Intergovernmental Conference (White Paper)

– in the House of Commons am 3:31 pm ar 12 Mawrth 1996.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary 3:31, 12 Mawrth 1996

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the forthcoming intergovernmental conference.

Britain has a vision of Europe that is reflected in the White Paper that we are publishing today, which is entitled "A Partnership of Nations". We want to see a Europe that respects cultural and political diversity; that does only those things at the European level that need to be done at that level; and that is outward-looking, free-trading, democratic and flexible—a partnership of nations working together to advance their national interests. The intergovernmental conference is, of course, only one means available to us through which we intend to realise our objectives. We shall continue to work tirelessly in all the other forums for the same goal.

Successive British Governments have seen the European Union as a means of safeguarding stability and creating prosperity in Europe. There have been frustrations and controversies, but, overall, the United Kingdom has greatly benefited from more than 20 years of membership.

The Government approach the launch of the intergovernmental conference in Turin on 29 March unambiguously committed to our membership of the European Union. We shall play a leading role in the Union as one of Europe's biggest and most powerful nations. Britain's voice is influential and it has helped shape the European Community in the past. Britain was the pioneer of the single market. We have been one of the leading advocates of enlargement and of a European Union open to the world. The Government believe that the European Union will succeed only if it respects the integrity of the independent democratic nation states that comprise its membership and if it is flexible enough to accommodate their political and cultural differences. The Government are totally opposed to a monolithic, centralised, federal Europe.

The treaty on European Union—like the original treaty of Rome—calls for an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe"— not, let it be noted, among the states of Europe or among their Governments. That aspiration for strengthened co-operation and friendship across the whole of Europe is a noble one, and is fully shared by the Government. However, it should not mean an ever closer political union in the sense of an inexorable drift of power towards supra-national institutions, the erosion of the powers of national Parliaments or the gradual development of a united states of Europe. The Government reject that conception of Europe's future. That is why it is crucial that national Parliaments remain the central focus of democratic legitimacy. Europe must develop with the instincts of free people in free nations. As the European Union matures, it needs a clearer sense of what it is and of what it should never aspire to be. Those principles are closely adhered to in the White Paper.

The intergovernmental conference is obviously important to the European Union's future, but it is not the only, or perhaps even the most important, challenge confronting the Union. Outside the intergovernmental conference, we must prepare for the enlargement of the Union to the east and the south, which will involve the Herculean task of reforming the Community's agricultural and regional policies. Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the urgent need to strengthen Europe's competitiveness and thereby generate new jobs. There will also be hard choices to make on a single currency and on the Union's future financing. Those crucial matters do not fall within the scope of the intergovernmental conference, although the United Kingdom is developing clear and robust policies in each area.

The Maastricht treaty came into force little more than two years ago. We agree with the conclusion of the study group that was set up to prepare for the IGC that the Conference should focus on necessary changes, without embarking on a complete revision of the Treaty". British objectives, such as a major reform of the common agricultural policy, do not need treaty amendment and will be pursued in other negotiations.

The IGC has yet to begin. In common with other member states, the Government are still considering their detailed approach. We may have further proposals to make as the negotiations proceed. The following represent our specific proposals for this intergovernmental conference.

First is subsidiarity. That is the key to ensuring that the Union concentrates single-mindedly on doing what needs to be done at a European level, and only that. The United Kingdom introduced that vital concept into the treaty of Maastricht. The principle has been developed at subsequent European Councils. It is having the effect that we intended, but more clarity is needed in the treaty. We shall therefore make proposals at the intergovernmental conference to entrench subsidiarity still further in the treaty.

Secondly, we are concerned at the way in which certain directives have been used or may be used for purposes that were never intended by the Governments who agreed to them—for example, health and safety articles that may be used for social policy, or fiscal measures that may be added on to single market or environmental proposals. Another example is the common fisheries policy, where the practice of "quota hopping" is preventing fishing communities from enjoying a secure benefit from national quotas, thereby undermining their entire purpose. The Government do not believe that directives, once enacted, are irreversible, and will press for treaty amendment if that proves to be the best way of ensuring that the original purpose of those directives is fully respected.

Thirdly, the President of the Commission, Jacques Santer, has said that the Union should do "less but better". Britain agrees. The volume of new legislative proposals being put forward has been falling rapidly, with only 19 proposals for principal legislation expected in 1996 compared with 61 in 1990, but there is also an urgent need to improve the quality of European legislation, and we shall be pressing for a range of measures to achieve that, including much wider consultation of interested parties via the Commission before proposals are put forward, and the automatic withdrawal of proposals that are not adopted by the Council within a given time.

Fourthly, national Parliaments are the primary focus of democratic legitimacy in the Union. The House, like the Government, rightly attaches importance to the role of national Parliaments in European Union decision making. We have taken careful note of views expressed in several helpful reports by Committees of the House.

We are examining a range of ideas, including a binding period for Parliaments to scrutinise Community documents before decisions are taken in the Council, and a greater role for national Parliaments in the justice and home affairs pillar.

The European Parliament, by contrast, already has a major role in the European legislative process, including a number of new powers acquired at Maastricht, some of which have yet to be fully tested. The Government do not, therefore, see the case for new powers for the European Parliament at the expense of national Parliaments or Governments.

