Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Whitty: My Lords, of the 306 Conservative candidates who put their names forward for the Daily Mail's Euro-sceptic battle for Britain, 234 were rejected by the electors of Britain on 1st May. The Labour Party received an overwhelming mandate for its position on the intergovernmental conference and the rather bizarre call now by some elements on the Front Bench opposite--though I notice that it was not repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan--for a referendum at this point cannot be accepted. Nobody in the Conservative Party called for a referendum on the much more far-reaching provisions of the Treaty of Maastricht.

Perhaps I may now come to the area of foreign and defence policies. The noble Viscount objected to the decision-making process proposed. He opposed the concept of constructive abstention. I thought for a moment that he opposed it simply because he thought that it was a French invention, but he has either probably mistranslated or misunderstood the provision.

Constructive abstention only applies in a system of unanimity in those areas where unanimity is still provided by the treaty. That decision is at the discretion of the member state. If a member state truly feels that its central national interest is threatened, it would vote against and therefore prevent that aspect of common foreign and security policy going ahead. However, if it feels less strongly about it, it can engage in constructive abstention. That is a very sensible way forward for the development of foreign and security policy which has been seriously lacking in Europe, with tragic results, as we have seen. There has been a lack of co-ordination between the great powers of Europe on, for example, Bosnia and, more recently, the Great Lakes situation. The decision-making improvements on common foreign and security policy are vitally important.

So far as concerns defence, I said that we resisted the Franco-German proposals in that area and any extension of the EU proposals to take over the WEU would require unanimity. Therefore, we are in exactly the same position in real terms as we were after the Treaty of Maastricht, which was, of course, supported by the party opposite.

I come to the democratic aspects of the agenda, which some noble Lords have queried. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, in particular, was concerned about scrutiny by national parliaments. The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and his committee, to whose work I pay tribute, have long sought a longer period of consultation for national parliaments. We have achieved that with a minimum six-week notice period. I trust that that will be observed.

28 Jul 1997 : Column 71

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, rightly pointed out some difficulties in that and there are particular difficulties relating to the budgetary papers. I hope that we shall tackle those. For the first time in a treaty we have included that provision, which, to a large extent, was initiated by a committee of this House.

Democracy for us on this side of the House and accountability to European institutions do not include just national parliaments but include also the European Parliament. I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, who was concerned about some aspects of the Parliament, nevertheless underlined that point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. I believe that it is right that the European Parliament should effectively control the actions of the Commission and the Council when it acts collectively. The national parliaments must be the bodies which control the actions of their Ministers in signing up to agreements within the Council of Ministers.

The European Parliament's legislative role has been enhanced, as noble Lords said, by extending the co-decision procedure. We believe that that is right and we support it. We also supported streamlining of the co-decision-making procedure.

More recently, on 17th July, we announced our intention to legislate in the current Session of Parliament for the use of a regional list of PR for the 1999 Euro-elections. I say to my noble friend Lord Stoddart that consultation on that issue has been the widest consultation of all. After all, it was put to the electorate in our election manifesto. Indeed, it has been Labour Party policy since 1993, I think--I should know the date and I am pretty sure that it is correct--when we agreed to the proposal in the report put forward by my noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield. Not only will that improve the representativeness of the British contribution to the European Parliament; it will also increase the legitimacy of the European Parliament as a whole, in which the distorted British contribution has sometimes been queried by other member states.

There are other aspects of democracy which have been improved: openness and transparency; references to the Committee of the Regions made by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby; and the human rights issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, correctly represented in the first part of what he said, although I think that he got slightly lost on the procedure thereafter. We need to ensure that there is a fundamental part of the treaty which says that only democratic states and those states which remain democratic can be party to the European Union.

At one stage in the debate I thought that I would not have to deal with the tortuous area of flexibility, but the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, raised that matter in his contribution. To some extent, it was the dog that hardly barked during the Amsterdam process. But the form of flexibility that we have agreed is relatively limited. It is flexibility by the consent of those who do not choose to participate in the enhanced co-operation that is proposed. There are a number of barriers to it. It cannot undermine the single market and it cannot undermine the acquis communautaire.

