The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1993Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the Maastricht Treaty – Social Policy Protocol – 22 July 1993

Below is the text of Mr Major’s statement made in the House of Commons on the 22nd July 1993 on the Maastricht Treaty – Social Policy Protocol.


The Prime Minister (Mr John Major): I beg to move,

That this House, in compliance with the requirements of section 7 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, notes the policy of Her Majesty’s Government on the adoption of the Protocol on Social Policy.

The debate we have in the House this afternoon is without precedent. After months of discussion, Parliament has passed the European Communities (Amendment) Act with huge majorities. In this House, there was a majority of over 240 on Second Reading and of 180 on Third Reading. In the other place, there was a majority of well over 100 on Third Reading and of 269 in the showpiece vote over a referendum. Rarely in recent history has Parliament shown its will so effectively. Today’s debate is an attempt to frustrate that will. I believe that ratification of the Maastricht treaty is in the interests of this country. I negotiated the treaty because I believed that it was in the interests of this country, and that is why I signed it. That is why I refused to ditch it or to change it, even though there was plenty of opportunity to do so over the past year. Let me set out to the House the reasons why I regard it as vital for this country, for the reasons do not just relate to what is within the treaty itself, but go wider than the treaty and relate to the general position in the European Community.

We took the decision to join the Community–the right decision, I believe–over 20 years ago. From the day we took the decision, across both sides of the House, it has often been a matter of controversy. Sometimes it has been bitter, sometimes it has flared up, and at other times, for a while, it has been quiescent. Always that schism between the parties has rested there, and it has damaged the influence that this country has been able to exercise within the European Community.

Too often, as a result of those divisions within this House and sometimes beyond it, this country under successive Governments–I make no party point –has allowed itself and its interests to be sidelined. If it had not been for those disputes, and if we had been able to play the full part in the Community that I believe we should have done, it might not have developed in the way it has, and many of the concerns that some hon. Members have might well have been dealt with.

In that period, we have had many successes in the Community. The British rebate was a great negotiating success. The single market was one of the greatest changes in the EC since its conception. The reform of the common agricultural policy, the enlargement of the EC–each and every one, in its own way, is a big issue that has affected every aspect of the EC. All of them were British successes.

It shows that we can win the arguments at the European table. Despite that, we have still not exercised the influence that we should have, or shaped the EC in the fashion that was possible.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South): Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I wish to deal with serious matters rather than frivolous interruptions at the moment.

Too often over the years, the dominant political attitude has been to object to the ways others have wanted to develop the EC, rather than to set out our plans, our prospects and our hopes and then fight for them to deliver the type of community that is right for this country.

Many hon. Members are right in their opposition to the way in which the EC operates. Some of the ways that it operates need to be changed–I strongly support that. I want to see the EC reformed, as do my hon. Friends and many Opposition Members, but if we are to reform the EC, Britain must have influence in the EC. We will not have influence if we do not ratify the treaty that we have agreed after consultations in the House.

I did not initiate the negotiations. I have made it clear that I thought that they were premature, and I said so to our partners during our negotiations. I did seek to negotiate what I believed to be the best outcome for Britain. I did so within a remit I had obtained from the House, and after seeking the views of Parliament and negotiating within them.

I believe that, as a result of that discussion and debate within the House, it was right for me to decline to accept the social chapter–and the single currency without the express will of the House.

I believe that the events which have followed the conclusion of the negotiations have proved that judgment to be correct. As I have told the House before, in my judgment Europe is not yet remotely ready for a single currency, and the present economic circumstances across Europe mean that it cannot afford the ambitions of the social chapter.

The House and the Government must accept the obligations we entered into and that Parliament approved in the European Communities (Amendment) Act. There is a straightforward self-interested reason for this country why we must do that. If we fail to do that, no British Government will have influence in Europe for many years. Europe is a market of vital interest to our companies, and to this country’s future prosperity and future employment. If we wilfully throw away our capacity to defend our interests and promote our policies in that market, I believe that this country will pay a dear price for that folly in the years to come. I would ask every hon. Member–including some of my hon. Friends–to reflect deeply on that point before they vote this evening.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber): I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. He has forcefully and clearly made the argument for our remaining within the EC in order to argue our case and develop our position. Surely the same argument exactly applies to the development of social policy. How can this country influence the development of European social policy by opting out ?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government accept that there is a social dimension to the EC. We have the best implementation of the social dimension of any European country. Perhaps if Opposition Members were better informed, they would not talk such rubbish so much of the time.

