HC Deb 17 December 1975 vol 902 cc1383-8
29. Sir A. Meyer

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what undertakings he gave at the last meeting of the European Council on preparations in the United Kingdom for direct elections to the European Parliament.

32. Mr. George Gardiner

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps he now proposes to secure direct elections in the United Kingdom to the European Parliament, following the agreement among the EEC Heads of Government in Rome.

34. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what preparations and plans will now be made by Her Majesty's Government to meet the European Council's target of 1978 for direct elections to the European Parliament; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. James Callaghan

I would refer the hon. Members to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made on 4th December.—[Vol. 901, c. 1932.]

Sir A. Meyer

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that he now has an opportunity to repair some of the consequences of the disastrous blunders that he made in his dealings with our European partners and that there is here an opportunity for the United Kingdom Government to show themselves as good Europeans and adult members of the Community at no cost in votes, and thereby to gain a good reputation? The Foreign Secretary should be aware that he will not lose his seat if he takes this further step. Will he indicate whether there has been further progress?

Mr. Callaghan

The term "good European" should be used with great care. I do not regard as good Europeans those who put forward impossible pledges that are incapable of being carried out within the time scale that is set. We have put our hands to this particular road and we shall follow it with due regard to the undertakings that we have given and with all regard to British interests in these matters.

I also suggest that the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the newspapers about these matters. There is a particular Brussels lobby that is inclined to write that everything Britain does is wrong and everything anyone else does is right. On the whole, I do not find that my colleagues take that view.

Mr. Spearing

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the statement to which he referred the Prime Minister said that in principle the Government accepted the obligation of direct elections? Does he recall that at the last December summit the Prime Minister said that this matter must await the outcome of the then forthcoming referendum? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what has changed in respect of any obligation in the Treaty of Rome between last December and this December?

Mr. Callaghan

The referendum.

Mr. Gardiner

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the last time I put a Question on this subject his right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave a reasonably helpful reply. Since then there has been the European Council meeting and the prospect that after 1978 British subjects will be second-class citizens in the European Community, in the sense that we shall be one of the few nations that are not represented by directly elected members of the European Parliament. Is the time not right for the Foreign Secretary or one of his colleagues to initiate pretty full discussions with all interested parties in this country to find out how to set about the task of directly electing our own representatives at Strasbourg?

Mr. Callaghan

I do not accept the charge that the people of this country will be second-class citizens, because it is for the House to decide whether we shall be able to secure direct elections by 1978. I have been trying to preserve the position of the House in this matter, with the result that in Brussels I am sometimes accused of dragging my feet and here I am sometimes accused of having given everything away. It is for the Government, in the light of the discussions that took place in Rome, to produce a series of questions, in the form of, perhaps, a Green Paper, to enter into discussions with the political parties, Transport House and Conservative Central Office and to have debates in this House. We are working on this now, and I hope that shortly after the House returns from the Christmas Recess it will be possible to publish such a paper. It will then be for the authorities of the House to decide how we debate it.

Meantime, in addition to and sideways with that, discussion with the parties, as such, must continue. I promise the House that I have no intention either of holding the matter up unnecessarily or of rushing it. We all fight to retain our own seats. Any politician can understand the practical difficulties that have to be ironed out in this situation, including—if I may speak from this Dispatch Box for one moment as Treasurer of the Labour Party—finding an answer to the question: who will finance these elections?

Mr. David Steel

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government's reservations about the 1978 date are ones not of principle but of practicality? If that is so, will the Minister explain why it is that we are somehow less competent than, say, the people of Italy, Ireland or any other country of the Nine in achieving the target date of 1978?

Mr. Callaghan

I find that a little difficult to answer. I believe that some of my colleagues must have much more tractable and docile Parliaments with which to deal than we have. If the House wills it, we can achieve this by 1978—I have no doubt of that. The hon. Gentleman is quite right, this is a matter of practicality and not of principle. Perhaps I could speak wearing another hat, namely, as a former Home Secretary. I do not underrate the great difficulties of setting this machinery going, and I advise the House not to underrate them. However, I shall not mind if the House says "Please hurry up. You are being too slow." That will not offend me, provided we go through the proper processes of consultation, decision and legislation.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Direct election to the European Parliament has a distinct aroma of federalism. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that if such a question is raised the British Government will oppose completely any such proposal?—[Interruption.]

Mr. Callaghan

There seem to be countervailing cries of "Yes" and "No".

Mr. Raphael Tuck

I meant federalism.

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, I heard my hon. Friend. There is no proposal for federalism now. If such a proposal should ever come forward, it would be for the House of the day to take a decision on such a matter. I do not know whether I shall still be here when the decision is taken.

Sir A. Meyer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of those replies, I beg to give notice that I shall seek an early opportunity of raising the matter on the Adjournment.

31. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions he has had with the Council of Ministers about the proposal to have direct elections to the European Parliament.

Mr. James Callaghan

Following the European Council's request for a report that would enable the text of a Convention to be finalised at its next meeting, the Council of Ministers agreed on 9th December that the Committee of Permanent Representatives should continue examination of the problem.

Mr. Marten

While not myself approving of direct elections to this European Parliament, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Green Paper that he has said might be published will contain a pretty firm statement as to the powers that any European Parliament may have, if we ever have one? Secondly, will it contain a statement that these powers cannot be increased by the European Parliament itself without the consent of each national Parliament? Thirdly, will it contain a firm commitment that the European Parliament will not commit this country to proportional representation?

Mr. Callaghan

I have not yet submitted this proposed Green Paper to my colleagues, so I have no idea of the improvements that they will wish to make to it. I would not have expected to go into the question of the powers of the European Parliament and any increase in those powers, because this is concerned with the modalities of direct elections. I have taken note of what the hon. Gentleman says. I have no desire or intention of going over to the question of proportional representation, although I understand it is being considered in other quarters.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that in the Green Paper there will be a discussion of the option whether there should be a common day for elections for the European Parliament, or whether there is an argument for having elections on the same day as a General Election in Great Britain? With reference to the last question, will my right hon. Friend say a little more on the question whether or not you, Mr. Speaker, will preside over a committee that may discuss the question of proportional representation for these elections, or some other mechanism whereby consultation with the parties can take place?

Mr. Callaghan

I do not think that I have anything to add on the last part of the question. However, on the first part, certainly the Green Paper must put forward views on the question of a single election date or a number of them. But this is one of the very few questions that will probably have to be decided, inevitably, by its very nature, by the Council of Ministers, because it will affect all nine member States, whereas the question of the modalities of the election—what kind of constituencies we have; how we run it, who can be nominated, and all the rest of it—is clearly a matter for the House to determine in due course.