HC Deb 21 March 1968 vol 761 cc596-9
Q5. Mr. Marten

asked the Prime Minister if he will discuss with the United States President the question of a joint feasibility study of the North Atlantic Free Trade Area proposal, in view of the similar study now being undertaken by the United States of America.

Q8. Mr. Turton

asked the Prime Minister if he will set up a feasibility study on the proposals for an industrial free trade area between the United Kingdom, European Free Trade Association, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. As the House knows, there is no evidence that a North Atlantic Free Trade Area is a realistic present alternative to membership of the European Economic Community which remains, of course, Her Majesty's Government's prime aim. In these circumstances the diversion of resources to a major feasibility study could not be justified.

Mr. Marten

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Americans, under Ambassador Roth, are making a study of all the various trading possibilities for American overseas policy? Would he not reconsider this? Does he not think that the Government should make a study of this proposal and publish it in relation to other opportunities which might exist for this country?

The Prime Minister

My own recent discussions in the United States confirm that there is no reason to think that the United States Government have any ideas or suggestions to make in this direction. Mr. Roth's remarks in his statement to the Congressional Committee on 19th February were in the general context of a very long-term study of future American trade policy as a whole. As far as Her Majesty's Government are concerned, we studied this intensively before announcing our decision to apply for entry into E.E.C. on 2nd May, and all our considerations resulting from that study were presented to the House in the three-day debate which followed.

Mr. Jay

In view of the bleak atmosphere which prevails in Paris and is likely to prevail for some time, will the British Government now show an initiative and be at least as active as the United States in exploring these ideas?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend knows that we anticipated the United States in exploring these ideas, hence what I have said about the statements made in the House in the debate last May. I think that a situation of what my right hon. Friend not inappropriately calls bleakness in this context should not of itself be a reason for being driven or panicked into changes which would affect this country's trading relationships for the next hundred years, because that would be the position if we were now pushed into saying that we are not going forward with our application but are looking elsewhere.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Was not the Prime Minister taught in earlier years the unwisdom of putting all one's eggs into one basket, particularly when experience shows it to be such a fragile and elusive basket? Cannot the Government, even in this instance only, take the initiative and make a full inquiry into the possibilities of this challenging concept?

The Prime Minister

I have referred to the inquiries made into this challenging concept which were made when we finally took our decision. Having been well instructed in the subject referred to by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, something else which would be extremely wrong would be, at the first whiff of disappointment, to start rapidly transferring all the eggs from one basket into another basket which was even more fragile.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this proposition will be a complete waste of public money, especially in view of the fact that the United States Government are so heavily committed in the Vietnam War, which is very dangerous not only to the economy of that country but to everyone else's? Therefore, are not the Government quite right in rejecting such an unnecessary proposition?

The Prime Minister

The inquiries and the full study that we made a year ago did not involve a waste of public expenditure. It was right that the Government and the House should be in a position to choose as a long-term proposition where our best interests lay. When I say "long-term" I mean past any period of bleakness in one capital or the duration of the war to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Mr. Bessell

In view of the statement issued following the important conference held in New York last month attended by representatives of all political parties from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where it was made clear that this concept was not in conflict with the E.E.C., would the Prime Minister not look at the matter again?

The Prime Minister

I have seen reports of this conference, which was attended by a number of distinguished representatives of this House. However, distinguished though they were, I do not think that they necessarily or in any sense purport to represent the majority view of this House, to judge from the voting on this proposition last May. It is the desire and the intention not only of ourselves but of our friends in Europe so to build up the strength of Europe that we can play a much more significant part both politically and economically in the much wider world structure which I am sure the hon. Gentleman and his friends who went to America have in mind.

Mr. Shinwell

What possible harm could a feasibility study of this character do? is the Government's reluctance to undertake a study of this kind in any way due to the fear of offending General de Gaulle? After all, is it not very desirable that we should offend the General in this matter?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend is putting that forward because of his well-known conviction that he wants us to get into the Common Market and that offending President de Gaulle is the best way to do it. So far as the study for which he asks is concerned, I have said once or twice today that the Government conducted a very thorough inquiry at top Ministerial level, and the results of it were reported to the House. I was not clear in the three-day debate which followed that any very convincing arguments were put from any part of the House to suggest that the conclusions of our study were wrongly conceived.

Several Hon Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Heath. Business Question.