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Column 1246range of subjects--local government, the environment, energy use and transport--and will thrash out a pan-European policy, or the threads of such a policy, on those subjects. It will, therefore, be to the advantage of all of us if the directives that subsequently emanate from Brussels take into account a wider Europe, its needs and the way in which the EC and a wider Europe can fit together.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Newark in paying tribute to Lord Finsberg and to the way in which he organises the British delegation. A national interest is involved and it is stated clearly without the need for many caucus meetings and without much disagreement across party lines.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has joined our debate to add weight to the importance of the three European motions on the Order Paper. I am sure that he will stay until 2.30 pm so that he can hear all the speeches.
There used to be three tiers of discussion in the Council of Europe--the ministerial and parliamentary tiers and the assembly, and there is soon to be a local and regional tier. We should grasp that opportunity or we shall be left out. The strength of regionalism is growing in Europe and world wide. I once told a group of Welsh farmers that they would rather buy something from a Yorkshireman than from an Englishman any day of the week and I received a resounding cheer. The Catalonians and Bavarians take their regionalism seriously, as do the Welsh, the Scots, and people from Yorkshire.
Regionalism will be a growing factor in the future and it must therefore be dealt with in the Council of Europe, which should be a forum where those people can express their views and interests, discuss trade and sell and deal with each other. Regionalism exists at all levels of life. It is not just about people dressing up in fancy regional costumes and doing a bit of dancing and singing, but about trading, bartering and exchanging views and ideas while keeping the identity that is so precious to them and to their children. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber that it will be a good thing if the Western European Union is subsumed into the European Union as it will block the rest of Europe--the greater Europe--from joining either WEU or the Council of Europe and from participating in them fully. The pressure points--the dangerous regions where people may kill and fight each other--are in eastern Europe. It would be fearful to rehearse the number of fires that could break out in the old Russian empire at any time. What will be the response of the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and, indeed, of WEU ? There should be a talking shop where those organisations can argue it out, and that talking shop should be an enlarged WEU.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newark mentioned that he and I went to the European Space Agency in Madrid--a broad, exciting new initiative which, like many such initiatives, will cost money. If the agency is to advance and serve the Western European Union by monitoring and verifying the earth's environment, it will cost money and WEU will be asking us for that money. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we must be careful that a proportion of the money that the WEU asks from us is spent in the United Kingdom. Space technology involves
Column 1247the cutting edge of high-tech equipment, which companies in this country such as British Aerospace are so good at providing. If the WEU decides that the European Space Agency should be its agent and should make up its own mind how WEU and Council of Europe money is spent, we shall receive only a small proportion of that trade because the agency spends its money in exact proportion to the amount of money contributed to it by national Governments. It receives only 3 per cent. from us, but we shall pay a much larger percentage to WEU and we shall be left as debtors to cash. We must consider carefully how we spend our money in WEU to ensure that our businesses and industries receive a fair return on that money. I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newark for initiating the debate. Like him, I am proud to serve on the Council of Europe and the WEU. Hon. Members will have read my incisive and brilliant letter in The Times on 3 March deploring the present stand-off between us and the Labour party, which is damaging not the Conservative party or the Labour party, but Parliament as represented in Europe. I hope that wiser counsels, such as those of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), will therefore prevail.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : I am grateful for being called early in the debate, and I apologise if I am not here for the closing speeches as I have a constituency lunch to attend. I am delighted to take part in the debate, which was so excellently initiated and introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander).
I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson). I was interested in his description of the arcane procedures of the Whips and how they are explained abroad. I remember being at a conference with some new east German representatives, who had not yet become members of their Parliament, at the time of the unification of Germany. They had just emerged from the former East Germany. I was with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), who had just completed a stint as Deputy Chief Whip. He tried to explain to them the whipping procedures of the House. I distinctly recall that one of the East Germans looked distinctly bemused and said that if that was what democracy meant, perhaps the Stasi--the secret police of East Germany--were not so bad after all. It is difficult to explain the benign and friendly behaviour of our Whips to people in other countries.
This is an important debate. Hon. Members so far have focused on the importance of people who live in democracies working together and sharing their experiences. It is particularly important when those of us in what we proudly call a stable democracy can assist people in countries that are emerging from a bleak, dark background. With the collapse of communism, their attempts to create a stable society will not be without difficulty.
Those difficulties are not purely economic, although I accept that they are important if one wants a stable country. In many cases, cultural difficulties are experienced in coming to terms with the tolerance that is needed in a democratic society, tolerance of others' views and ethnic tolerance as well. I know that the Council of Europe is
Column 1248doing an important job in attracting new people to its meetings and attempting to share experiences for the greater good of the wider Europe.
