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1994 - Mr Major’s Commons Statement on Qualified Majority Voting

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons statement on Qualified Majority Voting, made on 29th March 1994.


PRIME MINISTER:

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on proposals to adjust qualified majority voting in the context of the European Union's enlargement negotiations.

In the negotiations, the Government had two principal objectives. First, we wished to see the negotiations succeed, provided the terms were acceptable. We have been strong and consistent supporters of enlargement. We look forward to welcoming Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden at the beginning of 1995, provided their peoples and parliaments so decide in the referendums that lie ahead.

On enlargement, it is necessary to amend article 148 of the treaty. Without a change, the blocking minority would automatically rise to 37 votes. Our second objective was to safeguard the rights of minorities in the period between enlargement and the 1996 intergovernmental conference, and to seek a fundamental review of qualified majority voting at that conference.

We believed that there should not be an unqualified, mathematical extension of the blocking minority to 27. We were concerned that successive, unqualified extensions had weakened the democratic legitimacy of the Community. A large part of our concern stemmed from the handling by the European Commission of social measures. Article 118A of the treaty, which provides for health and safety at work, had been used as a vehicle for the adoption by qualified majority voting of measures affecting social affairs and employment. In addition, a proposal had recently been made to count the employees of multinational companies in the United Kingdom towards the threshold of the works council directive--although this measure had been brought forward under the social chapter, to which the United Kingdom is not a party. My right hon. Friend said yesterday that we were pursuing our concerns about the social affairs measures.

I can now tell the House that we have received assurances from the Commission that it will not bring forward any further proposals under the health and safety articles under its term of office except for measures directly and demonstrably relevant to health and safety at work. This means that we shall not face a repetition from this Commission of our experience over the working time directive, which we are challenging in the European Court of Justice; or over the young persons directive, which is in dispute between the Council and the European Parliament. The Commission has also agreed now that proposals under the social chapter will not embrace in any way people or organisations in the United Kingdom. For the purposes of the social chapter, the United Kingdom will be entirely excluded from legislation. This meets a particular concern that we had with the works council proposal, which the other 11 member states are pursuing.

The proposal on qualified majority voting negotiated by my right hon. Friend at the weekend meets many--although not all--of the Government's concerns. We have secured agreement that the review of qualified majority voting at the next intergovernmental conference will now include the question of thresholds. These will be reopened and re-examined, as will the number of votes attributed to each member state in the Community. [An hon. Member :-- "That was available before."] This means, as my right hon. Friend said yesterday, that there will be a root and branch review of the system. This will have to take a fundamental look at the democratic legitimacy of decision-making.

At the request of the United Kingdom and Spain, the transitional arrangements from accession until 1996 will no longer provide for unqualified extension of the blocking minority to 27. The Council is under a legal and binding obligation to seek agreement on the basis of a minority of at least 23 votes. My right hon. Friend ensured that there would be no time limit for the fulfilment of this obligation. The Commission and the presidency are required to take "any initiative necessary" to reach a solution adopted by at least 68 votes--that is to say, with no more than 22 votes against. This obligation is justiciable in the European Court of Justice. We expect it to be upheld scrupulously. Should there be any question of a breach of the obligation, we would reserve the right to take whatever action was necessary, and a number of avenues would be open to us. The first would be a legal challenge and the second would be use of the Luxembourg compromise.

The binding nature of the obligation is clearly understood by our partners, and stems from the form of the Council's decision. For example, Germany has said today that it regards the obligation as binding on the Council, and Germany has no doubt, it says, that all other member states of the Union will also fully respect these procedures.

On this basis, the Cabinet has concluded that, since we wish to see enlargement proceed, progress on qualified majority voting was sufficient to be acceptable until 1996. We are informing the presidency that, provided the concessions made to the United Kingdom and Spain are accepted without qualification by the other member states, the United Kingdom can accept this interim proposal. Enlargement will bring into the Union countries which share Britain's open trading instincts, and which will be net contributors to the budget. It will be another step towards the wider, less centralised, open trading Europe for which we have been working.

Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East): However the Prime Minister seeks to camouflage his retreat from his vainglorious assertions of "no surrender" last week, is not the plain fact that the Government have accepted a blocking minority of 27, as the Foreign Secretary was forced to admit in the House yesterday?

On the detail of the Foreign Ministers' declaration, is not his supposed triumph of obtaining a minor period of delay hopelessly undermined by the text of the declaration, which says in paragraph (c) that it is all

"without prejudice to the obligatory time limit laid down by the Treaties and by secondary Law"?

