Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, highlighted the Government's near- isolation in Europe on social and employment policy as he set out the Opposition's principal objection to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.
Tory rebels cheered when Tristan Garel-Jones, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, told the House that acceptance of a Labour amendment reversing the opt-out from the social chapter on workers' rights and conditions would make it impossible for Britain to ratify the treaty. Labour and the Liberal Democrats disputed Mr Garel-Jones's claim. Their combined vote, together with that of Tory rebels determined to damage the Bill at all costs, could cause government whips a headache when the amendment is voted on later in the Committee Stage.
The opt-out from the social chapter was presented by John Major as one of the main achievements of his negotiations at Maastricht. But as MPs considered the Bill for the third day running - the seventh day of its Committee Stage - Mr Cunningham said that the Government's isolation on the issue was 'a badge of shame' against Britain.
Labour did not want Europe simply to be a market place. 'Progress is not just about economic and industrial development,' he said. 'It is about associated social and employment policy developments too, and about social justice . . .
'A civilised society is measured not just by its wealth but by its treatment of its citizens.'
Disputing Mr Garel-Jones's claim that it would not be possible to ratify the treaty if the amendment was carried, Mr Cunningham said that the solution would be an agreement to fold the social chapter into the treaty.
'I recognise this would present the Government with a dilemma. But we have taken the precaution to check with the other 11 member states who would be happy for that outcome to obtain.' Emphasising the loneliness of the Government's position, he said the chapter was supported not only by every other government and political party in the EC bar one, but by every applicant state and by the European employers' organisation.
'There is one other political party in Europe which supports the position of the British Government. It is Jean-Marie Le Pen and the French neo-fascist party . . . I hope they feel comfortable in his company.'
Sir Russell Johnston, for the Liberal Democrats, said if he was persuaded that ratification would be quite impossible without the protocol on the social chapter, it would be consistent for his party to vote against the Labour amendment.
But he went on: 'It does not yet seem to me that that is the situation we are faced with.'Reuse content