I rise with some trepidation having heard some eloquent contributions, but this is the first opportunity that I have had to speak in the House for five years. I return here to represent the beautiful constituency of Somertom and Frome, which has all the charm and characteristics of rural Somerset and a great display of historic churches in whichever village one cares to visit. The constituency has not been immune to the difficulties of the recession or the problems that face the rural community.
I should like to digress for a moment and put on record the depth of feeling that I have for my former constituency of Newport, West and its people. The past 10 years have been a period of regeneration for south Wales and for Newport. It has been a success story, but with some mixed fortunes along the route. I now represent Somerton and Frome. That has been a life-long ambition because I was born and grew up in Somerset and I have always wanted to represent it in Parliament.
I pay great tribute to my predecessor, the honourable Robert Boscawen, who served in the House for nearly 22 years. His contribution was recognised again and again on the doorstep in the election campaign, when I met people whom he had managed to help in one way or another across the length and breadth of the constituency.
Bob Boscawen was also extremely well known in the House. He served in the Whips Office for well nigh 15 years and he was well versed in the murky waters of the usual channels. I know the esteem with which he is held in the House and we all wish him well in his retirement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan-Smith) on his excellent, eloquent maiden speech. The return speech is no maiden, so I am not bound by any constraint to steer away from controversy—not that that precedent is necessarily being followed. The only comment I have—it might be applicable to several speeches that I have heard—is that there may be an element of divergence between what I have to say and what has been said by others.
The treaty that we are discussing is the work and success of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. It is the result of skilled and difficult negotiation—a negotiation that has already been approved by the House. I do not see that anything has changed between the time the House approved that negotiation and now. When we are debating the treaty. I hope that, after all the words, the House will approve overwhelmingly the Bill that endorses the treaty.
That is not to presuppose that the Maastricht treaty does not raise important issues—of course it does, and many of them have been aired tonight. It is and will be neither the beginning nor the end of the debate about the development of the European Community. That debate will continue in this place and well beyond it for many years because the process of institution building in Europe has always been, and always will be, consensual. That has been the key to progress in the past 20 years, just as it will be henceforth. Rapid acceleration, which some of our colleagues on the continent want, would be a dangerous course to pursue at this stage. I urge caution on those who, flushed with the heady wine of Maastricht. think that the agreements that have been reached can be moved forward rapidly in the next few months.
In urging a moderate pace, I do not argue that we should move as slowly as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) would like. Far from it. Rather, I echo the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), because the outstanding priority now is to work to complete the single market. That is what business men in my constituency, both those who trade in Europe and those who have plans to trade in the wider European market, want to see achieved.
In the months ahead, we must also deal with vital issues connected with reforming the common agricultural policy, which is important to farmers in my constituency. They too are business men and strongly believe that they deserve an opportunity to compete on a more even playing field.
Maastricht has given us an opportunity to tackle those issues, not to go off—as some wish—towards a Euro Disney fantasy world. The European Community should be seen as a family of nations. That is precisely what it is and what it will inevitably grow into, which is why there is no reason to delay the accession of Austria and the other EFTA countries into the EC beyond the period that has now been set. The newly emergent nations of eastern Europe must not be made to feel that the removal of the iron curtain has been replaced by a tariff curtain. The countries of western Europe owe it to those countries to make them feel that they have a place in a democratic and capitalist Europe.
The notion of perfect harmony first and expansion later is dangerous, for if it is pursued it will divide Europe unto itself. Edmund Burke said in a letter to the sheriff of Bristol:
Between craft and credulity the voice of reason is stifled.
We must ensure that that does not happen as we seek to develop the European Community in the next few years.
The Community needs to grow up as well as out, which is why it is so important to tackle the definition of "subsidiarity", as the treaty starts to do. I attended a conference in Europe called purely to discuss this. We are all using the word frequently, but it is an ugly word in the English language and has a different meaning, depending on which nationality one is talking to.
That is why it is so important that the Maastricht treaty has put the definition of "subsidiarity" right at the top of the agenda. After all, it should be about pushing down to nation states decisions that have, in certain circumstances, been taken from them. At the same time, certain other decisions are given up to Europe. Those are in the process of discussion and include the negotiation of a single currency, which is clearly highlighted in the treaty. My right hon. Friends have wisely succeeded in the negotiations securing the right for this House to decide at a later date whether we should move to a single currency.
European institutions require democratic accountability, and we must never lose sight of that. I believe that the treaty takes a step in that direction as it gives additional powers to the European Parliament, but it is a timid step. That issue will come to the fore in future negotiations, of that I am absolutely certain.
If we give our people the impression that they are being governed by unelected bureaucrats from Brussels, we will create and store up future dangers for the Community's development due to the political forces that will be unleashed. If we act sensibly and make further progress and development, those forces will be contained.
The most important challenge facing the Government is the British presidency over the next six months which can set the tone for the European Community to move forward in a steady, cautious and consensual fashion. I have no doubt that, under the leadership of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary during the next six months, that is precisely the course that will be taken.