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Kirkhope: Reflections on the Convention

Speech to the EPP-ED Study Day in Copenhagen

Ladies and Gentlemen, the past eighteen months have been perhaps the most busy and interesting months of my political career.

The Convention has succeeded. Not necessarily in the nature of its final text but certainly as an exercise in 'opening up' the debate in Europe by bringing together so many interests and views. I do not agree with the final outcome of the Convention - a European Constitution (I believe we should have had a new Treaty, like the old Treaties) - but I remain a keen support of the Convention model for European negotiations.

Having had the privilege of representing the Conservative Party on both the Charter of Fundamental Rights Convention and the 'Future of Europe' Convention, I believe that the model provides a blueprint for bringing together representatives from different political opinions and countries to discuss issues in an open and accountable manner.

I would like to begin by refreshing your memories about the events of the past eighteen months. Specifically, how we reached where we are now.

The European Convention was, as you will recall, established at the Laeken European Council in December 2001 to bring together representatives from both the existing Member States and the new Accession States to work out how a European Union of 28 countries should operate in future - a necessary initiative.

The Convention began its work last February under the chairmanship of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The first phase involved listening to the people of Europe. This was done both formally, through representations from Civil Society and the Youth Convention, and informally, through individual consultation exercises with our constituents and colleagues. Unfortunately, this was not as successful as it could have been.

The second phase of the Convention involved studying specific issues in separate working groups. Each working group had around 30 members, broadly balanced according to political group and nationality.

The first working group members served on studied institutional reform. The issues studied were the Charter of Fundamental Rights, complementary competencies, legal personality; national parliaments, simplification and finally subsidiarity.

Convention members then studied specific policy areas: defence, economic governance, external action, Freedom Security and Justice, and finally, social Europe.

The third phase of the Convention, which we are still technically in, has involved drafting the final document.

At the beginning of February, the Praesidium unveiled a draft text of the first 16 Articles for Convention members to amend and discuss; and, week by week, new sections and drafts have been amended and discussed.

The final document includes a:

-Preamble, outlining the objectives of the Union.

-Part One is essentially an overview of Part Three, which contains the detail of the Constitution.

-Part Two incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

-Part Three, entitled 'The policies and functioning of the Union' contains the detail of the Constitution.

-Part Four covers the 'General and final provisions.'

And there follows protocols on:

-the role of national parliaments,

-the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, and

-representation in the European Parliament and voting in the Council.

Submitting amendments to the drafts of the text over the past four months has been the toughest part of the Convention process.

I have based my suggestions on Conservative principles and the opinions of Conservative people.

My central principle is that the Conservative Party and Britain should remain engaged but vigilant in the European Union. And, of course, it is well known that the views of the British are somewhat anarchical to Europe!

As well as consulting my constituents, I have consulted include Conservative MEPs and MPs, the Voluntary Party, young people in Conservative Future, and activists through a nationwide questionnaire.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the support I have received over the past eighteen months and thank everybody for their contributions. I wouldn't have been able to represent the Conservative Party as effectively as I hope I have done without the help of many other people.

The Conservatives' 'Bottom Line' for the Convention, which was published in the Spring 2003 edition of our magazine Delivering for Britain, is based on long-standing, traditional Conservative principles and philosophy. It is not 'anti-Europe' but it is a statement of our wishes for a sustainable Europe.

Our first bottom line is to say:

1. 'No' to a European Constitution for a Federal Superstate

The United Kingdom has never had a codified constitution - that is to say, a 'higher law' bringing together the basic principles of government in one document. The British constitution is, in political science terms, uncodified. That is to say, it is drawn from many documents of ordinary statutory law and convention. Whereas I could walk into a bookshop in America and ask for a copy of the constitution, if I did so in the Britain, they would think I was mad. Therefore, because we have never had a codified constitution, accepting a codified European Constitution goes against the grain of our political traditions.