I know the hon. Gentleman’s affection for Europe, but I say to him that a good European does not accept every piece of nonsense from Brussels just because it has a European label. If we believe that the social chapter is bad for employment–and I do believe that–then it is right for us to argue against it, and to try to persuade our partners to argue against it also.

I believe that that is what we are doing, and increasingly in Europe, businesses and employers are saying what we have said in this country and what I have said from the outset–the charter will destroy jobs across the EC.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister: I should like to make a little progress. I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman later.

For the first time in 20 years, we are beginning to see a material move in the European Community agenda in the direction that Britain has long sought. It would be absurd for us to throw away our influence in the Community at this moment. We are seeing enlargement. We are seeing increasing moves towards the repatriation of responsibilities in this country–I hope for concrete progress on that in December. We are seeing proper budget control both within the Commission and right the way across the Community.

The European Community will continue to develop, whatever else may happen. But we need to influence the way of that development and to see that it moves in a way that is congenial to the British interest.

I want a wider European Community. I regard the present Community as but a fragment of Europe. That is why I wish to see the European Free Trade Association countries join, and a little later, our old friends in central and eastern Europe. The wider that we can spread the European Community, with a free market concept not only in economic terms but in military and security terms, the more we shall be able to hand a glorious bonus to the next generation that we should not throw away.

So I want that wider Community–a free-market Community, a Europe with the minimum necessary centralisation, a Europe that exercises more powers through the elected Governments of its member states and fewer powers through unelected commissioners, a Europe in which national Governments exercise undiluted control over genuine domestic policy matters from national elections to our education system, from health care to religion. That is the sort of Community that has been our agenda for a long time, and we are beginning to make progress in encouraging others to support the development of that sort of Community.

We seek a Community that emphasises co-operation between Governments, not imposition from the centre. We seek a Community where member states freely decide the agenda and the outcome. We seek a Community which limits common rules and the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice to matters such as free trade and free competition, where they are genuinely necessary for any level playing field to be established. That is the Community that we seek to develop and shape.

However, we can do that only from the inside. If we are inside the Community fighting for that with allies elsewhere in the Community, we can build properly in the interests of our future. It is a process that we can take much further as a fully committed member of real influence.

Mr. Benn: I have listened intently to the Prime Minister. Has it occurred to him that he can do the things of which he speaks only if he carries the full-hearted consent of the British people? He has the power through the House of Lords and the House of Commons, with a majority, to force the treaty through and ratify by the prerogative, but he has absolutely failed to tell the British people that they have any role in the matter, any interest in the matter or any right to determine the matter. As a result, he is carrying into the Community the establishment of Britain but not the British people. He will pay a heavy price for that, and so will the Community.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has been a passionate opponent of much of the Community for many years. He has not changed his views, and I respect him for that. He spoke in the House the other day of the rights of Parliament in this House. We are a parliamentary democracy. Decisions such as that to which the right hon. Gentleman refers should properly be taken in the House, and are taken in the House.

I do not want to see either a centralist or a federalist Europe. I mean federalist in the sense in which we refer to it, not in the sense in which other countries refer to it. They mean something different by it. Yet when I say that to some hon. Members, including some of my hon. Friends, they are apt to say to me, “What about this country or that? There are federalist countries in the Community.” That is true. There are. That is why we need influence and allies in Europe to build the sort of European Community we want.

What is the alternative to that approach? To leave the Community? Very few right hon. or hon. Members would go into the Lobby for that proposition, today or any other day. What is the other alternative? To stand aside and let other people run the Community in a way of which we would not approve? That is hardly the right way to exercise influence in the Community.

I have never understood why so many people who claim to be the most pro-British–whichever party is in government–have the least faith in our arguments and our capacity to prevail in the European argument.

Mr. Cryer: This is not a frivolous point. One of the threads of the Prime Minister’s argument is that, unless we become enmeshed more deeply in Europe through the Maastricht treaty, we will not have any influence, and that the differences between political parties are inhibiting that influence.

On one matter there has been consent between all the political parties–the common agricultural policy. It is wasteful, costly and out of control. That has not changed. The reforms that the Government have instituted are costing more. The food mountains are growing ; they are imposed on world food markets and are damaging developing nations. We have not done a thing to change it, and we cannot.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may say that we have not yet gone far enough, and I share that view ; I think that there are further reforms to be made to the common agricultural policy. Which way are we most likely to get them? By standing on the sidelines and throwing stones at the Community, or by being inside, seeking allies in other countries?

