HC Deb 17 December 1986 vol 107 cc1203-12 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council which I chaired in Brussels on the 15th and 16th of this month. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) represented the United Kingdom.

Foreign Ministers confirmed the re-appointment for a further two-year term of the President of the Commission and the Vice-Presidents.

The Council noted that a solution had not yet been reached in the negotiations with the United States concerning the accession to the Community of Spain and Portugal. Ministers emphasised the need to reach a settlement as soon as possible, and confirmed the decision of the April and June Councils that in the event of unilateral United States action, the Community would take equivalent action to defend its interests.

The Council approved a negotiating mandate for a trade and economic co-operation agreement between the Community and Romania.

The Council expressed its concern about the considerable number of current trade problems with Canada, and invited the Commission to pursue these matters vigorously and firmly with Canada.

The Council discussed the guidelines for the 1987 Asia and Latin America aid programme, and an export stabilisation scheme for least developed countries not party to the Lomé Convention.

The Council discussed two important procedural consequences of the Single European Act concerning the powers of the Commission and the Council's own rules of procedure. I am glad to say that on the latter point, a satisfactory agreement was reached.

The Council also discussed social measures in the coal and steel industries, and held a conciliation meeting with a delegation from the European Parliament on the new regulation on food aid policy and management on which the Development Council agreed a common position on 11 November. The regulation, the United Kingdom presidency initiative, was then formally adopted.

An Association Council at ministerial level was held with Cyprus. Both sides agreed on the importance of bringing the current customs union negotiations to an early conclusion.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for making his statement at the end of the British presidency of the Community. At the end of June, the Foreign Secretary told journalists:

This is the last time I will appear before you as a mere Foreign Secretary. From now on I shall have added lustre". Can he confirm that as December ends, we have the same old lack lustre Foreign Secretary back before us?

We welcome the resolute nature of the Council's response to American unilateralism on grain exports, although, to quote Commissioner De Clercq, the "unreasonable and undefensible" demands by the Americans are not simply being postponed, and the trade war with the United States still awaits. Like so many problems, has not this crisis simply been sidestepped under the British presidency and passed on to the Belgians to deal with next year?

It is worth remembering today what the Government's objective was during their presidency of the Community. In June the Foreign Secretary said that it was to make a real contribution to the lives of ordinary people. In this aim, as in so many others, we have seen a miserable failure, and nowhere has that failure been more marked than in foreign affairs. In July, a united political stance on apartheid was sabotaged by the spoiling tactics of this Government, which led to the feeble and half-baked stance that was eventually adopted against South Africa. Was that not the root cause of the paralysis in October in response to Syrian terrorism in Britain? Can the Foreign Secretary tell us of the reaction in the Foreign Affairs Council this week to Britian's high-minded and oft-repeated rhetoric about united action on terrorism, in the light of the increasing evidence of, first, our own arms-related exports to both Libya and Iran and, secondly, our acquiescence in the American arms fiasco over Iran? Did not our partners in the Community see through the brazen hypocrisy of the British Government demanding sanctions against these countries, as we simultaneously sell submarine syncro-lift machininery to Libya and send Chieftain tank parts and now £240 million-worth of military radar to Iran? Does this open bending of the Government's rules not debase our own position in uniting the Community against terrorist states?

Is there not something symbolically important in the fact that the European nations could not even agree on one candidate to put forward for the position of managing director of the International Monetary Fund, a position that is being voted upon today when the Governments of the world have to choose between two separate and distinct European candidates? The lustre that we had never noticed has gone from the Foreign Secretary. He, and we, will have to admit that his grand designs for the British presidency have produced precious little for the ordinary people of the Community. For that failure alone, his presidency will be memorable.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I must say that the hon. Gentleman's intervention will itself be memorable for its almost total lack of connection with the subject under discussion. He has embarked upon a discussion of the sale of arms to Iran and Libya, neither of which was under discussion at the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, upon which I am reporting—

Mr. George Robertson

Why not?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Because not one of my European colleagues dwells anywhere near the land filled with fantasy which the Opposition Front Bench occupies. The reality of co-operation on foreign affairs matters in Europe in the last six months has been more effective co-operation than ever before over the development, under British leadership of a policy against terrorism, and more effective co-operation than ever before over the development of a common policy in relation to drugs, terrorism and crime throughout Europe.

