European Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:55 pm on 5th December 2001.

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Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth Labour, Newport East 7:55 pm, 5th December 2001

Notwithstanding the heroic struggles of Commissioner Kinnock, as Vice-President, with the task of reforming the Commission, he has a job on his hands even tougher than any he had to do as leader of the Labour party.

I mean no disrespect to the European Parliament if I note that it is an immature institution, by no means capable of bearing the weight of democratic responsibility implied by the single currency. Its powers are modest. It is based on limited trust, and on shallow accountability. We in this country are not remotely ready, ideologically or organisationally, to practise democratic politics on a European scale. The remedies now proposed by the Belgian presidency to deal with the gulf that they see widening between the peoples of Europe and the institutions of the EU include cross-European political parties, further extensions of qualified majority voting, enshrining the charter of fundamental rights in EU law, and direct election of an EU President. I hope very much that at Laeken my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will explain that it is not sensible or appropriate for Britain to accept such proposals. We would do better to concentrate on learning how to make devolution work well in the United Kingdom, and on restoring our citizens' faith in this Parliament.

The Labour party was elected in Britain to carry through a social democratic programme, particularly to improve our public services. Membership of the single currency would, at least, severely hamper our efforts. We would lose the freedom to pursue the economic policies that we judged to be right. As things are now, the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England has had the freedom to cut interest rates over recent months more aggressively than the European central bank. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor's fiscal programme, which he was told by the Commission earlier this year would be out of order within economic and monetary union, looks admirably judged. The International Monetary Fund projects UK growth next year of 1.8 per cent., against eurozone growth of 1.3 per cent.

If we joined EMU, we would be members of a system whose record on unemployment—I think particularly of the loss of manufacturing jobs—has been and remains lamentable. Why should we imprison ourselves in a system locked into deflation by the remit of the European central bank, and compounded by the masochism of the growth and stability pact? Let us keep our discretion in policy making, and our capacity to configure policy to take account of our distinctive economic characteristics and social priorities. Let us not put our jobs at such risk and erode our democracy.

I greatly admire the thoughtfulness, energy, skill and courage shown by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in international affairs—not just following 11 September, but since 1997. His scope as a leader, domestically and internationally, would be diminished rather than enhanced in the integrated Europe to which the single currency leads. I do not think it appropriate or realistic for Britain to aspire to lead the European Union. It will be better if, true to our history, we continue from within a more limited—though positive—participation in Europe to preserve the freedom to act on our judgment of Britain's interests at home and abroad.