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Kirkhope: Speech to the National European Forum on the Future of Europe

Good morning, ladies and gentleman. It is a great privilege to speak to you today about the future of Europe as the Conservative Party's representative on the European Convention from the European Parliament. I hope to give you an interesting perspective on the future of Europe debate. But before we begin to discuss the future of Europe, it is necessary to take a brief look at the past.

The Second World War left the cities of Europe destroyed and desolate; the peoples devastated and the economies ruined. We were right not to pursue the option of recriminations and instead the West came together to rebuild war-torn Europe.

The biggest vote of thanks for Europe's recovery in the initial period after the War should go to the United States: our ally during the conflict and our friend afterwards. In April 1948, President Truman signed the Economic Cooperation Act, authorising the Marshall Plan. The foundations for post war prosperity were of course built on that Plan and its generous Aid.

The United States was also at the forefront of the military efforts to preserve peace and prevent further conflicts. The signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington on 4 April 1949, created an alliance of 12 independent nations committed to each other's defence. We should never forget that peace in Europe was built on NATO.

Without forgetting the role of the United States in post war peace and prosperity in Europe, we should also congratulate ourselves for the positive steps we took here in Britain to bring the peoples together in establishing a Union in Europe.

It is often forgotten that the first attempt to increase European cooperation involved the United Kingdom, when we joined Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in signing the Brussels Treaty in March 1948. This Treaty agreed on military mutual assistance, as well as economic, social and cultural co-operation, and paved the way for the Western European Union and, of course, NATO itself.

While the UK struggled to rebuild its economy and review its world responsibilities in the old Empire and new Commonwealth, on the 18 April 1951, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg signed the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community and six years later they signed the Treaty of Rome, establishing a European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community.

The United Kingdom made attempts to join the then EEC in 1961 and in 1967 which were famously rebuffed by French President Charles de Gaulle - as were attempts by Denmark and Ireland - and Europe had to wait until 1973 and a changed climate of opinions for the Six to became the Nine. That membership was of course regarded by the then Conservative Government as being in the best interests of the United Kingdom as our World trading position changed.

The next major step in the process of closer cooperation was the signing of the Single European Act in 1986. It was Margaret Thatcher who provided much of the impetus for the creation of a genuine Single Market by 30 December 1992.

In 1992, the European Community became the European Union under the Maastricht Treaty. John Major successfully negotiated British opt-outs of the single currency and the social chapter, regarded by Conservatives then as now as unacceptable developments in terms of European Union competence. This was a difficult time for the Conservative Party as there were grave concerns at the time and subsequently as to the advisability of Maastricht and the direction of our European Policies thereafter.

Whatever the pros and cons of that decision and its' aftermath the Conservative Party's relationship with Europe remained a robust one where we were more than equal to the task of cooperating where appropriate whilst maintaining control over matters where British influence or Conservative principles required it.

The arrival of a Labour Government in 1997 was frankly a disaster for UK/EU relations and a new 'mood' was quickly demonstrated by the acts of Tony Blair. From being a party which advocated withdrawal from the EEC under Michael Foot - and paid the price for it electorally - Labour MPs accepted fundamental changes with little resistance or enquiry. Support for the single currency in principle, the acceptance of the Social Chapter and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law are cataclysmic changes affecting our whole powers of self-government, legal development and Parliamentary democracy. This made it inevitable that Europe featured heavily in the last General Election but despite that the public failed to respond to the Conservative Party's message.

Europe has undoubtedly developed dramatically since the Second World War both in prosperity and in security terms. This is partly but not exclusively due to the process of closer cooperation within the European Union. But we are now at a major crossroads. We need now to decide whether we want a United States of Europe, self-standing nation states working alone, or a Europe of independent, cooperating nation states. We need to determine what kind of relationships should exist in future between European Institutions and their national counterparts, between democratic bodies like the UK and European Parliaments and the undemocratic bodies like the European Commission and the Council.

The "Future of Europe" Convention was established at the Laeken European Council last December to discuss these and other questions. The inaugural session of the Convention was held in February and I was honoured to be appointed a Member. We plan to finish our work by next summer in time for proposals to be put to the Council of Ministers before the intergovernmental conference of 2004. Whilst hoping for consensus around one set of proposals there is enough flexibility to allow for alternative views if necessary.

