Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Peter Tapsell: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: No. I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman and I have already said that I now wish to conclude my speech. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let me proceed.

The other reason why the countries of central Europe wish to join is that they want the stability that comes from the mutual confidence of membership of the European Union. We have learnt a paradox that would not have been understood by our grandfathers: if we dismantle barriers between us, if we allow the free movement of goods and if we make people free to travel and to work across those frontiers, we end up with much greater security than we ever had when we built and armed frontiers between us. Those are the reasons why those countries want to come in.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Before those countries are given membership of the European Union, should we not seek to strengthen the role of national Parliaments and the European Parliament vis-a-vis the European Court of Justice, the Council and the Commission?

Mr. Cook: I assure my hon. Friend that we will, indeed, make proposals for greater scrutiny of European legislation by, particularly, the national Parliament of Britain. As my hon. Friend is aware, the House will shortly set up a Committee that will look at the procedures

9 Jun 1997 : Column 808

of the House. It will be our intention to submit to that Committee a paper outlining ways in which we can improve our scrutiny of European business. We can take no satisfaction from the fact that European business in the House is often regarded as a specialist area, which is shunted off into Committee Rooms upstairs and not adequately surveyed. If we want to do our task properly, we must improve our procedures for better scrutiny.

I have explained why the countries of central Europe want to be members of the European Union. It is, however, important that we also remember why we want them in. We want them in because Europe can never enjoy security if it is surrounded by a zone of poverty just outside its walls. We want them in because if we wish to provide a clean environment for our people, we must tackle the pollution and emissions from our neighbours. We want them in because if we want to make our country safe from crime, we need them to help and to co-operate in curbing organised crime which knows no borders and is integrating far faster across frontiers than the European Union ever will.

The reasons why those countries want to come in and the reasons why we want them in are the same reasons why Britain should want to be a prominent member of the European Union. Together with other member states, we can do much more for our people than we ever could standing alone. I see no sign of recognition of that in the amendment tabled by the former Prime Minister and his right hon. Friends.

If new thinking is going on in the Conservative party in the wake of its defeat, it is hard to spot it on today's Order Paper. The amendment does not list a single positive opportunity that could be taken in Europe, but it comes up with a list of threats from Europe. That is the key difference that we see between ourselves and the Opposition. We see the European Union as an opportunity; they can only see it as a threat.

What I find most depressing about the Opposition's stance is what a tim'rous, nervous wee beastie is their version of nationalism--a Britain constantly in fear of the continentals coming up with something threatening and constantly clinging for comfort to a veto in case anyone proposes a change. I believe that the British people are a proud, self-confident, assertive people and that they deserve a Government who also have confidence--the confidence to offer leadership in Europe, to shape the agenda of Europe and to choose new directions for Europe. That is what the new Labour Government offer Britain and that is the spirit in which we shall go with confidence into the Amsterdam summit.

4.24 pm

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon): I beg to move, To leave out from "union" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his first substantial speech at the Dispatch Box. As our debates and discussions on the European Union develop, he will

9 Jun 1997 : Column 809

find that I agree with much of what he has said. However, as he gains greater experience in negotiating with our European colleagues, he will realise that some elements of his speech represent a slightly more starry-eyed approach to the process than he will take when he has been negotiating in Europe for a brief time.

In a few days' time, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will go to Amsterdam to negotiate a treaty on behalf of the United Kingdom. They will certainly have a great deal of negotiating capital in their pockets, because they are new and our European colleagues are always prepared to give a certain amount of leeway to a new Government, from whichever country, and because they have already given away so much, as our European partners wished, that they are bound to be well received. Those who appear with their hands up and a white flag flying are always likely to be well received.

The substantive question is what the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will obtain for the United Kingdom and for Europe as a result of the concessions that they have already signalled in advance of the commencement of serious negotiations. In many ways, the Amsterdam treaty is unnecessary. Very few people want it and it is likely to do more harm than good; none the less, the negotiations are extremely important.

Recently, the Prime Minister asked a question that I have asked on many occasions in the past few years: is the European Union going in the right direction? He answered that question: frankly, no. I agree. That is my answer too, as it has been on many occasions in the past. In some ways, but by no means all, not only is the Community not going in the right direction; it is actively going in the wrong direction. Amsterdam could correct that or worsen it. Some of the omens, but by no means all, are not good.

This afternoon, the Foreign Secretary gave us a partial guide to the Government's position. I appreciate that, on this occasion, there has not been time for the Government to produce the customary White Paper that precedes our debates on these matters. However, I hope that in his reply to the debate the Minister will confirm that the Government intend to revert to that practice in future.

