HL Deb 03 June 1992 vol 537 cc938-46

5.36 p.m.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the implications of the Danish Referendum. All 12 members of the European Community agreed and subsequently signed the Treaty of Maastricht. The treaty amends the Treaty of Rome, which can only be changed by unanimity. To come into effect, the Maastricht Treaty needs to be ratified by all 12 member states. As the House knows, the Danish people voted against the treaty by a narrow majority yesterday. The Danish Government are now considering how to respond to this vote. One option is to resubmit the matter to a further referendum.

"The Maastricht Treaty began to build the kind of European Community we wish to see. It introduced the concept of intergovernmental co-operation outside the Treaty of Rome. It established the principle of subsidiarity rather than centralism. It established financial and other controls over the Commission. This House has three times endorsed our policy. It did so before the final negotiation and, again, after it. Following the general election, the House gave a Second Reading to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill by a large majority.

"The Government continue to believe that the deal we secured at Maastricht is in the best interests of this country. In the expectation that Denmark will in due course be able to join them our partners propose to complete the ratification procedures. We share that judgment and intend to continue with the passage of the Bill.

"However, it is clearly necessary to consider further the legal and practical implications of the Danish referendum result before we can sensibly invite the House to proceed with the Committee stage. My right honourable friend the Leader of the House will make a Business Statement later this afternoon to change the Business for this week. We shall of course consult widely with our European partners. My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary will attend a meeting of the Twelve in Oslo tomorrow. He will report to the House on his return.

"Madam Speaker, the Maastricht Treaty provided the mechanisms for more broadly based development of the Community and introduced procedures to reverse the trend towards centralism. These developments create a sound basis for co-operation and open the way for the future enlargement of the Community. We hope that enlargement will include the EFTA countries and the countries of eastern and central Europe. The ratification and implementation of the treaty is in our national interest and we shall continue during our Presidency to work for the Community we secured in that negotiation".

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. There is no doubt that the result of the referendum in Denmark has come as a surprise and shock to most people in the Community. It inevitably raises some fundamental questions about the Maastricht treaty, and possibly the whole direction of the European Community.

We noted that the Government decided not to proceed with the Committee stage of the treaty in another place. In the light of the referendum result that was sensible because all the 12 governments will have to consider the new situation which has been created. As the Statement makes clear, the treaty amends the Treaty of Rome, which can only be changed by unanimity. In other words, all the 12 members must agree.

We made it clear on this side of the House that we believe in closer European integration and that we give our support to most of the treaty. The question which concerns us now is whether the referendum has brought the process to a halt. It is a helpful coincidence that, as the noble Lord the Leader of the House has just said, the Community Foreign Ministers will be meeting in Oslo tomorrow. Can the noble Lord confirm that this issue will now be at the top of the agenda? Can he say whether the Government will advise a return to a negotiating position on the treaty or whether, during this country's presidency, an intergovernmental conference will be called to discuss the whole matter?

The Statement says that the treaty, established the principle of subsidiarity rather than centralism". Does not the result in Denmark show that many people have not grasped that, or indeed do not understand what subsidiarity means?

The Statement goes on to say that, our partners propose to complete the ratification procedures", and that the Government intend to continue with the passage of the Bill. On the other hand, we know that unanimity is essential and we must agree that a careful consideration of the legal implications of the referendum result is essential before Parliament can proceed with the Bill.

The Statement does not say a great deal, save that the applecart has been upset and that is regrettable. It seems clear that a much more detailed examination of the consequences of the crisis is now necessary. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree with me that a debate in both Houses must take place once we have more information at our disposal about the legal implications and when we know the reactions of the other 11 governments.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, we thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. Through him I congratulate the Prime Minister on the steadiness of the note he struck in the Statement.

There is not much other basis for congratulation today, although the setback—which it undoubtedly is —needs to be put into perspective. I have been amazed that there has been no earlier severe check to the remarkable momentum of the past six years, particularly as the post-war history of the European idea has been one of frequent severe setbacks overcome with a mixture of resolution and ingenuity. There was the European Defence Community setback in 1954; there was the De Gaulle-Hallstein quarrel of 1965–66; and there was the rupture of the negotiations for British, Danish and Irish entry in 1963 and in 1967.

The Danes have a history of being somewhat lukewarm towards the Community, at the same time intermingled with a good deal of constructive European statesmanship. They have always been loath to go beyond the concept of a purely economic community. The rather cruel early joke at the time when Jens Otto Krag was Danish Prime Minister at the time of their first negotiations for entry was: "Mr. Krag does not want to join Europe but he does want to sell cheese".

