeopardy for the sake not of any real British interest, but of a narrow nationalism, which no British Government have ever espoused or should ever espouse if they have the true interests of the British people at heart. In the end, the final say will be with the British people in a referendum. But in that debate, we will argue that this constitutional treaty represents a success for the new Europe that is taking shape, is a success for Britain and I commend it to the House today.

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

Mr. Speaker, this constitution is bad for our democracy, bad for jobs and bad for Britain. The Prime Minister has said that we must separate myth from reality. All I can say is, look who's talking: the great myth-maker himself.

The Prime Minister has hailed this constitution as a great success for Britain. In fact, only 27 of the 275 amendments submitted by the Government to the European Convention have been included in the final draft. That is one in 10. In the Prime Minister's version of Euro 2004, the score is UK 27; EU 248. Well, we all hope England do better than that tonight.

Now let us deal with some of the so-called myths. The Prime Minister said that he did not want a single, legally binding document called a Constitution. But the document is called "Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe". Not that the Prime Minister could bring himself to mention the word constitution this afternoon. That is hardly surprising. The dictionary definition of a constitution is the principles on which a State is governed". The Leader of the House said that the title "Foreign Minister" was "unacceptable", but now it is in article I-27. Where is the myth in that? The Government tried to delete the proposed measures on criminal procedure, but now they are in article III-171. Where is the myth in that? The Government tried to delete the measures on energy, but now they are in article III-157. Where is the myth in that? The Prime Minister said that there was no proposal for a separate European military planning capability, but now it is on page 20 of the Council conclusions. Where is the myth in that?

The Government opposed the European public prosecutor. That was one of their so-called red lines. They said: Unanimity does not mean that"— a European public prosecutor— can be accepted. But the public prosecutor is there, in article III-175. Where is the myth in that? The Prime Minister boasted—he said it again this afternoon—that the constitution gives a role to national parliaments of a greater degree than ever before. But after Parliament has had its say, the Commission can ignore it. That is in the snappily named "Protocol on the Application of the Principles of Subsidiarity and Proportionality." Where is the myth in that? Does not all that go to show that the only myth we have here is the Prime Minister's claim that this is a success for him and for Britain?

Is not the reality that there will now be new burdens on business and on our public services? Is not the reality that this constitution will make it easier for the European Court to use European Union legislation, such as the working time directive and the works councils directive, to bring in even more red tape from Brussels? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Have not business leaders already warned that the constitution will "harm our prosperity"? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Will there not be more interference from the European Court on asylum policy? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Will that not threaten even the Government's own measures on asylum, including their plans to restrict benefits to those who apply late? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Will not the Commission mean that the European Union can now interfere, in the Government's words, in "almost any aspect" of criminal procedure? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, they say no, but they should read the document. If they did so, they would know that that is the reality of what the Prime Minister has signed up to. Will not the European public prosecutor have wide-ranging powers to direct police, order arrests, prosecute and choose the country where a trial should be held? Did not even the Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee say that the proposal…has the potential for creating an engine of oppression"? Why on earth did the Prime Minister agree to that? How can this Parliament protect British interests when, in 43 new areas of policy, we can have measures imposed on us by majority voting against our will?

The charter of fundamental rights is a case study in Government surrender. The Prime Minister has been dragged along, step by step, against his better judgment. First the Government did not want this charter at all. Then, when they lost that argument, Ministers said that they did not want it included in the treaty. Then they argued that it should be moved to a protocol. When the charter was finally included in the constitution, the Government called for safeguards to stop it undermining our national law. But on Friday, the President of the European Court of Justice said that the constitution would bring new areas and new subjects under the Court's jurisdiction, and he refused to give any guarantees that the charter would have no impact on national law.

The Prime Minister says that he will take the constitution to the country. It is not the first time he has said that. Five years ago, with the hand of history resting on his shoulder, he said that once in every generation he case for Europe has to be restated". He said that he would give leadership. Six months later, when nothing had happened, he said: Once in each generation, the case for Britain in Europe needs to be remade … The time for this generation is now. So what happened?

