HC Deb 18 June 1997 vol 296 cc270-7 12.30 pm
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

My purpose in calling this debate was simple. Having been unable to speak in the European debate last Monday week, I decided to try to hold one of my own. I was lucky in the ballot; and as it turns out, this is a particularly pertinent day for the debate. Yet again, this time in Amsterdam, the leaders of the EU have dragged their feet on enlargement, on which I shall say more in a moment.

This is my maiden speech and I should like to say something about my predecessor. Tony Nelson made an enormous contribution to this House. Talking to hon. Members, I have come to realise how popular he was with his colleagues. He also made notable contributions as a Treasury and then as a trade Minister. But it was while campaigning that I realised the full extent of his contribution to politics, because I met so many people on their doorsteps whom, in his quiet but effective way, Tony had helped over the years. I am fortunate to be taking over from him.

I am fortunate, too, to be able to represent Chichester. The city itself has enormous charm, not least because the restrictions on the height of new constructions have preserved the mediaeval views of the cathedral from most directions. The destructive planning zeal of the 1960s was kept at bay in Chichester.

In terms of population, the city is only a little over a quarter of the constituency, which is primarily a rural seat stretching more than 30 miles, all the way from Linchmere and North Chapel on the Surrey border to Selsey and the Witterings on the south coast. The constituency contains elegant country towns such as Petworth and Midhurst, and incorporates a great swathe of the south downs, sprinkled with some of the most delightful villages in the whole of England.

Certainly, Chichester could scarcely have been more beautiful than it was as the first pink fingers of dawn came up behind the cathedral on 2 May, soon after the declaration. I was also reminded that one is never far from the countryside when, driving the three miles home to Bosham from the count, I disturbed deer on the road.

The need intelligently to restrain the pressure for development and more housing, and the need to conserve the beauty of the area, will no doubt be high on my agenda in the years ahead—as will the concerns of the horticultural and farming communities.

I am also fortunate to have contested Chichester, in the obvious sense that I was standing on a piece of blue ground high enough to avoid the red tide of 1 May—high enough, indeed, to send me here with a majority of nearly 10,000. But I would rather have half the majority and twice the number of colleagues.

The Conservatives were defeated not because they espoused the wrong policies. On the contrary, it was only when Labour adopted both Conservative rhetoric and Conservative policies, lock, stock and barrel—even going as far as to accept the ceilings on public expenditure, programme by programme—that it became electable. The Conservatives were defeated because they appeared divided, above all on Europe.

It is a curious fact, and a tragedy for the Conservative party, that so many of the points made on both sides of the so-called Europe divide are right. I believe that there is much to commend the commonsense approach to many of these issues of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). But there is also no doubt that a huge number of the criticisms of the EU voiced by so-called Euro-sceptics are also correct. The EU's budget is often wastefully, sometimes corruptly, spent, as successive Court of Auditors reports have revealed. Absurd and ill-thought-out regulations pour out of Brussels. EU Commissioners would do well to heed the strictures of that great free trader, Richard Cobden—incidentally, he went to Midhurst grammar school in my constituency—who said: With how little knowledge we enter upon the task of regulating the concerns of other people. As for economic and monetary union, whatever its economic merits—and there are some—the challenge of preparing for it is now bringing about a dangerous competitive deflation between France and Germany.

In the months ahead, the Government may seek to create the impression of a new and more positive policy towards Europe, but I believe that the policy, whatever the tone, will remain much the same. At Amsterdam another opt-out has been negotiated, this time on immigration and asylum—although it is dressed up differently.

There has of course been one change—signing the social chapter. I believe that that is a profound mistake, but I shall develop my reasons for thinking so on another occasion.

The social chapter excepted, I believe that the Government will be forced back to broadly the same policies as the former Government pursued on Europe. That is simply because all the logic points to them. And, despite a good deal of watering down by the Foreign Office, those policies amount to a demand for fundamental reform of the European Union. Above all, the British agenda has been, and should continue to be, to abandon the drive for federalism and replace it with a framework of close co-operation between independent states: a framework loose enough to accommodate the needs of the newly liberated states of eastern Europe.

The European Union desperately needs fundamental reform. It was created to do one job in the post-war period, and it should now be doing another for the 21st century. There were three original tasks: to create an institutional framework for Franco-German reconciliation after the horrors of the last war; to provide an economic framework of co-operation that could prevent a repetition of the economic crises of the 1930s—crises which did so much to bring about the rise of Hitler and Nazism; and thirdly, the European Economic Community, as it then was, was created to act as a bulwark against the spread of communism. It was an economic counterpart to NATO. It is worth recalling that until the withdrawal of Soviet troops from east Germany in the early 1990s, they were as close to my constituency as Aberdeen.

