HC Deb 25 March 1981 vol 1 cc927-34
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the European Council meeting in Maastricht, which, together with my noble Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, I attended on Monday and Tuesday

The discussions at the meeting covered a wide range of issues—both Community issues and those relating to foreign policy co-operation. There was no formal communiqué but a number of statements were agreed and the Presidency, on its authority, drew certain conclusions. I have placed copies of all those texts in the Library of the House. The main themes of the meeting were the economic and social problems confronting the Community, fisheries, and Poland

On the first subject, all those present emphasised the need to continue the fight against inflation through the pursuit of sound monetary policies. We agreed on the need to encourage productive investment, particularly in the sectors of high technology and innovative enterprise. We all share the deep concern at the high and rising rate of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, in member countries. We determined to make the best possible use of existing funds and financial mechanisms, among other things, in providing advanced technological training and education for youth. The clear and unanimous view was expressed that short-term demand stimuli would be ineffective

On fisheries, there was an attempt to deal with outstanding agreements with Canada and the Faroes in isolation, but the measures to improve the fish marketing arrangements that were offered as a quid pro quo did not, in my view, provide sufficient protection to our industry. I insisted, and it was agreed, that it would be much better to deal with those external fisheries questions in the context of an overall fisheries settlement, as we have been trying to do for so long. It was therefore decided that the Fisheries Council should meet on Friday of this week to try to reach agreement

In our view, agreement on an overall settlement was close in the Fisheries Council last December. If each and every member now has a genuine willingness to settle, it should be possible to find solutions. For our part, we are seeking early agreement on a basis that will secure the vital interests of our own fishing industry. The Heads of State and Government decided unanimously to confirm the status quo in regard to the provisional places of work of the European institutions

The third main subject was Poland, where the events of the past few days had naturally caused us concern. Our message once again was that the problems of Poland are for the Polish people to resolve; any other attitude than this could have the gravest consequences for international relations in Europe and world-wide. We expressed the readiness of our Governments to continue, in conjunction with others and within the limits of our means, to contribute to the recovery of the Polish economy, thereby complementing the efforts of the Polish people themselves.

The Council adopted statements on a number of other political subjects. We took note of the progress registered so far by the Netherlands Presidency in following up the Venice declaration of June 1980 on the Middle East. We endorsed the statement made last week by the President of the United Nations Security Council in support of the United Nations force in the Lebanon, to which some of our European partners contribute. We pledged our support for any initiative likely to contribute to the restoration of Afghanistan as an independent, non-aligned and neutral State. Finally, we congratulated the people of Spain on their defeat of the recent challenge to democracy in a country that, in due course, we look forward to welcoming as a member of the European Community.

This meeting enabled the Heads of Government to have a businesslike discussion and to reaffirm their determination to work together in tackling the major issues facing their Governments.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

The Opposition share the concern about the situation in Poland that was expressed at the summit meeting. We agree that that is a matter entirely for the Polish people to settle themselves. We trust that there will be no attempt from elsewhere to influence the decisions that they wish to reach.

I concur fully with what the right hon. Lady and others said about Spain at the summit meeting. We, too, congratulate the people of Spain on having rejected that challenge to their newly found democracy. I am sure that this country wishes to do everything in its power to sustain the democratic institutions that have been established there.

Fisheries questions played a big part in the meeting, according to the reports on the discussions. The Opposition reiterate what we have said on many occasions, namely, that so long as the Government sustain the legitimate interests of this country they will have our fullest support in the efforts that they make in that direction. We shall watch carefully to ensure that that occurs.

We were rather concerned about the interview on those matters that was given by one of the Government spokesmen earlier in the week. He seemed to suggest that the Government were in some way departing from the undertakings that they had given to the House. I hope that the right hon. Lady will reaffirm that the Government stand by what they confirmed to the House before and that there will be no departure from those undertakings when the meeting takes place on Friday. We entirely agree with what she has said to the House on many occasions, namely, that this matter should be dealt with on its merits and should be separate from any other question. We trust that that is the line that the Government will continue to take.