We have just had elections to the European Parliament during which the Prime Minister did not make a single speech on Europe. That is what he means by leadership. The Prime Minister's definition of leadership is to press the mute button, and press it hard.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that there is now a real opportunity to get the British view accepted because there is a lot of support for it. I agree; there is indeed a lot of support for the British view. What a pity that the Prime Minister did not put the British view when he was in Brussels last week.

The British view is that there should be a modern, flexible, reformed Europe; a Et rope ready for the challenges of the 21st century; a Europe that is truly free, based on co-operation and not coercion; a Europe that transfers powers back from Brussels to the nation state—truly a Europe of live and let live. That is what the Prime Minister should have been arguing for in Brussels last week. That is what the people of this country want.

Let us have none of that nonsense about the referendum being a question of in or out of Europe; it is about the kind of Europe that we want to see. Let me make it clear: I am opposed to this constitution and I will play my part in a cross-party campaign, involving people from all parts of the country and all walks of life, to say no to this constitution. Britain does not need to wait until the last minute to decide; we do not need to wait until other countries have spoken. Why cannot Britain do what the Prime Minister says he wants to do and give a lead in Europe? Why does he not lead rather than just follow?

The fact is that the Prime Minister knows that he has no mandate whatever for this constitution. There was nothing in his manifesto on the constitution and the British people rejected it at the polls only 10 days ago. The fate of this constitution will not be decided by the right hon. Gentleman; it will be decided by the British people, so why does he not let the British people speak, and let them speak now?

The Prime Minister

Let me deal with some of the points of detail. First, the constitutional treaty is a treaty like any other. It has exactly the same status.

Secondly, in relation to criminal law, the procedures that we have agreed will mean that should we object to a particular proposal, it can be blocked. That allows us to make progress in areas where we want to do so but to block things that we think are against our interest.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite wrong in respect of energy. There is actually a tax carve-out for energy, which is the same as the one for the environment.

European Union defence is to be maintained at governmental level and governed by unanimity. It is true that there is power to establish a European public prosecutor but it can be done only by unanimity and, therefore, requires our consent.

In respect of national Parliaments, yes it is true that if a third of them object they cannot block the European Commission proposal, but for the first time they are able to take objection to it and send it back to the Commission—[Interruption.] Let us put it like this: that is a lot more than the right hon. and learned Gentleman ever secured when he was negotiating for this country in Europe. May I remind him that the working time directive was actually agreed when he was in government, not when we were in government?

The document does not affect our asylum laws. One of the less pleasant myths in some of the propaganda put out is that somehow Europe decides our asylum and immigration laws. It does not; we decide them. The House of Lords European Committee said that the treaty shifted the balance back towards the nation state. As for the idea that in the whole of the rest of Europe people are rejoicing that this is some federalist blueprint, let me read a few recent quotes about that.

The Prime Minister of Spain: Europe is and will be a Union of nation States. The leader of Germany in Bavaria: The EU will not have the right to set taxes and Europe is not going to be a federal state. The President of Germany: I do not believe that current developments are going to give rise to a European federal state". He sees a revival of the nation-state principle again. I seem to remember that Poland was prayed in aid by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the last time he was here—the plucky Poles standing up and not wanting this constitutional treaty—but, in fact, they are with us in wanting it, but on the right terms. The President of Poland: The treaty doesn't mean we create a new state of Europe or something like a European federation. Or, for example, this quote from an editorial in one of the main newspapers in Spain, El Mundo: this is a Constitution… which consecrates the EU as a union of sovereign states, which continues not to opt for federal institutions". In the main commentary in Corriere della Sera, in Italy: The British won the day. In Sweden: the EU is no longer run by the Franco-German axle. In another Spanish paper, but I am almost too modest to mention it: Blair, the big winner of the Summit, achieved everything he wanted.

Why is the right hon. and learned Gentleman so anxious to have the referendum without the parliamentary debate and scrutiny? Because he has everything to fear from a detailed understanding and everything to gain from haste and headlines.

I shall turn to some of the issues that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised on the qualified majority voting extensions. It is true that there are qualified majority voting extensions on things like, for example, the diplomatic and consular protection rules, on things like patents, on things like appointments to specialist judicial panels, on things like the armament agency rules and on things like the salary of the European Court of Justice judges. But let us compare this treaty with the two documents that he agreed: the Single European Act, where 12 whole areas were moved to QMV, including health and safety and, yes, the free movement of workers—something that Conservative Members now object to—and of course I was looking at the Maastricht treaty to see what it extended.

