HC Deb 19 January 1977 vol 924 cc325-36
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

I will, with permission, report to the House on the meeting of the Council of Ministers held in Brussels yesterday. This was the first to be held under British chairmanship. I was accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland was also in attendance for the fisheries discussion.

First, we reviewed the progress made, following the European Council's statement in November, on talks with Japan about the current imbalance in trade. It became clear that very little progress had been made, and the Council instructed the Commission to renew these talks, especially on shipbuilding, and report back to the next Council.

Relations with Portugal were discussed in the light of Dr. Soares's forthcoming visits in the Community and the possibility of a Portuguese application for membership. The Council agreed that we must find a way of reconciling the need for political support for a democratic Portugal, on which member Governments are wholly agreed, with the economic problems which membership could entail for both Portugal and the Community. The Council will revert to this subject in February.

A technical point concerned with the preparations for the meeting of the General Committee of the Euro-Arab Dialogue in Tunis in February was remitted for further study. Two detailed points concerning new accessions to the Lomé Convention were quickly resolved.

During the Council, preferential trade agreements were signed between the Community and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. A similar agreement with Israel will be signed on 8th February. This will virtually complete the implementation of the Community's overall approach to the countries of the Mediterranean area. The Council reviewed the prospects for the resumption of the Conference on International Economic Co-operation and agreed on a programme of work to pre- pare a Community position on the issues involved.

The Council had a useful and constructive discussion on fisheries. Most important, we agreed that further communications should be made by the Presidency to the USSR, Poland and the German Democratic Republic, drawing attention to the continued excessive levels of their fishing in the waters of Community member States and laying down the precise number of their trawlers which would be permitted to fish for the remainder of the three-month interim period. Only the authorised number of vessels will be licensed to fish, and it will be the responsibility of member States to operate and enforce this initial licensing system. We did not reach agreement on a regulation governing the details of a future Community licensing system but discussion is continuing.

The Council also briefly discussed conservation measures, and will return to the matter on 8th February after Agriculture Ministers have first had an opportunity to discuss it on 25th January.

Mr. John Davies

I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary for the statement he has made. We are glad that he made it today, the day after the Council meeting. We hope that this indicates his intention during his presidency and thereafter to come regularly to the House to make statements and that other Ministers will do the same. We did not find the practice followed during 1976 so satisfactory. I offer the right hon. Gentleman our good wishes in the presidency of the Council which he has just assumed, and I hope that he meets with success.

Of the many subjects raised in the statement, I should like to concentrate on two. The first concerns the satisfactory outcome of the negotiations with the Mediterranean countries and the reaching of an overall agreement in the Mediterranean. Will this success be pursued in the field of political co-operation with a view to taking advantage of the undoubtedly rather more welcoming signs that there are of reaching a satisfactory settlement with the Middle East in order to bring to bear the force of the Community on such a settlement?

The second subject is fisheries. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm the news, which is worrying us all, that the rate of catch by the third countries he mentioned, and by some others, looks like exceeding during the first month the total of the quarter's authorised catch?

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that it will prove possible for the Community to move to a specific licensing system of ships so that there can be a complete identity of those that are authorised to fish and those that are not? Will he assure the House that the monitoring system individually to be undertaken by the member countries will prove equal to the task? Grave doubts have been cast on whether it will prove practicable.

In relation to intra-Community countries as against extra-Community countries, what arrangements are in hand for interim purposes, bearing in mind that the present interim arrangement is due to run out at the end of this month? The House and the industry generally would be extremely perturbed if we were to have to rely on the principle of catch quotas for that three-month interim arrangement.

Mr. Crosland

I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes in what will certainly be a challenging task. I and my colleagues will do our best to extend every courtesy to the House by making statements at regular intervals.

On the Mediterranean, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The conclusion of the overall approach has been a great success for the Community, but that has been within the framework of Community trade agreements and not of political co-operation. We are moving to a position where the Community must assess its rôle in the Middle East and possibly in Cyprus, without necessarily coming to a final conclusion until we know what will be the attitude of the Carter Administration. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman said about that.

I confirm what the right hon. Gentleman said about fishing by third countries. The amount of fish—certainly of some species—that has been caught by Soviet trawlers in the first month is at least equal to the quota for the whole three months. That underlines the urgency of the situation with which we were dealing yesterday.

