HC Deb 20 December 1967 vol 756 cc1267-76
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

Mr.Speaker, with permission I should like to make a statement about our application for membership of the European Communities.

Hon. Members will know of the events which took place in Brussels yesterday at the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Six. In spite of strong insistence by the representatives of five of the Governments, and the clear recommendation of the European Commission, the representative of one of them—France—refused to permit the opening of negotiations on our application.

Here let me pay tribute to the five Governments and to the Commission for the very considerable efforts they have made individually and collectively to bring this enterprise to a successful conclusion.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House some weeks ago that if, contrary to our hopes and the hopes of most people in Europe, a veto were to be imposed, we should still regard ourselves as committed to our main purpose in Europe.

I reaffirm that today. We continue to believe that the long-term interests of this country and of Europe require that we should become a member of the European Communities.

The House will have seen the statement issued by the Foreign Office last night which set out our position. I will arrange for it to be included in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

The communiqué which was issued after yesterday's meeting of the Community Council of Ministers made clear that our application, as well as those of the other countries, remain on the agenda of the Council of Ministers. We, in turn, confirm that our application stands. We do not intend to withdraw it.

We now propose to enter into consultations with those five members of the European Community which supported the Commission's view that negotiations should be started at an early stage.

We shall, of course, also be in the closest touch with the members of European Free Trade Association and the Irish Republic. We are by no means the only country whose hopes of progress towards a genuine European unity have been temporarily disappointed.

As regards the content of the consultations, to which I have referred, and which will begin at once, we, for our part, want to see the links between us forged as strongly as possible. But we cannot expose ourselves to any further vetoes on the part of President de Gaulle.

As regards our relations with France, while we shall not indulge in any peevish or petty reaction to the present situation, it would be idle to pretend that what has happened is not a grave blow to our mutual relationship. We think that the attitude taken by the French Government represents a false view of the future of our Continent of Europe. We think that it contains a deplorable number of mistaken ideas about the realities of the various questions at issue. We question its motivation. But I think it important to stress that this is not an Anglo-French affair. This is a matter for Europe.

We regret, of course, that Europe has been held back temporarily from achieving the unity which it now aspires to. But it is just because time and events in this technological age are running against Europe that we do not intend, as a result of this temporary check, to abandon all work along the road.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

This is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, not only a setback for us, but it is a blow to European unity as such, and to work for European unity must be the long-term objective of this country and of others. I am glad to know that the right hon. Gentleman intends to keep in touch with the Five, although it is true, I think, that no member of the Community can make bilateral trade agreements; but the Community has to make trade agreements as a whole. Meanwhile, is not this an additional challenge to us to make ourselves as competitive as we can and to look for trade wherever we can?

Mr. Brown

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said in his opening remarks. It is tremendously important that we make ourselves competitive, and that the Government are doing now, as he knows.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on the question of it not being possible for any member of the Community to make bilateral or trilateral arrangements with someone else.

Mr. Shinwell

Many of us, although we disagree with him fundamentally, res- pect my right hon. Friend's sincerity in the matter and understand his feelings. He has suffered a severe setback. That we recognise, and so does he. But does he think that he will promote European unity and understanding with the countries of the Six, not only of the Five, by beginning negotiations with the Five as against another member of the Six? Does he think that that will promote European unity?

Does not my right hon. Friend consider that, in the circumstances, because there is a strong feeling in the country—I am not prepared to say a majority—against the Government's allowing themselves to be further humiliated, the time has come, in the interests of the country and in the interests of, perhaps, a future European unity, when he should cease to waste any further time and any further expenditure in proceeding with this futile project?

Mr. Brown

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for the kind words he said about me. This is not a setback to me. I took the view, and my colleagues supported me in it, that we had to have a clear answer one way or another now so that we could plan the road ahead. In that sense, therefore, the issue is clearer now, and we shall plan the road ahead.

I do not even take the view that this is a humiliation for us, for this country, and I shall tell my right hon. Friend and those others in the House who would like to listen why I say that. I have not any doubt whatever myself that, as the world is developing, Europe must integrate if it is to be of a sufficient size to have sufficient weight, power and influence in that world. Therefore, we have to go on. We cannot accept the veto of General de Gaulle.

