HC Deb 19 April 1962 vol 658 cc699-703
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a statement.

As the House knows, I have been in communication with Commonwealth Prime Ministers over the last few weeks in order to fix the date of the next Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting. The main purpose of this meeting will be to discuss the Common Market, although we shall, of course, make our normal review of world affairs. We naturally wish to hold this meeting as soon as possible and while negotiations are still going on. Equally, it is clear that this meeting will only have its maximum utility if it takes place after the broad pattern of the special arrangements likely to be acceptable has emerged.

In the light of these circumstances, and bearing in mind the other preoccupations of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers, I am happy to inform the House that there is now general agreement that the meeting should open in London on 10th September.

One or two of my Commonwealth colleagues may be prevented by commitments in their own countries from attending in person. If so, they have undertaken to send a senior Minister to represent them.

Mr. Gaitskell

While welcoming the news that there is to be a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference, particularly to discuss the Common Market, on 10th September, may I ask the Prime Minister to clear up what he means by the phrase "likely to be acceptable"? Does he mean likely to be acceptable to the E.E.C., while the attitude of Her Majesty's Government is not yet firm and settled, or does he mean likely to be acceptable to Her Majesty's Government? In the latter case, how does he reconcile this with a promise he gave that the Government would not make up their mind until after the discussion with the Commonwealth Prime Ministers?

The Prime Minister

I meant the broad pattern of the protocol that we would have a chance of negotiating; likely to be acceptable, therefore, to those with whom we are negotiating. We want to have the discussion with the Prime Ministers before concluding negotiations, and when we see what kind of agreement we are likely to get.

Mr. Gaitskell

Can the Prime Minister be a little more specific? I will put it like this. Can he give an assurance that the Government will not make up their mind before the Prime Ministers' conference?

The Prime Minister

Of course the Government will continue to negotiate. There will then be a general picture-though not, naturally, precise in every detail—of what is the kind of agreement that might be reached. It will then be our duty to discuss that with the Commonwealth Prime Ministers. We are, of course, discussing it all the time through the officials, and at other meetings. But that will be the moment. It will then be our duty to consider the situation and to decide what proposals, if any, we are to put before the House.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I ask one further question? What steps does the Prime Minister propose to take so that the British people may also be informed about the broad pattern likely to be acceptable?

The Prime Minister

I think that the proper and the more courteous thing would be first to finish these negotiations. Owing to the time of year it is not possible to go straight on. I think that discussions in August would be impracticable. September is difficult for some of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers, but, still, they all think that they will be able to fit it in. Then the whole picture will be deployed to the people and to Parliament at an appropriate time.

Mr. Walker

As a prelude to the Prime Ministers' conference and to that part of the negotiations with what some people call the Fouchet Committee and others call the Cattani Committee, could my right hon. Friend call a conference of Commonwealth trade and finance Ministers to discuss possible measures for increasing Commonwealth trade so that any measures so agreed on could be taken into consideration both in the negotiations and the Prime Ministers' conference?

The Prime Minister

I do not know that it would be the best way to have a special conference for that. It is going on all the time. We are having visits from these Ministers and our Ministers visit them, and we have discussions with the officials. There will be the Commonwealth Prime Ministers, perhaps with their finance or trade Ministers, and we could have discussions at the same time on that. I can assure the House that all the time we are in the closest touch by every possible means of communication. But the date fixed is the one which I think the most practical, and which certainly has been accepted by all my colleagues in the Commonwealth.

Mr. Grimond

Since this meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers is not to take place until September, will the Prime Minister tell us whether he is confident that no further steps dealing with the political unification of Europe will take place within Europe by that date? Since the right hon. Gentleman said earlier that the Government have certain proposals in this matter, and since the statement of the Lord Privy Seal makes clear that they now accept that the political unification of Europe is a legitimate end of the present negotiations, can the Prime Minister tell us when the people of this country will be informed of the proposals of the Government about the political side of this whole matter?

The Prime Minister

As I said, that is a parallel but a separate issue. I cannot tell what the Six are prepared to do. What we have made clear to them is that while we cannot expect to be asked—not being at the moment a member of the club, if we can call it that—to join in discussions on the political side, since they are hoping, and we are hoping, that we may become a member of this club, if suitable arrangements can be made, we are ready, if invited, to take part in political discussions parallel with the other matter.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

When we debated this matter on 2nd August last year, my right hon. Friend said: We make no binding decisions at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meetings. We follow no agreed foreign policy. We have no agreed defence policy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd August, 1961; Vol. 645, c. 1484.] Does that mean that if the Commonwealth Prime Ministers, or the majority of them, were to be against Britain joining the Common Market, nevertheless Britain would go it alone?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. What I said in those words was the mere fact. Some members of the Commonwealth have a stake in this great defence question and are members of various organisations like N.A.T.O. Others are neutral. Some take part, others are unaligned. That is a fact. Our duty is to continue negotiations to try to put the whole picture before the Commonwealth Prime Ministers and consider what they say, and, in the light of these discussions, to make proposals or not; and to make a decision which we shall announce and ask the House to support.

Mr. Bottomley

May I express a personal hope that the Common Market talks will succeed? Before the proposed Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference, could not the Prime Minister say that if this country had to choose between the Commonwealth and the Common Market countries, the Commonwealth would come first?

The Prime Minister

It has always been our position that if that absolute division of interest took place we would have to see what we have to decide, and what the Commonwealth Prime Ministers will discuss with us, and are now discussing with us, is the broad pattern and whether, in the broad interests of the Commonwealth and of Europe and of the world, it would be good or bad for us to go in. That is the problem and it cannot be decided until more specific negotiations have taken place about the various conditions. The same applies to British agriculture and the same applies to the E.F.T.A. countries.

Mr. H. Wilson

Further to the question by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about informing the British public, including Members of Parliament, is the Prime Minister aware that on three occasions now, the last being last week, important confidential statements have appeared in the columns of The Times while still being refused to hon. Members of the House? In those circumstances, will he consider emulating the bold and forthcoming attitude of the Attorney-General and make arrangements that a White Paper, or some other public statement, shall be issued by the Government at the same time that it goes to The Times?

The Prime Minister

The question of The Times was dealt with by the Lord Privy Seal yesterday. If the hon. Member is meaning to be serious and not merely in a joking mood, the question I would put to him is this. We are in the middle of negotiations; at what point if he were negotiating would he issue a White Paper saying what he hoped to get, what he would propose to accept, the maximum and the minimum of his demands? Would he put all his cards on the table in the negotiation while it was going on? That seems to be absolutely contrary to normal practice of negotiations.

Mr. Speaker rose

Mr. Wilson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since the Prime Minister has addressed a question to me may I be allowed to answer it?

Mr. Speaker

It appeared to be of so rhetorical a character that I thought we ought to get on now to a Question before the House.

  1. Adjournment 12 words
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