HL Deb 12 March 1998 vol 587 cc382-404

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

Lord Shore of Stepney moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 12, at end insert—("() Article I, other than paragraph 12 (Title Via of the Treaty on European Union (provisions on closer cooperation)),").

The noble Lord said: I am more than slightly embarrassed at appearing again on the Floor of this Chamber after one or two earlier occasions on this very day. But this is the next amendment in order and it is extremely important, and I move it formally now.

It would have been much better had this group of amendments been taken on another day because at this time of night on a Thursday, the Committee is inevitably rather sparse in its attendance and, of course, noble Lords had no intimation until one o'clock today that these amendments were to be debated today. I feel that if they had had that intimation and had had that knowledge, the Committee would be much better attended, even though it is a late hour.

Why do I say that? I say that because these amendments that I am moving and the articles in the treaty to which they refer have two, or perhaps three, aspects. The first is their technical nature, which raises questions which I shall seek to explore further, and I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us about that.

Secondly, the amendments raise the whole question of the future development of the European Union and, in particular, whether it is possible to find a modus vivendi between different groups of states, some of which wish, in certain areas, to go into a much closer union than others.

If that could be worked out satisfactorily and explored fully, we may find a solution to many of the difficulties that we have experienced as a country under different governments in our dealings with the European Union and previously the European Community.

First, I turn to the rather technical aspects. The basic article is Article K.15 in the Treaty of Amsterdam. Indeed, it comes under the heading of "Provisions on closer cooperation". It clearly allows for states, provided that there is at least a majority of member states, to go forward into closer co-operation than exists in the present treaties; indeed, it allows them to go beyond that. The article lays down certain conditions which, on the face of it, are welcome and acceptable. There are several paragraphs under the article. Paragraph (f) makes the proviso that that process should, not affect the competencies, rights, obligations and interests of those Member States which do not participate therein".

That is to say: if they do go ahead, they must not do so in such a way as to inflict disadvantage and damage upon those member states which do not choose to go with them. That seems to me to be a very important safeguard.

The article also allows for states which do not wish to go ahead into closer co-operation at a particular time, to do so at a later stage if they so decide. Under paragraph (g) it says that it, is open to all Member States and allows them to become parties to the cooperation at any time, provided that they comply with the basic decision". They seem to me to be quite important safeguards; and, to that extent, I welcome them.

I turn now to the very important question of the voting procedures. Those procedures applying to closer co-operation, which are quite fundamental, are to be found in Article K.12 of the treaty. Oddly enough, that precedes the major section defining what closer co-operation is all about. It says that closer co-operation could go ahead, so to speak, provided that the Council has acted by a qualified majority vote; the Commission has presented an opinion; and, for what it is worth, the request has also been, forwarded to the European Parliament". So the Community institutions will have had a chance to consider the matter and, presumably, to deliver their opinion.

The article then goes on to say—and this is very important—that it is not just decided by qualified majority vote. If it were, it would be totally unacceptable and, in my view, would be rejected out of hand. The second paragraph of Article K.12 (2) says: If a member of the Council declares that, for important and stated reasons of national policy, it intends to oppose the granting of an authorisation by qualified majority, a vote shall not be taken".

Again, that is certainly helpful. It then goes on to say: The Council may, acting by a qualified majority, request that the matter be referred to the European Council for decision by unanimity".

That is the most important group of words; namely, that, the matter be referred to the European Council for decision by unanimity". Presumably, any state which feared that it was being disadvantaged or damaged in some way by other states going forward into closer co-operation would know that it could exercise a veto and prevent that happening. However, as I said, it would have to put a case forward within which serious national interests would have to be stated and it would have to bring its case to the European Council. I find that not unacceptable. I think I have interpreted correctly the clauses relating to closer co-operation. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will tell me whether I have it wrong in any way or confirm that I have it right.

So much for the technical side of it. K.15 and K.16 raise the prospect of a majority of countries moving ahead into closer co-operation while others do not. I should have thought that raises the whole question of the future of the European Union and the question of whether the different aims and aspirations of countries within the European Union can be accommodated without, as it were, inflicting damage upon a minority, or a minority inflicting damage on the majority—depending on which way you look at it—by holding everything up. In other words, the measure offers the possibility not just of a two speed or a multi-speed Europe but of genuine flexibility. It offers the possibility that some nations which agree on some matters of collective importance will go forward and use the treaty machinery and institutions—as the clause allows them to do—while others who do not want to do that are under no obligation to join in.

When you look at the sheer complexity of the European Union as it now is—it is bound to become even more so, particularly when one considers the first and second tranche of candidate countries—the differences of background, history, tradition, institutions, people and languages are so enormous that it is almost impossible to envisage the whole thing working uniformly across the Continent. If one reaches that point in one's examination of the present situation and the reality of the Community and of national life within it, surely it is possible to begin to work towards what I mentioned earlier; namely, a modus vivendi which can be accepted by all members of the European Union.

It is relevant to accept that there are serious differences in goals and intent. We all know that some countries—I suppose this was strongest in the original Six who signed the Rome Treaty—wish to progress to a much deeper integration than the rest. They wish to do that for a number of understandable reasons which I certainly do not despise and have never wished to frustrate. The most recent common experience of the Six was defeat, occupation, liberation and destruction in the Second World War. The fires of war visited those countries not once in defeat but secondly in liberation. The damage and destruction were virtually beyond belief. Before that vivid experience of 50 years ago—not that long ago—there was the earlier massive conflict of the First World War. In the case of the two central nations in this European Six—France and Germany—there was rivalry, hostility and war going back to 1870 and beyond. Therefore it is perfectly understandable that there should have been a strong desire in that Six—which is stronger than in any other state—to come together to be as certain as possible that war would no longer be a possibility between the member states of that original Six.

It is interesting to look back on its history. The first initiative was the European Coal and Steel Community—a rather old fashioned view, as we now see it—when the sinews of war were considered to be coal and steel as they were in the First and Second World Wars. By uniting the European coal and steel industries the individual countries would be deprived of the essential sinews of war. It would come under a collective High Authority. That was the beginning.

