Peter Lilley, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, challenged the Prime Minister to explain why, in the light of his call for a supposedly fundamental review of the EU, he still categorically ruled out the return of any powers from Brussels to the UK. Tony Blair admitted that he still believes European development should be a one way transfer of power from Britain and other member states to European institutions. Lilley said this confirms that Tony Blair has not, as he would like to convince the Murdoch press, become a Euro sceptic overnight and that he has not understood the resentment of the French, Dutch and British people at the imposition of a one-size-fits-all Europe.
Questioning Tony Blair in Parliament on Monday after the Prime Minister returned from Brussels Peter Lilley asked: “In light of the Prime Minister‘s call for a fundamental review of the European Union, its purpose and fitness for that purpose, can he explain why he continues adamantly to rule out the possibility of any return of powers and competences from the European institutions to the member states??. The PM acknowledged that he did rule this out and claimed that no one else in Europe was prepared to discuss that prospect.
In an earlier debate Peter Lilley pointed out that in fact that is just what the French and Dutch people would like many of whom voted against a one size fits all Constitution because they could see its only purpose was to make it easier to impose one size fits all laws on them. They may want different laws from us but that should and would be their right if we returned to member states those powers which are not needed to run a Single Market.
“We should seize this opportunity to try to change the agenda in Europe from one that accepts that there has to be a one way ratchet ? with the only direction being the transfer of power from member states to the European institutions to one that accepts that there can be some return traffic.?
Note to editors:
Extract from Hansard, Monday, 20 June 2005
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): In light of the Prime Minister‘s call for a fundamental review of the European Union, its purpose and fitness for that purpose, can he explain why he continues adamantly to rule out the possibility of any return of powers and competences from the European institutions to the member states?
The Prime Minister: Because if we started a debate now about renegotiating our own treaty obligations to the rest of Europe, at a stroke we would lose any possibility of influencing the argument in the rest of Europe. I am sorry, but that is simply true. I will not bother reading out quotations from Conservatives when they were in government, as there is not any point in doing so. [Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman never made such statements, but I can assure him, without embarrassing too much the people who were in government at the time, that even the speech by Mrs. Thatcher at Bruges, if it were given today by a Conservative aspiring to the party leadership, would be considered rampantly pro-European. That is the truth. If we want to conduct the debate in a such a way as to suggest that the real point is how we get rid of the existing powers of the European Union, we would lose it before we started it, and that would not be sensible.
Extract from Hansard of Peter Lilley MP?s speech in the debate on Europe on Wednesday, 15th June 2005:
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who made a characteristically sceptical and thoughtful speech. That took some courage and, although I do not necessarily agree with his policy prescriptions, I do agree that it is important that, where possible, decisions about matters such as the extent of our economic liberalism should be taken democratically, by this House, and then opened to change and revision by the electorate.
Enthusiasts for the European constitution have tried to play down the importance of the results of the referendums in France and Holland by arguing that many of those who voted no did so for reasons not directly related to the constitution. My simple point is that people voted no because the treaty‘s advocates could not produce convincing and positive reasons for voting yes. They were unable to do that because there are no convincing reasons for voting yes that appeal to the ordinary populations of Europe. Without a good reason to vote yes, people had every freedom to vote no. They may have done so for trivial reasons but, had there been a positive reason to vote yes, they would have set aside domestic and unrelated factors and voted for the treaty.
In the absence of positive reasons to vote yes, the treaty‘s supporters came up with all sorts of negative reasons and threats, ranging from the vague and incredible to the insulting and absurd. For example, they said that voting no would mean a loss of influence, and that investment would be repelled. At the insulting and absurd end of the spectrum, people in Holland were told by that country‘s European Affairs Minister that a no vote would mean a return to the holocaust and the gas chamber. Other treaty enthusiasts in both France and Holland said that a no vote would open up the prospect of war and an end to peace. Happily, the peoples of both countries realised that those were insulting and absurd arguments and gave them no credence.
