HC Deb 24 June 1976 vol 913 cc1810-21
The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about my talks with the President of the French Republic, M. Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

President Giscard d'Estaing's State visit to the United Kingdom marks the opening of a new and hopeful chapter in the long history of Anglo-French relations. All of us who had the pleasure of hearing the President's address from the Royal Gallery yesterday welcomed the positive and constructive spirit in which he spoke of the relationship between our two countries. I am happy to say that a similar spirit of friendship, candour and constructiveness has marked our official talks. Both of us welcomed the opportunity to deepen the understanding between our two Governments and countries, and all our discussions were conducted in this spirit.

In the course of both our private talks and the official sessions, we were able to touch on most of the principal subjects of joint interest and concern to our two Governments. In particular, as partners in the European Community, we had a full discussion on Community matters, including the question of direct elections to the European Assembly, on which both sides were able to explain their concerns. We also discussed the common fisheries policy, on which my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and I explained to the President the critical importance we attach to the forthcoming negotiations.

On the Tindemans Report, and the future of Europe generally, we had a useful exchange of ideas and achieved a much clearer recognition of how much common ground there is between us.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest significance for preventing future misunderstandings, we reached agreement on the need for closer and more systematic contacts between our two Governments. The President and I have decided to meet once a year, accompanied by ministerial colleagues as appropriate, in order to discuss relations between our two countries and, in particular, the problems of common interest deriving from our membership of the European Economic Community. The first meeting will be held in Paris before the end of this year. We have decided that there should be a similar annual meeting between the Ministers responsible for foreign affairs, and that there should be periodic meetings between the other principal Ministers, notably those responsible for home affairs, the economy and finance, energy, industry, defence and trade. The text of the Joint Declaration embodying this decision will be printed in the Official Report.

France should know that we welcome unreservedly this new arrangement and will play our full part in raising our relationship to a new high level. I hope that other nations of Europe will see it as a contribution to the cohesion of the European Community, and thus as being of benefit to Europe as a whole.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends thank the Prime Minister for making that statement and also say that we listened to the President's speech in the Royal Gallery yesterday with admiration and pleasure. It was a very great speech for a great occasion, and we hope that it will signal a new chapter of co-operation in relations between our two countries.

In that speech the President mentioned more co-operation on some technological projects with good commercial prospects. Has the Prime Minister anything further to report on that? It was thought that it might refer to co-operation on the fast breeder reactor, on which France has done a great deal of research.

The Prime Minister referred to direct elections and to the common fisheries policy. Did he get any further on a common approach to those two most important subjects?

The Prime Minister

I am much obliged to the right hon. Lady for what she said. We had a general discussion on the question of technological co-operation. One or two matters have been identified, but it would be premature to indicate them yet. To do so might raise false hopes as to where we could look for future co-operation. It is certainly the kind of thing I should want to follow up before visiting Paris.

On nuclear co-operation, we ourselves have done a great deal of research on the fast breeder reactor, and we have a world-famous team at Culham dealing with the possibilities, although a long way off, of nuclear fusion as opposed to fission. I indicated to the President—and he agreed—that there was room for cooperation between us here. This will be a case where the appropriate Ministers can meet to carry it further.

On the common fisheries policy, I asked the President whether he would agree, having heard the great importance we attached to the matter, that our officials should meet to discuss it, and he so agreed. The French have traditional fishing rights close to our shores which will need to be the subject of discussion even with an extension to the 200-mile limit. We all know how ticklish 200-mile limits and traditional fishing rights can be. It is best that our officials should make a beginning on this, and then see whether we can get a common approach to the common fisheries policy.

With regard to direct elections, the President explained in great detail his stand on this matter and what France regards as the necessity of relating whatever is done to the terms of the treaty. But he does not, I think, exclude practical adjustments to make the treaty more workable, and it is on that basis that we held our discussion. But it would have been wrong for France and Britain to come to conclusions on this matter either in advance of a discussion in this House, which we have undertaken to hold, or in advance of the European Summit, which will be held in the middle of July.