This is a particularly crucial period in which to make such contacts, because the movement towards democracy from the ashes of communism will not be easy. As I said in an intervention, I am profoundly disturbed at the way in which Russia is going. We want to assist the general reforms that President Yeltsin has initiated, but if one looks slightly below the surface one sees disturbing signs, such as the Red-Brown coalition, Zhirinovsky and many other suggestions that the old guard in Russia may have given up their communist pretensions, but not necessarily their ambition to reunite what was the Soviet Union by other means.
I have spoken in the House before about the power of the Russian army in terms of its declared ability to intervene in the near abroad, so I will not take up time today by rehearsing that concern. It is a crucial matter, however, and the policies that we adopt towards some former members of the Soviet Union must be carefully judged between encouraging Russian expansionism and attempting to pull those countries into our western European councils in order to give them the strength to avoid that expansionism.
The situation in Estonia is extremely delicate, with 20,000 Russian troops still based in that country. The signs are similarly discouraging in other parts of the former Soviet Union such as Belarus. Ukraine is another enormous potential problem, because it is, to put it lightly, bankrupt. It is the only place where the Russian rouble is looked on as hard currency. The instability in the Ukraine is of critical and possibly vital importance to the rest of Europe. It has a population of 58 million and most of the population in the eastern half of the country is ethnic Russian. It is a vast land mass, including the trigger point of the Crimea. We and the Council of Europe must consider those serious problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newark spoke with great thoughtfulness about the potential role of WEU, which is the point upon which I wish to focus. It has an opportunity to play a vital role in attempting to solidify and strengthen the reaction of European powers to some of the problems and instabilities to which I have just referred, if they were ever to turn into security threats. Following the Maastricht treaty, the position of WEU as the defence arm of the European Union is critical. In the past year or two, many initiatives have been launched in Europe, which I strongly support. They include the North Atlantic Co-operation Council, which now has about 30 members. It represents a co-operative security arrangement, or at least a way in which to share ideas on security policy. We have also seen the emergence of the Balladur initiative, the stability plan, which is an attempt at preventive security and the NATO initiative--partnership for peace. I understand from this morning's edition of The Daily Telegraph that the Russians have agreed to join it, which is welcome. The partnership for peace initiative is broad, because it potentially covers all the former members of the Soviet Union, so it can be little more than an arrangement to try to remove the potential for tension or reaction. It will also be the means of planning joint manoeuvres and other arrangements under which a more secure basis for peace can be built.
Column 1249What if anything went wrong and there was a requirement for some military action ? What if the United States, as a leading member of NATO, was not necessarily ready to play a full part ? This is why the recent NATO summit in Brussels was so important.
Sir Russell Johnston : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In respect of the former Yugoslavia and the need for prompt action, does he agree that the WEU assembly and the Council of Europe assembly were well ahead of individual national Governments in taking action ?
Mr. Taylor : I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. The Council of Europe and WEU responded quickly to the problems in the former Yugoslavia. The real difficulty, however, was that the efforts of WEU and NATO were often duplicated, as we saw in the Adriatic. I am now more confident, however, that those difficulties have been removed as a result of the NATO summit in Brussels in January.
I believe that at that summit the importance of WEU was clearly defined for the first time. Its status as the defence arm of the European Union was also clearly understood. That clarification is vital if we are to move towards achieving WEU's ultimate role of enforcing common foreign and security policy under the Maastricht treaty.
The Brussels summit made some important changes. The NATO command structure is being revised to cope with the instabilities in Europe to which I have referred. More concentration is to be given to mobile forces, away from static, territorial defence. Understandings now appear to have been reached for the use of United States intelligence targeting and lift capacity for WEU action in low-intensity conflict when American armed forces are not directly involved.
That is an important point, because, until now, it has not been clear how European forces could act, since we are dependent upon American assets. Under the Brussels NATO summit, the Americans have agreed that it is now possible, with their permission, but without their participation, for WEU to have access to the vital components of intelligence targeting and lift capacity.
Sir Donald Thompson : When my hon. Friend talks of American forces, does he mean land and naval forces, or simply naval forces ?
Mr. Taylor : I am positing a possibility that is widely talked of in NATO about America not wishing to commit its land forces. In those circumstances, doubt had been expressed about whether the ability of WEU to undertake separate action was a credible option, because, if America was not using its land forces, it was unclear whether European powers would have access to intelligence targeting and lift capacity, which are owned by America, although assigned to NATO. That is an important step for the credibility of the Western European Union.
The second matter to emerge from the Brussels summit was confirmation of the move to flexible command structures and combined joint task forces within NATO to accommodate Western European Union activity. That could provide one of the signals that are necessary to bring the French further into operations with other European countries under WEU capacity. It is certainly unlikely that the French would join an integrated command, but they seem to be moving to an understanding of the concept of
Column 1250separable but not separate involvement. For example, they have accepted double hatting of the Euro corps, which is gaining more and more adherents. British forces are not part of that, but more and more European countries are assigning forces to it, double hatted with NATO.
