By David Wilby
Parliamentary Correspondent, Today in Parliament
So, twelve days of debates on the European constitutional treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, or the European constitution (depending on your point of view) have finally got under way.
MPs spent six and a half hours on Monday arguing about the timetable. At least on Tuesday they got to the treaty itself.
Some MPs fear the influence of European rulings on British laws
Not that there were all that many in the Commons to deal with the first of the topics for discussion: Justice and Home Affairs, particularly on the Labour side.
Which is probably why the party spokesmen (answering an awful lot of interventions) took up more than half the allocated time for themselves.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith opened by praising the treaty as the next step in the evolution of EU co-operation saying it would allow Britain "to work more effectively to improve public security and protection, to protect British citizens in their daily lives and to provide mechanisms to help our citizens and businesses living and working abroad."
At the same time, the home secretary said, Britain had safeguarded the UK's national interests. It was - in words that might come back to haunt her - "a negotiating triumph, Mr Speaker".
That was greeted by hollow laughs from Conservative MPs who are unhappy about the way the treaty can abolish the UK's veto on justice and home affairs matters - though not for the time being, the government has negotiated the right to opt-in later.
Diehard Eurocritics like the Tory Bill Cash fear the influence of European judges' rulings on laws affecting Britain.
He explained: "Particularly, for example, in France and in Germany, the judges are appointed by political decision-making processes within their own constitutional arrangements.
"And therefore it is significantly different in the application of those provisions to the way in which we conduct our affairs in relation to justice and home affairs in this country."
Ms Smith said the treaty would help cross-border co-operation in combating terrorism, drug smuggling and human trafficking. Up stood another Tory MP Peter Bone, who agreed trafficking was a cross border problem - but said it was not confined to the EU.
"The home secretary failed to give one single concrete reason why the new treaty would improve the situation and reduce human trafficking, other than quoting some words in the treaty," he told MPs.
"If we are talking about words, can she tell me what concrete measure, what reduction in human trafficking would this treaty bring?"
Pro-European Tory Ken Clarke argued against his colleagues
Ms Smith said an "EU action plan" on trafficking would allow "not just good practice but shared standards on the way in which we could safeguard victims that we could be clear about offences; and of course, implementing it is important as well".
The Conservative spokesman Dominic Grieve wanted to make clear at the outset he's not a Eurosceptic. He's half French - and if the government's plans for ID cards go ahead, he said he might have to get a French passport.
Mind you, Mr Grieve expressed the Eurosceptics' fear that the loss of more British vetoes in the treaty was another step towards federalism: "Where they will end up in 30 or 40 years' time, must be with common systems of justice which are ultimately controlled from outside their own nation states in terms of ensuring that conformity."
Mr Grieve said the government had initially said it didn't want to see that happen.
Meanwhile Tory MP David Heathcote Amory, who was a British representative on the European convention that drew up the original constitution that was later rejected in referendums in France and Holland, recalled the negotiating efforts of Peter Hain when he was Europe minister.
"He tabled 40 amendments to that convention, of which only two succeeded. One of which was to delete the word 'safety' and insert the word 'security'. If that is a negotiating triumph, does my honourable friend wonder what a failure might have been like?"
But Mr Grieve didn't have it all his own way. The former Conservative Chancellor Ken Clarke - on the pro-Europe wing of the party - thought the fears were being overstated. And he didn't think attempts at harmonisation - if Britain opts into them - would in practice be any threat to British laws:
Mr Clarke said: "Is he really saying, taking the example he chose a moment ago, that there's a real danger that a majority of the other member states will seek to impose upon ours, higher minimum standards of protection for the individual than this house would find acceptable? I really do think that is a fanciful fear."
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Commons home affairs committee -- and former Europe minister said his committee had looked at the details of the treaty: "The committee has been very clear in its recognition, we cannot keep our country safe and fight organised crime and terrorism without working very closely with our neighbours."
But did co-operation have to be through the treaty?, asked Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, adding: "This is a transfer from cooperation to the system of, dare I say, coercion - subject to qualified majority voting and the European Court under the European Union. This is a completely different system it is not cooperation."
Keith Vaz winced at that talk of coercion. And he played down the effects of qualified majority voting.
In fact, he said, Britain had done quite well out of it: "Every analysis that has been done on qualified majority voting shows that Britain is actually on the winning side. We are hardly ever on the losing side."
Another Labour MP - though one not as supportive of Europe - Ian Davidson offered an explanation: "Surely it's very easy to be on the winning side if every time you have a row you capitulate? I mean anybody can manage to be on the winning side by constantly changing sides. Surely that misses the point?"
Mr Vaz replied: "That may happen in Glasgow, but I don't think it happens in the negotiations that go on in Brussels - either under a Labour or a Conservative government."
The Liberal Democrats support the government on the treaty. Their home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne spent a lot of time attacking the Tories for their stance. He also rejected any suggestion that the treaty was like the old, failed constitution.
"I know Open Europe for example have said that 96% of the treaty is the same as the constitution, based on looking at the number of proposals in it - 10 out of the 250 being different.
"I have to say that in a recent article in 2005 in the journal Nature it was discovered that 96% of the DNA of all of us in this chamber is the same as that of a chimpanzee. Yet we would surely agree that the differences, I hope, between us and chimpanzees are more significant than the similarities."
The Commons will spend another eleven days debating the treaty. It's unlikely that over that time anyone will change his point of view. But at least that point about chimps got MPs thinking.