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5.5 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I welcome this debate, which takes place in entirely new circumstances. I got the feeling that those on both Front Benches were talking as

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Europeans. I, too, was born a European and will die a European. It is not really a national matter: we are discussing the future of our continent as we enter the new century. The implications of the decisions that we take are profound constitutionally, politically, economically and socially.

Our cause is not best advanced by talking as though it were a matter of conflict between one nation and another. The history of Europe in this century has been a history of conflict and war arising from nationalism. As I hope to show, if we take the wrong decisions, nationalism could be reawakened.

We have had two wars and the cold war. Fifty years ago, the Marshall plan was designed to strengthen the western European economies. The American ambassador was in the Palace of Westminster the other day and pointed out that the Marshall plan was part of the beginning of globalisation. He said that it was about the containment of communism. The European Economic Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation were set up after the second world war to create a western Europe that would be able to perform again its function as a series of capitalist economies and to resist the onset of communism.

There are many people--I think that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who I am sure will be speaking later, is one--who look back at that history and say that we must build a political federation in western Europe to ensure that does not happen again. I understand that view, although I have never shared it, and the right hon. Gentleman, who as a young man went to Spain to visit those engaged in the Spanish civil war and who played a notable part in the war, is fully entitled to it.

I want to express some of my anxieties, which have been rather delicately touched on in the debate so far. First, the Europe that is on offer is a deflationary Europe. That is what the stability pact and the Maastricht criteria are all about. There has been much anxiety in local government about the standard spending assessment limiting the capacity of local authorities to spend, but I dread the day when the Chancellor comes to the House and says that a standard spending assessment has been made for Britain and that if we go beyond it we shall be fined under the provisions of the stability pact.

Unemployment in Europe, at 18 million or 20 million, is at an horrific level. It is all very well blaming the continental Governments' policies, but unemployment performs an essential function if we want to achieve what are called flexible labour markets. Without unemployment, wages cannot be brought down. Unemployment gets wages down. If wages are brought down, profits go up and imports are limited. In my opinion, the discipline of unemployment is an integral part of the policy being pursued in the European Community.

I am old enough to remember that Hitler came to power when there were 6 million unemployed in Germany. As a 10-year-old, I bought "Mein Kampf"; I have it on my bookshelf still. The problem is beginning to re-emerge with Le Pen in France. With mass unemployment and despair, it is easy to find scapegoats: the Jews, the communists, the trade unionists. To read what was said by the Nazis before the war and consider how it is being echoed today must make people worry about what is in

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effect the reimposition of the gold standard in Europe in the name of economic stability. The social price is very high.

My second anxiety is that the whole business--to call it a legal personality is only a way of describing it--involves the transfer of power from the people to Governments. That is what it is about. There is a new political class in Europe that has been accumulating, in the name of the European Union, more and more power for itself. I sat on the Council of Ministers for four years. I was president of the Council of Energy Ministers. The laws in Europe are made by a Parliament that meets in secret. When I was made president, I wrote to all the member countries saying that as we were a Parliament that passed laws, we should have it open so that everyone could hear the debates. That was vetoed; they want to meet in secret. In secret, the negotiations and deals can be made more easily. If the press had been present, as Hansard is here, a very different perspective would have been seen.

I do not draw a direct parallel, but it has sometimes occurred to me that as communism required a party central committee and commissars, Europe has a central bank and Commissioners. Both have a certain distrust of the exercise of popular power because they pursue in the one case a communist philosophy, and in the other a very ideological free-market philosophy, that require the people to be kept at bay.

We are now discussing also something as important as the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but these other constitutional changes that the Government are contemplating, which I wholly support, involve the transfer of power from London to Edinburgh and Cardiff at the very moment that we are also discussing the transfer of more essential powers from London to Frankfurt, Brussels and Strasbourg.

One reason why I am not in any way nationalist in my approach is that if the single currency goes ahead, power will be transferred to a central bank that will exercise all the levers of power in economic policy. It is no secret that I have some anxieties about the transfer of power to the Bank of England, but at least I have the comfort that the House of Commons can take it back again. In 1946, the Bank of England Act was passed by a majority in the House of Commons. After that, the Bank became subject to Treasury control. If it can go once, it can come back again; but hand power to Frankfurt and it cannot be retained.