Am I satisfied that all countries will be able to operate the enforcement system? I dare say that some countries will be better able than others, and I do not doubt that there will be a certain ragged quality at the beginning. That also applies to monitoring. The United Kingdom is equipped for monitoring in our own waters, and these are of the greatest importance to us.

On the interim negotiating regime, we have extended the standstill until 8th February to give more time. It will take a very long time to settle even an interim regime, let alone a permanent revised common fisheries policy. As I said in Brussels yesterday, the lesson of the past three months is that we have to take this more slowly. We must not take it at a gallop and expect every Council meeting to produce a final solution. We must take it in a deliberate step-by-step manner.

Mr. Hooley

Could my right hon. Friend be a little more forthcoming on the question of international economic cooperation and the North-South dialogue? Is he aware that the reaction of the oil-producing countries on oil prices over the next few months will depend a good deal on how forthcoming the Western world is on debts of developing countries and on technical assistance? Was there any genuine thinking in the Community on these matters?

Mr. Crosland

There are different views about the extent to which OPEC decisions are affected by decisions taken within the context of the CIEC. I am rather more sceptical than some people on this. However, that does not diminish the importance of these matters. A lot of work is going on in the Community, and discussions will be started very rapidly with the new American Administration on subjects such as debts, raw material prices and the rest. We must see that when the CIEC Ministerial Committee meets—I do not know when that will be—we provide a constructive set of proposals on behalf of the Community.

Mr. Russell Johnston

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on conducting his first meeting with rather greater expedition than is customary. Were there any informal discussions about direct elections, and did the right hon. Gentleman's French counterpart indicate that France would conduct the elections on a proportional basis? If so, how will this affect the Foreign Secretary's attitude to the Bill which is about to be brought to the House? Is it not possible that Britain may be the odd man out of the Nine?

Mr. Crosland

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. There were no discussions, either informal or formal, about direct elections. I can confirm that France will have direct elections on a proportional system. The implications of that for this country are a matter of dispute and controversy.

Sir G. de Freitas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his handling of Council questions in the European Parliament last week was much appreciated? In these circumstances, will he attend the European Parliament from time to time during his presidency, in spite of his many responsibilities outside Europe?

Mr. Crosland

I shall do the best I can.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

May I add the congratulations of this Bench to those which I expressed to the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment on Wednesday in Luxembourg? I appreciate the problems of going step by step on fishing policy, but will this lead us to a 50-mile coastal preference for our inshore fleet? Could we have a clear answer? Is this the aim of negotiations conducted on behalf of the United Kingdom? The present over-fishing is causing great distress to the fishing industry around the shores of Britain and Ireland. Will the Foreign Secretary also say a word about the effect of the new applications to join the EEC on the rich pond of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Crosland

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her congratulations but I am getting a bit nervous about some of these, which have a certain kiss-of-death air. Certainly I can confirm that the British aim is, as set out in May last year, for a variable coastal belt extending up to 50 miles. That is, and remains, our aim.

Mr. Nelson

Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the strong public concern about the price of cod having reached £1 a pound? Is he also aware that the Soviet bloc fished out more than 20 per cent. of the total EEC catch last year and that there is need of a much more satisfactory agreement between the Community and the Soviet bloc on this matter? Does he not feel that the proposals on national licensing put forward at the meeting allow the Soviet bloc to duck out of its responsibilities to recognise the Community and negotiate with Brussels, as we have been forced and have chosen to do in the conduct of the fisheries negotiations with Iceland?

Mr. Crosland

I accept the hon. Member's general point. Of course we want a Community negotiating position, because the Community will negotiate with greater bargaining power and strength than Britain could alone. However, if the Community cannot enforce the numbers of trawlers laying down, I would rather Britain did it unilaterally than that it was not done at all. It is vitally necessary to get a more satisfactory situation than the one we have now, and that is the entire object of the exercise.

Mr. Fernyhough

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the conference, after it had finished discussing the imbalance of Trade between Japan and the Community—in which, so I gather, little progress was made—discussed the imbalance of trade between Britain and the Community? Is my right hon. Friend aware that since we joined the Community the imbalance has reached about £7,000 million? Is it not time we did something about this?