Other more general questions arose at the meeting. I listened to the right hon. Lady's statement and I have read the communiqués. Does not she think that, considering that the Heads of Government met to discuss those matters in the gravest economic situation that the Western world has had to face since 1945, her communiqué and statement today are pitifully inadequate to deal with a mass unemployment problem of this scale? Does not she recall that at the summit meeting that took place only a few months ago an undertaking was given that the institutions of the Community should examine ways of improving incentives to innovation"—[Official Report, 3 December 1980, Vol. 995, c. 399.] and would continue to use the Community's instruments to reduce structural unemployment. Since that statement and previous summit statements were made the situation has continued to deteriorate in an appalling manner. The deterioration has been worse in this country than in other countries. No doubt that put the right hon. Lady at some disadvantage in the meeting. However, does she now say that the Government and those whom she met at the summit have no more concrete measures than those to put before the country and the world? There has been a promise that there will be a meeting of Finance Ministers and others. That was one of the things that were arranged at the summit. What fresh proposals do the Government have for dealing with unemployment on this tragic scale?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support of the European Council's stand on Poland and Spain. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made a practice, which he will continue, of taking with him representatives of the fishing industry when he negotiates on a common fisheries agreement. That will ensure that he carries the fisheries industries with him at all stages of any agreement that may be concluded. It would not have been right for me to negotiate in detail on a common fisheries policy. My purpose was to prevent third party agreements being concluded in isolation from the main common fisheries policy. Had I agreed, it would have harmed our fishing industry, which is already suffering from imports without the risk of yet more. The conclusion of those agreements would inevitably have meant more imports.

We are all suffering from unemployment. Some EEC countries have a higher percentage of unemployment than we have. The meeting confirmed that the main course of action on which we are embarked is the correct one, and that short-lived stimuli are not effective. We must have longer-term policies. The conclusions were that we are suffering from, first, a world recession due to the rise in oil prices—which was $11 a barrel when I took office and which OPEC has now increased to about $36 a barrel—and, secondly, structural changes, as goods are produced in other countries that were once produced here. We must relieve the effects of those structural changes and concentrate investment on productive industries instead of always on the industries of yesterday. Those were wise conclusions.

Mr. Foot

Will the right hon. Lady answer my last question, concerning the proposed meeting in June of Finance, Industry and Labour Ministers? When will she present to the House measures other than those that have caused a record increase in unemployent over the past year?

The Prime Minister

The "Jumbo" Council, as it is called, is expected to meet in June, and it is hoped that the Commission will make strenuous efforts to put proposals before it. The level of unemployment is higher in the Community than it was in the previous oil recession, when the average was 4½ per cent. It is now 7½ per cent. We are concerned to produce long-term solutions and not just short-term stimuli.

Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a warm welcome in the fishing industry for her steadfast refusal to be pushed about by the French and the Germans? Will she lose no opportunity to remind our EEC partners that, given the high percentage of fish that we contribute to EEC waters, our provisionally agreed quotas are extremely generous to our partners? Will she give a categorical assurance to the House and to industry that at no time did she come to a bargain in advance of Friday's meeting—no compromise, sell-out or trade-off—to the disadvantage of our fishing industry?

The Prime Minister

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. I spent most of my time on fisheries matters saying "No" vehemently. I reminded my colleagues at the Council that we contribute some 60 per cent. of the water and the fish to the Community, and that we required a square deal from the EEC.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

What changes have there been that will make possible an agreement on Friday? If the French are unwilling to accept a system that would benefit our industry, how can there be agreement? Was the hope expressed not merely a way of passing the buck to avoid continual disagreement at the summit?

The Prime Minister

It was thought that we were close to agreement at the Fisheries Council in December. We were working hard, in accordance with the agreement of 30 May, to conclude a common fisheries agreement by the end of December. We were close to it when one nation abruptly terminated the negotiations, but that country now appears anxious to conclude an agreement and is ready to go back to a Common Fisheries Council.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

I welcome wholeheartedly the support given to constitutional government in Spain, but can my right hon. Friend assure us that she is asking the Foreign Secretary to make it clear to the Spanish Government that Spain's admission to the European Community or NATO depends on the blockade of Gibraltar being lifted?

The Prime Minister

My noble Friend had an arrangement with the Spanish Government about improving the situation between Gibraltar and Spain. I am sure that he will pursue it.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

In view of the serious misgivings in the fishing industry arising from recent reports, will the Prime Minister reaffirm that there will be no surrender of the dominant preference in the 12 to 50-mile zone?

