HC Deb 26 October 1967 vol 751 cc1894-904
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on our application to join the three European Communities.

First, let me give a brief summary of developments since the debate in the House on the 8th, 9th and 10th of May. As hon. Members will recall, we then applied to join the Communities in terms strictly in accordance with the appropriate articles in the Treaties which deal with new members. Since that date, all the procedures laid down in the Treaties have been observed.

Before the Summer Recess, and following the statement which I made at the Western European Union Council on 4th July, the Council of Ministers of the Six asked the Commission to prepare an opinion on our application. This the Commission did quickly and thoroughly and its report was presented to the Council of Ministers on 30th of September.

The Commission's Report—which deals also with the application of Denmark, Ireland and Norway—has now been published, and copies of the English version have been available for some days in the Library of the House.

The Report is an internal document of the Community and has not yet been fully debated by the six Governments. But there are two important points in the report to which I should like to draw attention. First, the conclusion that Britain's accession to the Community will strengthen it and afford it the opportunity for further progress. Second, the firm recommendation of the Commission that negotiations should begin. For, as it says, solutions can only be found in negotiations.

As the House knows, this is our view and it conforms with Community procedures as laid down in the Treaty. It is the view of the overwhelming majority of opinion throughout Europe. We want to join the Communities as they are, on equal terms with the other members and we want, with our partners, to go from there and build with them on the foundations that they have laid, so that together we achieve a more united and more powerful Europe. I am glad to think that our purposes in this are now clearly recognised.

The Council of Ministers of the Community discussed, as hon. Members know, the Commission's opinion at some length earlier this week. These discussions will continue on 20th November. Meanwhile, we in Britain should not rush to draw conclusions.

We are confident that the procedures laid down in the Treaty will continue to be followed. The Treaty provides that the member States and the applicant State shall agree on the conditions of admission and the adjustments required. This means negotiations. We therefore continue to expect a reply from the Six as a whole that, having received the Commission's opinion on the point, they are ready to open negotiations with us.

The Luxembourg meeting demonstrated what a lot of support there is for this application in the Community. I should like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the strong support that we received from a number of countries. We are confident that in the further discussions which the Six are to have next month the utmost efforts will be made to obtain agreement that the Community should begin negotiations with us in accordance with the Treaty.

As the House knows, we have had the pleasure of a visit these last three days from the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. This gave us a timely opportunity for a thorough discussion together on these issues. We were encouraged by the strong support which Chancellor Kiesinger and his Government continue to give us. I should like to remind the House of the statement which he made before he left London yesterday: The Federal Government is of the opinion that Great Britain should become a member of the European Communities. It will carefully examine the objections to British membership which have been raised within the Community of the Six. During the deliberations initiated among the Six the Federal Government will endeavour to help overcome the difficulties that have arisen and trusts that these deliberations will soon lead to the opening of negotiations with Great Britain". Her Majesty's Government will continue to press hard for negotiations to open. Our application is on the table. We, for our part, are ready to start negotiations now.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We will, perhaps, be able to return to these matters in a little more detail on the Gracious Speech in a week's time. I will make only three short points now. We agree with the right hon. Gentleman that our application should lie on the table and not be withdrawn. [Laughter.] Not be withdrawn.

We support the Government's request that negotiations should start as soon as possible. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition suggested, I think in November last, that there ought to be discussions in depth into such large questions as the future of sterling, and the possibility of an alternative reserve currency. We have seen no evidence that this has been done by Her Majesty's Government. How would the right hon. Gentleman propose to get over these difficulties and discuss these matters with our friends, and with the French?

Mr. Brown

I do not really know what the right hon. Gentleman meant when he said that he agreed that our application should lie on the table. It is on the table, it is there for active negotiating and if that is what the right hon. Gentleman meant then I agree with him. I had a feeling that in some parts of the House his remark was misunderstood. It is always a large part of my ambition to ensure that the right hon. Gentleman is not knowingly misunderstood.

About the negotiations, I am very grateful for what he has said. I agree with him that we will do everything we can to ensure that negotiations are opened as soon as we can.

On the question of the international rôle of sterling, again, I am not quite clear what he means by "examination in depth". I have said repeatedly, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said many times in various forms, that we do not see any way in which this is an impediment to our membership of the Community, but if any of our would-be partners in the Community wish to raise the question of changing the international monetary system—[AN HON. MEMBER: "They have."] Then we can discuss with them in what way it should be changed, what the new ideas should be, what the new formulation should be. We have put up ideas and suggestions about this. This can he part of the negotiations. But there is nothing in the international rôle of sterling which is an impediment to our joining the Economic Community.