The Maastricht treaty created European citizenship. It added foreign policy, justice and home affairs. It transferred 15 whole new areas of power to the European Parliament. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman attacks this treaty, he should have been screaming the place down over Maastricht. Instead, he voted for Maastricht, and he is now left in the ludicrous position of having to argue that, somehow, Britain ceases to be a nation state because the rules on diplomatic and consular protection go to QMV. His true position is not, of course, hostility to this treaty—it would not matter what this treaty says; his opposition to this treaty is just a device to get to his real position, which is to renegotiate not this treaty, but the existing terms of Britain's membership of the European Union. He has said that he wants to renegotiate—perhaps he would just confirm this—the social chapter.

Mr. Howard

indicated assent.

The Prime Minister

Yes. European defence and common foreign policy.

Mr. Howard

indicated assent.

The Prime Minister

Yes. The common agricultural policy, and this is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said in relation to the common fisheries policy: on 9 June he wrote to one of his hon. Friends saying that he would not just withdraw from the common fisheries policy but, if others refused to renegotiate, defy the law and pull out of the common fisheries policy altogether. What would happen if others then said that they would not allow British goods to come into the single market or that they would use that practice against us? The truth is that he is in a position that no British Prime Minister would ever want this country to be in.

The real surrender is not the surrender of Britain's identity to a European superstate, but the surrender of the Tory party to a position on Europe that no Tory party in government, when faced with the responsibilities of government and when faced with the realities of government, would ever have dreamt of taking. That is why Lord Heseltine said yesterday—[Interruption.] It is interesting, is it not, that the person who was Deputy Prime Minister under the last Conservative Government is now so ridiculed by Conservative Members that they are not even prepared to listen to him?

This will indeed be an historic debate. It will pit reason against prejudice. It will pit true leadership in Britain's long-term interests against a transient populism that actually betrays the very national interest that it says it safeguards. Yes, that debate will happen, and when it comes, yes, we will be on different sides, but I would prefer our company to the company that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will keep, and I prefer our argument about Britain's future to his.

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

May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, give a general welcome to the fact that this compromised treaty was agreed and unanimously endorsed by 25 member states and Governments over the course of the weekend? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that, given the welcome and historic enlargement of Europe and the triumph of democracy, and of socially fair market democracy at that, the model that operated for a Europe of six was simply not applicable to a Europe continuing to develop with a membership of 25?

Does the Prime Minister agree that this constitutional treaty should be seen as a mechanism? It is not a moral crusade, although listening to some of those opposed to it, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Indeed, in the minds of many of us, including those who support Europe, much of the conduct in and around this weekend's summit was a rather poor advert and a persuasive argument that further reform of the way in which Europe goes about its business is long overdue.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the new threats facing Europe, particularly global terrorism and climate change, as well as long-standing problems such as reform of the common agricultural policy, will be given better effect in a collective way as a result of the procedures outlined in the treaty? Will he indicate specifically the prospects under the provisions in the treaty for tackling the CAP—such a long-running source of frustration for successive Governments and this country as a whole?

We surely deceive ourselves by the allure of semi-detachment as a country from Europe or, far more so, of outright isolationism. Therefore, those who are sceptical as well as those who are enthusiastic about Europe should surely welcome a treaty that sets out the competences of the wider European Union and how they can be fairly adjudicated in the interests of both the individual European citizen and member states and Governments who make up the wider Europe.

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that none of us can deny the growth of Euroscepticism both in this country and throughout the EU? Political elites have run ahead of their domestic public opinion for too long. That is why the referendum has become so essential. The Prime Minister spoke in his statement of the new responsibilities of national Parliaments under the treaty to shape and have a greater input into European legislation. Does he agree that however long it is until the referendum in Britain, from now until such time the Government could make—the Leader of the House is with us today—specific proposals to put more of our handling of European business in this House, centre stage, in order to explain and demonstrate to people the relevance of what Europe is doing and the way in which, as parliamentarians from across the spectrum, we attend to it? Do the Government have any proposals in that respect?

