HC Deb 04 February 1976 vol 904 cc1203-8
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about business to be taken in the Council of Ministers of the European Community during February. The monthly forecast for February was deposited yesterday.

At present five meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for February. Foreign Ministers will meet on 9th-10th; Agriculture Ministers on 16th and 17th and possibly 18th and on 23rd-24th; Finance Ministers on 16th, and Research Ministers on 24th February, although the date has yet to be confirmed. An Energy Council may be held before the end of February.

At the Foreign Affairs Council Ministers will consider the work put in hand following the Conference on International Economic Co-operation. Ministers will also consider tropical products in the context of the multilateral trade negotiations; external lending of the European Investment Bank the Commission's formal opinion on Greek accession, and the Community's relations with Spain. Ministers are expected to approve the agreements recently negotiated with the Maghreb countries. Direct elections may also be on the agenda, but there is not expected to be any substantive discussion.

Agriculture Ministers will continue their discussions on CAP prices for 1976–77 and on measures for improving the Community wine market. Finance Ministers will resume discussions of the joint Community borrowing scheme and may also discuss Euratom loans for nuclear power stations.

At the Research Council, Ministers will consider proposals for a five-year Community research programme in the field of controlled thermonuclear fusion and plasma physics including the Joint European Torus. They will also have before them proposed indirect action programmes on environmental research and development and biology and health protection.

If Energy Ministers meet in February it is expected that they will discuss the proposals which the European Council on 1st and 2nd December 1975 asked the Commission to prepare. These cover mechanisms to protect existing supplies and the development of alternative sources of energy; also the encouragement of energy conservation.

Mr. Tugendhat

Is the Minister of State aware that we were disappointed that in the previous statement the Foreign Secretary could not say more about progress by Britain over the common fisheries policy. Will he say whether, now that ample opportunities appear to be provided for both the Foreign Ministers and the Agriculture Ministers to meet, this question will arise and whether Britain will be taking initiatives in this respect?

The Minister of State mentioned Maghreb. A state of, if not war, considerable armed activity exists in the Maghreb now. Does the Minister feel that the recent agreement negotiated with the Maghreb countries is affected by the dispute which is going on there? Will he enlarge a little on what he means about discussions on a joint Community borrowing scheme? Finally, in view of the statement about direct elections, when do the Government propose to publish their paper on that?

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are certain difficulties in dealing in a business statement with substantive matters such as the hon. Member raised with me. I will attempt to do so until Mr. Speaker tells me that I have offended against the rules of order. On the first point, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Agriculture last month stressed the importance of making progress on the common fisheries policy. I believe that progress will be made in the Community on these matters during February, although possibly it will not be on the agenda of the Council of Ministers, and it is upon that agenda that I have to report today.

On the Maghreb issue, the proposals we have before us are purely commercial and are therefore unaffected by the unhappy political situation in that country. As for the borrowing proposals, there is a suggestion from the Governments of Italy and Ireland which do not affect the United Kingdom.

Mr. Marten

Will the right hon. Gentleman convey to his colleagues that we have had very few statements to this House after ministerial meetings in Brussels? May we have an improvement on that? Secondly, will the Foreign Ministers deal with the question of Angola, which is not unimportant, and do something instead of just sitting around talking?

Mr. Hattersley

If the hon. Gentleman believes that the statements are inadequate, I hope that he will continue to make representations. A month ago I was told that debates on the Community were inadequate. The occasion was followed by a debate which ran out before its allocated time because there was insufficient interest in the House.

On Angola I can only tell the hon. Gentleman what I tell him almost every month. If these matters are considered they are considered by the political cooperation machinery of the Community, which is not part of the statement I made today.

Mr. Fernyhough

When the Foreign Ministers discuss economic co-operation, will they discuss the big trade deficit which the United Kingdom has with the rest of the EEC? Will any steps be taken in the reasonably near future to reduce that substantial deficit?

Mr. Hattersley

Those are essentially questions which relate not to Community business but to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to whom my right hon. Friend should put down that question.

