05 March 2008

The clash of the giants (not)

This morning, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and William Hague, the Tory spokesman on foreign affairs, debated on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme the referendum issue on the constitutional Lisbon treaty. This is the transcript:

James Naughtie: The Commons will decide today whether or not there will be a referendum on the European Reform Treaty – the Lisbon Treaty. The Government says it's not necessary because the treaty is no longer a constitution on which a referendum would have been justified.

The Conservatives say that it is a constitution in all but name and that there should be a national vote. The Liberal-Democrats who could put the government in real peril if they joined the Tories in the voting lobby are abstaining although there may be some rebels. We heard from their leader Nick Clegg earlier in the programme and he reaffirmed the abstention pledge.

So let's hear the argument. The Foreign Secretary David Miliband is in the radio car. The Conservative’s foreign affairs spokesman William Hague is at Westminster. Good morning to you both.

Both: Good morning.

James Naughtie: Mr Hague: What is it that convinces you that, despite the changes made to this treaty, it is still a constitution in all but name?

William Hague: Well every government in Europe other than the British government maintains that the substance of the constitution is still there. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the fundamentals of the constitution have been maintained and indeed when you look at it, ninety percent of the constitution is still the same: the new EU president; the EU foreign minister - albeit renamed the High Representative - the loss of more than 50 national vetoes. We could go on with a long list of these things. And I asked the government, I asked the Foreign Secretary last autumn to publish a comparative table, a comparative analysis clause by clause of the constitution and the treaty. Significantly they were not willing to do so.

James Naughtie: David Miliband, why if Angla Merkel for one says that the fundamentals are the same, why do you insist that the constitution has been abandoned.

David Miliband: Well, I oppose a referendum on this treaty for the same reason that William Hague voted against a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which is that neither of these treaties exercise a fundamental shift in the balance of power between the nation state and the European Union.

And as for Angela Merkel she, along with every other European head of government, announced last June that the constitution had been abandoned – the words of every single European head of state. Why did they say that? Because voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the previous Constitution.

James Naughtie: Mr Hague, if it hasn’t been abandoned, why did they say that it had?

William Hague: Well, of course it suits people promoting the constitution to say its no longer a constitution …

James Naughtie: By your argument they don't need to make that case in Europe because they’re not fighting the same kind of battle of battle that the government is here.

William Hague: But of course they want to help those governments that have difficulty with the concept, as here in Britain but the important thing of course is what is in the thing and ninety percent of the content is absolutely the same. Many of the Articles …

James Naughtie: Give us an example of one thing which changes the relationship between the national state and the EU, so that we can discuss the specifics.

William Hague: Fifty vetoes are lost, for instance where we now have a unanimity requirement, in fifty of those areas we move to qualified majority voting…

James Naughtie: OK …

William Hague: Let me just add one thing. Very significantly, what we were debating in the Commons last night, the power is taken in this treaty to abolish all remaining vetoes other than in defence without any recourse to any further treaty. And that is something quite different, on a scale different from what we've seen before.

James Naughtie: David Miliband.

David Miliband: I think that exposes exactly the argument that there isn't a fundamental shift in the balance of power. William Hague talks about fifty-one vetoes. Sixteen of them don’t apply to the United Kingdom because we're not members of the economic and monetary union and because we have our own opt-in on justice and home affairs. Another fifteen or so of them are purely technical matters to do with pension rights and the appointments of various committees. Twenty of them are actually in the British national interest in areas where William Hague wants to see more action. Let me give you examples: in development assistance, for example, and disaster aid relief or in terms of some of the energy deregulation

These are areas where it is actually in the British national interest. And it’s absolutely clear that on any reckoning that there are fewer changes in qualified majority voting in this treaty than in the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty. So I think that this exactly exposes the core of the argument which is that we are a parliamentary democracy and only in circumstances where there is a fundamental shift in the balance of power, for example if we wanted to join the euro, then we should we go back to the people. Otherwise we have our own parliament people make their choices at general elections and there simply cannot be stood up that there’s a shift in the balance of power.

As for the second example that William Hague gave, there is a triple lock on all of the changes that he alleges are going to be smuggled in by the back door. Every government has to agree them, including our own, so we have a veto. Every parliament has to agree them, so our own parliament for the first time has a veto on change. In additional the European Parliament has to play a role. And the truth is that the isolation of the Tories is not just on the issue of whether or not there should be a referendum, because as I say every government in Europe has said the constitution has been abandoned. The real issue is that they oppose the Lisbon Treaty itself, even though it means more voting weight in the European council of ministers for Britain, even though it cuts the size of the commission, whose bureaucracy is always being attacked, and even though in important areas of foreign affairs it actually streamlines the delivery of foreign policy delivery that is decided by member states

James Naughtie: William Hague.

William Hague: Well yes, let me come back on that because first of all large parts of this treaty were opposed by the government itself as David Miliband himself knows. He often tries to portray that the Conservative party as being alone against it but many of the foreign policy provisions in it were opposed by his predecessor Margaret Beckett until the final few days of the negotiation on the treaty. Now David argues that the loss of vetoes, the twenty particular vetoes he mentions, are in the national interest and I say they are not …

James Naughtie: All of them?

William Hague: Yes. The issue today, however, is something different. It is should the people be able to decide about that. And while he says that none of us argued at the time of Maastricht for a referendum, no political party in the 1992 general election said it would hold a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. Every political party in the 2005 election said it would hold a referendum on what is essentially this treaty.

