HC Deb 18 December 1985 vol 89 cc301-9 3.34 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the meetings of Community Foreign Ministers that took place in Brussels on 16 and 17 December. I took part in the meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference which finished at midday yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and the United Kingdom Permanent Representative represented the United Kingdom at the subsequent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council.

The Foreign Affairs Council discussed Commission proposals for a negotiating mandate on the renewal of the multi-fibre arrangement. Further discussions will take place at the Foreign Affairs Council in January.

Ministers also reviewed progress in negotiations to adapt the EC-EFTA agreements to take account of enlargement.

The Ministers of the Ten as well as Spain and Portugal issued a statement on East-West relations following the meeting between President Reagan and Secretary-General Gorbachev in Geneva. A copy of the statement is being placed in the Library of the House.

The Council considered a draft regulation adapting the regional fund to take account of the enlargement of the Community. The new regulation should be ready for adoption in the near future.

Following discussion at the European Council it was agreed to set up a committee of scientific experts to recommend co-ordinated action to combat cancer.

The Intergovernmental Conference completed its work. Discussion centred on those points which, following the decisions taken at the European Council, required clarification or further work.

We agreed the political co-operation treaty, with a small secretariat, on the lines that the United Kingdom proposed before Milan. We reached agreement upon the framework in which to set the political co-operation treaty and the amendments to the EC treaty in a way which preserves the juridical separation between the European Community treaties and the political co-operation Treaty. We achieved the necessary clarifications on the internal market and the European Parliament to complete the agreement reached without affecting the substance of what was agreed by the Heads of Government in Luxembourg.

The Italian and Danish Governments continue to have overall reserves on all the texts. The United Kingdom maintained its reserve on the text on the working environment. The Presidency will now collate the texts that have been under discussion for examination by the official group of legal and linguistic experts. I will, of course, make the texts available to the House as soon as we have them in final form.

The changes agreed represent worthwhile improvements in the operation of the Community. The agreements to complete the common market by 1992, to speed up decision-taking, to strengthen our co-operation in foreign policy and to ensure that our efforts in research and development are geared to the exploitation of a growing market will help to achieve objectives that we have consistently pursued. We welcome this as a useful step forward for the Community. The agreements now reached are, of course, subject to the approval of national Parliaments.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

It is clear from that statement how little the whole treaty amendment exercise has achieved in reality. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, compared with the fanfares and rhetoric which began the discussions, what has emerged is a pretty feeble pile of paper? If this is history, it is historic only in the sheer time taken to do so little for so many of Europe's people. With more than 15 million jobless in Europe, the Community budget facing disaster yet again and the regional and social funds locked up, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware how sad it is that the treaty amendments are so profoundly irrelevant to Europe's real problems?

Why are the British Government, alone among the 10 nations in the Community, still holding out against encouraging improved standards of health and safe working conditions for workers? Why does this country always take the worst of the Community and reject the best?

Now that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has agreed to the new treaty on foreign policy co-operation, what have his colleagues in Brussels had to say about Britain's disgraceful decision to leave UNESCO against the unanimous advice of our European partners?

Article 1 of the Luxembourg summit communiqué on the obscure subject of "cohesion" says that the Community will reduce disparities between various regions". How is that to be done with the freezing of the social and regional funds and the losses that this country will suffer as a result? On radio yesterday the Prime Minister spoke about her view of the European Community being pragmatic and based on what it can do for Britain. How can we benefit if the present financial shambles in Europe continues?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

When he asks questions on a topic of this kind the hon. Gentleman portrays a wide and superficial knowledge but with very little insight.

On political co-operation, the hon. Gentleman may be surprised to learn that UNESCO was not mentioned once in the last two days. Our position in relation to the proposal for the adoption of regulations affecting health and safety in the working environment consists simply in our belief that that should be subject to a provision for unanimity, at least in respect of firms of small and medium size. It is necessary to proceed with the utmost care when imposing obligations, even of the most benign kind, on small and medium sized firms if one is not to damage employment—the very thing about which we are all concerned.