Since then there have been many other projects. Some were abandoned, like the European Defence Community with multinational troops down to platoon or company level. That was all part of the integration. Behind all that, giving this tremendous drive and force, was German guilt and French fear. Those were the two dominating emotions and forces in the ever closer European Union construction. It was interfered with for a period on the part of France by General de Gaulle. He asserted with great self-confidence the national independence of France. But it was abandoned again the moment the Berlin Wall came down, and the two Germanies reunited, when France faced 80 million Germans again on the frontier. National independence, or a Europe of sovereign states, was abandoned by Mitterrand and he entered into the great leap forward of the Maastricht Treaty in the belief that, roped down with a thousand regulations, a single currency and a common monetary policy, it would be impossible for Germany to assert itself independently of its neighbours.

That is fully understandable. Those countries which were occupied and then liberated had seen their state power smashed, and the rule of law of their own countries completely discarded, overturned and torn up. That has not been the experience of this country. We may have been fortunate, lucky and blessed in our history, but we have not seen our state power smashed and overruled. We have not suffered the appalling losses and indignities of being occupied by an enemy power.

I believe that that lies as much at the root of the British approach to Europe as anything else. We are prepared to co-operate. We are prepared to go a very long way. But from our own historic experience, and the will of our people, we do not feel that we need to enter into such an intimacy of relationship that we abandon self-government and the powers of our own democracy.

I turn to the clause. All that I have said is relevant to it, and to the future of the European Union. The first obvious point is this. With the best will in the world, the British have tripped over the rest of the European Union and found themselves in conflict not just over the Amsterdam Treaty but the Maastricht Treaty too. What is an opt-out, in a sense, but the acceptance by the majority that it can go forward into a closer arrangement but not carrying the country which has an opt-out? The Danes, the Swedes and the Finns also share with us the desire not to go forward in this way. Let us imagine trying to apply to the East European applicant countries the disciplines of a single currency and a European central bank. We know that it is a nonsense.

We have quite considerable opt-outs. We opted out of Schengen. We believe that our borders are to be patrolled by our own people and are not simply to be part of a European open frontier system. We opted out crucially on the single currency and monetary union. Those are precursors, in a way, of these clauses and of this policy, this treaty prospect of closer co-operation, differentially applied to the member states of the European Union.

I see a great possibility here. It has been the failure to be honest with ourselves and with our European partners that has led us into such difficulties and so much bad will. It started under the previous government, with the then Prime Minister, Mr. Major, talking about "Britain at the heart of Europe"; and our own Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, is talking now about "leading Europe". If you accept that there are differences of historical experience and of objective, you cannot start, as it were, posturing as the leader when you know that the majority of the states want to go further, and in a different direction, than we do. The majority of European Union countries actually want a federal Europe. They want it—and good luck to them. Indeed, I wholly understand, and I shall never advocate standing in their way. But it is not right for us. It is not consistent with our history and it is not going to be our destiny.

So this clause is of immense importance. If we can only manage to talk frankly, openly and honestly with ourselves and say that their objective is a federal state but ours is not—if we could only do that—we could have a much happier, more fruitful relationship with our European neighbours than we have had so far.

If anyone is worried and is thinking: "Oh dear, there is a great European state across the Channel, and here are we, a rather smaller nation state on the other side", let them reflect for just a moment on another English-speaking nation which lives with a similar experience in prosperity, peace and general good will. I refer to Canada, living cheek by jowl with the superpower, the United States—managing its own affairs, having its own currency and its own central bank, making its own laws, and enjoying the good will and close co-operation of its neighbour. Let that be a model for us, too.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

I wish to refer to Amendment No. 3, so ably moved by my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney. It refers specifically to, paragraph 12 Title VIa of the Treaty on European Union (provisions on closer cooperation)". I have before me Article K.15 as reproduced quite faithfully in the Treaty of Amsterdam. It states: Member states which intend to establish closer cooperation between themselves may make use of the institutions, procedures and mechanisms laid down by this Treaty and the Treaty establishing the European Community, provided that the cooperation: (a) is aimed at furthering the objectives of the Union and at protecting and serving its interests". My first question is: who determines whether it is aimed at furthering the objectives of the union and protecting and servicing its interests? Who defines that?

In the Treaty of Rome, in a section that is so far not repealed, it states that the European Commission: is in itself the authority for the interpretation of the treaty". What it really means is this: The European Commission is satisfied that it is aimed at furthering the objectives of the Union and at protecting and serving its interests. Through the Treaty of Rome, similarly, it is the Commission, under Article K.15(b) of the Treaty of Amsterdam, that determines whether the co-operation: respects the principles of the said Treaties and the single institutional framework of the Union". So again it is the Commission that has to be satisfied and to certify that the co-operation: (c) is only used as a last resort, where the objectives of the said Treaties could not be attained by applying the relevant procedures laid down therein". There is no democratic determination; it is determined by the Commission. As noble Lords are well aware from the previous observations I ventured to make to the Committee, the Commission is responsible to no one but itself. It is not elected, it is accountable to no one.

Paragraph (d) states that it: concerns at least a majority of Member States". Even I am willing to concede the power of the Commission to determine the simple mathematical problem that it concerns a majority of member states. Then it is the Commission that has to be satisfied that it: does not affect the 'acquis communautaire' and the measures adopted under the other provisions of the said Treaties … [It] does not affect the competences, rights, obligations and interests of those Member States which do not participate therein". That is similar to paragraph (g) and all the rest.

The whole operation of the closer co-operation and how it may be applied is not decided by any elected body. It is decided by an unelected body—the bureaucracy which is enshrined in the Commission itself. The Commission's word is final in these matters. It is not open to objection by the Council of Ministers, it is not even open to objection by the European Council. It is the Commission itself—an unelected, non-accountable body—that makes the crucial decision as to whether certain members who want to follow a certain course of action outside the normal ambit of the treaties are permitted to make use of its facilities to do so.

Perhaps Members of the Committee and Her Majesty's Government are quite willing to accede to this procedure on the fiat of the Commission. I repeat that under the Treaty of Rome—let the Front Bench deny this—it is the Commission that is responsible for the interpretation of the treaties. It is responsible for that under the Treaty of Rome in an unamended section. If it suits Her Majesty's Government, who represent the United Kingdom, that such co-operation outside the normal ambit of the Treaty of Rome is to take place independently on the say-so of the Commission, they are welcome to take that view. For my part, I believe it is incompatible with our position as a sovereign state with a due right under the treaties to its own views and opinions without being "at the heart of Europe". Nothing can take that away.