There is only one way in which we could find ourselves with the centralist, federalist Europe that we do not want, and that would be to sideline ourselves, through our own efforts, and let other nations determine the future development of the Community. That would be a folly of historic proportions for the country and the House. That is why we need to seek allies in the Community, and why we need to honour our obligations and to ratify the treaty that Parliament has approved.

The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and I do not differ on the importance of the treaty, if he stands by what he said some time ago. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said :

“I do not think we should oppose the Maastricht Treaty.” We have seen what the right hon. Gentleman has done over recent months, and what he will seek to do this evening. But it is a matter of huge importance to this country that we honour the obligation that we entered into after consulting the House, and then continue to build the Community that we wish to see.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): The Prime Minister emphasised a moment ago that we are a parliamentary democracy. Notwithstanding his own feelings and those of his Cabinet on the social chapter, if the House decides to support the Opposition amendment in favour of the social chapter, will the Prime Minister, as a democrat, accept that resolution and implement it?

The Prime Minister: I expect that the will of the House will be to support the Government. If by some mischance that were not to be the case, we would make our position clear at the conclusion of today’s business.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central): My right hon. Friend knows that, for many years, I have opposed the social chapter because of the effect that it would have on companies such as ICI in Stowmarket, which is in my constituency. I urge the Prime Minister to continue to oppose the social chapter as strongly as he can. I will be voting against the social chapter and in support of the Government in the Lobby tonight. [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: I hope that the gesture of the hon. Member for Durham Central (Mr. Lord) referred to ICI. ICI is one of the biggest employers in the country– [Interruption.] –and provides jobs in the constituencies of many of the hon. Members who are shouting at me. Its chairman, Sir Denys Henderson, has said :

“The Prime Minister is right to seek ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and, equally, it is vital that he continues to insist on the Social opt-out provision which he successfully negotiated last year.”

That is the view of a business man whose company will employ many thousands of people in the constituencies of many hon. Members who are contemplating voting for the amendment.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth) rose–

The Prime Minister: I should like to make a little progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

The Opposition amendment seeks to impose the social chapter on us. I believe that it would be profoundly damaging to jobs and growth in this country, as do business men–although, having quoted Sir Denys Henderson, I will not detain the House with a large number of other quotes that I could offer to that effect.

There is no true majority for the social chapter in the House. It is wholly opposed by those who understand the economic damage that it would cause. There is an alliance of Members, for differing reasons, who may seek to come together and vote for the amendment, but it is not an alliance based on any conviction whatever.

My hon. Friends are aware of the deficiencies of the social chapter, yet I know that some of them are tempted to vote for the Labour amendment or against the substantive motion. They do not believe in it, but they have convinced themselves that it will prevent ratification of the Act.

Other hon. Members may have considered voting in a similar way. They, too, know and understand in many cases the damage of the amendment. They do not want more unemployment and they do not want a more centralist Community. I hope that those Members will reflect again on the cynicism of such a vote, and on the damage that it will do to this country.

Parliament is no longer debating the merits of the Maastricht Bill. The Bill is now an Act and, in due course, the treaty will be ratified. What Parliament is debating is whether we should negotiate a new treaty to add Britain to the social agreement. The treaty in the Maastricht Bill–the European Communities (Amendment) Bill–is now law, as the House well understands. Royal Assent has been given to the Act, so the treaty will be ratified. Seventy-one separate votes in favour of the Bill should not be frustrated by one parliamentary motion expressing an opinion to the contrary.

The House knows that to vote for the Labour amendment today is a cynical and unscrupulous vote which does not represent the true will of the House. It is an alliance of different parties with different interests, voting for the same amendment for different purposes. In any genuine free-standing vote in the House, the social chapter would be defeated, as any Member of the House knows. As the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Liberal Democrat party has said : “The social chapter opens the way to European- wide collective bargaining arrangements. They are wrong for this country’s future and contrary to the Liberal party’s belief in decentralising wage bargaining. It is an approach that failed in the 1970s and one that could not work in the 1990s. It is too costly, too inflexible and too rigid”–

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Perhaps he would like to know the facts that made me change my mind and support the Government tonight. A manufacturing company in my constituency has interests in Europe but is now considering closing down those interests because the costs imposed by the social chapter, and will be bringing those jobs back into this country and into my constituency. On that basis, my right hon. Friend will appreciate that there was no way that I could support the treaty chapter.

The Prime Minister rose–

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey): May I congratulate the Prime Minister on his latest convert?

