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Classic Podium: Time to join a united Europe

From a speech by the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, urging the House of Commons to approve the principle of joining the Common Market (28 October, 1971)
I DO not think that any Prime Minister has stood at this despatch box in time of peace and asked the House to take a positive decision of such importance as I am asking it to take tonight. I am well aware of the responsibility which rests on my shoulders for so doing. After 10 years of negotiation, after many years of discussion in this House, and after 10 years of debate, the moment of decision for Parliament has come.

I cannot over-emphasise tonight the the importance of the issue, the scale and quality of the decision and the impact that it will have, equally inside and outside Britain.

Earlier, the world was watching New York. They were waiting to see whether China was going to become a member of the Security Council, and of the General Assembly. Tonight, the world is similarly watching Westminster, waiting to see whether we are going to decide that Western Europe should now move along the path to real unity - or whether the British Parliament, now given the choice, not for the first time, but probably for the last time for many years to come, will reject the chance of creating a united Europe.

The Right Hon Gentleman [Mr James Callaghan] described the pursuit of a united Europe as an idea which he respected. It inspired the founders of the European Communities after the War. At that time, we in Britain held back, conscious of our ties with the Commonwealth, and of our relationship with the United States, both of which had been so strongly reinforced in war. We did not then see how we could fit that into the framework of European unity.

The Commonwealth has, since then, developed into an association of independent countries. It is a unique association which we value, but the idea that it would become an effective economic or political, let alone military, block has never materialised.

Our relationship with the United States is close, friendly and natural, but it is not unique. It is not fundamentally different from that of many other countries of Western Europe, except, again, for our natural ties of language and common law, tradition and history. The United States is now increasingly concerned with its relationships with the other superpowers.

What is important is the question of being in the best possible position to influence economic decisions which are determining our future. That seems to be the real crux of the economic argument.

Over these next few years, in which new patterns will be formed, and new decisions will be taken, they will affect the livelihood of everyone in this country and they will be taken, in practice, by those who have the greatest economic power.

It is right that there should have been so much discussion of sovereignty. I would put it very simply. If sovereignty exists to be used and to be of value, it must be effective. We have to make a judgement whether this is the most advantageous way of using our country's sovereignty. Sovereignty belongs to all of us, and to make that judgement we must look at the way in which the Community has actually worked. In joining we are making a commitment which involves our sovereignty, but we are also gaining an opportunity.

Throughout my political career, if I may add one personal remark, it is well known that I have had the vision of a Britain in a united Europe: a Britain which would be able to influence decisions affecting our own future, and which would enjoy a better standard of life and a fuller life.

I have worked for a Europe which will play an increasing part in meeting the needs of those parts of the world which still lie in the shadow of want. I always understood that the Right Hon Gentleman wanted that. I want Britain as a member of a Europe which is united politically, and which will enjoy lasting peace and the greater security which would ensue.

When we came to the end of the negotiations in 1963, after the veto had been imposed, the negotiator on behalf of India said: "When you left India some people wept. And when you leave Europe tonight, some will weep. And there is no other people in the world of whom these things could be said."

That was a tribute from the Indian to the British.

But tonight many millions of people right across the world will rejoice that we have taken our rightful place in a truly United Europe.