Combined with that, however, the Danes have contributed considerable quiet, constructive statesmanship to the Community. They have produced some considerable figures. Finn Gundelach was an outstanding Commissioner under my presidency, and I believe that Henning Christopherson is a considerable Commissioner today. Niels Ersbøll has been a distinguished Secretary General of the Council. The Danes were early supporters of the EMS and well placed to take part in a common currency. Europe would therefore lose much without Denmark, as I believe Denmark would from anything approaching isolation.

The referendum result also gives pause for thought about the admission of Sweden, Finland, Austria and Switzerland, the other neutral ex-EFTA countries, let alone Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. I have always been a considerable advocate of early and substantial enlargement, but if approximately 30,000 votes in one of 12 countries can produce stultification, how much more vulnerable would be a Community of 20 or 25 countries?

Nonetheless, in view of the Community's history of recovery from setback, I do not believe that the resources of civilisation are by any means exhausted. There are some, including a few noble Lords in this House, who hope that they are in this context. I do not share that view. I believe that what one might call the cool Europeans, of whom there are many on the Government Front Bench in this House and in another place, would be unwise to do so. If one looks at the present disintegrating state of large parts of Europe—not the Community so far—the last thing that would be desirable is a position in which things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. Otherwise we may find ourselves in a more unstable and dangerous Europe than that which was split down the middle by the Cold War.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, for the points he made and also to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. I share the disappointment of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn.

The essence of the Statement made by my right honourable friend in another place was that there would be a pause for reflection. The noble Lord agreed that that was right. I can confirm to him that the present position will be high on the agenda at the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Oslo tomorrow.

The Government believe that the Maastricht Treaty is a good treaty for Britain. It contains clear recognition of the value of intergovernmental co-operation, subsidiarity, the reinforced rule of law, co-operation on justice and home affairs, improved foreign policy co-ordination and stronger budgetary discipline. We must try to follow through what we have agreed. Therefore, it is too early for any suggestion of renegotiation. The treaty is a careful balance between differing views and renegotiation would re-open a delicate and complex package. I hope that we do not reach that stage.

I also made a clear note of the noble Lord's suggestion of a debate. I am sure that that can be arranged in the way that we arrange these things, although I am not familiar with the phrase to use. I know that these things can be done and if that is the will of the House it will be done.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, for his kind words about my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, which will be much appreciated, speaking as he does with particular authority on the subject. Indeed, the noble Lord's remarks generally, putting what none of us can deny is a setback into proper perspective, were helpful.

The noble Lord referred to the position of Denmark. We understand some of the Danish concerns. Some of Denmark's concerns are also those of other countries. We ourselves fought hard at Maastricht against a centralised Europe. We believe that the Maastricht treaty was an important watershed in making sure that Europe did not develop into too centralised an institution. I should also make just one comment on the noble Lord's remarks about enlargement. It is too soon to say what the effect will be on enlargement. Obviously we are consulting our partners on the way forward. The case for enlargement stands on its own merit. The Community must remain open. The Government are committed to making progress under the UK presidency in preparing early accession negotiations with the EFTA applicants.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there is any possibility of a referendum or vote being requested or taking place in any of the other Community countries? The action in Denmark came as a surprise to many people. I should be interested to know whether there is a possibility of similar action in any other country. Perhaps I may add my warm support to the request by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that your Lordships' House should have an opportunity to debate these immensely important issues in the very near future.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my noble friend raised the question of referenda. I understand the position is that Ireland will hold a referendum on 18th June, as required by the Irish Constitution. The French Constitution provides that constitutional changes can be approved either by a two-thirds majority of both chambers combined or by a referendum. I understand that France has decided on a referendum. So far as I know, all other member states at present plan treaty approval by parliamentary procedure alone.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I commend the Government on the relaxed attitude that they have taken towards the decision of the Danish people. I include in that commendation the observations made by my noble friend on the Front Bench. There is no question of a crisis. The world and Europe will not come to an end purely because the Danish people have spoken in their customarily democratic fashion. I submit to the House that it affords an opportunity for some reflection.

Does the noble Lord agree that we should try to understand exactly why the Danish people have come to their decision? Does he understand that, whether or not—possibly with the aid of Commission funds—the Danish people are persuaded to change their minds, the Government must bear in mind that the people by and large want the Council of Ministers to tell the Commission what is to be done rather than have that unelected body tell the Council of Ministers and the people of the various countries what to do? Quite clearly this is a matter that has to be reconsidered.

