'It would be the loudest possible signal for the resurgence of the worst kind of nationalism, which is the most pernicious and most persistent of European diseases,' he said. 'We forget at our peril that Balkanisation is not a disease that can be safely consigned to the Balkans.'
Speaking 12 days after Baroness Thatcher made clear in her maiden speech that she would vote against the Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty, Lord Howe found common cause with his old sparring partner Lord (formerly Denis) Healey, who made his debut in the same debate on EC enlargement.
The House could seldom have seen 'such a large and battle-scarred pair of maidens' before, Lord Healey ventured. Neither could he resist a dig at Lady Thatcher, who missed the occasion in favour of an engagement in her former Finchley constituency. 'It is appropriate that the sandbag should follow the handbag,' Lord Healey said.
Lord Howe said that both he and Lady Thatcher had been swept from the front bench of the Commons by a European storm. 'Now, rather like the characters in Twelfth Night or The Tempest, we have both survived that turbulent experience and after some time adrift have been washed up on the red-leather benches of the same friendly shore.'
He praised John Major's commitment 'that Britain should no longer be seen as an anchor to windward of Europe but rather as in the engine room as part of its driving force', and his commitment to the discipline of the European exchange rate mechanism.
Lord Healey called for much more economic aid for the countries of eastern Europe, which he hoped would join the EC. 'To spend more in reducing instability in the ex-communist world is not a matter of charity. It is of direct self-interest.' He added that sheep were still being slaughtered in Cumbria because a nuclear plant had exploded years ago in the Ukraine. 'We cannot afford isolation in the modern world. We are going to be directly, and possibly disastrously, affected by what will happen in eastern Europe in the coming years unless we take collective action to deal with it.'
Earlier, Lord Barnett, who was Treasury Chief Secretary when Lord Healey was Chancellor, advocated letting the pound float, though he wanted it to remain within the ERM.
'This Government is supposed to be in favour of market forces, and if they are in favour of the market forces let's have it for the pound. Let it find its own level,' he said as the Finance Bill went through all its Lords' stages.
Introducing the Bill, which completes the March Budget, the Earl of Caithness, Minister of State for Transport, said those who argued that membership of the ERM had worsened the recession were wrong to assume interest rates could have been reduced further had the UK not participated without detrimental consequences elsewhere. 'In particular we would have had to have been willing to accept a substantial depreciation in the value of sterling,' he said. 'Devaluation offers at best a temporary easing of the symptoms of our economic ills, not a cure, and to repeat this recipe would have been nothing short of folly.'
Denying any complacency, Lord Caithness told peers: 'Talk of a post-election boom, to which the Government never subscribed, may well have been overdone, but there is every reason to think that recent prophesies of doom are equally exaggerated.'