It is allied to an even more important question which arises from the operation of another section of the treaty which is of unique importance in this regard. It may well be—and I willingly concede it—that a member state, perhaps even the United Kingdom in its moment of independence, would take the matter to the European Court. It is entitled to do so. What happens? Article K.7, paragraph 6 reads as follows: The Court of Justice shall have jurisdiction to review the legality of framework decisions and decisions in actions brought by a Member State or the Commission on grounds of lack of competence, infringement of an essential procedural requirement, infringement of this Treaty or of any rule of law relating to its application, or misuse of powers. The proceedings provided for in this paragraph shall be instituted within two months of the publication of the measure". In the event of any appeal, any objection or any action in dissent, or even in assent, of proposals contained in the original article to which I referred, goes to the Court of Justice. That article should be read in conjunction with Article K.6, which states: The Council shall take measures and promote cooperation, using the appropriate form and procedures as set out in this Title, contributing to the pursuit of the objectives of the Union. To that end, acting unanimously on the initiative of any Member State or of the Commission, the Council may: (a) adopt common positions defining the approach of the Union to a particular matter: (b) adopt framework decisions for the purpose of approximation of the laws and regulations of the Member States. Framework decisions shall be binding upon the Member States as to the result to be achieved but shall leave to the national authorities the choice of form and methods. They shall not entail direct effect". At sub-paragraph (d) it states: establish conventions which it shall recommend to the Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. Member States shall begin the procedures applicable within a time limit to be set by the Council. Unless they provide otherwise, conventions shall, once adopted by at least half of the Member States, enter into force for those Member States. Measures implementing conventions shall he adopted within the Council by a majority of two-thirds of the Contracting Parties". Let us look at those two articles taken together. Let us say that there is a challenge by a member state—or even by the Commission itself—arising from the application of the article to which I referred and the matter goes to the European Court of Justice. That raises important considerations. It raises the consideration as to what is the force behind Article K.7(6), which gives the court full powers. I want to know from Her Majesty's Government how far the Court of Justice rules shall override our own decisions in these matters. It raises matters of grave constitutional importance.

For example, in this country we have a rule—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, is unfortunately absent through illness and I wish he was here; indeed, I wish him a happy recovery, as I am sure do all Members of the Committee—which the noble and learned Lord, speaking in his capacity as the then Lord Chancellor, put to the House when he said that no Parliament can bind its successors; no Parliament can pre-empt the right of its successors to change. Does that rule still exist? Under Article K.7(6) it would appear otherwise. Will my noble friend who is to reply give me the Government's opinion as to the validity of Article K.7(6)? Carried to its logical conclusion, that would postulate that the Court of Justice can prevent any action taken by a future government to, for example, opt out of the European Community altogether. Will my noble friend give me his opinion on that? Does Article K.7(6) override our constitution? That is the vital question involved, and it is one of which this incidence in connection with the article contained in the amendment is a mere small example. Perhaps in due course we can have an observation from my noble friend, if necessary with advice, whether the doctrine that a succeeding parliament can override what has been decided before still applies. For example, will a parliament elected in 2002 still have the right to overturn a decision reached by the previous parliament? That is the fundamental question involved. I invite my noble friend to reply in due course.

10 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shore, for introducing this amendment (to which my name has been added) in such a deep, probing and thoughtful way. When he talked about the understandable inspiration of the original Six to want to set up the original European Common Market, which has grown into the animal we see before us today, he was right to say that the two main inspirations for that initiative were the fear that Germany might go to war with France yet again and the wish to create a bloc to stand up against the growing power of the Soviet Union. My trouble is that I think those fears are both truly redundant nowadays. If there is one question I would wish to put to Herr Kohl, who I am sure is in good faith when he fears that the German nation might go to war again—I of course disagree with him completely—it is this: when did a bourgeois democratic nation ever provoke a war? I believe that the answer is, historically, never. I cannot see any possibility of it happening again with a democratic nation in Europe.

Then this question of closer co-operation raises the possibility of new members for the European Union, about which we hear so much. Indeed, both our main political parties and many people in Europe regard the expansion of the European Union to include the former communist countries of eastern Europe as the number one priority. But for that it is generally acknowledged that we must achieve reform of the common agricultural policy, and that, in turn, would require 62 out of the 87 votes to achieve it. The last time I looked at the subject, there were 54 votes ranged against reform of the common agriculture policy; and so I should very much like the Minister, when he comes to reply, to say whether there has been any progress in that matter, and whether Germany perhaps now supports reform of the common agriculture policy.

Not only do we require reform of the common agriculture policy but we require reform of the structural and cohesion funds. I understand that one black ball from the recipients of those funds would exclude any reform of them. So, unless the Minister can enlighten the Committee otherwise, it seems to me that the question of enlargement is almost certainly a pipe dream.

Are we at all sure that the former communist countries of eastern Europe really do want to be members of the European Union? I have been able to discuss this question with some of their governments recently and I have found no genuine enthusiasm for full membership. They all seem to want access to the market and defence through NATO. Access to the market is not being made exactly easy for them and, generally speaking, they are frustrated by the EU's famous bureaucracy, although they are very fond of the handouts which they receive from Brussels while they are queuing for membership.

Be that as it may, I cast a note of caution on these new flexibility provisions in the Amsterdam treaty, which appear to be something of a victory for the federalists. I say that because previously any new initiatives or changes to the EU's organisation had to be agreed unanimously. If some countries wished to integrate more deeply in any new area, they needed everyone to agree that they could use the institutions and mechanisms of the treaty to do so. An example of that was when the United Kingdom agreed the Maastricht protocol on social policy, which allowed the other 11 nations to go ahead with the social chapter using the Community's institutions for which the UK continued to pay its share.

But instead the UK could have vetoed the policy. The others would then have had to set up separate mechanisms, use separate buildings, separate bureaucrats, chauffeurs, translators and all the rest, if they were really so keen on it that they wanted to go ahead in those circumstances. Likewise, we could have vetoed the whole economic and monetary union policy at Maastricht. Many of us believe that that is exactly what we should have done. Apart from anything else, it would have saved us a considerable debate this afternoon.