The agreement by the French that their forces in the Euro corps should be double hatted to NATO indicates a significant shift in the French position. It was also highly significant that the French Defence Minister attended the Brussels summit. I am not sure about the official description of his attendance and shall leave that to those who are more knowledgeable about the accuracy of those terms. However, to me his physical presence was interesting and important. All that provides the Western European Union with the beginnings of the possibility of enforcing the European Union's common foreign and security policies. The importance of that should not be underestimated, given the disturbances that are possible within the wider Europe and the potential for conflict on the fringes of Europe, both of which could affect our security and interests. In both those areas, the Americans may feel less than fully committed although supportive of western European interests. Those matters could grow in importance in the years ahead.
The credibility of European common foreign and security policies will depend on the ability of Europe to enforce them with military action if that should be necessary. I am delighted at the way things are going. Nevertheless--and this is my only reference to a debate that may take place later today--if western Europe is prepared to adopt a higher profile defensive role, western European countries will have to remember that they will not be able to grab the peace dividend.
Countries that have sharply reduced defence expenditure in the past year or two will probably have to reverse that trend or at least arrest it. I accept the stricture in terms of the British Government's position. In our case, a fall in the percentage of gross domestic product from about 5 per cent. in the mid-1980s to 3 per cent. by 1995-96 is having an effect not only on manpower levels but on operational capability and runs the risk of overstretch. I do not wish to be drawn further into that, but merely place on record the fact that it is important to have not only the political will but the military capacity to react to reinforce foreign policy objectives. The interlinkage of the European Union and the WEU is vital and will assist in the development of a clear British goal--to ensure that common foreign and security policies in the European Union are credible. I welcome the fact that those are on an intergovernmental pillar, because I cannot see any other way in which countries can work together and, at the same time, guard their national interests. However, working together will lead to a much greater common appreciation of those common interests and there will be a much more instinctive preparedness to act and to ensure that the action is common. That has been held together with great difficultly over the former Yugoslavia but, thankfully, it has been done with great effectiveness.
The European Union has not diverged : it has held a common line. I admit that at times that has not been easy, but the important matter is that Western European countries have not fallen out with each other over events in the Balkans. Historically, that is worthy of note because the Balkans have often triggered strong antagonisms between the great western European powers.
Column 1251All that leads me to the conclusion that the Western European Union is about to enter a new and very important phase. As I said earlier, the Council of Europe plays an important role in bringing countries together to exchange ideas on how to reinforce democracy. The WEU can provide an important plank for Europe to gain great influence on enforcing security and making some credible effort to provide a collective security arrangement for those principal central European countries that will inevitably begin to join it. It will not be an immediate effort, because any country which joins the WEU and NATO would have to accept the article 5 obligation on collective security. That matter should be subject to careful consideration. Meanwhile, there is co- operative security and a general commitment to look closely at the need to respond if any member of the partnership for peace or the North Atlantic Co -operation Council feels that its own security is threatened. Response is not automatic, but we can consider whether the threat is capable of being treated seriously. As a result of the Brussels summit, the WEU will have a serious and credible operational ability to respond.
In all those areas, we are moving in the right direction. I welcome the debate, and I hope that for the years to come we are signalling the direction of a Europe that is united politically and capable of looking after its own defence.
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander), first, on having the good fortune to come top of the ballot for private Members' motions and, secondly, on having the good sense to choose a motion on the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. Little is said and known about both and the debate will help to inform people at Westminster and throughout the country about the significant contribution of WEU and the Council to freedom and democracy throughout Europe and beyond. I served as a member of the United Kingdom delegation to both bodies for two and a half years and felt privileged to be part of a worthy all-party team. As a former member, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to members of both Houses of Parliament who take on senior roles in the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. The list of United Kingdom members in the information bulletin which has just been published shows the extensive commitment to the business of those organisations by our representatives. Their roles include chairmanships, vice-chairmanships and rapporteurs. I join other hon. Members in giving particular recognition to my noble Friend Lord Finsberg, who is the leader of our delegation. He enjoys considerable status, not only in our delegation, but in the delegations of other countries because he is a previous president and vice-president of the assemblies of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union.
During my time with the team, I was deeply impressed by my noble Friend's abilities, his dedication to duty and the impressive way in which he presented to our continental colleagues the rather British method of doing things and for which he has gained enormous respect. For example, when he was in the chair for an Assembly meeting it started on time. I can remember the first assembly meeting that he chaired, when he informed
Column 1252members that they were to be given only seven minutes each in which to make their case, thus giving every member on the long list of those wishing to speak an opportunity to gain the attention of the assembly and to put his or her case.
