The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1992Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the European Community – 20 May 1992

Below is the text of Mr Major’s statement to the House of Commons on 20th May 1992 on the European Community.


The Prime Minister (John Major) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a second time.

When my right hon. Friends and I went to Maastricht we went with a clear mandate from this House. The agreement that we brought back honoured that mandate in every respect. It was approved by a large majority in the House in December, and by the electorate last month. I believe that the Maastricht agreement protects and promotes our national interest. The Bill before us carries that agreement into law.

Clause 1 carries into United Kingdom law amendments to the treaty of Rome and other Community treaties. It reflects the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, which provides that there can be no increase in the powers of the European Parliament without the express approval of this House.

Clause 2 implements the agreement we secured at Maastricht to ensure that it is entirely a matter for this Parliament to decide whether, and if so when, to join a European single currency. We are under no obligation to do so.

Clause 2 provides that a separate Act of Parliament would be required before the United Kingdom could notify its partners in the Community of its intention to move to the third stage of economic and monetary union. That provision for primary legislation is not a legal requirement which flows from the treaty. It does, however, reflect the Government’s belief that it will be for Parliament to determine the issue, and to do so in the way in which Parliament most clearly demonstrates its sovereignty.

I do not believe that it is right to predetermine a decision that should only properly be taken by Parliament, in the light of the circumstances then prevailing across Europe. This decision is too important to be an act of faith–it must also be an act of judgment, and that judgment cannot sensibly yet be made.

Before I turn to the substance of what is in the Bill, let me stress for the convenience of the House what is not there. The Bill contains no provision for those aspects of the Maastricht treaty which cover foreign and security policy, and justice and home affairs issues. If it did, we would have failed at Maastricht to meet the commitments that we gave this House last November. The virtue of those provisions in the Maastricht treaty is that they are outside the treaty of Rome, outside the competence of the Commission, and wholly for agreement between Governments, on a case by case basis. They need to be put to the House, but quite specifically have no direct effect in United Kingdom law.

The content of the Maastricht treaty is well known to the House. The draft of the treaty was debated before Maastricht, and the treaty itself was debated afterwards–a total so far of some 30 hours of debate.

What we kept out of the treaty at Maastricht is as important, in the event, as what went into it. There is no social chapter–[Hon. Members :– “Shame.”]–and I shall come to that later.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister : Not at this stage.

There is no social chapter, there is no diminution in the role of NATO, there is no power for the European Parliament to approve decisions rejected by the Council of Ministers, no weakening of our power of national decision -taking in foreign policy, no word “federal” and no commitment to a federal –by which I mean a centralising–Europe.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister : Not at this moment–later, perhaps. Many in this House and throughout the country have expressed anxiety that decision making in the Community is becoming too centralised. In fact, many of the issues which are most problematic for us–I shall talk about some of them later–arise from the application of the original treaty of Rome, not the Maastricht treaty. The Maastricht treaty marks the point at which, for the first time, we have begun to reverse that centralising trend. We have moved decision taking back towards the member states in areas where Community law need not and should not apply.

Let me inform those who are unaware of that fact that we have done so in a number of ways. We have secured a legally binding text on subsidiarity. That text provides that any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the treaty. More specifically, it provides that, in areas that do not fall within the exclusive competence of the Community–such as environment, health, education, social policy–the Community shall take action only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be achieved by the member states.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : Will the Prime Minister give way now?

The Prime Minister : A little later, perhaps.

We need to ensure that the Commission gives full effect to that requirement. I believe that it is obliged to give full effect to that requirement. Were it not to meet that requirement, we now have the power to take the issue to the European Court of Justice for adjudication. That is a right that we argued for at Maastricht and obtained.

In the published work programme for 1992, the President of the Commission said :

“If a success is to be made of Maastricht and the Single Market, the Commission will have to comply fully with the principle of subsidiarity. Indeed its future existence depends on this. The Commission will have to ensure that no attempt is made to regulate matters that are best dealt with at national level, and to avoid a surfeit of legislation.”

Those are not my words, but those of the President of the Commission, but upon that matter I agree with him. Subsidiarity is vital. If that failed, we would not be the only member state that would insist on reviewing the policy to ensure its effective implementation.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) : As the Prime Minister is so keen to stress the importance of subsidiarity as between Europe and the United Kingdom, does he agree that the same principle should be applied by him and his Government within the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister : We are a single United Kingdom, and we are going to remain a single United Kingdom, for it is in the interests of every part of it that we should do so.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : Will the Prime Minister accept that that is his definition of subsidiarity and not the definition of the Spanish or German Governments? Does he not understand that in Spain, for example, the countries of Catalonia and the Basque will be able to benefit from the principle of subsidiarity? Why not Wales and Scotland?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the traditions of this Parliament and the methods by which this whole United Kingdom is governed. I believe that they represent the right way for every single part of the United Kingdom, and the Government have no plans to change them.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman has had plenty of opportunity in recent weeks to make his case, and, by and large, the electorate rejected it.