In those circumstances our previous government were beginning to suggest that we might withhold our veto on future projects of closer integration which the others wished to pursue, but only in return for a repatriation of some powers to the United Kingdom. So instead of the ever-closer union of the people of Europe—that guiding principle of the treaty and of the court—we had started to think of a Europe where powers would pass up and down between Brussels and the national parliaments; hence the expression "variable geometry", a leading proponent of which was my right honourable friend Mr. Michael Howard in the previous government. But as that geometry contained a potential minus sign it was not very popular with those who wished to pursue a single European superstate. So, as I understand it, that is why the veto was so weakened at Amsterdam—it removed the bargaining chip of those who wished to depart from the ever-closer union of the people of Europe.

Until I heard the very powerful opening speech on this amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Shore, I had thought that the veto had been removed more completely than he indicated. So I join him in waiting to hear the Minister's interpretation of this matter and whether agrees with the interpretation of his noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington to the effect that the Commission remains in charge—as, under the Treaty of Rome, it usually does. In other words, if the acquis communautaire is in no way impaired by these changes to the treaty, these new clauses are very far from welcome.

Lord Monson

Unlike my sceptic friends—I use the word "sceptic" rather than "euro-sceptic" deliberately because neither I nor, I believe, they are sceptic in any way about the proud, ancient nation states of Europe in all their infinite and enriching variety; indeed, we have great affection for them; we are only sceptical about this centralising, bureaucratic, often wasteful, corrupt, bossy and interfering European Union—I see no harm and, indeed, some possible good, in a multi-speed Europe, provided that those wanting to create their own mini-alliances, so to speak, use their own funds to do so rather than Community resources. Indeed, if they use their own funds to forge such mini-alliances without involving any of the institutions of the Community, it is difficult to see how any other member state validly could object.

Some years ago, Sir Richard Body, who is now the honourable Member for Boston and Skegness, a noted Euro-sceptic but also a passionate champion of the Commonwealth and, in particular, of its poor countries, and—this is less widely known—a great idealist, wrote a book—one of the many excellent books that he has written on agriculture and other matters—entitled, if I remember rightly, Europe of Many Circles. He envisaged a neighbourly Europe of freely co-operating, independent nation states which might wish to forge bipartite, tripartite or multipartite treaties with their neighbours in fields which particularly concerned them but which other European states might wish to approach in a different manner. As the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, has just said, interestingly enough, Mr. Michael Howard—not an habitual ally of Sir Richard—seemed to echo that in a notable speech in the Inner Temple two or three years ago. That is the direction in which we should be travelling.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

In some ways I find the debate on this amendment somewhat anomalous. If we go back a bit, we discover that one of the ways in which the then Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, dealt with the profound divisions in his own party on the Maastricht Treaty was by means of opt-outs. Indeed, I recall that he came back from debates on that treaty announcing that he had won, "game, set and match", by having organised no fewer than three opt-outs from the conclusions of that treaty. The first of those opt-outs was on the social protocol, and he was extremely proud of it. The second opt-out related to European economic and monetary union, to which noble Lords have already referred in this brief debate, and the third was the opt-out on the Schengen community, which he shared with Denmark and Ireland. It must be said that Ireland did so notably reluctantly and primarily because of its interdependence with the United Kingdom in terms of border controls, not least between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

So, there were three opt-outs at Maastricht and it was obvious that what Mr. John Major had done—incidentally, a Prime Minister whom I think that history will treat rather more kindly than do many contemporary commentators—was not to achieve a break in the deadlock in Europe, as he proclaimed, but rather to achieve a bridge in the chasm in his own party.

Having done so, the then Prime Minister discovered the route of opting out as possibly the best answer to the dilemma that he faced—the dilemma of being at one and the same time within the European Union and half outside it. It is interesting that as he developed that idea—I shall say a few more words about that development in a moment—he aroused more and more concern on the part of the other member states of the Union. He aroused that concern because they recognised that at a certain point opt-outs and their like, "variable geometry", a la carte Europe, and the rest of it, would so husk out the very core that had been achieved over all the years since 1957 that the European Community and the European Union would begin to unravel, with serious consequences not so much for the United Kingdom as for the other member states.

So, if we look at the record, we find that as early as 1995, M. Chirac and Herr Kohl sent a joint letter to the other member states in which they outlined the concept of what they described as "concentric circles"—a core of central member states who would make the fundamental decisions about the development of the European Union, a penumbra of other states which were in a sense half-members and finally an outer rim of countries that one day would wish to join but saw little prospect of doing so. The outer rim at that time contained most of central and eastern Europe, which saw little prospect of soon being able to join the Union.

In the White Paper of March 1996 Her Majesty's Government put into words this particular policy. They described their goal as, a variable geometry but not a two-tier Europe". I believe that it would have taken the extraordinary ability of a very great athlete to achieve that combination, for "variable geometry" implied a two-tier unit. There was no way in which one could insist upon a single tier Europe on the basis of variable geometry. Why should the other member states grant full influence to the United Kingdom if she had opted out of some of the central parts of the European treaties?

In January 1997 the Prime Minister announced that he had devised a blueprint for a multi-speed pick-and-mix Europe. That was the description given to it by the press. He said that he was in favour of what he termed "multiple opt-outs". I quote his words: The great debate is how flexible it will be and what sort of flexibility it will mean. I can see a way of unlocking it but we still have to negotiate our way through. I can see now how it can be done and I will endeavour to see that it is done over the next few months". The Prime Minister was as good as his word. He entered into the Amsterdam negotiations of that summer and autumn intending to seek one opt-out after the other. That was the way he envisaged the possibility of reconciling his own party, in particular the Euro-sceptical element of it, to what he knew would be the next step to yet another treaty on the way to closer union in Europe. I do not blame him for that. It was a perfectly reasonable political decision on his part, but it had very little to do with the development of the United Kingdom's influence in Europe. Indeed, it was almost certain to be counter-productive.

The Intergovernmental Conference was instructed, after the report of a reflection group, to consider strengthened co-operation by some if not all member states which would be open to all. It would have to conform with the acquis but would leave open to Britain the possibility of a Europe of many different tiers moving at many different speeds. The Amsterdam discussions were in some ways contorted by the attempt to reconcile what the other member states wanted with the position of the British Government. When one looks at the wording of such provisions as Articles K.12, K.15, K.16 and 5a, one sees the desperate attempt to try to include Britain on the terms that she was prepared to he included.

Yet the other member states—I shall come in a moment to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, about the position of the other member states—sought to protect themselves against the impact of the variable geometry proposed by Britain. They did so in three ways. Article 5a, which stands alongside Clauses K.15 and K.16 at the core of this concept, addresses itself to the first pillar, the Community pillar, and has a great many more conditions to be met than Articles K.12 and K.15.

