Speech by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to the seminar on the convention on the future of Europe

Jack Straw, 17/06/2003

Category: European Union (General)

We're here today to discuss a momentous subject - Europe's future. For the past 16 months, delegates from the 15 EU member states, the accession countries, the European commission and the European parliament have been debating this subject in Brussels in a convention on the future of Europe. These delegations have included national parliamentarians and MEPs. The outcome is a draft constitutional treaty for the EU.

All of you will be familiar with at least some of the draft treaty's contents. It's already aroused a huge amount of comment, both in the media and in parliament. The house voted on an opposition motion on the treaty last week. There will be further opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

In my remarks this morning, I will be setting out the government's position on the draft treaty. And I want to explode some of the myths it has provoked - not least that it may be the end of the UK as an independent sovereign state.

But first a word on process: the convention's president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, will hand over the constitutional treaty to the heads of EU governments and the accession states at the Thessaloniki European council on Friday. This marks the culmination of an arduous negotiation. As Peter Hain said, the outcome should be a good basis for the work of the IGC but it is a draft. Like any draft it is open to improvement and amendment. The draft will be discussed in an Inter-governmental conference of the existing member states and the accession countries which will begin in the autumn. As is the tradition with EU Treaties, the hard bargaining, the last minute agreements will be reached by the democratically elected heads of the EU's constituent parts, the nation states. The treaty must have the unanimous support of all member states.

I won't make any predictions on the likely duration of the IGC. Personally I think it's immaterial. What matters to the government is that we secure the right text for the UK. All of you will be the judge of this. If and when a draft has been agreed by the member states and accession countries, parliament will have the final say.

No doubt we will want to measure the final draft treaty which emerges from the IGC against a number of standards. We will bear in mind two criteria in particular:

“ first, and above all, will the draft provide the institutional blueprint the union needs to make EU enlargement work?. It's common knowledge that a framework designed for the founding six has laboured at 15. Without reform, it will degrade and maybe collapse at 25; “ and second, clarity - despite its inevitable length and complexity, will the draft help the public better understand the EU? Does it represent an improvement on the way the EU's constitutional arrangements are currently set out?

The first criterion I would ask you to apply in judging the final draft which emerges from the IGC is this: does the treaty give the union the foundation it needs to operate with 25 member states?

Successive British governments have championed the cause of EU enlargement. There are any number of reasons why it is in our national interests. No-one has put it more succinctly than one of my distinguished predecessors, Lord Hurd of Westwell. Eight years ago he said: "enlargement is not a luxury. It is a necessity if we are to build a safe and successful Europe for the 21st century." In a speech in Warsaw four years ago, the prime minister was the first EU leader to call for enlargement before the European parliament elections in 2004. A vision which struck some at the time as overly ambitious is about to be realised on schedule.

Enlargement means more markets for British business, more jobs in Britain - and the rest of the union - and more partners in our campaign against the problems which transcend national boundaries: environmental degradation, illegal immigration, crime, terrorism and the proliferation of WMD.

But we will not realise all of these benefits if we stick with the EU's current framework. At present Europe's institutional structures lack coherence - the musical chairs of the council presidency is a recipe for inconsistency; the enforcement of EU law is too haphazard; Europe's voice in the world is too faint.

Let me here deal with the second criterion I mentioned earlier - clarity. At the Laeken summit 18 months ago, EU Heads of government issued a declaration of intent. They concluded that European "citizens want...the institutions to be more efficient and open." We welcomed this then and we support it now.

The Laeken declaration reflected EU governments' concern at the union's so-called "democratic deficit." Public support for the EU's policies and its institutions varies widely from country to country. But polls show that one broad concern animates voters in every member state - a sense of unease at a lack of openness.

Most European voters are well acquainted with the workings of their own democracy. A large majority participate in national elections. But few have a broad knowledge of the workings of the EU. And fewer still would dare even to hazard a guess about the contents of the plethora of treaties which have formed the milestones of the EU's development since the treaty of Rome.

