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Sceptical at least, hostile in part: many Conservative MPs give the Government's European Bill a cool reception

by Paul Goodman

The Second Reading of the European Union Bill took place yesterday.  The core of William Hague's case for the Bill as Foreign Secretary was as follows -

"The Bill makes a very important and radical change to how decisions on the EU are made in this country. It is the most important change since we joined what was then called the European Economic Community. It marks a fundamental shift in power from Ministers of the Crown to Parliament and the voters themselves on the most important decisions of all: who gets to decide what...

The Bill...ensures that any future amendment to the treaty on the European Union or to the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, under either revision procedure that I have just outlined, will require parliamentary approval by Act of Parliament before the United Kingdom is able to ratify the change...

[The Bill] means that not only do we have our commitment not to transfer more powers from this country to the European Union, but that in a vast range of circumstances we would have to hold a referendum if we contemplated doing so...The Bill will give Parliament more control over whether the Government can agree to a number of other important EU decisions, sometimes referred to as the self-amending provisions of the Lisbon treaty...

The coalition stated in its programme for government that it would examine the case for a United Kingdom sovereignty Bill. I announced in October that, following that examination, we had decided to include a provision in this Bill to place on a statutory footing the existing common law principle of parliamentary sovereignty."

Conservative MPs whose speeches were largely critical of the Bill included John Redwood -

"I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s noble aim. He says that the aim of his legislation and policy is to give us all a greater sense of empowerment when it comes to matters of European governance and action. I would urge him to look again at his Bill, however. It is certainly cleverly contrived, and it is certainly contrived in a great deal of detail, but it is, in practice, the not-the-referendum Bill. On every area of competence and power that we see drifting away or being transferred from us as we have this debate, we are told, “That would not qualify for a referendum under this legislation.”

I believe that the Foreign Secretary has taken legal advice, and he wants to have a referendum on the transfer of competences rather than on the transfer of powers. I would suggest that that is a tad too clever. We all know that most of the competences have already gone. That was what Lisbon was all about. That was why he and I fought tooth and nail, together, against that treaty and in favour of a referendum on the treaty. Most of the things that the Government now wish to do are a shared competence with the European Union. What matters is not a further transfer of competence, but a further grab or transfer of power by the European authorities."

Bill Cash -

"The European Scrutiny Committee reported last night, to an eerie silence from the BBC, and as we clearly indicated, the Committee’s report is essential reading for those who really want to know what is going on. There are grave objections to the principle, the methodology, the distorting and misleading explanatory notes that accompany the Bill, and clause 18 itself. Clause 18 is a judicial Trojan horse leaping out of Pandora’s box. It is not, as the Foreign Secretary claimed, an enlightened act of national self-interest.

Parliamentary sovereignty is not built on a common law principle, as the Government claim. It is built on the sturdy foundations of the freedom of choice of the voters of this country, and not the whimsy or the Euro-integrationism of some Supreme Court judges. They increasingly claim that they are upholding the rule of law, but I have to ask which rule and whose law."

Richard Drax -

"How interesting that the poor old mouse has taken such a lot of stick tonight. Several hon. Members have used the expression “mouse of a Bill.” It is a mouse that the EU cat will play with, mutilate and consume. I have heard the words, “judicial reviews,” “written constitution,” “competences,” “vetoes,” “referendums,” “advocate-generals,” and “ratchets.” That is the language of the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat loves this. Such legislation employs the bureaucrat and gives them lots of money on the gravy train in Europe.

We want our country back. That is what we want. We do not want to say goodbye to Europe; we want to trade with Europe. I like Europe. I like the French, the Germans, the Italians; they have so much to offer us. However, we should not be ruled and regulated by Europe, particularly by the unelected Commission."

- Zac Goldsmith -

"A referendum lock alone is not enough, and if we are honest, it is not even on the cards. The judgment as to whether a treaty or treaty change meets the criteria for triggering a referendum will rely on the subjective opinion of a Minister and it will be for the Government to adjudicate whether a change represents a transfer of power and a loss of sovereignty. Is that really an adequate safeguard?"

- James Clappison -

"This is a matter of academic debate, but clause 18 is a restatement of the existing position—there are different academic views on that—and it certainly does not set out to stop any further transfer of power to the European Union. Nor, I would suggest, do the other parts of the Bill fully accomplish the end of preventing a transfer of power to the European Union, however many referendum locks they contain, particularly in so far as they concern transfers of any further competences to the European Union."