Among those requirements are, centrally, the protection of the acquis communautaire. Indeed, variable geometry on the first pillar was a very restricted concept. One could argue that it was tailored entirely to the demands of the British Government of the time. Even then there was a requirement—the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, pointed this out—that there should be an authorisation. That authorisation depended upon a qualified majority. If at the end of the day that authorisation was not sufficient—if one-third of the states refused to co-operate—then the proposal for greater co-operation would not go ahead. That was an attempt to prevent there being a split within the Community pillar itself.

It was however the case—I draw it to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington—that there was written into 5(A) and K.15 a precise restatement in narrow form of the Luxembourg veto, because it said there—the noble Lord, Lord Shore, argued this point on K.15, which applies mainly to justice and internal security, and not to 5(A), where it applies to the first pillar—that where a member state had important and stated reasons of national policy for not being willing to accept a co-operative venture involving some states, the matter would not be resolved by a qualified majority, it would be referred to the European Council—the single most senior body of the Community made up of heads of state and governments.

That was an astonishing safeguard. It was made as a gesture almost entirely to the UK. The only other country taking the same position was Denmark. No other country among the 15 took that position. It was made in respect also of K.12 and K.15, where the same procedure is laid out, but with fewer flanking requirements because K.12 and K.15 apply to the third pillar, and there is therefore an intergovernmental structure into which they fall, where the requirements to be met were considerably looser than in the case of the first pillar, and understandably so.

That meant, essentially, that the rest of the Union was determined to defend the acquis except in the most exceptional circumstance affecting the core interests of a member state, but they were willing to be somewhat forthcoming when it came, in particular, to the third pillar. The reason for that was that the third pillar had within it two strains. One of those strains was the insistence of the UK and some other member states that that was to remain intergovernmental. But the other element was an understanding that the pressures of circumstance through organised crime and the drug trade, particularly in the area of the third pillar, were becoming so strong that, frankly, to talk about the strength and impermeability of national borders no longer made very much sense.

Indeed, the rapid rate of development of international organised crime and of organised crime throughout Europe—I probably share this view with the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Bruce—and the speed at which we are seeing international responses to organised crime demand a much tighter control by national parliaments of the conventions that are reached than exists at present in the treaties.

I turn, secondly, to the situation outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney. I must say with the greatest respect—and I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord—that I fundamentally disagree with him on one point, as I do with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. There is no evidence to show that the six have a special commitment with Europe which is not shared by the other countries.

I was surprised by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, because only yesterday I had the privilege of talking to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Poland specifically on this issue. There were presiding over a moving meeting which was headed "Poland Comes Home". The theme of their speeches was to the effect that Poland had rediscovered its European destiny. It was not a hand held out for aid, because as regards enlargement Poland does not expect to be any kind of beneficiary of the CAP, as my noble colleague on Sub-Committee A knows as well as I. However, it expects a return to what Poland sees as its historical tradition, which is bound up with the rest of Europe and not, as it once was, with the former Soviet Union. The same can be said for the Czech Republic, Hungary and the other countries which are currently in the first wave of access candidates.

The only countries which have an opting out view of any seriousness are the United Kingdom and Denmark. My impression is that with the exception of defence which is a special case that we shall debate later, the United Kingdom Government are moving away from the endless seeking of opt outs. The Government know, as we know, that the decision to end the opting out of the social protocol was hugely welcomed on the continent of Europe not because it was felt that suddenly the United Kingdom would find itself bogged down with 1,000 regulations and requirements, but because Her Majesty's Government understood that this was the message about the kind of Europe one wanted and it was a Europe which was to be enthused with the spirit of social justice as well as the spirit of the free market and liberty. We shall discuss that subject in more detail later in Committee.

We wish strongly to repudiate what was said earlier today by one noble Lord; that the Liberal Democrats find everything right with the continent of Europe and nothing right with the United Kingdom. That is profoundly to misunderstand and misinterpret our position. I can sum up our position quickly. It is that the United Kingdom has a rich heritage of democracy, individual liberty and civic society to share with the other countries and member states of Europe. It is just because we believe that the influence of this country can be benign, that it can help us towards a Europe which looks beyond its own borders and has a sense of responsibility for the rest of the world, that we wish to see Britain playing the fullest part in the European Union.

We wish passionately to see a Europe which is free, accountable, democratic, tolerant and pluralistic. We believe that we can reach that point by getting fully inside the European Union rather than staying half in and half out.

Lord Shore of Stepney

Before the noble Baroness resumes her seat, would she answer one question? Does she accept that there is a difference of fundamental aim between some of the countries of the European Union and ourselves in their objective of establishing a genuine union, a new state, which we do not wish to pursue? Is the noble Baroness in favour of the pursuit of a new state in Europe? If so, surely it makes sense for us, in the interests of good relations with our neighbours, not to deceive them that we can go along, not to stand constantly in their way, but to reach an accommodation.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I believe that every question that is asked seriously of me, as this has been asked, by the noble Lord deserves a reply. I can give him a reply based only on my recent impressions. They are that there has been a considerable switch in mood within the Continent of Europe towards a greater degree of what one might describe as "confederation" and away from the concept of tight federalism.

One only has to look at the way in which the Federal Republic of Germany, and not least its separate Landerä, has moved towards a greater emphasis on subsidiarity and the right of self-determination over a very wide range of issues to see that we are moving towards a closer Union but not a closer Union that involves the kind of tight federalism that many people, like the noble Lord himself, fear.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

It was interesting to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that Europe is moving towards confederation rather than tight federalism. I must confess that I had not noticed it myself. Indeed, Herr Kohl and many others are still talking about a united Europe and they see the single currency as a further move in the political direction of a country called Europe.

That is what I am hearing from them and that is what is reported in the British newspapers. If the noble Baroness has better information, I am pleased to hear it. We had Professor Wilhelm Hankel to speak to some of us over the weekend. Professor Hankel is one of the four professors who is challenging Euro economic and monetary union, the single currency, in the German Federal Court. I do not think that it was his view that the German Chancellor was moving in the direction in which I should like him to move; that is, towards a more confederal Europe rather than a federal Europe. However, things may develop and I hope that the noble Baroness is correct in what she says.

