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1991 - Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the 1991 European Council Meeting at Maastricht

Below is Mr Major's statement made in the House of Commons on 11th December 1991 on the European Council held at Maastricht.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the European Council in Maastricht which I attended with my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The European Council has reached agreement on a treaty on European union. The relevant texts have been deposited along with the presidency conclusions. The House will be invited to debate the outcome next week.

Let me set out the main provisions of the agreements we reached. The treaty covers economic and monetary union and political union. It follows the structure for which the United Kingdom has consistently argued.

The treaty creates a new legal framework for co-operation between member states in foreign and security policy and in the fight against international crime. That co-operation will take place on an intergovernmental basis outside the treaty of Rome. That means that the Commission will not have the sole right of initiative and the European Court will have no jurisdiction.

On defence, we have agreed a framework for co-operation in which the primacy of the Atlantic alliance has been confirmed and the role of the Western European Union has been enhanced.

As the House knows, there was strong pressure over many months for all aspects of co-operation to come within European Community competence. That was not acceptable to this country. Instead, an alternative route to European co-operation has been opened up. I believe that this will be seen as an increasingly significant development as the Community opens its doors to new members, and more flexible structures are required.

I turn now to the main features of the text. The treaty provides for the possibility that member states will wish to adopt a single currency later this decade, but they can do so only if they meet strict convergence conditions--conditions for which the British Government have pressed from the outset. These cover inflation, budget deficits, exchange rate stability and long-term interest rates.

A single currency may come into being in 1997, but only if a minimum of seven countries meet the convergence conditions, and eight of the Twelve vote in favour. The treaty lays down that a single currency will come into being by 1999, but only if those convergence conditions are met and only for those countries which meet them. It is therefore highly uncertain when such a currency will be created and which countries it will cover.

In the House on 20 November, I said that there must be a provision giving the United Kingdom the right to decide for ourselves whether or not to move to stage 3. That requirement has been secured. It is set out in a legally binding protocol which forms an integral part of the treaty. The protocol was drafted by the United Kingdom and fully protects the position of this House. The effect of the protocol is as follows. We have exactly the same option to join a single currency at the same time as other member states if we wish. We shall be involved in all the decisions. But, unlike other Governments, we have not bound ourselves to join regardless of whether it makes economic or political sense.

The treaty text on political union provides for enhanced intergovernmental co-operation on foreign and security policy, on defence policy and in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and other crimes.

International crime knows no frontiers. Terrorists and other criminals must not be allowed to escape justice or to retire abroad with the proceeds of their crime. This text gives us a new basis for co-operation with our partners in bringing these criminals to justice.

The text provides for joint action in foreign policy, building on what was already agreed in the Single European Act. But, as I told the House on 20 November, if Britain needs to act on its own, it must be free to do so. The treaty meets that requirement. Joint action can take place only if we agree. Where there is no joint action, each member state is entirely free to act on its own. If, after joint action has been agreed, a member state needs to take its own measures to meet changed circumstances, it may do so.

There was pressure from other member states to take foreign policy decisions by majority voting. I was not prepared to agree that Britain could be outvoted on any substantive issue of foreign policy. Some of our partners also sought to draw a distinction between decisions of principle, where unanimity would apply, and implementing decisions which could be subject to majority voting. No one was able to explain how that distinction would work. I told the European Council that, if such occasions did arise, we should consider the case for majority voting on its merits. The treaty reflects our view. It provides that the Council may, but only by unanimity, designate certain decisions to be taken by qualified majority voting. But we cannot be forced to subject our foreign policy to the will of other member states. We have, in fact, preserved unanimity for all decisions where we decide that we need it.

We are agreed that Europe must do more for its own defence. We should build up the Western European Union as the defence pillar of the European union, but the treaty embodies the view set out in the Anglo-Italian proposal two months ago, and endorsed at last month's summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that whatever we do at European level must be compatible with NATO. The WEU must in no way be subordinate to the European Council. It is not. We have avoided the danger of setting up defence structures which would compete with NATO. We have created a framework in which Europe can develop its defence role in a way which complements the American presence in Europe and does not put it at risk.

In these negotiations, we put forward a series of proposals designed to be of direct benefit to the European citizen. All of them were accepted. The Community has agreed to increase the accountability of European Community institutions; to strengthen the European Parliament's financial control over the Commission; to allow the European Parliament to investigate maladministration and to appoint a Community ombudsman accessible to all Community citizens; to build up the role of the Court of Auditors, which becomes an institution of the Community; and to ensure compliance with Community obligations by giving the European Court of Justice power to impose fines on Governments who sign directives but subsequently do not implement them.

