Stop pretending and join the rest: Edward Heath, who took Britain into Europe, looks beyond the Maastricht saga

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THE MAASTRICHT treaty has now been embodied in an Act of Parliament by substantial majorities in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is ready for ratification by the United Kingdom, subject to the stop placed upon it by the Prime Minister pending the legal case now before the High Court. To use the fashionable phrase, can we therefore now 'put Maastricht behind us'?

The answer is no, for two reasons. First, the whole Maastricht episode has done incalculable harm to our country in the eyes of the other members of the European Community, of the US and of the rest of the world. This will take time and an immense amount of effort to rectify. The parliamentary process of the Bill, from the second reading to last Friday's resolution, took 429 days. This will now be extended by whatever time the High Court, and possibly the Court of Appeal, take to handle the case. Should the courts seek to overrule Parliament, it will be necessary to take further time to reassert Parliament's authority. It would become a major constitutional crisis, exhausting for both Government and Parliament.

The outside onlooker watches the whole business bemused. The British tend to boast of having the finest democracy in the world. How can such a system, in which all three major political parties so recently fought a general election in agreement on the treaty, take such an interminable time to reach a conclusion? How can the large majorities in both Houses of Parliament in favour of the treaty find themselves so constantly thwarted by just one thirtieth of the members of the House of Commons? How can the Government's very existence have to be put at stake on this issue in the vote of confidence last Friday? To the international fraternity, this is not democracy. It is the elected majority being held to ransom by a small group of hostile would-be hijackers.

Some responsibility can be placed on the Government for its handling of the Maastricht Bill. After receiving massive support on the second reading, it should immediately have pressed ahead in the Commons, three days a week for three or four weeks, to finish the process. Instead it delayed.

When the result of the Danish referendum was negative, it promised not to complete the UK procedure in the House of Commons until the Danish referendum became positive. This was absolutely unnecessary. The Danish referendum was their affair, not ours. What this step did, however, was to create a deep suspicion within the Community that the British were ganging up with the Danes in an attempt to break up the Community. This belief remains.

All this was followed in the autumn by the innovation of a paving debate - another general debate to add to the three that had already taken place. By this time the Conservative rebels had become so highly organised, so well financed from outside and so oblivious of their obligations that they brought the Conservative Government within three votes of defeat.

In the process they also managed to exact more undertakings from ministers which further weakened the Government's position. It is a sorry story from which the Government must speedily demonstrate that it has learnt its lesson.

Second, we cannot put Maastricht behind us and forget about it for the very simple reason that Maastricht governs our future in the Community, since all future developments will spring from it. If a small minority in the Conservative Party is to be allowed to impede all progress, as it has just done, then we shall certainly be in the slow lane in Europe, if in any lane at all.

Moreover, we have no right to try to prevent the remaining nearly 300 million people in the other 11 member states from pursuing the life of a real community. It is no use saying that they don't really want a community. This is anti-European make-believe and the rest of Europe recognises it as such.

Where then does this lead us? British ministers must stop talking of now transforming the European Community into 'what the British want'. The Community is not a British colony and the other members don't want it to be that way. All the old suspicions of the Fifties, that all the British want is a free trade area, have now returned. We created the European Free Trade Area in 1958. It failed. That is why in 1961 we tried to join the European Community. We were vetoed then by President de Gaulle.

Now the Europeans believe that the British are up to their tricks again. They know that free trade areas are unsuccessful. The Community is so much more than a free trade area - that is why it has been the greatest success story of the post-war world. It is because we have not been Community-minded over so many matters during the last 12 years that we no longer have any friends left. When sterling most needed friends last September there weren't any there. It was our fault - not theirs.

We must also face up to what is required under the Maastricht treaty. The Government must bluntly and honestly publicise these requirements without trying to buy off the rebels with damaging and delaying compromises. The treaty requires a single currency, quite rightly. There is no single market anywhere in the world with more than one currency. And why? Because everyone knows that with more than one currency in a single market, it is possible to cheat or undermine other manufacturers and traders by making your own currency changes.

This problem is exacerbated by the speculators. And those who find themselves adversely affected by exchange-rate swings will inevitably indulge in some form or other of self-protection. The single market will become more and more frayed at the edges. Ultimately it will crack altogether and that will be the end of the whole endeavour.

A single currency for the European Community is the only bulwark we can have against currency speculators. The mass of money available in the world today, especially on credit, means that no individual currency can stand up to it when it is in the hands of speculators. They can wipe us out, one by one. We saw that to our cost last September.

The great majority of businessmen, excluding bankers, want a single currency, both for the reasons I have given and because it would greatly cheapen the whole process of international trade. Self-centred politicians must not be allowed to damage people's lives and futures on purely outdated nationalistic grounds.

The Maastricht treaty also sets out to strengthen the European Parliament. For those who cry out constantly for greater European democracy, this is the answer, and it should go still further. At the last European election, the Conservative Party lost out heavily because it treated the election as a purely national affair. This time it must be handled differently. The European parliamentary candidates, for example, must have a much greater say in the contents of the manifesto.

Finally, there is the British approach to increased membership of the Community. Every time a British minister demands ever wider membership, the rest of the Community believes that his approach is so impractical that it must be just another British ploy to prevent the Community from developing its real structure. The remaining four members of the former Efta are on a level, economically speaking, with the members of the Community, though I doubtwhether Norway and Switzerland will ever decide to enter.

As for the former Soviet countries, some of whom have a standard of living only one-fifth that of ours, we must not deceive them into thinking that their entry is imminent and, at the same time, damage Britain by opening ourselves to the accusation that we want to develop the Community only to weaken it. We gain nothing whatever from that. Our policy should now be to use the opportunity provided by the Maastricht treaty to develop the community together as speedily and fully as we possibly can.

Sir Edward Heath is MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup.

(Photograph omitted)

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