HL Deb 23 June 2003 vol 650 cc25-40

4.6 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, with your Lordships' leave, 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, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council, which I attended in Greece on 19th and 20th. tune.

"I should like to offer my thanks to Prime Minister Simitis and the Greek Government, who have conducted an effective presidency in a particularly difficult period.

"The European Council took delivery of the draft constitutional treaty prepared by the European convention under the expert chairmanship of Valery Giscard d'Estaing. We agreed that the draft is a good basis for starting the intergovernmental conference in October. The 10 countries joining the European Council will participate fully alongside the existing member governments. The aim is to conclude it in time for a new treaty to be signed after 1st May next year.

"The convention sets out clearly what Europe is for: its aims and objectives; the rights of its citizens; the powers and responsibilities of its institutions; and the way it takes forward its policies. It recognises expressly that what we want is a Europe of nations, not a federal super-state, and that issues to do with taxation, foreign policy, defence policy and our British borders will remain the prerogative of our national government and Parliament.

"The draft makes clear in the very first article that the Union has only those powers that the member states give it. It introduces a chair of the European Council to prepare and follow through the European Council agenda. It will bring an end to the present system of six-monthly presidencies, which is no longer feasible in a Union of 25. It will provide a greater role for national parliaments, which will be able to vet all new legislation and make the principle of subsidiarity work at the political level.

"There are of course areas where there is continuing negotiation: for example over enhanced co-operation; the structure of the presidency; and the role of qualified majority voting. But, above all, the new draft treaty offers the prospect of stability in the way that Europe works.

"I should like to pay tribute to the work done by Government Ministers and to other honourable Members for the contribution that they made to the work of the convention.

"In addition to the convention outcome, reflecting the work of its 200 members, Mr Giscard d'Estaing also referred to a minority report advanced in the convention, including by the right honourable Member for Wells, the representative of the Conservative Party. That report would turn the existing treaties into an association of states which would replace, and dismantle, the existing European Union.

"The European Council agreed a range of actions to secure our frontiers, to ensure better co-operation with third countries on migration issues and to enable us to take the action that we need to deal more effectively with asylum claims. Among the issues that we discussed is one on which we have been working closely with the European Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The aim is to strengthen the protection of refugees in their regions of origin so that, in a crisis, it is possible to offer effective, accessible sanctuary to refugees closer to their homes.

"To test whether such a scheme can work we, with the support of the Commission, proposed pilot projects. These had widespread support. While the unanimity requirement in the Council prevented the idea from being specifically endorsed, this will not prevent the pilot projects from being taken forward by a number of member states, and the Commission will report back on them within the year.

"The Council discussed a paper by the EU's High Representative, Javier Solana, for an overall strategy in the field of foreign and security policy. He proposed a comprehensive approach to dealing with the global problems of poverty, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction, stressing the importance of the relationship with the United States, the need to improve our military capability and the necessity in the last resort for pre-emptive military action.

"The Council endorsed a comprehensive plan for tackling the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This will be a particular theme of this week's ELI-US summit as we take forward our joint work on curbing the export of WMD. The summit will also focus on the trade and economic agenda, especially the need for a successful meeting of the WTO in Cancun, and foreign policy co-operation notably in the Middle East.

"President Chirac and I had proposed, following the G8 summit, that the EU should match the US by contributing up to one billion euros in 2004 to the Global Health Fund to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Although this had majority support, some member states objected and, because of the unanimity requirement, we could not secure agreement to this sum at the Council, but did agree that the European Union would determine the extent of its contribution at the pledging conference on 16th July.

"There was a strong focus at the meeting on the EU's relations with the wider world. Putting our support behind the Middle East peace process, we called on Hamas and other groups to declare a ceasefire and endorsed an urgent examination of the case for wider action against Hamas fund raising. We expressed serious concerns at aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme and our full support for the International Atomic Energy Authority in its effort to conduct a comprehensive examination of Iran's nuclear programme. We made clear that how Iran behaves on human rights, terrorism and the Middle East peace process is crucial to the future development of EU-Iran relations.

"Finally, we held a positive discussion about Iraq. The European Council affirmed the European Union's readiness to take part in the reconstruction of Iraq within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1483. We commissioned further work on the details of the help that the EU can provide.

