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Evans: Conservative MEPs demand a Referendum on the new European Constitution

Speech by Jonathan Evans MEP, Leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, during the IGC debate in Strasbourg

Mr President,

In ten days, yet another Inter-Governmental Conference will get underway. The European Union seems to be in a state of permanent IGC. In the last sixteen years, we have had the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, the Amsterdam Treaty and, most recently, the Nice Treaty. In each case, there has been an inevitable process of one-way integration, a sense that the European Union can only be successful if it acquires more and more power. The peoples of Europe meanwhile have been increasingly registering their disillusionment with the European political process through record-low turnouts in European elections. There is a dilemma here, and a cause for concern.

This IGC is leading to something quite different from past Treaties. It will seek, for the first time, to create a Constitution for the European Union borne of the Convention which reported in June. The draft Constitutional Treaty increases the centralising and integrationist agenda which has increasingly been the hallmark of European development in recent years. We should go back to first principles. At Laeken, the Heads of State and Government called for:

a better, clearer definition of the EU's competences

simplification of its legal instruments

greater democracy, transparency and efficiency

the possible need for a Constitution for the EU.

They also said: "Within the Union, the European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens".

All this seems a far cry from what the Convention has proposed. And we are now being asked by governments and many Members of this House to ensure that the IGC does not undermine the fundamentals of what the Convention has decided upon. It is back to the same, tired old refrain: "Europe must deepen its integration or risk going backwards". It is time for a reality check in the Union. The result of the Euro referendum in Sweden earlier this month was a wake-up call to those who believe in putting the Union in a state of permanent revolution. As the Economist said in its most recent edition: "They (Europe's leaders) should look at Sweden, think about the obstacles between here and ratification of a new constitution, and get to work at next month's meeting on Plan B".

The Union is in real danger of moving way ahead of what the peoples of Europe want. For those, like me and my Party, who believe in membership of the European Union and in a Europe of nation states co-operating closely together, the rush to integration personified in the Convention paper risks a backlash from the electorate. Should the IGC pay heed to those siren voices urging no change, or at least minimal change, to the Convention draft, then I fear Europe could find itself facing a crisis of legitimacy.

Throughout this process, the British Government has been flailing around searching for a credible position.

First, we were told that there was no need for a Constitution. Now, apparently, it is essential. Next, we were told that the IGC was a mere "tidying-up exercise".

Then, Mr Blair started to spin like fury that there were so-called "red line issues" for him in the IGC on tax, defence and social security. Now, we are informed by the media that on one of these "red lines", defence, Mr Blair has reportedly sold the pass - even before the IGC gets underway!

Mr Blair came back from Nice three years ago stressing the red lines he had laid down on EU involvement in defence - no unnecessary duplication of NATO capabilities; no "enhanced co-operation" in defence. Following the Summit at the weekend between Mr Blair, President Chirac and Chancellor Schröder, the Prime Minister no longer says that he will oppose a new EU Operational Planning Headquarters at Tervuren. He merely says this "is not the way forward".

My Party has a simple and democratic answer to the twisting and tortured approach of the Prime Minister and his Government to the IGC. Give the British people a referendum and let them decide whether this further leap towards a federal Europe is what they want. If a referendum is good enough for the peoples of Ireland, Spain and other nations, it is good enough for the people of the United Kingdom. 80% of the British people want one; they are entitled to have it. The Government has been caught out by its own inherently contradictory approach to the Convention and the impending IGC. It has become a victim of its own sophistry and spin.

The IGC will debate a fundamental shift in the power balance between the nation state and the institutions of the European Union and the way in which we are all governed. Railroading through a constitutional change of such magnitude at such a late stage in the enlargement process will lead to disaffection and disillusionment among the peoples of the accession states. It will also further alienate the electorate in the current 15.

We in this Parliament have to represent the interests of our electorates. By supporting the motion in its unamended form today, we are sending a stark signal that their views count for little, and that the political elite once again knows what is best for them. Such a high-handed approach will leave the Union weaker, less politically stable and further removed from those who elect us. I believe in a successful European Union of nation states working together. I would, therefore, urge the IGC to move to "Plan B" as suggested by the Economist and avoid the crisis of legitimacy that the result of the Swedish referendum so clearly portends.

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