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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The average length of Back-Bench speeches is now more than 20 minutes. On that basis, many of the hon. Members who are present will be disappointed. I appeal to hon. Members to give some thought to their colleagues who want to speak in the debate.

6.53 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): I hope to return us to the subject of the treaty of Nice, rather than to speak about our fears of possibilities that I shall not even try to find the words to describe. If we are honest, we will all probably agree that the treaty is not a perfect vehicle. It has its failings, but in negotiations where 15 member states sit around the table it is necessary to agree with some conclusions that the majority believe to be right in order to make progress. Similarly, rightly or wrongly, the treaty of Nice is the vehicle that has been chosen to take enlargement forward. That is the world as it is.

Let us consider enlargement. I gained the impression from previous speakers that half the House of Commons is in the Baltics, Poland and other accession states. From personal experience, I know that various delegations run into each other in Vilnius. Such meetings mean that many of us can speak with first-hand experience. We probably all share similar experience, which suggests that enlargement is extremely important for accession states. They see not only EU membership but NATO membership as a vehicle for advancement. Many countries envisage that NATO membership will provide military security and that EU membership will provide economic stability and security. They wish to be part of those two frameworks.

The processes for securing NATO and EU membership are very different. In respect of NATO, an invitation is issued and the approach is, in many ways, much more positive. The EU process is a bit like an Ofsted report; it has many chapters and a country will not be let in unless it can tick all the boxes. It is very sobering. In the past few years, it has helped many countries to develop a structure that reflects the way in which they wish to shape themselves.

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Most of the accession states—certainly those that hope to be in the first wave—have made it clear that they will hold a referendum even though they have no constitutional need to do so. They want not only to be democratic but to be seen as such. One of the reasons why it would be absolutely disastrous to delay the enlargement process unduly is the fact that opinion polls show that public support is dropping in some of those states.

We must deal with the reason for that and say something about the Irish referendum. I do not want to second-guess why the Irish people voted as they did or to tell them how they should have voted, but I suspect that some of them were saying, "Curses on all your houses." I suspect that the decision, rather than being a vote against EU enlargement or qualified majority voting, was directed against everything other than what is in the treaty of Nice.

In the long term, we must consider that disengagement by the electorate. I am not so arrogant as to say that they do not understand what is involved; they may understand only too well but still not like it. If so, we must accept it, but it would be wise for us to separate disillusionment from the very narrow aims of the treaty. I think that it is fairly unambitious and could have been much more ambitious. I agree with Members who said that it did not contain enough meat to make it an appropriate subject for a constitutional referendum in this country. It is the vehicle for enlargement. I agree with it and I believe that it should be taken forward.

One element of the treaty caused me some anxiety: the common foreign and security policy. I was concerned about the relationship between the EU and NATO. Interestingly, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs makes the following statement in its fifth report:

That caused me some concern. Members of the Committee have just returned from two days in Brussels, where we met the Belgian membership. We also met Hageland representatives and NATO members. It is clear that the EU and NATO recognise that the latter will have first refusal. That is made explicit in the statement to which I have referred, but it has been made more explicit during the past few weeks.

The circumstances in which NATO would choose not to become involved and we would depend on the EU instead are extremely limited. They will be exactly those in which America will not have an interest and the EU will wish to take the first step. The two structures are parallel. While I know that the treaty does not add one extra soldier anywhere, I hope that it allows us to use NATO and EU capabilities far more effectively. Surely parallel and comparable structures are the way forward.

I hope that we will all learn the lesson from the fact that successive Governments throughout Europe—I agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on this point—have shamefully underspent on defence. I suspect that when the shortfalls are considered, we will find that those in the EU and NATO are broadly the same. I hope that that will result in increased spending. Again, however, that is not part of the treaty itself.

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Let us consider what we are deciding tonight: the vehicle for enlargement, on which it would be absolutely disastrous to stall at this stage. I believe that one of the main reasons for central Europe's democratic development is the prospect of membership, which has provided a framework for that to happen.

Perhaps today affords an opportunity for us to restate a United Kingdom interpretation of two matters. The nature of treaties means that there are slight differences of interpretation. First, the United Kingdom subscribes to NATO and the transatlantic model. I accept that a French school of thought suggests that building an alternative power bloc to the United States should drive the European Union. I do not subscribe to that model, and I should be surprised if many hon. Members did. Perhaps now is the time to restate that clearly. Secondly, our model of co-operation is intergovernmental. Important decisions should be taken at ministerial level by elected representatives of member states.

Those views are not incompatible with the treaty of Nice. As I said earlier, although the treaty is not perfect, it is vital. No one, apart from those of the most extreme little Englander mentality who want to reconsider all the treaties and to return to the time before we started negotiations for accession and rerun the 1975 referendum, should be unable to support the Bill tonight.

7 pm

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): The speech of the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) from the Government Back Benches against the Bill means that there will be a pleasing symmetry, because I shall speak from the Opposition Back Benches for the measure. That reflects the reality of the European debate in this country: the division on Europe cuts across parties—there are different views in all parties.

I shall be brief, as you enjoined us, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to explain why I intend to vote with the Government tonight to ratify the Nice treaty. The Government and the Opposition are applying three-line Whips; there is therefore no doubt that the Bill will be carried. That was the consequence of the last general election. The easiest course for me would be to follow the Opposition Whip and vote against the Bill in the certain knowledge that that would make no difference. I could also continue to abstain, as I did until now, including on Second Reading.