I sincerely hope that in the course of the inevitable intergovernmental conference that is bound to take place whatever happens there may be some endeavour made by Her Majesty's Government to ensure that the original concepts of the Common Market, the enlargement of the trading area and all the acquis communautaires that go with it are carried out constructively and serve the broad general purposes of the people of Europe rather than advance the bureaucratic fortunes and ambitions of those who occupy positions of power in the Commission at the moment.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, when the noble Lord started his Question, I thought for one minute that I might be going to agree with him. Fortunately he went on long enough not to put me entirely off my stroke. I recognise and understand his views. We are right to pause for reflection. There is no point in getting in a great paddy about it. That is the proper thing to do and we must act calmly. But do not let that delude anybody. The position of the Government and, I believe, of the British people—certainly of this House and the other place (we have had a general election at which that was an issue)—is that the Maastricht Treaty is a good treaty for Britain. It is idle to pretend that other member states will agree that it should just fall away. We must try to follow through what we have agreed to do.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware—as I believe he must be—that the issue of the sovereignty of Britain was not debated at the general election, since the three parties had a common policy? There was never a proper opportunity to discuss the matter.

I should like to say to him that a small majority—the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, referred to this point —is not to my mind important when there is a referendum. If there had been a small majority the other way, people would have said that the argument was carried and the issue would have been resolved. Nobody would complain if they had won by a small majority.

Secondly, will the Government bear in mind that when the Danish people say no it is just as important as when the French or German people say no? Otherwise we may fall into the trap of suggesting that a small country is less important than the bigger countries of Europe. That would be a grievous blunder.

Thirdly, I am sure the noble Lord will have gathered that, like others, I have my own prejudices and beliefs and that on this issue they are not exactly those held by Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, it was a pleasure to hear what my noble friend—if I may call him that after so many years—had to say to us. First, of course—with the greatest possible respect —he certainly understands what the general election was all about, sitting as he does these days on the Cross Benches. I have to say, sitting as I did during the campaign in the bowels of central office, Conservative Central Office, if there is any doubt about it—I felt that some of the issues were of some importance. Nevertheless we have a time to pause for reflection. I can agree with the noble Viscount to the extent that the treaty can come into effect only if ratified by all 12 member states. Denmark is not in a position to ratify it at the moment, hence the problem and hence the need for a little reflection.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I have not checked the information, but can the noble Lord confirm what I have been told; namely that the Social Democrats in Denmark voted against the treaty because they did not think that it went far enough? If that is the position, does it not make the result of the referendum rather curious, to say the least?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, according to my information the noble Baroness is correct. The point she makes is a valid one.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I should like to support very much one aspect of the noble Viscount's point of view. He reinforced the fact that this was not an issue in the sense that the country gave a view on it in the general election. It is not fair to produce the result of the election as an argument in favour of supporting or being against the Maastricht Treaty or anything to do with it. There was a common policy, so it could not carry with it the considered view of the country.

The one part of the Prime Minister's statement that disturbs me more than a little is where it virtually suggests that there ought to be another referendum in Denmark. Shall we suggest that we have referenda until the result is achieved that we would like? I believe that the bias that seems to be in the words used by the Prime Minister today is rather disturbing. We shall take on the responsibility of the presidency for six months or more. To reflect any bias against the considered view of any nation would be detrimental to the full use of our powers during that six months.

In the meantime, I hope that the Government will not believe that they have an obligation to continue to move towards the merging of all countries under the aegis of the Community against any evidence that may be produced. Now is the time to give serious thought to the real feelings of people in every country concerned, and to show no bias one way or another.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I shall, so to speak, do a verbal deal with my friend this far: I agree that what happens in Denmark is a matter for the Danish people and the Danish Government. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did not tell the Danish people what to do. I have the statement in front of me. It contains one option: to resubmit the matter to a further referendum. That is a statement of fact. It is for the Danish people and the Danish Government to decide what they do. It is not for us to tell them; and we have not told them.

I find it difficult to accept the proposition that in some way the British Government do not have proper democratic authority to do what they are doing. I state this with absolute clarity. There have been three major votes in the House of Commons in recent months. One was before the Maastricht Treaty, establishing our negotiating position, which was approved. Another was post the Maastricht Treaty, which was approved. There was the Second Reading of the Bill. We have had a general election which may or may not have been significant; it is for everyone to make up their minds about that. I understand that before I was in this House there were two significant votes in this Chamber, which also approved the position. Therefore I believe that by our institutions the Government are proceeding in a proper and democratic fashion; and I believe that no one can question our constitutional position.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the vote of the Danes against the Maastricht Treaty is probably representative of the views of millions of other people both in this country and throughout the Community? Does that not show that they did not believe that the treaty was a decentralising treaty, but the reverse: that it was a centralising treaty that would lead to a European superstate controlled by bureaucrats?