Today, none of these objectives is relevant to Europe's peace and prosperity. Few people believe that the French and Germans are going to start another war, or that we will be plunged into another bout of 1930s-style protection. As for the communist threat, the Soviet Union has collapsed into 16 more or less independent countries.

In my view, the great issues facing the continent of Europe in the 21st century will have little to do with those that led to the creation of the European Community. In a nutshell, there are two of them. First, there is the imperative need to restore Europe's global competitiveness. Britain may be doing better than most, but the whole continent is slipping behind the far east, in particular.

Secondly, the countries of the EU should be finding a way quickly to re-integrate central and eastern Europe in the family of western democracies. That can be achieved only by building institutions that fall short of the federal goal. Only the most lunatic Euro-federalists believe that there could be a federation from Britain to Belarus.

There is plainly an unsustainable tension between widening and deepening. The countries of central and eastern Europe have an understandable desire, for the first time in over half a century, to express their national identity, and the German objective of subsuming Germany's national identity in a wider European framework holds no appeal for them. Their applications for membership are motivated by something quite different: by the need to bolster their new-found independence, by the need for recognition as part of the family of western nations which membership of western institutions brings, and by the fear of exclusion from a zone of economic prosperity.

I believe that it is in both Britain's and western Europe's interests that wider should come before deeper. We all have a huge geopolitical stake in consolidating the stability of eastern Europe.

I speak as a convinced European but one who believes that, of all the post-war institutions, the EU is the one which has shown the least imagination in adapting to the revolutions that have swept across our continent in the past eight years. One of the saddest spectacles of all was the sight of leaders of the EU carrying on with exactly the same agenda for reform of the EC after the Berlin wall came down as the one they had been pursuing before. That is rigidity and myopia on a grand scale. How can it be that at Maastricht and still at Amsterdam the leaders of western Europe are ignoring the dramatic events taking place around them, and instead are carrying on with further bids to complete the outworn agenda drawn up in the 1950s?

The plain fact is that the challenge of completing the 1950s agenda is an act of faith for several of western Europe's leaders, particularly those whose views were moulded by the searing experiences of the last war.

Of course, there are also many practical reasons why the countries of the European Union find enlargement indigestible, among them the fear of increased competition, worries about labour mobility and concern about the cost of enlargement. It is not lost on some countries that they would be turned from net recipients into net contributors.

Real though those concerns are, none of them should be insuperable. Most of the countries of central and eastern Europe have a strong commitment to free markets and a capacity to implement internal market laws at least equal to those of the newer entrants from the southern tier.

As for the budgetary costs, those worries are also an opportunity; many of them are generated by the common agricultural policy and regional policy, both of which desperately need root and branch reform. The European budget is one of the scandals of our time.

The old agenda is also sustained by the varied but very practical objectives of some of the key players in the EC. I saw that at first hand, in my own small way. In 1990 and 1991, shortly after I left my job as adviser in the Treasury, I was sent out to try to sell the so-called "hard ECU proposal".

I well remember a lunch—a very good lunch—in the guest restaurant in the top of the Tresor. When the wine was flowing, the French official said to me, "Look, Andrew, we need EMU because that is the only way we can control the Germans. We must get our hands on the Bundesbank, and Britain must help us." French policy, moulded by three invasions in the past 120 years, is dedicated above all to the need to control Germany.

A few weeks later, I was in Rome, having another excellent lunch—there are some compensations for being a salesman for the hard ECU proposal—and I asked my host, a former senior adviser to the Italian Government, why Italy was pursuing EMU so vigorously, when it would obviously be so difficult for the Italian economy to adjust. He replied to the following effect: "You must understand, Andrew, that government in Rome is little short of a disaster. Even government from Brussels is better than this."

And the small countries have their own motives. How else could Luxembourg, with a population about the same size as that of my birthplace, Southend on Sea, obtain a vote in the Council of Ministers and even a veto on many issues?

In contrast, for most British people there never has been a big political subtext for membership; nor, like Germany, have we needed it as a badge of international respectability. It has always been seen by most in Britain simply as a vehicle for greater economic prosperity.

