HL Deb 03 April 1974 vol 350 cc939-45

3.54 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I feel that I should apologise perhaps for inflicting myself so soon for a second time on your Lordships, but we turn now to the debate on the Motion, so interestingly and ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie, made what I thought was an extremely interesting and substantial contribution. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, is not still in his place because I wanted to pay my respects to one or two points which he made in his speech. I may be able to do so later.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, is probably under the misapprehension that the Channel Tunnel Statement was about to be made.


My Lords, I had an urgent matter to attend to outside the Chamber, and I thought the noble Lord was about to make another Statement.


My Lords, I meant my observation as one of friendship and respect for one or two suggestions that the noble Lord made. I found what he had to say about the role of the Western European Union worth considering, and there is continuous consideration of the role of the W.E.U. What the noble Lord had to say about it was worth listening to: I wanted to say just that and then observed that he was not in his place to hear the kind words I wanted to utter.

The North Atlantic Alliance, and the commitment of the United States to the defence of Western Europe which it embodies, is the cornerstone of British security. That is one point on which we and the previous Government are in complete agreement. The maintenance of close and harmonious transatlantic relations is thus a matter of fundamental importance. We must remember that both the economic recovery of Western Europe after the war and the maintenance of almost thirty years of peace and relative stability in Europe have been due in large measure to the existence of the Alliance and to the close identity of interests between the United States and Western Europe; and here of course what my noble friend had to say is most apposite. To-day, the prospects for a relaxation of the level of military confrontation between East and West, and for a more hopeful era of co-operation between the two halves of our continent, are brighter than they were in the days of the cold war. I must be cautious on this point, but I think we are entitled to cautious optimism. Since the days of the cold war these prospects for co-operation, even for arms control and disarmament, are somewhat brighter; and that, too, is due in large part to the cohesion of the Alliance and to the initiatives taken together by its member countries. For us the Alliance is important, not only as an instrument of defence but also as an instrument of détente.

Of course the members of the Alliance do not see eye to eye on every point; there are bound from time to time to be differences of approach and emphasis. No one would deny that there is a certain malaise in the Alliance and that the solidarity and unity of its members, which perhaps has been taken for granted for too long, has come under some strain. The past few years have seen a succession of rapid changes in the economic, monetary and political circumstances in which the countries of Western Europe and North America find themselves, and these changes have inevitably generated pressures in transatlantic relations. But we should not exaggerate the extent of our problems. Though some of them might express the point differently, all our Allies agree that the Alliance is indispensable for the foreseeable future. We must build on that.

The foundation of the transatlantic relationship is, of course, security. The presence of substantial American forces in Europe, the outward symbol of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, is essential for the security of Western Europe and of the whole Atlantic area. We have welcomed the assurances given in the past by President Nixon that, provided the other members of the Alliance follow suit, he will maintain and improve U.S. forces in Europe and not reduce them, except in the context of a reciprocal East/West agreement. President Nixon's remarks at Houston on March 19 show that this is still his view. For our part, we fully recognise the need for the European allies to play their full part in the common defence. This does not mean of course that we regard the present level of forces as sacrosanct. Her Majesty's Government will make a positive contribution to the negotiations in Vienna for mutual and balanced force reductions.

In that context, of course, the level of ground forces will be reviewed from time to time, and given international agreement through these talks—the Vienna talks—one would hope, and indeed expect cautiously, for a levelling down. We hope that these negotiations will result in agreements that will permit a lowering of the level of the forces deployed by the two Alliances in Central Europe; but it would be wrong to preempt the outcome of these negotiations by making substantial unilateral reductions in our defences. Our own expenditure on defence must be considered, of course, in the light of our overall economic capacity. We have already indicated that we think that our defence efforts should not be out of line with those of our major European allies. This is once more the principle of reasonable equity in regard to benefits and contributions. But we have also stressed that the requirements of NATO will be the first call on the measures we can make available for defence.

We recognise in addition that the European members of the Alliance must maintain a substantial responsibility for ensuring their own defence. It was my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, as Secretary of State for Defence in the last Labour Government, was instrumental in the establishment of the Euro-Group in promoting a greater degree of co-operation and collaboration among European countries in the defence field. These efforts have been welcomed and encouraged by the Americans and we hope that they will continue to flourish. We realise too that the United States Administration is concerned about the foreign exchange costs of the maintenance of its forces in Europe. This problem has been under discussion in the Alliance and we hope that a satisfactory solution can be found. That is a problem which the British Government face as well, since we also maintain substantial portions of our armed forces on the mainland of Europe.