The first speaker began--one of our very good continental friends--and he was totally amazed when Lord Finsberg, or Sir Geoffrey as he was known then, stopped him in mid-flow after exactly seven minutes, switched off the microphone and informed everyone that he was moving on to the next speaker. By the time the fourth or fifth speaker had been called, everyone had certainly got the message. To the delight of all the speakers on the chairman's list, including me, we were all called to make our contribution to the debate that morning. When Sir Geoffrey brought the business to a close, there was a loud cheer from everyone in the assembly on the way in which he had handled the meeting.
In the corridor shortly afterwards, on my way back to the United Kingdom delegation office, I bumped into one of our French colleagues who was notorious for making very long, boring and repetitive speeches. He was full of enthusiasm for Sir Geoffrey's chamber discipline, much to the relief of all his colleagues. The very British way of fairness and an even-handed approach to procedure was applauded by all.
Another colleague who has also taken a senior role in WEU is my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) and I pay tribute to him for the very important work that he is doing and congratulate him on his role as President.
Many important points have been made already by hon. Members on both sides of the House and I shall not repeat them. There are two areas in the work of the Council of Europe on which I would like to focus. The first involves the role of the COE in connection with the demise of communism in central and eastern European countries and the important support that the Council of Europe is giving to those emerging democracies.
The collapse of the old Soviet empire was the most liberating moment in European history this century. I think that few of us will forget the joy and enthusiasm which accompanied the fall of the Berlin wall and the spread of freedom to central Europe. Old nation states have reappeared after being submerged for half a century. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia--the Visegrad Four--have regained control of their destinies. They are enthusiastically embracing democracy and are looking to the west for assistance. However, they have seen the Soviet Union break into a patchwork of states, some with civil war, with rising tensions between Russia and the Ukraine. I am sure that we all appreciate why the Visegrad Four feel vulnerable. That is why I am delighted that they have joined the Council of Europe, along with a number of other former communist countries.
The Council of Europe offers a broad area of political debate, funds programmes of co-operation and assistance, participates in cultural and educational projects and, perhaps most important of all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) has acknowledged, is a stepping stone towards involvement in other major European institutions. Any serious applicant to the European Union is expected to ratify the Council's European convention on human rights. The other countries
Column 1253joining the Council of Europe include Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and, among the Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania.
At the same time, the Western European Union has established a forum for security consultation to bring together WEU members and the states of eastern Europe. These are likely to lead to a new affiliate WEU status consistent with NATO'S partnership for peace. It is clear that, step by step, the states of central Europe are being welcomed into our western European institutions. There is no doubt that the Council of Europe is playing a key role in helping to give them the appropriate support for stability and cohesion--two priceless assets for which they yearn.
I raise a second point on a totally different topic : the European Pharmacopoeia. As chairman of the Select Committee on Health, I was most interested to read in the March edition of the Council of Europe magazine Forum about the important work of this body. The magazine's special section draws attention to the fact that in 1964 eight countries agreed that harmonising their drugs legislation was in everyone's interest. Today, more than 20 states are involved in preparing and enforcing a whole series of common standards--one way of guaranteeing the quality of medicines currently on sale in Europe. The European Pharmacopoeia is also one of the European drugs industry's main weapons in its fight against American and Japanese competition.
From a legal point of view, the European Pharmacopoeia is unique in that it is the only one of its kind to be supranational in scope, which means that it has the force of law in all the countries that have signed the convention. In fact, its influence extends considerably further--it serves as a reference for many countries with cultural or historical links to one or other of the signatories. The Council of Europe is thus making its contribution to the safety of medicines which, in turn, means greater protection for the European citizen, coupled with support for the European pharmaceutical industry. I am sure that the House wishes to join me in registering pleasure that the convention on the elaboration of a European Pharmacopoeia is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Finally, I place on record my admiration for the good cross-party working relationship that exists in the COE and WEU United Kingdom team. I am aware that there is a problem at the moment involving attendance at meetings and that the lack of pairing arrangements has curbed Members' trips across the channel to undertake their duties. I am sad that the British delegation is not making its very considerable contribution to the deliberations of those organisations at the moment. I know that our many continental friends are missing their wisdom and co-operation and I hope that the problem can be resolved as soon as possible so that the United Kingdom group can take its rightful place at the centre of debate and discussion and exert its considerable influence on decision making.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) on choosing this subject for debate and on winning the ballot. It is, after all, a raffle which we should all like to win. I think that he was very astute in choosing to debate this subject.
Column 1254It is somewhat regrettable that the Government do not find time to have a regular debate on the work of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. All Members of Parliament --whether from the Opposition or the Government side of the House--are appointed as members of the British delegation with a letter from the Prime Minister's office. Since we represent the British Parliament in those parliamentary assemblies abroad, I think that it is incumbent on the Government to find time for us to report to the House about what we do. We should not have to rely on the astuteness and wisdom of the hon. Member for Newark.