I have decided to vote for the measure because I believe that the treaty of Nice and, therefore, the Bill is essential for the enlargement of the European Union. Nothing has been said in the debate to shake that belief. Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), I believe that it is our duty and in our interest to act to secure the early enlargement of the Union.

The Nice treaty contains an essential prerequisite for enlargement: the reallocation of voting weights in the Council of Ministers between current and prospective member states. The battle over the reallocation of votes at the Nice conference was hard fought and acrimonious. Many member states would like the matter to be reopened. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, countries such as Belgium were losers in the reallocation, and that is one of the reasons for the failure of the ratification procedure to progress as fast as we would like. It is in Britain's interest not to

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reopen the matter, not least because the new allocation substantially increases our weight in the Council of Ministers.

In the light of the off-the-cuff remarks of the President of the Commission in the summer after the failure of the Irish referendum, my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has argued that the Nice treaty is not necessary for enlargement and that the necessary adaptations of European Union institutions can be accomplished through treaties of accession with the new member states. Let the experts and the non-experts in European law argue about that. I simply share the view of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). I observe that Mr. Prodi has not repeated his words.

I appreciate that the votes of prospective member states can be fixed in their treaties of accession, which could state that Poland would have a specific number of votes, Hungary would have a specific number and so on. However, the difference between what we are considering and the position that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) described in respect of the previous enlargement is that separate treaties between the European Union and Poland and between the EU and Hungary cannot reallocate voting weights between the existing member states. Any attempt to proceed in that way would run the risk of the many discontented member states trying to reopen the question. That would delay enlargement and disadvantage Britain.

Conservative Members, supported by the right hon. Member for Llanelli, have argued that although the agreement on votes at Nice is positive from the British point of view, it is outweighed by negative features such as the extension of majority voting, the promulgation of the European Union charter of fundamental rights—not, of course, as a justiciable instrument—and the further development of the common foreign and security policy. I am not persuaded that all those developments are necessarily so negative from a British point of view; I am sure that their significance is far outweighed by the agreement on the new voting structure in the Council of Ministers.

The new leadership of my party appears, at last, to have grasped that the rhetoric of the past four years about the threat of a European superstate was at least overheated. That is the new leadership line, but the debate shows that it has not trickled down to all Back Benchers.

In the recent Conservative party leadership election, I undertook the task of answering letters from Conservatives and others about Europe to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who was one of the candidates. Hon. Members will appreciate that that was not always an agreeable task. Many good people—and some who are perhaps not so good—have been persuaded that nothing less than a desperate battle for national survival is under way. A sort of 1940 complex—Britain against a united and hostile European mainland—has been generated.

The new leadership line is, thank goodness, that Europe is not such a big issue after all and that there is no need for the Tory home guard to fight on the beaches and elsewhere. That is a welcome and clear admission that the threat of a European superstate has been overstated. If the threat were real, Conservatives and all hon. Members would want to oppose it vigorously.

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If the threat of the European superstate is being discounted and we are to put the 1940 complex behind us, why should not Conservatives examine the Nice treaty realistically? I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes that, like its predecessors at Amsterdam and Maastricht, the Nice treaty constitutes a signal reverse for federalist ambitions. If the treaty is not to be regarded primarily as another milestone on the road to Britain's incorporation in a federal superstate, why are we voting against it? If it is to be so regarded, why are we putting Europe on the back burner? The Conservative party's opposition to the Nice treaty tonight and some of the rhetoric that we have heard in the debate is best understood as a hangover from the party's previous, discredited European policy.

I shall conclude by speaking briefly about why I support the early enlargement of the European Union. I do not support it simply because it will stabilise the politics and security of central and eastern Europe and secure the development of important and growing new markets for British goods and services. I do not support it simply because it will necessitate reforms of European policies such as the common agricultural policy and the budget policy, which should produce welcome improvements from the British point of view. By the way, that will happen only after enlargement, because if we try to achieve it beforehand it will simply block enlargement.

I support enlargement for different reasons. We in Britain have historic obligations in central and eastern Europe, and great states such as ours have a long memory for such matters. I spoke about the 1940 complex in the Conservative party. I want to consider the obligations that arise from another fatal year—1939.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes referred to his European ancestry. I hope that my words will hold some appeal for him because his distinguished forebear—I believe it was his great uncle—the Marquess of Lothian played an important part in those events, although he was more a man of 1938 than 1939. In March 1939, the British Government responded to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Germans in breach of the Munich agreement by extending guarantees to Poland. In September 1939, Britain went to war to uphold those guarantees.

The British policy of 1939 was not just an admission that Neville Chamberlain was shamefully wrong to speak of the central and eastern European lands as "faraway countries of which we know nothing". Fundamentally, the British policy of 1939 was a commitment by this country to enable the states and peoples of central and eastern Europe to play their full part in a Europe organised on the basis of equality and co-operation.

For reasons with which we are all familiar, it was impossible for this country to deliver on those commitments—in 1939, at Yalta and Potsdam in 1944 and 1945, or throughout the period until 1989. But today, after half a century, in the context of the enlargement of the European Union—an association of free and equal co-operating member states—the time has at last come for us in this House and in this country to do what we promised to do all those years ago. My vote tonight for the ratification of the Nice treaty by the House is my personal contribution to the fulfilment of that historic British obligation.

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7.11 pm

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