The Prime Minister

All detailed negotiation is for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has carried the fishing industry with him at every stage in the negotiations. We could not conclude an agreement unless it was acceptable to the fishing industry.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan (Farnham)

In the discussions on the European economies, was mention made of the possibility of the United Kingdom joining the European monetary system, or will it be discussed later, among Finance Ministers?

The Prime Minister

At present there is no question of our discussing joining the EMS, which is suffering from the devaluation of the lira. Although we should ultimately like to join, it is not yet appropriate.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Does the Prime Minister accept that only a few weeks ago the French were the villains of the piece, and were in the dock? What has happened in the meantime to make us the odd man out, so that we are being castigated by our EEC partners?

The Prime Minister

The other EEC members wished us to conclude two agreements with third countries—with Canada, which would have benefited German fishermen but would have harmed our industry, and with the Faroes, which would have benefited those fishermen and would again have harmed our industry. They wanted us to conclude those agreements separately from the common fisheries agreement. Both would have meant substantial imports for this country, directly or indirectly, of fish that might have displaced other fish in Europe. I could not possibly conclude those agreements without the establishment of a proper common fisheries policy to give our fishermen confidence in the future, so that they would know where they could fish, and would know that their income was assured. We were in the dock for not agreeing to conclude those third-party agreements.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

Was the question of the massive over-production of steel within the Community dealt with? While Italy, Germany and Belgium have increased steel production, Britain has massively reduced it. Can my right hon. Friend assure us that at the next ECSC discussions we will not be called on for further reductions?

The Prime Minister

In a brief discussion on steel, one Head of Government was critical of subsidies for steel, except those, such as we give, to try to change the structure of the industry and to get it into a competitive condition. The new quotas have not been agreed. For the time that quotas have been agreed, it is worrying to note that production appears to have outstripped by about 8 per cent. what was expected from adding all the quotas together, which means that some countries must have produced more. Our concern is to have quotas that everyone is seen to stick to firmly.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

British fishermen will support the Prime Minister in her refusal to conclude an agreement on third country fishing rights in the absence of a common fisheries policy, but is she aware that there is concern about her publicly quoted statement about access and the Minister of State's interview with the press? Is she aware of the industry's fear that ground is being given on dominant preference and on areas within the 12-mile limit?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that I made many comments about access, although clearly we must have preferential access. My comments were that we have provisionally agreed quotas and we must be able to fish up to the quotas that we have agreed.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

Given the way in which our fishermen helped to save the future of Europe at Dunkirk, would it not be right and proper for today's European leaders to accept the honourable proposals put forward by Her Majesty's Government to safeguard the rights of our fishermen today?

The Prime Minister

I tried very much, in the spirit of what my hon. Friend said, to point out the massive resources in fish that this country brought to the Community, which were even greater when we went out to a 200-mile fishing limit. But I think that it would have been better if, when the Hague agreement for a 200-mile fishing limit for the seas around the European coasts was concluded, the Labour Government had achieved a better deal for this country.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

In case there is any confusion, will the right hon. Lady confirm, first, that we have not agreed to any third party agreements unless there is a common fishing agreement and, secondly, that that common fishing agreement will insist upon a 12-mile exclusive zone and a 50-mile dominant zone for British fishermen?

The Prime Minister

I shall explain to the hon. Gentleman precisely what took place. Two third party agreements—the EEC-Canada agreement and the EEC-Faroes agreement—were discussed. It was suggested that those should go ahead without a common fisheries policy. I refused to allow them to go ahead on that basis, and I understood that all other Heads of Government were also anxious to have a common fisheries policy. We therefore agreed that the Fisheries Council should meet on Friday. Nothing further was said or laid down about conditions.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she made it clear to her European colleagues that any eventual fisheries agreement must include a phasing out of the historic rights of certain nations in the six to 12-mile band around the coasts of our islands?