I began by saying that the Europe issue had a lot to do with my party's defeat at the last election. The future of the European Union, however, is not just a problem for my party or even for Britain; it is Europe's problem. I believe that the countries of Europe should discard the outworn agenda drawn up in the 1950s with an eye on the last war, which is still directing policy.

The EU should start to address the new agenda that I have outlined briefly, and it should do so quickly, instead of offering subtle protection as a reaction to the loss of competitiveness and stalling measures to delay membership to the central European countries. I saw both of those first hand when I was working for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. I fear that more stalling tactics on enlargement were in evidence at Amsterdam.

If the EU does not reform itself, it will at best make itself less and less relevant to the problems of its citizens, and at worst, the pursuit of federal conformity will threaten the social stability which the founding fathers of the EU hoped that it would underpin

. I fervently hope that this Government, like the previous one, will not shirk the task of pressing the EU to change direction and accelerate enlargement; nor should they allow official advice to conjure evil spirits from the notion of a multidimensional Europe.

It is time to discard the idea that members of the EU should move forward together on everything, or not at all. That has long been a myth, anyway. Britain's interests lie simply in being in that ring, tier or dimension—call it what one wants—which is consonant with the greatest degree of market freedom and economic prosperity.

I have given some of the reasons why the Government may face an uphill struggle in putting the case for swifter enlargement. Even if the leaders of some other countries are not prepared to address that agenda, I hope that the Government will not be afraid to use all the tools at their disposal to press their case.

Britain's huge financial contributions to the EU are a powerful lever in negotiations. Withholding those contributions may eventually have to be considered. If such a policy were to succeed in triggering reform of the EU and swifter enlargement, then 20 years of large net contributions to the Community would at last be seen to pay a dividend.

12.44 pm
Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) on his speech—an excellent speech, from its remarkably honest opening to its perceptive conclusions, as we might expect from an adviser to successive Chancellors of the Exchequer, and from a graduate of the College of Europe which, I remind the House, is of course based in Bruges.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Doug Henderson)

Where is that?

Mr. Davis

The Minister for Europe asks an appropriate question.

My hon. Friend's warnings on Europe were well informed, and eloquently and clearly expressed. They are particularly timely today, in the aftermath of Amsterdam. I commend my hon. Friend for a brilliant speech at the start, I think, of an outstanding career.

12.45 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Doug Henderson)

I begin by congratulating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I have not yet had the opportunity to do so from the Dispatch Box. I have always known that you were a measured man in your previous roles in Parliament, and I am sure that you will continue to be a measured man in your current role, and that we will all be the better for that.

I join the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) in congratulating the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) on his first contribution to the House. He said that he had hoped to speak in the Europe debate. If some of us were disappointed that we did not have the opportunity to hear him then, we were compensated today. His speech was generous to his predecessor and a thoughtful contribution on Europe. It was interesting and its content was excellent, although it contained some mild ambiguity. I may return to that, if the clock permits.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was pleased to represent a rural constituency. I am sure that he is particularly pleased that three quarters of his constituency is rural. I know how beautiful the constituency is.

I had the pleasure of responding to a maiden contribution from the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and I recalled that I had spent a little time in my late teens working in that area. I worked for British Rail for a while, and one of my jobs, to earn a little overtime, was as a train announcer at Redhill station. On occasions, I had the good fortune to read out the stations between Redhill and Bognor Regis and, if my memory serves me correctly, the train stopped at Petworth, Midhurst and other stations.

I know the hon. Gentleman's constituency a little, and of course it is famous also for its cricket ground, a fact that will be appreciated by Mr. Deputy Speaker, who takes a keen interest in such matters.

The hon. Gentleman accused our European colleagues of myopia. He is well placed to understand the way in which Europe works. The hon. Gentleman is also well placed to understand the workings of the Conservative party. I understand why he made certain comments on the day between votes on the Conservative party leadership.

I am bound to correct the hon. Gentleman on one point. If he is present in the Chamber later today, he will hear the statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend will confirm that there is no border controls opt-out by Britain in the agreement reached at Amsterdam. The treaty asserts Britain's right to control its borders—an outcome which the Conservatives failed to achieve during 18 years in government.

The hon. Member for Chichester described himself as a European. We are all Europeans because we live in Europe. The hon. Gentleman pointed to some compensation for the European way of life that had more to do with the stomach than anything else—I am sure that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden agrees with him. During my six weeks in Europe, I found it a bit of a bind at lunchtime—although I did not complain in the evenings. I have much in common with my European colleagues, but I do not like long lunches and I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings in that regard.