Fifthly, we believe that foreign and defence policy must remain the responsibility of national Governments. The common foreign and security policy has, since its inception, achieved more than many had expected. It is in this country's national interest that members of the European Union should speak and act together on the world stage where our objectives are the same. Our joint support for the middle east peace process or for democratic institutions and market economies in central and eastern Europe is an obvious example. We shall be pressing for a more effective common foreign and security policy at the forthcoming conference. But, crucially, Britain believes that the common foreign and security policy must remain based on unanimity and be intergovernmental in character if it is to succeed. As the House knows, I put forward our ideas in a speech in Paris last week. Ultimately, the common foreign and security policy will carry weight internationally only if it represents a genuinely common policy, not a majority one.

Sixthly, the intergovernmental conference will also be considering the arrangements for European defence co-operation. The Government set out their approach in a full memorandum last year. That memorandum has been attached to the White Paper that is being issued today. We believe that it would be useful to improve defence co-operation in Europe by closer co-operation between the European Union and the Western European Union. We do not, however, believe in the integration of those two bodies or in the subordination of the WEU to the European Union. NATO must remain the bedrock of western security. The European Union, four of whose member states are neutrals, and which are neither in NATO nor in the WEU, cannot expect to take decisions on defence policy or on the use of military forces.

Seventhly, co-operation in justice and home affairs will be of particular importance in the intergovernmental conference, because terrorism, organised crime, illegal immigration and drug trafficking are among the greatest challenges facing modern society. They require a co-ordinated, multinational response. Substantial progress has been achieved in the past few years in that area, and Britain has proposals for improving that co-operation. But, as with foreign policy, the Government believe that those issues must remain intergovernmental and subject to unanimity if they are to carry the support of the peoples of Europe. Those are matters of high political sensitivity, involving questions of national sovereignty.

Eighthly, the European Court of Justice is another area in which we shall be pressing for improvements at the intergovernmental conference. Britain is committed to a strong and independent Court, without which it would be impossible to ensure even application of Community law or to prevent abuse of power by the Community's institutions. But the functioning of the court can and, in the Government's view, must be improved. There is very great concern that the court's interpretations sometimes seem to go beyond what Governments intended when laws were framed.

The Government are working up a number of proposals to enable the court to address those concerns better. They include: strengthening the ability of the court to limit retrospective application of its judgments; introducing the principle that a member state should be liable for damages only in cases of serious and manifest breach of its obligations; applying national time limits to all cases based on European Community laws, except where the member state's failure to implement a directive is in serious and manifest breach of its obligations; an internal appeals procedure; streamlined procedures for the rapid amendment of European Community legislation that has been interpreted in a way that was never intended by the Council; an accelerated procedure for time-sensitive cases; and a treaty provision clarifying the application of subsidiarity in the interpretation of Community laws. The Government will shortly be issuing a memorandum setting out their proposals in detail.

Ninthly, certain changes to the Council voting system will be necessary if the Union is to continue to function democratically in an enlarged Union. At present, the system of weighted votes is biased against the larger member states. There is growing acceptance across Europe that a way must be found to address that imbalance. Possible alternatives include changing the number of votes of larger countries so that population is better reflected. What is clear is that the system must not allow countries representing a significant percentage of the European Union's population or the major net contributors as a group to be outvoted.

Tenthly, as the Union enlarges to as many as 27 members, it will be necessary to change the current policy whereby every member state, however small, has a Commissioner and is responsible for a six-month presidency. Such a structure would quickly become unworkable in an enlarged Union.

As the White Paper makes clear, there are a number of other specific areas where the Government see scope for improving the treaty at this intergovernmental conference. Those areas include animal welfare and possible changes to the common fisheries policy, as announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last week. There are many areas where the countries of the Union could and should co-operate more closely in their own national interests, and in the interest of Europe as a whole. But at a time when there is concern about Europe trying to do too much, we do not believe that the rules on qualified majority voting in the treaty should be changed to make it easier to override national concerns in matters of particular sensitivity. That is why we shall oppose the extension of majority voting at the intergovernmental conference.

Nor do we favour further harmonisation or the extension of Community competence in the area of employment. The need to create jobs is one of the highest priorities facing the European Union. But jobs cannot be wished into being simply by legislating for them; it is businesses that make jobs. That is why the Prime Minister negotiated Britain's social chapter opt-out at Maastricht—and our opt-out is here to stay.

The Government approach this intergovernmental conference with confidence and determination. This country's national interest is the starting point for our approach as, for all free nations, the national interest can be defined as the collective expression of the democratic process. In many spheres, our national interest coincides with that of our European partners and, in those spheres, working with our partners enables our collective effort better to achieve our ends. We shall argue constructively for treaty changes to improve the operation of the Union. We want to strengthen the treaty so that Europe can face and overcome the challenges ahead and, in particular, so that we can prepare for further enlargement.