The Convention consists of:

A Chairman and two Vice-Chairmen. The heads of government at Laeken appointed former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as Chairman of the Convention. The former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene assist him as Vice-Chairmen.

28 Government Representatives (one from each of the 15 Member States and 13 Accession Countries). As you know, the United Kingdom is represented by Peter Hain (the notorious Cricket lover and now Europe Minister).

56 National Parliamentarians (two from each country). The British Parliament is being represented by MPs Gisela Stuart and David Heathcoat-Amory.

16 Members of the European Parliament.

2 European Commission representatives;

And finally, alternate members to represent the full members should they be away.

I am representing the Conservative Party in the European Parliament; David Heathcoat-Amory is elected by and representing the British Parliamentary Party, and the Earl of Stockton is an alternate member.

The mandate of the Convention is to lay the foundations for the 2004 intergovernmental conference which may approve a new Treaty setting down the future structures and competences. If the precedent of the Charter of Fundamental Rights Convention, on which I also served (and with which I was most disappointed), is followed, the final document will be presented to the European Council as an unamendable text. The heads of government will simply have to accept or reject the text in its entirety. This means that the Convention is both tremendously powerful and also very timely and provides an opportunity - arguably one of the best opportunities - for the Conservative Party to have a real influence on the future direction of the European Union whilst still in opposition here in the UK.

Part of the process of this early stage has been one of 'listening to the people' so that a wide range of views can be canvassed. I am heavily engaged in this process. Also it is vital that we hear from young people - the group in society most disenchanted by the political system - not only in Europe but at home too. I have been helping to prepare the plans for this week's Youth Convention being held as I speak (and to which I must return soon today) in Brussels. I am delighted that we have strong "Young Conservative" representation on it, partly chosen by a competition on the Internet to get the widest possible interest.

Civil Society is meant to cover all NGOs, charities, religious organizations etc. They too have their own views. Here in Britain the RSPB, for instance, is one of the biggest membership organisations in the UK, having more members than all the main political parties put together.

These views are most important because they reflect ideas and feelings which politicians are not always aware of or take enough notice of in their daily work.

Where are we now?

The Euro: Even though we do not want to join the single currency in the UK, it is now a reality in 12 European countries. This issue is not one for the Convention, but it remains one of great importance in the UK and for the future relationship between the UK and the rest of the World.

Enlargement: British Conservatives, with some reservations, have been consistent supporters of enlargement to welcome those Central European Nations which courageously threw off dictatorship and were willing to reform their economies and societies. The process is not without problems however, but on the Convention our job is to provide the basis for a sustainable future for those applicant states as well as present member states in an enlarged Union.

Terrorism and threats post 9/11: The shocking events of last September have concentrated our minds on the vulnerability of democracy and the need to cooperate on both sides of the Atlantic in improving security and safeguarding our interests. The division of responsibilities between Europe and its member states and other world powers is a sensitive area which needs cool consideration and careful action. Some things are best done together; some alone.

Asylum: One of the greatest challenges not only to Europe or the UK but to the world is the movement of people. Some with genuine fear of persecution in their homelands but most for economic betterment. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees sets down the criteria for asylum. When I was Home Office minister, 95% of all asylum cases failed to meet these criteria. They remain as applicable now as in 1951 but there are pressures to change them from various quarters.

The new borders of an enlarged Europe will have to be protected but so will ours. I can only offer absolute condemnations of the Labour Government for its dereliction of duty in our immigration policies and border protection. Our Convention must take into account not only the continuation of this phenomenon of people moving but also the future needs of Europe for workers and specialists through the Immigration systems of member states.

The Young: I have referred to the need to hear the voices of our Youth on the Convention. We also need to ensure that the future of Europe offers a safe and secure future for our youngest citizens from birth.

Trading and The Economy: Although Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act for the UK the completion of the single market still needs to be accomplished. We all know of abuses and anti-competitive behaviour by some member states which still exist. We in the UK are always happy to trade if there is a level playing field. Europe started out as a simple trading bloc. Many of us want to make sure that, whatever happens in future, that element remains its' overriding priority. One can hardly settle the future of Europe without progress on that front. One of our working groups on the Convention is specifically looking at Economic issues.

