European Union (Amendment) Bill

- Wednesday, 5th March 2008

 

Debate
Date of Proceeding: 05.03.2008
Reference: 472 c1856-7;472 c1854-5
Member: Lilley, Peter
Title: European Union (Amendment) Bill
Description: It is normally a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but whereas all other Members who have spoken have recognised that the debate raises issues of principle that transcend and divide party, he chose to make a purely partisan speech, and made little contribution as a result.

Twenty-five years ago, I was elected to the House-as was the Prime Minister, as it happens. Unlike the Prime Minister, who was elected on a pledge to leave the European Community, I have always believed, and still believe, in remaining a member of the European Community. I have grave reservations about handing over further powers, and there are some powers that we have handed over which I would like to see returned to this country, but the reason that I have, for the first time, actively taken part in debates on a European treaty is nothing to do with Europe. It is to do with integrity.

Nothing in the 25 years that I have been in this place has made me so angry as to see members of two party Front Benches-or, should I say, the Front Benches of one and a half parties-who were elected on a clear pledge to the electorate that they would hold a referendum, telling their Back Benchers, as they themselves would be doing, to renege, to resile, to stand on their heads to renounce a clear promise that they had made to their electors. Nothing that I have ever seen in the House has made me so angry. That is why I resolved to participate in the debates and have done so every day since, in the limited number of days made available to us.

I do not necessarily believe that there needed to be a referendum; perhaps there did not. Nor was it necessarily wise to promise a referendum; perhaps it was not. The constitution and the treaty may be desirable or may be undesirable. They may be more significant or less significant than previous treaties, but every party in the House made a promise that their electors would have a vote in a referendum on that constitutional treaty, and the treaty of Lisbon endorses and implements the substance of that constitution.

Today hon. Members face a test of their personal integrity. That is what is at stake. I have no issue with those who told their electors beforehand and made it clear that they did not believe in and would not support a referendum. They are as pure as the driven snow. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is present, is one of those and there are others on the Conservative Benches and in other parts of the House. However, if hon. Members repudiate a promise that they have made and from which they did not dissociate themselves at the time of the election, they bring contempt not merely upon themselves, but upon the House, the democratic process and the prospect of people voting in future elections.

Chris Huhne: The key point is whether there has been a change in what we are determining, compared with the previous position. Has the right hon. Gentleman had time to consider the view of Professor Steve Peers of the university of Essex in a Statewatch analysis on the justice and home affairs issues, for example, where he says clearly that there is a major change? He states:

“The introduction of a British and Irish opt out from this area of law is a major change from the text of the constitutional treaty”.

In light of that, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would prefer to temper his remarks about lack of integrity.

Mr. Lilley: I will go straight to one of the arguments used by those who try to cover over the change of heart that they have had since before the election-that it should be a matter for Parliament that there has been a significant change. Parliament established a European Scrutiny Committee to investigate, decide and advise us on whether the Lisbon treaty was the same as the constitutional treaty. That Committee reported:

“Taken as a whole, the Reform Treaty produces a general framework which is substantially equivalent to the Constitutional Treaty. Even with the ‘opt-in’ provisions on police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, and the Protocol on the Charter, we are not convinced that the same conclusion does not apply to the position of the UK under the Reform Treaty.”

I think that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Those on the Front Bench have made it clear what they are going to do. It was positively embarrassing watching the Foreign Secretary squirming like a worm on a hook, if that is not rather unfair to worms, which do not deliberately place themselves on the hook. I
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wish Ministers had been as straightforward as Huey Long, a notoriously cynical senator in the United States of America, who on election promptly broke a solemn pledge that he had made to his electorate. When his advisers came to him and said, “What should we tell people who are asking why you changed your mind?” he said, “Tell ’em I lied.” The trouble with the Minister, who is a charming and nice Member of Parliament, and the Liberal non-rebels is that they do not have Huey Long’s integrity and they certainly lack his clarity.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. The right hon. Gentleman should think carefully about the language that he uses and the insinuation that he made.

Mr. Lilley: I take your point, Mrs. Heal. I withdraw the point: they have the integrity of Huey Long.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of Parliament. I am sure that he wants to employ the taste and decency that usually characterise debates in the Chamber.

Mr. Lilley: I take your point, Mrs. Heal, and entirely withdraw my previous remarks.

