HC Deb 25 February 1976 vol 906 cc380-9
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 March. The monthly forecast for March was deposited yesterday.

At present, five meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for March. Foreign Ministers will meet on 1st and 2nd, Agriculture Ministers on 2nd and 3rd and 15th and 16th, Finance Ministers on 15th and Energy Ministers on 25th March, the latter instead of February as previously forecast.

Ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council will consider a report on direct elections to the European Assembly and preparations for the next European Council on 1st and 2nd April. They will review progress of the work in the four commissions set up following the Conference on International Economic Co-operation. They will also consider the problems for the Community fishing industry which will be raised by the establishment of the 200-mile economic zones; preparations for the Association Council meeting with Turkey; the Commission report on negotiations with Spain; the agreements with the Maghreb; the opening of negotiations with Greece for a second financial protocol; tropical products in the context of the multilateral trade negotiations; and relations with the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Ministers are also likely to consider preparations for the meeting of the UNCTAD Trade and Development Board arranged for 8th to 19th March.

Agriculture Ministers will continue their discussions on CAP prices for 1976–77 and on measures to improve the Community wine market. They will also discuss amended arrangements for beef imports and a number of measures for improving agricultural structures, and may consider proposals for a Community potato régime and the problems for the Community fishing industry which will be raised by the establishment of 200-mile economic zones.

Finance Ministers will make the first formal review in 1976 of the economic situation in the Community following the convergence decision of 18th February 1974. They will also consider Euratom loans for nuclear power stations and hear a report on the first session of the Financial Commission of the Conference on International Economic Co-operation.

The Energy Council Ministers will have before them the Commission's proposals to meet the guidelines given by the European Council of 1st and 2nd December 1975 for a Community energy policy. These cover mechanisms to protect existing energy resources and the development of alternative sources of energy; also the encouragement of energy conservation. Ministers may also consider other proposals on oil matters which have been submitted to earlier Councils.

Mr. Hurd

What is the procedure in the Community for following up the declaration on Africa about which the right hon. Gentleman told us yesterday? Will he accept that, although it is a good thing to condemn outside intervention in Africa in principle, it may not be much use in practice unless the Community uses all the means of pressure at its disposal to avert such intervention in future? What is the procedure in the Community for considering the request by COMECON for a trade agreement? Is it not essential, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) said yesterday, that this request should not go through "on the nod but should be judged by the Community in the light of the general Soviet policy and attitude towards us?

Mr. Hattersley

It is not within the rules of order for me to comment on the merits of the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I can give categoric answers on the question of procedure. The possibility of extending aid and trade with African countries which might have been affected by recent events in that continent is likely to be considered by the Council of Ministers next Monday, when it will also consider relations with COMECON and a report on the subject drawn up by the Commission.

Mr. Thorpe

The House will be delighted that so many Ministers are to be so busy on European affairs, but should there not be a general review of what initiatives the Community could take on the Middle East and Africa following the very helpful statement made recently? In future discussions about direct elections, will the Government be no less enthusiastic for such elections in 1978 than their eight colleagues? Noting how easily we were able to introduce into Northern Ireland a voting system which is generally accepted throughout Europe, will the Government at least reconsider whether they really want to stick to an archaic electoral system which would guarantee an unrepresentative delegation going to Europe?

Mr. Hattersley

Questions on European business are increasingly becoming an opportunity for hon. Members to air their prejudices, so I do not propose to comment on the right hon. Gentleman's final points. There was a general review of the Community's policy towards Africa at the political cooperation meeting 48 hours ago, and in five days' time the Council of Ministers will consider what aid and trade arrangements can make that policy more effective. There is no doubt about what we shall be saying on direct elections. We have said—and this has been reiterated recently by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary—that by Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome we are committed to direct elections, and we shall do our best to implement them at the same time as our colleagues. However, there are some technical difficulties. We hope that we shall be able to overcome them, but we may not be able to do so. If it is possible to do so, we shall fulfil our obligations on time.

Mr. Roper

I did not hear my right hon. Friend say anything about the meeting of Research Ministers. Is it possible for the question of the location of the JET project to be taken up in the Council of Foreign Ministers to enable preparation to be made for the meeting in Luxembourg on 1st and 2nd April so that the European Council can make a decision?

