HC Deb 21 January 1954 vol 522 cc1319-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kaberry.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I am grateful to the Joint Under-Secretary of State for coming here this evening to answer this debate just 12 hours before he leaves for Berlin with the Foreign Secretary. I only hope that he has a pleasant voyage in the Vickers Viscount, and that there is a successful outcome to the Conference.

I believe that the Under-Secretary has been a representative at the Strasbourg Council of Europe for the two years during which I have been there. I cannot speak for him, but I can say that in my first year I was so depressed by the lack of achievement of that body, and so frustrated by the atmosphere there, that I should not have accepted nomination for a second year had I not become interested in the Legal Committee. But during the last year I have seen a development which makes me believe that the Council of Europe may yet win its greatest and most important victory in being the mother of the council of the Atlantic.

The Under-Secretary is going to Berlin, and it is the recent developments in Germany which have made the greatest impact on the affairs of Europe. The enormous development in Germany, and its power and influence over the last year, has made the people of Western Europe realise that, with the preoccupation of this country and France with colonial and other world affairs, in any exclusively European organisation Germany is bound to dominate. It therefore seems likely that the only way in which the people of Western Europe will embrace the new Germany—whether it is a divided Germany or a united Germany—is in some organisation which Germany can never dominate.

The first step in that direction must be by way of an organisation which is not exclusively European. That means an organisation in which North America plays as prominent a part as we do. The idea of this first step, by way of the transformation of the Council of Europe into a council of the Atlantic, would have been beyond the bounds of practical politics a few years ago, but in the last few years the Governments in the Atlantic area have become accustomed to working together in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

My belief in the importance of the next step, the setting up of a council of the Atlantic, is not so much in the association of Governments as in the association of parliamentarians of the Atlantic Community. As I say, I believe it is not a wildly unpolitical act to suggest such a council because of the experience of N.A.T.O., but the most important reason I have for advocating it tonight is that the council of the Atlantic could learn from the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe the importance of educating parliamentarians through their joining together in debating common problems.

The Strasbourg Assembly as a forum of debate, a sounding board of European opinion, has been a success. I am not claiming it as a success in governmental co-operation, but I am claiming it as a success as a debating assembly. The parliamentarians of this country, where, whatever Government there may be in power governs in foreign affairs, forget that in other countries it is what we call the private member who is really important in forming foreign policy. We do not have to talk to the American civil servant or the American diplomat to get at American foreign policy. It is the Congressman who runs American foreign affairs. In this country we are inclined to forget that because we are accustomed to the Government running foreign affairs.

An Atlantic assembly, based on the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, would bring parliamentarians of the Atlantic countries together to debate common problems. They would learn what the others were thinking and why they were thinking it. Imagine the position we should have with our Commonwealth links. We frequently debate Asia and Africa here. We parliamentarians frequently meet as equals parliamentarians from the new countries of Asia and Africa. We meet them through our Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We have wide experience, and in an Atlantic assembly we should find that, whether we set out to do so or not, we were acting as interpreters of the East to the West and of the West to the East, because we have some experience denied to others, in particular in this case the United States Congressmen.

I believe that a great deal of difference would have been made in the history of recent foreign affairs if there had been a common assembly for parliamentarians of the Atlantic countries where they could debate matters like China, or even Spain. The question of Communist China has not been argued in the hearing of United States Congressmen, and among them today it is beyond a matter of argument: it is a matter of emotion. It is most regrettable that European parliamentarians, almost without exception, take one view of China and that almost without exception United States Congressmen take another view. The Americans could argue that the attitude of most parliamentarians in Europe to a military pact with Spain is also a matter of emotion, and that it has never been argued before them and that most European parliamentarians have not heard the arguments. That may well be true.

Therefore, I offer this consultative assembly of the Atlantic council as a most important forum of debate for the formation of opinion amongst the parliamentarians of the Atlantic. As I have said, with our Commonwealth connections we should have a valuable contribution to make to prevent the world from being divided between the East and the West. We could learn from the successes that there have been of the Council of Europe.