This lack of awareness has been the union's achilles heel for too long. It has created a knowledge vacuum which has been filled by the forces of Euroscepticism. Of course, one of the attractions of the many myths which have flourished about the EU is their simplicity. It's far easier to talk of a European superstate than to explain the reality: a tangle of treaties and institutions each seeking to subject all of the complexities of inter-state relations to the rule of law.

I accept that national governments themselves haven't always done enough to raise the level of debate and to inform their publics. Our job is to explain Europe to our electorates and to do so in simple terms, rather than falling back on the EU lexicon which puzzles and infuriates in equal measure.

For this reason, I am publishing today a ten-point summary of the convention's draft constitutional treaty. It captures - in plain language - the key elements of the convention's text. You'll each be receiving copies of this summary so I won't give you a blow by blow account except to say this. The convention's draft is a good starting point for the lengthy negotiation ahead in the IGC. We all know that sections of the media in the UK have already passed judgement. So have some in Europe. Last month, Le Monde captured the flavour of much of the European commentary when it concluded that "the British government is pleased with the convention and has every right to be so. The text meets virtually all its expectations and allays most of its fears."

I do not prejudge the outcome of the IGC, but I can say that the convention's draft largely meets the remit which I set out in an article in the Economist last October. I called then for a text which describes what the union is, what it does and how it does it; defines the role and powers of the union's institutions, and their relationships with the member states; and improves the union's ability to deliver practical benefits to Europe's citizens.

The convention's draft is a significant improvement on the way in which the union's constitutional arrangements are now set out. These currently have to be found in a number of lengthy treaties each of which has granted the union different powers. Until this point, there has never been a single text to which Europe's voters can turn to inform themselves of the union's institutional framework, the relations between the member states and the union, or the range of the union's competencies.

This is not to denigrate the successive EU treaties since the treaty of Rome. They - and judicial decisions on them - have given the union the authority for its laws to override those of the member states in areas where we have agreed that it should do so. They have provided a firm foundation for the union's profound practical achievements. But I am sure Walter Bagehot himself would agree that they fail almost every constitutional test of clarity and brevity.

Our broad agenda in the convention on the future of Europe has been to promote proposals which inject a greater degree of efficiency into the union's institutional structure. Our case is especially strong in respect of the six-monthly presidency system.

For this reason, we have proposed to change the current rotating presidency system - replacing it with a new permanent chair or president of the European council. I am pleased to say that this recommendation has been included in the convention's draft. This post will not mark a decisive step towards a powerful new EU head of state. Quite the reverse. He or she would be directly accountable to the member governments.

It's a simple idea with important consequences. Because it's a recipe for more effective decision-making, consistency and consensus between the member states, and a stronger role for the nation states in the councils of the EU. It is not so different from the post of Nato secretary general. It's difficult to imagine the alliance functioning without it. And Nato has always been an alliance of sovereign nation states. But this is not a zero sum game. A stronger council also requires a more effective commission, and an improved role for the European parliament.

Alongside this important reform of the council, we have argued in the convention for a clearer definition of where the EU has exclusive power; where powers are shared between the union and the member states; and where the EU should only act to support, encourage or benchmark national policies.

There is now an emerging consensus around the UK position - enshrined in the convention's draft - for the introduction of a new mechanism to make sure that the union respects the principle of subsidiarity, acting only to achieve the things that regional or national governments cannot so effectively do for themselves, at the nearest effective level to the citizen.

Under our proposed system, national parliaments will quickly review each EU proposal, judging whether action is being taken at the right level and in the appropriate way. This would not amount to a veto. But should a majority of national parliaments judge that a proposal infringed the principle of subsidiarity, the commission would get the message.

One of the areas of the draft treaty which will attract most comment in the coming weeks are the proposals to extend the principle of QMV - a principle which probably evokes more fears of Britain's submergence in a European superstate than any other.

