HC Deb 27 February 1978 vol 945 cc27-35
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Frank Judd)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about business to be taken by Ministers of the European Community during March. The monthly written forecast was deposited on Thursday 23rd February.

At present four meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for March. Agriculture Ministers will meet on 6th and 7th, Foreign Ministers on 7th, Finance Ministers on 20th, and Energy Ministers on 21st. A joint meeting of ACP/EEC Ministers will also be held on 13th and 14th to review the implementation of the Lomé Convention.

Agriculture Ministers are expected to resume discussions on CAP prices for 1978–79, Mediterranean agriculture, producer groups and potato marketing arrangements. They are also expected to consider proposals for the future of the milk marketing boards.

Foreign Ministers are expected to consider relations with Japan, steel imports, the North-South dialogue, aid to non-associates, and direct elections to the European Assembly. They are also expected to adopt the Community mandate for the joint meeting of ACP/EEC Ministers.

Finance Ministers are expected to discuss adaptations of the economic policy guidelines for 1978, the economic situation and Commission proposals for improved co-ordination of national economic policies.

Energy Ministers are expected to resume discussions on Community energy policy objectives for 1985, refiner problems and assistance to the coal industry. They are also expected to consider financial aid to projects demonstrating energy saving and alternative energy sources, joint hydrocarbon exploration projects and minimum stock levels for oil products.

Mr. Hurd

The Minister has not mentioned any meeting of Fisheries Ministers next month. How does he foresee the future of those discussions? Meanwhile, what is the position about negotiations between the Community and third countries on fisheries?

Secondly, would the Minister care to comment on the story on the front page of The Guardian about the Government's intention to take unilateral action on import controls against Japan, regardless of our obligation to act in concert with Europe? Are not stories such as this, allied with similar stories about the French Socialist Party, just the thing to endanger jobs by putting confidence in world trade into a downward spin?

The Minister dodged the question that I put last week about the Government's attitude towards the date for the first direct elections. Is not the House entitled to know what proposals the Foreign Secretary will be taking to the meeting next week, when this matter is to be discussed?

Mr. Judd

The hon. Member has asked several questions. On fisheries, no date has yet been fixed for the next meeting. The British Government are deeply committed to working towards an effective common fisheries policy, but we have repeatedly made it clear that if that policy is to be effective, it will have to take into account the special needs of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the specially large contribution that will be being made to European fish stocks from British waters. We hope that we shall be able to make progress soon, and meetings will be resumed as soon as there are prospects for such progress. Permanent arrangements with third countries are, of course, related to what we can achieve in terms of the internal regime.

As regards Japan, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the negotiations with Japan are being conducted by the Community. We are, of course, bilaterally seeking certain clarification of policies and their implementation by the Japanese, but the negotiations are undertaken collectively in the Community context.

On direct elections, I do not dodge the hon. Gentleman's question but the fact of the matter is that we have now embarked upon discussions in another place. We want to see how these are going. It is certain that the European Council, when it meets in April, will want to consider this. At the next meeting of the Council of Ministers, it is absolutely clear, we shall be sharing experience and knowledge of how we stand in different countries—because we are not the only country with certain technical difficulties. I suspect that a decision about the date will be made by the Council of Ministers, and we shall stand by it.

Mr. Watt

When the Minister of Agriculture meets his agriculture colleagues, will he impress upon them the extreme urgency that exists over the destruction of fish stocks in the North Sea, and the fact that, while it may be desirable to await the outcome of the CFP negotiations, fish stocks cannot wait that long? Will the Minister now tell his European colleagues that we intend to have strict conservation measures within all the waters under our jurisdiction and that we insist that fishing vessels of all countries that fish in these waters should bring to 80 millimetres the mesh size of nets, and stop all industrial fishing while stocks have time to recover?

Mr. Judd

No one should underestimate the irreparable damage that is done to fish stocks if there are no conservation measures. The Government's top priority is to ensure that the conservation measures in force on 31st January are maintained. We shall do this and we have informed the Commission of our intention to do it.

Mr. Radice

Does my hon. Friend agree that in view of the 6½ million unemployed in the EEC it is about time that Finance Ministers agreed on a plan for co-ordinated economic expansion?

Mr. Judd

Certainly the problems of unemployment and the need for sustained growth are very high in the considerations of Finance Ministers.

Mr. Marten

Is the Minister aware that those of us who were talking to the Community last week in Brussels were very disappointed to understand that the proposed accession of new members was not regarded as the occasion to carry out a radical reform of the common agricultural policy? Will the Minister impress upon his right hon. Friend that that would be a very good moment to have a radical reform of the CAP? Will he also ask his right hon. Friend not to agree to any increase in prices where surpluses exist?

Mr. Judd

The hon. Member is well aware of the Government's priorities, which are to see progressively the elimination of unnecessary and expensive structural surpluses and to improve the policy to ensure fair access for third countries' products. We are also determined to see the needs of consumers more adequately reflected in the policies of the CAP, and with consequent price restraint.

Mr. James Johnson

Has the Minister noticed the new line, which is almost patriotic, that is being taken up by the official Opposition on the matter of the CAP? Is it not a fact that the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) spoke of an act of folly on the part of the Community in imposing upon us these conditions when we entered, way back some years ago? Does not the Minister honestly and deeply think that even with the bipartisan policy in this Chamber and the bipartisan policy in Brussels, Commissioner Gunderlach and the others will not take the blindest bit of notice of our needs in this matter?

