With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the EU Constitutional Treaty, following the 'no' votes in the referenda in France and the Netherlands last week. I shall explain why we have decided to postpone the Second Reading of the European Union Bill.
At the end of 2001 European leaders met at Laeken in Belgium to consider the future of the EU. Just three months before, the world's sense of order had been shattered by the atrocities of 11 September.
Reviewing the progress made within the EU over previous decades, European leaders said that the Union 'stands at a crossroads, facing twin challenges, one within and the other beyond its borders'. 'Within the Union', it went on 'European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens; beyond its borders, the Union is confronted with a fast changing, globalised world.'
It was this Laeken Declaration which led to the Convention on the Future of Europe and to the Intergovernmental Conference which followed it. Negotiations in the IGC were hard fought; but the United Kingdom achieved all its objectives.
My RHF the Prime Minister and I therefore had no hesitation in recommending the new Treaty to Parliament and to the country.
We did so, not least, because the EU's organisation plainly needed reform better to cope with the new challenges set out at Laeken, and with the enlargement to 25 member States.
So, the Treaty includes: a reduction in the size of the European Commission; a much better voting system (which benefits the UK); an end to the six-month rotating Presidency, with replacement by a full time President of the council and team Presidencies; better arrangements for involving national Parliaments in EU legislation; and greater flexibility through 'enhanced cooperation', to allow groups of Member States to cooperate more intensively whilst others go at their own pace.
And we kept our national veto in all key areas of concern.
On behalf of the UK, the Prime Minister and I signed the Constitutional Treaty in Rome on 29 October last. But, like any other EU Treaty, it requires ratification by every one of the EU's Member States – now twenty five – before it can come into force. To date, nine countries have approved the Treaty through their Parliamentary processes, and one – Spain – by referendum. In the last week, however, as the House and the country are very well aware, in referenda the electors in France voted 'no' by 55% to 45%, and in the Netherlands by 62% to 38%.
The Constitutional Treaty is the property of the European Union as a whole. It is now for European leaders to reach conclusions on how to deal with the situation.
To give effect to the UK's commitment to ratify the Treaty by referendum, we introduced the European Union Bill in the last Parliament, and it was given a second reading by this House by a majority of 215 on 9 February. The Bill fell on the calling of the General Election. It was reintroduced in this new Parliament on 24 May – before either the French or Dutch referenda – and it would in normal circumstances have been scheduled for its Second Reading very shortly.
However, until the consequences of France and the Netherlands being unable to ratify the Treaty are clarified, it would not in our judgement now be sensible to set a date for Second Reading. There is also the need for further discussions with EU partners and further decisions from EU governments. The first opportunity for collective discussion within the EU will take place at the end of next week when Heads of State and Government meet in the European Council.
We shall of course keep the situation under review, and ensure that the House is kept fully informed.
I should emphasise that it is not for the UK alone to decide the future of the Treaty; and it remains our view that it represents a sensible new set of rules for the enlarged European Union. We reserve completely the right to bring back for consideration the Bill providing for a UK referendum should circumstances change. But we see no point in doing so at this moment.
As I commented during last week, these referendum results raise profound questions about the future direction of Europe. The EU has to come to terms with the forces of globalisation, in a way which maximises prosperity, employment and social welfare. There are other large questions: how we can strengthen the force for good of the EU in foreign policy, along with aid to poorer countries and trade; how do we ensure value for money for our citizens, and better regulation; and how do we make a reality of the widely-agreed concept of 'subsidiarity', so that decisions are made at the lowest level possible.
All these issues have long been central to the United Kingdom's priorities for the European Union, and will be so for our EU Presidency which begins on 1 July. The continuing objective of enlargement and the issue of future financing will also be on our agenda. At the start of the Presidency I will publish the latest in our series of White Papers on the EU, and make an accompanying statement, to set out our priorities in more detail.
Let me conclude by saying this: the European Union remains a unique and valuable achievement, central to the UK's prosperity and well-being. The world's largest single market has enabled the businesses and people of this country to earn new prosperity by trading freely across borders. European co-operation has broken down barriers to travel, work and leisure. And the EU remains a vital engine of peace, democracy and reform.
The EU does now face a period of difficulty. In working in our interests, and the Union's interests, we must not act in a way which undermines the EU's strengths and the achievements of the last five decades, and we shall not do so.
Britain and the European Union