European Monetary Union and the European Parliament

Article excerpt

'Even if EMU (European Monetary Union) is now unlikely before the end of the century, we in Britain must be aware that others will be using this intervening period to prepare the ground. We must play our full part in these preparations for three vital reasons. First and foremost, because the decisions which have to be taken now are not costless for businesses or banks. Secondly, if Britain stands aside from the EMU debate now we shall only have ourselves to blame if we decide to join later and discover that EMU has been designed to suit Germany. Thirdly, it is in our interests that, if it is going to happen, it works.'

The quotation is apt, nicely summing up the approach taken by the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament (EP) and, indeed, by most MEPs. Sensible engagement with the practicalities of the debate, combined with a degree of scepticism about whether the Maastricht timetable is politically achievable: seen from Brussels and Strasbourg that is our recipe for the coming years.

But the words are not my own, nor those of any other Liberal Democrat, nor even those of a fellow MEP. In fact they belong to a Conservative and a member of the European Commission - Sir Leon Brittan, in a speech at the Plaisterers' Hall, City of London, 17 November 1994. That I should agree with him will no doubt be taken by some as further evidence of a Europhile plot, hatched by the three main political parties, designed to railroad the British people down the line to a federal superstate.

The riposte to that is twofold. Primarily it is a question of pragmatism. EMU may or may not happen; Britain may or may not be a part of it. But, within EMU or without, we cannot afford to stand by and watch the creation of a system that is inimical to our way of doing business. We made that mistake once before - The Common Agricultural Policy was designed with French farmers in mind - and have regretted it ever since. We must not make it a second time.

But I hope I can also show that in the European Parliament we have always had the popular legitimacy of the project at the top of our agenda. Far from attempting to proceed by stealth we have been to the fore in trying to ensure that there is a healthy debate on this momentous decision.

Where I would find common ground with the Eurosceptics is in agreeing that, heretofore, Europe has too often been driven by the plans of an elite, not the passions of the many. When the European project was confined to narrower horizons than it is now, that may have been acceptable. When we are discussing changes to the historical, constitutional bedrock of the entire Continent it most definitely is not.

EMU must be for the people of Europe, by the people of Europe. If they feel it has been foisted upon them, that it is to be endured rather than celebrated, then it is sunk before it has even been launched.

Parliament's role so far

But how did we get to where we are now? Before going on to look at what the Parliament wants from EMU in the future it is worth looking at the history of its involvement in the issue.

Of course our statutory involvement has always been limited: EMU is really a child of the Commission and the Council of Ministers. But the EP has always taken a Close interest in its upbringing and has often had more of a say in its development than a simple reading of the Treaties would suggest.

As early as 1989 the Parliament was flexing its muscles on an issue that has remained of central concern ever since - the accountability of the institutions that will guide EMU. The EP amended Commission proposals for the first phase of EMU to enhance the accountability of the Committee of Governors of Central Banks and the Economic Policy Committee. The Commission attempted to reject the amendments but, mindful of the fact that agreed proposals had to be in place by 1 July 1990, was in February 1990 forced to concede most of the Parliament's demands. …