HC Deb 20 October 1975 vol 898 cc28-32
Mr. Maudling (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on his meeting with other Foreign Ministers of the EEC.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. James Callaghan)

I attended an informal meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the European Community in Lucca on 18th and 19th October. This meeting was similar in nature to those which took place on two earlier occasions. The value of these meetings is that the discussions are confidential and are an opportunity for the Foreign Ministers of the Community to have an exchange of views. No decisions are taken and no communiqué is issued.

Mr. Maudling

I appreciate the Foreign Secretary's difficulties, but he will be aware of the widespread reports and discussion about our representation at the forthcoming energy conference, on which there is much public concern. Is he aware that this is a serious and difficult problem because of the conflict of British interests in North Sea oil and our interest in the cohesion of the Community and the success of the conference? Will the right hon. Gentleman take note that the Opposition, while appreciating his concern with British interests, are concerned about his manner of handling them, and that while we in this House appreciate his quarterdeck manner, there are those in Europe who do not? It is important that the problem should be solved. Will the Foreign Secretary say how the Government intend to emerge from a difficult situation in which our interests in the North Sea clash with our interests in the future of this conference, and what the Government intend to do about it?

Mr. Callaghan

Although it was many years ago, I should make it clear that I was on the lower deck rather longer than I was on the quarterdeck. Neither manner would be appropriate to my very conciliatory and friendly discussions with my eight Foreign Minister colleagues. We should not always accept the lurid colours in which these matters are painted in the Press as fairly representing the nature of the discussions that take place.

We talked yesterday about the conference. The initiative for the conference was taken by France and the arrangements have been basically made by that country. I take no exception to them. I explained the British position to my colleagues so that there should be a clear understanding on their part that, because of the broad range of subjects being discussed, we thought that Britain should be able to represent her point of view. They pointed out to me their views. Although no decisions are taken at these meetings, I did not feel that either of us advanced very far—indeed, I do not think that we advanced at all. The position is as it was when I went there on Saturday.

I do not think that the House will press me to disclose our negotiating position. As the right hon. Gentleman said, I want to make sure that Britain is properly represented and that the conference is a success. Those two aims are not mutually exclusive and I shall continue to work to achieve both.

Mr. Heffer

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many Labour Members feel that he has handled the matter extremely well, and that as long as he continues in the same way and puts the interests of this country before the interests of anyone else in this matter, he will receive wide support from most hon. Members, certainly Labour Members?

Mr. Callaghan

I am much obliged to my right hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is not' right honourable' ".] Then he should be "right honourable". It is not for me to dispose of these matters, but I feel sure that I am only looking into the future.

We must try to reconcile all the interests. I am as concerned as anyone else to see that the dialogue between the producing and consuming countries, which has now been extended, shall be successful. Since the original idea of the discussion on energy, three further substantive commissions have been brought in. The first is raw materials, on which it would be fair to say that we have a point of view which we put to the Prime Ministers in Jamaica. Secondly, there is development, on which we have a point of view. Thirdly, there is what is called in a large way financial affairs and financial questions. As Britain is still the second reserve centre in the world, it would be odd if I did not say that there was a British point of view that should be represented. Within those limitations it is important that we should try to make a success of all this, and I dare say we shall do so in the end.

Mr. Amery

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we all acknowledge the difference between the interests of the energy producers and those of the consumers, and that our only feeling is that the ideal solution would be to hammer out an agreed policy and secure that British representatives were in a sufficiently key position in the European delegation to ensure that our interests are well preserved? If that is what the right hon. Gentleman is working for, no doubt he can count on the support of the House, but if he is trying to establish an entirely separate position without prior negotiation, that is a different story.

Mr. Callaghan

I am trying to establish that British interests are properly represented. How that is done is a matter for discussion and negotiation. I am sure it is right that I should endeavour to do that.

Mr. Thorpe

I accept the confidentiality of the talks but not the right hon. Gentleman's view of patronage. What initiative will be taken to resolve this deadlock? Will there be further talks at Foreign Secretary level, and will they be arranged through the Commission?

Mr. Callaghan

This is a matter not for the Commission but for the Community and the presidency of the Community. Therefore, there will have to continue to be exchanges between Foreign Ministers if others wish to discuss the matter with us, and I imagine that that will be the case.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that Britain is in a peculiar position, being both a producer and a consumer? Does he recall that during the referendum campaign he made it clear that on oil questions the EEC would not be able to dictate to Her Majesty's Government? Will he stand firm on that undertaking?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, Sir, there is no doubt about that. The only extent to which the Community can come into this question is by agreement with the United Kingdom Government. It will be for the United Kingdom Government—and Parliament, of course—to determine where and how our interests are best served. What is important is that those interests should be properly served.

Mr. Henderson

As it is Scottish oil, that the Foreign Secretary is talking about, will he confirm that he is pressing strongly for an independent Scottish representation.

Mr. Callaghan

No, Sir. I cannot confirm anything of the sort.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will my right hon. Friend accept that some of the plain speaking for which he is well known would be welcomed from right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative benches who appear in the European Parliament to be running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, at least by implication criticising our right to have a seat at the talks while at the same time supporting some of the most intransigent attacks upon this country without any justification?

Mr. Callaghan

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend and for the support she and other hon. Members gave when the matter was raised at the Strasbourg Assembly. I am sure that she recognises that the usual fallback position for any Opposition when they agree with what the Government are doing is to say "Yes, we agree with what you are doing but you are doing it in an utterly wrong and reprehensible manner". That is the small change of politics, I fear.

Mr. Tapsell

Will the right hon. Gentleman note that some of us who have for many years been strong supporters of British membership of the EEC gave our constituents assurances before the plebiscite that Britain would retain full control of our North Sea oil? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that British interests in these matters are very different from those of the other members of the EEC? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that I for one warmly welcome the stand which he is taking?

Mr. Callaghan

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that a great many other Conservative Members would say the same thing if they got to their feet, although I dare say that there is some division on Conservative benches. The important thing is that British interests should be properly represented. By 1980 this country will be responsible for as much as 45 per cent. of the production of energy in the Community, if we add together our coal, oil and nuclear production. I would have thought that that demanded a rather large voice.