As I have said, the conference is only one forum where we shall press for our vision of Europe. There are others and we shall argue robustly in all of them. Britain will be at the heart of the debate about the future of the European Union, because it is our future and we can best shape our national destiny by working with our closest neighbours to make a strong and effective partnership of nations.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook , Livingston

As Britain approaches the important intergovernmental conference, it is obviously in the national interest that we should, wherever possible, seek agreement on the agenda for that IGC. I therefore begin by welcoming the matters on which we agree with the Government's approach.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that we endorse what he said about the justice and home affairs pillars and the common foreign and security policy? Both subjects should be dealt with by intergovernmental agreement rather than through participation of the European institutions. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the common foreign and security policy must remain a common policy, not a majority foreign and security policy? Does he accept that he will have our full support in resisting any defence competence for the European Union, which is not where Britain should look for its security interests?

We support entirely what the Foreign Secretary said about the importance of subsidiarity in making Europe more accountable to the people, by bringing decisions closer to them. Our only regret is that the Government do not practise subsidiarity in Britain. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if the Government are successful in winning back some powers from Brussels, they should not keep all those powers to themselves, but should decentralise some of them from Whitehall?

I entirely endorse what the Foreign Secretary said about the importance of the enlargement of the European Union. There can be no greater mission for western Europe than to open its doors to the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, and to support democracy in those countries as well as the stability of their borders. If, however, the Government's commitment to enlargement is to be taken seriously, the Foreign Secretary must answer the following question. Does he believe that the European Union can admit another 10 or 15 members, each clutching a veto over the full range of issues that are now settled by unanimous vote? Does he accept that he has our full support in retaining a British veto on taxation, on changes to the treaty and on strategic political issues? Does he accept also that many people will consider the Government hypocritical when they discover that, after the Government presided over the massive extension of qualified majority voting and the Single European Act, opposition to qualified majority voting is now a guiding principle? Finally, I welcome most of all the positive tone of much of his statement.

The Foreign Secretary began by reminding the House that Britain had benefited greatly from 20 years' membership of the European Union. He ended by saying that we must work closely with our neighbours to ensure a strong and effective partnership. The Foreign Secretary's problem is that many of his hon. Friends do not agree with either statement. Is that not why neither his White Paper nor his statement has anything positive to offer on the three major issues facing Europe? Does he accept that Opposition Members believe that the top priority of European policy should be the provision of jobs?

Why then does the White Paper rule out the proposal before the IGC that the treaty should be amended to include employment as an objective of the European Union? The Government agreed at Maastricht to set targets on inflation, interest rates, fiscal deficits and national debt. Why can they not agree that a priority for the IGC should be to balance those monetary targets with a commitment to employment?

The Foreign Secretary said that the opt-out on the social chapter is "here to stay". Does he accept that the opt-out will go when this Government go? Does the Foreign Secretary not know that two thirds of the public want Britain to join the social chapter? Why should they not have a Government who speak for them at the IGC? Why should the workers of Britain be denied the same rights to information and consultation about the future of their country as those who work in Europe? The social chapter is a competitive issue: how do the Government, in the age of the knowledge industries, imagine that Britain can be competitive when the work force is kept in the dark?

The greatest omission from the Foreign Secretary's statement and from the White Paper was any contribution to the debate on the single currency. Does the Foreign Secretary not understand that no one will believe his claim that the White Paper does not discuss the single currency issue because it is not part of the IGC' s formal agenda? Everyone knows that the real reason why the White Paper does not mention the single currency is that Conservative Members cannot agree on what to say about it.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the views of his colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who tells us that he is sympathetic to the single currency, or does he agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who tells us that the Conservatives would never give up the pound? The reality is that the Foreign Secretary dare not present a White Paper that tells us where the Government stand, because he knows that it would not be possible for both his colleagues to vote for it. Will he accept the simple, honest truth that no British Government can join a single currency without the consent of the British people?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has produced a White Paper that tries to please everyone, but the result will please no one. The Government cannot make progress in Europe because they are paralysed by divisions at home. Britain needs a Government who can provide a lead for Britain in the IGC on an agenda of reform for Europe. The Foreign Secretary's statement and his White Paper's silence about the great issues facing Europe have demonstrated why Britain cannot have such a Government until it gets a change of Government.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

It is rather rich for the hon. Gentleman to remind me that some of my hon. Friends might not take the view that the European Union has been good for Britain, when he spent his first 20 years in the House and several general elections campaigning to take us out of the European Union. He went on to comment about jobs. The Labour party, as represented by the hon. Gentleman, invites derision by pontificating about the need to help employment in this country while simultaneously seeking to impose upon industry the social chapter, which, as the Labour deputy leader admitted, would destroy jobs in Britain.

The hon. Gentleman was careful not to point out that the Labour party is already committed to removing the British veto on social policy, regional policy, environmental policy and industrial policy. Its documents say explicitly that there would be no permanent opt-outs under a Labour Government. If that means anything, it means that a Labour Government would roll over and lie down whenever a majority wished to press for some other proposal. When the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues say that they would never be isolated in Europe, that appears to mean that they would rather be popular than right. As long as they take that position, their views on the European Union do not deserve the respect of the House or of the country.