Mr. Crosland

That is an interesting, fundamental, and controversial question, but it did not actually figure on the agenda yesterday.

Mr. Blaker

May I follow up the point about the Eastern Mediterranean? It would be a considerable step forward if the Community developed a common foreign policy towards the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that circumstances are now relatively favourable in this regard, and will he give an assurance that he will devote himself to this objective during the time he is President?

Mr. Crosland

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There has been, in effect, a standstill in these matters for the last two months with the lame-duck Administration in the United States and the uncertainty about the incoming Administration. That period formally comes to an end tomorrow, and in the new situation I expect that shortly we shall have a political co-operation meeting in London. These matters will feature on the agenda at that meeting.

Mr. Roper

Returning to the question of Japan, can my right hon. Friend tell us whether the Commission is able to report progress in the negotiations on the question of car sales to Japan—firstly on the arrangements for inspection in the Community, and secondly on the emission standards which the Japanese are demanding? If the Commission is unable to make progress, will my right hon. Friend consider suggesting to his colleagues a meeting at ministerial level between the Community and Japan?

Mr. Crosland

There has been some progress on the particular matter of pollution controls on cars, but this was not the main subject we were discussing yesterday. Our discussions were on the very much wider and larger question of the total imbalance of trade between the Community and Japan.

Mr. Crouch

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us his main objectives? I am not quite sure to what extent he envisages, during his period as President of the Council, placing priority on a European voice, rather than a variety of national voices, in certain aspects of foreign policy, particularly concerning the Middle East.

Mr. Crosland

I made an immensely long speech in Luxembourg on Wednesday of last week. Copies of that speech have been placed in the Vote Office, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes I will send him a special autographed copy.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Was anything said at the meeting about the statement in the first speech of Mr. Roy Jenkins as President of the Commission that Our means are economic, our end is political"? In view of the fact that the British Government have time and again stated that they are opposed to federal union in Europe, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what he has to say about that tendentious statement by Mr. Roy Jenkins?

Mr. Crosland

No reference was made to that in our discussions yesterday, but I must point out in fairness to Mr. Jenkins that when he was using the word "our" throughout that speech he was referring not to the United Kingdom but to the Community.

Mr. Raphael Tuck


Mr. Hugh Fraser

Let me assure the Foreign Secretary that our congratulation is not the kiss of death but an attempt to breathe some life into the institution. Why, with such a dynamic presidency ahead, was the whole question of the Abu Daoud release not raised at the meeting of the Council of Ministers? Which questions were raised regarding the Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, which is said to have been the main achievement of the present body?

Mr. Crosland

That subject was not referred to; it was not on the agenda. However, the United Kingdom Government have every intention of signing that convention on the first day that it is available for signature.

Mr. Spearing

Will my right hon. Friend say what were the precise arrangements for meeting the Press after the Council yesterday? Will he say what arrangements he expects to make in the future? Are those arrangements separate from any made by the new President of the Commission concerning his Press statements? Is he aware that the official communiques which have so far come from the Council after the meetings have been far too short to be of any use?

Mr. Crosland

I do not know what Press arrangements were made for the President of the Commission. However, I followed the practice of all my predecessors of having an open and public Press conference some 15 minutes after the Council completed its business.

Mr. Marten

Further to the question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser), may I ask whether the Foreign Secretary recalls the White Paper that we debated on 10th January? Does he recall also that paragraph 5 of that document referred to the great triumph of the Common Market in agreeing to co-operation against international terrorism? Are we not now having words but no action? Surely this subject could have been inscribed upon the agenda in some form of Standing Order No. 9 arrangement, because this is just what the Common Market is about. Once again it has failed.

Mr. Crosland

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman on this subject. Whether or not it was discussed yesterday—it might not have been particularly productive if it had been—it is crucial that all the member States and all civilised Governments act not only according to the letter of the many and various agreements but according to their spirit. Many people think that this has not always been the case.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Will my right hon. Friend expand a little on the part of his statement relating to Portugal? Will he confirm that it is still the Government's view that further enlargement of the Community should be given high priority?

Mr. Crosland

Yes, certainly.

Mr. Clegg

Will the Foreign Secretary clarify two points about fishing? What is the position of the non-quota countries such as Romania and Bulgaria? How are they to be treated? Secondly, was there any mention of the Icelandic situation at the meeting?