Much of the significance of the Foreign Secretary's speech lay as much in what he did not say and what was not in his speech as in what he said. There is much in the broad stance of the Government with which I agree. That is hardly surprising, because much of it seems very familiar. Some of what the Prime Minister has said in recent days and the Foreign Secretary's speech this afternoon I could have written myself. Indeed, time and again, as I flick through the speeches that I have made on the subject in the past few years, I find that I did write it. It is attractive, although perhaps somewhat surprising, to hear that echo from the present Government.

Let me touch on the proposals on which we can agree in principle with the Foreign Secretary, although there will be some caveats as to how they might be achieved and what the price might be.

The Foreign Secretary told the House that he would seek a legal basis to retain our border controls. That must be right, and he will have the support of the Opposition. However, it was not right for the Foreign Secretary--perhaps he was misreported--to hail that as the new

9 Jun 1997 : Column 810

Government's first European victory. He again indicated this afternoon that it was never achieved by the previous Conservative Government. I say to the Foreign Secretary with all friendliness that that is both a contentious and a premature claim.

The claim is contentious because the principle, which is all the Foreign Secretary has thus far obtained, was conceded by the Dutch presidency to the former Government in March. It is premature because the details, which will be vital in nailing down the agreement, have yet to be settled--as does whether there is a negotiating price to be paid for what our partners will see as a concession to the United Kingdom. I shall return to that point in a moment.

I agree without reservation with the Foreign Secretary when he refers to the need for job creation across Europe. There are 18 million unemployed people. I refer him to speech after speech that I made in the European Council on precisely that point. The Government's intention is plainly sensible. The Foreign Secretary will, however, find a vast difference between agreeing that in principle with our European partners and agreeing in detail with our European partners on how that job creation is to be brought about.

Many of our partners will not agree with the flexible markets to which the Prime Minister has rather latterly become converted. I am delighted that he has so converted and that he is going to tackle obstacles to job creation and labour market flexibility. Hallelujah to that, say we all. It is a breathtaking conversion to Conservative principles. It would perhaps be grudging to remind the Government of what they said in opposition; suffice it to say that our old policy in government on flexibility and open markets now seems to be the Government's new orthodoxy. They have shed all their past beliefs and oratory.

Whether the Government change their minds on the substance may be quite a different matter. How can the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister talk of labour market flexibility with a straight face when they propose to accept the working time directive, sign the social chapter and flirt with Europe's employment policies, which have led to three decades of job losses? Their ability to say such conflicting things at the same time will strike most people with astonishment.

The Government also propose, as does the Conservative party, enlargement of the Community. Again, that must be the right proposition. The EU as at present is incomplete in size. It cannot possibly be complete until we meet what I believe are our historic obligations to countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and indeed others. The sooner they can be brought in and we can extend the free-market sphere--which has its own security implications further eastward across Europe--to provide greater security for future generations than their fathers and grandfathers ever dreamed of, the better it will be for everyone. The Government will have our strong support in seeking to do that. Within 10 years, as the result of the agreements previously reached, the EU should have grown to 25 or 26 members as diverse in size and international interests as Germany, France and the United Kingdom on one hand, and perhaps Cyprus on the other.

To my mind, enlargement is far more important and relevant to the livelihoods of people in this country and across all of Europe and far more worth while than

9 Jun 1997 : Column 811

ambitious plans for more centralisation and communitisation, or for that matter the establishment of a single currency. It needs to be understood that enlargement will fundamentally change the very nature of the EU. It will require a flexibility in institutions, and in practice that does not exist at present.

Enlargement will compel root-and-branch reform not only of institutions, which will certainly be discussed in Amsterdam, but of some of the EU's practices--most obviously of all, the common agricultural policy. That would quite plainly be unaffordable were the EU to be extended in the way proposed. If we are serious in Europe about enlargement, we must be equally serious about a proper, fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy--although I must tell the Foreign Secretary that he will find huge resistance to that among a number of our EU partners.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary should make it clear in Amsterdam that they do not believe that the treaty and the proposals for enlargement can safely proceed unless we get a commitment from our European partners that they will be prepared for the upheavals that must follow enlargement if that enlargement is to be carried through successfully over the next few years.