Mr. John Davies

The right hon. Gentleman enumerated in his statement items concerning energy which are to be discussed at the current meeting of the Council, including the development of alternative sources of energy, the protection of supplies, the financing of Euratom projects and the like. In view of that, will the right hon. Gentleman recommend to his right hon. Friend that it would be appropriate for one of the days which his right hon. Friend proposes to be allocated for Community matters in this House to be devoted to a major debate on energy?

Mr. Hattersley

That is a matter which should be raised on Thursday, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will do so during questions on the business statement.

Mr. Jay

At which of these gatherings will Ministers discuss the urgent issue of the reform of the common agricultural policy, in which only negligible progress has been made?

Mr. Hattersley

At the many gatherings of the Agriculture Ministers which are to take place this month.

Mr. David Steel

The Minister of State said that direct elections would be on the agenda of the Foreign Ministers Council but that there was not expected to be any substantive discussion. Will the right hon. Gentleman enlarge on that and tell us how the Government's timetable for the publication of their White Paper fits into the Community discussions?

Mr. Hattersley

The substantive issue of direct elections will not be discussed this month because the working party set up by the Council will not have reported by the time the Foreign Ministers meet. As the hon. Gentleman knows well, the Government are already conducting discussions with the parties about these matters. It is intended that the White Paper will be published in such a way and at such a time as to allow consideration well in advance of the debate in the House.

Mr. Skinner

When my right hon. Friend next meets his fellow Ministers in Europe will he discuss the possibility of setting up a Welsh television channel, in view of the interruptions we have had this afternoon—

Mr. Speaker

Order. By long tradition we ignore what happens in other places. I must apologise to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for the interruptions during his question. I thought we had enough Welsh yesterday.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend discuss the possibility of a Welsh television channel—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that question comes strictly within the terms of the statement. So far, Wales is included in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Biffen

Does the Secretary of State for Energy intend to have a bilateral meeting with Dr. Mario Pedini, the Italian Minister for Scientific Research, before the meeting at which the Joint European Torus project is to be further discussed? Will the right hon. Gentleman make representations that the House would appreciate an early statement following that meeting in view of the widespread belief in this country that the scientific evidence points overwhelmingly to the project being located at Culham?

Mr. Hattersley

I am anxious, as I have been for two years, to establish that this is not an occasion for hon. and right hon. Members to make points unrelated to European business, no matter how valid or invalid they may be. The hon. Gentleman must put that question down to someone else.

Mr. Donald Stewart

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said that fishery negotiations were complicated by the forthcoming Law of the Sea Conference. How can that be, when our inshore fishermen were aware of the fisheries policy on entry into the Common Market and will, when 1982 comes, seek to prevent Common Market vessels having the same rights as our vessels?

Mr. Hattersley

As my statement did not say, and it is not the case, that the common fisheries policy will be discussed by the Council of Ministers, that question does not arise.

Mr. Torney

In view of the inadequacies for Britain of the common agricultural policy, will the Minister ensure that when Community agricultural discussions take place steps are taken fundamentally to change, or even to abolish, the CAP?

Mr. Hattersley

I have explained to the House on several occasions when, during the coming months, my right hon. Friend will discuss the CAP and when he will make clear our attitude to that policy. I hope and believe that the House will have an opportunity to comment on the substance of those discussions during that time. It is not for me to do so today.

Mr. Macmillan

Will the Minister assure the House that in the course of the general discussion of the Foreign Ministers the question of Helsinki will be raised, if necessary by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary? Will he also confirm that the failure of the Soviet Government to comply with the spirit, and indeed the letter, of the agreement will be considered at European level and that potential action will be considered at European level? Will the right hon. Gentleman also assure the House that the consequences of continued Soviet penetration into Africa and elsewhere will be considered by the Economic Ministers and the Foreign Ministers together because of the possible threat to our supply of raw materials?

Mr. Hattersley

I have told the House once today, and I am happy to repeat, that it is not the convention to record the discussions held during political cooperation machinery, but the right hon. Gentleman has taken this opportunity to make his point, irrelevant though it may be to my statement.