A close relationship with the Americans is thus vital for our defence. But as my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has stated in another place, we do not believe that it is possible to sustain indefinitely a close alliance with the Americans on defence matters without parallel co-operation on matters of trade, money, energy, and so on. I do not claim, of course, that an identical attitude towards every issue will be possible or even desirable. European countries—this country included—have their own interests which in certain fields, for instance in issues of commercial or agricultural policy, may not always coincide with those of the United States. But and I do emphasise this point, the majority of problems that face us cannot be tackled on a purely regional basis. A global approach is necessary and America is a vital partner in any issue of global importance. Against this background nobody will be surprised if we emphatically reject the view that the only way Europe can establish an identity for itself is by a constant dissociation of its policies from those of the United States. We believe a spirit of compromise, of give and take, is necessary on both sides.

On the economic side the Government give their full support to the trade negotiations in the GATT. The United States Administration is also seeking a mandate to take part in these negotiations. It is essential that we should approach the negotiations constructively together with the aim of working out measures that will encourage the continued expansion of international trade to the benefit of all parties to the negotiations. There is also an urgent need to press ahead with the work that is being carried out on the reform of the international monetary system. There are perhaps two ways at least of dealing with our monetary problem: we could concentrate on national measures to the exclusion of getting a more harmonious international system or we can work to encourage freer international trade and investment through co-ordinated international action. The Government are convinced that Europe must work closely with the United States in dealing with these problems. Here I would interpose that the discussions which have taken place in Luxembourg this week, and will continue, about the way in which (not whether, but how) there should be constructive and positive consultation between the United States and Europe, are of the utmost importance to both sides of the Atlantic and must succeed.

I think the House will do well to accept that there is really no basic disunity in Europe about the need for very close consultation with the United States. There are real difficulties about how to do it. I think I was asked earlier whether I could indicate how Her Majesty's Government could build up the machinery of consultation and what our approach would be. We are working on this matter, but I should like to give the House the assurance that we are working with a view to making the consultation as full and as early as possible and are hoping to carry with us our European friends and allies in the Community.

The creation of a strong and united Europe is an aim which has been welcomed by successive American Presidents. Good and close relations with the United States are in no way incompatible with the creation of a stronger and more self-confident Western Europe. Far from it: we envisage our relations with our American and European allies as complementary and we see no reason or need to choose between the two. That is why we think it is so important to develop the closest relations of cooperation between the countries of Europe. Central to this aim is Franco-German conciliation, which has been one of the most heartening developments in the post-war era. It is because we wish to make our own contribution to the strengthening of these relationships that my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary said in another place: Our approach as a Government will be to intensify the system of political consultation and co-operation and, in so far as it is possible, to work out common positions through joint discussion with the Community countries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 19/3/74, cols. 863–4.] In this context I should like to say a word about the proposed talks with the Arab States—a subject on which possibly there has been some considerable misunderstanding. When he met his colleagues in Luxembourg earlier this week, my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary told them that the United Kingdom could now agree to the establishment of a dialogue between the Community and the Arab world. But we would not want this to cut across Dr. Kissinger's peace efforts in the Middle East, and we see no reason why it should. We believe that other European Governments do not want that, either. But we have still to work out the best means of keeping in touch with the Americans to ensure that there is no conflict in practice in the timing of their actions and our own. We shall be discussing the problem further with other Governments of the European Community. We also attach the greatest importance to co-operating with the United States and with other major consuming countries, as well as with producers, to deal with the problems arising from the massive increase in oil prices. The calling of the Washington Energy Conference was an imaginative step. We shall continue to co-operate closely with the Americans in the follow-up work of that conference.

Clearly there has recently been publicly expressed concern about the state of transatlantic relations, but this at least has had the effect of making Europeans—and we are Europeans—think hard about the fundamental nature of their relationship with the United States. I believe that this hard thinking and this frank talking will be beneficial to everybody concerned. We need to ensure that we are equipped to meet new challenges, and that Europe and North America have the means of working out solutions together. We should remind ourselves that our interests put us essentially side by side on the same side of the table on most issues. There is very little that divides us apart from the Atlantic, and so much that binds us together.