The hon. Gentleman showed considerable wisdom in raising several general points—I hope that time will allow me to respond specifically to the enlargement question. He will learn from my right hon. Friend's statement this afternoon that negotiations in Amsterdam identified the same crucial priorities. The hon. Gentleman emphasised the need to combat fraud. It is no longer acceptable for public organisations anywhere in Europe to permit incidents of fraud or alleged fraud and to accept them as a way of life. It is incumbent on organisations to take every step necessary to combat fraud. My right hon. Friend's statement will refer to that issue and to how Britain has taken a lead in negotiations in the past six weeks by insisting on the inclusion of a clause about combating fraud. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support on that important issue.

The hon. Gentleman was correct to state that Europe's future relies on the close co-operation of nations and that federalism is not on the major players' European agenda at present. My right hon. Friend will also identify that priority in his statement. We agree about the nature of the global environment: global competitiveness is vital to the British economy and to other economies throughout Europe.

The European Union must also address the important question of employability. Any organisation may draw up regulations to deal with individual matters—and some regulations are necessary in order to underpin basic rights—but the key issue in economic and employment terms, on which my right hon. Friend will reflect this afternoon, is making British people more employable. Politicians are not alone in recognising that fact. People employed in factories up and down the country know that their futures depend on their gaining new skills and on their companies' having good products, being competitive, adapting to new technology and breaking into new markets.

Those factors must form the core of the European Union's employment strategy. The EU must not meddle in every employment issue affecting member states, but must set out a framework in areas where it is wise to co-operate and to exchange best practice. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman identified that vital part of the EU' s employment strategy. I hope that later today his colleagues will show their understanding of the nation's needs—which I hope that the Government have recognised.

We believe that enlargement is crucial to the European Community's future. The countries of western, central and eastern Europe have witnessed many changes in recent years. The European Union has also seen many changes in the 30 years since its inception. Europe must combine its existing challenges with those that it will face in the longer term, particularly in view of the changing position in a wider Europe. Stability, security and substantial trading opportunities are crucial to Europe as a whole.

We must stage a concerted attack against crime, illegal drugs and global pollution. One country cannot solve those problems alone, and neither can the present European Union. It is in member states' interests to extend the European Union's sphere of influence to include other countries that may wish to join the Union in the near future. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the timetable in that regard: the Commission will consider the applications of 10 would-be member countries by mid-July and express its view regarding their suitability.

As the hon. Gentleman said, countries have different priorities and motivations for joining the EU. However, they will be assessed using common criteria. Parliamentary democracy must be established in any nation that wishes to join the European Union. Human rights and the protection of minorities—a hallmark of any democracy—must be guaranteed before a nation will be permitted to join the European Union. Countries aspiring to EU membership must have established market economies that are sufficiently robust to allow them a good chance of withstanding the pressures that they will inevitably face as they come into line with existing EU member economies.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Does the Amsterdam summit's failure to make any progress on institutional reform as a preparation for enlargement mean that those who wish to put roadblocks in the way of enlargement have won the day?

Mr. Henderson

My hon. Friend takes a keen interest in these matters. As I have told the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House this afternoon. While we would have liked to see more progress in establishing the European Union's new institutional framework, some progress has been made. My right hon. Friend will refer to changes that will be made before enlargement occurs. Unfortunately, we could not secure detailed agreement among the nations of the European Union about alterations to the voting system and the Commission's structure. However, a large measure of understanding was reached. I have had extensive talks with European colleagues in the past three days, and I assure my hon. Friend that they agree that the enlargement issue must be addressed. It is a case of making as many changes as we can now in order to establish a structure that will enable further changes in the future.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)


Mr. Henderson

I am sorry, I cannot give way as I must complete my response to the hon. Member for Chichester. However, I shall remember the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and give way to him generously on another occasion.

All applications for EU membership will be considered, and detailed negotiations will take place with those countries that the Commission believes are ready to enter into them. We must also keep in close touch with other nations that hope to meet the membership criteria at a later stage. EU members should assist them in preparing to make the changes necessary in order to meet those criteria.

There are many implications for the future of the existing nations of the European Union and those who wish to join it. In the time ahead, I hope that those who are truly committed to the future of democracy and to a successful, prosperous Europe of political understanding will work together to meet the challenges. I hope that they will do so regardless of the minor differences that may exist among people about local party political issues. I hope that those people will use their endeavours to meet the challenges to ensure that the enlargement of the European Union takes place. We will then achieve the success and stability that is crucial to our future.

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