What are our partners seeking at the Amsterdam summit? The President of the Commission, Mr. Santer, told us a few weeks ago. He confirmed that Amsterdam will be about further integration; about an end to the single-nation veto; about introducing an employment chapter based on European employment practices; and about increasing the power of the European Parliament, necessarily at the expense of national Parliaments. The summit will be about much else that is unpalatable, as well as changes that are plainly sensible.

The draft treaty also proposes a legal personality for the European Union--the Foreign Secretary did not mention that--which is a change that will move it towards becoming a state in its own right. The change will not establish a European state in its own right--I do not remotely begin to claim that--but it will be a step in that direction. I hope that the Government will oppose that idea. If they do not, the difficulties that arose following the Maastricht treaty--with the intention of having a European citizenship subsidiary to national citizenship--will be dwarfed by the difficulties that the Government will face if they accept the idea of a legal personality for the European Union. That is a thoroughly bad idea.

A legal personality for the European Union would be a bad idea for this country, but, as someone who wishes to see Europe succeed, I can tell the Foreign Secretary that it would be a bad idea for Europe also. The belief among the people of Europe--the citizenry--that the European Union is not working in their interests, as we had hoped it would work, will be magnified by the impression that they are moving closer to centralisation. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will firmly say no to that proposition, although I know the seductive terms in which it will be argued by so many of our European partners.

The draft treaty also proposes an extension of the role of the European Union in asylum and immigration policy. Our partners have long wished to see the free movement of persons, immigration and asylum put into the Community pillar. I am sorry if the Foreign Secretary regards that comment as an example of the Opposition's

9 Jun 1997 : Column 812

negative attitude, but the answer to that request must be no. We must not accept that proposal, in whole or in part, and I hope that the Minister who winds up will confirm that the Government will not do so.

I suspect that the Government will be asked to do a deal on immigration and asylum in return for the assurances in the treaty about border controls that the Foreign Secretary mentioned earlier. Again, we should firmly reject any such link. The issues are contentious, but they must be decided in the House if we are to carry the bulk of the British people with us in the decisions that may be taken on immigration or asylum. It would be utterly unacceptable to have those issues determined by qualified majority vote in the Council of Ministers, and for disputes and appeals to be settled in the European Court of Justice.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the proposal to extend qualified majority voting in several areas. I see no proper case for that. I strongly oppose any material increase in qualified majority voting. There may be some tiddler areas in which that is worth while, but not many. Any significant extension of qualified majority voting can be made only at the expense of the authority of the British Government and of the House of Commons.

On that point, the Government have a clear policy of almost full surrender. They have conceded qualified majority voting in regional policy, social policy, environmental policy and industrial policy. They have conceded it without asking anything in return in the negotiations, and they have been offered nothing. No other Government have made such a unilateral concession. Even if the Government thought it was right to do that--I can see that they might--it was folly not to trade what they were prepared to give for what they wished to achieve in the negotiations. That would have been a much more credible and mature policy for our Government to follow, but they have not done so.

The Foreign Secretary was equivocal today--I was not sure precisely what he meant--but he has hinted in the past few days that he may be equivocal about maintaining unanimity on foreign policy. To concede that would be folly. Our policy on foreign affairs should be determined here, with the Foreign Secretary answerable to the House. Where we can work in concert with our partners, let us do so. Let us not have a narrow-minded nationalism that says, "We will not work with you." Of course not. Where we can agree, the collective voice of Europe is stronger. There are ways in which we can improve consensus-making within the EU to develop foreign policy, but to do so by QMV would be a substantial mistake for a big European country such as Britain.

The Government's justification for more QMV was partly set out by the Foreign Secretary earlier. Of course, there are some areas where an extension of QMV would be in the interests of this country, but the balance is very heavily tilted against us if we move towards an extension. That is why we should not do so. The Foreign Secretary explained his case in an interview on "The World at One" some time ago, in which he said:

Why Slovakia, I do not know, but it will do as an illustration. He continued:

    "And if you want reform frankly in many cases you do have to have majority voting to stop one perhaps small nation obstructing progress".

9 Jun 1997 : Column 813

    But what if the country whose interests were threatened was this country? What if Britain's interests were at stake? The Prime Minister once said that he would never be isolated in Europe. He then said that he was only too happy to be isolated in Europe. But what if our interests were at stake? What view would the Foreign Secretary take then? As he will discover when he has experience of negotiating in Europe, the small nations do not tend to block progress, because their interests tend not to demand it. But he will find that the interests of the United Kingdom often do demand it, and to throw that away at the outset of his period as Foreign Secretary would be a grave mistake.

Next Section

IndexHome Page