The first is that of its being a forum for educating parliamentarians, and the second was in the Council's choice of Strasbourg as its seat. Strasbourg is the meeting place of German and French cultures and languages. I suggest the Atlantic seat in Quebec as the meeting place of the predominantly Protestant English and American culture and the predominantly Catholic, Continental culture of French Canada.

In setting up a council of the Atlantic we should learn from the failures of the Council of Europe as well as from the successes. For instance, the Council of Europe has failed to create a true international civil service. Secondly, by having far too many committee meetings, the Council of Europe has tended to make the members of the Consultative Assembly into itinerant internationalists instead of men interested in international affairs but, first and foremost, national figures in their own national Parliaments, firmly grounded in their constituencies, interested in sewers, drains and houses and not just professional internationalists.

The council of the Atlantic would also have a great advantage in that, unlike the Council of Europe, it would not waste two years in vain discussion about federation. There has been intense opposition in this country to the Council of Europe because, I have found, people have assumed that it was merely a prelude to some form of federation. They were worried because they saw the federation of Europe—and this was only one reason—being achieved only at the cost of our liberal traditions of freedom of speech and freedom for unpopular minorities. People were worried in case the creation of an artificial United States of Europe might lead in certain circumstances to a hunt for anti-European tendencies, as in the United States of America it has led to a hunt for anti-American tendencies.

In the United States, a Federal State has been created out of millions of people of different nationalities at the cost of conformity in social and political behaviour which, in the opinion of many Americans, has begun to weaken democracy itself. In Europe the dangers to democracy would be much greater because it would not be a question of making a Federal State out of millions of people of different nationalities but of making such a State out of different mature national States, two of the most populous of which—Germany and Italy—have little democratic tradition at all and the democratic institutions of which are very new and very weak. But, fortunately, there could be no question of the discussion of federation in a council of the Atlantic. There would not be that waste of time, because no United States Congress would for one moment dream of federating with Europeans so much more numerous than the citizens of the United States. I cannot think it would ever be considered.

Over the last three years I have been talking on various occasions of the desirability of creating a council of the Atlantic from the Council of Europe. I mentioned it in Strasbourg in May and in this Chamber in July. Wherever I have spoken about this subject, in the United Kingdom, in the United States or in France, the strongest opposition has come from the extreme Right. In the United Kingdom and the United States it has come from the isolationists. On the Continent it has come from individuals of the extreme Right clerical parties, who apparently fear that any association with a populous and predominantly Protestant North America might weaken the position which they would hold in any exclusively European organisation. That has been the strongest opposition that I encountered.

In a short Adjournment debate, I have only time to sketch the points in favour of an Atlantic council, which I believe is possible now although it was not a few years ago. As a European I want to avoid the division of the world into East and West, I want military security, I want economic prosperity, and above all I want to preserve the national cultures and national freedoms of the countries of Europe. I believe that the council of the Atlantic is the first step in this direction.

Tonight I ask the Government, through the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to consider whether Her Majesty's Government might not call a conference of the Governments and parliamentarians of the Atlantic Community to discuss the possibility of this step.

10.16 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Anthony Nutting)

First I should like to thank the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) for the good wishes he has extended to my right hon. Friend and myself for our journey tomorrow to Berlin. My right hon. Friend and I, I need hardly say, share his hopes that it will be a fruitful journey. I think that I can say with truth that I sympathise with much of the underlying motives in the hon. Gentleman's speech. Certainly the Government are in full sympathy with the idea which he clearly has at heart, that of strengthening the bonds between Europe—and naturally in that direction we include as much of Europe as we can—and North America.

So equally are we wholeheartedly in favour of increasing public knowledge of the aims, purposes, and activities of N.A.T.O. I think the public are a great deal more alive today than they were three or four years ago to the value and purposes of N.A.T.O. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is much scope for spreading this knowledge still further. In this connection I hope that the Foreign Secretary's broadcast of 11th January will have helped to spread this knowledge and interest and that one remark in particular that he made will have gone home to the general public who listened to that broadcast, when he said that had a N.A.T.O. existed 20 years ago there would indeed have been no Second World War.