To turn to the point at which the hon. Gentleman entered the subject, he was kind enough to commence his otherwise somewhat rambling intervention by congratulating us upon the firmness with which the Community had faced up to the United States' trade negotiating policy. In relation to the successful launch of the GATT round, the reality is that the Community has been firm under British leadership. On the solution of American-European Community trade disputes, throughout the early autumn the Community was firm under British leadership and effective agreements have been reached on steel, pasta and citrus fruits, for example. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but the threat of United States action could destroy more than £500 million-worth of exports from the European Community, affecting such vital products as whisky, about which the hon. Gentleman may not be prepared to laugh so lightly. In all these respects the Community has taken firm action. I know that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) is interested in the IMF post. I am sorry that we were not able to put forward his name, but two good candidates from Europe were put forward for a job in which the right hon. Gentleman has always had a powerful interest because it was one of his mentors during his tragic time as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

There are two candidates for the rest to choose from.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

A most effective pattern of decisions was taken during the British presidency and that presidency set a record for decisions agreed and adopted on the internal market. We agreed on more help than at any time before for small businesses, on an action programme for employment, total co-operation on illegal immigration, visas, terrorism and crime. Yesterday, a series of decisions on the common agricultural policy went further than anyone could have imagined on the most fundamental reforms ever agreed to that policy. Those things were all undertaken under the British presidency during the second half of the year. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) should re-examine his assessment of these matters and be prepared to pay generous tribute to a dramatic series of successes.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is it not clear that, while agreements on things like citrus and the like may be a matter for mockery by the Opposition, they mean the difference between prosperity and poverty for the people who produce them? Is it not also clear that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) must have been talking about a different meeting? I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the lustre that he has given to Europe during the last six months. The British presidency has laid the foundation for a Europe that works properly and which will be able to contribute to peace and prosperity throughout the world.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind tribute and for underlining the realities that the work being undertaken by the Community is about the jobs of people in Britain and in Europe, about which the Opposition seem to care not at all.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Will the Foreign Secretary enlarge on his rather delphic reference to the Single European Act? Who conceded what to whom, and to what effect? Can he tell us whether, in the last Council that he chaired, any advance consideration was given to the matter of a common electoral system for the European Parliament, given that the Political Committee of that Parliament has, as he knows, now reached an agreement? Does he agree that the existing electoral system in Britain is clearly unfair to the electors and distorts the position in the European Parliament? Can we be sure that, even though we did not have a change by 1984, as the Home Secretary hoped we would, we will get one by 1989?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but no suggestion was made by any member of the Council that the electoral rules, a matter dear to his heart, ought to be considered. The two matters discussed yesterday in connection with the Single European Act were the powers that are to be granted to the Commission to enable it to implement decisions taken by the Council. We also considered a proposal already considered by the House Scrutiny Committee, but not recommended here for debate, which will enable us to specify more clearly the way in which the Commission will exercise its powers to implement decisions. That was not brought to a conclusion, but we were able to agree changes in the Council rules of procedure which form the other part of the Single European Act.