Mr. Hattersley

I am not sure that the European Council is the appropriate forum for the JET project discussions. This matter was discussed in Brussels two days ago by the Research Ministers. There is no proposal for it to be discussed in the Foreign Affairs Council next month. I have, therefore, nothing to add to my written statement on the subject.

Mr. Dykes

Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the Foreign Ministers' Council and subsequently the European Council in April will reach final decisions on the date of direct elections and the number of members for each country, or will there be a further delay after the European Council meeting?

Mr. Hattersley

There may be a further delay, dependent on the wishes and will of this Parliament. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the Green Paper and will know that there are two areas of decision. One area comprises the decisions which must be taken corporately by the Community. The other is the area of decisions which have to be taken individually by nations within the Community. We cannot assume that both those areas of decision can be completed by the next European Council meeting. The House and the parties represented in it must have an opportunity to discuss these matters and make representations to the Government. I am not sure that that can be done by 1st April.

Mr. Spearing

Will the draft Convention on Direct Elections be decided at the Foreign Affairs Council? Will my right hon. Friend, representing Britain, make clear to his colleagues in the EEC that, whatever the Government's commitment may be, there is no mandate from the British people for direct elections?

Mr. Hattersley

I certainly shall not make that final point because I do not believe it to be an accurate statement of the position. I have enough faith in the British people who voted "Yes" in the referendum and all those who wanted them to vote "No" to assume that the British people were made aware of Article 138 and voted in the knowledge that it existed. As to timing, I assure my hon. Friend that we have reiterated time after time—indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made this point to the Prime Minister of Luxem-bourgh, the President of the Community, this morning—that in these matters we are dependent on the will and wishes of Parliament, and that must continue to be the case.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Are any further proposals coming forward from Ministers to discuss the inshore and the deep-sea fleets, and will this matter be discussed at the meeting that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned? Is the Minister satisfied that the Maghreb Agreement, which reduces Maghreb's overall preference from 87 per cent. to 51 per cent is satisfactory?

Mr. Hattersley

Changes in the fishing régime within the Community resulting from the Law of the Sea Conference, the application of the common fisheries policy and the regrettable dispute with Iceland mean that there must be a general reappraisal of our fishing policy. I promise the hon. Gentleman that we are doing that and advancing our interests in the Community.

Mr. Peyton

The extensive bill of fare which the right hon. Gentleman listed for the House raises the question of when the House can expect to hear reports back from Ministers. The European proceedings at present are debated in the House in an ad hoc manner which is unsatisfactory. Will the right hon. Gentleman give a clear undertaking that these important matters will be reported back and that he will discuss the arrangements with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, because we cannot continue in this unsatisfactory way?

Mr. Hattersley

Of course, I give that assurance without reservation. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the right hon. Gentleman's wishes, but I shall have to do so against the context of two pieces of background information. The first is that we are observing both the spirit and the letter of the Foster Report, which lays down ways in which we should explain our European policy and offer it for challenge to the House of Commons. The second is the knowledge that when we had a general debate on European affairs, which was intended to fill the vacuum the existence of which is implied by the right hon. Gentleman, the debate collapsed before the allotted time because there were so few participants.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Did my right hon. Friend say that the Foreign Ministers would discuss the application of Greece to join the Community? If that is so, will he ask his right hon. Friend to do everything possible to facilitate Greece's application?

Mr. Hattersley

There is a parallel answer to that which is given concerning weekly business questions—"Not next month, Sir."

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer a simple question? Will the General Election be before the direct elections, or the other way round? If the General Election comes first and the Scottish National Party gets a mandate, as we confidently expect it will, are we to take it that the Minister will attend these meetings without even taking into account this realistic problem? Secondly, in his statement the Minister referred to the 200-mile fishery limit, but will he also discuss coastal State preference?

Mr. Hattersley

In reply to the first question, when I decide to dissolve Parliament I shall not be able to give the hon. Lady advance warning. In reply to the second question, the hon. Lady can be assured that, as a coastal State, we are very conscious of our obligations to the fishing industry of a coastal State. The central element in the policy advanced by my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary at the Foreign Ministers' Council is the protection of that industry.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his remark that the arrangements for direct elections are mainly of a technical nature? It cannot be a technical matter that in Britain, France and Germany, for example, it will take three times as many people as in a small member State to elect one Member of Parliament.