Finally, on the issue of the referendum, we have had so many false dawns and false starts with this Government, as the Prime Minister well knows. Will he acknowledge today that, having put his signature to the treaty and given that he is having to try to sell it to the British public and that trust in him and his Government is not what it was several years ago, the campaign for the referendum, if it is to be successful, will have to be broadly based, cross-party and involve significant persuasive voices from those outside formal party politics? Will he acknowledge that a referendum campaign that is seen by the public in this country to be spun from No. 10 Downing street would not be won? Although there is scepticism about Europe to be overcome, there is also scepticism about the Government that can undermine the case that needs to be made. The battle is now joined. I hope that, across the political spectrum, we shall be able to make a constructive, pragmatic and principled pro-European case. We look forward to the spectacle of some of the very strange bedfellows who will face us.

The Prime Minister

The reason we have not had a referendum on the single currency is that we do not believe that the moment is right for Britain to join the single currency. We said that it should happen only when the economic conditions are met and, as I understand it, the Liberal Democrats' current position is not that we should join the single currency at this point. It is good to know that we are in agreement on that, as well.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we have proposals on how we scrutinise European business. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has proposals before the Modernisation Committee that will allow us to go into greater detail of some of the European proposals. I think that the House will welcome that.

As for the various other items that the right hon. Gentleman raised, I think that he and I agree on the basic point. I believe that the treaty will allow us to make progress on matters such as economic reform and reform of the common agricultural policy, which are of enormous importance. It is only in the last few years that we have made progress on CAP reform, but it is only as a result of qualified majority voting that we have the slightest chance of succeeding.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab)

Is not the sad reality that if my right hon. Friend had returned from Brussels with sackfuls of gold, the Leader of the Opposition would have criticised the quality of the sacks? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no Government among our 24 partners would seek to renegotiate the constitution in the way that the Opposition suggest, and that the Opposition are therefore seeking either semi-detached status, or to get out altogether?

Now we come to the referendum, and public opinion polls make the position clear: the British public are against the constitution, but honestly admit that they know nothing about it. What does my right hon. Friend propose to do? How will he circumvent a hostile press and, without official propaganda, get a balanced debate on the real European issues facing this country?

The Prime Minister

That will be up to those who support the campaign in favour of Britain remaining at the centre of Europe and those who are opposed to the treaty. We will have to argue our case, and I have no doubt that it will be a most interesting political battle. I have no doubt, too, that the position taken by the Conservative party—in effect, to use a no vote to renegotiate the existing terms of Britain's membership—would be a terrible mistake, and I think that it will be exposed as such in the course of the campaign. The Conservatives will have to say how one can remain part of the European Union if one unilaterally, as the Leader of the Opposition is suggesting, withdraws from areas of European competence. That is what we now call the lobster thermidor strategy: it might be nice to have it, but it is not on the menu. The fact is that if we tried to do such a thing, we would face either humiliation or withdrawal, which is what I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Con)

We shall have to study the treaty and its fine print with close attention, without prejudice and with no preconceptions, but it looks to me as though it is a treaty that shifts the institutional balance in the direction of member states and strengthens Britain's voting weight in the Council of Ministers, without making significant concessions to federalism.

In his statement, the Prime Minister did not discuss the suggestion that is said to have been made by the French President: that it would not be possible for a country that is not in the eurozone to supply a President of the European Commission. Does he agree that in a European Union that contains nine member states that are not within the eurozone, that suggestion is outrageous and illegal?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that there should be any criteria other than those that are laid down. I agree that there should not be any block on any candidate emerging from a country that is not a member of the eurozone.

As for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he is absolutely right—this is not an unusual position for a British Prime Minister to be in, I am afraid, as very partisan views are sometimes expressed on the issue. However, we are in a bizarre situation in which virtually every other country in Europe thinks that this has been a victory for the British position. Unfortunately, that realisation needs to dawn here, and I accept that that will take a bit of work. It is odd that not a single country elsewhere in Europe would recognise this as a federal blueprint.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab)

The Prime Minister referred to 18 June as an historical day, but is it not an historical day for all of Europe? He referred to bloody conflict, and is it not true that over the centuries we have fought the Spanish, the French, the Germans, the Italians and the former states of the Hapsburg empire, and that those wars are over for all time? He referred to the single market, and the 1.8 per cent. gross domestic product and 3.5 million jobs for which it is responsible. Has that not contributed to the greatest prosperity that we have ever experienced, and should the word not go forth from this time and place that, to adapt the words of a former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, what kind of a people do they think the British are to turn their back on the greatest success story since 1945?

