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8.15 pm

Under the existing provisions of article 11.2 of the European Community treaty, a member state can declare that

it will oppose the granting of authorisation by QMV. The matter may then be referred to the European Council for a decision by unanimity. Under Nice, that unanimity provision is abolished.

The extent of the ministerial U-turn on the issue is illustrated by what was said at the time of the Amsterdam treaty. The then Minister with responsibility for Europe, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), said that

Yet that so-called "critical" safeguard, which the Government apparently single-handedly secured at Amsterdam, was jettisoned at the very next IGC—so much for consistency, and for what? What did the Government receive in return for that major concession, and for sacrificing a huge negotiating counter should any country wish to use those procedures in future? Did they even ask for anything in giving up the veto on enhanced co-operation?

We have grave concerns. We have always made it clear that we would expect to use the veto only sparingly where our national interests were genuinely challenged, but it is absolutely right that we should have preserved that right to veto. It remains an essential safeguard and the Government should not be signing it away. It means that in future Governments will be unable to block integration by others even if our interests were being damaged.

Issues also arise under the remaining pillar—common foreign and security policy. The Government have made clear their view that the emergency brake veto remains in

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place for this pillar. In so far as the existing article 23(2) provides for that, the Government may be correct in that interpretation, but the House of Commons Library—I hope that the Minister will take this on board—points to what it describes as an ambiguity, in that articles 43 to 45 do not provide for an emergency brake. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point today.

Furthermore, other changes to enhanced co-operation measures were agreed at Nice about which we also have concerns. For example, article 43 of the European Union treaty, as amended by paragraph 11 of article 1 of the Nice treaty, sets out a new condition of such co-operation, namely that it must be aimed at

In addition, measures must not affect the "competencies, rights and obligations" of member states not participating in them, rather than

as at present. That is an important point. Again, perhaps the Minister will explain why those changes were made, the basis of the changes and what the advantage to Britain was in giving way in that respect.

Surely it is time for a proper and considered debate on enhanced co-operation as EU enlargement occurs. Policies on the central issue should be determined according to the requirements of a modern, enlarged Europe, not those of Ministers who seek seemingly cost-free concessions during late-night haggling at Nice for no apparent advantage.

New clause 9 would provide for such a debate, and I hope that hon. Members accept our genuine anxiety about the need for it. New clause 10 would provide for additional safeguards should Britain wish to participate in measures that were agreed under enhanced co-operation procedures. We have given up the veto on that crucial issue, and it is important to gain some clarification. I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister's opinion of our balanced new clauses. I commend them to the House.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Denis MacShane): We have had an enjoyable debate, which was enhanced by two remarkable maiden speeches. I believe that the 2001 intake will prove one of the strongest additions to Parliament for several decades. I suspect that the new Members in question have long, strong parliamentary careers ahead and a chance to contribute to our national life. The maiden speeches that were made this evening prove that assertion.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) made a remarkable and polished maiden speech. Like her, I was a former trade union president, but I did not manage quite the same turn of phrase. She paid tribute to her two predecessors, whose membership of the House totalled more than 30 years. I recall John P. Mackintosh speaking on the radio when I was a young man. He was articulate and had a great command of ideas. He was followed by John Home Robertson, whom I was proud to call a personal friend. We went skiing—that great and noble parliamentary sport—together, and I invite my hon. Friend to take her place in the parliamentary ski team. Scots are always much better at the sport than those who live south of the border. My hon. Friend referred to the centrality of public service. I believe that all Labour Members would agree with her about that.

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The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) also made a strong maiden speech. He referred to a predecessor with a Spanish-sounding name, who represented the constituency at the end of the 19th century and came to a sticky end. Those who know their Trollope remember Mr. Ortiz, the Conservative Member of Parliament who came to a terrible end. Perhaps bearing a Spanish name does not enhance a Conservative career. Given that all the shadow spokespeople for Foreign Affairs supported the loser in tonight's great election, I look forward to a freshening up of the Front Bench for future Foreign Affairs debate.

Mr. Spring: Was that the Prime Minister's view when he sacked all the Foreign Office Ministers before the hon. Gentleman arrived on the Front Bench? The Minister for Europe has returned to glory, but perhaps the sackings summed up the Prime Minister's view of the Ministers who served the Foreign Office in the last Parliament.

Mr. MacShane: I am glad that my hon. Friend effected his recycling policy when he changed from being Minister for Energy to Minister for Europe. I should prefer to dwell on the Prime Minister's appointments than on his dismissals.

We have held a good debate. I believe that the enhanced co-operation provisions of the Nice treaty strongly contribute to promoting British and European interests in the next stage of constructing the European Union.

The EU's ability to develop and change—its flexibility—has made it a success throughout the years. That flexibility is tested every time more member states join. In a European Union that stretches from Lisbon to Tallinn, it will be increasingly difficult to get agreement to move ahead on all subjects with all member states unless we have flexibility.

Flexibility in the EU has been called many names. For example, it has been described as differentiated integration, which sounds like the Eurobabble that my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe denounced in a speech outside the House in past few minutes. It has also been called variable geometry. I believe that that phrase was first used by the former Prime Minister, John Major.

The treaties have settled on the term "enhanced co-operation". Perhaps that is inelegant, but it neatly encapsulates the wish behind the provisions. In plain English, it means that the EU member states do not have to do everything together. It allows smaller groups of member states to take action together on subjects that the EU treaties cover without requiring every other member state to join in.

Mr. Cash: Perhaps another way of putting it is: all the member states cannot avoid being affected by the actions of those who decide to go ahead.

Mr. MacShane: That was close to being a triple negative. The other day, the hon. Gentleman called not only for enhanced co-operation but for the abolition of the veto on family law. He did that with great passion, and I believe that he was right. Perhaps enhanced co-operation could be used to effect what the hon. Gentleman wishes.

The provisions for enhanced co-operation already exist; they were introduced in the Amsterdam treaty. However, they have never been used. The Nice treaty makes them

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easier to use for those who want to do that while strengthening the safeguards for those who do not. That is a sensible move to prepare for the enlarged European Union that we want, and we welcome it.

However, the Bill is not about building a two-speed Europe, or a hard core of states that prevent others from joining in. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his speech in Warsaw last year:

The safeguards that we built in at Nice will prevent that. Those provisions are important. Enhanced co-operation must be a last resort, not the rule. As many member states as possible will be encouraged to join in. Those that want to join an existing enhanced co-operation action later should be given every opportunity to do so.

Enhanced co-operation may not harm the rights of those that do not participate. Actions under enhanced co-operation will not form part of the acquis or basic rules of the EU, so neither existing nor new member states will be required to take part.

It was right to strengthen the safeguards. It was also right to amend the procedures, as we did at Nice, so that, provided the safeguards are respected, no single state can veto a proposal for enhanced co-operation. The so-called emergency brake has gone.

The Opposition have made much of this change, but we are clear that it is not reasonable in an enlarged EU for one member state to hold up those wishing to proceed with enhanced co-operation, provided that the rigorous conditions have been met. Therefore, while we have rightly removed the veto on enhanced co-operation for action in the community field, we have built in a further safeguard: the right of appeal to the European Council. Any member state that strongly objects to a proposal for enhanced co-operation can make its case to the elected Heads of State and Governments in the European Council, and if the Council so decides, the proposal will not go forward. There will still be a veto on proposals for enhanced co-operation under the common foreign and security policy pillar, because decisions are taken on a basis of unanimity in that area.

The Opposition cannot have it all ways. They cannot be in favour of more flexibility in Europe, as they said that they were in their manifesto, while demanding that the emergency brake be retained.

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