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Orders of the Day — European Assembly Elections Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1977.

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Photo of John Prescott John Prescott , Kingston upon Hull East 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

I shall leave hon. Members to read the record of that Assembly debate and to draw their own conclusions. If I am wrong there is time before the debate ends tonight for me to be corrected.

There is a distinctive difference between an Assembly and a Parliament. Various hon. Members have spoken of the European Parliament when they mean a European Assembly. To me a Parliament is a legislative body, and by definition, as was pointed out by the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), the body we are now concerned with is an Assembly. Parliamentarians have ascribed to that Assembly the title Parliament, and that is one of the dangerous illusions that may become accepted as a fact as we proceed towards direct elections. The hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) argued that there was little legislative power available for the establishment of a Parliament and he asked therefore why people were afraid of this body bringing a federal Europe into being.

I have always been opposed to the development of a federal Europe, and that opposition is shared not only by so-called anti-Marketeers. Therefore, to that extent, let me enlist the aid of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) and what he said in 1971. Of course, times change and so do the speeches. My right hon. Friend said that when Europe went federal there would be an elected Assembly for the whole of the EEC. I assume that that meant that a Parliament might be created with the establishment of a federal Europe. That is probably correct. I am not against elections to a Parliament, but they are distinctly different from elections to an Assembly.

I speak today on the basis of two years' experience in the Assembly. That experience confirms for me that it is an Assembly in the full consultative sense of the word, and that it is not a Parliament. It has no powers beyond the powers of being able to reject the budget or dismiss the Commission. Conservative Members have put down a motion to censure the Commission, but a censure motion such as that is rather like the hydrogen bomb. Everyone is reluctant to use it. When it has been used no one has scored a direct hit. Censure motions have proved to be miserable failures, and therefore the argument that they are an effective sanctioning power is not supported by experience.

On another occasion the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) suggested that these were the levers of power of the sort that led to the establishment of a Parliament, and that the next step was to establish authority. This is bound up with the moral authority which it is suggested direct elections will give to the Assembly.

Any proposal to develop a federal Europe—and I stress that I am against that—has at its heart the essential prerequisite of economic and monetary union. This includes a common decision-making body, a central bank with a single currency, the free movement of capital and labour and the harmonisa-tion of taxes and so on. Those are the objectives that supporters of the European Federalists' Movement have set themselves.

Clearly, those who believe that all that could be achieved by 1980 must have been living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Economic circumstances have changed considerably in the last few years, and events have moved against harmonisation and economic and monetary union. This was recognised by the late Tony Crosland when he addressed the Assembly upon Britain's assumption of the presidency of the Council of Ministers. He said that we were beginning to witness economic divergence not convergence, the latter being essential for economic and monetary union. He said that divergence increased the disparities in the standards of living and economic performance of the various countries concerned.

If one accepts, as I do, that our economic problems are not of a cyclical nature but are much more fundamental, and that they are equally evident in other countries with central economic and monetary systems, one is forced to accept also that those countries have been unable to deal with the central problems of unemployment and inflation.

This explains why the Tindemans proposals for a half-way house—a two-tier Europe—have been rejected by the Council of Ministers and the Assembly. I thought that when I first went to the Assembly I would be arguing against a federal Europe. However, I discovered that everyone wanted to forget Tindemans because it highlighted the reality that, with some nations getting richer and others getting poorer, the half-way house concept created far more political problems than the European problems it was designed to solve. One could therefore argue that the collapse of the Tindemans proposals has seen also the collapse of the timetable for progress towards economic and monetary union for this decade. If one accepts that divergence, and not convergence, is taking place, clearly, as Mr. Crosland said, it may prove necessary for individual countries with similar problems to desynchronise some of their harmonisation.

I hope that the House can understand why I deploy this economic argument. It is central to consideration of what the Assembly will control. A Parliament controls a nation's economic affairs. That is what we seek to do in this Parliament. If we are to expect a European institution to deal with problems at a European level, we must consider whether it has the necessary basic legislative powers before we endow it with the moral authority which it must have to control those events.

In the debate in Luxembourg yesterday, in which I took part and made some of these comments, both Presidents Jenkins and Simonet reiterated their desire for direct elections so that Europe could deal with the problems that it faces. They believe that the election of Members will give moral authority and political support to the Assembly to deal with these economic problems and their grave political and social consequences.

What are those immediate problems? There is the global problem of inflation and unemployment. But there are also industrial problems—shipbuilding, steel and textiles—with which Europe has to deal. We have too much capacity in these basic industries. Britain has tried to reduce its capacity in steel production. Europe wants to do it at a European level.

Somewhat ironically, for someone who believed in the import restriction solution—we were called the supporters of siege economy during the referendum— it comes hard to discover that we have embarked upon European protectionism. I do not know what the difference is between European and national protectionism. The argument may be that with European protection it is more effective, but that was not the argument in the referendum. The argument was that import restrictions and protectionism were not acceptable solutions.