"The Council took stock of the economic situation following the spring summit on economic reform. It set a clear agenda for action in line with the objectives, which Britain and a number of other member states have been advocating. The Council also endorsed the appointment of Jean-Claude Trichet as the next president of the European Central Bank, in accordance with the agreement reached during the last UK presidency.

"What is clear is that Europe at 25 nations will be very different from Europe at 15. In the coming years Europe will expand still further to welcome in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and possibly others. Plainly, this means Europe must change the way it works. There are several areas where the convention proposes moving to qualified majority voting including on trade in services and the fight against terrorism, drugs and illegal immigration.

"However, we should not fear every extension of qualified majority voting as hostile to Britain. In some areas, we need QMV. The only reason we have any hope of achieving reform in the common agricultural policy is that decisions in the Agriculture Council are determined by QMV. It was thanks to QMV that we have opened up energy markets. If we want to drive through economic reform, liberalise markets and break down state subsidies, then in a Europe of 25 QMV on issues such as trade in services and mutual recognition of qualifications is essential for the British national interest. Britain needs Europe to work and, for Europe to work, it needs to change.

"However, that is not all that is different in a Europe of 25 or 30. These new nations joining the EU share, in many ways, the British perspective. They are firmly in favour of the transatlantic alliance. Freed from communism, they do not fear economic reform; they welcome it. Freed from subjugation by the former Soviet Union, central and eastern Europeans have no intention or desire to yield up the nationhood for which they have fought so hard. It is no surprise, therefore, that the convention so explicitly ruled out a European federal super-state.

"It is not only the new members that sign up to this vision of Europe. Increasingly, Europe knows that the focus for its economy and for its security must be outward, not inward. The danger for Britain is that, at the very time when Europe is moving closer to the view of Europe with which we are most comfortable, and which we can advocate so well, we lose the chance to take our proper place in Europe by fighting battles long since over and by turning away at the very point Europe is turning towards us. There are real battles of course: for example, over tax or defence. But they are battles that we can win.

"At this point in time, with Europe at a crucial point of evolution, this nation, Britain, has to have the confidence to stride forward. The next year will determine the shape of Europe, of which we are a member. There will be critical alliances to be made and choices to be faced. But I have no doubt that a Europe that now stretches from Finland and the Baltic states to the shores of the Aegean Sea, Cyprus and Malta is a Europe that should have Britain at its heart.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, the Leader of the House. for repeating the Statement. Like him, I congratulate the Greek Government for their hard work in leading what was, by all accounts, a difficult summit. There were things to welcome: a renewed recognition of the transatlantic relationship; an admission that the fall of Saddam Hussein, in which the EU played no effective role, has paved the way to a better future for the Iraqi people; the acknowledgement—something not seen before in an EU communiqué—that coercive action may be needed in the case of nations seeking weapons of mass destruction; and support for the Aqaba declaration and the Middle East road map for peace. All this must give much satisfaction to the Prime Minister.

No doubt he and the noble and learned Lord also warmly share the endorsement in the communiqué of the personal commitment by President Bush to the search for peace in the Middle East. We share the concerns expressed about the threats posed by the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea. Do the Government support the current stand of the demonstrators in Iran against the Khatami regime?

Staying on international matters, will the noble and learned Lord explain why, in eight detailed pages of presidency conclusions pointing to a common European policy on asylum—something on which many on this side of the House have severe doubts—there is no mention of the Prime Minister's proposals for safe haven camps in third countries or transit camps in Europe outside the EU? Despite that, the Statement makes a virtue of qualified majority voting on illegal immigrants and suggests that that is the way to go.

Have those ideas now been dropped as the basis of EU action? Does that explain the candour of the Prime Minster's official spokesman, quoted in a newspaper this morning as saying, We've got ourselves into a bit of a bind on this one"? Wherever we look at policy, the truth is becoming increasingly clear that the Prime Minister is making an embarrassing habit of "getting himself into a bind", particularly on European issues.

The signing of the accession treaty was historic, and the commitment to a wider accession process, involving Romania, Bulgaria and, in time, Turkey, is welcome. This subject will require detailed debate in your Lordships' House. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will indicate that he is keen that adequate time should be provided for this purpose.