The Prime Minister: I am always delighted to accept a sinner returning home. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) back supporting the Government. The Opposition amendment is a stratagem by an Opposition who have lost their principled concern for the Community. They are seeking solely to embarrass the Government, and a small number of Back Benchers want to obstruct the treaty. Anyone who is concerned with the interests of this country would regard the attitude of the official Opposition as incomprehensible, and that of the Liberal party, given its previous statements, as, frankly, contemptible.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): Since the Prime Minister has for, if I recall, the third or fourth time quoted my words–incidentally, quoted words that were uttered before the treaty was signed–may I say to him that his speech so far has been a most passionate and, if I may say so, effective statement about why it is important to be inside European institutions helping to shape them, not outside suffering from them.

I do not understand how the speech that he has given so far, which is about being included in European institutions, can be used to justify an opt-out from European institutions. It is entirely true that my party and I have reservations about the social chapter, just as the Prime Minister has reservations about the Maastricht treaty, but he has argued that it is in our country’s interests to be inside the treaty changing them, not outside complaining about them. What applies to the Maastricht treaty also applies to the social chapter. If the Prime Minister genuinely believes that Britain’s interests are served by being within Europe shaping its institutions, why is he recommending to the House that we should be outside complaining and suffering from them?

The Prime Minister: I recall going fishing many years ago when somebody caught an eel. “My,” they said, “look how it wriggles.” Wriggle though the right hon. Gentleman may, the quotes that I have used support my case and not his–as, since the right hon. Gentleman tempts me, does this one :

“The action Labour is taking will prolong Britain’s uncertainties about Europe, delay inward investment, delay sterling recovery and lose jobs. I am not going to vote for Labour for one night of fun at the Government’s expense and ask the British people to pay in more lost jobs.”

Does the right hon. Gentleman still believe that or not?

Mr. Ashdown: Yes, the right hon. Gentleman, and his party, believe that. I remind the Prime Minister that, were it not for the votes of our party, there would be no Maastricht treaty before the House. I remind him that our position was then, as it is today, that, if it is a question of ratification of the treaty, there is no doubt where our votes stand, but this is a question of whether Britain shall be inside the social chapter of the treaty or outside. Our view consistently has been that we should be inside, and we shall express that view tonight.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has just made a statement of immense significance, for he and his party were asking earlier about the will of the House. If the Labour amendment is defeated and the main motion is now laid before the House, the only conclusion from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said is that he will be in the Government Lobby on the main motion. That is what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, and I invite him to intervene again if he wants to correct me.

Mr. Ashdown: Let me make it clear to the Prime Minister that, if the circumstances he describes arrive tonight, we shall continue to vote to express our wish that the social chapter should provide benefits to Britain and to Britain’s work force, which has nothing to do with ratification of the Maastricht treaty, as the Prime Minister knows full well.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman becomes more ludicrous by the intervention. By that time, the amendment will have been lost. The party that talks about the will of the House, within seconds of having seen that amendment lost, would seek not to vote with the logic of its argument. How like a Liberal. Usually it takes a day for them to change their minds; this time it is rather quicker.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. If he thinks back to the story of the young boy fishing, does he recall that not only is an eel “one that wriggles”, but that eels are excessively slippery? [Laughter.]

The Prime Minister: This is becoming more fun than I had imagined.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Does my hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding what might happen if we were to adopt the social chapter, this country’s experience with the European Community has taught us that it has many ways of destroying jobs? That is shown by the fishing industry, which is practically on its knees, and by the meat processing industry–the latest to be decimated by European regulations.

During all the years that I have run a small business and other firms have come to me with their problems, European regulations have consistently destroyed jobs in this country. The idea that we will be able to control the European Community’s imposition of those regulations on employers in this country is pie in the sky, and the triumph of hope over experience.

The Prime Minister: In that case, my hon. Friend should be in the Lobby against the social chapter this evening. As a small business woman, my hon. Friend will know that 60 per cent. of our exports go to the European Community, and that a massive amount of inward investment comes to every part of this country partly because of our membership of the European Community.

Let me turn directly to the social chapter. Through qualified majority voting–not unanimity–the Community would have the power to determine social and working conditions. The social chapter would allow the Community to restrict part-time work, whether or not we agreed in this House. It could set a rigid framework for rules and conditions of employment, which would replace the rules developed in this country, and few areas, if any, would be exempt. Trade unions across Europe could forge deals and translate them into Community law, over the heads of individual workers and without the involvement of the British Parliament.