Photo of Mr Norman Lamont Mr Norman Lamont , Kingston upon Thames

May I welcome much of what is in the White Paper and what my right hon. and learned Friend said about qualified majority voting and about the European Parliament, if we have to have one? Is not the real test of what my right hon. and learned Friend has said whether, over the next few years, Britain can avoid being sucked into a European state of the kind that many of our partners want, as I discovered at the previous intergovernmental conference? Does he know of any organisation in history that had an elected Parliament, a supreme court, a passport, a right of citizenship and a single currency, but was not a state?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I entirely accept from my right hon. Friend that the European Union is unprecedented. It will be unprecedented whether it remains in its present form, as we would like, or whether other member states press for it to go further. It is already unique, even in its present form. I remind my right hon. Friend that any changes in the treaty require unanimity, and we have made it abundantly clear that we are not prepared to countenance moves towards the supra-national structure that remains the aspiration of some of our partners.

Increasingly, the peoples of Europe—if not yet their Governments—are moving in a similar direction. We saw the way in which French opinion expressed itself during the referendum in France two or three years ago. There are similar developments in other countries. There is a historic process at work and a great debate throughout Europe. That debate may be slightly more voluble here than in some other countries, but it is already happening in France, Germany and elsewhere. It is our historic role to lead those who call for a Europe that is, as we have described it, a partnership of nations and not an incipient super-state. That will be our role and we shall continue to fight for that objective.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Is not the Government's strategy—if it can be dignified by that term—towards the IGC in danger of imminent collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions? How can the Government achieve a Europe that is closer to European citizens when, even now, they are denying the European Parliament—the one elected representative of European citizens—the right of access to and representation at the IGC?

How will the Foreign Secretary square what he described in his statement as the Herculean task of structural and institutional reform that will be occasioned by enlargement, with the fact that incoming states will carry vetos, but there will be no logical extension of qualified majority voting? They will be allowed a veto, but not always a Commissionership. That seems utterly illogical.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

On the latter point, I do not think that anyone is seriously suggesting—unless the Liberals are—that, if we have 27 member states, we must have 27 Commissioners, regardless of whether there is any work for them to do. That would be a typical Liberal solution to such a problem.

On the earlier part of his question, I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the wisdom of what he has just said. We oppose the European Parliament playing a negotiating role in the intergovernmental conference, because the IGC is exactly what the letters mean—it is an intergovernmental conference. The European Parliament has never had such a role in the past, and Britain and France strongly opposed such a suggestion when it was discussed in recent weeks. The French Government share our view that it would be totally unacceptable in an intergovernmental conference for the European Parliament, which is just one of several institutions, to acquire such a role. Why should it have powers that national Parliaments, which have at least as much claim to democratic legitimacy—some would say more—will not have in the IGC?

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that Chancellor Kohl, in his widely but partially reported speech at Louvain last month, said that no one wants a centralised super-state and that one does not and will not exist? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that approach is entirely compatible with the Government's statement that they want a partnership of nations, which offers an encouraging way forward in developing a European Union that responds to the aspirations of this country and of our European partners?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of that welcome statement, which Chancellor Kohl has made on several occasions. We must examine particular proposals for changing the treaty or the institutions, as to whether they would move us in that direction. I entirely accept Chancellor Kohl's good faith in making that statement, and we welcome his repeated assertion of that view.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Bethnal Green and Stepney

The House will want to study carefully the White Paper, which is important, but one's first impression is that its tone is right. I particularly welcome the emphasis on enlargement, subsidiarity, and the retention of powers by this Parliament and our own people. Following the remarks of my lion, Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), I put it to the Secretary of State that the issue that worries the people of Europe more than any other, rising long-term unemployment, is not centrally on the IGC agenda. There is a connection between the level of unemployment and the existence of the commitment to economic and monetary union in the Maastricht treaty. It is precisely deflationary convergence factors that have driven unemployment up to 20 million. Surely that issue ought to be brought forward and put centrally on the IGC agenda.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his earlier comments, and I agree about the crucial importance of employment and jobs. The IGC is one of several, parallel negotiations that will be taking up the time of the European Union over the next two or three years. The IGC deals with specific treaty amendments and the powers of institutions. At the same time, negotiations will begin on enlargement, and there are the continuing questions of European monetary union and the EU's future financing.

Employment will be an important feature in all those negotiations. We do not believe that the IGC can itself make a significant contribution in that regard, because amending the treaty or the powers of institutions would not, in our view, make a significant contribution to real jobs. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the one major country in the European Union that has falling unemployment happens to be the one country—the United Kingdom—that has declined to introduce the social chapter. It is worth reflecting on that point.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood , Wokingham

Given that the European Court is demolishing our fishing industry and social chapter opt-out, will the Government consider stronger measures to assert the rights of this Parliament against the European Court, including modifying the 1972 legislation or asserting our parliamentary right to review European Court judgments—just as the German court does?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

Of course, we are willing to consider any constructive proposal to ensure that the European Court does not frustrate the clear objectives of Governments when they introduce legislation. That has been one of the most worrying features of a number of judgments in the past few months. I do not pretend for a moment that the task is easy. One way of completing it, as I mentioned in my statement, is to seek to amend the treaty where appropriate.