I take it from that—and I stand to be corrected—that the Liberal Democrat Party is not in favour of federalism itself. Again, I have always understood that that was its aim. If it is not, I should be pleased to hear it. But everything that I have heard so far leads me to believe that that is true. Does the noble Baroness wish to comment?

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I thought that I had explained myself in my previous response to the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, and I do not want to delay the debate further.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

We may have to return to that later on. But there are one or two questions that I should like to ask. I should like to say a lot more but the time is getting on. I should like to know whether nations which have agreed co-operation under K.12 will be able to withdraw at some later stage if they believe that that co-operation is no longer of any use to them, or, as under the acquis communautaire, will they be obliged to continue such co-operation for all time?

I should certainly like to have an answer to that.

If that is not so, if they can withdraw, what will be the procedure for withdrawal? That certainly is not clear in any of the articles under Title VI, so I should like to know about that.

The other matter that I simply cannot understand is why the administrative and operational costs of those new co-operative ventures should be paid for by the Community as a whole; that is, those who do not take part in the co-operation ventures will be subsidising those who are taking part. I should like further explanation of that and to ask my noble friend whether he believes that to be fair. I certainly do not think that it is fair. If those people who are co-operating—and, presumably, getting the benefits of that co-operation—feel that it is worth while, surely they should pay the cost.

I also hope that my noble friend will be able to answer a question put to him by my noble friend Lord Bruce as regards Article K.7(6), which appears to undermine the British constitution. In fact, we will have the opportunity later to discuss the matter more fully, because I intend to table an amendment which will make it absolutely clear that this treaty can in no way undermine our basic constitution which, as I understand it, is that one parliament may not bind its successors. Indeed, we shall have the opportunity later to discuss that whole issue.

I turn, finally, to Amendment No. 31 which calls on the Government to produce a report. It says: No later than one year after the passing of this Act, and at annual intervals thereafter, a Minister of the Crown shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a report containing details of—

  1. (a) the participation of the United Kingdom in any measures adopted under Articles K.15 and K.16 of the Treaty … [and]
  2. (b) any decision of the United Kingdom not to participate in any measures mentioned in paragraph (a), and the reasons for such decision".
It seems to me that that is a reasonable request to make. I hope that my noble friend will he able to tell me that the Government accept the amendment, especially as Article K.17 provides that the, Council and the Commission shall regularly inform the European Parliament of the development of closer cooperation established on the basis", of that particular title. Under those circumstances, as the European Parliament is to have a report, I do not understand why we in this Parliament cannot have a report from our own Government about matters which affect our country.

Lord Swinfen

I should like, very briefly, to return to a point raised by both the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. I do so because there is quite a large number of people in this country who are very happy with what I would describe as the "Common Market", but who are not at all happy with a single state of Europe. Indeed, some people think that that is coming.

In his reply, can the Minister confirm that, should a government in the future wish to leave the EC, there is nothing in the Treaty of Rome, the Maastricht Treaty and, indeed, the Amsterdam Treaty, which will prevent us from so doing? I ask that question particularly and would like confirmation. Someone who knows far more about the European Union—the EC—than I do, and is a much greater expert on the relevant documents, has suggested to me that once the Amsterdam Treaty is ratified an attempt to leave would be an act of rebellion against the EC. That would mean that we had become one state in Europe. That is what we are being told is not happening; we are told that it is a collection of independent states.

Therefore, when replying, can the Minister confirm that, should a government in the future decide to take the United Kingdom out of the EC, there is no obstacle to doing so? I believe another noble Lord also asked how that could be done. I do not expect an answer to that question at the moment because it will probably be quite a complicated and drawn-out affair. However, I believe that this Chamber should be given that information some time before the Bill passes.

Lord Moynihan

I am sorely tempted to reply to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, which in my opinion were a wholly misguided assessment of the position that John Major took on opt-outs. But I hope she will forgive me if I return to them at a later stage.

For now, suffice it to say that our position is to welcome the inclusion of the concept of flexibility into the treaty on the basis that we have always advocated the concept that a flexible Europe is essential if the European Union is to be enlarged successfully. A diverse, enlarged Europe simply cannot be forced into the rigid strait-jacket of uniformity.

However, we take the approach that, although the concept of a flexible Europe is essential if the European Union is to be enlarged successfully, it should be introduced following certain key principles; namely, any arrangement which allows groups of fewer than the 15 member states to use Community institutions must be agreed by all and open to all and must not force any member state into further integration; such arrangements must also be consistent with the single market; and proposals that Community institutions could be used by vanguard groups if one or more states were actively opposed are simply not acceptable. However, sadly, under the Amsterdam Treaty, a group of member states can decide to go ahead with further integration in any area without the support of the full European Union, which undermines the fundamental principle that flexibility should be open to all and agreed by all.

In my few remarks this evening I wish to be specific, albeit technical. I ask the Minister some questions in relation to Articles K.12 and K.15 together with new Article 5a. Had the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, spotted that, it would have been open to the very same questions that he raised in relation to the article that he focused upon.

These provisions enable member states to pursue a form of fast track integration on the basis of a qualified majority, if they wish to do so, and they are drafted in similar vocabulary to the national veto/emergency brake clause for common foreign and security policy, to which I shall return in detail in a subsequent debate. I emphasise that the reason we on these Benches welcome in principle the introduction of the concept of flexibility in the treaty is that it is an indication that the whole of Europe now agrees with an effective reform pioneered by the previous government. These provisions provide a basis for a different approach by different member states that reflects the differences which inevitably arise as a result of different national circumstances.

However, there is clearly a paradox when it comes to the question of flexibility. On the one hand, for the European Union to fulfil its potential, it must adhere to certain core disciplines and obligations which must not be undermined by the introduction of flexibility. On the other hand, Europe's strength is in its diversity and some flexibility must not only be allowed but encouraged, particularly as the Union enlarges. Our former opt-out of the Social Chapter and Economic and Monetary Union, as well as other member states' decision to go ahead with the Schengen provisions are examples of this type of flexibility. One thing is clear in this paradox. Whatever jargon is used to describe it, be it variable geometry, differentiated integration, Europe aà la carte, multi-speed Europe, enhanced co-operation, concentric circles, flexibility must not be the foundation for a two-tier Europe, whereby an exclusive fast-track hard core of member states lay claim to a privileged status over which the rest have no real check. For this reason I would like to ask why the Government did not insist on a straightforward, watertight veto, so that the instigation of such projects of "closer co-operation" outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, could be decided by unanimity, irrespective of which member states then implemented them. This would have meant that flexibility was open to all and agreed by all, which is surely the most sensible way forward.