Nor does subsidiarity mean that relatively minor issues are returned to the member states in exchange for a growth of power at the centre. I know that that is what many people fear, not least some hon. Members. They fear that the institutions of the Community will increase their powers step by step so that, in the end, we create what we understand by a federal Europe : a strong, central Government in Brussels with some powers devolved to the individual nation state.

I understand those fears, but that is not the route foreshadowed by the Maastricht treaty; nor is it a route down which this country will go. The question is not whether the risk of centralism exists : the question is whether we have the confidence to exert our influence to build the Community we want to see. We have, we can, and we are building such a Community. We can win those arguments. We are doing so. I must say to those hon. Members who dissent that I frankly do not understand why so many people must always assume that we will lose policy arguments in Europe when we so often win them, as we did at Maastricht.

Let me explain why I am confident of that. For the first time in a single treaty, agreements between Governments are given equal standing with action under Community law. In foreign and security policy, and in justice and interior matters, the member states will work together when it is in their common interest to do so. What exactly does that mean? It means that, where such co-operation is helpful to this country, we shall co-operate with our partners in Europe. It also means that we cannot be forced into policies we do not approve of. We keep our ability to act on our own where we need to do so. We shall co-operate within a framework of international law but outside the framework of Community law.

For example, any dispute would go to the International Court of Justice, not the European Court of Justice. I believe that that marks a vital and important change in direction for the Community. It strengthens the unity of the member states but reinforces the case for tackling our common problems by the most effective means available to us. That may on occasion be the treaty of Rome. It may equally well be intergovernmental co-operation. The Maastricht treaty provides for both, and it allows for neither–where the member states can act better on their own. That opens fresh opportunities for the future development of the Community.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : If we proceed in foreign security matters on the basis that we shall co-operate if it is convenient for us, that applies equally to all other countries in the Community. How can we achieve a coherent policy in that way?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman should ask that question in the reverse way : would he prefer our foreign policy to be determined by the majority vote of other countries? That is not a proposition to which I am prepared to agree on behalf of this country. I am prepared to agree to the pooling of foreign policy where it is in the interests of this country and Europe, and where we agree that it will be to the communal benefit to do so. But thus far and no further.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Will the Prime Minister touch on one aspect of the treaty with which he has not dealt : the transfer of power from the legislature to the executive? The Prime Minister, using the Crown prerogative of treaty making through a Cabinet Committee, can agree to laws in Brussels at the Council of Ministers, which take precedence over laws passed by the House. For the first time since 1649, the prerogative controls the House, instead of the House controlling the prerogative.

The Prime Minister : As the right hon. Gentleman knows, he is referring not to the Maastricht treaty which we are debating, but to a principle that goes right back to the 1972 Act. In practice, greater control over the European executive was ceded at Maastricht as a result of the treaty–predominantly, in this case, to the European Parliament–but no authorities were taken from the Council of Ministers, and Ministers remain responsible to this House. The strength of what we have achieved is not just that the choices that I mentioned a moment ago are in the treaty but, equally important, that they reflect the growing wish of the member states. The old tendency among some of our partners to think that action by the Community was always the answer is diminishing. Many countries joined the Community to strengthen their own national democracy. Now that their own democracy is strong and more firmly rooted, it is becoming much more possible in the Community to have rational discussion about what should be done at Community level and what should be done at national level. That is a healthy development for the future of the whole European Community.

Within the framework of the Community treaties, we have secured amendments to the treaty of Rome to reflect important United Kingdom objectives. We have strengthened the rule of law in the Community by stricter rules on the implementation of agreed provisions. In future, if directives are agreed across the Community, they must be implemented across the Community, or penalties will inevitably follow. That provision directly responds to the concern felt by many that, while our domestic law compels the United Kingdom to implement Community law speedily, others sometimes do not act with the same dispatch.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to make more progress.

We have also secured better financial accountability. At Britain’s insistence, the Commission will now have to provide an assurance that sufficient resources are available for any proposed Community action. It can no longer commit itself to expenditure for which resources are not available, and we keep a complete lock on the overall resources available to the Community. There can be no increase in those resources unless we agree with our European partners that there should be. There can be no change in our abatement without our agreement, and I have no intention of agreeing to any adverse change in our abatement in the discussions that lie ahead.

The Court of Auditors, which now becomes a Community institution, will present the Council and the European Parliament with a statement of assurance on the reliability of the accounts and the legality of the underlying transactions. The treaty contains new provisions to counter fraud.

