HC Deb 13 May 1996 vol 277 cc632-4
29. Mr. Rathbone

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he last had discussions with representatives of the South African Government about Britain's contribution to reconstruction in that country; and if he will make a statement. [27695]

Mr. Hanley

We maintain a regular high-level dialogue with the South African Government. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development and my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade have all visited recently. Bilateral relations are excellent and British aid to the transition process is highly valued.

Mr. Rathbone

While I welcome that statement and endorse those efforts, what advance is being made in the European Union to establish a better trading relationship between South Africa and the European Union, which that country desperately needs?

Mr. Hanley

I thank my hon. Friend for that question because Britain is highly committed to giving South Africa better access to the EU market as an important way of contributing to its growth. We have argued throughout that the new arrangements should be as generous as possible. However, some EU member states wanted to limit the scope of the agreement by excluding, from the outset of the negotiations, many South African agricultural exports; we have consistently opposed that.

After several months of talks within the European Union, the 25 March meeting of the EU Foreign Ministers had before it a draft mandate to open negotiations with South Africa. The mandate was not as liberal as we wanted, and we had the option of blocking it, but the South Africans told us that they wanted to begin negotiations as soon as possible so we decided to abstain. We have nevertheless issued a declaration outlining our concerns, with which Sweden associated itself.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to improve the relationship between the EU and South Africa, primarily to further the cause of improving South Africa.

Miss Emma Nicholson

Is the Minister able to assure us that he is doing everything he can in the Council of Ministers to gain entry into the full Lomé convention for South Africa, as that would be of such benefit to South Africa's reconstruction plan?

Mr. Hanley

Yes. The Commission recently opened direct negotiations with South Africa to work out the details of the trade agreement. The mandate contains an explicit commitment to regional economic co-operation and integration, and states that South Africa will be encouraged to provide improved market access opportunities to its southern African neighbours.

On EU-South African liberalisation, the Commission has made it clear that it will return to the Council to ask for greater negotiating flexibility if the current mandate proves too restrictive.

Mr. Batiste

Does my right hon. Friend agree that trade is a very important ingredient in the reconstruction of South Africa? Will he have a word with his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that, at a time when funding for trade missions is very tight, trade missions to South Africa have some measure of continuity from year to year so as to encourage mutual arrangements between small businesses in the respective countries?

Mr. Hanley

I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend: trade and investment is the key to South Africa's long-term prosperity. The Government are committed to developing commercial links with South Africa, but there is still a role for well-targeted aid. Our aid is designed to help to develop sound policies, to establish models of sustainable development and to focus on disadvantaged groups. We must improve our trade links, and my hon. Friend points in a useful direction with trade missions.

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