» Monday, June 21, 2004

European Constitution

Asked about the Prime Minister’s Statement to the House this afternoon on the European Council, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he had no intention of pre-empting it. That said, as the Prime Minister had underlined on Friday night, he regarded the Treaty as a success for both Britain and Europe. He also believed it showed that if we worked with our European partners, we could be at home in Europe and be able to fulfil our national interests at the same time as continuing to work for the prosperity, security and stability of Europe as a whole.

Asked for an example of anything in the Constitution which pointed to an increase in economic prosperity, the Prime Minister drew journalists’ attention to the impact of the single market on Europe, the impact of the single market on jobs and the impact of the liberalisation of energy, flights and services for example. Put to him that we had already signed up to the single market, the PMOS said that the single market would not be possible without the rules and regulations which the Treaty codified and brought together. Pressed to provide an example of something that had changed as a result of the Constitution which improved the prospects for prosperity, the PMOS pointed out that the single market was only possible if the Commission – and the EU as a whole – was able to work effectively and with accountability. The Treaty would help to provide for both because it gave national Parliaments for the first time the right to be consulted on all EU legislation.

Asked the Prime Minister’s thoughts on having a free vote on the Constitution in the light of a campaign being launched today by a number of Euro-sceptic backbenchers, the PMOS said that as a Civil Servant he was unable to comment on party political issues. However, this was a Government matter and the Government was approaching it as such. As the normal Parliamentary processes were gone through, the Prime Minister hoped that people would come to a better, more rational assessment of what the Treaty was about. It should be judged on what had actually been agreed, rather than on what people feared had been agreed. The crucial point was that it protected our national interests on tax, foreign policy, defence, social security and criminal justice. In the end that was what mattered.

Asked if he would agree with the suggestion that the Government’s overall tone on the Constitution was not that it was necessarily a good thing for Britain but that it was not as bad as it might have been, the PMOS said no. The ability to work together on common sense measures to establish a baseline on co-operation was important for this country. Whether that was done through a process of agreement through the European Commission or the European Council, or even whether there was an agreement by EU member states to agree to disagree, was also important. Treaties and deals did not come about as a result of standing on the sidelines. They could only happen if there was an agreement on the how the rules were interpreted.

Asked if the myth v reality argument was really fair since all the pro and anti Europe groups were doing was offering differing predictions about the future, the PMOS said that you only needed to look at what was being written and said about the impact of the Treaty to understand the need to make a distinction between myth and reality. For example, contrary to some reports, the UK was not going to give up its UN seat, had not been asked to do so and would not do so. Asked if the Government would accept as fact the assertion by some that the Government had given up veto rights and moved to qualified majority voting (QMV) in more than twenty areas, the PMOS said it was true that in some areas – half of them technical – QMV had been extended, but not in any way that fundamentally affected our position on the principle core issues that we wanted to protect. We believed that was a common sense approach to take. Asked if that was the case even on issues relating to asylum and immigration, the PMOS said yes because we would still be able to opt-out if there was anything to which we objected.

Asked to confirm that the Government would begin the Parliamentary process of ratifying the Treaty in the autumn, the PMOS said that the beginning of the Parliamentary process would depend on when the Treaty was translated into the various European languages and formalised into a legal text. It was not clear at this stage how long that process might take. Asked for an assurance that the English text which had been agreed on Friday night would remain as it was and would not be re-translated once it had been translated into other languages, the PMOS said that the text which had been signed up on Friday was the one that we would deal with. However, it would have to be formatted into a legal document which was what we would have to wait for.

Asked if the Prime Minister would accept that, just as he had said that he had been wrong not to agree to hold a referendum in the first instance, Ministers had been wrong to portray the Constitution as simply a tidying up exercise, the PMOS said no. As the Prime Minister had underlined in his press conference in Brussels on Friday night, the UK’s relationship with Europe had not changed fundamentally as a result of the Constitution. In relation to the referendum, however, he had recognised that the Constitution was the subject of controversy and debate and that it was therefore important to go ahead with a public referendum.

Asked if Downing Street was nervous about the Prime Minister leading a referendum campaign on behalf of the Government given the issue of public trust in him and the Government at the moment, the PMOS said that he would disagree with the premise or the logic of the question. He reminded journalists that it was, after all, the Prime Minister who had agreed the Treaty at the weekend.

Asked to explain why the referendum should have to take place after a Parliamentary process when that had not happened with the referendum to establish the Scottish Parliament, the PMOS said that he had no intention of going back over old arguments. Suffice to say that it was somewhat odd to complain on the one hand that the Treaty sidelined Parliament and then on the other hand to suggest that Parliament should be sidelined by going straight to a referendum. Asked the end date by which a referendum must have taken place in the UK, the PMOS said it would have to be ratified by 31 December 2006.

Asked why the Prime Minister did not want to hold a referendum immediately, the PMOS said that the Treaty recognised the role of national Parliaments. It was therefore only right and proper that it should be debated and voted on in Parliament in the first instance, just like the Maastricht Treaty.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news

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