The Prime Minister

I did not get involved in detailed negotiations on particular aspects of the fishing agreement, nor is it appropriate that Heads of Government should or could. For that, the Fisheries Ministers and their officials must be there, as well as representatives of the fishing industry. These detailed matters are not appropriate for Heads of Government.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the House understands her position in relation to third party agreements on fisheries? Does she also understand that, in view of the questions from the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), the answers that she has given will only lead the interests concerned to the conclusion that the Government have now departed from the policy of the House and their own previous policy of giving dominant preference in the 12 to 50-mile band? Is she aware that unless and until that is denied, the House and everyone else must conclude that that is so?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member is talking nonsense, and that undoubtedly suits his own purpose. I have made perfectly clear what happened, and have explained that at each and every stage we have taken representatives of the fishing industry with us. We cannot conclude an agreement unless it is satisfactory to the fishing industry.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her determination to stand firm on the question of any negotiation of a common fisheries policy and her continued statements that fishing will not be sold down the river by the Government in exchange for any other terms from the EEC? Will she confirm that it is right that the common fisheries policy should be negotiated by our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and that in no way will he give way on any matter on which she stood firm in the negotiations last week? Lastly, will she confirm that when her right hon. Friend goes to Brussels on Friday he will go in the knowledge that the House will not accept any common fisheries policy under duress from either the French or the Germans?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I endorse his confidence in the ability of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for fisheries to conclude a good deal for our fishing industry. Their task would have been much easier had the Labour Government done better in fisheries policy and negotiated a better agreement on fish when they agreed to extend the limit to 200 miles.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Will the Prime Minister explain what are the powers and status of this so-called Council, and what basis there is for it in the treaties? Is it not clear from the shambles of a meeting that took place that our membership of the EEC has not helped employment in this country, but rather the reverse? As we derive no benefit from membership, should not the right hon. Lady say "No" not only to the fishing policy but to our membership of the Common Market?

The Prime Minister

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that we have derived benefits from membership. If the democracies of Europe cannot stick together in a Community it augurs ill for the future of democracy in the world.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to let these questions run until 4 o'clock.

Mr. Alex Pollock (Moray and Nairn)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her firm stand on fishing, which she has consistently pursued since the election campaign of 1979. Has she seen the report in today's Daily Mail, which suggests that the next meeting of Ministers has been brought forward to enable a climb-down by the British Government? Will she take this opportunity to confirm that there is no question of reaching a settlement involving a sell-out of the Scottish inshore fleet?

The Prime Minister

I refute what appeared in the Daily Mail, which I happened to see and at which I was astonished, in view of the fact that some of its representatives must have been in Holland, although they would not have been in on the meeting. I am happy that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will negotiate a good and acceptable settlement on fisheries. I can only point out that we have until the end of 1982, when certain other things would happen to the fishing industry if we failed. It is therefore vital to restore confidence in the future and to do it now.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Is the Prime Minister aware that while she was away a Bill was passed for the benefit of Lloyd's insurers, which gives massive legal immunities to those people? Does she accept that if those immunities were granted to the British trade union movement it would become on a par with the Polish trade union movement, which she supports? Is she prepared to do that? Secondly, does she accept that her comments about the meeting on unemployment suggest that neither the British Government nor the other EEC Governments can cope with the rising tide of unemployment? Does she feel that our membership of the EEC has in any way helped to combat the high level of 2½ million unemployed that we now have?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that the first matter was not discussed at the summit. With regard to the latter subjects, I can only point out to him that those countries that have virtually beaten inflation have a far better record on unemployment than those that have not.

Mr. David Myles (Banff)

I endorse the words used by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat). Indeed, I would have used them myself. Is my right hon. Friend aware that fishermen are becoming weary of waiting and that they want a suitable fisheries policy to be concluded?

The Prime Minister

I agree very much with what my hon. Friend said. I believe that we were within sight of an agreement in December. It was not our fault that an agreement was not concluded; it was the fault of another country, which withdrew from the negotiations. I believe that we now take up where we left off and 'that there is a good chance of reaching an agreement, which I believe all members of the Community wish to have.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Prime Minister recall that when the last Labour Prime Minister returned from these visits to the Common Market summits the right hon. Lady used to criticise him heavily for reading out what I considered then to be cliché-ridden statements and generalisations about the way in which the Common Market could resolve the problems of unemployment and inflation? Does she recall the occasions when she told my right hon. Friend that he was wasting time and Government money by trotting out to these various capitals? Apart from the fact that the lady is for turning, is not the truth of the matter that the Common Market is mainly responsible for the fact that 1 million people have been thrown out of work—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is advancing an argument rather than asking a question.

Mr. Skinner

You can bet your life I am.

The Prime Minister

I remember telling the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) that discussion between Heads of Government, rather than what was contained in the communiqués, was one of the main values of such meetings. Everything that the hon. Gentleman said confirms me in that view. He spoke of economic policy clichés. There are certain fundamental truths in economics; it is just that people like the hon. Gentleman will not acknowledge that fact.

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