Mr. Ashdown rose —

The Prime Minister: I will spare the House another quotation from the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). Above all, the social chapter would mean that many who are now employed would be likely to become unemployed. Many without jobs would stay without jobs. The main right that workers would get would be the right to become unemployed.

I strongly support our membership of the Community, but I support a Community which does not intrude into areas that are properly the domain of the member states. That, I believe, is what the social chapter does. There is already concern across the House, not just on the Conservative Benches, at the Commission’s attempts to use health and safety powers for social legislation. We will oppose any abuse of those powers. We shall, if necessary, challenge the Commission’s legal base–as we are doing over the working time directive. In the social protocol, through the opt-out that I negotiated with the consent of the House and a massive majority to do so, I have preserved the right of the House to decide. Yet, in the amendment to the Government’s motion, the Opposition seek to remove that right. They are supported by the Liberal Democrats. On the social chapter, as on defence, value added tax and much else, the Liberal Democrats say one thing and do another. They change their principles from doorstep to doorstep, week to week and issue to issue.

This week, the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and for Truro (Mr. Taylor) were both parroting the facile proposition that, without the social chapter, Britain would have a sweatshop economy. Good slogan; rotten argument. The Labour party says it. So does the Liberal party, naturally. That is nothing surprising–they are usually indistinguishable, and usually both wrong.

The truth is that Britain has the best health and safety record in Europe, the best occupational pension scheme in Europe and the best system for caring for vulnerable people in Europe. Rather than talking such nonsense, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should talk to business and learn what he is talking about. Business knows that the Community must compete or contract. If we add to social costs, we will not compete and we shall contract. We shall lose jobs in the short term and the long term. The one certain impact of the social chapter is that jobs will be lost and unemployment will be worse. That is what is at stake.

Is it worth it? Go and ask our industrialists. Will it help them to grow? Will it pay high wages? Will it guarantee jobs? Ask good investors whether the social chapter will attract them to Britain. Listen to the Confederation of British Industry, the Engineering Employers Federation, the British chambers of commerce and the Institute of Directors–every single British organisation. They know that playing games on the social chapter is a dangerous game with the British economy. Everyone knows, except Opposition Members who would impose those burdens on British industry and the British work force.

Uncertainty about Britain’s commitment to the Community is damaging to the country. It would undermine our standing, our influence and our national interests. That uncertainty undoubtedly will arise if Parliament does not now implement the Act that we have approved in Parliament. It must clear the way for the treaty that I signed at Maastricht. I believe that the treaty embodies the genuine will of a parliamentary majority, not the will of a coalition of disparate minorities simply to obstruct.

As the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said : “we should not consort with people who are just completely, fundamentally anti the European Community.”

I hope that he stands by that.

During the past few years, Britain has had an increasingly strong voice in the Community. As never before, we have influenced its future direction. So long as we remain a fully committed member, we can have an even stronger voice in the future.

That does not mean accepting everything wanted by our partners. It means being in there in the Community; arguing, debating, shaping the future of our Community and carrying alliances with us. Europe is beginning to move in our direction. In France, in Germany and in Britain, a large majority looks not to a super-state, not to a united states of Europe, but to a Europe of nation states. Those states co-operate closely and enjoy a single market embracing 340 million people, but they retain their identity and sovereignty.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): My right hon. Friend will know of my strong opposition to and reservations about the Maastricht treaty. I have been greatly encouraged by what he has said about how he envisages Europe’s future and the influence that he can bring to bear on Europe from within Europe. In his speech this afternoon, will my right hon. Friend help me by assuring the House and me that this country will not move towards a single currency and return to the exchange rate mechanism as long as he is in power? Will he assure us that we in this country, who are proud of our sovereignty, integrity and place in the world, will be able to continue to have control over our foreign and security policies?

The Prime Minister: I have repeatedly said to the House on a number of occasions that I do not envisage that we shall be able to move towards a single currency–a matter on which the House makes the decisions–in anything remotely like the time scale previously set out. That is increasingly becoming the view of other people. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has said on several occasions, there is no prospect of our returning to the exchange rate mechanism in the near future, as the conditions are simply not right. I do not envisage that they will be right for some considerable period of time.

Britain’s interests demand that we play a leading part in the Community. Common sense demands that we retain the freedom of action which I secured in signing the social protocol. That is why the Government are determined to ratify the treaty I signed and to oppose last-ditch efforts to delay or distort it. It is a matter of national interest that we proceed in that fashion, and it is upon that basis that I ask the House to put aside and reject the Opposition amendment, and to adopt the motion.