I thoroughly enjoy my membership of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe and I wear the 12-star button in my lapel. It is usually incorrectly identified as the flag of the European Union. On 5 May, we shall celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the statute of the Council of Europe in 1949. Perhaps the Minister, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), can spare a moment from his important deliberations to listen to what I am saying-- [Interruption.]
I am deeply grateful to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) for drawing the Minister's attention to the fact that I am trying to address him through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It would be helpful and appreciated if, on 5 May, the flag of the Council of Europe--the 12-star flag that is often wrongly identified as the flag of the European Union--could be flown in the capital city on the anniversary of the Council's foundation. Of course, 5 May is also local election day, so no doubt the Minister will have things to mourn, but there could be a cause to celebrate and to unite both sides of the House. I find working on Council of Europe committees an excellent antidote to the introspection and parochialism of this place. It is amazing that just a short journey takes one, almost literally, into a different world. Matters that concern us so much in the House seem to have no reverberations outside it, certainly not beyond our shores. One can be in Strasbourg during the parliamentary assembly and have to struggle hard to find out what is happening in this place. One can consider problems on a broader canvas in the wider world. That is intellectually refreshing for those of us fortunate enough to be members of the Council of Europe and parliamentary assembly. The hon. Member for Broxbourne mentioned the fact that few people outside--and not many inside--this place know much about the Council of Europe. It is not my function to go through the handbook of its institutions, but it is worth reminding colleagues on both sides of the House of the way in which we go about securing delegations. The Opposition elect their delegation via the regional groupings, while I understand that the Conservatives make direct appointments--no doubt appointments of the Prime Minister, closely advised by the Whips. So be it.
When I was first elected and arrived in our delegation offices in Strasbourg I was greeted by the then Conservative Member for Streatham, who said, "What are you doing here ? This is a place for people who are finished." I found that remark acutely depressing ; when I looked around I realised that he was speaking more than a germ of truth--[ Laughter. ] Let me develop my argument. I do not think that it is incumbent on Conservative Members, particularly members of the delegation, to laugh at what was said by a member of the Conservative party. I mean no disrespect to anyone on the delegation. The former Member for Streatham revealed an element of truth.
Column 1255Being a member of the delegation seems to be regarded by Conservatives as a reward for past services--so be it. Everyone is entitled to a reward, but in this case the reward is for past services. Opposition Members have to choose. The rules of the parliamentary Labour party do not allow anyone to be a member of the delegation to the Council of Europe and be a member of the Front-Bench team.
I was placed in the invidious position recently of having to make a choice between remaining in the delegation to the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly or coming off the Front Bench. I chose to come off the Front Bench, not because I am totally devoid of party political ambition-- although some might think that my occasional suicidal forays would suggest that I am--but because I find the work of the Council of Europe so interesting. It enables me to see problems in the round, gives me a greater perspective on the country's political problems and allows me to appreciate more keenly the problems and possibilities of Europe as a whole. I made that choice, but I do not think that I should have been forced into the position of having to make that choice.
Other member countries seem to regard their delegations more seriously than we do. Many of my hon. Friends, and perhaps Conservative Members as well, think that one becomes a member of the Council of Europe because it is a junket or a boondoggle, as the Americans say. They seem to think that the only reason why we are members is that we like tripping and clocking up air miles--a little advantage that I understand the Government have recently been shutting off. It is not like that, but it is because we are never given the opportunity to debate in the House what we do as a delegation on behalf of this place that some of the misconceptions arise.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) : If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the organisation is so important--as I believe we all do--what steps is he taking to put pressure on the Opposition to ensure that co-operation is re- established so that the delegations can continue to go to Europe ?
Mr. Banks : The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. I cannot reveal --indeed, I do not want to reveal in the presence of the Opposition deputy Chief Whip--what is going on. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the leader of the Labour delegation, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who is present on the Front Bench, has made a series of representations. We recognise that considerations in this place must be taken into account, but there are also wider considerations and our European relationships are being affected.
Our colleagues on the other side of the channel do not understand what is going on, and a few people here do not understand either. I shall not say what is going on--the Opposition deputy Chief Whip is a wise old bird who understands exactly what is going on. I hope that, eventually, the Conservative Government will recognise the validity of our case and concede the various arguments that we are making so that we can restore normal relations as soon as possible. To return to the way in which national Parliaments treat their delegations to the Council of Europe, there is far more of a procession between the national delegations of other countries and ministerial office than there is on all sides of
Column 1256our British delegation. Mr. Pangalos--a Greek socialist--is now the Foreign Minister of Greece. When the Foreign Ministers meet, he chairs the Council. There have been examples of people having gone from their national delegations to high office in their own Governments. We do not seem to do that, which shows that this place gives membership of the Council of Europe low priority. That is wrong, and not simply because I happen to be a member of it. It is wrong in terms of the work that the Council of Europe carries out and the role that it plays in building a wider Europe--the sort of subjects that have been discussed by hon. Members on both sides of the House this morning.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) mentioned political groupings. He said that, although we go as a British delegation, we fall into our respective party groups, which is self- evidently true. But it is also true that, within our national groups and delegations, we manage to achieve a much wider consensus in Strasbourg than in Westminster. That is partly because we have to operate with other national delegations and political groups, and the need to find a consensus is always present. But here there is no need to find a consensus.