Mr. Grimond

We are very glad that the President's visit is such a success, and also that there will be meetings of officials on the common fisheries policy. I hope that there will be a meeting very soon.

Will the Prime Minister say whether NATO was discussed, and whether he is able to say anything about the defence of Europe?

The Prime Minister

There was no mention of NATO in our official discussions, and therefore I have nothing to report to the House on that matter.

Mr. Kinnock

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in May 1974 many people throughout the world were heartened by the announcement by the French President that the French would be reviewing and probably changing their policy of selling arms to insensitive, authoritarian and undemocratic regimes? Did my right hon. Friend have any detailed discussion on such matters with the President, especially in view of the British Government's commendable policy concerning arms sales to South Africa?

The Prime Minister

There is a difference between the policies of the French and British Governments on this matter of the supply of arms. As we were seeking to build constructive relations on matters on which we can agree, and as I knew that I would not change the President's mind on this matter, I did not think it the appropriate occasion on which to raise it. But I think the President knows well that there is a difference in our attitudes.

Mr. Walters

Will the Prime Minister agree that if Europe is to be effective in the world there must be more progress in formulating a common European foreign policy? Will the Prime Minister agree that there are areas in the world where European initiatives are particularly called for? For instance, in view of the paralysis of Americal foreign policy at the present time, did the Prime Minister discuss with the President what Europe could do in the Middle East?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure that we are on all fours with the French Government in this matter. Probably our position is a little closer to that expressed by the hon. Gentleman, whereas I think the French Government may feel that sometimes the formation of a common foreign policy would lead to the lowest common denominator being accepted, and therefore to a position in which individual countries' policies would not be effective.

We discussed this matter at some length. I am sure that the President is anxious that we should co-operate. I think it enhances a national foreign policy if there is a European dimension to it, but if we co-operate there must be agreement between us all.

With regard to the Middle East, the French have a special position in the Lebanon, which the President has explained. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in close touch with Dr. Kissinger about the Middle East. I do not think that Dr. Kissinger would accept—nor would I—that American foreign policy is in any way paralysed in its approaches in the Middle East. But I do not think that at the moment there is room for a separate European initiative.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Will my right hon. Friend say, on the question of direct elections, whether he and the French President were at least in agreement that direct elections should be held in 1978, that they are of the utmost importance, and that both sides would be ready to make compromises in order to meet that deadline?

The Prime Minister

It is true that in December 1974 my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) and I agreed that we would try to work to 1978, but, as I have explained to the House on many occasions, the final decision rests with the House. I think the Government are bound to take this view and to ask Parliament to agree to 1978 elections. We would certainly use our efforts to achieve this if it is at all possible, although I recognise the difficulties of organisation, as well as legislation, involved in it.

Should there be compromises? I think that all these European matters demand compromise. They also demand a recognition of the particular problems of individual nations. We have a particular problem in that we have a constituency system. If the constituency system is to be meaningful, one must have a larger number of members than a country which votes on a national list, otherwise the relationship between a member and his constituency is so diffused as to be entirely wrong. I do not think we can compromise on that, but it is a practical issue of politics which has to be thrashed out.

Mr. Amery

I fully appreciate that there were no official discussions about NATO, but will the Prime Minister agree that co-operation with France in defence is of paramount important to the defence of all the interests that we and other European countries have together? Can the Prime Minister, as a result of his talks, hold out any prospect of improvement on that horizon?

The Prime Minister

I think there has been a constantly improving relationship over the last two to three years concerning France's co-operation in matters of defence. She has a particular reservation on the military structures of NATO, which is well known. The French President has said in his public utterances that he fully understands that France could not remain as an entirely isolated sanctuary if—as we all trust and hope will not happen—war were to break out on a wide scale in Central Europe. It is on that basis that such discussions as we have in fact proceed.