Earlier, I said specifically that if health and safety legislation is, in our view, being misused to seek to impose the social chapter by the back door, and that requires a treaty amendment, we shall seek to achieve such an amendment in the intergovernmental conference. That applies in a number of other areas, including those that I mentioned. In addition, we must review the European Court's procedures, to limit wherever possible the means by which it can advance objectives that are inconsistent with those of the Governments who negotiated particular policy proposals.

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

In view of the centrality of the deliberations of national Governments, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman stressed, how can—will he listen to me—how can a British Cabinet even contemplate a referendum on anything?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I hear the hon. Gentleman's views, and they are not relevant to the statement that I made today. As he well knows, the question of a referendum is under consideration, and I cannot usefully add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, although there will be a wide welcome for his support of the centrality of the nation state, the fact remains that the European Court of Justice, with its present powers, can exist only to serve as an engine for a federated super-state? It will not be enough merely to contain the extension of those powers. If we are to maintain the supremacy and the centrality of the nation state, we shall have to reduce the powers that the European Court has given itself.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that a serious challenge has to be addressed. On the one hand, we need a European Court to ensure, for example, that the single market is properly observed. Many would like to avoid their responsibilities under the single market, if they felt that they could get away with it, and the European Court has been extremely useful in preventing that. The European Court has also been very effective in a number of its judgments. For example, it fined Italy for avoiding milk quotas. We have been happy to welcome a number of such judgments.

At the same time, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that we do not want a European Court that sees its role as making law—rather than interpreting the law that Governments have agreed—or that inadvertently makes law. That is a difficult problem and I do not say that we have the absolute answer, but it is an increasing priority that must be addressed, not just by the United Kingdom, but by the Council of Ministers as a whole.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that—quite apart from the effect of the convergence criteria for a single currency, which would probably cost millions of jobs in the Union—the right to tax, to borrow and to spend belongs, in a democracy, to the people through their representatives in Parliament, and no Government—Conservative, Labour or any other—have any moral or legal authority to transfer that power to others who are not accountable to the British electorate? Therefore, were such a proposal to come forward, it would be an attempted coup d'état to try to carry that through without the explicit consent of the British people in a vote on that issue in a referendum. That is a question that cannot be avoided, however long it is before the single currency becomes the immediate issue.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the right to tax is one of the fundamental powers of a democratic and sovereign Parliament, and that is one of the reasons why any fiscal proposal must have unanimity under the current rules and why, as I commented earlier, we would be gravely concerned at any attempt to use single market directives as a means of indirectly implementing or proposing fiscal measures. If a treaty consideration is also required to prevent such an eventuality, we would not hesitate to argue powerfully for such a change.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, whether one considers the question of Bosnia, the exchange rate mechanism, fishing, monetary union or a whole range of other matters, there is a clear sense in the electorates of Europe and the United Kingdom that the Maastricht treaty has failed the people of Europe? Does my right hon. and learned Friend also accept that the treaty amendments needed to make the changes to put that right, in the interests of Europe and the United Kingdom, require unanimity? How will he be able to achieve the objectives in the wish list that is set out in the White Paper except by renegotiating the Maastricht treaty?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

The proposals in the White Paper do not in themselves require a renegotiation of the Maastricht treaty; but I accept that some of them will be controversial. We may start off with few allies at the conference as regards some of the proposals. That does not alarm or depress me. I recall that when the Government identified the need for a British budget rebate, we started without any allies, but after robust negotiations we got what we believed to be our right. So if the merits of the argument are powerful and convincing, in due course we shall prevail.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

As the cost to the British economy of exchanges with mainland European currencies is now as great as, or even greater than, the cost of our contribution to the budget of the EU, has not the time come to give positive consideration to the case for a single European currency?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. We believe that the proper time to consider the question of a single currency is not in this Parliament. There is no possibility of that before 1999, and the Government's view on the matter has in any case been presented clearly on previous occasions.

Photo of Mr Dudley Smith Mr Dudley Smith , Warwick and Leamington

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that NATO is the bedrock of European security and defence. Given his welcome approach, does he agree that the future of the Western European Union is probably very good if it can at last become the proper pillar of NATO in the European context? Does he further agree that a takeover by the European Union, which he has resisted today, must be repelled at all costs?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I agree. I welcome my hon. Friend's support, particularly as he is fully involved in defence issues affecting the WEU. The crucial point is that co-operation between the WEU and the EU makes sense, but it must be co-operation, not subordination. The membership of the two bodies is different; they have different treaty bases. It would be quite improper for the EU to aspire to a defence role—that is not its function, nor should it become so.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

Is it not true that, without the pressure of convergence, a number of our European partners would have found themselves in far greater financial trouble today—certainly on the inflation front?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

If Governments choose to try to bring their inflation down—their public sector deficits down—that is highly desirable. If it happens throughout Europe in a rational and sensible way, the European economy can only benefit from that; but it must be done consistently with economic reality.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that his White Paper, which I know has not been easy to draft, sounds extremely positive? That seems to be recognised on both sides of the House, and it is welcome. Also welcome was his warning about the unending accumulation of powers by central authorities in the Union, and the need to hold them in check. But will he explain precisely how we shall put some substance into the drive for subsidiarity and the returning of powers to nation states? Has he seen a recent report that claims that, after two years of listing all the measures that ought to be returned to nation state level by subsidiarity, the only one that has in fact been returned is a directive on the management of zoos? That does not sound as if great progress has been made.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcoming opening remarks. The first step towards achieving what we all seek is to get entrenched in the treaty not only the principle of subsidiarity but, as we now propose, some of the detailed guidelines agreed at European summits. We know that whenever issues are in dispute, it is what is in the treaty that ultimately decides what the end product will be. So that is a high priority.