Mr. Judd

I am sure that all those elsewhere in the Community, other than Britain, are well aware of the political significance for Britain of a just CFP. They recognise that there could be no question of this House endorsing a one-sided and unfair policy. They also, I believe, increasingly recognise that there is a deep sense of genuine grievance at what the fishing industry of this country, and many others, believes was thrust upon us at the time of our accession.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call four more hon. Members from each side in view of the fact that it is a Supply Day.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

It was difficult in that long catalogue to hear whether the Ministers for Prices and Consumer Affairs are to meet, but if they are, will the Minister convey to them the need to inform the Commission that it has totally failed to understand the method of mail order trading in this country—this is the view of the all-party Retail Group in this House—and that the Commissioner—Commissioner Burke—might prepare to have some pressure put upon him to learn a little about this uniquely British process?

Mr. Judd

The Ministers to whom the hon. Gentleman referred are not meeting in the forthcoming month. I shall ensure that the point that he made is brought to the attention of those responsible, through the appropriate channels.

Mr. Spearing

My hon. Friend has said that when the Agriculture Ministers meet on 6th–7th March they will be discussing the future of the milk marketing boards. Is he aware that Article 1(c) of R27/78, which is the document in question, is likely to be unsatisfactory to this country because it means that farmers with 150 cows or more can contract out? Do the Government intend to oppose this regulation?

Mr. Judd

What I am aware of in what is now being proposed is that it seeks to safeguard essential functions of the milk marketing boards. There are certain aspects of the proposals with which we are not entirely satisfied. We shall be working hard on these.

Mr. Peter Mills

Is the Minister able to report to the House any progress in the sheepmeat regime? Will he at the next Council of Ministers' meeting urge this forward as quickly as possible in view of the way British producers are being penalised? Will he also take steps to see what aid can be given to the South-West from the Community's Disaster Fund?

Mr. Judd

Both points will be drawn to the attention of those responsible in Brussels. On the first point, there is a deep understanding of the amount of anxiety there is here. On the second point, it is early days yet, but we shall certainly see what can be done.

Mr. English

Is it not an illustration of powerlessness that the Minister has not mentioned the fact that the real decisions about the world economy are being made today in Paris by the OECD? Fishing, sheepmeat and other matters may be of some interest, but would my hon. Friend care to say what attitude the United Kingdom will be taking when the Council of Finance Ministers meets after the decisions which are being taken by the OECD today on the argument between United States and Western Germany?

Mr. Judd

My hon. Friend is obviously right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the major issues facing humanity cannot be resolved within the EEC alone. However, I believe that the major countries of the EEC, working together on these crucially important issues, can help to take the argument forward constructively in wider groupings such as the OECD. When Ministers meet later they will obviously take very much into account what is happening in Paris today.

Mr. Biffen

Am I right in believing that the agenda announced for the Foreign Ministers' meeting on 7th March did not include the question of Greek accession to the Community? If this is so, why is there this seeming laxity in progressing with these negotiations? Will the Minister undertake to keep the House informed of what progress is being made?

Mr. Judd

At the last meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers concern was expressed by virtually all Foreign Ministers there about the need to speed up these negotiations. There are indications that since that meeting the rate has improved. I imagine that in the context of the discussions in Brussels next month we shall be taking stock of how we are going forward.

Mr. Skinner

Does "sheepmeat regime" mean mutton and lamb? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Then why do they not say it?

In relation to the meeting of the Energy Ministers on 21st March, will my hon. Friend convey to the United Kingdom Minister that unless the coal industry finds fresh markets to get rid of that so-called surplus coal, there will be extreme difficulties in the British coalfields? We went into the Common Market, presumably, to have their butter, their beef, their sheepmeat regimes, their metrication, their decimalisation, but they are not buying any additional coal from us. With more than 30 million tons of coal on the ground, the National Coal Board is now threatening to shut pits, including one outside my constituency at Teversal. It is time that the Common Market delivered some goods for the miners.

Mr. Judd

On the first point, I agree that if the Common Market were to talk about lamb and mutton marketing systems it might be more acceptable. On the second point, I assure my hon. Friend that we are well aware of the need on this front. We are supporting within the Community policies, for example, to encourage the construction of coal-burning power stations specifically to try to find a solution to this problem.

Mr. Moate

With regard to direct elections, can the Minister say precisely which countries have made the necessary commitments and legislative arrangements for elections in 1979? Secondly, the hon. Gentleman omitted from his statement on the foreign affairs item revisions of the Community staff regulation. Does that hold out any prospect of any regulations in the remarkable tax privileges of United Kingdom citizens working for the Commission?

Mr. Judd

Staff regulations are not to be taken at the meeting in March, but they will be taken at the meeting in April. There has been a change since the original statement was deposited in the Library. That is why I did not refer to this point particularly today.

On the other point, we shall be updating ourselves on the latest state of play. There are constantly problems and the reconciliation of problems as we move forward on direct elections, but it seems fairly clear that all member States will be in a position to hold direct elections in 1979.

Mr. Christopher Price

Do the Government agree with the threat by Mr. Gaston Thorn to scupper the direct elections unless he is allowed to keep the Parliament in Luxembourg in a ridiculous leaning tower of a spec-built Parliament built by the Luxembourg fringe banks?

Secondly, on the question of potatoes, is there any hope of persuading the French and the Italians to lift their objections to a reduced tariff for Cyprus potatoes so that we can save the economy of that island?

Mr. Judd

On the first point, we have had no official communication at the Council of Ministers from the Government of Luxembourg or from any other Government on this matter. However, as I have previously assured my hon. Friend, this decision has to be taken in the Council of Ministers. Views expressed by the Assembly or, indeed, by other Governments are obviously highly relevant, but the decision must be a decision by the Ministers in the Council.

On the question of potatoes, I can only repeat what I have said before in the House. For the Community I believe that getting economic policies right with Cyprus is a marginal matter. It is a problem of economic life and death for Cyprus. We must do everything in our power to persuade the Community to move forward on this matter.