In the agreements reached, we have also extended democratic control over the Commission. The European Parliament will in future have authority to call the Commission to account for its expenditure and for the operation of financial control systems. Individuals will be able to petition the Parliament about abuses by any of the Community’s institutions. The Parliament will appoint an ombudsman to investigate maladministration by any of the Community’s institutions, including the Commission.

The treaty also sets exactly the framework that we want for economic and monetary union. It provides a commitment to open and competitive markets, a commitment that this country has sought for years and that many felt might never be available from our Community partners. It sets tough economic tests that any member state wanting to move to stage 3 would have to pass. The framework contains a commitment to price stability. Above all, it contains an absolute right for the United Kingdom–its Parliament–to decide later, and at a time of its own choosing, whether or not it wishes to move to the third stage of economic and monetary union. Those are arguments that we have won in Europe and that set policy in the direction in which we believe it should go.

There are differences in the House and across the House about some of those issues. The Opposition, notably the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) and many of his right hon. and hon. Friends, have said that they would be prepared to throw away our carefully negotiated right to join the single currency or not. One may ask precisely what they mean by that. They mean that they commit themselves now to enter a single currency in unknown economic circumstances in the future, with the Community at an unknown size and with economic convergence at an unknown level. They would have had to commit this country to a procedure whereby, regardless of Parliament’s views, other member states could oblige us to move to stage 3, which would be a profound mistake for this country.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) : Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister : No, I shall not, as I wish to make more progress.

The Opposition have also latched on to the social chapter in what I consider to be a triumph of ideology over common sense. Signing the social chapter would have removed from employers and employees in this country their right to determine for themselves such matters as working conditions. The social chapter would have given the unions at European level new powers to negotiate employment conditions on behalf of employees, whether or not they were trade union members, and to have agreements imposed through Community legislation on British employees. That is corporatism at its worst. Worse than that, it is the negation of subsidiarity. Those Opposition Members who support subsidiarity cannot, in logic, support the social chapter. Characteristically, the Opposition’s reasoned amendment does both those things.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : How does the Prime Minister’s interpretation of article 3b encompass the stocktaking exercise that he claims to be conducting on the government of Scotland?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman does no good to his arguments about Scotland by bringing them into this instance. I have made it clear to the House that I will take stock of the Scottish position quite apart from the Maastricht treaty, and that I am doing. The hon. Gentleman must be patient. I will take stock in my own time and then bring out proposals.

The Opposition have learnt only one thing. Over the past 20 years, they have held six different policies on Europe. The Leader of the Opposition has held two contradictory views at the same time. Now it seems that Labour accepts and supports Britain’s membership of the European Community. I welcome that unreservedly, not least because, if there is broad agreement about membership, it will lend more strength to Britain’s voice in Europe.

Labour’s vision of Europe, however, is distorted. Labour Members can hardly wait to sign up to every centralising dream; to every high-spending regional policy; to every statist attempt to regiment working practices ; to every central effort to direct industrial policy. Where they have failed at home, they hoped that they would succeed in Europe.

The future of Europe is now based on a different foundation. It is based on free trade and competition, on openness to our neighbours, on a proper definition of the limits of the power of the Commission, and on providing a framework for co-operation between member states outside the treaty of Rome. That is the Conservative vision of Europe ; it is where the future of Europe will lie; and it is a future based on Conservative principles.

In this House and across the country, we debated the Maastricht issues before and immediately after the last European Council. In some of our partner countries, that debate is only now being held, but I have little doubt that all our partners will ratify the treaty by the end of our presidency in the second half of this year. As we debate the treaty, it is right to look at some of the issues that we shall have to tackle during our presidency and beyond.

The concept first put forward, I think, by Ernest Bevin–of being able to buy a ticket at Victoria station and travel freely anywhere in Europe–is attractive. It appeals to the instincts. The freedom to move goods and services lies at the heart of the single market which we British pressed on the Community. But there is a practical problem, recognised in the text of the Single European Act and its accompanying declarations.

All of us in this country live daily with the evils of terrorism and drug smuggling. No one doubts that we have to control immigration, in the best interests of everyone who lives in this country. The issue of the open frontier must be treated rationally, not ideologically. For most of our partners, the idea of an open frontier does not mean that there should be no limitations on what goods and people travel from one country to another. It reflects the fact that they cannot control these matters at the frontier and have therefore devised internal controls to do so.

Our practice is different by virtue of our island status. Experience has shown us that control at the frontier gives us the best possible chance of containing smuggling, terrorism and illegal immigration. We accept the right of Community citizens to move freely between member states, but we must, as we agreed under the Single European Act, keep the controls that we consider necessary to control immigration from third-world countries and to combat terrorism, crime and trafficking in drugs. That means that we must retain frontier controls, and we intend to do so.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : Does the Prime Minister recall publishing on Thursday last week in the Official Report a reply to a question by me in which he admitted that neither he nor the Government had the foggiest idea of the number of constables in this country and in particular of their numbers at British ports? That makes nonsense of all the humbug in his remarks that we need to control what comes into and goes out of British ports.