There has already been a welcome reduction in the number of new directives from Brussels, in part because of the completion of the single market process and in part because of the substantial difference in style of Mr. Santer, compared with the Commission headed by Jacques Delors. The trend in that respect is encouraging, but we have one heck of a long way to go. The more subsidiarity we can get entrenched in the treaty, the easier it will be to ensure that that is reflected in how the EU operates.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Is not it time that some Minister or Opposition Front Bencher made it clear that political treaties do not last for ever, whether they are bilateral or multilateral? That will have to be faced at some time. We have had 23 years of this unmitigated disaster. We no longer use our own fishing fleets; the shipbuilding industry around Britain has been wrecked. Europeans never bought our coal and bought only very little of our steel. There are 20 million people out of work in Europe, and 4 million—the real figure—out of work here.

This has been a trail of disasters, and millions of people out there are longing for someone to admit that it has not worked. The halcyon days are over now. Neo-fascist parties are scattered all round Europe. Most Common Market countries have different views on Bosnia, Croatia and the rest. It has to be admitted at some time. The emperor has no clothes, and all treaties eventually finish up in the political dustbin. That is where this will end.

Hon. Members:


Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I am interested in hearing these wise philosophical statements. I noticed that they were addressed to both Front Benches. I do not know whether I speak on behalf of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in any response that I make, but I ask the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to ponder on one thing. If the European Union has been as unremittingly bad as he implies, it is interesting that countries continue to queue up to join. At the moment, 12 countries are anxious to join the European Union. [Interruption.] There may be a variety of motives, but nevertheless the hon. Gentleman perhaps slightly exaggerated his point.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet

May I welcome the parts of my right hon. and learned Friend's White Paper which, for the first time, seem to strike some good Euro-sceptic themes, such as the demands for new limits on Community action and new limits on the European Court of Justice, and, of course, the commitments to defend firmly our national opt-outs and our national veto? May I warn him, however, that if by any chance the important battles that he and his negotiating team will fight were to be lost or be surrendered by the revealingly new Europhile Labour Front Bench that we witnessed this afternoon, the House would, for the first time in many years, have to consider seriously the option of withdrawal?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I believe that an historic debate is taking place throughout Europe. I freely acknowledge that progress with the ideas that we represent is slow, but I believe that the partnership of nations that we envisage for the European Union goes with the grain not just of British opinion, but ultimately of that in other member states as well. I do not detect any enthusiasm in any country in Europe, outside, perhaps, certain elements of the political class, for some supra-national European nation state. I do not believe that there is any enthusiasm for that. If that is the case, given that these are all democratic nations, I believe that that will show itself in due course.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson , Dwyrain Abertawe

That is a pipe dream. Is not the reality that the Foreign Secretary has said that he will negotiate changes to the European Court of Justice? He has said that he will robustly ask for this and for that. He is on a loser. Look at the position taken by the French and German Governments. A simple question: what will he do when his position is rejected, as inevitably it will be?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman may be able to put such a remark to his hon. Friends on his own Front Bench, who are terrified of being isolated, who have said that there will be no permanent opt-outs, and who wish to give up our veto in areas where we currently have it, but he is not entitled to make such a remark to the Government, who negotiated the British budget rebate, the opt-out from the social chapter, and the opt-out on the principle of a single currency. The hon. Gentleman should know that the Government's record in achieving targets that they set themselves has been exemplary.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill , Bournemouth West

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that although it is necessary for us to support the enlargement of the Community, any such enlargement would involve as a prerequisite substantial and significant renegotiation of the finances of the Community and of the common agricultural policy? Does he further agree that there are some areas where the powers and resources of the Commission need to be increased, in particular the stamping out of fraud and the policing and elimination of illegal state subsidies?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

Yes, that is indeed a high priority, and we have attached importance to improving the controls against fraud both in previous initiatives and in some of the ideas in the White Paper. I also agree with my hon. Friend that, as we move towards enlargement, that enlargement will render essential what the Government have long argued for—a major reform of the common agricultural policy in order to remove some of its more irrational features.

Photo of Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones , Ynys Môn

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the IGC will give the Government an opportunity to look again at their definition of the principle of subsidiarity? Does he accept that throughout most of Europe the principle of subsidiarity means that decisions are taken at three levels—the European level, the member state level and the national and regional level? Will he now answer the point put to him from the Labour Front Bench, that that should be the position adopted by the British Government at the IGC?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

We believe very strongly in and have practised the policy of decentralising to individual people—giving people rights. The hon. Gentleman is obsessed by institutions and believes that freedom is extended when institutions are given powers. We believe that the best way of expanding liberty is to allow people to have greater control over their own lives.