The first argument that supporters of the change of heart deploy is that the Lisbon treaty is less important than previous treaties. The only question that faces those who made a promise about the constitution is how the treaty compares with it-not with Maastricht or any other reforming treaty, but with the one on which they promised their constituents a vote. The European Scrutiny Committee has said that the treaty is substantially the same as the constitution. We know that almost all the leaders in Europe who are free to do so have said that the documents are the same. No Minister has explained to us why the Spanish Prime Minister, the author of the constitution, Giscard d’Estaing, the Belgian Foreign Minister, the Italian Prime Minister and countless other leading lights should say things that are untrue. Why would they say that the two documents are fundamentally the same if they are fundamentally different? Ministers have not even addressed the point.

The second argument is that no countries on the continent have held referendums on the Lisbon treaty. Of course they have not. Those that were required to hold referendums did so on the constitutional treaty. If they got a yes vote, they decided that they did not need another referendum on a document that is substantially the same. If they got a no vote, they decided not to get another biff in the face, and to pretend that the Lisbon treaty is different.

The third argument is that all the Governments of Europe signed up to the statement that the constitutional concept had been abandoned. I have before me the words of the statement that was issued after the Council meeting. It does, indeed, state that the constitutional concept was abandoned, but it continued, in the same sentence and the next, that, instead of

“repealing all existing Treaties and replacing them by a single ‘constitution’...the Reform Treaty will introduce into the existing Treaties, which remain in force, the innovations resulting from the 2004 IGC.”


5 Mar 2008 : Column 1857

That IGC endorsed and decided to implement the European constitution. The statement makes no bones about it. Therefore, every time the Foreign Secretary quotes the statement without the second part, he misleads-unintentionally-the House of Commons and the British people.

The fourth argument is obscure-indeed, it is designed to be obscure. As Samuel Johnson said, if you want to escape from a difficult hole, emulate the squid and squirt black ink in their faces while making your getaway. Supporters of the change of heart have adopted the argument that the constitutional treaty involved repealing all the existing treaties whereas the Lisbon treaty does not. They fail to say that the constitutional treaty abolished existing treaties but reintroduced all their powers in its text.

There are always two possible ways in which to move from an existing treaty, or set of treaties, or existing law, or set of laws, to a new final text. The first is to amend, in detail, all the existing laws until they are brought into the relevant form and adjusted and amended until they equal a final text; the second is to repeal all the existing laws and treaties and replace them with a new text incorporating those laws and any changes.

When we do that in this House-in respect, for example, of accumulated finance Bills-we normally call it a consolidation Bill. We consider it less, not more, important; we devote less time to it because it does not change any laws, but simply brings them all together. Essentially, what the European constitution did was to bring all the existing treaties together to make one document. If there is any doubt about the differences between those different routes, the Government have allayed them-they have published not only the Lisbon treaty, but the consolidated treaties that result from the Lisbon treaty. We know the final text that we have reached through the process of detailed amendment, and I have to report that it is almost identical to the consolidated text of the original European constitutional treaty. There is precious little difference, and the Government are adopting mere persiflage with their argument.

The Government say that a referendum is incompatible with parliamentary government. With a great flourish, the Foreign Secretary ended by saying that we should do what electors pay us to do. Well, after the last election, they sent us to fulfil our promises. All of us, except those who had dissociated themselves from the manifesto promise, were sent here to implement the promise to have a referendum on this treaty. If we do not do so, we are not doing what the electors pay us to do.

Those who believe in parliamentary government should be particularly wary, especially as that promise was made before the last election precisely to take out of the electoral arena the issue of whether the constitutional treaty should be ratified. People were told that that was done because they would have a separate vote on it in a referendum. If they are not to be granted that vote, Members were elected on false pretences-this House was elected having told people not to worry their little
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heads about Europe at the general election because they would face the decision later. It is an absolute abnegation of parliamentary democracy not to fulfil the pledge in those circumstances.

Finally, people say that the treaty is only a modest step and is no bigger than previous treaties. However, each step brings us nearer to a final point. If someone is on their way to Beachy Head, the first few miles do not matter, but the last few steps near the edge matter a great deal. I shall cite Hegel and Marx, authorities who may have more force on the Government Benches. They said that beyond a certain point, quantitative changes result in a qualitative change. Beyond a certain point, accumulative slices of the cake through successive treaties bring about a substantive, qualitative change. Over a period, if we keep on allowing without any check such transfers of power from us to the European institutions, we will cease to be a nation delegating powers to ancillary bodies and ourselves become an ancillary body allowed only to exercise such powers as a nation called Europe allows us to.

I do not think that my electors or those of any hon. Member want that to happen. If they do, they ought to have the chance to affirm it in a referendum and see whether they carry the day.

 

 

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