HL Deb 10 November 1966 vol 277 cc1000-6

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like to make a Statement concerning the European Economic Community. I will use, if I may, the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. His words are as follows:

"The position of Her Majesty's Government in relation to the European Economic Community was stated in the gracious Speech on the 21st April in these terms: 'My Government will continue to promote the economic unity of Europe and to strengthen the links between the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Community. They would be ready to enter the European Economic Community provided essential British and Commonwealth interests were safeguarded.' This policy, which was itself a reaffirmation of that laid down in the Labour Party Election Manifesto, has also been reaffirmed on many occasions in this House, in the country and abroad, notably in the speech of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, then First Secretary, at Stockholm on the 6th May.

"On the 21st April I informed the House that we had made certain ministerial arrangements to ensure' that any opportunities that do present themselves in Europe can be quickly seized upon so that they can be evaluated …' and I said that it would be our intention' to probe in a very positive sense the terms on which we would be able to enter the European Economic Community and its related organisations.'

"In recent weeks the Government has conducted a deep and searching review of the whole problem of Britain's relations with the E.E.C., including our membership of EFTA and of the Commonwealth. Every aspect of the Treaty of Rome itself, of decisions taken subsequent to its signature, and all the implications and consequences which might be expected to flow from British entry, have been examined in depth.

"In the light of this review the Government has decided that a new high-level approach must now be made to see whether the conditions exist—or do not exist—for fruitful negotiations, and the basis on which such negotiations could take place.

"It is vital that we maintain the closest relations with our EFTA colleagues. Her Majesty's Government therefore now propose to invite the Heads of Government of the EFTA countries to attend a conference in London in the next few weeks to discuss the problems involved in moves by EFTA countries to join the E.E.C.

"Following that conference my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I intend to engage in a series of discussions with each of the Heads of Government of the Six, for the purpose of establishing whether it appears likely that essential British and Commonwealth interests could be safeguarded if Britain were to accept the Treaty of Rome and join E.E.C. In the light of these discussions the Government will then take its decision whether or not to activate the arrangements for negotiating for entry, and what the appropriate time for such negotiations would be. Commonwealth Governments, as well as EFTA Governments have been informed and we shall maintain the closest degree of consultation with them throughout.

"The House will agree that—provided the right conditions for negotiations are established—itis vital that we should enter only when we have secured a healthy economy and a strong balance of payments, with the pound standing no less firm and high than it is to-day.

"I want the House, the country, and our friends abroad to know that the Government are approaching the discussions I have foreshadowed with the clear intention and determination to enter E.E.C. if, as we hope, our essential British and Commonwealth interests can be safeguarded. We mean business.

"It will, of course, be our intention to keep the House as fully informed as is possible in the circumstances of the progress of our discussions. If, as I would expect, there is a general desire in the House for a debate before these important meeting begin, my right honourable friend the Leader of the House will be glad to arrange discussions through the usual channels to agree on a date which would meet the convenience of the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Prime Minister's Statement.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl the Leader of the House for having repeated the Prime Minister's Statement. Any Statement which brings British entry into the E.E.C. nearer is, so far as I am concerned, welcome. I think that this one does. But I must say that it left me with some doubt. In certain phrases it seemed to be rather unenthusiastic, and there seemed to be a good many ifs and buts. Nevertheless, I think that we should congratulate the Government of having very nearly reached the stage which the Conservative Government had reached over five years ago.

I should like to ask the noble Earl two questions. Does this statement mean that the Government are prepared to accept the Treaty of Rome; and would the discussions to which he has referred be discussions purely about transitional arrangements which all of us agree are necessary? Secondly, may I ask him whether it means that the five principles which were laid down by the Labour Party are now no longer considered an obstacle to joining the E.E.C.?


My Lords, the noble Lord will not expect me to argue with him about the past, because I do not feel that he and his friends have any special reasons to congratulate themselves on the past. But if they wish to pat themselves on the back, they should perhaps read that passage in the New Testament which deals with the labourers in the vineyard; and if they wish to claim that they entered this particular pasture earlier, they should not gibe at people who in their opinion have come into it later.


But I congratulated the Government.