Photo of Mr Iain Mills Mr Iain Mills , Meriden

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend two very quick questions? Will he clarify whether, as the White Paper suggests, we shall seriously challenge the Maastricht treaty and look for changes to it which would lead back to less pressure for federalism? Does he agree that a common currency—I ask him to be very explicit in his view—would lead to either increased interest rates or greater regional unemployment?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

On the latter point, with regard to a single currency, that is obviously part of the current debate as to what the implications of a single currency would be. I shall not comment on that this afternoon. Those are issues that would need to be addressed before the Government could come to a judgment as to what the national interest might justify. However, with regard to any changes to the Maastricht treaty or to other parts of the acquis, we are very willing to argue robustly for changes wherever we believe that policies are being implemented in a way contrary to that which the Council of Ministers intended when the proposals were originally approved.

Photo of Mr Stuart Randall Mr Stuart Randall , Kingston upon Hull West

Is not it the case that the Foreign Secretary said that British national interest would be the starting point in negotiations at the IGC? Why will he therefore not support the idea of extending majority voting in areas where there is a clear national interest, as in research and development?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I do not accept that that would be in the national interest. One of the most crucial questions is control of public expenditure, and there has often been a tendency in a majority of other countries to have a much laxer approach to increasing public expenditure, including in that area, than we believe appropriate. Therefore, I do not acknowledge the point that the hon. Gentleman is implying.

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there is a dilemma in people's minds on both sides of the House about the question of a referendum, in that those who defend the rights of this Parliament seem to be the ones who argue most vociferously for having a referendum, which would undercut those rights? Will he bear that in mind when approaching that subject?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend also bear in mind the help that we would gain as a nation from the extension of qualified majority voting to the reform of some of the areas of Community activity where we want to see reform, most particularly, perhaps, the common agricultural policy, to which he referred in his statement?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

The reform of the common agricultural policy is already subject to qualified majority voting in every respect other than the guidelines of total expenditure. All the changes that we would wish to see can, almost without exception, be achieved under the existing arrangements of qualified majority voting in the CAP. The problem is getting the majority. That is itself a pretty difficult task, but it is not the system of voting that is the difficulty in this case.

Photo of Mr Terry Davis Mr Terry Davis , Birmingham, Hodge Hill

If the Foreign Secretary is serious about giving people control over their own lives, why will he not put the results of these negotiations to the British people in a referendum?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

We do not yet know what the results of the negotiations will be. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said some time ago, we cannot contemplate how to present the results of the negotiations until we know whether they are minor, significant or substantial.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on making it plain that Britain does not want any further moves towards federalism in Europe, but may I suggest that that will not be enough for the British people and that, at some stage, we shall have to say no to one of the ludicrous laws that comes from Brussels, to disobey and thus demonstrate to the peoples of Europe that we must have a looser relationship through amendment of existing treaties?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier comments. With regard to the latter part of his question, the appropriate way to ensure the protection of the national interest is to enter into negotiation on any changes that we believe to be necessary. Of course, negotiations are always difficult—they are difficult for other countries as well. The unanimity that is a protection for us is also a protection for them, but, in such a partnership, one needs to identify what is acceptable to each member state if the European Union is to prosper.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Do not the Foreign Secretary's comments about the European Court of Justice smack of sour grapes, especially after this morning's ruling on the working hours directive, which surely exposed the Government's dishonesty in attempting to suppress information from the Department of Health, which stated that working more than 48 hours a week doubles the risk of coronary heart disease and that it is a myth that working longer hours means working more productively? Did not the Government know that their case was fundamentally flawed when they brought it? Surely the answer should have been not to bring it in the first place.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

If the requirement of a maximum of 48 hours were to apply to hon. Members and, in particular, to members of the Government, that would represent a remarkable change in our life style. Whether it would improve my health is not for me to comment on.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's espousal today of a vision of a Europe of sovereign nation states, and I note his comment that we have few allies. If negotiations do not make satisfactory progress from our point of view, is he prepared to veto the whole process?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

This negotiation may run for a whole year, so I shall not speculate on what might happen at the end of that process, but we can prevent any proposals from other countries that we find unacceptable. There is an absolute requirement for unanimity. That sometimes works to our advantage and it might sometimes work to our disadvantage, but it ensures that no new proposals can be imposed on us without our agreement.

