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1996 - Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the Council of Europe Meeting in Dublin

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons statement on the Council of Europe meeting held in Dublin on 16th December 1996.


PRIME MINISTER:

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the meeting of the European Council in Dublin on 13 and 14 December, which I attended with my right hon. and learned Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis). I have placed the conclusions of the Council in the Library of the House.

The main issues on the agenda were the intergovernmental conference and economic and monetary union.

The Council had a lengthy discussion on the prospects for the intergovernmental conference. Shortly beforehand, the Irish presidency had tabled a general outline for a draft revision of the treaty. That has been deposited in the House. It summarises fairly the position reached in the negotiations and the views of different member states. The views of the United Kingdom are fully reflected in it.

The Council conclusions reaffirm the target of completing the intergovernmental conference at the Amsterdam European Council in June 1997 and welcome the presidency document as a good basis for the work that lies ahead. That work was in no way prejudiced by the Council's conclusions in Dublin. We shall continue to advocate our own proposals and press our own concerns.

In discussion, I welcomed the progress made in a number of areas: subsidiarity, a greater role for national Parliaments, making the common foreign and security policy more effective, improving the quality of European legislation and introducing greater openness into the workings of the European Union.

I also spelled out the United Kingdom position on a number of key points. I see no purpose in a new employment chapter in the treaty. It will not create a single job. I do not accept that an enlarged European Union needs more qualified majority voting. On defence, we welcome co-operation between the European Union and the Western European Union, but not merger or subordination of decision making. I will not agree to justice and home affairs issues falling under Community competence. It is unthinkable that the United Kingdom would relinquish its frontier controls. I also emphasised our requirement for progress on quota hopping in the common fisheries policy and on the working time directive.

The outcome of the intergovernmental conference will do much to determine the future direction of the European Union. Some advocate a more integrated, centralised Europe. I respect that view, but I do not share it. It would not be right for Britain. I believe that the European Union must be a partnership of nation states, with Community competence where it is needed, but only where it is needed. This is more than a free trade area, but very much less than an embryo European state.

There is only one way in which those competing visions can be reconciled, and that is through the development of a more flexible Europe. That is one of the most important issues before the conference. Those who wish to integrate further in particular areas should not be frustrated unreasonably although, if they wish to use European Union institutions, they can proceed only through unanimity. Those who do not must not be forced into unwished-for obligations, which build up resentment.

I first set out the need for flexibility at Leiden some years ago, and it is now widely accepted. But we need to ensure that it is developed in a way that protects the vital interests of those who do not wish to integrate further in particular areas. There is much more work to be done here, and very little time in which to do it if the Amsterdam deadline is to be met.

Economic and monetary union was the subject of much interest, although the European Council did not itself discuss the issues at any great length. The Council agreed a report by Economic and Finance Ministers covering three issues on which my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has reported to the House on a number of occasions in recent weeks: the stability pact, the legal status of the euro and the new--voluntary--exchange rate mechanism. The conclusions, to which the Economic and Finance Council report is annexed, make it clear that those issues remain subject to our parliamentary reserve.

If the single currency goes ahead, it is a vital British interest--whether or not Britain is a member--that it succeeds; so I welcome the progress on the stability pact. The agreement reached strikes the right balance between the necessary discipline and the need for the Council of Ministers to retain control of the disciplinary process if individual countries get into difficulty.

The House will welcome the clear statements in the ECOFIN report that the arrangements for economic surveillance to be agreed for countries not in the single currency cannot lead to sanctions of any kind. I have made no secret of my doubts about whether enough countries will be sufficiently convergent to allow a single currency to go ahead on the present timetable. I repeated those doubts in Dublin. It is important that the figures themselves are not fudged, but whether or not particular countries meet particular targets on a particular day is less important than the extent of genuine economic readiness for such a far-reaching step. I am therefore pleased that the ECOFIN report makes clear the importance of not only achieving economic convergence on a particular day, but being able to sustain it over the long term.

I should also report that the president of the European Monetary Institute presented to the Council, and subsequently publicly, designs for the proposed single currency's banknotes. Those designs are the responsibility of the central banks--as, indeed, such designs are the responsibility of the Bank of England in this country now. Everyone will have their own views on those.

The decision on whether to go ahead with a single currency will be the most far-reaching decision that the European Union has ever taken. Although we expect to meet the required economic conditions, we have the right to decide whether or not we wish to join, if it goes ahead. We will make our decision when we are clear about all the necessary issues, including, crucially, our assessment of the prospect for real and sustained economic convergence.

The Council also discussed employment. Unemployment in this country is lower than in the other major European Union economies, and is falling faster. I circulated at the Council a paper on United Kingdom policies and their results, and commended it to our partners.

The Council adopted a declaration on unemployment. My agreement to it was subject to three conditions: that it confirmed that primary responsibility for employment policy rested with member states; that the European Union's approach remained based on the supply-side policies agreed at Essen in 1994; and that the declaration in no way prejudiced the question of an employment chapter in the treaty. Those conditions were agreed.

The European Council also discussed justice and home affairs, in which we welcome greater European co-operation, as long as it remains firmly on an intergovernmental basis. The Council confirmed the priority of the fight against drugs, and endorsed an Anglo-French initiative to combat transit and production of drugs in the central Asian republics. It called for ratification of the Europol convention by the end of 1997--achieved only by the United Kingdom so far--and agreed that Europol, the European Police Office, should work in conjunction with national agencies to support the fight against international crime. The Council also created a high-level group to draw up an action plan against organised crime, welcomed joint actions against sexual exploitation of children and trafficking in human beings, and confirmed the need for intensified co-operation against terrorism.

I briefed my colleagues on the steps that we have taken to eradicate bovine spongiform encephalopathy, notably progress under the 30-month slaughter scheme. I sought and received confirmation that future decisions on lifting the ban would be taken on the basis of science, as agreed at Florence. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be making a statement a little later on the next steps.

On foreign policy, the Council endorsed the London conference document on Bosnia as an excellent basis for work next year. On the middle east, the declaration that was issued reflected our concern about the current state of the peace process. The Council also expressed its strong interest in a smooth transition to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region next year and its support for the existing representative democratic institutions of Hong Kong. That was a welcome endorsement of our approach.

The European Union is approaching some historic decisions over the next 18 months, both on a single currency and on its future direction. The result of the intergovernmental conference may well mark a crucial turning point in Europe's development. The President of the European Commission said last week that the moment of truth lies ahead. There is one sense at least in which he is right. The choices that are made will determine not only the success and stability of Europe as a whole, but Britain's relationship with it.