28 Jul 1997 : Column 72

So, we have avoided the possibility of a two-tier Europe, a hard core Europe, a concentric circles Europe and whatever other form of geometry was threatened before the Inter-Governmental Conference.

Of course, there were some failures. We failed on the institutional side to agree the size of the Commission or the reweighting of votes. But we came close to agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked me why. One slightly flip answer is to say that we did not reach that item until four o'clock in the morning. It may be that the heads of government of other states were not quite as alert at that point as my honourable friend the Prime Minister. I agree to some extent with what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said about the ludicrous way in which such vitally important strategic decisions are sometimes taken. But we were close to agreement. I do not believe, whatever is said in Agenda 2000, that we shall require a full-blown IGC to put that right before enlargement. We shall need some new decisions on reweighting and on the size of the Commission before enlargement takes place. But that will not involve totally rewriting the treaty.

There were certain other items which are not strictly treaty issues and with which I suppose that I should briefly deal. Let me just say a quick word about ratification. Following certain technical amendments, we expect that the treaty will be signed formally in early October. After that, primary legislation will be needed before the UK ratifies it. We anticipate that a Bill will need to add to the list of Community treaties in the European Communities Acts all those parts of the new treaty, including the new protocols, except for those which deal purely with intergovernmental issues. So, the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, will be gratified to know that we shall have substantial debates on the treaty in this House before ratification.

I turn to the non-treaty issues which were raised. I do not believe that I have the time to deal with the whole issue of enlargement, which requires a separate debate. I shall not say much about monetary union either. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said that the Chancellor was full of surprises but I do not intend to spring any on his behalf tonight. The Government's position is known. It is unlikely that we shall be ready to join a single currency in 1999, but we will keep the options open. That remains the position. If we decide to go in at any time, we shall have a referendum on that issue.

On quota hopping we have achieved some measure of improvement by an agreement with the Commission in Amsterdam. We can now specify and enforce the economic links. We can now specify and enforce the rules which will ensure that benefits flow to our fishing communities. We will now have an assurance from the Commission that the review of the common fisheries policy after 2002 will take into account the particular position of the British fleet. We have held talks with the fishing industry on all these matters and it is aware of that position. It welcomes the progress that has been made, although it does not regard it as sufficient. Obviously, it is not entirely satisfied.

But I have to ask where the blame rests for that situation. We made some progress in Amsterdam, after all. But the inherited position was rather appalling.

28 Jul 1997 : Column 73

There was a chapter of failures by the previous government: failure in the original common fisheries policy; failure to modify in the light of the accession of the Spanish and the Portuguese; the allowance of under-performance years on which to base the quota figures; failure to agree on how we distribute licences in order to avoid selling on the licence when the boat is sold on; failure of the previous Government at that time to pick up the money that the EU had on the table to subsidise decommissioning, so that the attraction of buying licences from foreigners or agents for foreigners was that much greater; failure to recognise that the UK regulations, such as they were, would be challenged on their basics before the European Court of Justice; and failure to have any alternative fall-back position when the inevitable decision came from the Court of Justice. Instead, we had a foolish and, frankly, counterproductive threat by the last government to sabotage the whole IGC process if we did not get agreement to a protocol, for which we had no support whatsoever in any single EU state.

The fishermen of Britain have not been well served by the previous government. Frankly, we had to make the best of a bad job and we have made some progress. At least it is progress and not empty rhetoric.

One of the strongest and most positive things to say about the IGC process is that at last it is over. The obsession with institutional minutiae has distorted the debate about Europe for too long. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said, I believe that the European Union and its predecessors has had great achievements. We now need to take those forward into the next century. We can concentrate on the vital areas that Europe needs to address: enlargement; reform of the CAP; a new financial secretary--at least financial settlement; and, of course, monetary union.

Underlying all that is the competitiveness of Europe, the unemployment situation in Europe, the completion of the single market and the fight to protect the global environment. All of those will be challenges to the British presidency in only six months time. But with the normalisation of our relations with Europe that Amsterdam represents; with a realism about Europe's ambitions; and with the UK now back at the centre of Europe and the British Government looked to by our partners as a source of leadership and not a source of problems, we are confident that we in that presidency can rise to that challenge. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page