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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 Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

I shall try to be somewhat briefer than was the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), because I know that other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

Some extravagant statements have been made in the House in the last half-hour, and there are two with which I should like to deal. One was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser). He suggested that those of us who favour the unity of Europe can be likened to Hitler or Napoleon. In my view, Hitler would have had far less chance to plunge Europe into war if in the 1930s there had been the same European Community as we have today.

The second statement with which I should like to deal is the imputation by the hon. Member for Penistone that tonight the House should reflect the opinion of the country. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that far, but my view of the opinion of the country is somewhat different from his. However, I find such a claim astonishing, coming, as it does from the Labour Benches, when the Labour Government's policies have been repudiated by public opinion in the last year in every test of public opinion. We have only to recall the by-elections at Walsall, Workington and Ashfield, and we shall shortly have the result at Saffron Walden. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman was extravagant in his claim that he reflects public opinion, because he does not.

I support the Bill, and I shall say briefly why. I have lived a great deal of my life overseas, and I believe that the weaknesses of Europe have arisen from the divisions within our Continent. I have seen this Continent, of which I am proud to be a member, incapable of influencing the pattern of events in Africa or the Middle East. I have seen this continent unable to take decisions on great issues of war and peace, which to a great extent are decided in Washington and Moscow. The time has come when Europe must recover its strength so that our influence in the world may once again be effective. I know no way in which that can be achieved by the European people, including the British, unless there is European unity.

I support the Bill because I believe that the European Community, whatever view one takes of it, for or against, is one of the greatest and most imaginative political ideas of my generation. My generation is old enough to have come in at the end of the Second World War. I believe that Europe is an inspiration to very large numbers of people, and this point has been totally missed by many hon. Members in this debate.

I believe that the European Community ideal is far from being fulfilled, and that to some extent it has lost its impetus and perhaps its direction. It has become bureaucratic in many areas, particularly in agriculture and energy, in which the Commission has done badly, but I do not believe that the criticisms which rightly can be levelled at the Community and the Commission are any reason to run away or to quit. They are reasons for seeking a new initiative and impetus—and that new impetus will come with direct elections to the European Parliament.

Another reason is that I served for four years in the Council of Europe, as did the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). No doubt he will agree that they were interesting years but that the Council of Europe is a European talk-shop and frustrating for one reason above all else—and that is that it lacks the authority that its Members require. The European Parliament will obtain the authority that is needed to validate the work of its Members only when it has the authority of direct elections.

I want the European Parliament to have greater authority. It should have more authority over the budget and over those pan-European questions that are larger than those that can be dealt with by any single national Parliament. It is absurd to say that energy policies across the whole of Europe can be dealt with exclusively in national Parliaments. Some matters transcend frontiers and are pan-European and transnational. Only a European Parliament elected on a European basis could deal with those questions.

I now come to the details of the Bill. I much prefer the first-past-the-post system and I shall strongly support that system throughout our debates. I confront—as I suspect many other hon. Members do—a number of dilemmas. Although I vastly prefer the first-past-the-post system, I should rather have any system than no Bill, and I may well have to face that dilemma. I also want to see direct elections in 1978, but, because of the delays, the choice that many of us may face may well be between a system that we dislike but elections in 1978, and a system that we prefer but elections in 1979. I hope that that choice will not come, but I believe that it will and I have not yet reached a conclusion on it.