European Assembly (Directelections)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th April 1977.

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Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley Sidcup 12:00 am, 20th April 1977

I welcome the fact that the Government have published this White Paper. It is absolutely right that they should set out the options. Also, I am glad that we are having this debate on the motion for the Adjournment. I hope that when the debate ends on Monday there is no possibility of the Government putting down a motion on which we can vote. It would not be right for the House to take a vote on this matter at this time.

I think that the Government are absolutely right about coming to a firm conclusion on Northern Ireland. For the rest, I know what a heavy burden the Foreign Secretary has carried since he took up his office, particularly in the last 10 days. But I do wish that he had taken a more positive and forward-looking view rather than appearing to fight a long rearguard action on the question of federalism. I have long believed that whether we have a federal organisation or con-federalism, this is not the argument here.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we shall develop our own institutions to meet our own needs. That is what is happening now. I do not think that when the founding fathers began the EEC they thought that the Commission would become a Government. They could not have believed that Europe would accept a non-elected body as a Government. But they though that the Commission could provide proposals on which elected Ministers could take decisions, and amend or reject them. They set up a machinery by which the system could be made to work.

If we look at how the system has developed over the last five years, we see that in 1972 the Heads of Government came together for the first time and planned to meet the second time in 1976. However, they had to meet in 1973 because of the oil crisis, and then they agreed to have meetings every six months. Now the meetings are held every four months. This is an example of the organisation developing in a way that was not allowed for in the Treaty. But it is functioning and it would be impossible for the Community to work without it.

After this debate speedy action is required. Those who are trying to delay and procrastinate are wrong. I am reminded of 1973 when this House wanted to make a change in Northern Ireland. A major White Paper was published on 20th March, the legislation was law by the end of May and the elections took place on 13th June. That included a change to an electoral system of proportional representation. When this House makes up its mind to achieve something it can be done, and done quickly. I hope that the Government will give a lead from now on.

I have great sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), who spoke of the technical problems facing us in deciding on the system by which the elections will be pursued. It is due to the limitations of the House's procedure that if there are four main options open to us on which the House wants to take a decision, there is a problem how we can vote on them. This is a reflection on the procedures of the House. There is no device by which we can take decisions on alternative proposals. We can have one vote on an alternative and if it is carried a substantive motion is overruled. If it is defeated the substantive motion is then carried or defeated. There are two options only. The Government should devote their mind fairly speedily to the question how the House can be given an opportunity of taking decisions on up to four options on the electoral system required.

We shall not be excused for delaying. Other countries have been cited as possible members who are not prepared to take part, but that excuse is no longer open to us. Mention has been made of France, the Republic of Ireland and Belgium, but they are all prepared to take part, even if they delay. In my view, in this case we should give a lead. One of the fields in which Europe expected us to give a lead was in parliamentary affairs. Our European partners recognise that in our financial and economic difficulties we cannot come forward with proposals other than those that are in our own interests, but in parliamentary affairs we have much to give Europe.

The Community must be made democratic. I respect the views of those who thought that we should not go into the EEC, and I am glad to hear the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) say that he has accepted the verdict of the House and the referendum. We are in the Community and we are there to stay. However, I fail completely to comprehend those who accept that we are in the EEC but refuse to make that organisation more democratic by holding direct elections. One allegation of those who opposed our entry was the fact that the EEC was an undemocratic organisation. Now that it is proposed to make it more democratic these very same people are doing their utmost to stop further development.