The Conservative Party has always been interested in Europe. Throughout my time as a member from the 1960s onwards it has been a major issue for us. I originally opposed our membership and warned against it, but by the 1970s it was clear that we needed to be at least trading partners in one of the biggest growth markets in the world and I was by then confident that in being part of the family we could influence events. The present centre-right majority in the European Parliament (although not all on exactly the same wavelength all the time!) is an indication that Socialism does not control everything as some would claim.

The latest Eurobarometer opinion poll interestingly indicates that a majority of people - both in the UK and in the EU as a whole - would support a European Constitution. In fact, what they are really calling for, in my view, is a simplification of the treaties and a limitation on the powers and competencies of the European Union.

It is interesting to note that both EUobserver, the Eurosceptic news website, and the Federalist Letter, the Union of European Federalists Convention report, both believe that the outcome of the convention will be a new treaty rather than a constitution. The debate has shifted from the early stages when it was dubbed a 'Constitutional Convention' and I welcome this view as representative of the opinions so far given in our work.

It is widely acknowledged that an apathy has descended on political systems across the world, indicated by low turnouts in elections, a distrust of politicians and the rise of NGOs. What is interesting to note is that the latest Eurobarometer poll also indicates that the EU has greater trust from the people than national governments. That may not surprise us in relation to Mr Blair and his shambolic administration but it is surprising when related to all EU countries.

For all of us as politicians, to win back trust requires greater accountability, increased openness and more democracy. At a European level, this means in my view moving power from the European Commission to the European Parliament. At a national level, it means bolstering Parliament (the legislature) against Government (the executive). Our colleagues in Westminster however need have no fear that supporting more democracy in Europe will harm them or their cause in the UK, but on the Convention we must be interested in the survival and development of national democracy as well as European Democracy.

So, the European Parliament should be valued as a means of making the EU more democratic. Look at an electoral map of Britain, and you will see that great areas of the country (particularly inner-city and suburban areas) are not presently represented by Conservative MPs. A great many of these areas are also not represented by our Councillors.

All of them are represented by Conservative MEPs. As someone who has served in both the House of Commons and the European Parliament, I believe that our MEPs have played and should play a big role in the fight-back in the areas unrepresented by other British Conservative politicians. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that all our Members have adopted this wide but vital role in difficult times. During my four years as a MEP my postbag has changed from a mainly European one to be a much wider one reflecting all kinds of problems and issues which concern people who only have confidence in Conservatives to listen and sympathetically deal with their problems.

As the Conservative spokesman on Justice and Home Affairs in the European Parliament since 1999, I battle daily at what is the "front line" for legislation. When I was the Home Office minister responsible for asylum and immigration, besides a few intergovernmental and bilateral agreements, these matters were mostly dealt with entirely by the British Government.

Since the advent of Mr Blair and his 'cronies', British interests have been sidelined to his ambition to be President of Europe. Through the treaties of Amsterdam and Nice, we have witnessed the growth of more common areas, sometimes of cooperation but sometimes of compulsion.

Speaking at a European Scrutiny Committee in June, Humphrey Malins, the Conservative front-bencher responsible for these matters to whom I pay tribute, said: "We should all scratch our heads at finding ourselves here ... to debate a directive to which none of us has contributed. … It is an odd state of affairs when matters that are binding on this country are decided elsewhere whether we say that we like them today or not, especially when our own standards are pretty high."

Power in Europe and the UK has moved. The Conservative Party has to take this into account through positive engagement in the European Parliament but engagement which retains a robust and Conservative approach to developments.

I believe in cooperation rather than harmonization. For instance, we have opposed in principle the European Arrest Warrant in the European Parliament whist offering a solution to the scourge of terrorism, namely greater police cooperation through joint investigation teams. There are many other similar examples.

The debate as to what is to come from our work is a major one. We all want to have clearer indications of relative powers in the EU Institutions and between Europe and the Member States but what document or text is best able to achieve this? Some of the more passionate Europhiles want a written Constitution but to the UK and British Conservatives this is very difficult to countenance. Apart from the Magna Carta and the development of Common Law we do not even have a constitution for national affairs, never mind European affairs. But we do need to clarify the terms of past Treaties and we do need a text. At present I, and a growing number of others on the Convention favour a new Treaty setting down competencies and offering genuine redress for the Citizens through an enhanced Ombudsman and Auditors. We must end the outrageous corruption still existing in a few areas. Whether my view will prevail or whether we get an outcome near to this, only time will tell, but the signs are actually far from discouraging. We have everything to play for.

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