We wanted--and secured--a sensible enhancement of the role of the European Parliament. We did not accept the proposal made by other member states for a power of co-decision between the Parliament and the Council. As I told the House on 20 November, the Council of Ministers must be the body that ultimately determines the Community's laws and policies.

I also said then that we were prepared to consider some blocking power for the European Parliament. That has now been agreed. The treaty sets up, in a limited number of areas, a conciliation procedure where there is disagreement between the Council and Parliament. In the last analysis, the Parliament would be able to block a decision in those areas, but only if an absolute majority of its members turned out to vote the proposal down.

The House has been rightly concerned at the creeping extension of Community competence over the last few years. The Commission has often brought forward proposals using a dubious legal base, and the Council has found it difficult to halt that practice in the European Court. We have taken significant steps to deal with that problem. First, the structure of the treaty puts the issues of foreign and security policy, interior and justice matters and defence policy beyond the reach of the Commission and the European Court. Secondly, the treaty itself embodies the vital principle of "subsidiarity", making it clear that the Community should only be involved in decisions which cannot more effectively be taken at national level. Thirdly, in some areas--notably health protection, educational exchanges, vocational training and culture--we have defined Community competence clearly for the first time. Fourthly, there will be no extension of Community competence in employer-employee relations--the so-called social area. We have a high standard of social protection in this country. Our national health service, free at the point of use, is the envy of many in Europe, but we recognise the Community's social dimension. Also--unlike some of our European partners--we have implemented that dimension too ; 19 out of the 33 measures in the social action programme have been agreed. But there is no reason for the Community to get involved in employment legislation, which must be for each country to decide for itself.

Over the past 12 years, we have transformed labour relations. In 1979, 29 million working days were lost in strikes. Last year the figure was less than 2 million. I was not prepared to see that record put in jeopardy. Nor was I prepared to risk Britain's competitive position as the European magnet for inward investment. I was not prepared to put British jobs on the line. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. A great many people outside the House are interested in what the Prime Minister has to say.

The Prime Minister : Many of our partners have a wholly different tradition of employment practice which is reflected in the separate arrangements which they have agreed, which will affect only their countries and for which only they will pay. But even among these member states there are many who fear the effect of Community measures on their jobs and their ability to compete. Our arguments are based not only on our national interest but on the risks we perceive to the competitive position of the Community as a whole. This week's events in the Soviet Union were a salutary reminder that reform in the Community is not an end in itself. The Community's primary task must be to extend its own advantages of democracy, stability and prosperity to eastern Europe. At British initiative, we committed ourselves at Maastricht to the further enlargement of the Community, starting with the EFTA countries. When they and, in due course, the new democracies of eastern Europe are ready to join the Community, we shall be ready to welcome them. With this in mind, the Commission will report on enlargement to next June's European Council in Lisbon. Thereafter, it will be for the British presidency to carry that work forward. I look forward to doing so.

We agreed a number of statements on foreign policy issues. I will single out two of them. On the Soviet Union, the European Council calls on the republics to respect the rights of minorities, to implement international agreements on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation, to control and secure their nuclear weapons, and to honour their obligations in respect of the Soviet Union's external debt.

The European Council has endorsed the demands which we, France and the United States have made to the Libyan Government requiring them to abandon their support of terrorism and to hand over the alleged perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing.

The founders of the Community knew that they could not create a viable organisation if they established goals that could never be achieved. In talking about European union, we are talking about concepts that have to be cast in the reality of national legislation and everyday life. The Single European Act started as a grandiose design and ended up as a workmanlike blueprint for a free market. Those treaties have followed the same course.

Our role has been to put forward practical suggestions--and sometimes to rein in the larger ambitions of our partners. Where we believed their ideas would not work, we have put forward our own alternatives.

Those can be found throughout this treaty. As with all international negotiations, there has been give and take between all 12 member states. But the process was one in which Britain has played a leading role, and the result is one in which we can clearly see the imprint of our views.

This is a treaty which safeguards and advances our national interests. It advances the interests of Europe as a whole. It opens up new ways of co-operating in Europe. It clarifies and contains the powers of the Commission. It will allow the Community to develop in depth. It reaches out to other Europeans--the new democracies who want to share the benefits we already enjoy. It is a good agreement for Europe, and a good agreement for the United Kingdom. I commend it to the House.