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8.39 pm

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North): I much enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), but I should tell him that the Olga Korbut award for the perfect Labour somersault will have to go to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who did it with slightly more panache.

It is with some relief that I can now say publicly what I have long felt privately on European issues. Within the Government, I think that I was unusual, if not unique, in giving no briefings and in joining no factions on European issues. I omitted to do so because I believe that the Conservative party has always been a pragmatic party. On that matter, I agree with the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). Such pragmatism has always been my party's strength, and I believe that we are

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a pragmatic party or we are nothing. My party has always encompassed a wide range of views, which are strongly and sincerely held, but there has also been a strong culture of tolerance and of courtesy to those with whom we disagree. That approach and that culture have always been to the benefit of our party and of our country.

Almost two years ago, I made a serious misjudgment. I failed to make it sufficiently clear to party managers that I simply could not accept a further erosion of what was then the Government's stance on Europe. Since then, I have seen the salami sliced to a point at which there is simply no sausage left. I feel rather strongly that my tolerance, and my loyalty to the Government and to my party, have been abused by some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Some have been pursuing a factional agenda with a ruthlessness that would have done credit, in the early 1980s, to the hon. Members for Brent, East and for Newham, North-West.

I do not remember, however, any Labour Front-Bench spokesman being attacked quite so viciously, in public or in private, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has been attacked. For a short time, I was the parliamentary private secretary to Sir Neil Marten. He was an arch-opponent of the European Economic Community, but I have no hesitation in saying that he would have been as shocked and as saddened as I was by yesterday's barracking of my right hon. and learned Friend.

I am sadder, I am wiser, and I blame myself, but we are where we are, and we are about to embark on a critical negotiation at the intergovernmental conference. In any negotiation, it is as well to try to understand the other parties' assumptions. Outside the United Kingdom, within the European Union, most politicians and most voters take it as axiomatic that the European Union is not only a political but an economic union. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said today, that is, after all, what the treaty of Rome states. Such a union is what we joined, and that is our partners' underlying assumption.

We must also appreciate that the United Kingdom has the most adversarial political system in the European Union. Most politicians in the EU assume that, if they are to be in government, they will be in government as part of a coalition. To most other EU politicians, and to their voters, compromise and negotiation are almost synonymous with the political process. We may not like that point of view, and we may find it alien to the conduct of our political process, but if we fail to appreciate those basic truths, we will not negotiate as effectively as we should.

The single currency is the main issue before us. I do not wish to detain the House with detailed arguments on it, but there are certain basic truths. The first is that the single currency will come. It may not come according to the current time scale, but come it will. We cannot ignore it, and we cannot simply wish it away. My position on the matter is fairly clear. I am predisposed to joining a single currency in the first wave, although, in that, I suspect that I differ from some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I have read the speeches of my right hon. Friends the Members for Witney (Mr. Hurd) and for Guildford (Mr. Howell), and I completely share their view that we must be actively involved in the negotiations on the single currency because, in or out, we have a huge stake in making it credible.

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To the surprise of some of my hon. Friends, I gladly signed the advertisement of the European Movement. I did so, and I have as big a stake as any other hon. Member--if not a bigger one--in ensuring that the convergence criteria are effective in getting right the details of the stability pact. I share the reservation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) about the concept of fines in a stability pact; there are very powerful political and economic argument against going down that route. We must be in there arguing, however, because that is the only way in which we can seize the opportunity of furthering our national interest through a stronger Europe.

A rather sad theme has recently emerged in Britain's approach to European Union matters. When we have come across an idea or an argument in the EU that we do not like, we start by ignoring it and pretending that it does not exist. As it gains credibility, we start to mock or abuse it or those who promote it. We react negatively. As the idea or approach becomes even better established, we claim that it will not work in practice. Very often we are right, because the details have not been thought through. The idea or argument may then be improved upon, largely because of our practical, constructive criticism. Instead of welcoming that change in stance, however, we find other practical grounds for opposing it. We then lose credibility, because those grounds are often unfounded, or less than well founded.

Consequently, we find ourselves faced with a very simple choice: do we agree or do we disagree? More often than not, we agree, and we go along with the directive or with the idea. We then end up with an approach that is less beneficial to our national interest than would have been achieved if we had taken a pro-active stance from the very beginning. I think it was Sir Leon Brittan who said some time ago that the United Kingdom would have more influence in the European Union if we only learnt to say, "Yes, but," rather than, "No, unless." The tone matters if we are to do what all of us want to do--to further our national interest in the context of a European union.

I have one final plea to my right hon. and hon. Friends. For goodness' sake give my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friends the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary the room to negotiate effectively on our behalf. It is a sad criticism of the state of my party on Europe that I have to make that plea, because it should be entirely self-evident.

8.49 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), whose speech was frank and fair. In a 10-minute speech, it is difficult to do more than paint a broad canvas of one's views, and there will be other occasions for me to develop my ideas.

