William Hague gives a reply (if not an answer) to the question: "What does 'We will not let matters rest there' actually mean in practice?"
Update: David Cameron also addressed this issue in his Today interview this morning, about 7 minutes in, including news that the Conservatives are today publishing a bill that could go through Parliament now to allow a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on the same day as Ireland in the autumn.
Last month we invited readers to submit questions for William Hague, the former party leader and now shadow foreign secretary and senior member of the shadow cabinet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of Europe dominated the questions you wanted to ask and in the first of four tranches of answers from Mr Hague on a variety of topics, here are his responses to all those questions related to Europe.
In relation to the crunch question of what "We will not let matters rest there" would mean if the Lisbon Treaty has passed into law once a Conservative Government takes office, Mr Hague has chosen not to enlarge upon what this actually means, speaking as he is in the final days before the European election.
Instead, he reiterates that it remains a hypothetical question, preferring to concentrate on trying to pressure the Government into giving us the referendum it originally promised. However, he states categorically that if the provisions of the Treaty are in force at the time of the general election the Conservative Party would set out what it intended to do "in advance of that election".
ConservativeHome: If a Conservative Government is elected at the next general election, will you promise a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, regardless of whether or not it has been ratified by all the other member states? What does "We will not let matters rest there" actually mean in practice?
William Hague: As we’ve said, if at the time of the next general election the Lisbon Treaty is not in force and a Conservative Government is elected, we will suspend Britain’s ratification of the Treaty, hold a referendum, recommending the Treaty’s rejection. If, as there is every reason to believe it would, the Treaty is rejected then our ratification would be permanently withdrawn and that would be the end of the Treaty.
If it is in force then we’d be in a different situation. Clearly, we would have to set out what we intended to do in our general election manifesto. We would proceed on the principles that in our view political integration in the EU would have gone too far and that the Lisbon Treaty would lack democratic legitimacy in Britain. We should not let matters rest there.
A lot of people said last year that we needed to set out in detail what not letting matters rest there meant. Then the Irish voted ‘no’. The lesson I draw is that our efforts are best directed not in elaborating hypothetical situations but in doing everything we can to get a referendum now – that’s why it’s at the heart of our European election campaign. It’s worth remembering that it was pressure from real voters that forced Tony Blair to yield on the referendum on the original EU Constitution.
CH: Do you accept that the Lisbon Treaty continues to be against the interests of the UK even if it has come into force? If not, what is it about the Treaty that will have changed so as to make it in the interests of the UK to accept it? If yes, is it not entirely logical and wholly honourable that we should promise a referendum on the Treaty notwithstanding that it has come into force?
William Hague: The provisions in the Lisbon Treaty that we think are against Britain’s interests do not become beneficial by virtue of coming into force. That is indeed logical. If the Lisbon Treaty is in force at the time of the next election they will be an issue that the next Conservative Government will need to deal with and we would set out what we intended to do in advance of that election.
CH: As President Vaclav Klaus, of the Czech Republic, has indicated he will not be signing the Lisbon Treaty until after the second Irish referendum and a further Constitutional challenge in the Czech courts, would you consider requesting that President Klaus continues to withhold his signature until May of next year when a British election should be held?
William Hague: President Klaus must do what he judges is best for the Czech Republic. I wouldn’t want to imitate some of the sillier federalist MEPs and tell him what it is. That isn’t the job of foreign politicians.
CH: Do you think the British people will feel cheated if they are not given some kind of referendum on Britain's relationship with the EU after the Tories having made such a case for putting it to the people?
William Hague: The way the Labour Government has handled the Lisbon Treaty has widened the EU’s profound problem of its democratic deficit. Their breach of promise and failure to consult the British people either in a general election or a referendum means that the Treaty lacks democratic legitimacy in this country. Those are points a future Conservative Government would indeed have to address.
CH: Would you ultimately like to see the EU as a political trading group with no legislative power?
William Hague: No. If you want to achieve the degree of free trade we have in the Single Market the EU needs legislative powers and the means of enforcing them – that’s why Margaret Thatcher agreed to the Single European Act. The same applies, for instance, in plenty of cross-border environmental areas.
I think we also need to appreciate the enormously beneficial effects the EU has had across Europe in setting certain political standards and espousing the ideals of freedom and the rule of law.
It isn’t easy for us in Britain: often the EU’s most obviously apparent effect is irritating and/or costly red tape. We sometimes take our proud history of freedom for granted. Thanks to the generations that fought the two world wars we never suffered under tyranny, home-grown or foreign. Yet in living memory the vast majority of Europe suffered one or both. The lure of joining a club where, in global terms, high standards of democracy and the rule of law are required has really transformed many countries in Europe for the better. Even on the most selfish of grounds – that it’s best in live in a safe and happy neighbourhood – that is an achievement of the EU’s we should celebrate and another reason why it is a good thing that the EU is more than a trading group.
