HC Deb 07 May 1969 vol 783 cc458-64
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the question of Greece and the Council of Europe.

As the House will be aware, on 6th May the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe passed by 13 votes to two, with three abstentions, a resolution on this question.

This resolution does four things. It identifies the Committee closely with Recommendation 547, passed by the Consultative Assembly on 30th January; it brings the conclusions of that recommendation to the Greek Government's attention—as was suggested by the Consultative Assembly—in order that the Greek Government may draw the necessary conclusions; it expresses the hope that the report of the Commission of Human Rights will be made available as soon as possible; and it declares the Committee ready to take a decision at its next meeting, until which time Recommendation 547 will remain on the agenda of the Committee of Ministers and of their Deputies.

There are several points about this resolution which I should like to emphasise. First, the resolution does not mean indefinite postponement, still less evasion, of this important issue. On the contrary, its effect is to set a time limit for the Greek Government to convince European Opinion that the evolutionary process towards democracy, which, in their view, they have begun, has either been completed or is within striking distance of fulfilment.

The reason why Ministers expressed the hope—and no more—that the Human Rights Commission would make available its report as soon as possible is that constitutionally it would be wrong for the Committee of Ministers to do anything that might suggest that it was giving this distinguished judicial body any kind of directive.

A number of my colleagues urged that no decision should be taken on the Greek question by the Committee until this report was available. There is no doubt that the report will have an important bearing on the Committee's final decision. My own view, which I expressed in the Committee yesterday, is that it is highly desirable that Ministers should have had time to study the report before taking their decision, but that this is not essential.

Finally, the resolution speaks simply of the next meeting of the Committee, without specifying when this meeting will be held. This is deliberate. In certain circumstances, my colleagues and I would be prepared to hold an extraordinary meeting to consider the Greek question.

I believe, therefore, that the outcome of yesterday's meeting was satisfactory. Much of the credit for this is due to the Chairman, the German Foreign Minister.

Mr. Rippon

May I assure the Foreign Secretary that his statement will be generally welcomed as being wise and prudent in present circumstances? Will he accept that it will be widely agreed that it would be constitutionally wrong and unfortunate if the Committee of Ministers did anything that might appear to prejudice or prejudge the findings of the Human Rights Commission?

While recognising, as we all must, that there needs to be a re-establishment of Parliamentary institutions and the rule of law in Greece at the earliest opportunity, and that we have a right to expect the Greek Government to show quick earnestness of its intentions in this matter, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that when similar difficulties arose in Turkey, patience was rewarded and in due course Parliamentary institutions and the rule of law were re-established?

Mr. Stewart

I hope that the decision will be welcomed, because it is, I think, in line with the Recommendation of the Assembly, which spoke of a specified period and left Ministers to judge what the appropriate action to be taken and the specified period were.

As for the report of the Commission, I do not think that I am in complete agreement with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I remind him of what I have said: that while it would be highly desirable for the Committee of Ministers to be seized of the findings of the Commission before making a final decision, I could not regard this as an essential condition or a reason for unlimited postponement.

One of the reasons for the postponement yesterday—and I think that it was a valid reason—was that there was good ground for supposing that the report will be available.

As to the question of patience, this has been in my mind, too. It is a serious matter for any member-nation of the Council of Europe to have governmental institutions which are incompatible with the Statute. I agree, however, that it is reasonable to give time for the necessary changes to be made. I hope that they will be made.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the statement which he has made of Government policy is very much in line with the overwhelming view of the Assembly of the Council of Europe, and particularly what he has said about segregation of the issues before the Commission and the issue of qualification to remain a member of the Council of Europe?

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House, on behalf of the British Government, that if the Commission reports in good time before December the Government will urge that an immediate meeting of Ministers be held to deal with this subject?

Mr. Stewart

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend about the first part of his question. We sought to carry out what, I thought, was both the letter and the spirit of the Assembly's Recommendation, It is perfectly clear that the next meeting could not in any circumstances be later than the normal December time. If the Commission's report were available, and it were possible to hold the meeting earlier, the British Government would certainly be in favour of that being done.

Mr. Kirk

As one of those who was responsible for drawing up the resolution, may I associate myself with what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) and assure the Foreign Secretary that this is wholly within the framework which we were trying to achieve? There seems to be some doubt about whether the unanimity rule applies in this case. Can the right hon. Gentleman clear up that point?