On history, Europe will integrate. Our business is to arrange that it does. In the meantime, we must organise our affairs with those who think as we do, who are most of the Governments of Europe, and, I suspect, the overwhelming majority of the people of Europe, to ensure that we are moving to that object.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this decision has placed many large British companies in an almost impossible position as regards their future and their planning? Will he take note that what the country needs is guidance and help to make itself as efficient as possible, to take every opportunity which occurs—such as the one we might have had a few days ago—and to prove to Europe that we are worth-while partners?

Mr. Brown

Yes, Sir; I take that point. We are doing all we can to ensure that we are as efficient as possible. We are ready—we stand ready now—to consult with industry about how things should be handled in the immediately ensuing situation. I trust that all big or small British companies will handle their affairs as we are now going to handle the nation's affairs so that we lead up to a situation where, clearly, we shall be members of an integrated European Community.

Sir G. de Freitas

Will my right hon. Friend take every opportunity to remind our right hon. and hon. Friends who are so anxious now to retreat before the French that our entry would be welcomed not only by the Commission, not only by five of the six Governments and by many French people both inside and outside Parliament, but by every single Socialist Party in Western Europe?

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the reasons for British entry, which were overwhelmingly subscribed to by this House, are in no way changed and cannot be changed by a decision of the French President?

Mr. Brown

Yes, Sir; and, by the same token, the view of the Continent cannot for ever, or even for long, be overruled by the view of the present President of France.

Mr. Alfred Morris

We recognise the great sincerity and consistency of my right hon. Friend's attitude, but is he aware that there is a sense of outrage in the country at the manner in which we have been treated? Will he agree that it is time to return the Leader of the Opposition's clothes which he ought never to have taken from him?

Mr. Brown

I do not believe that there is a sense of outrage in the country about this. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] We are all entitled to our own view. I do not believe that there is. I believe that the country realised that, given the present President of France, this was likely to happen. I believe that the country wanted a straight answer, "Yes" or "No", at this point, and I believe that the country wants the Government to organise its affairs from here on in the light of the decision and of our determination ultimately to become members. So long as we do that, the country will place the blame where it clearly belongs.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Now that the hypothetical situation referred to by the Prime Minister yesterday has ceased to be hypothetical today, how long are we prepared to allow our application to lie on the table—one year, two years? How long?

Mr. Brown

We are now going to organise our affairs in consultation with other European countries—those of the Five, those of E.F.T.A., the Irish Republic—so that we can become full members of the Community the moment that is available to us, and in the meantime we shall neglect no opportunity of closer integration that offers itself.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while many of us accept that it has not been a humiliation on the part of the Government, if we continue, nevertheless, to knock on the door after this decision, because it must be a decision of the whole of the Common Market countries—one understands this despite the fact that it is a French veto—it will be considered a humiliation by the people of our country? Is he also aware that we must now take a sharp turn in our policies in relation to overseas trade? Will he not consider strengthening E.F.T.A., developing our trade with the Comecon countries and getting long-term contracts in relation to the underdeveloped countries?

Mr. Brown

The analogy of knocking on the door does not seem to me to be right. I can see no future for this Continent, let alone this country, unless we integrate and become a sizeable unit. We have, therefore, to organise affairs so that we reach that point. Therefore, I do not intend to take any sharp turn. That does not mean that we should disregard the idea of more trade whether with the Comecon countries, whether with the countries of the Commonwealth or anywhere else.

But I am absolutely certain—as certain as I am of anything in an uncertain world—that at the end of the day somebody has to bring about a situation where there is in Europe a domestic market of 280 million people. If we can do that, then we can face the technological and other challenges of America and the Soviet Union, and then we shall tremendously change the very disorganised face of the world today.

Mr. James Davidson

We on the Liberal bench would like to endorse the main content of the Foreign Secretary's statement, in particular, the part that states that the long-term interests of this country and of Europe require that we should become members of the European Community and that there is no alternative.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary, whether, as an interim measure, he will take steps to establish a technological community under supranational authority and start discussions with a view to establishing a European reserve currency to take the burden off sterling?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not go into the details of that, but on the other hand, part of the consultation that we are now to have with our colleagues on the mainland of Europe will obviously involve discussions about technological co-operation, and I think that the hon. Gentleman's point will be taken up.

Mr. Jay

As further uncertainty and indecision will only do more harm to our trade, particularly in the Commonwealth, will the Government now recognise that this diversion has gone far enough and that the worst possible policy now would be for them to fail to get into the E.E.C. and to fail to pursue any of the other alternatives which are open to us?