Our second bottom line is to say:

2. 'No' to a single legal personality for the European Union

To some extent the EU already has legal personality, but this 'departure' takes it too far. Giving the European Union legal personality would sit uncomfortably with our political traditions. The British system of government is based on parliamentary sovereignty - Parliament, not the Prime Minister or the monarchy, is the source of political power in the UK. Tony Blair may have centralised power and ridden roughshod over Parliament, but the Conservative Party continues to believe in Parliamentary democracy. To establish an alternative powerbase would therefore run contrary to the political traditions that have served us well for so long. And can we envisage the UK or France willingly giving up a seat on the UN Security Council?

Our third bottom line is:

3. 'No' to a legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights

As a member of the Charter of Fundamental Rights Convention, I welcomed the emphasis placed on the protection of human rights, but I worry about its compatibility with the European Convention of Human Rights. We are in a situation where we have two sets of human rights law: we have the Convention set up by the Council of Europe and the Charter established by the European Union. Both the Charter and the Convention deal with the same area of law but with different wording. Why does the competence of the EU need to include an area that is dealt with satisfactorily by the Council of Europe? Two sets of human rights law will undoubtedly harm rather than help the very people it was designed to protect. It would also divide the membership of the Council of Europe. Incorporating the Charter would, I believe, create more problems than it cures.

Our forth and fifth bottom lines cover the cutting-edge issues of integration - foreign and home affairs

4. 'No' to a Common Foreign and Security Policy or a European Army

European Democrats support cooperation on foreign and home affairs, but only in the context of the pillar structure, which guarantees intergovernmental decision-making. The European Union encompasses many countries with long and distinctive histories. Some Member States have a unique historical involvement in certain parts of the world, reinforced by ties of language, trade or blood. All Member States have specific memories and experiences which shape their ambitions today. Some states want neutrality, others participate in NATO, and France and the UK have a global military reach and the tradition of action. Enlargement will only increase these distinctions. For these reasons, whilst the European Democrats hope that we will continue to cooperate closely under NATO, we do not feel that it is appropriate to develop a Common Foreign Policy under the first pillar decision-making mechanism.

Turning to Home Affairs, we also say:

5. 'No' to a Common Home Affairs Policy or a Common Asylum Policy - perhaps the biggest issue of them all.

As politicians, we are elected to represent the views of our constituents and opinion polls suggest that the public does not want more centralisation in justice and home affairs. The Eurobarometer carried out in April 2002 specifically for the Convention showed us that only a minority of those surveyed were in favour of European-level decisions being taken on justice (58% against) and police matters (63% against). Having said that, the same survey showed us that the fight against organised crime and drugs trafficking ranks third (after peace and security and the reduction of unemployment) in public priority and has the support of almost 9 out of 10 Europeans. To me, the message from Eurobarometer is clear: 'yes' to cooperation between member states' judiciaries, police forces and Home Offices; but 'no' to greater harmonisation in this field. If we go ahead with a European Public Prosecutor, a European Border Guard, the abolition of the third pillar and greater qualified majority voting, I feel that we will be going against pubic opinion and fuelling the dissatisfaction that many people feel about politics and politicians in general.

Having heard five things European Democrats are against, you may well be wondering what, if anything, are we in favour of for the future of Europe. What we do say is:

6. 'Yes' to a new Treaty simplifying the existing Treaties

At the beginning of the Convention, there were signs that we would conclude by proposing a new Treaty, simplifying the existing Treaties and making the European policy making process more understandable to the peoples of Europe.

The German state, for instance, is based on a 'Grundgesetz' as opposed to a 'Verfassung' - a set of basic laws rather than a constitution. The European Union needs a new treaty nearer to a Grundgesetz than to a Verfassung because European citizens want a Europe of nation states rather than a United States of Europe. A Simplifying Treaty would both outline the boundaries of competence between European and national institutions and parliaments and also shift the balance from the undemocratic to the democratic components of the European Union. Sadly, this is not the basis of the draft European Constitution, but we are in favour of a new Treaty along these lines.