Is it the case that if, at the end of the day, agreement has not been reached, the period of delay can be terminated by a simple majority, and then a blocking minority of 27 is required? On the so-called assurances from the Commission, is there a written agreement which can be made available to the House? Can any assurances, whatever they may be, extend beyond the end of this year when the Commission's term of office expires?

Now that the Prime Minister has had to make a humiliating climbdown, will he explain to the House why the question of qualified majority voting was not raised earlier in the enlargement discussions--for example, at the Lisbon summit or at the most recent Brussels summit, where all the key decisions on enlargement were taken?

Is not the explanation for the timing and for this whole sorry fiasco that a Prime Minister, fearful of the warring factions in his own party, propelled himself into an unwise conflict, which he could not and did not win, but which has resulted in unnecessary and severe damage to friendly countries and no advantage to Britain?

The Prime Minister: A number of points which were raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman are factually inaccurate. On the question why qualified majority voting was not raised earlier, the fact is that it was raised earlier. It has been discussed during the past year and for many months between Ministers and officials, and it has not previously been agreed. But it has been discussed for a great deal of time at both official and Government level. Unfortunately, it was not possible to attain an earlier agreement.

In what he has just said, the right hon. and learned Gentleman appears to have overlooked the fact that we have achieved a series of concessions that would not have been available if we had adopted his position of accepting, without let or hindrance, 27 for all areas immediately, which is what was sought by other people. We have not achieved the maintenance of the blocking majority of 23--I would ideally have preferred that--but neither have the other member states achieved what they would have wished, because we have obtained concessions, particularly concessions that protect our most vulnerable flank on social affairs.

As for the obligatory time limit, I know that it is complex, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman has misunderstood it. That time limit relates to the European Parliament after a common position has been reached, and not during discussion among member states for reaching a common position ; the right hon. and learned Gentleman has misunderstood the point.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's simple majority point, if there were any attempt to use a simple majority to move forward to a qualified majority vote, under this agreement we would certainly be able to go to the European Court of Justice, and we would most certainly do so. I think that it is clear from what is being said by other member states that they would not be likely to go down that route. Certainly on previous occasions, they have not and they know what the impact would most certainly be.

The agreement with the Commission lasts until the end of this year, because this Commission ends at the end of this year. But I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we will certainly seek an extension under the new Commission next year, and I see no reason to suppose that we will not achieve it.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston): Will my right hon. Friend get rid of some puzzlement outside this House? In the regulations, is there some mysterious rule that says that Britain may not make her case for a particular course of action, or that, for some reason or another, it will be impossible for Britain to get enough votes on her side for a reasonable case to enable it to be adopted?

The Prime Minister: No, my hon. Friend is right that it is open to this country, as to any other country, to argue its case on areas of particular concern. We have said consistently throughout that it is necessary to safeguard certain areas of particular interest to the United Kingdom. Although, as I conceded to the House a moment ago, I would have preferred to retain 23 as a complete blocking minority until 1996, it is equally the case that there are areas of Community policy where a blocking minority of 27 suits this Government's policies more than 23. The CAP, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition says, is a case in point. Fundamentally, we are seeking a root and branch reform of both the weighting of votes and the threshold of votes and that is what we have obtained in 1996. The hon. Gentleman opposite, who during the statement was shouting that that was available before, is wrong. The agreement on thresholds was available before, but not the agreement on thresholds and weighting.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): The Prime Minister must explain to his party why he asks them to celebrate today what last week he told them was unacceptable. For my part, I welcome the fact that he has arrived at a solution--even if it is by accident--that now allows us to reform the CAP in the interests of the British taxpayer, and to admit more quickly the four new members, who will make a net contribution to the budget, and who are likely to be Britain's friends, provided we do not go on behaving as we have in the past two weeks.

No amount of clever words or verbal gymnastics can hide the fact that the Government have made a fool of Britain in Europe; that the Cabinet has made a fool of the Foreign Secretary; and that the Prime Minister has frankly made rather a fool of himself.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has clearly not understood the nature of the agreement that has been reached. If he had, he would have acknowledged the fact that the Council is under a binding agreement to aim for a basis of at least 23 rather than 27 votes when any blocking minority exceeds 22 but falls short of 27. That is likely to safeguard a number of our interests.