- Bernard Jenkin -

"The problem with this Bill is that it neither addresses the democratic legitimacy—or the lack of it—in the current settlement, nor stops the flow of power to the European Union. As we are talking about democratic legitimacy, I should say that that flow takes power away from democracies and gives it to something else, because whatever the European Union is, it ain’t a democracy. The Bill fails to address our national interests and it reflects the muddle that the Government have got themselves into because, as we have heard, the prime purpose of this Bill is political; it was designed to appease sentiment in the absence of a referendum on all the treaties where we should have had referendums: the Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam treaties, as well as the Lisbon treaty."

Those Conservative MPs whose speeches were largely supportive of the Bill included Stephen Dorrell -

"It introduces not an irreversible, immovable, permanent safeguard that can never be overcome, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, a further inhibition on the development of competence within the European Union, which I would have thought my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) welcomed. Again, it is a modest step. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone dismissed it as a mouse of a Bill, but even if it is a mouse it can be a mouse on the right side of the scales, and that seems to be the case for it."

- Laura Sandys -

"The Bill sets three clear triggers that will create sovereignty locks that will introduce a clear mechanism for referendums, the need for legislation or parliamentary approval. My constituency has one of the largest UKIP votes in the country—2,500 voted to get out of Europe—so I am very conscious that we need to be robust on Europe and that any further transfer of powers needs to be questioned. The Bill convinces me of our control over transfers of power, which is important."

- Martin Vickers -

"The Bill as it stands is not perfect. I would like it to go further, but it is better than nothing and I shall certainly be in the Lobby to support the Government."

Nick de Bois -

"I echo my hon. Friend’s sentiment and I will support the Bill because I regard it as the first serious attempt to stop the erosion of power from Westminster to Brussels. I say “serious” because it is legislation before the House, and I say “attempt” because I recognise that it does not go as far as I and other Members might like. EU interference has dogged us for many years. We as a sovereign nation have been bled dry of powers, which has increased the frustration of the public with an institution that is so remote yet so influential on their lives."

Chris Heaton-Harris -

"At the beginning of my remarks, I described how the British public and British politicians had entered the European garden of Eden fully clothed, only to find that over a period of years we had been stripped. Although I appreciate that the Bill is just a fig leaf, I will happily vote for it because it covers a tiny piece of our modesty."

Neil Parrish -

"Now is the time to support the Bill and bring powers back. Provisions such as the social chapter, to which Tony Blair signed up, have brought all the working time directives and all the bureaucracy that ties up our businesses and stops us going forward as an economy. In time, after this, all those things will have to be pulled back to make sure that, in the end, this Parliament is sovereign and that we are not dictated to by Brussels."

Robert Buckland -

"I do not stand here as somebody who could be described as a dyed-in-the-wool Eurosceptic. In the tradition of my party, I would be described as pro-European Union. I make no apology for that whatsoever. It is because I am pro-European Union that I support this Bill, because I am also pro-democracy and transparency."

Some Conservative MPs, while supportive of the Bill, made speeches largely critical of it in tone.

Jabob Rees-Mogg -

"I, too, will support the Bill at this stage, although I was deeply concerned by what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said about its not being introduced, for the main part, until after this Parliament has been completed. If that is correct—I hope the Minister will give us some comfort on that point—the whole of this exercise is entirely pointless.

Mr Jenkin: The Minister nodded at that point in my speech, and I accepted that as an indication of assent.

Jacob Rees-Mogg rose —

Mr Lidington: May I make it clear that I nodded to indicate that I would respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) in my concluding remarks?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I would not wish to anticipate the excitement that we all hold for the Minister’s speech on that crucial point."

Priti Patel -

"This Bill is a welcome step, but it could have gone much further and contained stronger measures to bring democratic control back to Britain and to safeguard against what I would call competence creep."

Andrew Bridgen -

"I intend to support the Bill this evening, but I issue a warning to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I and many hon. Members will not stand idly by and witness the death of our country’s sovereignty, bled away by a thousand cuts, however small, that some may think insignificant."

Therese Coffey -

"I will vote for the Bill tonight, but I ask the Minister to address my strong concerns about the British public. They do not want to be sold short, and they would be horrified to know that we might be voting for a Bill that would allow the EU to levy taxes, and that they would have no say."

Dominic Raab -

"...My cup is half full. This is a point of departure, not the point of arrival, and I commend the Government and Ministers for breaking new ground with the Bill."


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