Will the noble and learned Lord explain why common agricultural policy reform was. not on the summit agenda? Is it true that President Chirac threatened to invoke the Luxembourg compromise if ideas for reform were pressed? Do the Government agree that CAP reform is vital if Europe is going to give a fair deal to third world farmers? It is bitterly disappointing that yet another European summit has passed without any commitment to real reform of the CAP.

Let me turn now to the proposed European constitution. The presidency conclusions say that this was, a historic step in the direction of furthering the objectives of European integration. However, the Government claim that it is just a "tidying-up exercise". Which is it? Since when does a "tidying-up exercise" set up a European president, transfer asylum and immigration policy to Brussels, establish a binding charter of fundamental rights, and open up new areas for the EU to expand its power without the approval of national parliaments? Does the noble and learned Lord accept that the constitution will change the way in which Britain is governed more fundamentally than a regional assembly in Humberside on which we have been promised a referendum? Can he confirm that, in the drafting of the constitution, most of the United Kingdom's proposed amendments were rejected? What does that say about the influence of the Prime Minister? Can the noble and learned Lord tell us whether the UK has dropped its objection to a European foreign minister? Can he say in what areas it has been decided to accept the abolition of national vetoes?

There is much that we on this side of the House want to see a positive EU do. We want to see the CAP reformed, as I said, and wider free trade. We want more progress on aviation and freedom in services such as insurance. We want a reversal of the tide of regulation that grinds down Europe's competitiveness. We want a Europe flexible enough to deal with enlargement and able to face the challenges of high unemployment, stagnant manufacturing and ageing populations let down by failed policies on pensions. That is our vision of where the European agenda should lie. Driving further integration will do nothing to advance that agenda, but it will further dilute the voice of the United Kingdom in arguing for reform.

The Prime Minister has achieved all too little in Europe in the past six years. If he weakens Britain's voice, he will achieve even less. Adoption of a new European constitution is seen as a major event by every government in Europe. It could be a turning point in our nation's history. Fatuous spin that it is all a minor tidying-up exercise fools no-one. On this great question, whatever our conflicting views may be, surely we can agree that the Government should have the courage of their convictions and put their case to a referendum.

At Maastricht Mr John Major, as Prime Minister, secured an inalienable right for the British people to vote on the question of the euro. Is the Prime Minister incapable of matching the influence of Mr Major, or is it the case that the Prime Minister believes that the British people cannot be trusted to decide the issues for themselves?

4.22 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made in another place. I echo what he said about the Greek Government's effective handling of the summit. I add the thanks of noble Lords in many parts of the House for the remarkable work done by Members of this House on the constitutional convention, as well as for that done by Members of another place. We have great reason to be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, and my noble friend, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, for the distinguished role they played. We are grateful to them.

It is rather a pity that the Government did not express their appreciation of the remarkable achievement represented by the draft constitutional treaty, whether or not one agrees with every line in it. To bring 15 member states and another 10 candidate states to agreement on such a detailed document and produce agreement that it should be presented as the draft upon which the IGC will base its negotiations is, by any standard, a remarkable achievement. I also regret that the Prime Minister did not think it right to mention the substantial deepening of democracy in the EU represented by the draft constitution.

For lack of time, I shall not go through it all. I shall mention a couple of remarkable examples. One is the great extension of co-decision making in the European Parliament to another 35 areas currently dominated by the Council. The second is the substantial proposal to open up the legislative General Affairs Council, something for which many Members of this House and of another place have asked for over 30 years. It is worth mentioning that acceptance of the idea of open public discussion in the European Council in its legislative mode is something for which we have waited a long time. It represents a step forward in democracy. Finally, in that context, I must say that many of us are pleased to see that there is now a voluntary exit clause. That means that Euro-sceptics can come out into the open and declare their true position, represented by the minority report at the convention, which is that they want to get out of the European Union and have nothing more to do with it. It is high time that people stopped disguising that view and expressed it clearly and firmly as an alternative to be put to the British people.

In that context, I shall say a couple of things about the broader international issues in the Statement, which brings together many aspects of policy, not just the draft constitution. On these Benches, we are glad to see that the Government's pilot project for asylum did not receive unanimous support from the rest of the European Union. It was always an extremely troublesome proposal. It had about it all the hallmarks of the dangerous "safe havens" policy of the 1990s, which, as we know, led to disastrous outcomes at Srebrenica and elsewhere. To many of us, it also represented a serious invasion of the human liberties of many of our fellow citizens. We are glad that it has been reduced to a pilot project, and many of us hope that the pilot project will not get off the ground.