The right hon. Gentleman made no mention of the fact that he would have surrendered the unanimity rule. He is not prepared to fight in Europe for matters that may be of direct concern to this country--we are, as is every other Government in the Community. It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman would not support the Government in fighting for things that are plainly in the interests of the people of this country.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that this is an honourable solution to a difficult problem, which hopefully will allow the four applicant countries to join as soon as possible? Is he aware that it is important for those new countries to join before 1996, when negotiations begin at the intergovernmental conference? Is it not further important, if we are to achieve a thorough discussion of qualified majority voting, for those countries to realise what it is in this country's interests to do--that is, to make the whole of the working of the Community an important vehicle for the future? There are both the intergovernmental and the qualified majority voting sides--the totality is important for this country's interests.

The Prime Minister: We shall now have a thorough examination of both thresholds and weighting. Of course, that will also now include any of the applicant members that join the Community on 1 January next year. As my hon. Friend said, we were foremost in arguing for enlargement. I believe that that is very much in the interests not only of this country, but of the Community as well. In due course, we look forward not only to the entry of the European Free Trade Association states, but--perhaps around the turn of the century--to that of some, or all, of the Visigrad states.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool): If the figure of 27 was unacceptable to the Prime Minister in any form last Tuesday, why is it acceptable a week later?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman heard me say a moment ago that, although I would have preferred 23, 27 has always been acceptable for some aspects--reform of the common agricultural policy being a case in point. What I said last week was that we insisted on safeguarding the rights of substantial minorities, and that is what we have achieved.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East): As the tapes have reported what are referred to as "fierce denials" by the Commission a few minutes ago about the guarantees on social policy, can the Prime Minister explain who is going to decide whether a directive is relevant to health or safety? Will it be decided by the Commission or the Council, and will it be done by a majority vote?

The Prime Minister: We know what the proposed directives are, unless fresh directives that are as yet wholly unconsidered are suddenly proposed, which is not likely. We know that only two directives are coming forward that will come under health and safety legislation, and those are two that we asked for.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East): Does the Prime Minister really not realise that leadership, in the context of his enfeebled Government, requires that he be brutal with the eccentric excrescences to his right?

The Prime Minister: I am always open to receive advice but, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not always take it.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): Can I offer my warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend and the Government on achieving a most important modernisation of the Luxembourg compromise arrangements? Will he confirm that it is the determined intention of the Government to go ahead with the other member states and to develop the European Union in accordance with the Maastricht treaty?

The Prime Minister: Well, there is one serious qualification to an acknowledgment of that point--the fact that, whereas the rest of the European Union countries will proceed with the Maastricht treaty including the social protocol, we shall not. However, with that exception, we shall certainly proceed with developing the European Union, as set out in the treaty that this House passed.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney): The Prime Minister is investing a lot of trust in the European Commission as far as assurances go. Does he recall that the Commission is the most arch-federalist of all the institutions in the Community and that its President is a certain Mr. Jacques Delors--a notorious socialist, who wants to do precisely those things that the Prime Minister does not want him to do? If those assurances are as strong as the Prime Minister claimed, why do we also need a legally binding and enforceable agreement that the Community will not resort to qualified majority voting? If that qualified majority voting is challenged, surely the other European federalist body, the European Court of Justice, will decide who is right and who is wrong?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has set out very clearly precisely why we were unwilling to sign up to the proposals in front of us without the changes that we have now secured on social matters. It is precisely for the reasons that he has set out that we felt that we needed those commitments--and we have achieved them.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): As no objective observer believes that this so-called compromise has achieved anything of real value for the United Kingdom, and as, as of now, my right hon. Friend has no authority, credibility or identifiable policy in this vital area of policy, why does he not stand aside and make way for somebody else who can provide the party and the country with direction and leadership? [Interruption.]

Hon. Members: Resign!

The Prime Minister: Anybody listening to what my hon. Friend has had to say, not just today but at any time in the past two and a half years, would in no sense suggest that my hon. Friend was an objective observer of any related matters. I remind my hon. Friend that it might be a useful novelty if, from time to time, he was prepared to support the Government whom he was elected to support.

Hon. Members: More!

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Who is going to clean up the blood?

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): When all the waffle on this subject has died down, would the Prime Minister please tell me what has changed? Would he agree that, under 12 member states, 23 was 30 per cent. of the total vote, and would he agree that, under 16 member states, 27 is now 30 per cent. of the total vote? What has changed?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman is incorrect. Twenty-seven is just over 40 per cent. of the votes-- [Interruption.] --of population. When we joined the Community, the blocking minority was 30 per cent. of population; 27 is now over 40 per cent., and it is on that point that we think that in 1996 we need to change the system so that there is more democratic legitimacy for the way in which the Community reaches its decisions.