Mrs. Millie Miller

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind, if he is discussing the matter of fast breeder reactors with the French Government, the serious warnings which have been given, according to the Press, only this week at the energy conference about the increased use of nuclear power and the plutonium associated with it? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that we have vast supplies of other types of energy on which we would be well advised to draw before entering into massive campaigns to develop further nuclear stations?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I read Sir Brian Flowers' speech and thought that it was extremely impressive. I hope that my hon. Friend read my speech, in which I made reference to the vast reserves of energy that we possess.

There are dangers in the nuclear field of which this generation must be aware, and we must not visit the problems on our children. I hope that in all our co-operation with the French—and, indeed, with other countries—our appropriate Ministers and officials will keep that in mind.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Is the arrangement that the Prime Minister has just reported to the House that he will meet the French President once a year, or that the British Prime Minister will meet the French President, since the two are clearly not the same? One is in the national interest and the other is not.

The Prime Minister

The French President did not enter into the question of the British domestic electoral scene, but I have no doubt that I shall be meeting him, if he survives, for many years to come.

Mr. Bidwell

Did my right hon. Friend discuss the British dislike of the common agricultural policy and the prospects of changing it?

The Prime Minister

We did not discuss that on this occasion, although my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear in the Council of Ministers from time to time our attitude about this matter, and there will be serious discussion on the common agricultural policy before the next price review.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is there to be any permanent secretariat or special machinery to prepare and assist discussions between the Prime Minister and the President and between Ministers on the two sides of the Channel?

The Prime Minister

No. We thought that it would be better not to over-formalise it. There are already considerable bilateral contacts beween officials and, indeed, there are visits by Ministers. We wanted to regularise it and not to formalise it, and I do not think that we need additional machinery.

Mr. Palmer

Did the Prime Minister note the encouraging references by the French President to the Anglo-French Concorde project—a reference noted also in the Bristol area? What does my right hon. Friend feel are the prospects of such technological collaboration with France in the future?

The Prime Minister

It is too early to say. We must first make a success of the Concorde project. If there are to be future ventures of this sort, the financing and the participants in such a venture will need to be worked out. That will take some time.

Mr. Marten

At the beginning of his statement the Prime Minister referred, in what I am sure was a slip of the tongue, to Anglo-French relations. Could we not get into the habit of talking of British-French relations or of United Kingdom-French relations, because we must remember that there are others than Anglos?

Secondly, did the Prime Minister notice, as I did, that when the French President was speaking he sensibly used the phrase "European unity" and not the absurd term "European union"? Will the Prime Minister follow the precedent set by the French President and use the word "unity" rather than "union"?

The Prime Minister

Speaking as the Member for Cardiff, South-East, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my constiuents have not the slightest objection to anybody referring to Anglo-French relations. If we are to recognise nationalist sentiments, let us recognise them in a sensible way and not destroy ancient terms that are a very useful custom. I do not think those in Cardiff or anybody in Scotland will bother about the matter, and I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we shall go on referring to Anglo-French unity.

On the other point raised by the hon. Gentleman, we had some discussion about the general future of Europe. I do not think that our views and those of the French Government and their President are very far apart. I agree that the terminology is important, but it is the idea that is more important. I think that we shall find ourselves marching almost side by side.

Mr. Newens

I understand that my right hon. Friend on this occasion did not discuss the subject of the supply of arms to South Africa by the French Government, but does he not agree that, if there is to be a closer understanding with France, there must be co-operation in refusing to supply arms to racialist States?

The Prime Minister

We have our own policy on this matter, and that policy is supported by a number of other European countries and by our neighbours in the Community. It is not, however, supported by others. We must try to concentrate on the positive things on which we can construct a new relationship rather than to harp on the differences that we know that we shall not resolve.

Mr. Heath

Is the Prime Minister aware that I warmly welcome the arrangement for meetings between the two Heads of Government to be held on a regular basis? The very close Franco-British relationships which led to the successful negotiations for Britain's entry into the European Community were based on regular six-monthly meetings between President Pompidou and myself. I am glad that the two Heads of Government have at least been able to arrange regular annual meetings.