If one thing is sacred for me, as I have said time and again, it is the power of the people by using a pencil on a piece of paper to remove those who made the economic policy that determined their lives. It never ceases to amaze me that people without a policeman in sight can take a pencil, put a cross on a piece of paper, pop it in a box and get rid of a Government: whether the last Government, the Callaghan Government, the Wilson Government or the Churchill Government. That is what democracy is about. Transfer the key decisions to people whom we do not elect and cannot remove and we abandon centuries of struggle by the common people to have some say in determining their future.

One last aspect was not touched on by the Foreign Secretary, but I must mention it: the lunacy of extending NATO into eastern Europe and rearming Hungary,

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Poland and the Czech Republic. If the history of this century shows one thing, it is that we do not need rearmament in central and eastern Europe. Think of the people we have rearmed at different times for different reasons. We armed Serbia because Tito was hostile to Stalin; look at the price that was paid in the break-up of Yugoslavia. It is beyond the range of common sense when Europe's problems are so enormous, and when we need jobs and health facilities, to launch an arms drive to re-equip the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians.

I mention that because under our constitution--happily, we are looking at it; I have been interested in constitutional reform for a very long time--the power to extend NATO was taken by royal prerogative. Parliament was never consulted because all foreign relations are dealt with by the prerogative of treaty making. To put it as quietly as I can, I am worried about a deflationary Europe, a centralised Europe, an anti-democratic Europe and a rearmed Europe. Those anxieties in no way relate to Euro-scepticism because if we get it wrong, it will affect every country, not just Britain. It will take away democracy from Germany, France, Italy and the rest.

One reason why this debate is important is that it comes during the aftermath of some important elections. The British general election saw a major landslide which, dare I say it without being confrontational, rejected the policies of the previous Government. I put it no stronger than that. It appeared that those policies did not find favour with the electorate. I do not know whether to describe the French elections as an "old Labour" victory because that might get me into trouble with Excalibur. Lionel Jospin won an election on the basis of creating 750,000 new jobs and a shorter working week. In every country in Europe, people want jobs, full employment--what is wrong with that as an objective rather than a bit of modernisation of skills and training?--a living wage, homes to live in, lifelong health care and education, dignity when they are old, and peace. That is the voice of Europe that we heard on 1 May and in the French election.

We should seek a Europe in which we co-operate without coercion. I have presented to the House twice before, and may again, a Bill that would make it possible for the 47 countries in our continent to co-operate. All the arguments about pollution and the dangers of fraud could be dealt with as well by co-operation as by coercion. It is the fear of failure that concerns me. If this scheme fails, the result will be a recrudescence of nationalism. It is already beginning. The Sun had a headline, "Up Yours Delors", a typical Murdoch insult. The problem was not Delors, whom I have known for a long time, or his nationality; it was that the system was wrong. How easy for some editor to turn that into hostility to Germany, France, Spain and Italy when their people suffer from the same problems as we do.

I believe, and I have said it so many times in the House that no one will be surprised, that this is a supremely democratic question. It is about whether the people of Britain, France, Germany and Spain are to be allowed, through their domestic democracies, to get rid of the people who control them. That is not possible within the framework of a politically driven federal Europe. It is not about economics; it is politically motivated. I understand and respect that, but I know it. If that ability were lost, I believe that we would have thrown away centuries of history.

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I recognise that these issues divide everyone. It would be a mistake to suppose that the matter could be fitted neatly into party loyalties; the evidence shows that it cannot. When we vote on the matter in the House of Commons, there will, however one puts it, be a free vote. There will then be a free vote in the referendum on the matter. I beg the House not to see the matter, as it so often has in the past, as a choice between those who are pro or anti Europe. It is about democracy or dictatorship. I do not mean dictatorship in its more elaborate and terrifying forms but the right to govern ourselves.

Julius Caesar arrived in 55 BC with a single currency; we still use it. It took Boadicea, the original iron lady, to raise the men of Essex, known then as the Iceni, to fight the seventh legion to try to contain it. That is not the approach that we should take. We should try to ensure that the people of Europe control their own future. Mistakes will be made by any Government; if we cannot correct mistakes through the ballot box, we will have thrown away everything that matters, including all the ideas that have led to the creation of this House and of our democracy in Britain.


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