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the really good news this afternoon is that the way is now clear to go ahead with the enlargement of the Community, which must be in this country's best interests in the long term? The assurances from the Commission on the health and safety articles are important. We should not have had to fight for them, because they should not have been introduced by mismanagement and device by the Commission. My right hon. Friend will have the full support of the House in fighting against any repetition of the Commission's abuse in that way--support which he could not expect from the Opposition.

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is entirely right about our commitment to enlargement and the importance of enlargement to the European Union, both in the short and the long term. He is equally right to say that we should not have had to fight for those concessions. It is our belief that the Commission misused the treaty-based article 118A, but the fact is that we did have to fight for them, we have fought for them, and we have achieved them.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Is the Prime Minister not aware that the agreement that the Commission wanted, the Foreign Secretary supported, the Cabinet has accepted and the Prime Minister has announced makes it more and more likely that laws will be imposed on this country in Brussels, which will supersede British laws and will deny the British electors the right to determine the laws under which they are governed? Is the betrayal of this principle towards a federal Europe not a denial of the principle that no Parliament can commit its successor, and that the British people must have the right to vote for those who pass the laws under which they are governed?

The Prime Minister: I am not entirely sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not have been better employed directing that question at those on his own Front Bench, who would have, first, unquestionably accepted 27 and, secondly, abolished unanimity.

Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel): Will my right hon. Friend pause to reflect for a moment on the price of failure to agree? Would not a failure to enlarge or to protect minorities be disastrous? Away from the hothouse of this place, will it not be clear to everyone that this is the best agreement on offer?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. It was necessary to get enlargement and the extra protections to help minorities. By 1996, it will be apparent that a number of states will express concern at the present system and how qualified majority voting works. There is no proper equity between, for example, the populations of many of the countries and the votes that they can exercise in the Council of Ministers. That applies to the United Kingdom and other countries as well. But if the actions of the European Union as a whole are to retain the support of the peoples of Europe, we shall have to look carefully at how we reach our decisions. That is what we have now agreed will happen, with a root and branch reform in 1996.

Mr. Geoffrey Hoon (Ashfield): The Prime Minister has conspicuously failed to convince 11 countries of the merits of his argument for 23 votes. Is he seriously suggesting that, during the next intergovernmental conference, he will be able to persuade 15 countries to turn back the clock and return to 23 votes?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the nature of the discussions. A number of the countries were prepared to continue on the present basis because they were aware that there was to be a significant examination of this matter in 1996. They will welcome the fact that it will now be more significant than they had previously imagined.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham): In view of the increasing competition from Japan, the far east and the United States to every business throughout the European Union due to the success of the GATT round, is it not essential that, in the intergovernmental conference in 1996, agreement is reached so that votes more nearly accord with populations, and businesses throughout the community are not burdened with extra costs?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. There is no doubt that the excessive social burdens laid on many companies throughout the European Union are making their exports less competitive than they otherwise would be, and no longer competitive with similar companies in Japan, the United States and many countries in the Pacific basin. That is one of the reasons why we were not prepared to accept the social chapter. It is also why we believe that we must look at the changes in the voting system that I have outlined to the House today.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): In the context of the transitional arrangements, will the Prime Minister explain how the Government will decide to use their votes at Council meetings in that interim period? For example, at the Fisheries Council to be held on 11 and 12 April, will there be qualified majority voting or the issue of unanimity, which is my understanding of the original treaty? Does he understand the concern within the fishing industry in Scotland that his only allies during these negotiations were the Spaniards, who want access to the North sea, and that that has been accelerated?

The Prime Minister: There is no change in the items dealt with either by unanimity or qualified majority voting under what has been agreed. The method of deciding--whether qualified majority vote or unanimity--is laid down in earlier treaties, such as the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty. That is not changed by anything decided in the past couple of days.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his robust stance in defence of minorities in Europe? However, given the statements that have emanated from Europe this morning that a reasonable delay would entail only a few months, that any concessions would apply only to the present Commission, and that we could not claw back in 1996 what we lose now, does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a well-founded concern that we have conceded the figure of 27? Will he therefore give an absolute assurance to the House that, if we do obtain 23 votes, we can delay indefinitely directives with which we disagree?

The Prime Minister: I think the remarks to which my hon. Friend refers may have come from one Foreign Minister. They do not reflect the view of the Heads of Government to whom I have spoken in recent days.

