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Orders of the Day — European Communities Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th July 1972.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , Reigate 12:00 am, 13th July 1972

To that must be added—quite apart from the hours spent in questioning my right hon. and learned Friend as he reported during the negotiations—the 13 days spent since the beginning of 1971 in debating the principle of accession. I estimate that in the spread of 43 days between the beginning of 1971 and today's debate, well over two million words will have been uttered in the Chamber upon the subject-matter of this European legislation. If I may quote the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, we have subjected the Bill to unremitting examination, taking it Clause by Clause, line by line, hour after hour, day after day and night after night."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1971; Vol. 825, c. 15.] Those important facts should be placed on the record. I want now to add one more. It is that we have had altogether on the Bill a total of 94 Divisions. Of those Divisions every single one has supported the Government position, and it is that which is the real measure of support for this issue and this Bill in the House, and that, too, should be on the record.

The final theme of our Committee proceedings was the future position of Parliament. The provision of the Bill which has been explored most fully is that of the direct applicability of Community law that bears on national and parliamentary sovereignty. It is natural that Parliament should pause when presented with the proposition of direct applicability. Hon. Members opposite have repeatedly said that parliamentary control has been the crucial issue in the Committee stage of the Bill. That is the same point and it needs to be kept in perspective alongside the proposition of directly applicable Community law.

The concept of a common system of Community law, uniformly expressed, operating and enforced throughout the Community, is integral to the community system. Successive British Governments, whatever may now be said, have recognised that we must come to terms with that concept within the framework of Community membership.

The 1967 White Paper put the matter clearly. I quote from paragraphs 20 and 22: If this country became a Member of the European Communities it would be accepting Community Law….The constitutional innovation would lie in the acceptance in advance as part of the law of the United Kingdom of provisions to be made in the future by instruments issued by Community institutions—a situation for which there is no precedent in this country. It is all the more surprising in that context to see that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition returned to the false point about this that he made on Second Reading. Once again he sought to condemn the Bill because, as he put it, …it blantantly provides that all European Community law and decisions already taken, or taken at any time in the future, automatically become the law of Britain, without due parliamentary process. The right hon. Gentleman was speaking on 28th June in Vienna. Yet that is precisely what his Government said should be done. The right hon. Gentleman's Administration deserve congratulating for putting the matter as plainly as they did as long ago as 1967 in their White Paper.

There is no purpose served by pretending that there is no constitutional innovation. But, above all, no purpose is served by suggesting that direct applicability does not mean what it says. It cannot mean, as some hon. Members have argued, that we can pick and choose between directly applicable Community instruments after they are due to take effect. We cannot accept Community obligations contingently. The United Kingdom Parliament will not be the only Parliament in the enlarged Community. If six or 10 separate institutions claim the right to channel and translate Community law through their several pro- cesses, the concept of direct applicability as a single system of Community law simply falls to the ground.

It is open to right hon. and hon. Members opposite to declare that they have changed their minds and that the concept of a uniform system of Community law is no longer acceptable to them. However, it is simply not open to them to suggest that this concept is an optional extra to the basic treaties which they once accepted.

But we must keep the significance of it in proportion. Some hon. Members have sought to emphasise what they see as a loss of parliamentary sovereignty rather than to identify a change in the nature of its use. That is a fundamental misunderstanding. Loss of sovereignty implies in the first place that Parliament has been forced to accept membership of the Communities without any choice in the matter. Although the ratification of the treaty is a matter for the Crown, such ratification is simply not possible until Parliament decides to make the necessary changes in domestic law.

That decision—we are engaged in it today—is itself an exercise of Parliament's sovereignty. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh, but I do not know what else we have been engaged in if not a prolonged and necessary exercise on genuine and fundamental matters of parliamentary sovereignty for the last six months.

A decision to share power to the common advantage is an enhancement rather than a loss of sovereignty; and for so long as we remain a member of the Communities, pooling decisions in the interests of Europe as a whole rather than looking to the narrow interests of a single State, that, too, will be a deliberate and continuing exercise of national sovereignty.