The Prime Minister

I obviously agree entirely with my hon. Friend, but there is another argument and, in a sense, a more modern one. Europe is indeed changing, and the countries that have recently joined the European Union share the British perspective for obvious historical reasons. I find it hard to understand why, when those new countries basically share the British perspective of Europe as a group of nation states, we should want to put ourselves in a marginalised position in Europe. That is what is so extraordinary about the position that has been taken. We have a huge opportunity if we are prepared to grasp it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

How does the Prime Minister reconcile his statements that Britain will retain its autonomy in matters of foreign policy with a constitution that provides for a foreign Minister and foreign policy that, it states, Member States shall actively and unreservedly support"?

The Prime Minister

Let me quote from the Maastricht treaty—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I quote from that treaty to show how ludicrous it is to suppose that what is in this treaty is any different from what we have had for over 10 years. The Maastricht treaty says: The Member States shall support the Union's external and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity. This treaty says: The Member States shall support the common foreign and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity". There is a notion that this is a great new development in the European Union, and it has been suggested that I would have to ask for the French President's permission before I did anything more with the USA. I should have thought that the one thing that has been obvious over the past couple of years—this may, or may not, recommend itself to people—is that we have pursued a highly independent foreign policy.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his robust and enjoyable presentation of the case for British membership of Europe? May I ask him to remind the House that the proposal for the new post of President of the Council of Ministers was first made by Britain, and that we supported it for several years to secure our negotiation? It would be perverse if those who worry about federalism were to persuade Britain to stop that post coming into being, when it represents a new person in Brussels speaking for the member states and the nations of Europe. Is it not a measure of the opportunism that we have heard today that if the Opposition had been in government they would have presented as a triumph, not a sell-out, a deal half as good as the one that my right hon. Friend has negotiated?

The Prime Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend. It is true that there is a presidency of the European Council now, but it rotates every six months. It is important to get a full-time chairman of the Council because, at the moment, states rotate the presidency every six months and as a result, on the Lisbon agenda for economic reform, for example, it becomes difficult for the next presidency to pick up what the previous presidency has done. It is far more efficient for the member states and Governments of Europe to have a full-time chairman.

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

Under the constitution, all the existing EU institutions, including those that are riddled with mismanagement and waste at present, gain at the expense of national Parliaments and people. To take one example from the 250 failed amendments tabled by the Government representatives when it was being drawn up, the Government promised to remove all references to the European public prosecutor. The Government representative said: Unanimity does not mean that this article can be accepted". In other words, he wanted it completely out. It was an unambiguous Government red line. Now the Government have accepted it, and I understand it was not even raised during the final negotiations. Does the Government's pledge to hold a referendum have the same status—in other words, is it a firm and unambiguous pledge that is abandoned when it gets difficult for the Government?

The Prime Minister

Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman why we agreed with the notion that there could be a European public prosecutor, provided that is done with unanimity, so we have to give our consent. It is precisely for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman suggested. There is a need to deal with issues to do with fraud and accountancy problems in the European Union, so how on earth does it help for us to disappear off into the sidelines of Europe? The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that his view of Europe is that Britain should renegotiate its existing terms of membership. That is his point, is it not? Therefore, if we are to have an honest debate, why does he not accept that his objection is not to this treaty, but to Britain's existing membership of the European Union?

Mr. Speaker

I call Frank Field.

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

Oh, no.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab)

Oh, yes. Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that if other countries veto the constitution before he calls a referendum, the British people will still have their say on what they think of this move?

The Prime Minister

Yes. There is no question of any constitutional treaty going through without the express consent of the British people. [Interruption.] Of course—

Mr. Speaker

Order. What is the good of hon. Members shouting the Prime Minister down? They might not like the answers, but they should be quiet when the Prime Minister is giving his reply.