I have no doubt that we will be able to delay under 23--quite how long will depend on the nature of the discussion. What is clear is that the time limit set out by that Foreign Minister is ludicrously wrong. If we feel that a matter has not been properly developed, we can, first, take it to the European Court of Justice, which may well take more than several years to determine it. Secondly, we can use the Luxembourg compromise. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that, if we feel it necessary, we shall take one or both of those actions, and we have made that clear to our partners.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): When I asked the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) how on earth the Government got themselves on this hook, he replied, "I am a very good angler indeed." Is not that at the heart of the matter? Is it not about time the Government started acting positively in Europe, with Europe, for Europe; is it not time they discussed, in full public court, the question of monetary union--instead of holding their discussions behind closed curtains, as they are now?

The Prime Minister: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman would make common cause with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on his last point.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Nobody else does.

The Prime Minister: I do not think that I can better what my hon. Friend has said.

Sir Archibald Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell): The principal objective of the Government's negotiations was the enlargement of the Community. If we had refused to reach any agreement, that enlargement would probably have unravelled, much to the satisfaction of a number of countries in the EC. I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend on the compromise reached--in particular, on the agreement that the voting structure should be looked at in 1996. If we continue to expand the Community to take in the Visigrad countries, we could reach the point where the main contributors--Britain, France and Germany--were outvoted by the rest of the Community.

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. Unless there is reform, and if the mathematical formula followed through on this occasion were again followed on the next enlargement, France, Germany and the United Kingdom--three significant contributors to the Community--could be outvoted by qualified majority voting procedures. Clearly that would be absurd; it is one reason why I am confident that we will have a root and branch reform in 1996.

My right hon. Friend is equally right about the importance of enlargement to us and the Community. I think that it will increasingly change the nature of the Community for the better.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Given the contrast between the angry defiance of the Prime Minister last week and the surrender today, is it not understandable that virtually every Tory newspaper has been highly dismissive of the Prime Minister's conduct over this issue? The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has had the courage to say what many other Tory Members would undoubtedly say if they had his courage : it is time for the Prime Minister to go.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North is always ready with a quote, but I am not likely to be over- concerned about that. As for the earlier, more substantive, concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman, we set out last week the fact that we needed some changes to protect minorities--changes to protect the position being abused under article 118A. We have obtained what we sought in that regard. We have also required and obtained a much wider root and branch reform of voting procedures in 1996. That is not surrender; it is obtaining what we set out to obtain in the negotiations some time ago.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): Is it not extraordinary cheek on the part of the leader of the Labour party to pour contempt on an honourable settlement, carefully negotiated? He would not even have tried to achieve such a negotiated outcome. Is not his cheek probably born of the fact that he has never been in a position to negotiate anything since the Labour party accepted our membership of the European Union?

The Prime Minister: I am not entirely sure that my hon. Friend is totally accurate about the right hon. and learned Gentleman's past. He may have had some part in seeking to negotiate devolution at some stage in the 1970s. If I recall correctly--and if not, of course I shall withdraw--he had a large responsibility in that, and it was not a notable success.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South): Does not the whole affair reflect the fragility of the claimed protection of unanimity? Have not the arguments now descended from negotiation into the throwing around of mutual ultimatums, showing that the Community, far from being an organisation of co-operation, as time passes becomes one of coercion?

The Prime Minister: No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. Nothing here affects unanimity or the national veto. We are still determined that that shall be retained, as are other countries. The only threat to unanimity comes from the fact that the Labour party is seeking qualified majority voting as the norm--which means, if it means anything, that a Labour Government, were there to be such a beast, would scrap unanimity and the national protection which that offers us.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West): Is it not always in Europe jam tomorrow? We were told at the end of the Maastricht proceedings that there would be no further move towards federalism. We have suffered this defeat; we have seen our opt-out of the social chapter eroded; and we are now told that all will come right in 1996. Will not the British people at some stage say to their Government, "You must say no, and mean it"?

The Prime Minister: The enlargement is something of which my hon. Friend would approve. It is of significant interest and, in the terminology of my hon. Friend, jam today. The enlargement will be of significant importance to the future working of the Community, as will subsequent enlargements from the Visigrad countries and perhaps in due course from others.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): Does the Prime Minister recall that his predecessor was so adept at undermining the European efforts of her Foreign Secretary that eventually Geoffrey Howe was forced to exclaim during his resignation speech that it was like going onto the cricket pitch to find that his bat had been broken by the team captain. On this occasion, would it not be more appropriate for the bat to be broken over the team captain's head?