Certainly, one cannot undo overnight a system which has sustained international trade for a very long time, unless the others are willing to join in a new system to take its place. This is what we would negotiate about, and are very willing to do, and it should not hold up the process of negotiations.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Would my right hon. Friend agree that there is a very wide gap, perhaps the widest in modern literature, between the E.E.C. Commission's view of the British economy, and that in the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Scarborough? Will my right hon. Friend confirm, notwithstanding anything that is said by the French or anyone else, that there will be the same insistence in protecting British and Commonwealth interests?

Mr. Brown

I was about to say that there was more than one excellent speech made at Scarborough. If I could go on to deal with the other part of the question, my hon. Friend has concentrated too much upon one part of the Commission's Report and may have missed paragraph 192 to the end. Paragraph 192, which is where the Commission is summing up, says that the new members, … especially the main one, the United Kingdom, would have to agree with the founder members on a solution of a number of problems which would be of vital importance for the harmonious development of the enlarged Community. It then details what they are and ends by saying: It is the Commission's opinion that, in order to dispel the uncertainty which still attaches particularly to certain fundamental points, negotiations should be opened … with the States which have applied for membership. That is the operative part of what it had to say on this subject. We want negotiations to open and, of course, during them we will take care of our interests, as no doubt someone else will be trying to take care of their own.

Mr. Turton

Will the Foreign Secretary make it quite clear that the Government are not ready to abandon sterling's international rôle in any circumstances, nor will they devalue the currency to meet a demand by the French?

Mr. Brown

I am not seeking to lay down conditions about the negotiations. I think that there is a good deal of misunderstanding, knowingly or unknowingly. The place to resolve all these misunderstandings, or what you will, is round the table when negotiations start. If any of the present members of the Community genuinely have worries or doubts, my right hon. Friend and I went through them with them in the course of our tour in Europe before we made up our mind to apply. If they still have doubts, the place to resolve them is round the negotiating table, where we can find answers to them, and we are willing to do so.

Mr. Anderson

If the present bid were to fail, would my right hon. Friend be prepared to adopt a more vigorous style of diplomacy and put the blame for the continued division of Europe precisely where it belongs: at the door of the French and their own political ambitions?

Mr. Brown

I have not so far had the impression that such allegations as there were against me were that my style of diplomacy was not vigorous. On the whole, I would rather that thought rested with my hon. Friend than with me.

Mr. Tapsell

Would not the Foreign Secretary agree that an essential element for successful British entry into the Community is that our economy should be put on a sound footing? Will the Government provide the financial inducements and the proper competitive climate for this to be done?

Mr. Brown

We are putting the economy on a satisfactory footing, as anybody who compares its present state with what it was when we inherited it can see—and two and a half years is a very short period in which to clear up the mess which the Opposition made during the 13 years they were in office. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be speaking tonight in the City on all these matters and he will be dealing firmly with them.

Mr. Dickens

As the prospects for entry into the E.E.C. are, fortunately, not now good, will not my right hon. Friend agree that the time has come for the Government to frame alternative proposals, namely, to strengthen E.F.T.A. and to develop our links with Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth?

Mr. Brown

As I have told my hon. Friend before, he is failing to recognise changes in the patterns of trade and in the patterns of association which are, and have been for a long time, going on in the world. I said this at Scarborough. It is absolutely true.

As I said at Scarborough, if we were unable, alas, to become members of the E.E.C., we would have to look for other ways of organising our future. While nobody in the E.E.C. should misunderstand that we could in those circumstances do so, I think that all those alternatives are less good from our point of view, from the point of view of Europe and from the point of view of the world than our accession to the Treaty.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Would the Foreign Secretary assist by clarifying the Government's view of the nature and timetable of the negotiations? Do they envisage negotiations in the ordinary sense of a discussion between equals, or have the Government abandoned all minimum conditions of entry?

As to the timetable, would the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the Government will not be left in the position of a suppliant at the outer gates of the Community petitioning for leave to enter and awaiting the pleasure of the masters within?

Mr. Brown

One thing which we certainly will not be is what we seemed to be in 1962 and 1963. A suppliant we are not. A country which can bring a great deal of much needed strength to our Continental friends, we are. We therefore will go to the negotiations in that sense and, as when my right hon. Friend and I went to the capitals of Europe, we will demonstrate the strengths which we shall bring. We envisage negotiations as between equals and we shall conduct them in that way. It would be premature for me to speak about the timetable today.

Mr. John Hynd

Will my right hon. Friend give the House a categorical assurance that in the event of our application for full membership of the European Community not being accepted we will certainly in no circumstances accept any form of association in which this country would be required to conform to decisions in which we have no part?

Mr. Brown

Her Majesty's Government are interested in membership and are anxious to be members, not only because of the economic consequences, but because of the political power and influence which that would give to this wider Western Europe. I do not see any sense in which association would give us or the Continent any of those benefits.

Mr. Maudling

Is it a fact, as reported in the Press, that the Government are putting forward proposals for strengthening E.F.T.A.? If so, what are those proposals?

