It used to be a fundamental principle of the House of Commons that no House of Commons properly elected could bind a successor House of Commons. That was a fundamental part of the British people’s liberties, because they have to trust a House of Commons for up to five years to legislate and govern on their behalf, and they can do so safe in the knowledge that if we—those in government—do not please, they can dismiss us at the following general election and elect a new group of people who can change all that they did not like about the laws and conduct of government of the Government whom they have just removed. But our membership of the European Economic Community, now the Union, has increasingly damaged, undermined and overwhelmed that essential precept, which was the guarantee of our liberties as the British people, because now there are huge areas of work that are under European law and European control. So those parties that go out from this House into the general election and, for example, offer a better deal on energy, may well come back and discover that what they have offered is quite impossible under the strict and far-reaching rules on energy that now come from the European Union.
Yesterday, we did not have time to debate in the House the energy package, but within the proposals we were being asked to approve in the Commission’s work programme was a strategic framework for energy policy that, in turn, will spawn an enormous amount of detailed regulation and legislation, making energy a European competence almost completely. Therefore, more or less anything that the main political parties say about what they wish to do on energy policy during the next five years will be possible only if it just happens that what they wish to do is entirely in agreement with and legal under this massive amount of law and regulation that is partly in place already and will come forward in ever-increasing volumes under the strategic framework and further legal policy, and that is but one area.
A couple of other big areas that will be much debated in the election are welfare and border and migration policy. Again, anything that parties say in our general election has to go through the European test. Will changes in benefits that parties wish to see be legal or possible under the European Union? May we not find that we are completely bound by predecessor Parliaments because they have signed up to legal requirements under European law that make it impossible for the House any longer to control our own welfare policy?
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe encouraged me with his optimism because he said that welfare remained a national UK matter, but there is plenty of evidence that it already is not in many respects. All sorts of policies have been looked at that I am told would fall foul of European law and regulation. It is quite obvious, again, looking at the European Union’s work programme, that it will intensify its activity in this area and make it even more difficult for a national Parliament to express the wish that it wants in its laws on welfare. The same is true of border controls, where we are signed up to the free movement of peoples and that is now being ever more generously interpreted as giving the EU carte blanche and substantial control over border and migration policy throughout the EU.
We find ourselves in the position of debating today yellow cards and red cards to try to assert the will of national Parliaments, but it comes nowhere near the task that we need to undertake as we seek to reshape our relationship with the EU. Even having a red card, where national Parliaments collectively can block a new proposal, does nothing to tackle the problem that we have this vast panoply of law already agreed, sometimes many years ago, which may prevent a national Parliament from reflecting the will of its people. If we have to get all or most of the other member states’ national Parliaments to agree, that could still be extremely difficult, and an individual member state, which had an overwhelmingly strong national view on the subject, might be thwarted because it just did not happen to be something that worried the other member states.
We need to pause over this. I remember the excellent words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his Bloomberg speech. The Bloomberg speech wisely said that the fount of political authority in any European member state, but certainly in the United Kingdom, rests from the national electorate through the national Parliament, and that, I think, is still right. We see that in the recent conflicts and rows in a country such as Greece, which is under even more European control that we are by being part of the euro. The Prime Minister reasoned that this country needs to negotiate a new relationship with the EU that recognises that on really important things—I would have thought that welfare, borders and energy were really important things—if necessary, the national Parliament can assert and interpret the will of the British people. There should be some mechanism by which we can then do as we wish, reflecting the will of the people.
We see at the moment the tragedy of Greece, where these conflicts are much further advanced because the European Union is much more intrusive on a euro member than on the United Kingdom. We have witnessed some very interesting things. Those on both Front Benches need to listen to and study this very carefully, because their futures, as well as the future of our country, are very much at stake. The first remarkable thing is that in the most recent Greek general election the two former traditional main parties—the equivalents of Labour and Conservative—polled 33% between them. Those parties, until recently, alternated in government. They had got into that parlous state because whatever they wanted to do in the interests of Greece was blocked, modified or amended because, in practice, decisions were made by the euro group, the European Central Bank and the troika they came to hate. So the Greek people said, “It doesn’t make any difference which of you two we have. The socialists can’t be socialists and the capitalists can’t be capitalists. You all end up with the same euro policy that is driving the Greek economy into the mire.” The poor Greeks have lost almost a quarter of their national output since 2007. That this can happen in an advanced western country is mind blowing. Half their young people are out of work as a result of these policies.
The two main parties had nothing to offer because they either had to go along with the euro scheme in all its details or promise to disagree, but only in the full knowledge that they would not be allowed to do so and do anything different. Then the Greek people elected into government a challenger party, with no experience of government, saying that it intended to break the rules of the euro: it did not want the troika arriving and telling them how to govern their country and did not intend to accept the bank details and loan packages that had been drawn up by the previous regimes. We now see this gripping and gruelling conflict where the euro area and the EU is telling Greece, “Well, we’ve got news for you: these are the rules. We don’t mind that your electorate have just rejected it all. We don’t care that you’ve elected into government a party that completely disagrees with us. You have no power in this. You the Greek people, you the Greek Parliament and you the Greek Government have to accept these rules, because those are the club rules.”
We heard a mild version of that attitude from the shadow spokesman, Mr McFadden, when I asked him whether, on a mighty issue that matters a great deal to the British people, there should be a right for us in this House to reflect their view and legislate accordingly. He said no, there should be no such right, and we have to follow all the rules of the European scheme.
Throughout past years, when those rules related just to trading arrangements or industrial regulation, they could be irritating or vexatious, but they were not going to become game changers that mobilised the whole British people against the whole scheme of the European Union. However, when the European Union rules start to influence things that matter a great deal to people—their welfare system, their benefits system, their borders or their migration—that might start to create a much bigger reaction. When European rules and requirements have a devastating impact on an economy and employment prospects—fortunately not in this country, because we have kept out of that bit—that completely transforms the politics of that country, and we see the politics of impotence, the politics of protest and the politics of frustration.
I do not want our country to go down that route. That is why I say that we need to negotiate now, before we get to that stage, an arrangement—not just a yellow card or a red card in conjunction with other member states—for us, the United Kingdom, to say that we are still a vibrant democracy. We need to be able to say that if something matters a great deal to the British people and if it has been approved in a general election, this House can take action even if it means disagreeing with the rules of the European Union. By all means, we can try to negotiate an arrangement case by case, but where we cannot do that, we need an override—an opportunity to say, “This thing matters too much to our democracy.” If we do not have that very simple change, we no longer have in this country a successful and vibrant democracy that can guarantee stability and guarantee to deliver what the British people want.