Mr. Stewart

That would, in the end, need to be answered by a lawyer, but it would not be my view—for what it is worth, not being a legal view—that one could hold that the unanimity rule applied here. It would not seem to me to make sense.

Mr. John Fraser

While I take the view that Greece should have been suspended yesterday, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his European colleagues on taking a most serious and important step in the right direction and giving, as it were, a suspended sentence to the Greek junta?

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that the Commission's report is not an absolute precondition to a final decision. Can my right hon. Friend say that the final decision for suspension will be taken unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence of a return to democracy and not mere statements of intention by the Greek colonels?

Mr. Stewart

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for what he said in the first part of his supplementary question.

On the latter part, may I draw attention to what I said in my statement: … its effect is to set a time limit for the Greek Government to convince European opinion that the evolutionary process towards democracy, which in their view they have begun, has either been completed or is within striking distance of fulfilment.

Mr. James Davidson

May I express a very warm welcome for the right hon. Gentleman's statement and the hope that it has left the Greek junta in no doubt about the revulsion felt for certain aspects of its régime and its methods, which affront the principles of both N.A.T.O. and the Council of Europe?

Mr. Stewart

No doubt the proceedings and what was said at the Council will be brought to the notice of the Greek Government. I think that they will realise what is European feeling about this whole matter.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a large number of Greeks, many of whom were prominent in public life, who look to Britain and to the other democratic countries which make up the Council of Europe for continued moral support against the military dictatorship in their country?

Mr. Stewart

Her Majesty's Government, and, I think, Her Majesty's Opposition, made it very clear that we most earnestly desire to see the restoration of constitutional rule in Greece. This is our firm view, and we felt that the line which we took in the Council of Europe was the appropriate way of giving expression to it.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Recommendation 547 of the Assembly, on which the Ministers based their decision, was largely drawn up from a draft prepared by Conservative members of the delegation in the teeth of opposition from Labour members of the delegation?

Would the right hon. Gentleman accept that Members on this side of the House are gratified that the Council of Ministers should have taken the same sensible and judicious attitude to this difficult problem?

Mr. Stewart

I must leave it to hon. Members to blow their own trumpets.

Mr. William Hamilton

Would my right hon. Friend say whether the Greek Government produced any credible evidence of progress towards democracy, as they alleged, what is the nature of the time limit given to them to complete that process, and whether, in the interim, arrangements have been made for the Greek Government to supply that evidence?

Mr. Stewart

As to the time limit, I made it clear that the next meeting of the Council of Ministers could not be later than December. In the resolution passed yesterday the Ministers expressed themselves ready to take a decision at that meeting.

The House will understand that the proceedings are confidential, but I do not think there is any serious breach of confidence in my saying that the Greek representative made a statement about what had been done and what was planned to be done in his country. I assume that that would happen also at the next meeting of the Council, and the Council would then have to judge.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

While giving one blast on the trumpet for the Foreign Secretary's efforts to obtain the restoration of constitutional rule in Greece, may I ask him to bear in mind, in this very difficult situation, the very important strategic interests involved and to do nothing which would prejudice the defence of Western Europe?

Mr. Stewart

I think that we all know very well that this consideration is in the minds of all of us. But we are dealing now with the Council of Europe, which has a Statute requiring certain principles of its members, and that is what is in issue.

Mr. John Mendelson

Apart from the position in the Council of Europe, and with reference to the first part of my right hon. Friend's statement, does the Foreign Secretary recall that under his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown), and himself, those of us who have pressed the Government, either privately or publicly, to take a strong stand on our disapproval of the régime were always met with the reply that it is more wise to continue co-operation in the hope of the restoration of democracy?

Would my right hon. Friend accept that the people of Greece are being told by their Government that we approve of what is being done to them and would he in the near future make our real position clear?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that there is now any doubt about our position. I know that there can be argument about whether, when a country has institutions which are incompatible with the Statute of the Council of Europe, one should proceed immediately to suspension or expulsion or take the view that continued membership of the Council may be helpful to the country concerned. It is right to take the latter view to begin with. All that I can say is that one cannot go on taking it indefinitely if no results occur.