HL Deb 20 November 2000 vol 619 cc522-4

2.52 p.m.

Lord Blackwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will undertake that the Prime Minister will not agree any significant changes to the powers and decision processes of the European Union at the forthcoming European Council unless they have been debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the treaty to be agreed at Nice will require ratification by all member states before it can enter into force. The necessary legislation must be passed in the UK before we can ratify the treaty. Parliament will therefore have its chance to decide whether or not to accept the result we achieve at Nice.

Lord Blackwell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and ask her to go a little further. Does she accept that there are significant changes on the table at Nice which have not yet been agreed by governments; for instance, the extension of qualified majority voting, reweighting of votes in the Council and so forth? Does she also accept that experience has often shown that the preamble to treaties turns out to be as important as the articles themselves and in many cases opens the door to the extension of Community competence? In the light of that need for scrutiny, will she give an undertaking on behalf of her colleagues on the Front Bench that this House will not be told that we do not have the right to debate or vote on details of the treaty as it is brought to us?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree that it is likely that some changes will be made at Nice. The whole purpose of the negotiations is for us to find a way forward. It is right that the matter will come before the House—indeed, both Houses will have an opportunity to debate the issue. The Nice treaty will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, by the passage of a Bill, before ratification. It is anticipated that an oral Statement will be made on 11th December by the Leader of the House on the outcome of Nice. Therefore, we will have a proper opportunity to discuss the matters.

Perhaps I may remind the House that the Amsterdam treaty was discussed for some five months before it was finally ratified.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if, following the Nice summit, there is no agreement on, for example, qualified majority voting and the extension of that principle, the size of the Commission and the weighting of votes in Council, we shall have failed the applicant countries which are seeking to join the EU, those changes at Nice being the imperative precondition to an EU which can accommodate such an enlargement?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, my noble friend is right in saying that those are extremely important issues. The House will know that Her Majesty's Government have been at the forefront in arguing for a proper enlargement, and the new countries are anxious that we should be in good form before they join us.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is it necessary for all the member states to ratify the treaty before it comes into effect? If it is not, what is the status of those countries which do not ratify it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is important for countries which may at Nice agree in outline a draft treaty to ratify it thereafter. Parliament will have to approve the treaty so, in theory, it would be possible for this House and the Parliament of any other country to reject it. If that were to happen, there would be a partial or incomplete renegotiation of the text with other member states, as happened when the Danes rejected the Maastricht Treaty in their referendum. Therefore, it is possible for countries to do that, but we are hopeful that the arrangement we arrive at in Nice will prove capable of being ratified by all member states.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister accept that as we intend to continue to be a full and co-operative member of the EU, with some Conservative sniping from the sidelines, the most important point is to ensure that national parliaments are able effectively to undertake their scrutiny role? Does she recognise that there have been a number of occasions, particularly in the past year, when the Government have accepted decisions within the Council of Ministers without allowing for national scrutiny? Are the Government considering how they can improve their relations with Parliament in discussing the agenda of the meetings of the Council of Ministers?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand the premise on which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, makes his statement but I do not necessarily agree with it. We have had an opportunity to discuss these issues and it will be important after the meeting at Nice to have a proper opportunity to debate the matter. As I have already said from the Dispatch Box, we shall have such an opportunity and I am sure that, like Members of the other place, noble Lords in this House will feast themselves on that opportunity.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can my noble friend give an assurance on behalf of the Government that, notwithstanding any question of the consideration by both Houses of Parliament of any significant changes, the right of the appropriate Standing Committees to examine European legislation will not thereby be prejudiced in any way? Will she also give an assurance that any proposed legislation will come before the appropriate Standing Committee both in this House and in another place?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that all the usual processes will be adopted in relation to scrutiny and that the Nice treaty will be given the same attention as was given to the Maastricht Treaty when it passed through both Houses.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister recall that when my noble friend Lord Cranborne asked a similar Question on 1st November her answer was a little fuzzy? Can we assume that today's Answer is the Government's definitive view on this important issue? Furthermore, can she assure us that when any treaty Bill comes before this House, there will be no question of being asked to approve of powers, or to reduce our power, over our national taxation or foreign policy? Will she accept that we on this side of the House are very much in favour of the enlargement process? We believe that the common agricultural policy is the chief obstacle to that, but there does not seem to be much about it in the Nice document.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Lord that, whatever fuzziness befell me on the previous occasion, clarity now reigns. I can also say that the areas of veto will be retained and that there will be no change in terms of our taxation. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord is reassured on those issues.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, will my noble friend assure me on an adjacent point? Will agreements reached on the militarisation of the European Union and the creation of a rapid reaction force also be submitted to both Houses of Parliament for approval, or will it be taken as read that we should go through the transformation of the EU into a military alliance?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do not know what we must say from this Dispatch Box to reassure my noble friend that there is to be no European army. If there is to be any change in legislation, it will come before both Houses of Parliament in the proper way. This Government will ensure that legislation comes before both Houses so that they can comment, as is proper.

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