HC Deb 27 November 1996 vol 286 cc323-5
7. Mr. Sheerman

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the latest progress with the intergovernmental conference. [4592]

Mr. David Davis

The intergovernmental conference is progressing extremely well.

Mr. Sheerman

That is very good news indeed. Would it not be better, however, if we had a positive message for our colleagues in Europe that the British Government saw Britain at the heart of Europe? It should be made clear that we mean that and are not just using it as a throw-away line. Is the Minister aware of the recent remarks of the chairman of BMW, who said that the company's decision to invest in the midlands was connected not with our opt-out from the social chapter but with the fact that Britain was seen as a partner in Europe in the coming years? He expressed the view that Britain should sign up as soon as possible not only to the social chapter but to economic and monetary union.

Mr. Davis

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, we do have a positive vision of Europe. Britain wants a decentralised and deregulated Europe which will succeed where it has failed for the past 10 or 15 years—in creating employment. Unlike virtually all the other countries in Europe, Britain has done that extremely well. The hon. Gentleman cites BMW. That company brought that investment to Britain, not to any other European country. It came here, presumably, because of the industrial and labour market environment that we have created in the past 15 years. Many German and other industrial leaders around Europe are clear in their minds that Britain is the best place to invest in Europe. In Jacques Delors' words, Britain is an investors' paradise.

Mr. Wilkinson

Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether there will be any change in the Government's attitude at the intergovernmental conference, following the deposition by the permanent representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union of a protest arising from the imposition of the working time directive on this country? Will it be business as usual at the IGC, and will the working time directive become part of the acquis communautaire?

Mr. Davis

It is not our intention that the working time directive will stay as a part of the acquis communautaire. We have stated clearly that there are two requirements for the IGC to make progress: one is that the directive be disapplied to the United Kingdom; the other is that the loophole created by the directive in the social chapter opt-out be removed. The first stage of that was achieved by tabling our proposal that the health and safety article—article 118(a), as my hon. Friend knows—should be subject to unanimity.

Mr. Gapes

Can the Minister say whether the Government agree with the Foreign Office official who was quoted last week in the press as saying that the approach adopted to the working time directive issue would not work because that is not the way things are done in negotiations in Europe? He said that one must give away something before agreement can be reached, so to remove the working time directive we would have to give something up. What would we give up in its place?

Mr. Davis

At the last negotiation we gave the social chapter opt-out and, in the words of the Prime Minister, until one deal is lived by, it is hard to see another being offered.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

Why do we not tell our European partners that, until we get a real social chapter opt-out and the working time directive is removed, we shall veto their stability pact? Would that not show that we are serious about stopping the European Community undermining our competitiveness? If we leave it until next year's intergovernmental conference and until after the general election, will it not look as though we are making slightly empty gestures?

Mr. Davis

I thank my hon. Friend for his negotiating advice, but I do not believe that that is the right way to progress the matter. The issue lies at the heart of the IGC. It arose out of the last IGC at Maastricht and it must be dealt with in that context. We have made it clear that there are a number of considerations and conditions to take into account before the European Union can transform itself after the next IGC. We shall not allow it to go forward until the matter is dealt with. That is not an empty gesture: it is a very clear statement of policy, from which we shall not deviate before or after the election.

Mr. Robin Cook

If the Minister believes that the IGC is proceeding very well, why do the Government propose to veto it over the 48-hour directive? Is he aware that a recent poll shows that 78 per cent. of the British public favour people not being forced to work more than 48 hours?

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Weasel words.

Mr. Cook

They are not weasel words—they are the views of the British people. Some 90 per cent. of British people want the right to paid holidays. Is it not time that Britain was represented in Europe by a Government who serve the interests of 56 million British people rather than a handful of Tory Euro-sceptics?

Mr. Davis

I am interested to note that the right hon. Gentleman, like his party, follows the opinion polls carefully. However, he should also examine the questions put in opinion polls. When people were asked who should make that decision, 70 per cent. of the population said that it was a decision for the British Government arid not for Brussels.

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