Those changes do not affect the Luxembourg compromise or the basic provisions about whether or not a decision can be taken by unanimity or by majority, but they make it easier to take decisions where majority voting applies and enable the presidency to call a vote on its own initiative or when a majority of Council members are in favour of so doing. It was a considerable achievement to reach agreement on those important procedural changes.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the determined and constructive resistance that he has offered to those who advocate protectionist solutions to the present problems that exist between Europe and the United States? Is it not necessary to remind those who advocate such solutions that the worst depression that the world has ever seen was the result of the reciprocal influence of the Hawley-Smoot tariff and imperial preference, whereas the most massive prosperity that the world has ever enjoyed has been the result of the enforcement of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing upon his formidable knowledge of these matters and reminding us of the central principles. It is right to say that the Commission, working jointly with the Council under our presidency, has stood robustly in favour of liberal trading agreements. For that reason, we have made clear our desire if possible to bring the article XXIV (6) negotiations with the United States to an early and agreed conclusion. But, in order to sustain the strength of our negotiating position, we have also agreed that, if unilateral measures are introduced by the United States, the Community will take equivalent action to defend its interests as already agreed. That is the right balance of robustness and pursuit of the right principles.

Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

Considering that three of the world's six leading arms traders are Germany, France and Britain, and that that massive trade is a major cause of poverty, which was referred to earlier, as well as a cause of major leakage into terrorist hands of weapons of destruction, why was the international arms trade and the control and reduction of that trade not a subject of major discussion at the meeting?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Because it was not on the agenda.

Mr. Freeson

Why not?

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall the journey which he made to Hillsborough on 15 November 1985 when the Irish Government committed themselves to accede as soon as possible to the European convention on the suppression of terrorism? How does my right hon. and learned Friend explain the decision of the Irish Minister of Justice yesterday that the Irish Government would not now be proceeding with the Bill to accede to the European convention on the suppression of terrorism?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That matter was not on the agenda of the European Council yesterday, nor was it discussed in any other forum on that day. My hon. Friend must understand, because he attaches so much importance to it, the difficulty of securing the enactment of such matters in many legislatures around the world. The Irish Government have committed themselves to that objective, and it remains, no doubt, an important one.

Mr. John David Taylor (Strangford)

Can the EEC Ministers really be serious about a customs union between the Community and Cyprus or do they, in practice, simply mean a customs union between the Community and southern Cyprus? If not, how can there be a customs union with an island which is effectively divided by a customs barrier?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The discussion that we had with the Cyprus Foreign Minister made it clear that we attach importance to the independence, sovereignty and unity of Cyprus. Our customs union is intended to be compatible with that. The policy so far pursued is consistent with article 5 of the association agreement, which states: trade shall not give rise to discrimination between … nationals of Cyprus. That remains the objective.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As the Community is committed to strong action against terrorism, what action has been taken to establish how Mr. Mordechai Vanunu was removed, first from London, and then, apparently, from Paris, against his will?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That matter has not been raised within the Community. It was the subject of an Adjournment debate in the House about a fortnight ago.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

In view of the serious financial situation in the EEC, was next year's budget discussed or was it not on the agenda? Is there a danger and a likelihood of the 12th arrangement being adopted next year? In view of the Prime Minister's statement to the House last week, is it not now a fact that the only way in which we can protect our rebate mechanism is to pay subscriptions in excess of the 1.4 per cent. VAT formula?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The budgetary position was a formidable part of the discussion to which the Agriculture Ministers were addressing themselves yesterday. We also discussed the way in which the Commission is likely to be producing its ex novo report for consideration by the Commission and the Council during the course of the next year. On the budget, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Council reached its conclusions within the maximum rate. So far, the Parliament has not reached the same conclusion. In those circumstances, the provisional 12th arrangement is likely to apply in the immediate future. That is not an arrangement with which the United Kingdom has any difficulties.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

What progress has been achieved towards a common extradition policy with regard to terrorists in the European Community? After all, there are many terrorists in the Republic of Ireland who are wanted by the United Kingdom at this moment? If we cannot get any of them because of the obstinacy and refusal of the Irish Government to co-operate in this matter, what hope is there of getting a common European policy?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend will recollect that, in a number of respects, there have been some remarkable successes in securing the extradition of criminals from a variety of Community countries during the past 12 months. There have also been agreements entered into between ourselves and Spain replacing a void that previously existed. In all those respects, matters are advancing. They would not be moving so fast were it not for the framework of European Community co-operation.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