As to the treaty amendments, I find it very difficult to judge whether the hon. Gentleman's position is to regret the fact that the conference achieved such a small range of treaty amendments or that it took place at all. We recognised the case for progress in the Community and believe that that could have been done without the Intergovernmental Conference. We are glad that it has now been done with that conference. It would be nice to hear something welcomed by the Opposition.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

On political collaboration, can one assume that the conference greeted the decision by the five countries—including the Socialist Governments of France and Sweden—to cease their prosecution of Turkey for breaches of human rights in view of progress towards democracy in that country? Does that open the door to further economic and political collaboration between the EEC countries and Turkey?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that Sweden was not represented at the proceedings yesterday, but he is right to draw attention to the importance of the decision reached by the five complainant Governments to bring to a conclusion the civil rights proceedings against Turkey. That is a recognition of the progress that has been made in that direction in Turkey, and I hope that it will open the way to similar moves within the European Community.

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

As the Foreign Secretary has declared himself in favour of Euro-activity and against Euro-pessimism, does he recognise that some majority voting, a stronger Parliament and enlarged regional and social funds are all essential if we are to tackle problems in the Community such as the CAP that cause its unpopularity among some sections in Britain?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We have certainly been in favour of extending the opportunity for the Parliament to play a constructive role in the Community while reserving the last word to the Council, and that has been achieved. We are certainly in favour of the extended use of majority voting, particularly when that can promote the more effective application of a single internal market, while proper attention is paid to important national interests. There is something to be said for looking favourably at the scope and scale of activity in the regional and social funds, but that can be sensibly achieved only within a framework of effective budget discipline and, above all, effective control of the previously burgeoning expenditure on the CAP. That decision does not require treaty changes but a sustained application of political will—[Interruption.]—and in support of that determination by the Government I am always delighted to have the enthusiastic commitment of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Despite the welcome lack of progress on the undermining of the veto, is it true that the Secretary of State has agreed the European Act, whose preamble describes the ultimate aim of member states as being European union and commits Britain to the formal objective of realising that goal in a new treaty article? Why on earth did the Secretary of State agree to those silly words when the Prime Minister has made it abundantly clear that Britain does not support all this nonsense?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am dismayed that my hon. Friend, with his sophisticated insight into these matters, should be so preoccupied with that misconception. The title of the European Act, which brings together the two treaties agreed yesterday, explicitly avoids reference to European union. The references in the text are to complete progress towards our agreed goal"—

Mr. Teddy Taylor

That is the preamble.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The agreed text includes the preamble to which I am referring. The goal that has been agreed is ever closer agreement between the peoples of Europe. As we signed the treaty in 1957, my hon. Friend must catch up with that. I made it clear yesterday, as British Governments have done on many occasions, that union in the sense envisaged in the treaty is a continuing process. It was agreed that we should not speak of the establishment of a European union. Even my hon. Friend cannot ask for a better outcome.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman have the opportunity to have a few words with the negotiators on the multi-fibre arrangement, whose mandate was renewed, to tell them that employers and unions alike in the textile and clothing industry are worried because of the story that the civil servants who are negotiating are pressing hardest for a liberal regime in the coming MFA? That is contrary to the impression given in debate in the House a few months ago. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he was concerned about jobs and small businesses being destroyed. Is he aware that the jobs of many tens of thousands of workers in this industry will be in jeopardy unless there is proper control of clothing and textile imports?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade adhered firmly throughout yesterday's discussion and the discussion on the MFA to the line that he outlined in the House on 9 May this year. He made it plain then that a renewed MFA is bound to be more liberal in some respects if it is to afford improvements in access to the European markets of the poorest developing countries. That wish is expressed and supported by both sides of the House, not least by the Labour party. The Community has to balance liberal opportunities for textile industries in the Third world with sensible safeguards for Britain's textile industry. That is the objective set by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade. It is a difficult objective to achieve, but he will stick at it.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

Is it not clear that the only hope for advance in British industry, especially British aerospace, lies in closer co-operation with a completed Common Market? Should not my right hon. and learned Friend sweep aside considerations of ideological purity and throw his weight firmly in favour of a European solution to the Westland problem?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I agree that it is important in every context to take account of the advantages that can be secured by effective co-operation on a European scale. It is not for me to sweep aside any considerations of ideological purity in the decision that must be taken by Westland.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has stated that he expects any treaty to amend the treaty of Rome to be ratified by an Act of Parliament. Does he have any thoughts on the method of ratification for a possible treaty on political co-operation?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

