The Irish Presidency of the European Union will chair the European Council in Brussels this Thursday and Friday. Today, the House has its customary opportunity to debate the Government's priorities.(TRANS: Though of course we will not actually act on any dissension in this house, nor from the unwashed masses who had the temerity to send us such a rude message last week).
The fight against terrorism, a timetable for discussions on the EU's future budget, further EU enlargement, and foreign policy issues are on the agenda, along with nominations for a number of EU posts. But the main business of the European Council will be negotiations on a Constitutional Treaty for the European Union. Let me begin by putting those negotiations in context. (TRANS : In case you haven’t noticed those posts are in fact the Commissars who will be ruling us for the next five years, but don’t bother your pretty little heads about it, after all we know best. I will however play to the gallery with some faux history about the Constitution).
Europe's history has been one of rivalry and war. That history could easily have been today's reality save for the European Union, which has changed profoundly the political culture of our continent, and made war between former sworn enemies unthinkable. (TRANS :As you should have been persuaded by now, it was the EU that fought and won the great war, the one against fascism, the one against Communism, homework, those knobbly bits under loo seats and so on. Lets not talk about the other wars such as the Yugoslavian conflict).
Indeed it is fair to say that the EU has been 'uniquely successful' as 'a bastion of stability and shared democratic values in a volatile world; the largest trading unit in the world; and the largest aid donor. We have much to be proud of'. Those, Mr Speaker, are the words of none other than Margaret Thatcher. (TRANS : Hah got you, even Baroness Thatcher, who you lot adore said some nice things about the EEC – not saying when she said those things though).
Britain continues greatly to benefit from the EU. Today, the European Union is the market for over half our trade. Many of our companies rely on access to the European Single Market for their success. By working through the EU, we have cleaner beaches, air, and water. British citizens are able to travel, study, work, retire, get fairer legal redress and obtain free medical help anywhere in Europe, without restrictions. We work together better to stop international gangs bringing drugs, terrorism and illegal immigrants into our country. It provides a network of trade, aid and cooperation which covers most of the world, giving us greater influence, stability and prosperity. (TRAN: Of course we will reuse figures that have been denied by the very people who created them in the first place. You know if we keep repeating the more than 50% mantra then people will start to believe us, see we have learnt something from Continental politicians. There is no way that this country, or for that matter, this government would have been able to manage any of these things without EU intervention. The beaches of Britain could never have been cleaned, the streams never have been sorted out, no British firm had ever done business on the continent, there had never been cultural exchanges before, well come on guys can you imagine what it must have been like, imagine a lifetime of living like Gibraltarians or Falkland Islanders).
Of course, as with any level of government or politics, it's easy to knock the EU. The fact that its institutions are more distant, and more recent, contributes to the sense of unease which some people feel about the way that the European Union works. Almost five decades from the EU's foundation, institutions and procedures designed originally for six members are struggling to cope with 25 effectively and efficiently. The need for reform was I think one of the messages from last week's European elections. My Dutch colleague, Ben Bot, put it eloquently in a speech in Berlin before those elections, a fortnight ago: Europe's leaders, he said, must 'confront reality', 'give citizens a say', and 'ensure that the rights and freedoms of member states and citizens are given adequate protection', if Europe is to succeed. (TRANS : Honest we are going to throw some vaguely – Stand up for Britain stuff into the speech to show that we care about the country).
The new treaty would also contain four important innovations. (TRANS: this is the serious bit)
For the first time, it would give the body where Europe's national governments take decisions – the European Council – a full-time Chairman, replacing the present 6-monthly rotating chairmanship. That post will strengthen the European Council, ensuring that the nations of Europe set the EU's agenda and drive it through. (TRANS : We will create a President of Europe).
Secondly, the new treaty would for the first time give national parliaments a role in EU legislation, including the chance to send back draft legislation which goes too far. (TRANS : A bit like the House of Lords, i.e. If they don’t like it we wil do it anyway q.v. Postal Ballots).
Thirdly, it would make explicit provision for competences currently shared between the EU and the nation states – the vast bulk – to be transferred back to full national control, where the EU's members decide that they no longer wish to exercise them in common. (TRANS : Another sop, the weasel words that you shouldn’t notice are ‘where the EU's members decide that they no longer wish to exercise them in common’, after all it never happens).
And fourthly, the treaty would set out better procedures for what is known as 'enhanced cooperation', allowing smaller groups of members who wish to cooperate more closely in certain areas to do so – dare I say it, a 'live and let live' Europe. (TRANS : However it also includes the principle of ‘Loyal Co-operation’, which means that if you don’t like it you have to shut up and do what they want to do anyway).