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position. If he reads the Green Paper, he will discover that the size of the European Assembly when it is eventually elected has yet to be decided. That is not the sort of technical question to which I referred, which is how those elections are organised in Great Britain, the willingness and ability of parties to prepare themselves by 1978, if that is the target date, and the willingness of the House to pass the necessary legislation, none of which it would be right to take for granted.

Mr. Hooley

Judging by the long agenda for the Foreign Ministers, it seems that the Foreign Ministers and the Foreign Office are meddling in a lot of matters which are not that Department's concern. Has any consideration been given to redistributing between the appropriate Ministers the business of the Community so that it is dealt with by the appropriate Department?

Mr. Hattersley

Inevitably, the Foreign Affairs Council discusses a number of topics which might be regarded in the procedures of the House and the organisation of the Government as appropriate for other Ministers, but there is a system for co-ordination which, I hope, avoids the difficulties referred to by my hon. Friend. When appropriate, Ministers other than Foreign Ministers join the Foreign Affairs Council.

Mr. Jim Spicer

The Minister gave an assurance that the affairs of Southern Africa will be discussed at the meeting of Foreign Ministers. Will he go from the general to the particular and give a further assurance that the problems of Zambia will be discussed as a matter of great urgency, because she is virtually under siege and blockade and, unless a move is made to open the Benguela railway quickly, her copper exports and other vital exports and imports will be put severely at risk?

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman has made his point but he has slightly misquoted me. I did not give an assurance that these matters would be discussed in the Council of Ministers on Monday. What I said was that the Foreign Ministers, meeting as the political cooperation organisation on Monday, hoped that the Commission or the permanent representatives would be able to make proposals on Monday which would enable us to implement then the decisions in principle we had already taken. I am not sure that that is certain. I hope that it is, but, because I hope rather than feel certain, I do not want it to be regarded as an assurance.

Mr. Cryer

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that in the discussions on the common energy policy the position of the British Government will be maintained—that is to say, that we retain full control over British North Sea oil and its rate of usage? Are the Government considering the adoption of selective import controls in respect of the COMECON countries?

Next, will the Government make it clear that the discussions on direct elections at the time of the referendum in no way gave a mandate to the Government to say that we would accept direct elections, and that the Government specifically reserved their position before the referendum when asked about this, so that it could be included in the referendum arguments? Will my right hon. Friend state categorically that nothing will be done until a decision at least of this House, and preferably of the British people, is taken about direct elections?

Mr. Hattersley

On our established energy policy, the answer is "Yes". As to our relations with the COMECON countries, it is not our policy to discuss the contents of a mandate before it is discussed by the Community as a whole.

On the third point, my hon. Friend and I must disagree as to the amount of information which he and other people wishing to oppose British membership of the Community actually gave to the people they hoped would support them. I believe we explained that the Treaty of Rome would be mandatory upon us if we remained in full membership, and I think it is explicit on this matter.

On the fourth point, even if my hon. Friend does not believe in my good will and that of the Government, there cannot be direct elections until the House of Commons has passed the necessary legislation. Therefore, that check certainly exists.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

Does the Minister agree that the division of the Community into first-class and second-class members through the snake system is an extremely adverse development? Would it not be fruitful for the British representative at the Finance Ministers' meeting to come forward with other suggestions for monetary co-operation which would enable all members to collaborate without this artificial division?

Mr. Hattersley

I am not sure that we ought to see these things entirely in Community or non-Community terms. There may be opportunities for some members of the Community to co-operate in some monetary venture, and to co-operate with one or two countries outside, without having to decide that it is all and exclusively EEC or not EEC at all. I share the hon. Gentleman's belief that a Community divided into first-class and second-class nations is altogether undesirable, and that certainly is the view of Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Has it ever occurred to my right hon. Friend and the Government that if we have direct elections to the European Parliament a large proportion of those elected from this country may well be former members of the "Get Britain Out" campaign, in which case they will be a bigger nuisance to the European Parliament than the Scottish or Irish nationalists are to this Parliament?

Mr. Hattersley

They did not do very well on 5th June, and I do not know why my hon. Friend thinks that they should do better at some subsequent election. But I am sufficiently democratic to believe that if we have an elected Parliament Britain must be represented by those who get a majority of the votes. I am prepared to rest on that.

Mr. Michael Latham

Do British Ministers intend to put forward any policy proposals on energy at the meeting on that subject? If so, may we be assured that they will not include the proposals of Sir Derek Ezra and Mr. Hawkins to put up gas prices?

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is a point for another occasion and not for this afternoon.