A distinction must be drawn—as the hon. Gentleman well appreciates with his expert knowledge on this matter—between the provisions amending the European Community treaty and the political co-operation treaty. The political co-operation treaty is not, of course, part of Community law. It does not require legislation in the United Kingdom, but the House will have a full opportunity to consider it.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

What improvements does my right hon. and learned Friend expect in the speed and quality of Community decision taking if there is a greater involvement of the European Parliament?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

To improve the consultation procedure, we want to make it more possible for the European Parliament to make an effective contribution without extending the process. A clear time limit is provided for in the proposed treaty change. If a procedure fails to come to a conclusion, the proposal will lapse. This is similar to the way in which we handle matters in the House. The Presidency is committed to reviewing speedily at the beginning of next year the Council's internal procedures to deal with First reading provisions in the same way.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman be kind enough to tell us whether his attitude would change if the Italian Government were to veto the existing arrangement? Would he then be prepared to see a faster move towards closer union, or are Her Majesty's Government to stay with the existing position, where they appear to have tried to give away the veto unsuccessfully?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If we had been trying to give away the veto, which we were not, and we were unsuccessful, as the hon. Lady implies, she would have nothing to worry about. We were seeking to achieve a conclusion of advance British and European interests in the working of the Community. We arrived at a conclusion which commended itself broadly, in respect of which the Italian Government have so far maintained their reserve. We hope that reserves will be withdrawn so that it is possible for the entire Community to agree on the substance of the matters agreed last week.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

My right hon. and learned Friend has mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade was at the meeting. Can he confirm my impression that my right hon. Friend raised the question of the serious crisis in the tin industry? If so, what was the outcome of his intervention?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take it from me that our decision to withdraw from UNESCO—at the time that it was announced in the House I was in New York seeing the Secretary-General—caused not a ripple in the United Nations headquarters?

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Rubbish. I made a phone call.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall leave the hon. Gentleman to resolve his financial problems with my hon. Friend outside the House. My hon. Friend's contribution makes the point that I had made to me about the feelings in the United Nations on our UNESCO decision.

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about the tin crisis. We are in regular touch with our Community partners and with the Commission about it. The issue was raised yesterday. There are differing views on how to proceed to a resolution of the crisis. We are continuing to make strenuous efforts in the Community and elsewhere to achieve a settlement that would permit an orderly resumption of tin trading on the London metal exchange.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It has cost the British people £1.5 million a day to maintain our membership of this big business club over our period of membership. When will British unemployed workers move off the bottom of the league of social payments as a proportion of their former earnings compared with every other country in the Common Market?

In his discussions on international trade, did the Secretary of State explain to the other Ministers why the British Government did refuse to impose economic sanctions against South Africa? Did he tell them that it has nothing to do with the 150,000 jobs that they claim would be affected by the imposition of sanctions? He has not made that claim about the five million who the Government have put on the dole. Did he explain that the Government have refused to impose sanctions because Britain controls 45 per cent. of foreign investment in South Africa, and that it is the profits of his mates that are up for grabs in South Africa? That is why the Government will not intervene.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

One can only express one's sympathy with the hon. Gentleman if his insight into these matters is founded on such narrow restrictions as those which he has sought to outline.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make an immediate statement to the House about the important and new information, which he plainly has, which enabled him to describe expenditure on the CAP as recently or previously burgeoning?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The important information which I have is to the effect that the share of agriculture in the 1986 budget is substantially below its share for the current year and that the provision for 2.5 per cent. growth that is contained in the guidelines has been respected. I understand that nothing that we are able to do in respect of the CAP will be enough for my hon. Friend, but I beg him to accept that we are applying dramatic energy to try to achieve improved operation of the agriculture policy. I value his support in that respect, and I would value his insight as well.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

In view of the continuing financial crisis in the Common Market and the £252 million that the British taxpayer had to find to bail it out this year, will the Foreign Secretary seriously consider the question of the financing of those political parties in the Community that pass money to bankrupt parties in this country? For example, does he know that during the last financial year a group known as European Liberals, many of whom are to the right of Ghengis Khan, provided the British Liberal party with £340,000—and that is mentioned in its accounts—even though there is not a single Liberal party member in the Assembly? Is it any wonder that only recently the Liberal party allocated its premises to the National Front?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman has identified a very tangled web indeed. I should have thought that he would not be so ready to condemn international co-operation on political matters when his party, from the days of the Socialist International onwards, has proclaimed a belief in international political co-operation.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would be as concerned as I would be if the reference to European union in the preamble were to be used by the Commission as a moral lever for opening the throats of the British public so that it could throw down them more distasteful Euro medicine, will he reinforce his already robust remarks by saying, "Yes, we agree to a common market, but we do not agree to a united Europe"?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I think that some of my hon. Friends should become less preoccupied with textural matters of that sort. If we go back a long way, we will remember that in 1976 the Hague European Council, at which this country was represented by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), proclaimed that our objectives were the consolidation of Community solidarity and the establishment of European union. The treaty of Rome proclaimed as an objective the achievement of an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe.