I must also ask a question about the Middle East. I welcome what the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said about EU co-operation in the Middle East road map, which is crucial. We fully support the argument that there should be a serious investigation of the financing of Hamas. Will the Prime Minister and the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House echo the statement made this morning by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, that, alongside attempts to deal directly with Hamas and bring it into negotiations, there is the question of whether targeted assassination is a sensible policy?

I have further questions for the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council. Given the relative sketchiness of the report and the Government's decision up to now that they do not want a referendum on the constitutional convention, will the Government consider publishing a White Paper, setting out their position on the clauses in the draft constitution that they do not fully accept and explaining why they took that decision? That would enable all of us to have a more informed and intelligent discussion than we can have without either a referendum or a White Paper.

The Statement is marked by a great deal of timidity towards the Euro-sceptics. Those of us who are Euro-enthusiasts—we make no bones about that on these Benches—desperately want the information that will enable us to conduct a full and proper discussion with our fellow citizens. We believe that that will show that there is much more support for the European Union than is exemplified by many of our newspapers. We cannot have that unless we have the information from the Government and willingness on the part of the Government to engage openly in the discussion.

I conclude with two other questions. The appointment of a foreign minister brings together the present roles of the High Representative and the Commissioner for External Relations. What is the Government's view about that? Do they recognise that it should give the EU a substantially more influential voice in world affairs? Will the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree to support strongly the proposal for transparency in the Council of Ministers when it meets to discuss legislative matters and the extension of co-decision making to the European Parliament on the whole range of European legislation?

4.28 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful in substantial part for what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby.

The noble Lord was right to draw to our attention the importance attached to the continuance of the transatlantic relationship, to which the Government are firmly committed. He was right to point out that, despite a good deal of questioning, a good deal of cynicism and a good deal of scepticism, many people believe that the action in Iraq, in which our Government were fully involved, was fully justified. I take the noble Lord's point about coercive action, subject always, of course, to the norms of international law, about which he and I agree. I agree with him on the importance—the absolute necessity—of President Bush's personal commitment to the Middle East peace process. Again, there were those who scoffed when the announcement was made at Hillsborough, but I must say that, considering what Secretary Powell and President Bush have delivered so far, no one, I think, could fairly accuse them of lack of commitment and energetic effort.

The noble Lord asked me for the Government's view on the demonstrations in Iran. One must be careful in appearing to interfere in the affairs of other states. Sometimes, it is counter-productive. I think it is fair to say that there is a distinct reform movement among younger people in Iran. Many of us would welcome that. It is foolish to think of any society, least of all Iran, as a monolith. If there are optimistic signs, a tactful approach is more likely to succour them than undue use of the megaphone.

The pilots have not been dropped. We hope to get agreement on safeguarding refugees nearer to their home countries. Most refugees do not wish to be thousands of miles away in countries where the culture, the language. the traditions, the history, are different.

We want CAP reform. The wheel of history turns quite slowly. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, frequently, on this side of the Despatch Box, saying how keen his government were to have CAP reform, and we have not brought it about. The important point is that had CAP reform been on the agenda, because of the unanimity rule, we would have got nowhere. There is a significant prospect—I would describe it as an imperative—that at the Agriculture Council we can take this forward. I agree entirely with what was said about poorer countries. They will never manage to improve themselves significantly without CAP reform. But of course in the Agriculture Council, it is QMV not unanimity.

The noble Lord referred to "tidying up". I am not quite sure where he got that from. If one looks at the text, 75 per cent is drawn from existing documents and plainly, in the nature of things, if we expand by 10 from 15 to 25 members, there will need to be some modification of arrangements.

The noble Baroness paid well-deserved tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, and the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. I hope it does not seem patronising but I know that the Prime Minister has been extremely appreciative and congratulatory of the role they have played. As the noble Baroness pointed out, this offers us a deepening of democracy. There should be greater national parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. We have debated this issue to general unanimity in your Lordships' House.