Our system is not about finding a consensus, but about winning a vote. As long as there are enough votes to achieve victory, it does not matter whether consensus is achieved, and that damages this place in many respects. We are unable to proceed on the basis of mutual agreement on broad issues. It is a confrontational place. The positioning of the parties places us in face-to-face confrontation. Rather like spectators at a football match, the pitch is below us and we are up in the Kop. We cheer our own team even if they play badly. As a result, we lose something. I do not find the word "consensus" weak, although some of my colleagues do.
When I was a trade union official, consensus meant achieving, through negotiation, an agreement that maximised the achievement of what both sides wanted. Consensus, to my mind, is not a weak word in that sense. It is a way of living. Life is a consensus, for God's sake. We try to achieve what we want, but we have to make concessions from time to time. However, in the House it is "take no prisoners." Although that might be good fun from a party-political point of view, I wonder at times how much it advances the national interest--and I mean genuinely the national interest, rather than narrow party interests.
The last point that I shall make about consensus is that I am pleasantly surprised from time to time by the amount of agreement that we can achieve. I see former Conservative Ministers, Tory Members, signing up to things that I imagine they would never be prepared to support if the matter came back to the House. The fact that so much that we do in the Council of Europe is never rehearsed here might be what enables them, as it were, to lead a double life. I do not know.
Mrs. Roe : When the hon. Gentleman speaks about consensus, does he agree that there is a forum in the House where we try to get consensus, and that is the Select Committee system ? There Members of all parties work together on a specific inquiry and try to reach a conclusion where there is consensus--general agreement.
Mr. Banks : I agree with the hon. Lady and I pay tribute to her work as Chair of the Health Select Committee. It is
Column 1257an interesting point because, when we have to produce something that is broadly in conformity with the views of the whole Committee, we are able to achieve consensus. It is obviously not working in the Home Affairs Select Committee with regard to the financing of political parties, so it will not work in every instance, but it tends to work broadly if we want it to work.
Perhaps that is why the Select Committees receive far more public respect outside the House than do proceedings on the Floor of the House of Commons. There are lessons to learn there. Perhaps we fall into traditional roles when we get into the Chamber. One listens to an argument of a Member on the other side and thinks, "That is not a bad argument", and vice versa, but one does not translate that into one's voting pattern. It is not a debating Chamber in that sense. We do not walk in to listen to the ebb and flow of debate and think, "That is very good", and then defy our party Whips and walk into a different Lobby. One would not survive very long, and nor would the party system, in this place if that were to happen.
The stark contrast between the work on the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly and the work that we do here always comes home to me. I trust that I am not considered a weak-minded individual. I do not find consensus a frightening concept. I like the constructive nature of the debates that we have in the Council of Europe and the way in which we can strip away so much of the party rhetoric that goes on here which, frankly, is intellectually demeaning and does not advance the cause of either side very much.
That is all by way of a digression actually, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I allowed myself to be enticed by Conservative Members. Wait until the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) reads my speech--because he will, I can assure you.
The role of the Council of Europe received an enormous boost with the developments in eastern Europe in the mid-1980s and has gathered considerable pace since as country after country seeks to democratise its political institutions. That provides an enormous challenge for Europe and an enormous and exciting challenge for the Council of Europe. The countries of eastern Europe need all the economic and political help that we can give them.
It is interesting to note that the end of the cold war has led to an upsurge in a number of exceedingly dangerous regional conflicts, but the battleground in Europe has shifted from the military to the political and the economic. Although Conservative and Opposition Members have identified real dangers, especially in respect of the possible break-up of Russia and the problems in the Ukraine, it is not for us simply to stand on the sidelines wringing our hands. They will be real difficulties for us, not just for them. In those circumstances, far more positive action is necessary from the western democracies to give assistance to the emerging eastern
democracies--economic and political action, but especially economic at the moment, to ensure that those newly emerging democracies in eastern Europe do not disintegrate socially and politically. That provides the opportunity for the Council of Europe to fulfil its role as the democratic training ground of Europe. That is how I regard the Council of Europe--as a democratic training ground, especially for eastern Europe in terms of political democracy and human rights. It is true that, of the 32 countries that are now members of the Council of Europe, those new entrants to the democratic
Column 1258family of nations regard the Council of Europe as an essential stepping stone to the European Union. The first thing that they do is line up to join the Council of Europe.