If hon. Members concentrated on the realities and the practicalities, they would realise that we stop far short of the imaginary nightmare that they conjure up from these sort of words.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow)

Does the draft treaty on political co-operation contain any procedures to enable other European states to join in the treaty, and, if not, why not?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It contains provisions that make it plain that the treaty is not meant to be exclusive or to preclude consultation and co-operation with other European democratic countries. For example, we all belong to organisations such as the Council of Europe.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was right in what he said—and I have no information on the subject—does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that he has raised a very serious point? We cannot have British political parties financed by foreign political parties.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Now that my hon. Friend has added his formidable weight to the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I shall be very happy to give it more earnest consideration.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is a Council decision on tariff quotas which I understand is not to be published in its final form, even though it has already been considered by the Council? As far as we know, it will never be made available to anybody either in this House or elsewhere, even though it has been considered and made as a Council decision.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into that matter during the Intergovernmental Conference and tell us whether it is a new procedure and whether it will continue in the future?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

In so far as I heard my hon. Friend, I believe that to be a matter that I should draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who is in the House but had similar difficulty in hearing what he said. We shall read it in Hansard tomorrow.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Foreign Secretary expand on his interesting and probably welcome statement about scientific experts from Europe combating cancer? Does it mean that European money will be available? Will it be given to centres of excellence such as the Max Planck institute, Lewen university or the universities of Edinburgh or Cambridge?

If we want to fight cancer, is it not important to reinforce centres of excellence? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman ask his officials to give him Sir James Gowan's foreword to the Medical Research Council' s committee report which shows how funds are lacking for alpha projects? I welcome the initiative, but let us ensure that it is done in the most efficient way.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall see that the experts who advise the Government on these matters have their attention drawn to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. Their actions, which I described in the statement, to achieve greater co-operation on a Community basis consist of the appointment of experts to work together, and I trust that they will take account of the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

My right hon. and learned Friend said in his statement that the Government have put a reserve on the text on the working environment. Will he tell the House why that was done and what, in fact, it is?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have tried to answer that question in reply to the Opposition Front Bench. The Opposition Front Bench has had the advantage of studying the text, which I accept my hon. Friend may not have had. The proposal will give the Council powers to make legislative provision in a Community sense, affecting matters connected with health, safety and other areas in the working environment. It is our belief that, although that is a perfectly respectable objective to consider on a Community basis, it must be considered carefully with proper voting provisions. The proposal may achieve benevolent objectives, but it could, if too burdensome, detailed and restricted, threaten the creation of jobs, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what discussions took place about American policy in Central America and the American invasion of Nicaragua, which has a democratically elected Government'? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman also say what discussions took place about the British Government's slavish support for United States policy in that matter, despite claiming to support the Contadora process, which other European Governments support? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give any guarantee that the EEC aid that is being sent to some Central American countries will not be used to support Central American Governments who deny human rights to their citizens, in particular El. Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras? Will he give an assurance that no money will go to support such Governments?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There was no discussion of that topic. When that was discussed recently, it was on the basis of the common policy adopted by the Community countries at the meeting that took place with the Contadora countries in Luxembourg approximately a month ago. There is a great deal more common ground in Community policy on this matter than the observations of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) suggest.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does not the constructive and practical progress that has been made towards the creation of an internal market demonstrate the capacity and determination of the Community to promote trade in a better way and to secure real and lasting jobs for the benefit of many unemployed people in this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

In the course of his important discussions, did my right hon. and learned Friend seek to secure agreement from his colleagues that the British consumer should be able to derive the same advantages at Christmas as the Russian consumer and be able to purchase top quality EEC beef for 15p a pound?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I did not discuss that topic, although the Agriculture Council will be meeting tomorrow. No doubt the topic will be generally dealt with there.