What the union's critics tend to ignore is that in many areas - not least the single market - QMV has long served our interests. That was why Mrs Thatcher supported the principle of QMV.

We largely support the proposals for extension of QMV in the convention's draft. One of our priorities has been to secure support for the extension of QMV to asylum and illegal immigration. On home affairs, David Blunkett and I have already called for a common European asylum policy, which would ensure better protection across our continent for those genuinely fleeing tyranny and oppression, but provide for firm, collective action to deal with illegal immigration and the criminality which underlies it. We need to introduce qualified majority voting on asylum issues to drive this programme through.

We also need stronger action on cross-border crime. We need swifter and more effective cooperation between our respective police forces and judicial systems. Provided the treaty makes clear that this mutual recognition is the basis for future action, I would like to see more effective decision-making procedures to enable the EU to reach agreement more quickly in this area.

Of course there will always be those who instinctively oppose the extension of QMV on any issue, who will interpret attempts to modernise the EU as a sign that the superstate is on the march. The convention's draft has attracted a steady stream of criticism from these quarters. We've heard that the text is a blueprint for tyranny, that it even marks the end of 1,000 years of British history.

I won't examine all of the myths here. Let me tackle just the main ones.

There's a myth that the UK is about to lose its sovereign right to set its own foreign and defence policies. We won't. That's a guarantee. Nothing in the convention's draft provides for such a vast transfer of powers. And even if such proposals gained traction in the IGC, we would oppose them and we have a veto.

There's growing concern that the new charter of fundamental rights (part II of the convention's draft) will be a disaster for British business and lead to chaos in our judicial system. It won't. The draft treaty includes a statement of rights. I, for one, think our citizens should be told the rights they have vis-a-vis the European institutions. And we could accept such a statement provided that it does not extend the powers of the union. This, like much else, will depend on the precise terms of the final package. But, in the convention, we have negotiated an important change which help to define the scope and meaning of the Charter's provisions. For example, member states would be affected only when implementing agreed union law. The net effect of our proposals is to ensure that the Charter will not extend the union's competence or powers.

There's a myth that we will lose the power to govern our own economy. We won't. We don't support the existing text of article 13 in the convention's draft. Nor do we support tax harmonisation. We have a unanimity lock on any such proposals in the IGC.

The draft treaty has attracted more than the usual amount of hysteria that the UK is locking itself into a federal Europe. We aren't. The treaty confirms the EU as a union of nations, not a superstate. I would draw your attention to six points in the draft which emphasise the role of the nations:

“ first, the EU treaty will include a statement that competencies not explicitly conferred upon the union in the treaty remain with the nation states;

“ second, the draft specifies that the union shall act only if the objectives cannot be "sufficiently achieved" by the nations;

“ third, the draft grants a new power to national parliaments to ask the "commission to review its proposals;"

“ fourth, the text includes a statement that national leaders - in the shape of the European council or, as I like to call it, the council of nations, shall provide the union with its political direction and priorities;

“ fifth, the draft creates a new post of a chair or president of the European council "to drive forward its work;"

“ and sixth, the text includes a reference to the fact that the current veto on foreign policy will remain.

The convention's text settles the balance between the nations and the union where it should be, with the nations as the anchor of the union. It makes clearer than at any other point in the past half-century that the nation state provides the union's key source of democratic legitimacy.

In the IGC we will continue to play a central role in the process of reform aimed at making Europe more efficient and more easily understood. We are not talking about a substantial expansion of EU-wide powers, or a radical overhaul of the union's existing treaties and competencies. We are talking about a treaty which can bring much needed clarity to European citizens, which equips the union with the machinery it needs to embrace the challenge of enlargement.

The debate in the IGC will, inevitably, be complex. Fifteen member states and ten accession countries will have different priorities. But I am confident that all of the countries can unite around our overall vision - of a strong Europe, which can command the political respect which its economic strength deserves; of an effective Europe with strong institutions which attract the support of Europe's citizens; and of a democratic Europe, anchored in the legitimacy of the nation states.