The Prime Minister: As my right hon. Friend and I both propose to use the bat in Britain's interest, we shall have better use for it.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear, particularly to those outside the House, that this decision makes no alteration to our absolute veto on the most important issues, and that that will not be open for renegotiation in 1996? Does he also accept that, despite what many other people may say, he has the vast support of the majority of right hon. and hon. Members sitting behind him?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is entirely right to say that it makes no change whatever to the unanimity rule. As that is not understood by many people, and certainly not by many commentators who appear to have written about the matter recently, it is important that that message should be clearly understood in the House and beyond it.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Does the Prime Minister agree that talk of a veto is nonsense, and that his predecessor sold the pass on the British veto in 1985 with the Single European Act? Does he accept that it is all a big charade, and, because of internal divisions, he has turned Britain into a laughing stock throughout Europe?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman understands less than most of his hon. Friends. The veto still exists. Indeed, it was largely because it did exist that I was able to say no--as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) said a moment ago--to the social chapter during the Maastricht negotiations. I was able to say no. The national veto stood behind me; had I not got that concession from our partners, I could have ceased to agree to the entire Maastricht treaty. The veto does exist; it is potent, it can be used, and I have used it.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest): I cautiously recognise the Commission's position on the remit of health and safety legislation and the social chapter, and welcome the fact that the thresholds can be renegotiated in 1996. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that it is now more important than ever for a review of the scope of European legislation--and the amount of legislation that is dealt with through qualified majority voting--to be carried out between now and 1996, in line with the doctrine of subsidiarity that the Labour party so hypocritically opposed during the Maastricht treaty negotiations?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right in those ambitious thoughts. Indeed, that is beginning to happen. The amount of legislation from Europe has been halved over the past year to 18 months, and I thoroughly welcome that : such a reduction is long overdue, and it has now been obtained. As my hon. Friend will also know, under the subsidiarity provisions of the Maastricht treaty, the equivalent of 25 per cent. of Community legislation either has been repealed or is being revised.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): How does today's obvious climbdown--coupled with the miserable failure of Britain's negotiating position over the reform of qualified majority voting--serve to advance the Prime Minister's oft-stated policy of putting Britain at the heart of Europe?

The Prime Minister: We seek, in this and in other matters, to influence what happens in the European Community in the direction that we think is right. We have done that very successfully with the enlargement procedure; we have done it very successfully with the reduction of legislation; we have done it very successfully with the subsidiarity provisions; and we have done it very successfully in other areas as well. As a number of my hon. Friends have said, that requires us from time to time to dissent from what happens to be the prevailing majority view in the European Union.

There is nothing anti-European about doing that. It is also the case that other nations--the French, the Germans, the Spanish, whoever it may be-- dissent from time to time from aspects of European Union legislation. It is right that they should do so, because only through arguments and discussions of that sort can a proper consensus be reached.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Just to dispel any residual doubts, will my right hon. Friend spell out unequivocally those points of principle on which, in the national interest, Her Majesty's Government are prepared to stand, courageously and consistently, in our relations with the European Community?

The Prime Minister: We have made perfectly clear, over a long period, the areas that are of particular principle to us. The fact that we were not prepared to accept the social charter, for no other reason than that it would make it more difficult for companies in this country to sell their goods and maintain jobs, is a matter of principle for us; similarly, the maintenance of the national veto is a matter of principle for us. We also seek to make changes to the system of qualified majority voting. Some we have obtained on this occasion; for others we have laid down a marker in 1996. Those and other areas are matters of great importance to us.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood): Does the Prime Minister believe that we have more friends and allies in Europe as a result of this diplomatic disaster? Does he think that we shall have more friends and allies in 1996 as a result of what has happened? Has the Prime Minister learnt at least one thing from this debacle--that any attempt to found British European policy on the internal interests of the Conservative party will end badly, and will deserve to?

The Prime Minister: I will tell the hon. Gentleman one thing that we have certainly learnt. We have learnt that we have obtained concessions in this negotiation that we would not have obtained if we had followed the Labour party's advice and just lamely said yes to 27.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the country that the fight that he has put up for its interests is in complete contrast to that of the Opposition party? That party would have not only watered down the whole concept of QMV, but abandoned our national veto. Is that not the dividing line between the parties on Europe, and will it not be the issue that the country will need to see as part of the European elections?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right about that--except that, with his characteristic generosity, he neglected to mention that the Liberal party has precisely the same policies as the Labour party.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Speaker: Order. We shall now move to the next business.