Will the noble Lord confirm that the Danish Prime Minister has already stated that it would show disrespect to the Danish people to have another referendum? I hope that we shall not try to persuade the Danish Prime Minister to do other than what he believes is correct.

Will the noble Lord the Leader of the House also comment on the attitude of M. Delors and the Portuguese Foreign Minister who have already said that, despite the democratic vote of the Danish people, the other Eleven should go ahead without them? Is that not the negation of democracy?

Finally, with regard to a referendum in this country, my noble friend Lord Tonypandy is absolutely right. This matter was not discussed during the general election. Article 8 of the treaty will make every single citizen of this country, including Her Majesty, a citizen of a new state called the European Union owing a duty to that union. Would it not be correct for the Government to allow a consultative referendum so that the people could say whether they wished to cease to be British citizens but citizens of this great new European Union?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I do not pretend to know the mind of the Danish people who voted in this referendum. The noble Lord probably knows it better than I do. However, there was clearly a decision. If the decision was made, as he suggests, on the basis that the people of Denmark believe that the Maastricht Treaty was a centralising treaty, then I believe that they got it wrong and misunderstood the nature of the Maastricht Treaty. What the Danes do in the future is a matter for them. We cannot ratify the treaty under the Treaty of Rome unless they agree to it.

I do not suggest this as a way forward, but in the light of what the noble Lord said, it is right to point out that the other eleven members also have democratic rights. If they were to decide to enter into some other type of agreement—it might be technically possible to enter into intergovernmental co-operation to deal with a number of the issues; but I do not suggest that that is the best way forward—there is nothing undemocratic about nations doing that if they wish.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one danger of this set-back is that it could delay Europe's economic recovery? He may have seen, as I did, that the reaction of Morgan Stanley, for example, is that European assets are now less attractive than they were. The noble Lord will know that the pound has come under pressure and has fallen significantly against the deutschmark. We do not want to have high interest rates again on the agenda.

Does the noble Lord agree with me that through this very marginal result the excellent Maastricht agreement has to some extent been affected by what many of us see as the arrogance and hubris of a civil servant whose reappointment to his post must now be open to question? Indeed, one might say that a period of silence on M. Delors part might now be rather welcome. Is not the real danger that decisions are made, or thought to be made, by a body which is totally unaccountable to any electorate?

If there has to be a renegotiation—and I hope that there will not—is that not a dimension which should be further addressed?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I do not wish to say much about M. Delors except to say that he is a distinguished civil servant with whom we disagree quite frequently. However, there is not necessarily too much harm in that. Reappointment is a matter that is likely to be taken at the Lisbon European Council. It is not a matter on which we should speculate now.

On the more general point, I agree with my noble friend this far. This set-back, which I believe has to be sorted out, will obviously take the time and energy of all the leaders of the European Community. There are a number of other matters that need to be undertaken on which those people's time and energy could have been better spent rather than on this renegotiation. I mention two issues. The first is the common agricultural policy reforms on which progress needs to be made. Perhaps more importantly are the GATT negotiations. Therefore the set-back causes some problems. But we have to get on with them.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the Leader of the House told my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition that he thought it was premature to talk about renegotiation. I am a little puzzled. Perhaps the Leader of the House will help me. There is no doubt that the endorsement of the Maastricht Treaty has to be unanimous. One country has made it clear that it does not accept that. Surely there must be renegotiation.

Talk about the Danes having a second referendum is appalling. If a second referendum went against the Act, would there be a third or a fourth referendum? Surely that must be out of the question.

Finally, I wish to endorse what was said by a number of my noble friends and by the noble Lord the Leader of the House. There are a large number of issues which require further and deeper consideration. Many of us are called Euro-sceptics but there is justification in being so. Perhaps the Leader of the House will comment on my first point.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, it is a matter for Denmark to decide whether to have a second referendum; it is not for us to say. The Government believe that the Maastricht Treaty is a good treaty for Britain. Therefore, it is sensible for the British Government to take the necessary steps so that we are not found wanting if, as one of 12 nations, we are in a position to endorse the treaty. We can get on with our side of the job and hope that others can too.

Perhaps after 20 minutes on the Statement we can have the final question from the noble Lord, Lord Monson.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that this House ought to congratulate the Danish people on the uniquely thorough and conscientious way in which they have examined the fine print of the Maastricht Treaty, according to all independent observers, which enabled them to reach their conclusion?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the noble Lord may well be right but that would be in contradiction to the noble Lord opposite who said that the Danes examined the treaty and as far as he could see came to the wrong conclusions.