On the Middle East peace process, it is essential that we pursue those who finance Hamas. I do not believe there is any difference between Her Majesty's Government and the comments made by US Secretary of State Powell this morning. The noble Baroness also put asked a question about a White Paper, which I am not authorised to answer directly. I shall simply indicate that I will take that forward to see whether it finds favour elsewhere. There is some virtue in going through the articles, finding out what type objections might be and seeing what support there may be for some of them.

On the question of a foreign minister, the terminology has been rather abused. There is no suggestion that there should be an EU state at the United Nations. But there are prospects for enhancing EU representations—not representation—at the UN. That will depend on the rules of the United Nations. There is no question of a foreign minister for the EU or an EU state in the Security Council.

I should like to conclude with one general point. This was welcomed by the Prime Minister as a basis for further activity. There is going to be an inter-governmental council. That will take the best part of a year. What we are dealing with here is not a mosaic text inscribed on tablets of stone. We are dealing with proposals for the way forward.

The noble Baroness lastly said that this was a rather timid approach. I do not believe it is. The next year will determine the shape of Europe of which we are a member. I have no doubt that a Europe that stretches from Finland and the Baltic States to the shores of the Aegean Sea, Cyprus and Malta, is a Europe which should have Britain at its heart. I do not see any timidity in that direct quotation from the final paragraph of the Prime Minister's Statement.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I wonder whether I might just press my noble friend a little more about his reference to pilot projects on asylum. As I understand it, there were two different proposals which might conic under that description.

The first is that there should be centres near asylum seekers' countries of origin, where people fleeing persecution could find safety, pending a decision by the UNHCR as to whether they qualify under the Geneva Convention and pending help by UN FICR to enable them to settle in other countries, possibly even in western Europe. The second proposal was that asylum seekers reaching western Europe would be sent to a holding centre back in the area they came from and that a decision would then be made.

Those are two rather different proposals. One is finding safety near the country from which they are fleeing. The other is being sent back from western Europe to a distant region, so they are shuttled backwards and forwards. Would my noble friend say a little more about which of those two proposals would be subject to a pilot project? Also, what was the feeling of the summit in terms of supporting one or other of them?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. We did make progress on our initiative on zones of protection for refugees. It was agreed that member states should work on proposals for better protection of refugees near their regions of origin. I have to say to my noble friend that we are at the very early stages of dialogue. This dialogue will be with the commission, UNHCR, as he correctly referred to it, and other member states, to establish pilot projects in the autumn. Therefore I cannot give my noble friend any further details on that at present.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, on the common agricultural policy, can the noble and learned Lord say whether the Government have in mind a timetable for the ending of export subsidies from Europe? This has been dragging on for many years. Surely it is urgent to bring it to a conclusion.

As regards the Middle East peace process, will the European Union use its collective weight to help to break the cycle of atrocities and reprisals of which we have seen too much? Secondly, will the EU pay attention to the fine details of monitoring progress towards the road map and removing obstacles to it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot give a finite timetable for the ending of the CAP or any particular part of it. I wish I could but I have to be candid with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton.

I believe the European Union is fully committed to the Middle East peace process. It is a member of the quartet which was the author of the road map. I have no doubt that monitoring of progress will be essential. The difficulty is that, as we found in other contexts closer to home, one party says they will not do something unless the other party does something first. That party then says exactly the same thing. That is not tolerable. It is grossly irresponsible to the people who live in that part of the world. They all want what we want: an opportunity for a decent and ordered life and the hope that their children will have a better one.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, I thank the Lord President both for his Statement and for his personal remarks about me and my noble friend Lord Tomlinson. The noble and learned Lord says that the new member countries in the enlarged union are not ready to give up their nationality. As Scots and Welsh we know that even quite close relationships with other unions may keep alive a sense of nationality for centuries. Does he recognise that they are as little anxious as we are to give up democracy in joining the European Union? The members of the convention felt that the strengthening of the democratic basis and legitimacy of the Union are a vital part of the advancement of the effectiveness of the European Union. This is not just by national parliaments holding governments to account, but through proposals to elect the President of the Commission, the openness of the legislation council and the greater authority and involvement of the European Parliament. In the consent of the peoples of Europe must lie the key to ensuring that it can speak with one voice, both in purely domestic European affairs and in regard to third countries.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He is absolutely right. I take perhaps an example that might chime in both our minds—that is, the Czech Republic, which before 1939 was a democratic, highly successful, well-industrialised country. After 1945, until very recently, it had no experience of domestic democracy at all. What the noble Lord said entirely coincides with the theme of the Prime Minister's observations. Those who have struggled for so long domestically in conditions that we can hardly guess at are hardly likely then to give up voluntarily and willingly their hard-earned freedoms. The noble Lord is absolutely right in that context.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that both this meeting and the convention were opportunities to look at what powers, now in the hands of the EU, could be handed back to member states? Has that opportunity been taken in any single respect? If not, are we not faced with a situation where at every meeting there is further integration and the powers of this Parliament are further eroded? Sooner or later, if we go on in this direction we shall cease, in any meaningful sense, to be an independent country.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I disagree with what the noble Lord said. That will not come as a surprise to him. Ultimately, one gets to a stage where one has a deep, even philosophical, certainly political, divide. There are many here—I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby—who believe, not that we should drift with the tide of European history, but that we should be controlling as far as we can the way the boat goes.