The Prime Minister

Exactly so. Regardless of how other members vote, we will have a referendum on the subject.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

What is it about the workings of the common fisheries policy over the past 30 years that has persuaded the Prime Minister that it should be an exclusive competence, not a shared competence, as he told the House previously? The vast bulk of it is one of only four exclusive competences in the new constitution.

The Prime Minister

The common fisheries policy was entered into by the previous Government. It is sensible that we have it. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said on many occasions, that it is a cruel deception to pretend that the fishing industry's problems are to do with the European Union when, as he knows perfectly well, they are to do with the depletion of fish stocks. It is not a problem that exists just in this country or in the rest of Europe. It exists right around the world at present. It is to prey on people's fears in a wholly disingenuous way to suggest that if Britain got out of the common fisheries policy, it would help the British fishing industry.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)

As we prepare for the debate on the constitution, in my region, the west midlands, the debate is at two levels. At one level, people are concerned about what they perceive to be a distance between Europe and its institutions and themselves, but at another level, when one talks to them, one realises that they understand that, for a manufacturing region such as ours, trade with Europe is vital to their jobs and the future. They also see the need to reach agreement. Given that, does my right hon. Friend agree that in looking ahead to the forthcoming debate we need to address the distance between European institutions and people's perceptions, but that we should give no quarter to those who are prepared to play fast and loose with the jobs of thousands of my constituents and of other people in the west midlands?

The Prime Minister

I agree with both points that my hon. Friend makes. I am sure that when people think about the matter carefully, they will realise that there is no reason to reject the treaty on its own terms. It does not give away our right to decide our tax, foreign policy, defence, immigration laws and so on. What it does is enable Britain to remain at the centre of decision making in Europe. When they think about it, people will not think it a sensible idea for Britain to marginalise itself in Europe when 60 per cent. of our trade is with Europe and so many of our jobs depend on European business.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

The treaty that the Prime Minister signed requires member states to work more closely on co-ordinating their economic policies to provide the basis for an EU-wide economic policy. What arrangements has the Prime Minister made on that policy? Do we have a veto, or will qualified majority voting be used?

The Prime Minister

The treaty makes it clear that member states decide their economic polices. It is true that we want member states better to co-ordinate their economic policies, but that has happened for years. There is absolutely nothing wrong with such co- ordination, which does not interfere with our ability to determine our economic policy, as has been amply demonstrated over the past few years.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

You, Mr. Speaker, will recall that just a few months ago, this House voted unanimously for measures to enlarge the European Union. The treaty addresses the problems caused by structures designed for six members, and makes those structures appropriate for 25, 28 or more members. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is bananas—straight or otherwise—for those who will the ends of European Union enlargement not also to will the means?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why every other country in Europe supports the treaty—if we oppose the treaty, we will be the only country to do so. People recognise that a Union of 25 should and must operate differently from a Union of 15 or six.

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

Will the Prime Minister tell us what advantage will stem from the appointment of a European Foreign Minister? Where will that Minister be located, which terms will rule their policy and what will that appointment cost? Bearing in mind the fact that the European Foreign Minister is one of a number of additional powers, does the Prime Minister realise that many people are disappointed? Instead of making new appointments that have no apparent purpose, he should concentrate on the financial scandals, which, to my knowledge, have resulted in the European Union being the only organisation in the world not to have its accounts signed by auditors for eight separate years.

The Prime Minister

The European Foreign Minister is currently called the high representative for the common foreign and security policy, and he will remain accountable to the Council of Ministers and will continue to conduct business as he does now. It is absurd to claim that we have given away our foreign policy or defence policy to the rest of Europe in view of events in the past couple of years.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)

Although my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made his opposition on some labour law issues clear, should we not welcome the implementation in this country of many other measures in the charter of fundamental rights? In particular, bearing in mind the fact that this country has the most restrictive labour laws in Europe, should we not welcome the strengthening of such basic rights as consultation in the workplace and protection against arbitrary dismissal?

