Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.45 pm

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham): The last part of the speech by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) was very exaggerated. I have also read the draft treaty and I have not found in it what he has described. We may or may not want a federal Europe--I personally do not--but a proposal for a federal Europe is not contained in the draft treaty. Inflated language and gross exaggeration do not help the House's perusal of the matter.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on his speech; it was very positive and extremely encouraging. The speech by the Leader of the Opposition was in two parts. There was the bit in which he was still trying to lead his party when he talked about the policy of surrender, which we would apparently come forward with at the Amsterdam summit. He grossly exaggerated, as did the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, the issue of qualified majority voting and what is involved at Amsterdam. On the other hand,

9 Jun 1997 : Column 842

he also spoke as a former Prime Minister about Britain being at the very heart of Europe, which I always find an attractive idea.

The problem for the former Prime Minister was that he was let down by hon. Members of his own party; I can see some of them here. I do not say that they did not act for highly principled reasons, but I believe that they certainly let him down. We have a new situation in this Parliament because the Labour Government are in the enviable position of having the overwhelming support of Parliament for their positive approach to Europe. In the previous Parliament, the Euro-sceptic faction had an influence out of all proportion to its numerical strength because of the previous Government's small majority and because of their weakness. In the end, that was what brought down that Government.

This Government, however, have the support of their vast majority--a majority elected on a positive European manifesto. Unlike the Conservative party, we did not all write different manifestos; one or two of us may have done, but very few did. In addition, our vast majority is buttressed by almost 50 pro-European Liberal Democrat Members and by the pro-European group in the Tory party. That group is bigger than was expected at the time of the election.

Partly because of the landslide, the proportion of pro-European Conservatives who remain is quite large. I can understand why, for tactical reasons, they may not want to put their heads above the parapet in this debate. We hope to hear from them later, depending on what happens in the coming election for the leadership of the Conservative party.

The big advantage for this Government is that, in pursuing their new, more constructive approach, they know that they do not have to look over their shoulder all the time. I think that the Government have made an excellent start. We had immediate visits to our partners by the Foreign Secretary. We had the signal that we intended to sign up to the social chapter which was a symbol of our new approach.

Frankly, that is the way to begin. We cannot start by bargaining; if we believe in something, we have to signal that we are prepared to do it. We have also signalled our support for a new employment chapter and that will show that we intend to be a positive member of the European Union.

For me, what is so refreshing about the Government is that they have abandoned the language of hyperbole and hysteria--we heard a bit of that just now and no doubt we shall hear more from Opposition Members--and have started to present the problems as they really are.

We can now see that the intergovernmental conference is not about the battle of Britain or the end of the nation state as we know it, as we heard so often from Conservative Members, but is a sober discussion of practical issues that are important for Britain and Europe. For example, as Mrs. Thatcher well understood, in certain matters it makes sense for Britain and the European Union to proceed by majority voting. She understood that in order to create a single market, one country cannot be allowed to impede progress. That is why she agreed to it. When I put that point to the Leader of the Opposition, he accepted it immediately because it was true.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, that also applies to fraud, research and development, and environmental matters where it would be in Britain's

9 Jun 1997 : Column 843

interest not to have a veto but to proceed by majority voting. When we talk about our veto, we sometimes forget that our veto is also somebody else's veto and that other countries can veto British policy. We have to understand that a bit better if we are to have a sensible debate about European affairs.

On the other hand, it is true that there are vital national issues such as taxation, foreign policy and, above all, defence. We certainly need a veto when it comes to sending our young men to die, and it is essential to preserve that veto. It is a matter of balance and it has to be considered soberly, carefully and from a pragmatic point of view without the hysteria that we have experienced in the past.

Of course, there are tricky problems to be faced at Amsterdam, including the weighting of voting to achieve a balance between small and large countries. I am sure that a solution will be found, but it is clearly a difficult matter between the states.

Border controls and immigration present problems, but, in my view, the other countries respect the fact that, for the moment, the United Kingdom--and, necessarily, Ireland--occupies a special position.

There is also the relationship between the Western European Union and the European Union to consider. Again, I believe that an acceptable compromise will be reached.

An acceptable agreement that is good for Britain and for Europe can be reached at Amsterdam because we do not have deep divisions between the countries that cannot be overcome. All member states, including the United Kingdom at last, want to reach agreement at Amsterdam. If, by some mischance, the Conservatives had won the election, such an agreement would have included the Conservative Government, for all their propaganda before the election.

We are likely to reach agreement at Amsterdam or soon after, and that will be in Britain's interests. That will be good for the country because it will help us to win over British public opinion after all these years of Euro-sceptic propaganda in the newspapers. It will show that a more co-operative and constructive attitude by the British pays dividends for British national interests as well as for European interests. That is extremely important.

With our presidency approaching at the beginning of 1998, it is important that Britain seizes the initiative. I agree with right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the Father of the House, that it is not a matter of setting the agenda in the sense of ignoring other countries' interests, but it is important that we try to influence it. That is perfectly acceptable for a major European country such as Britain.

We are right to say that we need to complete the single market, because that is very much in Britain's interests. We are right to talk about the reform of the common agricultural policy. I do not share the view that it is the most perfect instrument devised by men or women. It certainly needs reforming.

We are also right to talk about enlargement. It is important that the former Soviet countries, particularly those on the borders of the European Union, have a real opportunity to join the European Union. We cannot keep them out if they want to join and if they are prepared to accept the rules, as I believe they are. Of course,

9 Jun 1997 : Column 844

there will be a transition period, but it is an important objective that we should set for the European Union and I am glad that the Government are in favour of it.

The previous Government were so weak and divided--particularly after the first Danish referendum and the Maastricht vote--that they could only react negatively to proposals by other European countries. We heard echoes of that in the speech by the Leader of the Opposition. It is important that we make positive proposals and I welcome especially the Chancellor's proposal on employment which he is tabling today, or has tabled, at the ECOFIN meeting.

The history of the EU shows that countries that take a positive position are far more likely to get their way. If hon. Members doubt that, they should consider the example of Mrs. Thatcher. She believed that it was important to complete the single market. Her Government took a positive position on that issue and, as a result, we were able to get our way with the support of other countries. We had to make compromises on other issues, but that is the way in which the European Union should proceed. We need a positive agenda of our own.

Finally, let me say a word about the single currency. I shall not indulge in debate with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies). We do that often enough and I am certain that we shall do so again. Clearly, events in France and Germany have raised questions about the timetable and the way in which monetary union is being established.

It would be easy for us to indulge in a characteristic bout of schadenfreude. I often think that that German word was invented especially for the British, as we spend most of our time indulging in it. We would be foolish indeed, because it is not in our interests for there to be instability of any kind in Europe, particularly monetary instability.

We are certainly entitled to insist on effective criteria because it is in our interests to have economic and monetary union that actually works, but, at the moment, we should be sympathetic and perhaps not say too much. If other countries want to go ahead, we should not try to stop it.

I disagree strongly with the Leader of the Opposition who was entirely wrong when he said that we should vote against monetary union at Amsterdam. That would be a stupid thing to do. If he were Prime Minister now, he would not be advocating it. It is much easier to say that as Leader of the Opposition.

Next Section

IndexHome Page