That is one of the arguments that I use when members of the Labour party ask, "What is the point of the thing ?" I can tell them that the eastern European countries see the point of it. That is why they immediately line up to join the Council of Europe : because they regard it as the essential stepping stone to the wider Europe as we expand the European Union. Of course, it is inconceivable that any country should or could join the European Union now without first having been and proven itself a good member of the Council of Europe.
I shall develop two points that have been mentioned before. Should we expect applicant countries to be fully democratic before they join the Council of Europe ? That argument has gone on regularly in the parliamentary assembly and in the political affairs committee. We set, rightly, high standards of membership for the Council of Europe. That is what makes it so strong. However, there is also an argument that says : should not we throw our democratic embrace around the newly emerging democracies to reinforce the democratic elements in those societies ? Or do we stand by and say, "Only when you can match up to the mature democratic standards of western Europe will you be allowed to be a full participating member of the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly" ?
That is a dilemma for us. We do not want to diminish the democratic standards of the Council of Europe, but we do not want the flickering flames of democracy in eastern Europe to disappear under the reaction that could take place as people's great expectations at the overthrow of totalitarianism are frustrated and thwarted by what they see coming afterwards.
Sir Russell Johnston : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it does not help if Britain gets itself into the position of arguing against a direct right of appeal for the individual to the European Court of Human Rights ?
Mr. Banks : Yes. That is another discussion that is going on in the Council of Europe. It illustrates the fact that our western democracies are by no means perfect, in terms of either democratic institutions or human rights. The fact that the British Government have taken the position that they have does not look good. It sends the wrong message. All right, so perhaps we feel--I will take the position of the British Government for a few minutes in this new consensual feeling that has overwhelmed me--that British citizens have adequate and other protections in our parliamentary or legal systems. That might be the Conservatives' argument, but it could be used by less democratic Governments in other parts of Europe to say, "Here is a mature British democracy doing it, so it cannot be wrong, can it ?" It can be wrong and it is wrong. That is why it is essential for the British Government to rethink the position. If not, we shall send out the wrong messages.
Sir Donald Thompson : The hon. Gentleman has had a distinguished career in the Council of Europe with new European nations, and he will know that those new nations are sitting down in committees in their own capitals and making up the constitution. They are saying, "Let us try this bit", "Let us try that bit", and "Let us try the other bit", in a way that one would have thought impossible five years ago. They are sitting there and doing it. Surely, then, while
Column 1259they are doing that they are saying, "We need to get into the Council of Europe. Let us write that bit in." So we must be as resolute as possible on the Council of Europe to ensure that those bits, which protect citizens at all levels, are put in.
Mr. Banks : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is interesting that the new nations are all producing written constitutions. We still do not have one in Britain. Perhaps we could examine our credentials to see whether we qualify as a truly democratic nation. We are requiring a number of things from those eastern European countries that we do not even have in this country, such as a Bill of Rights and a written constitution.
Mr. Banks : The hon. Gentleman says "No way". That might be the case now, but a great movement going on outside this place will eventually influence us and lead us to having a written constitution and a Bill of Rights. But that is an argument for another day. It is intriguing to see what is happening in those countries. Only when I went to Lithuania and sat in on several such discussions did I realise how much assistance they need. Simple matters such as organising political parties or registers of electors had never before occurred in the sense that we know it. Those countries need some basic know-how, which we can give them, and it seems right to do so through the Council of Europe.
My second point was raised by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber--where does Europe end on the map ? It must end somewhere. The argument has been going on in the Council's political affairs committee. The Asian republics of the former Soviet Union cannot be classified as European, or we would be left with the narrows of the Baring straits in Alaska and we would move down Canada and into the United States. We all know that the world is round--at least Opposition Members know it, although there may be a few flat-earthists left on the Government Benches--but we must draw a line, or the Council of Europe will end up encompassing the world. That is an interesting concept, but a line must be drawn.
The fact that Israel has been granted observer status sometimes make me feel that we have stepped over a line that we should not have stepped over. I understand the reasons for that in the past, but it sends out confusing messages to those who wish to join the Council of Europe, particularly when we are discussing the need for a line that defines Europe on the map, with membership not being available to countries on the wrong side of that line. However, those countries should be able to take up observer status.
The Council of Europe could take on board two further functions. Because of its support for human rights, it could easily act as the United Nations regional representative in that vital area of concern. If we are to have a UN commission for human rights, the duplication of those responsibilities through different institutions would cost an enormous amount and would not necessarily be efficient. The UN could build on the Council of Europe's role in Europe as the upholder, preserver and guardian of human rights in our part of the globe. The second function that the Council of Europe could usefully perform is to act as a co-ordinator of election
Column 1260monitoring. For example, every national institution and Parliament in Europe was asked to send observers to Russia's elections. It can get confusing. The Council of Europe is the obvious umbrella organisation to co-ordinate those observers of elections in eastern Europe and elsewhere.