The Prime Minister

As a country, we can change our labour laws if this Parliament agrees to those changes, but the charter of fundamental rights is essentially directed towards the institutions of the European Union and its member states, in so far as they act within the competence of European Union law. It would be wrong if the charter of fundamental rights were to lead to an enlargement of this country's labour laws. There may be arguments for such an enlargement, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) and I could have that debate, but we should have it as a matter of domestic law.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

The Prime Minister puts an optimistic gloss on the new constitution, but the truth of the matter is that it does not matter what the Government say, because the important interpretation of the meaning of its many vague provisions will be given by the European Court of Justice—and we know its record. All the energy that has gone into the treaty and that will go into trying—I believe futilely—to sell it to the British people is a diversion from the main issue that Europe should examine: namely, the relative economic failure of the core eurozone countries. That is the real problem, and the treaty diverts energy from it. The Prime Minister and his Government will make a fatal mistake if they go to the country in a general election before a referendum is held on the constitution.

The Prime Minister

In respect of the European Court of Justice, many claims about the treaty have been made about previous European Union treaties and they have turned out not to have any substance. [Interruption.] I know that many Opposition Members hold the perfectly honest position that Europe and Britain should have a completely different relationship. That is fair enough, but I do not believe that we have been prevented from taking the action, for example, on foreign policy and defence, that we want to take. It would be ludicrous to argue that we had been prevented.

I agree with one element of the comments of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble): it is important for Europe to concentrate on economic reform and change. However, we are less likely to get that if we opt out of Europe.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on the excellent deal that they secured for Britain in Brussels. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, notwithstanding the end of the current discussions, Britain will continue to press for the reform agenda to make the European Union more efficient, effective and relevant to the lives of its citizens? Will he also confirm that all members of the Government at every level will be fully involved not only in putting the case for Europe but in the referendum campaign?

The Prime Minister

Of course. The debate and the struggle to win public support will be important. My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of economic reform and being part of the reform agenda. New countries are coming into Europe that support the British position. Of all the moments for Britain to opt for second-class status in the European Union, this is the least sensible.

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

There is no question but that the treaty is intended to be a constitutional settlement. As the Prime Minister said, it further entrenches Maastricht, Nice, Amsterdam and even the Single European Act. Some of us feel strongly that the British people have never properly examined any of them and have never been allowed to express their views on them. Yet now we are dealing with something that intends to extend and entrench the power of the European Union over the lives of the people of Britain. How, therefore, can the Prime Minister's word be trusted on any matter when, as has been said, the ultimate judgment on the detailed meaning of the treaty will be made by the European Court of Justice, which is now supreme over all the laws of this land as expressed through Parliament?

The Prime Minister

As far as I am aware, the European Court of Justice has always had the power to determine the meaning of treaties. The treaty that we are considering has no special status—it is subject to the same rules as other treaties. That is why it is called, at our insistence, a constitutional treaty. I agree that a great debate will take place about whether Maastricht and all the developments in the European Union over the past 30 years were right. We will hold the debate but we should do that any recognise—I believe that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge it—that the real objection of many Conservative Members is not to the treaty but to all the treaties that have been signed in the past few years. He is honest enough to admit that, and his hon. Friends should do so, too.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new constitutional treaty marks a fundamental and overdue change in the distribution of powers between Union institutions and the member states? Whereas current treaties, which grow out of article 235 of the Rome treaty, effectively sanction and encourage competence creep, article 9 of the new treaty puts the brake on it.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. A couple of days ago, the treaty was described in one of the Belgian newspapers as: A text in the service of Her Majesty… it was a text with a 'Britainised' content that they approved… Great Britain set its mark on this game… the most determined European federalists had no option but to back down. I could read out about 30 similar quotations—[HON. MEMBERS: "Read the British newspapers."] We all agree that some of the British newspapers take a somewhat different view. That shows the nature of the debate. However, as it continues, it will become increasingly obvious that the problem is not the treaty but that some people believe that the existing relationship is wrong and needs to be changed, irrespective of the treaty.

The longer that that goes on and the more that it dawns on people, the more they will realise that the real agenda of many who are opposed to this treaty is to take this country out of its current relationship with Europe.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con)

The Prime Minister said on television yesterday that he had agreed to the requirement for member states to co-ordinate their economic policies. Will he now answer the question posed a minute ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and tell us whether this so-called co-ordination will be decided by qualified majority voting?

