Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Conservative Group for Europe

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Waldorf Hotel, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Editorial comments: MT was expected to speak at 2000 for twenty minutes.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1592
Themes: Conservative Party (organization), European elections, European Union (general), Economic, monetary & political union, Foreign policy (Middle East)

Direct Elections to the European Parliament

I would like first of all to congratulate you in the Conservative Group for Europe on all your efforts and successes. Quite rightly you now see your role as ranging beyond the Palace of Westminster. As we approach the first direct elections to the European Parliament, we need active and well-informed people in every constituency who can speak about Europe and put our case across. I have been delighted to learn of the joint conferences organized in the Areas by the Conservative Group for Europe and the Conservative Political Centre this autumn as part of the preparation for direct elections. I am sure that under Jim Spicer 's vigorous leadership you will keep up the impetus in the months ahead. [end p1]

Of course we do not yet know whether the first round of direct elections will be held as proposed in May or June 1978. I am glad to see that a bill to make this possible has been included in the Queen's Speech. The Conservative Party, as we made clear again in The Right Approach, supports direct elections. They are a treaty obligation, and we believe that Britain should keep her word. [end p2]

Let us be clear on one point. I would not myself support direct elections if I felt that they would undermine the traditional role of the House of Commons. But the truth is that there is a different task to be done, which we believe should have a democratic institution. It remains our duty in the House of Commons to check and guide the actions of British Ministers in the Council of Ministers. This is a vital task to which John Davies, in his former capacity, and his colleagues on the Scrutiny Committee have given much thought and energy. They would agree that we haven't got it right yet—but that is a matter of our own organization as a House of Commons. Direct elections [end p3] will not change this task of ours in the House of Commons or make it less necessary. Direct elections will however enable elected representatives of the people to question and influence the Commission and the Council of Ministers as a whole, whom we in the House of Commons cannot reach. [end p4]

The Government and the Labour Party are clearly divided on this issue. I'm not really surprised. A good deal of pessimistic advice must be reaching the Government from Transport House about the prospects for Socialist candidates. But the timetable is a tight one if the Boundary Commissions are to have proper time to work out the boundaries of the new European constituencies. This is essential, as we Conservatives have made clear. We cannot accept that the new boundaries should be cobbled together in some back room in the Home Office or Transport House. It must be done openly and objectively by the four Boundary Commissions. This means that the Government should produce the necessary [end p5] bill without further delay and allow time for its discussion by Parliament in the next few weeks. For it would be shameful and damaging to the national interest if our partners were ready to hold direct elections in 1978 and Britain alone held back because our Government had failed to bestir itself in time. [end p6]

Meanwhile there is much work in hand for the Conservative Party. Already applications from would-be candidates are coming in thick and fast. With the National Union we have established a separate European Standing Advisory Committee on Candidates, for which Marcus Fox has particular responsibility. The Committee has already met, and after Christmas it will begin to consider the names it has received. [end p7]

On policy, useful preliminary work has already been set in hand by Peter Kirk and his Conservative Group at the European Parliament. They have done a magnificent job in difficult circumstances and I would like to pay my tribute to them. I have now set up here at home a European Advisory Committee on Policy so that we can consult all sections of the Party and produce in good time a programme for Europe on which our candidates in the direct elections can fight. It is our task to convince the people that the Conservative Party which in John Davies' words “has been the great power-house of British membership of the EEC” has the right policies and purposes for Britain's and Europe's future. [end p8]

Co-operation with like-minded European Parties

At the same time, as you know, we are busy making new contacts and friendships with like-minded parties across the Channel. It is essential that we should achieve an efficient working co-operation between these like-minded parties before, during and after the first round of direct elections. The political arithmetic of Europe shows why this is so. In the present European Parliament for example the Socialists are the largest single group. They outnumber the Christian Democrats, the next largest group, by 66 seats to 51. [end p9] But if there is an effective alliance between the Christian Democrats, the Conservatives and the Gaullists and their allies, then our total rises from 51 to 85—enough to secure a majority against Socialists and Communists combined, even without the support of the Liberals. [end p10]

I know the difficulties which history has created. I know the misunderstandings which have to be cleared up before we can achieve total unity between centre right groups. But, despite these, I feel sure we can and must secure a working co-operation which will enable us to fight the direct elections successfully, and to join together afterwards in the European Parliament to protect those values of freedom and human dignity which we hold in common. [end p11]

Concerting the Foreign Policies of the nine

I have always felt that the foundations of Europe go far deeper than questions of tariffs, levies, Green Pounds, directives and regulations. Of course we must think clearly and constructively about all these matters. But it was not for these things that the British people voted in the Referendum last year. The heart of the matter is elsewhere. As I said during the Referendum campaign: [end p12] “At a time of uncertainty in world affairs, Europe gives us a far better chance of peace and security and if we wish our children to continue to enjoy the benefits of peace, our best course of action is to stay in Europe.” [end p13]

Let us take stock of our progress in this search for peace and security. The European Community is of course a civilian, not a military power. It possesses no army, navy or air force. For our military security we must maintain, as I have often said, our own defences and strengthen the North Atlantic Alliance to which we belong. But as the world's largest trading unit the Community does have substantial influence in the world's affairs—an influence extending well beyond matters of trade. I would like to see a much stronger effort to concert the foreign policies of the Nine and to ensure that the economic strength and importance of the Community are used to further our common interests. [end p14]

Let us take, for example, the unsolved problems of Cyprus which continue to overshadow peace in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus, Greece and Turkey all have agreements with the Community, and Greece, with our full support, is negotiating for membership. I would like to see a joint initiative between the Community and the new American administration to bring together the different parties on the island and outside and make a strenuous effort to achieve the settlement which has eluded us all for so long. [end p15]

The habits of partnership

You will notice that I have spoken of concerting foreign policy. This should be our aim increasingly in each field of the Community's activities. It is a Community of nation states with the Council of Ministers as the chief decision-taking body. I believe that this will be true for many years and that national governments and national parliaments will continue to have a determining role. It follows that to reconcile national interests with the interests of Europe as a whole is the key to the success of our Community. [end p16] This can only be done by cultivating the habits of partnership. Of course each country will bargain hard for its vital national interests—as Britain must for example bargain hard in the forthcoming negotiations on fisheries. But we must accompany this by an understanding of the vital interests of others and by an understanding of the interests of Europe as a whole. [end p17]

The present Government shows little understanding of what the Community is about. At the moment they seem to regard it mainly as a soft touch, from which we can draw massive food subsidies and possibly a further huge loan. The fruits of free enterprise among our partners should in their view be available to subsidize the failure of socialism in Britain. What a doomed and desperate philosophy! The sad face is that this Government have run down our bargaining strength in Europe to a dangerously low level. It will be one of the first tasks of a new Conservative Government to restore it. [end p18]

In January Roy Jenkins takes over as President of the European Commission. We wish him and Christopher Tugendhat well in their new tasks, In the first six months of 1977 Britain will be chairman of the Council of Ministers. This is a position of great responsibility and importance. Who knows what changes may come across the British political scene during that period? If during this time we are given responsibility by the British people, we shall make full use of it to show our partners that Britain once again has a government which understands the Community to which we belong. If the present government survives for the time [end p19] being, then we will press and urge them to make imaginative use of their opportunities in Europe. Meanwhile we in the Conservative Party must continue hard at work on policy, on organization, on persuading our fellow citizens to help forward the success of the Community, to which under successive leaders the Conservative Party has already made such a substantial contribution.