One wonders what past Foreign Secretaries such as Palmerston, Halifax or Bevin would have made of a Foreign Secretary telling us about pasta, even with a lustrous topping. Aid for Latin America was on the agenda. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us what was decided about the level of aid for Nicaragua? In connection with terrorism, what statement was made or was intended to be made later, about the international terrorism of the United States, with their support for the Contras?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The Council did not raise the last topic mentioned by the hon. Gentleman because it takes a different view from him. On the subject of aid, there was a discussion about the likely distribution of aid as between Third world countries and Latin American countries, but it was not possible to bring that to a conclusion yesterday.

Mr. Stefan Terlezki (Cardiff, West)

I wish to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his presidency of the European Community and on the fact that he has fought so vigorously on the subject of human rights in the Soviet Union. I should like to ask him most sincerely to continue fighting and speaking about human rights in the Soviet Union and the satellite states, so that the Soviet Union will recognise and implement the Helsinki human rights agreement.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That matter is under discussion at the follow-up meeting of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and the countries of the Twelve are taking a strong and united position, precisely as my hon. Friend would wish.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall endeavour to call before 4 o'clock all the hon. Members who are standing, so I ask them to be brief.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the agreement on steel to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred mean that we can expect quotas that will smother Ravenscraig in the same way as the present quotas led to the suffocation of Gartcosh?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The agreement on steel that was arrived at during the negotiations in the late part of the summer and early autumn secured the removal of threatened restrictions by the United States and the United States market as one of several restrictions which would have threatened severe damage to jobs throughout the Community.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman appreciate that the House, with its charitable disposition, does not blame him too much for his lacklustre presidency because it realises that the Prime Minister is growing increasingly unpopular in Europe, for good reason? Specifically on the Hindawi case, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not realise that there is a fallacy central to his argument in that there is now greater awareness, certainly among European leaders and probably among most European parliamentarians, that in the specific Hindawi case, it was a rigged situation which conned the British court because it was created by Mossad in co-operation with MI5?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman strays a long way beyond the scope of any conceivable agenda. There is no evidence to support his approach to the matter.

Mr. Faulds

Every bit of evidence.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The entire Community supported the action taken against the Syrian Government on the basis of evidence presented to the Community as a result of the decision of a British court.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the social measures for steel and coal mean for Britain?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The social measures under discussion involved a transfer from the Community budget to the Coal and Steel Community budget which was not acceptable to the majority of countries taking part in the discussion, especially Britain. It would have involved a large distribution in favour of steel and little in the direction of coal. It has been decided that the Commission should give further consideration to these matters when it considers the improved co-ordination of structural funds, which is part of the agenda for the new year.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

The Foreign Secretary cannot face both ways on the issue of trade with the United States, claiming great success in terms of lemons and spaghetti while indulging in a little sabre-rattling in his statement about potential American action. Six months ago, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman began his presidency, he was optimistic about trade talks, and we now face the serious possibility of a trade war. Can he tell us what went wrong during his presidency?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Nothing in that respect at all. We started the summer with three specific anxieties between the Community and the United States. The first was whether we should get the next GATT round going as a result of forthcoming talks at Punta del Este. We did so as a result of Britian's successful leadership of the Community delegation. The second was, should we resolve the then current disputes about pasta, lemons and steel, which when taken together were of importance to jobs in the European Community? The answer is that that dispute was resolved satisfactorily. Jobs in steel, about which Opposition Members were concerned, were safeguarded.