The issue, therefore, between us, if there is one, is clearly not one of aim but of the method of achieving that aim. It is in this respect that I cannot go all the way with the hon. Gentleman. I am comforted however by the thought that I think the aim we both share can be attained by methods a little less drastic and far-reaching than those which he himself advanced.

For a start, let me say that European unity and Atlantic unity are not self-exclusive, still less are they contradictory aims. They are complementary and must be pursued in parallel. The Council of Europe, which the hon. Gentleman has suggested might be developed into an Atlantic assembly, is by the terms of its Statute composed of European States and its aim is the greater unity of Europe. Although from time to time some very gloomy and even derogatory things are said about it, I think it has already a considerable list of constructive achievements to its credit. In our debate on the Council of Europe on 23rd October last, I remember listing some of its achievements, and perhaps I may be forgiven if I repeat the words I used on that occasion.

I said on that occasion that the Coal and Steel Community was set up originally on the conception of the Council of Europe; likewise the European Army. Western Germany was brought back into the family of the European nations through the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe launched the idea of a European Political Community. It broached the idea of an Agricultural Community and a Transport Community, and finally the Convention on Human Rights was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Assembly; indeed, I think it was a unanimous vote. I went on to say that I thought these were considerable achievements and that I would ask those Members who had been so gloomy about the future of the Council of Europe to take a little heart from its achievements in the past.

I still feel the same today. I still feel, as I said then, that simply because there are supra-national bodies coming into existence the Council of Europe should still have an important rôle to play. I still feel that it has a rôle to play in providing the framework of European unity within which the six-Power communities can develop without severing their links with the rest of Europe—in short, that the Council of Europe can help to promote what has become to be called "unity in diversity."

Although the Council of Europe has no specific function in matters of defence or economic co-ordination, which matters, as the hon. Member knows, are dealt with by N.A.T.O. and O.E.E.C, I think the hon. Member will agree that the rôle that the Council has played in promoting the unity and confidence, and, therefore, the strength, of Western Europe has been both unique and significant. I think, therefore, that it would be a profound tragedy and would certainly cause grave disillusionment in Europe today if the Council in its present form were to be wound up.

It may be argued that it would be possible to have two Assemblies, an Atlantic and a European assembly.

Mr. de Freitas

I am not arguing that.

Mr. Nutting

I know that, and I noticed that the hon. Gentleman did not argue that contention. I assume, therefore, that he agrees it would be difficult—indeed, perhaps, even impossible—for a European assembly to live, as it were, under the shadow of an Atlantic assembly, by which it would be killed stone dead. I entirely share that view with the hon. Member.

To return to the hon. Gentleman's thesis that the Council of Europe should develop into an Atlantic assembly, there seem to be equally formidable obstacles and difficulties about this course. Quite apart from the undesirability of winding up the Council of Europe, the hon. Gentleman's project runs straight into the difficulties of membership. The Council of Europe includes—and we value their inclusion—neutral countries such as Sweden and Eire.

Mr. de Freitas

And Western Germany.

Mr. Nutting

I am coming to that. Such countries would hardly find it compatible with their neutrality policy to join an assembly linked to N.A.T.O.

Then there is the German problem. Western Germany is not a member of N.A.T.O. although, like Sweden and Eire, she is a member of the Council of Europe. Then there is the difficulty about having an assembly of Parliamentarians discussing N.A.T.O.'s affairs. The bulk of N.A.T.O.'s work is, as the hon. Member knows, unsuitable for public discussion, because it concerns defence and is, therefore, confidential; and if such an assembly were to concentrate its discussion—and presumably, therefore, its recommendations to Ministers, because that would be the purpose of the discussion—on the less confidential aspects of N.A.T.O.'s work, the Council of Ministers might well find that its time was too much taken up with these problems and too little with the more urgent defence questions still facing N.A.T.O.

Mr. de Freitas

It was for those reasons that I expressly did not propose this assembly as a consultative assembly of N.A.T.O. but as quite another thing— a development of the Council of Europe—because I was well aware of all those difficulties.