We also say:

7. 'Yes' to cooperation in foreign and home affairs on a bilateral basis

I passionately believe that Member States should be able to cooperate together in areas falling outside the competence of the European Union, such as foreign and home affairs. My question to those who oppose this proposition is: How can we legitimately talk about national sovereignty if we attempt to prevent other countries from exercising their national sovereignty? Therefore I believe there is a need for a mechanism to allow Member States to cooperate together outside the Union.

The mechanism I would suggest is through bilateral and multilateral treaties. Independent cooperation is, I believe, the way forward because enhanced cooperation as a process has been abused in the past as a trail-blazing mechanism with a bent to further integration beyond the Treaties. Participation in core issues such as the single market, the environment and some transport matters, for example, should be compulsory. But issues such as foreign and home affairs should be dealt with on a bilateral basis to avoid the ratchet effect of enhanced cooperation.

The eighth bottom line is about promoting democracy and accountability:

8. 'Yes' to more democracy and accountability in the EU

The European Democrats believe that power should be moved from the unelected institutions of the European Union to the elected institutions. One change I have suggested is that the right of initiative should be shared between the unelected Commission to the elected European Parliament. Another change would involve improving the transposition process of European legislation into national law. So, Mr President, why does gold plating affect the UK more than any other member state? One important reason is because the UK, unlike many other member states, simply does not involve its MEPs in the transposition process.

In Belgium, the Chamber of Representatives has an Advisory Committee on European Affairs which is made up of 10 MPs and 10 MEPs who enjoy equal status on the Committee. Belgian MEPs are also allowed to speak in Standing Committee meetings and to table written questions to the Government. The German Bundestag also has a Committee where MEPs are entitled to propose subjects for discussion and to give opinions on the proposals discussed. And the Greek Parliament has a similar arrangement.

As an MEP who has been a UK MP, I now realise how little I and my colleagues knew about the regulations coming from Europe. Because we concentrated on national policy matters, we were often unable to spend very much time with the European legislation under consideration. As a result, Government Departments were able to 'gold plate' the legislation without MPs knowledge or involvement. This problem has got much worse under the present British Socialist Government as they reduce the powers of our House of Commons and the time available for any scrutiny.

By establishing joint committees of MPs and MEPs to oversee the transposition of European laws there would be less gold plating and the government would be held to account.

Our penultimate bottom line is to say:

9. 'Yes' to international free trade and 'yes' to greater decentralisation

Adam Smith, the great eighteenth century philosopher and economist, proved that economic freedom goes hand-in-hand with public prosperity. The lesson we should draw from The Wealth of Nations is that a low tax, lightly regulated economy helps both rich and poor alike by inducing entrepreneurship, creating jobs and generating wealth. I am a great believer in Adam Smith and free trade and I have attempted to inject some of this spirit I my amendments, by restating free trade as a major objective of the Union and an integral element of overseas aid. I hope this is a point with which unites us all here today.

Our final bottom line is:

10. 'Yes' to a referendum so the people of Europe can have the final say

This principle is integral to our party policy and I'll be referring back to it in my concluding remarks

These 10 bottom lines have been the main inspiration for my amendments; and they encapsulate the beliefs of the European Democrats and our approach to the future of Europe debate.

For those of you who are interested, my amendments - which reflect the bottom line - have been collated into a 'Simplifying Treaty' which is available on the internet at www.conservatives.com or www.kirkhope.org.uk.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am the first to recognize that there are significant differences between the text which I have produced and that produced for the EPP by Elmar Brok. But I have done what I believe is right. As a Conservative, I have participated and argued for my beliefs for the future of Europe.

There is one area where I hope we will be able to find consensus this week, and that is the issue of a referendum on the European Constitution.

Last October, the Conservative delegation supported me in announcing our commitment to the principle of giving people a say on the next stage of the integration process.

This is a cause which I know many of you here today have committed yourself to as well. It is a cause that unites many of us in our approach to Convention.

So, I would like to leave you with one thought. The European People's Party and the European Democrats must agree on one thing, it is this. We must be united on the need for a referendum.

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