The Prime Minister

The idea of member states co-ordinating economic policy is not a novel thing in this treaty; it has been there for ages. It makes absolutely no difference to the essential nature of the sovereignty of economic policy residing with us. Look at the past few years: it is perfectly obvious that we decided, for example, to give the Bank of England its independence and that we decided to pursue our own Budget and fiscal policy. We are perfectly entitled to do so and we will carry on being entitled to do so.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

The Prime Minister will know that some politicians in this country have been arguing against not only this constitution but any constitution while saying that the European Union needs a charter of competences. Is not this a matter of semantics? After all, the United Nations has a constitution; it just happens to be called a charter. For that matter, it has a president. For the Tory Opposition, is this a case of rabid ideology or rampant opportunism?

The Prime Minister

I think it is probably increasingly the first, actually, which makes this a more serious position for them. I simply pose this question: if the Government had brought forward a treaty like the Single European Act or the Maastricht treaty now, with the Conservative party in its current situation, it would not have been very supportive of it. The fact of the matter is that the Conservative party has made its choice, for the moment at least. It has decided effectively to join at least the rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence party, even if it attempts to keep its policy a little different. I say to Conservative Members that, in the end, whatever the short-term advantage, that is a long-term mistake.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)

For a long while, it has always been the case that, under certain European competences, this Parliament and the British Government cannot legislate on issues on which the Europeans are considering legislating themselves. Can the Prime Minister confirm that under this constitution the list of such competences is extended and therefore that the powers of this House are diminished?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that the powers of this House are diminished at all. Indeed, as I say, for the first time national Parliaments have a specific input and an ability to refer back legislation that is proposed. This is an advantage for national Parliaments.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

I am an unreconstructed pro-European. Would not some of us be thankful if foreign policy, particularly over the last two years, had been given to Brussels and if the Prime Minister had asked the French President about recent events and recent policies? May I ask why he thinks that Chancellor Schräder and President Chirac were so cheesed off with him?

The Prime Minister

I think we had better disentangle all those various points. First, no, it is not a good idea to say that we can exercise our foreign or defence policy only with the say-so of the French President, or indeed anyone other than ourselves. Secondly, I simply point this out to my hon. Friend: I have to disappoint him on that ground, but also on the ground that in the new Europe—the Europe of 25—a majority of states were with us in relation to the conflict in Iraq.

Thirdly, there are disagreements from time to time in Europe, and there was one on Thursday night, but I am sure that all of us will get over those disagreements because in the end it is important that we make progress.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con)

If the constitution were to go ahead, would the 1972 Act of accession still apply? Would it still be amendable by this Parliament?

The Prime Minister

I think that I am right that, legally, the treaty of accession would still apply. I will check the strict legal interpretation for the hon. Gentleman. The important thing about the treaty is that, for the first time, people are given the right explicitly—they have always had it implicitly—to withdraw from the European Union. If, for example, a Government of his persuasion were to come to power, with the policy that he espouses, they would be able to do that. In the end, no one can force us to be part of the European Union. I happen to think that we should be part of the European Union, because it is in the interests of Britain.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)

Sometimes, I look at this nation and despair. When the Conservative Benches ring with the inchoate fury and synthetic outrage designed solely to appease a party led by an orange-skinned, Spanish-resident escapee from the dregs of daytime television whose one-word manifesto is no, I despair. In the case of the various factions masquerading as an Opposition—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Could we possibly get a question to the Prime Minister?

Mr. Pound

As a Londoner, as a European and as a patriot, may I tell the Prime Minister that many of us support and endorse his work in Brussels and seek better for this nation than a Ruritanian role as a blighted backwater or, even worse, as the 51st state of America?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend very much for that.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister explain to the House where the consistency is in the Government's policy? Referendums on regional government will be held before the legislation is passed by this House, yet the referendum that he has talked about today will be held after the legislation has passed through the House.

The Prime Minister

When the issue of the referendums on Scotland and Wales was up, we were on opposite sides of the fence. I am well aware of why people want the referendum quickly—it is so that people should not have the chance to study the detail. I think that it is important that we study the detail, and on such an issue it is also important that Parliament is able to sit and study it. I am surprised—actually, I am not surprised—that the Conservative party has decided that it really does not want that to happen.