Mr. Nutting

I am coming to that very point. The difficulty which the hon. Gentleman's project runs into is the status of the Atlantic assembly which he advocates. What will the status be? Will it be purely consultative, and if so will it really be consulted by Ministers, or will it, as did the Council of Europe for so long, hanker after real powers such as are enjoyed by national parliaments? Inevitably this would raise all the old arguments about federation and confederation. I know that the hon. Member did not raise this argument, but I can assure him that the federation controversy is by no means confined to Europe, and there are Members of this House, some of whom are known to the hon. Member, who would favour some form of Atlantic confederation. All this would transfer these arguments and frustrations from the Council of Europe to the Atlantic assembly, and that would not in my view serve either the Council of Europe or the Atlantic Community.

Having said that by way of objection, let me conclude by saying what I think the Government of this and all the N.A.T.O. countries can do and are now doing to promote a deeper understanding of the Atlantic Alliance. Here, I agree, Members of Parliament can play an in valuable part. The hon. Member asked me to set up a conference of Governments and Parliamentarians of the N.A.T.O. countries to discuss it. N.A.T.O. is in itself a standing conference. It is permanently in session, and I can assure the hon. Member that N.A.T.O. has discussed this problem and the Parliamentary aspect of the problem, and will continue to discuss it.

Perhaps I can tell the hon. Gentleman what has been achieved. All the N.A.T.O. Governments are agreed upon two methods of sustaining Parliamentary interest and knowledge of N.A.T.O. affairs. In the first place, it is by encouraging visits by Members of Parliament to N.A.T.O. military and civil headquarters; and in the second place by encouraging the setting up of informal Parliamentary groups and meetings between the Parliamentary groups in the N.A.T.O. countries.

Twenty-five Members of both Houses of Parliament visited the civil and military headquarters of N.A.T.O. under arrangements made by the Minister of Defence only last week. This is not the first of such visits to take place, but it was the first to the civil headquarters of Lord Ismay. In all of the N.A.T.O. countries encouragement is given to the setting up of Parliamentary groups and getting the groups to meet one another. Her Majesty's Government are most anxious to encourage this kind of contact.

There are already existing unofficial bodies interested in N.A.T.O. which are doing valuable work in bringing home N.A.T.O.'s importance to public opinion. In particular, there are the Friends of the Atlantic Union and the British Atlantic Committee, in both of which organisations members of Parliament play an active part. There are various other methods by which contacts between such groups and their opposite numbers in other countries can be arranged. The Copenhagen Study Conference, which the hon. Member will remember, suggested that each National Atlantic Committee should establish a national Parliamentary group, and that these groups should meet together periodically under the auspices of an international Atlantic Federation.

Another way of strengthening the inter-parliamentary link would be so to co-ordinate parliamentary visits to N.A.T.O. that the delegations from several countries would meet for discussions in Paris. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Her Majesty's Government would be very ready to support such methods as these for promoting interparliamentary interest in N.A.T.O.

I realise that by comparison with the more ambitious project of launching an Atlantic Parliament, the measures which I have suggested may seem comparatively tame. But for the reasons I have given, and more especially because we wish to see the Council of Europe continuing to maintain European unity, I would recommend this more modest approach as being more in keeping with the needs and possibilities of today.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

The Under-Secretary has provoked me to add one or two sentences to this debate by quoting his right hon. Friend to the effect that had N.A.T.O. existed 20 years ago we should have had no Second World War. I would add that if the Covenant of the League of Nations had been upheld 20 years ago, as it could so easily have been upheld by a British lead, there would have been no Second World War.

My hon. Friend made a very strong case for his most interesting proposal. But he would not hold for one moment that an Atlantic Council or the Atlantic Pact should replace the Charter of the United Nations. Indeed, the N.A.T.O. Pact and an Atlantic Council could have no vitality and no future unless their purpose remained the purpose for which the Atlantic Pact was made, to uphold the Charter. Therefore, I hope that the delegation to which the Under-Secretary will belong in Berlin will have a major part to play in ensuring that a united Germany shall be brought into the United Nations at the earliest possible moment, and that the Government will resume the healthy practice of the past of sending Ministers and Members of Parliament to the U.N. Assembly to fulfil some of the purposes which my hon. Friend has in view.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-Nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock