HC Deb 26 October 1994 vol 248 cc891-4 3.31 pm
Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to secure effective democratic control of the European Community by repeal of the European Parliamentary Elections Acts and by making provision for representatives to the European Parliamentary Assembly to be drawn from the membership of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

I gather that the chances of winning the first prize in the national lottery are about 14,000,000:1 and the chances of this Bill becoming law are not much better. That is a shame, because it is a modest Bill—indeed, I would describe it as being one of extreme moderation. It does not seek in any way to reduce the powers of the European Parliament. It does not even seek to reduce the enormous costs of the European Parliament, even though we could point out that it costs almost £1 million for each Member of the European Parliament, compared with a mere £260,000 for each Member of this House.

My Bill does not even seek to tell other nations how they should select their Members of the European Parliament. It would apply the principle of subsidiarity to the way in which each nation chooses to select its MEPs. It would allow us to return to the indirect system that worked so well before 1979 whereby Members of that assembly were appointed from the House and, if I recall correctly, from another place.

I understand that the Bill might cause some problems for the Whips Office. Naturally I am sorry about that. I also understand that sometimes we would be deprived of the presence of some of our colleagues. I am sorry about that, too. Those are matters of deep regret, but we would have to bear them with fortitude, knowing that our colleagues from both sides of the House were in Brussels or Strasbourg exercising their democratic muscle on our behalf.

Some might say that the burden would be too much for already highly overworked Members of the House, but surely in practice, with some of the modest allowances which I understand are available for administrative and secretarial help, it might be no more of a burden than that already borne by some who are members of certain Select Committees or delegates to the Council of Europe or, indeed, both. The advantages would be great indeed.

It is complained that MEPs are out of touch with Westminster. Under my proposals that would be overcome at a stroke. It is complained that Westminster is out of touch with the European Parliament. That, too, would be overcome at a stroke. It is complained that MEPs, with their enormous constituencies, cannot help but be out of touch with their electors. That, too, would be overcome at a stroke.

Some uncharitable Opposition Members might think that my proposals are sour grapes because we lost rather a lot of seats at the latest European elections.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

That is the reason.

Sir Roger Moate

That is wrong. That is not the reason at all. If the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) will reflect for one moment, he will realise that next time round—if we still have such elections—we will win them all back again and many more besides. So, the suggestion is not so outrageous—that is if my Bill fails and we continue to have direct elections.

In his speech at Leiden in September, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—his words are very important and might even appeal to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—said: The European Parliament sees itself as the future democratic focus for the Union. But this is a flawed ambition, because the European Union is an association of States, deriving its basic democratic legitimacy through national parliaments. That should remain the case. People will continue to see national Parliaments as their democratic focus.

My right hon. Friend also stated: Another clear message is that European people retain their faith and confidence in the nation state. How right he was. Even the most ardent European integrationist or federalist must understand that there is a serious problem and that something has to change. The intergovernmental conference in 1996 is the time to change it.

What was the turnout in our European elections this year—36.2 per cent? What was it elsewhere in Europe? On 24 July, The Observer newspaper stated the case well: The proportion of Europe's citizens who vote in European elections has dropped steadily since the first poll in 1979, when almost two-thirds of the electorate did its duty. This year the official result of 56.5 per cent. was achieved only because voting is compulsory in Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg. Those who did vote were in most cases commenting on national politics rather than saying anything about Europe.

How much more remote, irrelevant and unintelligible will it all be when we proceed to greater enlargement of the Community, which is moving inexorably ahead? There are 567 Members of the European Parliament for the present Community of 12 nations. It will soon rise to 15 or 16 nations when the European Free Trade Area nations join, as I fervently hope that they will.

Most people would accept the inevitability and desirability of early enlargement to the east, incorporating Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic countries and Slovenia. All those countries are candidates for membership and perhaps for early membership. Other people talk of the possibility of Turkey, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta becoming members of a greater European Community. How unintelligible that supposedly directly elected and democratic Assembly will be for a Europe on such a scale.

As we all know, democratic elections are much more than a means of conferring some form of theoretical legitimacy on Governments. Such elections are about the power of people to change Governments, or the threat of that power changing policies. The voter and even the largest of national groupings within a nation are impotent in a Europe-wide poll. That sense of impotence will only grow as the Community grows. The sense of irrelevance is the real judgment on the fatally flawed and failed experiment of direct elections.

In 1996, if we change the treaty to allow each nation to choose its method of sending MEPs to the Assembly, I do not believe that we will be on our own. I hear that a strong body of opinion in France, which is well rehearsed in the French Assembly, would support the proposal. Other nations—especially the new members—would see the logic of that approach. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that he will be ready to say no to proposals in Europe which are against British interests. I thank heaven that it is him and not the leader of the Opposition who will lead Britain into those 1996 negotiations. The latter has made it clear that he will never say no to Europe. His route and that of the Opposition—a single currency and the social chapter—will inevitably lead to a federal and centralised Europe. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that ours is the route to a Community of sovereign nation states. I suggest that my Bill fits logically and completely into that pattern.

3.39 pm
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)


Madam Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Kennedy

Yes, Madam Speaker.

In opposing the Bill of the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate), I pay tribute to him on one basis.In the week following the summer recess when the Government have been displaying a new cohesion and unity of purpose and getting their act together, the hon. Gentleman has once again highlighted the deep divisions and disarray within the Conservative party on the fundamental issue of Britain's future in Europe, and what its correct role and relationships should be.

I shall make a number of brief points. The first, and most fundamental, is the fact that we are in the run-up to the 1996 intergovernmental conference. That conference—it has been called "son of Maastricht"—will be the proper forum in which all the relationships, power structures and representative tiers within the European Union shall be reassessed and, in many cases, recast. I would suggest that, logically, this is not the way in which to make such a fundamental change.

Secondly, it is illogical to proceed in the way in which the hon. Gentleman seeks. The aim of the Maastricht treaty to which the Prime Minister—in whom the hon. Gentleman has such apparent confidence, which the Prime Minister will be grateful to have noted—put his name is that we go precisely in the direction in which we are moving, albeit slowly, towards making the various levels of responsibility in decision-making at Union level more representative and more accountable. Many of us believe that we should be going much further than that.

The central problem in what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is the belief that we can get greater accountability and democracy for the European Union by giving more power back to national Parliaments as a means of trying to scrutinise. That is the fundamental and honourable difference between us. We argue that the approach that we should take to the European Union is to give more, not less, power to the European Parliament and to the elected Members of the European Parliament. They are best able to hold the Commission to accountability, not the behind-closed-doors, secretive Council of Ministers, over which national Parliaments have nothing like the degree of scrutiny or accountability and where a report back on accountability by a Minister at the Dispatch Box is, as we know, ludicrous. It would be much better if we had a more congressional system at European level, and if the power for that congressional system was vested in the European Parliament itself.

On all those bases—and although I pay tribute to the fact that here is a fresh example of complete Conservative disunity and disarray—the House should do the Conservative party a favour and defeat one of its Members who is seeking to cause even more problems for his Government.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Roger Moate.