Malcolm argues that the European Treaty will create an outward-looking Europe
Debate on the European Treaty Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
I have a sense of déjà vu, as I find myself on the Opposition front bench for the first time since the Tory Government in the 1990s—even more so as I once again debate a European treaty. I am pleased that this time we are having an afternoon debate rather than the hours and hours of all-night sittings that we endured with the Maastricht treaty in 1992. I point out to Conservative colleagues that the Maastricht treaty was infinitely more significant in its transfer of powers and its extension of qualified majority voting than the treaty that we are debating today. I also point out to them that the Tory Government at the time was implacably opposed to a referendum, as Baroness Thatcher had been on the even more far-reaching Single European Act six years before.

I thank Linda Fabiani for giving us some limited pointers today and at the European and External Relations Committee yesterday about the Government's attitude to the treaty. I must say that before that I was completely in the dark about SNP policy. All I had to go by was The Herald on 7 September quoting a senior source, who said:

"The party is not sure whether it wants a referendum, and if there is one, it is not sure which way it would campaign".

Come to think of it, Linda Fabiani addressed neither of those issues in her speech.

We in the Labour Party believe that the amending treaty will allow the EU to move on from debates about institutions to creating an outward-looking Europe, which we desperately need to meet the fundamental challenges of globalisation, climate change, terrorism and international development.

The treaty does not embody a far-reaching European constitution, although no doubt the next speaker will argue that it does. It is a traditional amending treaty, with some pragmatic evolutionary changes that streamline decision making, improve efficiency and safeguard democratic accountability through providing an enhanced role for the Parliaments of member states. As the Conservative MEP John Purvis said at the European and External Relations Committee yesterday:

"We need to do something to modernise the Community so that it works properly."—[Official Report, European and External Relations Committee, 18 September 2007; c49.]

The treaty does precisely that: it sets out the EU's powers and their limits without changing fundamentally the relationship between the EU and member states.

Margo MacDonald:
I thank Malcolm Chisholm for giving way and welcome him to the Labour front bench in his new role. Does he think that Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, is telling lies—or does he just have it wrong—when he says:

"Britain is different. Of course there will be transfers of sovereignty. But would I be intelligent to draw the attention of public opinion to this fact"?

Malcolm Chisholm:
There are obviously limited transfers, but the significance of the UK position is that the UK Government has not bought into the whole treaty, so the treaty that it has agreed is different in significant respects from the treaty in Luxembourg or other European countries.

I thought that Margo MacDonald was going to ask about qualified majority voting, which is one of the more controversial issues that has arisen in connection with the treaty. In that regard, the extensions that apply to the UK are modest but sensible.

I turn to the issue of a referendum, which I suspect will dominate the debate. As I have said, the treaty is not a constitutional treaty as originally envisaged, but a standard reforming treaty. There is therefore no case for holding a referendum on the basis of precedent, and no such case arises from the Labour UK manifesto; neither do I believe that there is a case in principle, given that referendums should be reserved for areas of substantial constitutional change.

Gavin Brown (Lothians) (Con):
Will the member explain what the differences are between the previous constitution, which was rejected, and the current treaty?

George Foulkes (Lothians) (Lab)
That would take all day.

Malcolm Chisholm:

As my friend indicates, that would take a great deal of time, because many significant changes have been made. Crucially, the UK has decided not to be part of areas of the treaty, particularly in judicial and home affairs, which Linda Fabiani welcomed, and in many other significant areas such as tax, social security and the protocol on the charter.It will be interesting to hear the views of other parties on that—although I fear that their views will be predictable. The Tories' call for a referendum is pure game playing and is born of political desperation. It makes a nonsense of the strongly stated previous position that they had when they were in Government and is based on a misrepresentation of what the treaty involves. There is far less transfer in this treaty than in the previous treaties and the constitutional concept has been abandoned.

In a brief note submitted yesterday, the Scottish Government seemed to indicate that it would support the treaty

"but not if the Government's red line concerning exclusive competence over marine biological resources under the CPF is ignored."

Linda Fabiani seemed to indicate yesterday in evidence to the European and External Relations Committee—although, again, not today—that that would trigger support for a referendum. However, there is nothing new in the treaty that changes the current situation in that regard, so it is not clear to me why the SNP would support a referendum—and, presumably, a no vote—merely to end up with the status quo in relation to the common fisheries policy if the treaty was rejected. Perhaps the SNP needs to clarify its position on the common fisheries policy more generally. Does it still support withdrawal from the CFP, with the inevitable consequence of withdrawal from the EU, or has that policy gone to the shredder as well?

The trouble is that the SNP's whole position on Europe is weak, inconsistent and full of contradictions, quite apart from the serious difficulties that were highlighted by Commissioner Borg in his interview in The Scotsman today. It is clear from that interview that it might take months or even years for an independent Scotland to renegotiate entry into the EU, assuming that that was still SNP policy.

The Minister for Parliamentary Business (Bruce Crawford):
Will the member take an intervention?

Malcolm Chisholm:
I am in my last minute, so I cannot take an intervention.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman):
I will allow a quick intervention.

Bruce Crawford:
Commissioner Borg has said that yesterday he gave a personal opinion that was taken out of context and he made it clear that what he said was all speculation. He also said that it was not in his competence to comment on that area. Does the member accept that? Does he accept that what he is saying is a dose of spurious nonsense?

Malcolm Chisholm:
I accept that there are a range of views. I was merely quoting the views of a commissioner, whose views obviously have to be taken seriously.

The truth is that while the SNP prevaricates, Labour has taken decisive action to negotiate a progressive and evolutionary treaty that is good for Scotland, good for Britain and good for Europe. I commend it to the chamber.
September 19th 2007, (Column 1855-8)