Mr. Brown

I think that my right hon. Friend—as he well knows, we have felt this both together for a long times—is totally wrong on all these counts. There is nothing in the policy that I have outlined which will prevent us increasing our trade as we are doing in other areas. My right hon. Friend fails, as he has always failed—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is you who have failed."]—to recognise that our place is in Europe, that we are a European Power, that we have always paid a very heavy cost whenever Europe has been in difficulties, and that we can reap rich benefits by becoming part of an integrated Europe.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

On this black day for Europe, for which it would be quite unjust the blame the Foreign Secretary, would not the most constructive policy for the Government to follow be to start changing now our policy of taxation and our system of agricultural support to facilitate British entry when the moment comes?

Mr. Brown

Some parts of that question do not seem to be for me. I am glad that there is something for which I am not going to be blamed. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Do not overdo it. I would seriously beg every hon. Member in the House not to treat this as a day of gloom. This was a decision which was predictable, but which we had to have in order to plan ahead. If there is any gloom it will be over the Elysée and not over Britain.

Mr. Blackburn

Would it not be much wiser to be realists and accept the position as it is and is likely to be for some years and stop dissipating our energies and concentrate our thoughts and energies on settling our own economic problems? If at some future time we receive a unanimous request from the Six to join them, we can consider it, but for God's sake let us stop begging.

Mr. Brown

I do not know about the sake of God, but, speaking for ourselves, I know this. These things are not contradictory. Of course we shall concentrate on putting the economy in order, but, equally, we are sent here by our constituents to think not only of today, but of the situation in which this country will have to live five, 10 or 20 years ahead. I believe that that is not a dissipation of our energies. I believe that everything requires us, in addition to doing what today needs, to look to that. I remain of the opinion that an integrated Europe is of tremendous importance in the longer term.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

The Foreign Secretary will know that this is certainly not a day of gloom for me. Will he say what proposals he has for strengthening trade and alliances among the English-speaking peoples and particularly with the United States?

Mr. Brown

We are developing our trade relations with America, with the whole of North America, by every means that we have at our disposal. We shall continue to do so. If the hon. Gentleman has any new ideas to contribute, the President of the Board of Trade and I will be very glad to receive them.

Mr. Henig

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that it would have absolutely disastrous consequences for relations inside Western Europe if we were now in panic and hauteur to withdraw our application? Will he also bear in mind, during the succeeding consultations with different European countries, that there are possibilities under the Treaty of Rome for action in the trading field which would require only a majority vote according to the procedures laid down in the Treaty?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend and I are so often in agreement, and I am delighted to know that it is so today and that he may never get into a panic and never act out of hauteur. As I have said, we will develop to the full all the opportunities open to us with one country, two countries, three or four, or the Five, in any field in which those opportunities are open.

Mr. Worsley

Will the right hon. Gentleman resist the temptation of pursue illusory alternatives such as a North Atlantic free trade area?

Mr. Brown

I am very good at resisting temptation.

Mr. Milne

When will the Government face the reality of the situation? Is my right hon. Friend aware that at only one well-publicised breakfast meeting did the Five give us the full support we were told that they would give to our application? Will the Government now pay the greatest attention to the opportunities afforded by strengthening E.F.T.A. and the Commonwealth countries so as to increase our bargaining power to make us into a real European Community and not merely go knocking on the door of the Six in future?

Mr. Brown

There seems to be a lot of contradiction in that supplementary question. My hon. Friend's reference to one breakfast meeting does not make even the beginnings of a generous recognition of the efforts of our friends. The Five have worked exceedingly hard for our application and are as cast down about the situation as anyone else. That should be understood.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) said earlier that those disappointed by the French decision include the Socialists and the trade unionists as well as every other party in those countries. Facing up to reality means recognising where the future of this country and of the rest of this Continent must lie. We cannot build a European Community by knocking on the doors of countries which are not in Europe.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the day.

Mr. Shinwell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Foreign Secretary's replies, I beg to give notice that I will raise this matter at the first favourable opportunity.

Following is the statement issued by the Foreign Office on 19th December, 1967: It is a matter of grave concern that the Government of France has been unable to accept the unanimous view of its partners that negotiations for Britain's accession to the European Communities should start at once. This can only delay the inevitable progress towards a united Europe including Britain, which is in the interest of Europe as a whole. There is no question of withdrawing Britain's application. Her Majesty's Government believe that, given the support of the five Governments and the overwhelming majority of opinion throughout Western Europe, European unity is bound to be achieved. Her Majesty's Government will be consulting about the implications of the present situation with other European Governments who share Britain's views on the future of Europe.