European Parliament (Direct Elections)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th March 1977.

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Photo of Mr John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam 12:00 am, 25th March 1977

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on raising this subject and on the date of his doing so—the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

This Government have a responsibility to be decisive, particularly since they have the Presidency of the Council, but they are not giving that impression at the moment. The success of any proposals for direct elections will depend on the good will of hon. Members on this side.

My hon. Friend felt that we were the only member of the Community out of step. After two years as a member of the European Parliament, at times I share his view. Too often, because of our economic troubles, fellow members of the Community, especially Germany, have regarded us as a millstone around the necks of the economies of their electors. They have often felt that politically, under the leadership of this type of Government, this country has been dragging its feet.

During my two years in Parliament I have seen the need for us to give a lead and develop the Community in the interests of the people of Europe as a whole as well as in our own. Perhaps it is a task of Government to underline the advantages to the British people and to the Community of such a lead—particularly in view of the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).

The House of Commons takes seriously its rôle in the Community, but, as I have said already this week, in our system of a Scrutiny Committee and Select Committees we have been more assiduous than any other member of the Community.

Some people have asked me whether I am still as dedicated to the European ideal as I was 20 years ago when I entered the House and toured the Community. My answer is that, in the interests of the people of Europe and of this country, I am.

The Community has its difficulties—sometimes the relationship between the Commission and the Council of Ministers is difficult, but the "elite", as they have been described, in the European Parliament want to make it work better. Confrontation politics may have been too much a feature of this country. Such an approach does not pay. I welcome anything that makes the institutions stronger and better.

In contrast to the early part of this century, industrial, commercial and professional people at all levels—particularly scientists and engineers—are now coming together in the fields of technology, science, development and research. The Economic and Social Committee brings qualified people together in a third Parliament. Forty years ago, the nations of Europe were in conflict.

In the East, we look to our relationship with the Soviet Union on subjects like human rights, the Helsinki Agreement and detente. A common foreign policy for the Community is surely stronger. Across the Atlantic, we must consider the relationship between the industries of the Community and the supremacy of the United States. One can compare the patent royalties flowing to the United States from the Community with what we ourselves earn in the Community.

This joint relationship and approach may be developed over landing rights for Concorde. France and Britain can make their views known, but with the help of other EEC countries we can better influence the United States. Next week, indeed, I shall be discussing in the Energy and Research Committee of the European Parliament the problem of air traffic control arising out of the Zagreb air disaster. It is essential to attempt to achieve over the skies of Europe the uniformity which has been achieved in the United States. Surely, it is better for Parliaments, Governments and experts to come together than to be in conflict.

I believe that the European ideal is worth fighting for, and I look to a Commission controlled by a Parliament which can look to the East, to the Soviet Union, which can perhaps deal with trade with Japan and can recognise our relationship across the Atlantic with the United States.

There have been references to the common agricultural policy, and I relate that to regional policy. There is now a theme, a policy throughout the Community, especially after the oil crisis, that we should be more independent of the rest of the world and not be so vulnerable through our need to import oil and materials. There is, therefore, a relationship between regional policy and agricultural policy, and it is connected as much with employment and the balance of payments as it is with the interests of the farmers. In this respect, we have in Commissioner Gundelach an excellent representative.

I have already touched on the technological aspects and co-ordination of research in many projects. One has in mind here, for example, reactors— I recognise that there are environmental problems— new sources of energy and the JET programme. In such projects, combined effort and a bigger central budget properly watched will give the whole of Europe better results than the efforts of nine nations in nine different ways, perhaps out of tune with one another.

Parliamentary pressures, therefore, are all-important, pressures exerted by people who can give their time to being in the European Parliament. I am concerned for the better working of the Community as such, and I am concerned therefore for the better working of its Parliament. There have been references to the Council of Ministers. I must say that at times I find a certain disdain as well as a lack of continuity in the Council of Ministers, and this is a source of concern which I hope to see removed as the years go by. I believe that the system under which a nation holds the presidency for only six months— Britain has the presidency now— is a bad system, and I should like to see some such arrangement, such as the chairman of each Council committee coming from the Parliament for the life of that Parliament. But it is too early yet to discuss that. The whole structure of the Council of Ministers needs improvement, and I believe that that could be better done by pressure within the European Parliament than by pressure from the National Parliaments.

For too long, one has felt that the Commission has been uninhibited because the European Parliament has been too weak. But that Parliament has now asserted its right over the budget, It is becoming stronger, and it must go ahead more rapidly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk) and other hon. Members have spoken of the dual mandate. If there had been a General Election here at this time, perhaps announced next week, there would have been British Members of Parliament wondering whether to go to Brussels, to Rome or elsewhere. There have been of late many elections among the Nine, and there have been times when committees and meetings with Commissioners and others have been sparsely attended because Members from other countries of the Nine have had to go back to their own constituencies or to win elections to their own Parliaments.

There has been reference to the fact that, until five o'clock or 5.15 last Wednesday, there was a debate on the common agricultural policy and on agriculture matters generally at the Luxembourg Assembly. Of course, the procedure there is a little haywire, but there were parties there—perhaps the French and the Germans—who may well have been interested in leaving the latter votes until nearly all the British had returned to deal with one of their own crises. Therefore, the dual mandate has limitations if the Parliament is to work effectively.

Turning to the Minister's comments although he has been questioned on this I am not certain what we are going to see in the White Paper and how Parliament will devise a motion so that the Government can decide what sort of system to use after the debate. That will need clarification.

Turning to the number of seats, under the agreement in the Community, England has been given 66 seats, Scotland eight, Wales four and Northern Ireland three. Perhaps those figures are tentative and perhaps there will be a change—