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman has clearly not understood a word of what has been said in the past five minutes but that–if I may say so–is his problem, not mine.

I believe–

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) : I thank the Prime Minister for giving way to me on that point. Will he recall that we are not only one island but that we have a land frontier in the same way that other member states have a land frontier, and that therefore the control–the necessary control–of immigration and other matters is not merely a matter of port controls?

The Prime Minister : We are well aware of that, and the special relationships that exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have existed for a long time, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.

I believe that the development–

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : The Prime Minister expresses excellent sentiments, but it is widely reported that the European Commission is likely to challenge in every respect our attitude to frontiers, and to call for the free movement of people and vehicles, as stated in the Maastricht treaty. In such circumstances, which seem likely to arise after 1 January next year, will the Government make it clear what their attitude would be to a decision by the European Court insisting that all frontier controls must be removed?

The Prime Minister : If indeed it challenges them, as my hon. Friend fears, I have just set out the view that the British Government will take. We believe that those frontier controls should be maintained, and we believe that the declaration that Mrs. Thatcher obtained in 1985 recognised that fact. We shall fight very fiercely for the fact that that is the position in law.

I believe that developments in the former Soviet Union and in eastern Europe are more significant–

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister : Yes, of course.

Mr. Shore : I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way on this extremely important point.

It is absolutely right and rational that we should have control over goods and people coming into our own land–that is part of the meaning of being an independent state–but the question put to the Prime Minister a moment ago was not answered. The question is, if the disagreement or clash over the claim to have a Europe without frontiers and our claim to have the right to defend those frontiers in the way described goes to the European Court, will it not be for the court to decide under the treaty, not the British Government? What does the Prime Minister say about that?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman sets out the legal position. I have set out the position that I believe is the case with the declaration that was attached to the Single European Act in the mid-1980s, a declaration that expressly made the point that our frontier controls would remain. That is a point–if the question is raised by the Commission–that we shall debate and argue at that stage.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : My right hon. Friend will be aware that we had a full debate in the House on the Single European Act. The House was given the assurance that the Luxembourg compromise still existed–in other words, where our vital national interests are at stake, the Luxembourg compromise would apply. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in the last resort we could still resort to the Luxembourg compromise?

The Prime Minister : Yes, of course that is correct. The Luxembourg compromise is a delaying mechanism–it is not wholly the end of the matter, as my hon. Friend knows. It still exists and has recently been reaffirmed by other member states, so there is no doubt that, as my hon. Friend intimates, the Luxembourg compromise is still there. I believe that the developments in the former Soviet Union and across eastern Europe are more significant for the future of the Community than any other development since we joined 20 years ago. By 1995, I hope that Sweden, Austria and Finland will be members. During our presidency, we shall prepare the ground for those enlargement negotiations. By the end of the decade, I hope that Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia will have followed suit. Other countries will follow. The Community will have to develop its relationship with the Baltic states and with many of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The politics, economics and social fabric of the Community will change radically as the Community enlarges. We shall have to show imagination, flexibility and generosity. It would be fatal to take the attitude that we have our prosperous club and that nobody else can join unless they are prepared to pay a heavy price. We–the Community, this country–would all pay a heavy price if, by our attitude, we damaged the chance of re- establishing for the first time in 50 years a firm democracy throughout the whole of Europe. Some argue that enlargement points to more being done at the Community level. I believe that a Community of 20 member states will need the sort of flexibility that we have shown in the Maastricht treaty. A lot more will have to be done on the basis of intergovernmental co- operation. A lot more may be left to the national level. The changes that we have negotiated do not weaken what is valuable in the treaty of Rome. They do create the flexible framework we need as the Community reaches out to new members. The institutions of the Community must adapt to the needs of the members and not the other way round.

What should not and need not be negotiable are the core beliefs and foundations of the Community : its commitment to democracy, its framework of law, the creation of a genuine single market and the fact that the Community exists to promote the ever closer union of the peoples of Europe.

We in this generation have the opportunity and the responsibility for managing the biggest transition to democracy in our continent in its entire history. There will be many means at our disposal for achieving that, both national and international. I have no doubt that crucial among them is the European Community. If we had to point towards one endeavour that can consolidate European democracy, boost our collective European economic prosperity and enhance our collective international influence, it is the European Community. Sometimes the national interest and the Community’s interests are at variance. Where they are, we shall fight as we have done in the past for our national interest. But I have no doubt that, overall, through the European Community, our national interest can best be promoted. At Maastricht we obtained a good deal for this country. We improved the way in which the Community works. We set the basis for the growth and expansion of the Community in the years ahead. I believe that that was a good deal for this country and for Europe. I invite the House to have confidence in our future in Europe, and to approve the Bill.