Mr. Brown

Answering for what appears in the Press would be more than a full-time job. E.F.T.A. exists and is a very powerful, strong and successful body. My right hon. Friends who are in Lausanne today are discussing with E.F.T.A., as befits friends, all the happenings to date.

To follow up an earlier question, what E.F.T.A. should do if all our applications for membership were refused is a matter which we would have then to consider. For the moment, I do not propose to go into that. For the present, I believe, and I intend to go on acting in that belief, that negotiations for membership by those of us who have applied will start. Thereafter we will, of course, discuss and continue to discuss with our E.F.T.A. partners and with our Commonwealth partners the consequences as they arise.

Mr. James Davidson

May I ask the Foreign Secretary for an assurance that when, in his statement, he spoke of achieving a more united and more powerful Europe, he was speaking in the political and economic sense and not in any sense of a third military force in Europe? Does he intend to reply to a reported statement by General de Gaulle that he is doing this country a good turn in postponing our entry to Europe?

Mr. Brown

It is a wise thing for each of us who are running affairs in our own countries to go a little bit carefully about doing other people a good turn, and I was not very impressed with that remark.

The answer to the first part of the question is that I have never had any sympathy with the idea of a third force. I believe that we serve our own purposes better, and that we serve the peace and stability of the world better, by being as we are, committed in the issue and in the divisions. I still think, however, that it is very important that Europe should be strong and powerful enough, compared with the two super-States in the world, to be able to make its voice and its influence heard. We will not do that if we remain as divided as we are today. It is in that sense that I want Europe to become more united and to have a more powerful rôle and greater influence to bring to bear.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of hon. Members on this side of the House who are believers in British entry into the Common Market and regret the fact that we might find ourselves in the position of not being able to go in, nevertheless believe that, unless we get by the end of the year some definite assurance that, in principle, we will be accepted into the Community, the Government should not continue negotiations with people who obviously have no intention of accepting us?

Is he further aware that, if we continue in such circumstances with our application, it will be considered by the British people that we are crawling to the French? As far as I am concerned, I hope that there is no intention by the Government to proceed in that way.

Mr. Brown

One of the very pleasant things in the last few months has been the sterling support we have received from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer).

Mr. Harold Davies

He has seen the light.

Mr. Brown

May I beg him not to depart from the ways of righteousness too soon?

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there is a wide disappointment in the country at what seems to be a setback—I hope only temporary—to our application? Will he make it clear that the Government see no adequate alternatives to our going into Europe and, also, that in the policy he now proposes to demonstrate to Europe we are more European than the President of France and not less?

Mr. Brown

I do not accept that there has been any setback. I said in my statement that we would do very well not to rush into drawing conclusions. There will be a resumed meeting of the Ministers of the Six on 20th November. In the meantime, we are making our position quite clear. This is that we are ready to join and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 10th November, 1966, are able to join. We want to start negotiating about the problem and there is an overwhelming weight of opinion in Europe, both on the Continent and here, that this should be done and I do not think that there is any statesman who, in the end, can stand up against that overwhelming opinion.

Mr. Michael Foot

When the Government recommended this application to the House of Commons, did they not state that they thought negotiations should be fairly speedy and that this was the right way to do it? "Pace and momentum" was the phrase used by the Government at the time, together with "maintaining" pace and momentum.

Does his statement that our application will lie on the table mean an abandonment of that timetable? How soon are we to be told what is the Government's new timetable, because many of us believe that the longer we wait the greater the injury that will be done to ourselves and to E.F.T.A.? Many of us wonder why it is taking the Government so long to understand what the French Government say and what many of us have been saying. Is not our advice proving to be very much wiser than the advice that the Foreign Office has given the Government?

Mr. Brown

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) in his Gaullist uniform. The timetable remains and our approach is the same. This is that we should start negotiations soon. We kept the issues about which we want to negotiate before entry as short as we could, and, therefore, the period of negotiations could be a short one and the programme speedy. I see nothing whatever to change my assessment of that situation once we start negotiations.

On a minor point—it was not I who said that our application should lie on the table. It was a phrase used, a little unhappily, I thought, by the right hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home). My own view is that the application is in, the statement in support of it has been made, the Commission's opinion has been delivered and everybody has said that negotiations should start. It is our business to get them started.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The right hon. Gentleman seems to be trying to make trouble about the words, "lie on the table". He said that the Paper "on the table". Presumably, therefore, it lies on the table. That is the ordinary Parliamentary phrase. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not trying to make trouble. We are genuinely trying to help the Government to conduct successful negotiations.

Mr. Brown

The last thing I ever need to do for myself is to make trouble. But, if I may say so, there is a difference—and it is a bigger difference than merely in tone or nuance—between talking about something being "on the table" for negotiations and saying that it "lies on the table". I am drawing that essential difference. Our application is on the table for early negotiations.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. On that semantic note, we must move on.