I see myself as a proud Brit, but I also unashamedly describe myself as a European. The two descriptions are wholly compatible and, indeed, statements of fact. I am therefore pleased to be able to participate in this debate and to say that I support the policy of my party leader, who has effectively set out a modern and realistic approach to what will be the next Government's attitude to the developments of the European Union. Of course, in reality, in supporting my leader--both he and the

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Prime Minister might not like what I am about to say--I am more or less supporting the view of the Prime Minister. If we put aside all the relatively detailed differences on the European Union that have been discussed in the past two days, there is general agreement between the occupants of the two Front Benches on the big issues, because there is a real world out there.

Whichever party is in office, it has a duty to be actively involved in the discussions at the intergovernmental conference about the future developments and institutions of the EU and in the debate on the formulation of economic and monetary union. It would be foolhardy in the extreme, not to say a reckless abdication of a British Government's duty, not to be in the discussions on how economic and monetary union should develop. It is the Government's duty to maximise the options of the Government and the British people on whether to enter a monetary union at some stage. It is foolish and reckless to suggest that we should say that we will have nothing to do with discussions on monetary union.

We have had an interesting debate--indeed, one of the best I have attended. I largely agreed with the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). If we put aside his ritualistic swipe at the social chapter, his comments were realistic and broadly reflected my opinion. I am a European and I believe in the European Union. I do not accept everything and I am cautious about some aspects, but to suggest that we can be anything other than part of the EU is ludicrous.

There is a degree of common sense across the political spectrum. The dangerous division is caused not by the handful of my colleagues who have consistently opposed Britain's membership of the EU, but by the substantial wedge of Conservative Members who snipe at our plenipotentiaries in Brussels, and their discussions at the intergovernmental conference and on monetary union. They are doing great harm to Britain's interests by undermining the views of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister. Of course, the Foreign Secretary skated over that fact--skilfully: I give him full marks for that--but he cannot disguise the fact that he and his colleagues are disadvantaged, and their negotiating position impaired, by the great gulf that exists between Conservative Members.

I described myself earlier as a European. I think that the EU has been good for commerce, has increased job opportunities and is a guarantee for democracy and peace. The latter point should not be dismissed or minimised, and it is one of the reasons why I am keen to see the enlargement of the EU and why I want the IGC to be a success.

There must be agreement at the IGC before we can invite and welcome other countries into the European Union. I am especially keen that the Visegrad countries--Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and, perhaps, Slovakia--should have some reasonable expectation of admission to the European Union in the not too distant future. Other states may join later, but those countries should be in the first tranche. They now have robust democracies--certainly Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic do--and they are entitled to join a free association of states. We must work towards the goal of finding institutional arrangements to allow those countries early entry, even if they face a long transitional period thereafter.

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The Foreign Secretary referred to the fact that the idea of a flexible Europe is canvassed in the documents relating to the IGC. If we are to have enlargement, there will have to be some flexibility. That should be welcomed because, whether we have a Labour or a Conservative Government, the United Kingdom will wish to reserve to itself some matters that are coveted by the Euro-federalists.

A lot of rubbish is spoken about federalists, but I know of very few federalists in the House. The vast majority recognise that the EU is a unique political concept and institution, but there is not a word that describes it adequately. It is nonsense to suggest that, in my lifetime, we will see a United States of Europe comparable to the United States of America. The EU is a unique political animal, and we do not have an appropriate word for it, but there is no substantial party of federalists here who would bring us to some nightmare scenario such as is painted by those who are opposed to working in any way with colleagues and nation states elsewhere in Europe.

The issue of flexibility raises some problems--what might be called a European West Lothian question. If we have extensive flexibility, who is to decide what will be the subject of collective agreement and unanimity, and what will be a matter for the countries that have decided to exercise some flexibility? These are real and difficult questions that we ought to be debating. That European West Lothian question would apply to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

The European Parliament is important, but its power can be exaggerated--by and large, by Members of the European Parliament. I do not set my face against allowing Members of the European Parliament to have more influence or initiative in what is called European legislation but, ultimately, these are matters for nation states to decide. I hesitate to suggest this, but we should examine the concept of a Bundesrat, whereby the Governments of the member states have an assembly. At present, we have permanent representatives in the EU and the Council of Ministers, but we need an assembly where politicians can meet, in public, with Hansard, to put the case of the European Governments, as distinct from the European Parliament. That would be worth while and democratic.

I would like to hear the Minister of State's views on the size of the European Parliament if enlargement occurs. The European Parliament is too big as it is, but it is clear that there will be problems if we cap or reduce its size when new members join the EU. What about representation for Luxembourg, for example? The Parliament is too big now, and needs to be capped.

The voting system--or, rather, the lack of one--is ludicrous. We need some parity across the EU, and I favour some proportionality. I believe that we must also look to the future of the Commission and the Council of Ministers. That is why I return to the idea that there should be an assembly where Governments are represented, but it should not be conducted behind closed doors.

I am pleased to have contributed to the debate. It is a pity that the Foreign Secretary is not now in attendance--

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