Well, I am only referring to the New Testament; I am not trying to make a Party point. If I may now refer to the question about the Treaty of Rome, which the noble Lord will understand has been, so to speak, anticipated, I will keep very closely, if I may, to words which the Prime Minister has prepared in case of a similar question being asked in another place. I would say to the noble Lord that we recognise the importance of the question about our attitude to the Treaty of Rome. The Government take the view that, while there are anxieties on this point, the Treaty of Rome is not in itself, or necessarily, an impediment. There are anxieties, as I say. The Treaty need not be an obstacle if our problems can be dealt with satisfactorily, whether through adaptation of the arrangements made under the Treaty or in any other acceptable manner. Perhaps I can summarise by saying that Her Majesty's Government would be prepared to accept the Treaty of Rome subject to the necessary adjustments consequent on the accession of a new member, and provided that we receive satisfaction on the points where we see difficulty. That is the answer to that particular question.

Perhaps I can now answer the other questions the noble Lord put to me about the five conditions. I expected that this question might be put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Blyton, but from whatever source it comes I can now answer it. When they were formulated, the five conditions were a measure of the problems which we thought must be overcome before there could be any question of entry into the Community. They remain relevant, but as the Prime Minister told the House in May, there have been certain changes in Europe itself, not least in relation to EFTA, which make some of these conditions no longer impediments, as they seemed to be.


My Lords, speaking on behalf of noble Lords on the Liberal Benches, may I say that we sincerely welcome the Government's Statement as a definite advance in the direction of the formation of a genuine European Community. It is quite right, as we think, that the whole matter of our possible entry into the E.E.C. should first be examined with our EFTA partners on the basis, we hope, of a clear intention of Her Majesty's Government to join the E.E.C. as soon as they possibly can. I have little doubt that this consultation will result in some joint agreement on the part of all of us in EFTA that Britain and some other European States should as soon as possible make a second application to join the E.E.C. with a minimum of essential conditions. We quite agree, too, that no such second application should be made before we, so to speak, get over the hump as regards our balance of payments, and we must all hope and believe that this moment will arrive within at most one year from now.

What we on these Benches would additionally wish is that in the forthcoming discussions and probings the Government will make it clear that on the economic side, apart from the general blessing of our EFTA partners, all we should press for is, first, suitable transitional periods during which our agriculture and our industry are adapted to the existing European system; and, secondly, that some suitable arrangement be made for the amount that we should be expected to hand over to the common agricultural fund from sums accruing from the agricultural levies at any rate during the transitional period—that, and the principle of some special requirements for New Zealand imports. All the rest should be left over for decision, with our participation, in the existing machinery of the E.E.C.

Finally, we and our partners will still undoubtedly have to discover whether there is or is not any possibility of a continuing veto on our entry for political reasons on the part of the Government of France. This is perhaps the most important consideration of all. In our view, the likelihood of such a continuing veto will be greatly diminished if the Government can declare at the right moment that it is their intention, once they are a member of the E.E.C., to work towards the construction, within the Western Alliance, of a real democratic European Political and Defence Community, which might eventually be enlarged to include Eastern European countries as well.


My Lords, I do not think the House or the noble Lord will wish me to reply to the series of points he has made, because it seems almost certain that we shall be debating this question before long, and he has presented us with the beginnings of an excellent speech.


My Lords, with reference to the answers given by the noble Earl the Leader of the House to my two supplementary questions, I must just say that I think they were both very disappointing. They were obviously carefully worded in such a way that they were extremely difficult to follow. I do not think there is any point in pressing the noble Earl, because he obviously is not going to depart from his brief. But I would say that his answers are further evidence of a lack of enthusiasm in this matter on the part of the Government.


My Lords, while I am sorry that the noble Lord should take that line, certainly the question of the Treaty of Rome is a large, serious political question. For the noble Lord to raise the question of the five conditions laid down by the Labour Party some years ago amounts, in my opinion, to a trap question and I do not see why one should not be reluctant to answer it in the way I have.


My Lords, if it is a trap question to ask the noble Earl whether he still sticks to his Party programme, then I am not ashamed of asking a trap question.


My Lords, the noble Lord knows that these conditions were formulated some years ago, and they were not in the programme on which the last Election was won. The noble Lord has attempted to score, and if he has not done so, then he must put up with it.