Photo of Ms Jean Corston Ms Jean Corston , Bristol East

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government are approaching the IGC with confidence and determination. Why then do the Government so lack confidence in their Back Benchers that they have refused to table a motion that could be amended, for the debate on Thursday week? Is it because they know that they could not win such a vote? Is that not a sign of weakness and cowardice?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

On the contrary; it has been the custom, in relation to all previous conferences of this sort, to provide an opportunity for the House to debate and to raise such issues at the beginning of the negotiation. When conclusions were reached, the Government would of course require the support of the House if any were to be implemented.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

In welcoming the publication of the White Paper and the broad thrust of the proposals—apart from the Foreign Office Euro-nonsense on page 3—should we not feel rather depressed, observing that the wording of this morning's decision by the Advocate General effectively means that the whole social chapter will be applied to Britain, despite the massive battle that the Government have put up? We give the Foreign Secretary our best wishes for his hard battle; does he agree that there is no way that he will bring any treaty to the House unless the European Court of Justice fundamentally changes its policies?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

What we have today is an opinion by the Advocate General. We shall continue to argue our view to the Court, but as I said in my statement and in the White Paper, even if we are unsuccessful, we shall raise the matter, if necessary, in the IGC and seek the treaty or other changes that will be necessary, to ensure that the Council of Ministers' decisions are not rendered nugatory by an abuse of the procedure.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane , Rotherham

The White Paper will repay careful study. On a quick reading, however, one verb jumps from many a page: oppose, oppose, oppose. The trouble with the White Paper is that, rather than being a document of constructive Government engagement, it is a document for the Back Benchers of the Foreign Secretary's own party.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us whether Sir James Goldsmith will be consulted in connection with this document or future White Papers? He certainly seems to be determining Cabinet policy on the referendum at present.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read the document. He was good enough to acknowledge that he had not yet had a chance to do so—and, if I may say so, that was obvious from his question.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith , Chingford

My right hon. and learned Friend will have noticed that many hon. Members have mentioned the European Court of Justice. Does he accept that the European Court has become the ratchet of centralisation, mostly because it legislates by reading what it believes to be the intentions of the legislators, rather than treaty-based documents? I urge my right hon. and learned Friend, at the forthcoming IGC, to get our partners to agree to exclude that possibility from future judgments; part of the problem will then be resolved.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I agree that good progress would be made if there were a requirement for strict interpretation of matters in the treaty or the directives. That would not eliminate, but would considerably reduce, the opportunity for the European Court to make law as opposed to interpreting it. That could only be in the public interest not just of this country, but of Europe as a whole.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes , Ilford South

The Foreign Secretary said that he wanted a flexible Europe, and also enlargement. Given that other European Union countries are hardly likely to agree to an enlargement to 27 states without moving towards qualified majority voting, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman's position mean either that he favours total inflexibility and immobility in the Union, or that he is really against enlargement?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman implies that we do not already have substantial qualified majority voting. He knows perfectly well that we do: that is the whole point. We have a substantial amount of qualified majority voting on the common agricultural policy, the single market and a number of other matters. We believe that that process has gone far enough, and we do not see any need to take it further because of enlargement. I reflect on the fact that NATO, with 15 members, has never had a vote in the past 50 years—it has never had a vote in its history—yet it has been able to function very effectively. I know that we are talking about a different organisation, but to some extent similar principles apply.

Photo of Mr John Butcher Mr John Butcher , Coventry South West

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, over the centuries, Britain's time-honoured role has been to speak on behalf of the peoples of Europe and to protect them from the actions of patrician and arrogant elites—whether those elites incorporate kings, emperors, dictators or Commissioners? Does he also agree that it is honourable and not sceptical to oppose policies in Europe that would produce a slow but inevitable economic decline, and that it is honourable and not sceptical to oppose forces that would still like to bring about a European corporate state? I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the tone of his statement and the way in which he set out his objectives in that regard, but I ask him to consider seriously the points that have been made about the European Court of Justice. Britain is uniquely defenceless against its acts.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I agree that the European Court is a matter of increasing importance. I said in my statement that, in addition to the White Paper, we would publish a memorandum in the near future that would go into greater detail about what we believe ought to be achieved and ought to be negotiated with our partners. That demonstrates the priority that we attach to the subject.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Thank you. We shall now move on to other business.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will hon. Members who have been standing for an hour without being called get favourable consideration the next time that the subject of the statement comes up?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman knows that with a major statement, it is virtually impossible to call all hon. Members who are anxious to put questions. Questions went on for more than an hour. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am fully aware of the Members whom I have not been able to call. I have a complete list of such Members from both sides of the House. I cannot give a commitment that they will be called the next time that the subject comes before us.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Just a moment; I have not finished. The hon. Gentleman has a lot to say; I have quite a lot to say, too. I cannot give a commitment that those Members will be called next week when we debate the subject, but I shall certainly do my best to ensure that they are recognised as often as I can. I know who has been standing today, how long the statement went on and the keenness with which Members wanted to question the Foreign Secretary.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During a ministerial statement, do you have to follow the convention of calling Privy Councillors, who all get called nearly every time that we have a statement? I understand that they take precedence in debates, but does that hold true for ministerial statements?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I called the hon. Gentleman twice out of the last three times that the Prime Minister made a statement on European affairs at the Dispatch Box. I have a list of the times that hon. Members are called. The hon. Gentleman does very well indeed at statements. If he would let me have a list of the Privy Councillors who have had privileges over him, I should be glad to receive it. I called two Opposition Privy Councillors. One of those I called first, the other by no means first, but way down the list. I am not clear about the Privy Councillors on the Government Benches. I tend to call some of them first, but by no means do they get priority during statements. They receive a little priority during debates, but certainly not for asking questions on statements.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

How many were left standing?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I asked the hon. Gentleman to let me have a list of how many stood in the first place. I know how many there were; I doubt whether he does.