If one has that view, if one welcomes the accession of the further 10 countries—I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave some of their names—it is a roll-call of 20th century history for people who had virtually no democracy, which is their right. I believe that we have many virtues in this country—one of them occasionally may be found to be compromised; I hope so—that we can offer. As many of us travel around Europe and talk to foreign Ministers and parliamentarians, they wish us to be there. They envy us our arrangements. They want to learn from them. I return to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan: there are opportunities here for a reinvigoration of the European institutions because of a two-way transfusion of increased democracy internally in the institutions and increased parliamentary scrutiny domestically. I have no fears about that and I hope that the rest of the country shares that confidence.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for making the Statement. Is he aware that some people—indeed, perhaps many people—believe that the draft constitutional treaty smacks not of a federal constitution but of a unitary constitution? Will he comment on that?

In relation to the chair of the European Council, which the Statement says is to prepare and follow through the European Council agenda, will he or she be a chairman or a president? If he or she is to be a chairman, how will that relate to the president of the Commission? Will the president of the Commission be senior to the chairman of the Council or what? How will this new appointment of permanent full-time president square with the Prime Minister's Cardiff speech in which he called for a strong, full-time president? Mr Hain said that we wanted a president of the Union to be someone who could speak to the United States for Europe on equal terms. That does not seem to be borne out in the Statement made by the Prime Minister today.

What is likely to be the status of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which at Nice the British Government said—indeed, it was laughed out of court by the British Government—would not form part of any treaty. Indeed, it was described by Mr Vaz as having no more relevance than the Beano. Can the noble and learned Lord, the Lord President of the Council, say what will really happen because it is now part of the proposed treaty? Have we got or will we have a Beano as a part of the new constitution? Finally, will there he debates in this House and in another place in advance of the intergovernmental conference in October and in the future?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, taking the last point first, obviously my noble friend Lord Stoddart, having much more parliamentary experience than I, will recognise that it is not for me to determine that. It is for the usual channels. When the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked me a similar question, I indicated that these are very important issues. We are an important House of Parliament, although we are not the superior one. Other things being equal, it seems to me that as a matter of principle we ought to seek to get decent time for these debates.

Although I do not have the text before me, I think that Mr Vaz said that—

Lord Strathclyde

He spoke about the Beano.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I know what he said. I am just about to explain it to your Lordships' entire satisfaction. Without incorporation of the charter as part of our own domestic law, I think Mr Vaz was seeking to say that it would have no more legislative or legal power than a copy of the Beano. Perhaps I would not necessarily have used quite that phrase myself, but there we are.

My noble friend Lord Stoddart asked about the president. Monsieur Giscard d'Estaing explained on innumerable occasions—once to me personally—that there is no French word for "chairman". There is one in Welsh, which proves that it is an infinitely more civilised language—"cadeirydd". At the moment, it is not possible to have the rotating presidency. I am bound to say—with one bound being free at last—that it always seemed rather strange that one had a rotating presidency with a country, not an individual, taking over the presidency every six months. Most organisations would find it difficult to run in that way and, as the Prime Minister said in his Statement, for 25 it is quite impossible. Therefore, it is prudent to have a presiding office—that is the word It am looking for—to preside over the deliberations.