May I put a practical point to the Prime Minister? On the subject of technological discussions, does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most urgent questions for the two Heads of Government to discuss is the means of making an approach to the United States Head of Government, no doubt the next President, on the future development of supersonic commercial aircraft, and that there should now be a proposal that the French and British should work with the Americans on the next stage of Concorde? Does he not agree that only in this way shall we obtain a return on investment already made and, furthermore, that there will be an economy in the use of Western resources by the Americans in that they will not have to go over all the ground we have already covered and in which progress has been made? It appears to me that this is an imaginative, practical approach by means of which the communities on both sides of the Atlantic can work together in each other's interests.

The Prime Minister

I have no doubt that the relationship that existed between M. Pompidou and the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) contributed a great deal to Franco-British understanding at that time.

We discussed the question whether we should have six-monthly meetings, but both of us felt that they might become too much of a routine affair. After all, we meet each other now—as did not happen in the right hon. Gentleman's day—at the European Summit. It is as well that we should also discuss bilateral relationships. We shall see how the arrangement goes. We at least thought that a meeting once a year would be a good start.

I was asked about the possible relationship with the United States and its next President about the next generation of supersonic aircraft. I am no expert on that subject, although I try to follow the matter generally. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that in a previous reply I said that we should have regard not only to Anglo-French relations but to the question of other participants and finance. There are a number of ideas that are, so to speak, not more than floating in the air at the moment about whether there should be a successor and, if so, how and when it should be begun. These ideas will be discussed at greater length, and no doubt will become more factual as time goes on.

There is one conclusion which I as a layman would like to draw, and I think that on this point I agree with the right hon. Member for Sidcup. I see no possible future for an Anglo-French aircraft on its own of that size or kind. It would have to be built, if it ever were—and it may now be taken that that would be well into the eighties or nineties—on a much wider basis than an Anglo-French basis.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall allow two more questions to the Prime Minister. Mr. Hugh Jenkins.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

The Prime Minister will be aware—and indeed he may have discussed this matter with the President—that originally there were 74 options on the Concorde, none of which has ever been taken up. Could not future technological co-operation with the French involve something that could be sold to other nations and not a piece of technology that consists in nations taking in each other's expensive washing? Is this not a venture involving an aircraft on which very few people can afford to fly, and will it not have great environmental disadvantages to everybody, other than those who are flying in the aircraft?

The Prime Minister

We did not have as long a discussion on Concorde as we are now having on this topic in the House. My hon. Friend will have noticed the caution with which I approach this subject. Nobody suggests that I am rushing into a new co-operative venture tomorrow, and the considerations advanced by my hon. Friend will be borne in mind.

Mr. Adley

Is the Prime Minister aware that most people welcome the determination which the Prime Minister shows in supporting Concorde, but does he not agree that the success of the aircraft may ultimately hang on what happens in New York? Can he assure the House that the British and French Governments will work in the closest possible harmony as we approach the final decision on this great issue?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. There is no difference between us on this matter. I hope to use Concorde—and I hope the House agrees with this—when I go to Puerto Rico on Saturday with other Heads of Government and Heads of State.—[An HON. MEMBER: "Are you coming back on it?"] Yes, and I hope to return in it. I believe that, as the aircraft is there—whatever views we may have held about it originally—we must make it a success.

Following is the Joint Declaration:

The President of the French Republic and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Considering that their two countries share the same basic outlook and pursue common objectives;

Recalling that their two countries' membership of the same European Community creates new links between them;

Resolved to develop consultation and thereby to reinforce co-operation between their two governments;

Have decided to meet alternately in France and in the United Kingdom, once a year, accompanied by the members of their governments principally concerned, in order to discuss relations between their two countries and problems of common interest, notably those derived from their membership of the European Economic Community;

Have also decided that the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of France and the United Kingdom will have a separate meeting at least once a year;

Have decided to organise periodic meetings between the other principal Ministers, notably those responsible for Home Affairs, the Economy and Finance, Energy, Industry, Defence and Trade, with a view to bringing the policies of their two countries closer together and facilitating their convergence.