The third anxiety was, should we be able to bring to an end the dispute following the enlargement of the European Community, with America claiming the right to impose discrimination against us? That dispute has not yet been resolved, but we have decided that it would be sensible to allow one further month for negotiation. As the hon. Gentleman says it is much better to avoid a trade war rather than run into one. If that is not possible, the Community is armed to take firm, robust measures against the United States on an exactly matching basis. That is the sensible way to conduct these matters.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us in what activity Foreign Council Ministers have engaged in attempting to resolve the problem in the middle east, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict? Did they take any specific action following the use of live ammunition by the Israeli defence forces on the west bank in Gaza over the past few weeks? What progress has been made by the European Council of Ministers in gaining access for produce from the west bank in Gaza to the Common Market?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The Arab-Israeli dispute has been addressed a number of times during our presidency. 1t is because of the importance of the subject that Britain initiated and put in place the policy for Community aid and Community trade access to be extended to the people of the west bank and those in Gaza. That is an important response to the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman and it arises directly from Britian'as initiative in the Community.

The use of live ammunition in incidents in Israel over the past week or so has been the subject of active consideration, in which Britain supported the relevant resolution at the United Nations together with all other Community Members on the Security Council.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In response to my hon Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), the Foreign Secretary talked of total co-operation on crime. Can he assure his European colleagues in the House that the complaints by Mr. Sandy Grant of break-ins to and fires at the premises of Heinemann in Australia have nothing to do with the British Government or British Government agencies?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot give any kind of assurance on that matter, about which the hon. Gentleman has given no notice.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I recognise what the Foreign Secretary has said about pasta, lemons and the rest of it, but why were the latest police state restrictions in South Africa not placed on the agenda? Does he not recognise that the latest restrictions demonstrate once again that there is no solution in South Africa while the present authorities remain in office? It is all the more unfortunate that the Foreign Secretary, despite what he says, is undoubtedly a party to appeasement in what is happening in South Africa.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's view, which he presses upon the House at every opportunity. South Africa was discussed yesterday and the Twelve are planning to make high-level representations in Pretoria on human rights generally. We have already taken action on the part of the United Kingdom Government and made it plain, in words that will commend themselves to the hon. Gentleman, that muzzling the press and locking up one's political opponents is not the answer to the problems of South Africa. Our position is absolutely clear.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not regret the fact that, during Britain's presidency of the European Council, it has been Britain that has held Europe back from taking more positive steps and from putting pressure on the South African Government to take this last opportunity to end apartheid by peaceful means? As the South African Government are moving, if anything, in the wrong direction, should not Britain's role be reviewed and even further pressure be exerted than that outlined a moment ago?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his basic analysis. The countries that have, in the past few days, declined to put in place trade measures in relation to coal are Germany and Portugal. The United Kingdom, in line with the position that it adopted in London in August, would have been willing to accept those measures as part of the general Community package. We feel no sense of dismay in not having gone further down the road of sanctions, because all the evidence suggests that the consolidation of opinion behind the authoritarian measures being taken by the South African Government is the result of actions taken by the outside world rather than of the balance that we have tried to pursue. Therefore, there is no reason for me to be apologetic to the hon. Gentleman in that respect.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising directly on this statement. Courtesy is important in the House. The Foreign Secretary said that he had been given no notice about Mr. Sandy Grant. However, I wrote to his office this morning —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order for me.

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

Have not the six months of the United Kingdom's presidency, which will go down in history as the pasta presidency, been an abject failure? As it is the President who sets the agenda for meetings, does not responsibility for avoiding all the major issues in the Community rest fairly and squarely on the Foreign Secretary's shoulders? At the end of his presidency, we have a growing trade war with the United States, institutions at loggerheads and the budget out of control. Even Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, in his usual diplomatic way, describes it as disappointing. Does that not mean in reality that it has been disastrous?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman can hardly be faulted for lack of originality. He has returned to the same point as the Opposition Front Bench started from. His remarks have no foundation. We have been successful in launching a new GATT round, in defusing the main trade dispute with the United States, in reforming the food aid programme, in uniting the Community against terrorism, in taking more measures to liberalise the internal market than any other presidency, in establishing the first wide-ranging action programme on unemployment and in ensuring the most important measure of CAP reform ever achieved. That is a presidency of formidable achievement, and it is only the hon. Gentleman who does not recognise that.