Equally, though, I am utterly against the prospect of the EU evolving into a United States of Europe. There is no European demos, as the jargon has it, no European people with a single political consciousness and identity. Attempts to create one will fail because they are top-down and artificial. The fact is the vast majority of people, including me, see themselves primarily as citizens of a nation state. I do not want to see Britain subsumed into such an entity, which is why a Conservative Government will oppose any attempt to move Britain’s membership of the EU away from what it ought to be: an energetic participant in the EU, actively engaging as an ultimately sovereign nation state.
CH: Are you committed to ensuring the EU has less power over the UK (or in general) and how will you achieve this? In which areas of responsibility would you like powers to be repatriated?
William Hague: Yes, the EU does have too much power and does interfere too much in areas of national life it should keep out of. I say this of Britain – we should not stand in the way of other countries who want to embark on their own integrationist policies, just as we have not stood in the way of those countries who joined the euro or Schengen. Those are initiatives which we have rightly declined to join.
The most important issue for Britain is social and employment legislation. There are still too many in Europe who do not understand that the world does not owe Europe a living. European businesses and citizens have to earn it and that means competing globally. To be fair, the current Commission has a far greater appreciation of the facts than many of its predecessors but even so, the EU’s power over social and employment legislation hobbles the British Government’s ability to make the right decisions for British businesses and British families. The one size fits all approach doesn’t work here. Take the new Agency Workers Directive, agreed under the old Social Chapter provisions: the CBI has predicted that it will cost up to 250,000 jobs because it simply doesn’t take into account how temporary workers fit into our labour market. That’s why it will be a major goal of the next Conservative Government to restore national control over this area.
As to how, I have learnt that it is generally a bad idea to show your cards before you play your hand, and always a foolish idea to show your hand before all your cards have been dealt.
CH: Which policy areas do you believe should remain sacrosanct to individual member states? Would you be prepared to consider leaving the EU if Britain were outvoted and forced to surrender sovereignty over such issues?
William Hague: No EU Member State can be forced to surrender sovereignty over a policy area by being outvoted – even the ‘bridging’ clauses in the Lisbon Treaty do not allow that. The way the EU works is that if you agree to ‘pool’ sovereignty in a policy area and, if you’ve agreed to drop national vetoes, you may have to sign up to laws you disagree with. The crucial thing is to read the small print so you know exactly the extent of the policy areas in which you might be inclined to ‘pool’ sovereignty. That’s why Mark Francois and I spent many hours reading the Lisbon Treaty line by line. Even given this Government’s record, I was still surprised when the current Minister for Europe admitted under Mark’s questioning that she hadn’t.
The most significant areas where the EU’s competence – as it’s called in the jargon – must be strictly limited, where it exists at all, are taxation and expenditure, health, criminal justice, control over our borders, education, pensions and, of course, foreign policy and defence.
As general principles, the EU should only act and have the power to act where the nations of Europe can achieve more by working through the EU than they can alone, where the intended goal cannot be accomplished at the national level and where the EU does not impinge on areas essential to national democratic accountability or sovereignty.
I cannot say that the EU as it is sticks to those principles. It’s still too stuck in an inward-looking centralising mindset where more Europe is uncritically seen as a good thing. In the twenty first century, when all the trends are towards decentralisation, that is an out-dated approach. It will take patience and determination to reform the EU but if we have the courage of our convictions we must believe that it can and should be done.
One final point – the past decade has demonstrated why it’s vital for Britain to keep control over its own currency. If the European Central Bank had been setting our interest rates the boom would have been even wilder and the bust even deeper. That is one reason why the Conservative Party would never support Britain’s membership of the euro.
CH: If Ken Clarke, whose views on Europe are well known to be out of kilter with party policy, is able to sit in the Shadow Cabinet, why are declared supporters of Better Off Out still barred from frontbench roles?
William Hague: It’s vitally important for the health of our Party that are MPs are not a set of clones, holding identical views, expressed in an identical way. Strong, vital parties are broad parties. So backbench MPs can and do make the case for their own individual ideas, even if they differ from party policy, and try to persuade others of the merits of their case.
Membership of the frontbench is about more than membership of the party, however. Being on the frontbench means being part of a team, sharing collective responsibility and abiding by collective decision-making. As the Government or the shadow government, you cannot publicly campaign for goals that are not the party’s agreed policy. That’s why membership of the Better Off Out campaign is incompatible with sitting on the frontbench.
As you say, Ken Clarke’s views on Europe are well known but, as Ken said when he was appointed, he accepts that the Conservative Party has a settled view on European matters and he will not oppose the direction David Cameron will set on European policies in the future.
CH: Whatever happened to the Movement for European Reform? Its website appears to be out of date.
William Hague: The Movement for European Reform held two stimulating and useful conferences, in Brussels and in Prague, but it we expect its work to be folded into the new group in the European Parliament.