As the Minister will be aware, the previous government always insisted that the decision as to whether such action should and could proceed should be taken on the basis of unanimity. The provisions in the treaty on this question are to me oddly circuitous and not at all clear. I should appreciate the Minister's clarification on whether or not Article K.12 and Article 5a were intended to provide for unanimity. Was it the intention that decisions taken under the provision of these articles should be taken on the basis of unanimity? If so, why is there not a straightforward provision to that effect rather than the roundabout route of paragraph 2 of K.12, repeated in Article 5a? That states that: The authorisation"— to establish closer co-operation— referred to in paragraph I shall be granted by the Council acting by a qualified majority at the request of the Member States concerned and after inviting the Commission to present its opinion: the request shall also be forwarded to the European Parliament. If a member of the Council declares that, for important and stated reasons of national policy, it intends to oppose the granting of an authorisation by qualified majority, a vote shall not be taken. The Council may, acting by a qualified majority, request that the matter be referred to the European Council for decision by unanimity". I have a number of questions to put to the Minister on this point. Is the action of a member state which wishes to oppose the granting of an authorisation, for stated and important reasons of national policy", subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? Could the Court rule that the reason relied on by the member state was not in fact "important"? What framework is there to determine what constitutes, important and stated reasons of national policy", and who will be the arbiter of this?

I wish also to ask whether it is indeed the case that both paragraph I of Article K.12 and paragraph 5 of Article 5a enable groups of EU states to use European Union institutions for what amounts to purposes for which there is no explicitly stated treaty provision? Is it not a fundamental British position that access to European institutions should be agreed by all, since they are paid for by all? Furthermore, will fast track countries be entitled to European Union funds for their projects?

I should also like to ask the Minister why the provision for a veto appears in the text of the treaty and not as a Council declaration? Since it has been incorporated in the treaty, can the Minister confirm that the door is now open to rulings from the European Court of Justice, which has the power to overrule the use of the veto?

I shall not further detain the Committee by responding to some of the wider issues that were raised. I hope that the Committee will forgive me for having concentrated narrowly on some important issues raised in this context of flexibility. But on these Benches, we believe that they are extremely important. If clear answers cannot be delivered today—I fully respect the fact that the Minister is not in a position to have answers whisked from the Box to assist him, despite his admirable knowledge of the subject—perhaps he will write to me on the subject with answers that I can share with other colleagues who have stayed until this late hour. That would be much appreciated.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Grenfell

Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him this. The noble Lord would like to see the veto put up front. Does that not open the whole process to abuse by any single member state which is against flexibility as a matter of principle? Therefore before any countries could get together to co-operate in the manner described under this title and articles, they would be prevented from doing so from the very beginning. Surely it is far better to have what may seem to be a rather complex procedure with the Council being the final arbiter so that one can be sure that those who are serious about co-operating will not be frustrated at the beginning by one single country which happens not to like the idea of flexibility.

Lord Moynihan

I regret to say that that is not the only issue. It goes much further than that. It is not the Commission that would be the final arbiter in these circumstances. It is indeed the European Court of Justice that could be in the position of determining what are the important reasons for national policy. That is the issue on which I sought clarification. I appreciate that the noble Lord's point is an important one, but it is the next step beyond that point that requires clarification this evening. So I can fully appreciate the Government's position on the text of the treaty.

Lord Whitty

The debate has been wide-ranging, and I am sorely tempted to challenge some of the interpretations of history that were set out. However, I shall concentrate on the effect of the amendment and the whole question of flexibility in this treaty. In so far as I can answer the various specific points raised, I shall attempt to do so.

On the general context of the debate, first, I thoroughly endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the general atmospherics within fellow member states. There is no vast enthusiasm for a great integrationist project. I disagree with the interpretation put on it by my noble friend Lord Shore and others. There was a time when the political elites in Germany, France and the Benelux countries were very much down the road towards an integrationist policy. That time has gone.

Noble Lords may have seen the television programme last night on BBC 2 presenting a discussion on enlargement. A German Social Democrat Member, indeed Vice-President, of the European Parliament, Madeleine Hoff—in the demonology of most noble Lords, she would be an arch-integrationist—said absolutely clearly that there is no chance of moving towards a federal, integrated superstate. She said that perhaps there would be some confederal features, but it is a free association of independent nation states bound by treaty and pooling their sovereignty in certain agreed areas. That is the project not only for the United Kingdom, but also for the other member states.

The view of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, of the attitude of the governments of those countries that seek membership of the European Union is completely at odds with anything I have experienced. Last night I met members of most of the delegations who were here for a very important European conference which took place today. They made absolutely clear their desire to join the European Union. In that, I believe they reflect the views of their peoples.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

The noble Lord will, however, accept that my view is based on personal discussion.

Lord Whitty

I accept that is based on personal discussion. However, both the formal position and recorded public opinion in those countries indicates a rather different conclusion.

In a sense, flexibility was to have been the big issue of the Amsterdam Treaty and it turned out not to be. These provisions on flexibility are relatively limited, and they do not change the total nature of the treaty that we inherited from Maastricht. Before Amsterdam, there was a big push and a lot of talk about new configurations of Europe, concentric circles, hard-core, soft-core, onions, variable geometry of various descriptions. In fact, this has provided a little elbow-room for a bit of welcome flexibility. But some of those grandiose projects for flexibility, and therefore a multi-tier Europe, were also reciprocated to some extent by the previous administration, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said.

There was a dangerous situation where there appeared to be some coincidence between those central powers of Europe which wished to proceed to a flexibility which excluded in large part member states, including the United Kingdom—and the previous government of the United Kingdom, who wished to exclude themselves. To the Labour Party in opposition, and to the Government who came in in May, that seemed a very dangerous course. We were therefore not in favour of widespread flexibility within the treaty, and in particular not within Pillar I of the treaty, where the laws of the Community should, as far as possible, with a little bit of flexibility at the edges, apply more generally.

With flexibility in this treaty, it is not the first time we have seen flexibility in the European Union. From the Treaty of Rome onwards there have been derogations and transition periods and the single currency is one big bit of flexibility, the new provisions on border controls are another big one. The opt-outs are bits of flexibility.