Those who supported the European constitution made clear its appeal to the elites. They believed that it would make it easier to take decisions centrally and override the objections of member states. However, that was precisely what did not appeal to the electorates in France and Holland.
Constitution enthusiasts have a second excuse to explain why we should disregard the no votes returned in France and Holland. They say that different arguments against the constitution were used in those countries, which conflict with the no arguments presented in this country. They add that that incompatibility and inconsistency means that both arguments cannot be right. However, I believe that they can both be right, because the treaty offered a one-size-fits-all constitution that would have imposed one-size-fits-all policies on member countries. If only one size of suit was available in the shops, it would be tight on my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in some places and tight on the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) in others. The imposition of one-size-fits-all policies would have been facilitated by the European constitution, and it was that to which the people in Holland and France objected.
An hon. Member earlier complained about a resurgence of Gaullism. I remember when General de Gaulle stood up for the rights of France and French sovereignty against the combined establishment in France. He bemoaned the fact that the media were against him, the unions were against him, the patronat was against him, the Church was against him and the intelligentsia were against him. He said, in his sardonic fashion, “Only the people of France are on my side.” We are now in the unique position that the people of France and Holland are on our side. They share with us a desire to have fewer centralising, one size fits all policies imposed on us.
We should seize this opportunity to try to change the agenda from one that accepts that there has to be a ratchet?with the only direction being the transfer of
power from member states to the European institutions?to one that accepts that there can be some return traffic. We should actively seek with our partners in Europe to ask what powers have been unnecessarily transferred to European institutions that could be repatriated to the member states to allow them to take decisions and tailor policies to their own needs. That is clearly what lies behind the malaise in Europe and it is an opportunity for us to seize the agenda. Sadly, although we may have the people of France and Holland on our side, we do not seem to have our Government on our side, and that is most regrettable.
On the subject of one?size-fits-all policies, I come to the rebate, which was designed to correct the adverse consequences of a one?size-fits-all financing mechanism. We call it a rebate, but it is well described in the relevant European document:
“The United Kingdom shall be granted a correction in respect of budgetary imbalances.”
As the “Oxford English Dictionary” says, a correction is a change that puts right something that was wrong. That is what the rebate does and it is right therefore that it should be maintained.
To obtain the rebate, Margaret Thatcher had to obtain unanimous approval for a change, which was very difficult, but she succeeded because she argued persuasively that a wrong needed to be corrected. However, the present Prime Minister has reversed the situation so that member states are unanimously against the rebate. Fortunately, one veto can maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, he has invited pressure by moving from saying that the rebate was not negotiable to saying that we would not negotiate it away entirely. He indicated clearly that he was in the market for altering the rebate‘s terms and conditions, thus reducing its value. That is a sad and dangerous step, which has made his life more difficult and will make it more difficult to uphold the correction mechanism in future.
I hope that the Prime Minister will manage to do so, but he will have to regain control of the agenda. He should ask the French for their explanation of what happened in the referendum and what we do next. We should also follow the French, who have ruled out firmly and adamantly any discussion of their benefits from the agricultural policy, by firmly and adamantly refusing to discuss the correction mechanism and the British rebate. If he does so, we can uphold our position. It is necessary to have a Government who recognise that different countries have different interests. Britain has different interests from countries on the continent?perhaps more than any other. It has different structures and ways of doing things that must be accommodated.
I was first elected in the same year as the Prime Minister. He was elected on a pledge to leave the Common Market, but unlike him I have always been, and remain, an unwavering supporter of British membership of the European Community. However, I understand the concerns of Dutch, French and British voters that the ratchet mechanism that allows transfers of power and the one-size-fits-all approach to policy making are not acceptable and have gone far enough, if not too far. We should look in the opposite direction, return powers to the United Kingdom where possible and allow greater diversity and the tailoring of policies to the needs of individual countries, not least our own.