James Naughtie: Are you making the point that the commitment to the referendum on Maastricht would have come from a pledge in the manifesto and not from the content of the treaty itself?

William Hague: Absolutely because what we're dealing with here is something that goes wider than Europe. It is an issue of trust in politics. What are we going to say to all those people … we as members of parliament go around and say you must vote, politics matter, elections count and in future we will have to explain that an entire House of Commons, elected with a commitment to a referendum, decided by a majority that it would not have that referendum because the majority thought it would not win …

James Naughtie: In practical terms, Foreign Secretary …

David Miliband: Let me come back there because William Hague has said something that is absolutely extraordinary, which is that the content of a treaty that parliament is discussing has no impact on whether or not there should be a referendum.


David Miliband: Don't interrupt because you have said something that I think is very, very unwise. You’ve just said that the content of a treaty has no impact on whether it should be in a manifesto. So, for example, if there wasn’t a manifesto commitment to have a referendum on the euro, but a government decided that it should … enter the euro, it wouldn’t be bound to go to the people. I say that it's the content of a treaty that matters. So in the case that I've just given, if the government suddenly decided it didn’t want to join the euro, it would be bound to consult the people by virtue of the nature of the fundamental constitutional issue that it involved. And I really think that, on reflection, William Hague will realise that it’s absurd to turn over hundreds of years of precedent, where are parliament is the place to decide these issues. How many people have come onto this programme saying they want parliament to play a bigger role in our national life. Here is chance for parliament to do its job in a competitive way, as you see from all the debate about this vote today. And then for general elections to decide the nature of the government. It must be the case that it's on fundamental issues of principle where people are consulted

William Hague: The overriding issue of principle here is that a referendum was promised …

David Miliband: On a constitution which has been abandoned.

William Hague: Which has not been abandoned. And a family solicitor who told people that a document had been abandoned when ninety percent of its content was the same would be drummed out of his job.

David Miliband: Hang on, 27 heads of government have .. [illegible]

William Hague: … hundreds of years … Well look at the heads of government. Bertie Ahern says thankfully they haven’t changed the substance. Ninety percent of it is still there. The Spanish Prime minister said a great part of the content of the constitution is captured in the new treaty. This is what the heads of government have said.

David Miliband: But I can trade you quotes as I've shown because you've started by alleging that Angela Merkel, the head of Germany said it was the same as the constitution … [interruption] Hang on, hand on, well I've said she said its abandoned. I can give you back the Conservative Dutch prime minister ….

James Naughtie: We've heard quotes from both sides, yes. Let's move on, finally.

David Miliband: The constitutional treaty abolished all previous treaties of the European Union. It did something that was legally unprecedented. This treaty – it was rejected by the voters - this treaty says we should not abolish all previous version of the treaties of the European Union. Instead, we should amend the institutions of the European Union. That seems to me to be something that parliament was created to scrutinise and decide on.

William Hague: And look at what has happened when parliamentary committees, cross-party committees with a Labour majority have examined this question: the foreign affairs committee, the European Scrutiny Committee. The European Scrutiny Committee concluded that the treaty, the Lisbon Treaty was substantially equivalent to the constitution and efforts to portray it as otherwise were likely to be misleading.

David Miliband: I'll have to come in there …

James Naughtie: Very quickly, foreign secretary, very quickly foreign secretary …

David Miliband: William Hague has read half of the sentence. What the ESC has said, the European Scrutiny Committee said, was that for those counties didn't have the protocols that Britain has negotiated, in respect, for example, justice and home affairs, there were significant similarities. So let's be absolutely clear about what parliamentary committees have said. In key areas of structure, in key areas of content, and in consequence as well, the Reform Treaty has significant differences from the constitutional treaty. And those are important in our discussion. But the fundamental issue is, does it constitute a fundamental shift in the balance of power, in which case the people should be consulted or is in fact a job for MPs. And I believe that, as an amending treaty, it's a job for MPs.

James Naughtie: Can I just ask you foreign secretary, one last question. Isn't the politics of this clear? And isn't it the case that you as a government are pretty well losing the argument on Europe because, by every measure of opinion we've got that you'd lose it?

David Miliband: I am sorry that you have given William Hague a points victory in the last ten minutes discussion [illegible]. I would dispute that. No, I don't accept that proposition. I think that there is an important principle here, which is what's the job of parliament? And the job of parliament must be to scrutinise legislation and then decide whether or not to pass it. In exceptional cases where there is a fundamental shift in the balance of power, then of course there should be a referendum, and the scrutiny should be intense and the scrutiny should be serious. But in the end this is what we pay MPs for.

James Naughtie: Foreign secretary, William Hague, thank you both very much.

Comment by Nick Robinson, political editor (abbreviated).

What's striking though about this I think Jim, is that we thought that this would be a huge story, didn't we – this story of the Lisbon Treaty. This debate seemed likely to dominate the Spring and it really hasn’t. This is the first bit of attention it's got.

Now some people have criticised the media, the BBC for not giving it enough attention. But shall tell you why. The front benches have conspired to make it dull. The government doesn't really want much attention on it, there is a degree of embarrassment on it, that they’ve changed their position on the referendum, not one but twice in recent years.

The Conservatives, yes, are united in the main in favouring a referendum, but they believe that William Hague tried winning elections by being eurosceptic and failed. And he's one of the leading Tories in saying let's not bang on about this issue. And the Lib-Dems for their own reasons, really know that they are split on the issue of the referendum and therefore have also chosen not to give it a great deal of attention.

So it is likely that there will be no referendum. The Lisbon Treaty will be signed …