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Howard: A more flexible, more accountable European Union

Speech in the House of Commons in response to the Prime Minister’s statement in the House of Commons

"When the Prime Minister returns from an EU Council, it is customary to start with those aspects of his statement that we can agree with. On this occasion, I am delighted to say, there are more than usual.

As the Prime Minister said on a different occasion, the kaleidoscope has been shaken. I sense a real change in the way that he and some of his ministers are approaching reform of the European Union. If this conversion is genuine, no one will be more delighted than I am.

Let me first congratulate him for protecting the rebate. He was right to insist that Britain's rebate should remain intact. We fully support him on that.

But will the Prime Minister explain in this House what he said to the BBC on Friday? That if he gets the deal he wants "… very bluntly Britain would pay more, not less, because of the way it would work out" - his words not mine.

We agree that the Common Agricultural Policy needs radical reform. But if the EU does less, shouldn't the British people also pay less?

With the benefit of hindsight, does the Prime Minister now accept that he was wrong in October 2002 to sign up to the existing CAP arrangements - under which 40 per cent of the EU budget still goes to an activity which employs just 5 per cent of the people?

But isn't there something even more important than the reform of the CAP? The Prime Minister has talked about a European Union "fit for purpose". I agree. Shouldn't Europe's leaders first decide what that purpose is, and only then how best to deliver it?

The 2001 EU Laeken Declaration setting up the Convention that led to the Constitution was clear:

"[Europe's] Citizens … want the European institutions to be less unwieldy and rigid … more efficient and open … Many also feel that the Union should [not] involve itself … in every detail, in matters by their nature better left to member states".

Isn't it true that Laeken asked the right questions, but the Constitution was the wrong answer? As Labour's own representative on the Convention, the Hon Lady the Member for Birmingham Edgbaston, said last week:

"The Constitution was an overambitious attempt to consolidate an outdated political and economic vision of Europe. Our mandate was to bring Europe closer to its people and we ended up alienating them even more".

Does the Prime Minister now accept that he has wasted the last two years trying to sell an outdated vision of the European Union when he should have been making the case for a more flexible, more liberal Europe of nation states?

The "No" votes in France and Holland provide us with an historic opportunity to have a much wider debate about the future of Europe. But to do that we must put the European Constitution behind us. Only last week he was talking in this House of finding a way round the votes in France and Holland. Will he now emphatically renounce such language and reject any such attempt?

For the last two weeks the Prime Minister has refused to say whether he thinks the Constitution is dead. Yet on Friday he signed up to a statement which made clear that the "No" votes in France and Holland "do not call into question the validity of continuing with the ratification processes".

If he thinks it is still valid to continue with the ratification process, what does he intend to do about it? Does this mean we will after all proceed with a referendum in this country? If not what on earth does he mean by that phrase which he agreed with the other EU leaders?

Last year the Prime Minister told this House that opponents of the Constitution wanted to "marginalise this country in the European Union" - that we would end up having to accept Associate Membership. So has he sent France and Holland their application forms for Associate Membership?

Does he now accept that he was wrong and that the Constitution would have taken Europe in completely the wrong direction? Why else did the Foreign Secretary say last week that we had reached a "turning point" and that Europe had been "trapped in the past"?

Wouldn't it be much better for him openly and honestly to accept that the Constitution is dead - and that the EU should abandon attempts to smuggle in any further removal of power from the nation state, such as the creation of a diplomatic service?

The Prime Minister has rightly called for "fundamental change and reform" in the European Union. Will he confirm that during that process of "fundamental change and reform" Britain will continue to support EU enlargement - including sticking to the timetable for Romania and Bulgaria to join, and starting talks on Turkey's future accession?

Does the Prime Minister agree that "the British view is that there should be a modern, flexible, reformed Europe; a Europe ready for the challenges of the 21st century; a Europe that is truly free, based on co-operation and not coercion; a Europe that transfers powers back from Brussels to the nation state?"

A year ago, when I put that case to the Prime Minister, he responded by accusing me of "prejudice" and "a transient populism that actually betrays the very national interest that it says it safeguards".

He said on Friday night that he was not now prepared to accept that "there is only one view of what Europe is". We welcome that. And we trust that whenever anyone presents a different vision of the Europe Union to his, the Prime Minister will no longer routinely accuse them of wanting to leave the EU.

A recent report for the European Commission concluded that the EU faces the "exit ramp of history".

In his new spirit of openness - of conceding that there is more than one view of Europe's future - will the Prime Minister now accept that while some member states may want to integrate more closely, that shouldn't mean everyone has to? That we will only create a truly flexible European Union if Europe's leaders adopt a "live and let live" approach in the future?

Will he now accept that the status quo is a recipe for certain economic decline - and that we need urgently to create a decentralised, outward looking, de-regulated European Union: a Europe that will be better placed to cope with the competitive challenges of globalisation and the emerging economies of the East?

And will he now accept that people - whatever their country - want to feel a sense of solidarity with and pride in the institutions which serve them? And that the institution which best provides that solidarity and sense of pride is the nation state?

If the Prime Minister uses Britain's Presidency to take a lead in Europe - arguing for a more flexible, more accountable European Union - with powers returned to the nation states, we will support him every inch of the way."

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