Mr. Crosland

The position on Iceland is, unfortunately, still the same as it was at the Council on 20th December in that negotiations have not been resumed. There is a hope that the talks might restart, but I would not want to give a falsely optimistic picture about that and about what would happen if they did restart.

Bulgaria is not in the same position as East Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland. Such fishing rights as it had are now extinct, and it now has no right to send any trawlers to Community waters.

Mr. James Johnson

I do not wish further to embarrass my right hon. Friend who is a fellow Humberside MP, but he deserves the best thanks of all hon. Members with fishing interests for the firm stand that he and his colleagues have made against other EEC Ministers. Will he accept that in the short term the Soviet trawlers represent the biggest danger in the North Sea and other waters? The Soviet Press is talking about agreements with us. The Soviet Union will not accept a 200–mile limit, but does my right hon. Friend know whether it would be willing to negotiate for the surpluses around our shores?

Mr. Crosland

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have believed for some time that by far the most pressing problem for the British fishing industry is not Iceland, real though that problem is. I believe that it is the problem of fishing by Eastern European countries in our waters. There we are talking about quantities far greater than the quantities involved over Iceland. So far, the Soviet Union has not shown itself willing to negotiate. If that situation continues at the end of the three-month interim period, the Soviet Union will have no further fishing rights of any kind in Community waters. Whether between now and the end of the interim period it will show itself willing to negotiate is still a matter for speculation.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call the two hon. Members on each side who have been rising consistently. I hope that they will be brief. Mr. Michael Marshall.

Mr. Michael Marshall

I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. May I appeal to the Foreign Secretary to make particular efforts in two respects? Will he play his part in ensuring that there is not a repetition of what happened last week when an EEC debate was held here immediately before he assumed the rôle which has been commented upon today and while the European Parliament was in session? Will he take account of what was said in the debate last week concerning the worries about co-ordination between his Department, the Department of Trade and the Department of Industry on matters concerning industry generally but particularly on the question of anti-dumping action?

Mr. Crosland

My answer to the second part is "Yes". I read the debate with close attention and I noticed that this point was made. I shall attend to it as best I can. Equally I shall think, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, about the first point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Christopher Price

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for rewarding my persistence by calling me. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be general satisfaction that in an earlier answer he linked the question of Cyprus with the whole question of the Community's relations with the Middle East in general? Will he say a little more about his hopes for a European initiative on Cyprus in conjunction with any United States initiative at the same time?

Mr. Crosland

I can say no more at this stage. All we have to go on so far with the United States are the statements on Cyprus made during the campaign by Mr. Carter, as he still is, and Mr. Cyrus Vance. It would be foolish to come out with any definite statement until the new Administration have been in office for time enough to prepare their views, but I hope that that will not take too much time.

Mr. Forman

Will the Foreign Secretary assure us that a major conclusion he has drawn from his first meeting as President is the absolute importance at this time of international economic relations, particularly as this is something that the new Carter Administration have been stressing in advance of taking office? What plans does the right hon. Gentleman have as President of the Council to advance requirements in this area?

Mr. Crosland

That was a view that I had held for a considerable time before the Council met yesterday. There is no doubt that this subject will come up as the central topic when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I visit the new Administration in Washington and, shortly after that, probably when the next European Council takes place. We had a discussion in the last European Council, but, to tell the truth, in the closing days of the Administration in the United States that did not get us very far. I hope that the talks will be more productive next time.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Dennis Skinner.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Skinner

According to William Hickey, I have no friends.

Will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary beware of those Labour Members who are showing flattery and are backing both Common Market horses, because they might just be candidates in the elections for the European Parliament? Will my right hon. Friend concentrate his mind very clearly on the talks about the imbalance of trade with Japan? It seems to some of us that the likely outcome of curbing Japanese imports into this country and other Common Market countries might be more Common Market imports coming to Britain. The crafty Germans and the French might succeed in such a circumstance in getting more manufactured goods into this country, thus helping to maintain the high levels of unemployment which exist here.

Mr. Crosland

I shall beware of over-flattering friends and also of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) when he is as friendly as he has been this afternoon. I shall also beware of the very intricate economic problems to which he has referred.