May I say to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber that it is interesting to see how the new eastern European democracies are sending delegations to the Council of Europe. I am not particularly alarmed at the thought of Vladimir Zhirinovsky turning up at the Council of Europe. He is a complete nutter, but it may be a sign of an emerging and healthy democracy that they can afford to elect a semi-lunatic. After all, we do it here fairly regularly. In those circumstances, we should not be too concerned that that individual may turn up. Perhaps we could teach him something ; if not, we could organise a fairly good multinational fight around him.
I have been very privileged--it is an overused word in politics, but I feel genuinely privileged--to have been a member of the Council of Europe and Western European Union parliamentary assemblies for a few years now. I have been particularly privileged to listen to some distinguished heads of government and state from around Europe addressing the parliamentary assemblies. It was great to be able to ask Helmut Kohl a question and to corner Mrs. Brundtland from Norway about Norway's irresponsible attitude towards whaling. She went totally nuclear, but Conservative and Labour Members thoroughly enjoyed it. Geoffrey Finsberg, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and I felt that we were exercising democracy. Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland did not share our enthusiasm and enjoyment, but it was a privilege to be able to do it.
The greatest moment of my membership of the Council of Europe was in May 1989 when I heard Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the Soviet Union, speak to the parliamentary assembly. He chose to address us rather than the European Union. He talked about a Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals and about the common European home. He created, as he and a number of others can, a vision of a united Europe. Although we have our difficulties, it was exciting to hear him talking in those terms. He was the leader of what many people in this country saw as the enemy, addressing us and discussing our common ideals, common purposes and common European home. That was a high spot for me. The Council of Europe represents the basis for that common European home and it is built on the firmest foundations.
The Council of Europe deserves our full support and enthusiastic participation. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark on choosing this subject for debate. I only hope that, in future, the Government will debate it regularly in Government time.
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester) : On the last occasion that I spoke at length in this place on a European matter I was wearing a tie similar to that worn today by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston)--the tie of the Council of Europe. On that occasion, the tie got more comment than my speech, so I decided to wear a more politically neutral tie today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) who introduced the debate. He rightly
Column 1261referred to the Labour party's attitude to non co-operation in this place at present, which is frustrating hon. Members' contribution to the Council of Europe and Western European Union. The Opposition's activity sits ill with their claim to be a good European party. A Labour Front-Bench Member recently advocated that we should pass into British law a measure that he knew was contrary to a treaty that we had signed, on the ground that it would take a long time for the treaty to catch up with us and for the courts to hear the complaint that would flow from passing that measure into law.
It is all very well for the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to lambast the Government for not having a regular debate on this subject. The groaning Opposition Benches hardly pay testimony to his call for such a debate. I should have much more sympathy for that call if the Labour party at least allowed the institutions to run effectively. I noticed that the Labour Deputy Chief Whip carefully took on board his remarks on that subject and I hope that he will bear them in mind.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West disingenuously suggested that a list of demands were being made by the Leader of the Opposition. From this side, it looks rather like the classic mistake of the trade union negotiator who gets into a dispute and does not know how to get out of it. I had more sympathy for much of the rest of his speech and agreed with the general thrust of what he said. I understand his concern about consensus and was interested in what he said about the Council of Europe in that respect. Here we tend to work towards the same aim, but use a different process of reconciliation--a more robust word which would command more respect on these Benches--in an attempt to reconcile conflicting points of view rather than work towards some arbitrary consensus.
The main purpose of my remarks is to discuss the context of the institutions that are the subject of the motion and to examine whether the institutional structures of the Council of Europe, the Western European Union and the European Union itself--I hope that that will be a subject for a later debate in which I would also wish to take part--are appropriate for the Europe of the future.
It is important to pause and examine the state of modern Europe. Obviously, the whole world rejoiced when communism collapsed in Europe, and rightly so. It was--as I think is agreed on both sides of the House--a repulsive creed which doomed millions of our fellow citizens of Europe to live in repression and fear. The creed lives on in some parts of the world-- noticeably in China--but in Europe and in most of the rest of the world, it is firmly finished.
For the countries of eastern Europe, and indeed for the whole world, that is obviously a cause for great rejoicing, but it has an effect on the drive towards peace in many other regions. For example, in the middle east the collapse of the Soviet Union has played a major part in pushing Syria towards considering the previously
unconsiderable--the prospect of peace with Israel. In a world with only one super-power, Syria cannot afford to be an enemy of that super-power. The imperative for peace around the world grows as a direct result of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
Sir Donald Thompson : May I take my hon. Friend back--he cannot possibly remember--to the end of the war, when the Council of Europe began under the instigation of Winston Churchill ? He went to Strasbourg