HL Deb 08 April 2003 vol 647 cc134-7

3.4 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to ensure that Parliament is fully consulted on the conclusions of' the European Union Convention on the Future of Europe before the start of the proposed intergovernmental conference.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government have made clear the importance that we attach to full parliamentary consultation on the conclusions of the Convention on the Future of Europe before the start of the intergovernmental conference. We expect the convention to conclude in June, as mandated, but the date of the IGC is not yet decided. The Government have made clear that any dates for the IGC must allow for proper and substantial parliamentary discussion of the issues and full participation of the accession states.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. It occurred to me when she commented last week that the convention will end at the end of June, that the intergovernmental conference is likely to start at the end of September and that that does not provide an especially convenient intervening space for full consultation with national parliaments.

Given that the Prime Minister himself has made clear on several occasions that the role of national parliaments in the European Union is one of the issues in the convention to which we attach most importance, can we ensure by one means or another—with time made available and the appropriate documents and government proposals published for discussion in both Chambers of this Parliament—for full consultation to be provided between the end of the convention and whenever the start of the IGC is agreed to be?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Prime Minister has made clear that he regards the role of Parliament as an important issue in the convention. It would therefore be perverse not to allow the role of Parliament to be properly exercised between the end of the convention and the IGC. The noble Lord mentioned the possible date of September. The fact is that it was originally expected that the IGC would be held in 2004, but, as I am sure that the noble Lord is aware, some European Union countries are pressing to begin the IGC in 2003.

Nothing has been decided and no dates have been alighted on as suitable. I am acutely aware of the concerns in this House, which I am sure reflect concerns in another place, that proper time must be allowed for the substantial and proper parliamentary discussion to which I referred.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, have not recent events in Europe—I know that the Minister has such great love for the behaviour of her French and German counterparts recently—made the plans drawn up by the European convention a matter of fairy stories rather than of the future?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I indeed have great affection for our friends in France and Germany—I thank the noble Earl for remarking on it. As your Lordships discussed in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, last week, several extensive issues, such as economic governance, legal personality and how we can go forward on the common foreign and security policy and the European security and defence policy, are involved. They are all important and need to be resolved.

The point is that your Lordships and another place should have a proper opportunity to discuss them at the conclusion of the convention, at the end of June, and before the beginning of the IGC, which is when decisions will be taken in the European Union on the basis of unanimity.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that her reference to legal personality illustrates in just one way the relationship between the future of European institutions as a whole? Can she assure the House that before we enter those essential deliberations, the Government will clarify their position on the future of the Council of Europe and its conventions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government will need to clarify our position on a number of issues. If I may say so, that is the sort of debate to which your Lordships are peculiarly well placed to contribute. The fact is that we have worked extremely well with our European partners in the convention, but they, too, will be considering the convention conclusions before the IGC.

Your Lordships and the Government may take one view, but we must acknowledge that entirely different views may come from our partners elsewhere in the EU. The important thing is to have those discussions before the IGC. I stress again that nothing will be fixed until the IGC has decided the position; and it will do so on the basis of a unanimous vote.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is it not wishful thinking to assume that in present circumstances—my noble friend Lord Onslow has drawn attention to them—the convention can possibly reach agreement by June, in six weeks' time? Has not the draft constitution been bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of amendments? Is not the draft of the praesidium miles away from the view of the rank and file?

Would it not be better to give up the attempt to have a new Treaty of Rome—on which, I gather, our Italian friends are so keen—and to aim more sensibly for the end of the year, when, one hopes, there will be a little more agreement? By this time next year, the new applicant countries, which, after all, will have to live inside the changed Union and new constitution, will have a chance to consider it. Why the rush?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that there is a rush. Many amendments to the convention are being put forward, but we expected no less than that. As I indicated, at a working level the convention is working very well together. After all, three of our own Members are involved on the convention. My noble friend Lady Scotland, who is sitting beside me, is the Government's alternate on the convention, but noble Lords are also very ably represented by the noble Lords, Lord Maclennan and Lord Tomlinson. They are sensible people who can discuss with their colleagues from the other European countries the conclusions that they wish to reach over the convention. I am assured that the convention is still on track to reach its final conclusion by the end of June as originally mandated. There is no rush. The convention is working sensibly and properly together, as noble Lords would expect.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, having just returned from last week's session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and witnessed the overwhelming animosity towards the United Kingdom by most European parliamentarians, does the Minister not agree that it would be better to postpone the conclusions of the convention until present divisions in Europe have receded and there is a more friendly atmosphere?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have our differences with our colleagues in Europe. That is absolutely clear. Nobody has tried to hide any of those differences. We all know that they centre on the very, very difficult question of the military conflict in Iraq.

The noble Lord refers to "animosity"; I refer to it as differences. I assure noble Lords that differences are not marring the discussions in the convention. My noble friend Lady Scotland assures me that the discussions in the convention are continuing in a constructive way that noble Lords would expect. Noble Lords are at liberty to ask our other noble colleagues, who are not with us today because they are no doubt working on those issues, but we believe that we are on track to finish the convention.

I remind noble Lords that the convention conclusions bind us to nothing—that is the point—and not only your Lordships but colleagues in another place will be able to discuss the convention before we return to the IGC, where the real intergovernmental negotiations will have to take place.

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