What is new in the treaty is that we have made general provisions on flexibility which are spelt out in Article K.15 and which are subject to very serious safeguards. There has been some confusion during the course of the debate on how some of the provisions operate. In K.15, K.16 and to some extent K.17 we are talking about the overarching provisions which relate to all parts of the treaty. The specific clauses relating to Pillar I of the treaty, the Community part of the treaty, are in Article 5a.

Members of the Committee have referred to a great extent to Article K.12 which relates only to the justice and home affairs area and is limited to intergovernmental arrangements in any case. It relates to instruments such as conventions rather than Community law. Article K.12 is not therefore the key clause; it is Article 5a.

I wish to answer the noble Lord, Lord Shore, who interestingly welcomed some of the provisions. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, who was in favour of slightly more flexibility than I am, objected to them because they did not provide so clear a veto in the first instance. It is undoubtedly true that these provisions are a bit of a compromise—as are all treaty provisions—between those who wanted flexibility to go ahead, and to do so without any agreement with the others, and those who wanted to block any possibility of going ahead. What we were looking for and always said we were looking for was flexibility but only flexibility by the consent of the rest. The consent can be passive or active, but in the situation where the consent is not forthcoming a member state should be able to use its veto by appealing to the European Council as a whole.

There is not a veto within the first stage simply because, if one country was opposed to going forward but was nevertheless prepared to allow the others to go forward, that should not constitute a veto. But if there was a strong national objection, it would be reflected in the reference to the European Council where it could be blocked. Therefore, we are safeguarding a situation where people go forward to the detriment of the national interest of those who do not go forward.

In a range of questions, my noble friend Lord Bruce asked me who determined the situation when states can go forward. Surprisingly to all of us, he identified the Commission as the bogeyman in these arrangements. That is not the case. It is true that under Article 5a the Commission has to give an opinion, but the people who take the decision are the Council. The Council takes the view in the first instance by QMV, but that is capable of being overridden by the process I have just described. In no sense does the Commission make the final judgment. Only in limited cases where there is an issue of dispute would the Court of Justice have a role. That can be spelt out in detail in response to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, should he so wish.

In relation to the other question raised by my noble friend Lord Bruce and repeated again in more extreme form by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, my noble friend Lord Bruce referred to Article K.7(6). But that does not have much to do with the flexibility clause; it relates to the JHA area. But, nevertheless, it does not give the European Court of Justice any jurisdiction over action by member states. It only allows the Court of Justice jurisdiction over decisions of the Council, not of member states. So it can have no effect on the sovereignty of Parliament. It does not therefore give the Court the ability to override or strike down legislation passed by Westminster.

That means that in the extreme case outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, it does not prevent a member state from determining that it will withdraw from the European Union. Clearly, in order to withdraw, it would involve an incredibly complex degree of negotiation. Neither this Government nor any future government, I hope, would wish to contemplate withdrawal. Nevertheless, this article does not prevent us from withdrawing. The conditions under which we would accept flexibility and have accepted it in the Amsterdam Treaty, and would wish this Parliament to accept it in passing this Bill, are strict and limited.

Lord Swinfen

Perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for intervening when he is in full flow, but I was not referring only to this article; I was referring to the Amsterdam Treaty as a whole. I was asking whether that will lock us into the EC and whether, once that is ratified, we will be able to withdraw. If we cannot withdraw, this Government are seeking to bind a future government, and that would be unconstitutional.

Lord Whitty

These are treaties. This is not a constitution of a federal state; these are treaties and we can negotiate our way out of a treaty. But it would require negotiation to get out. This treaty does not alter the status of the United Kingdom in relation to the European Union. Nothing that is newly introduced in this treaty alters the situation as regards ultimate withdrawal—remote and hypothetical as I trust that consideration may be.

Lord Swinfen

I thank the Minister for that response. That is the first time that I have ever heard a Minister in this Chamber, or reported elsewhere, saying that we can withdraw from the EC should we wish to do so, even though it may take some negotiation. That is a comfort to some of us.

Lord Whitty

I hope it is not much of a comfort because the negotiations would be extraordinarily difficult. It is certainly not an option I would wish to give any currency to in this Chamber or elsewhere.

Briefly, my noble friend Lord Stoddart referred to Amendment No. 31, which calls on the Government to provide a report on the operation of flexibility to both Houses of Parliament. I do not need to go into detail. There is already a substantial degree of reportage on these areas to Parliament. but it is the intention of the Government, as set out in another place by my right honourable friend the President of the Council, to improve the scrutiny of all European legislation under these provisions and under others, and in particular to give a greater and more formal role in scrutiny in relation to the second and third pillars.

Lord Bruce of Donington

Will the noble Lord clarify the position constitutionally? The noble Lord will recall that I put to him that it was in our present constitution, as generally understood and interpreted so far by lawyers, that no Parliament can bind its successors. Therefore, if the next government decided to reverse anything that had been done by the previous government, they would have the right to do so constitutionally because under our constitution a preceding government cannot bind.

As I understand the noble Lord, he assented to the general proposition, with the important qualification that we could always negotiate our way out and that that might take some considerable time. That still does not address the constitutional problem because, under those terms, those with whom we would negotiate might decline any further negotiation and might decline to move in any direction whatever. I ask the noble Lord a straight question: does the constitutional doctrine applicable to the United Kingdom that no Parliament can hind its successors still hold?

Lord Whitty

The straight answer to that is "yes" and no treaty that has been passed since we ran the referendum in 1975 to assess whether or not we would leave the European Community has changed the situation. If the decision had gone the other way in the 1970s, we would have been able to withdraw. The status has not been changed by any subsequent treaty. I remain of the opinion that we are bound by treaty law to negotiate our way out of it, but there is no way in which that ultimate right has been changed.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Will my noble friend allow me to intervene?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No. We have an agreement on all sides of the Chamber that we will try to finish at 11 o'clock. The House sits at 11 o'clock tomorrow morning.

Lord Whitty

In the light of the time and because I believe that I have dealt with most of the points raised, I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment, despite the illuminating debate that we have had. If there are any other points, I will write to him.

Lord Shore of Stepney

I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. As I said at the beginning, I regret that we could not have begun this interesting and important debate at an earlier stage. But, in view of the lateness of the hour, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

House resumed.