Lord Barnett

Or a speaker.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I hear my noble friend Lord Barnett as always helping me by urging that they might call the position a speaker or a Lord President or even a Lord Chancellor. I know that he is just being mischievous.

A noble Lord

Or even a Wolsey.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, or even a Wolsey. To return to my earlier point, this is a possible way forward. It is a basis for the IGC, which will not report for a year. In the nature of things, if we are to have intensive deliberations for virtually a year, many of these questions will not be answered until that time.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend give some indication as to whether any progress has been made and, if so, how much and in specific terms what, on the matter of the acquis communautaire? My noble and learned friend will be as aware as I am, or possibly even more so, that until the recent conference, the position has been that new joiners to the Community have been required to accede to the whole question of acquis communautaire. For example, countries such as Poland would undertake not to disturb existing arrangements by virtue of which the new member states assume all the responsibilities agreed up to that time by the remainder of the Community. That is my first point.

My second point concerns more particularly the common agricultural policy. Is there any firm undertaking, or any glimmer of hope that the proceedings between now and the next conference will result in drastic changes to the common agricultural policy? The continued imposition of that policy means that this country, among others, pays far more into Community funds than it really needs. It may well be that these issues have been solved. The House would be much obliged if my noble and learned friend could give an indication that, even if they have not been solved, specific steps are being taken between now and the intergovernmental conference to alleviate them. Otherwise, there is bound to be a profound scepticism that anything—but anything—at all will change.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, on my friend's second point, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, I cannot give a categorical assurance or a timetable about the changes that are required. I do not think that there is a single Member of your Lordships' House who does not dissent from the proposition that change is long overdue. I come back to my point: if the issue is dealt with in the agriculture council there is much more hope—because of QMV—than the unanimity rule would have offered in the present session, which has just finished.

On acquis communautaire, of course any new country joining the European Union looks for transitional arrangements where appropriate. I do not see any difficulty in that. After all, Turkey, which at the moment is simply a candidate country and not an accession candidate, has made quite significant changes to its own domestic arrangements to meet EU standards.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, as regards the constitutional treaty, which will of course replace a whole clutch of other treaties that are going on the bonfire, is it not important to stress in the public debate that this new constitutional treaty arises from a convention on which we have a large input from national Parliaments; that is, from the voice of the public in Europe. That is a quite different situation from the past. It may be fully understood in Westminster, but I really doubt whether it is fully comprehended in the country.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is an extremely important point and one with which I perhaps did not deal sufficiently when I was speaking in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, about the reinvigoration of domestic parliaments as well as the reinvigoration of the institutions of the community. There has been a substantial input, not least from two Members of our own House. There has been a significant change of thinking. The final outcome so far, which is only a basis for the IGC, has benefited enormously and demonstrably by the input not least from parliamentarians from Westminster.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, perhaps I could briefly commend what the noble and learned Lord said vis-à-vis Iran. Our policy of critical but constructive support for major advances in democracy which have taken place there in the past eight years are in marked contrast to the American policy, which seems wholly counterproductive.

Briefly, building on what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, just said, does the Minister accept that—and I go a good deal further than the noble Lord—for the vast majority of the people of this country the EU and all its works is a closed book—actually, no, it is a closed library of books.

The Minister talked about us having the confidence to stride forward. That sentiment rings here, in Whitehall, Westminster and among the chattering classes, but, for the vast majority of people, there is no confidence about striding forward. They are fearful of yielding sovereignty. There is a sense of going deeper and deeper into a mire from which we will never emerge with our traditional democracy attached.

So I simply say: either we have, as my noble friend Lady Williams says, a referendum, or—and I think second best—the Government really do try and communicate with the very ordinary citizen, not in the language of a traditional White Paper but in a studious attempt to present in language that he will understand and want to read, what are the key issues around this crucial turning point—as I think it is—in the history of European Union development.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's remarks about Iran. I was responding to the noble Baroness's particular proposition that there should be a White Paper. I think I answered appropriately by saying that I would take that idea forward to my colleagues. That does not exclude the national debate. The national debate is very important indeed. I could not agree more. The noble Lord spoke about a referendum being his first choice. There has only ever been one national referendum, which was in 1975. If we cherish parliamentary democracy, I think that we should be quite sparing in the use of referendums.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, could I—

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I am afraid that we have run out of time.