HL Deb 14 March 1984 vol 449 cc741-5

3.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Foreign Affairs Council which took place in Brussels on 12th and 13th March. There was also an informal meeting of Foreign Ministers to discuss preparations for next week's European Council. There was, in addition, a ministerial conference with the Portuguese.

"The two main points for us were: 1983 refunds; and preparations for the European Council. On the first point, 1983 refunds, the positions of the Council and the Parliament have now been reconciled. There is, therefore, no technical obstacle to the Community meeting its commitment on time. Two member states were unwilling to approve the adoption of the regulations at yesterday's meeting. The decision has therefore been deferred until next week.

"I made it clear that this delay is unjustified and misconceived. The majority of other member states take the same view. It will in any case be difficult to reach agreement at next week's European Council on the main subjects on the agenda. It is clearly not in the interests of the Community for any fresh obstacle to be placed in the way.

"The Foreign Affairs Council will meet again on 20th March to consider the regulations. Adoption at that stage would enable the Parliament to take the further step necessary to release the refunds by the end of March.

"On the second point—preparations for the summit itself—the principal issues on the agenda are: control of Community expenditure; budget imbalances; reform of agricultural policy; and, if our conditions are met, the question of an increase in own resources. On the budgetary points, some further progress was made, but there is still a long way to go. On agriculture, Ministers were able to make rather more progress, and my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture will be making a statement to the House this afternoon.

"The next step is for the presidency to circulate texts for consideration at the European Council. We shall judge these texts by the extent to which they meet our essential conditions, which remain unchanged.

"On other issues, Ministers agreed in principle to the extension of the Community's coking coal scheme to promote intra-Community trade; to a further programme of demonstration projects to stimulate the development of alternative sources of energy; and to the provision, subject to further discussion by energy Ministers, of funds for social measures in the coal industry, which will be of benefit to this country. They also agreed that the next Energy Council would consider Community action to promote investment in solid fuels.

"The council again considered the Commission's proposal to stabilise imports of certain cereal substitutes. It was agreed that any decisions on this proposal would have to be linked with reform of the CAP.

"Ministers agreed on a commission mandate for the forthcoming re-negotiations of the International Cocoa Agreement.

"The council agreed on a proposal for aid for the development of Portuguese agricultural structures. This agreement, and a declaration on agricultural issues in the enlargement negotiations, were presented to the Portuguese at the ministerial conference.

"Ministers signed the Treaty amendment needed to provide for Greenland's withdrawal from the Community.

"Finally the Council also made progress in discussion of a new common commercial policy regulation, to strengthen the Community's ability to respond to illegitimate actions by third countries in the field of international trade".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are obliged to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. It is, of course, overshadowed by the Statement on the agricultural summit which is to follow. I shall not comment on that, save to say that whereas the latter was positive in its results, this Statement on the main issue was, unhappily, negative. I support the Foreign Secretary in what he said about the delay. On the question of the 1983 refunds, can the noble Lord say which countries objected to the adoption of the regulations, and on what grounds? Can the Minister confirm that the Foreign Secretary is looking for a cut in the British payment of about 1.2 billion European currency units, which I think is about £680 million, after the accession of Spain and Portugal? If this is the case, is it not a larger contribution than was mentioned by the Prime Minister at the Athens Summit? Is it the kind of compromise which the Government have in mind in an effort to seek a solution?

In view of the fact that no further ministerial meetings are planned between now and the summit next week, can the noble Lord say what action is being taken in the meantime to save the summit from failure? Can we assume that exchanges are continuing to take place between the governments concerned?

Since the last Statement on the Foreign Affairs Council on 22nd February, the Prime Minister has met the German Chancellor, the French President and the Dutch Prime Minister. Can the Minister say whether these meetings were successful in helping to achieve a settlement? Furthermore, the Statement confirms that the core of the problem remains the imbalances in budget discipline, but says that there is still a long way to go. This is somewhat depressing and we must hope that there will be a greater willingness to make concessions when the time comes next week. Can the noble Lord say whether he and the Government are in any way optimistic that a solution can be found in time? Does he agree that if no solution is found the European Community will become bankrupt?

Finally, as to energy policy, will the Government support the action proposed to promote investment in solid fuels? Will this be discussed with the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers in this country? In view of the need for brevity, especially today, I shall merely say that we note with interest the last five points in the Statement.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, we, too, are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this important Statement. It is indeed satisfactory that the European Parliament has now agreed the regulations regarding our agreed refund of £475 million, but it is, if I understand the situation correctly, necessary to achieve unanimity in the Council before these regulations are finally approved. It is regrettable that, I believe, France and Italy—there is not much secret about that—should be reserving their position on this extremely important matter. Even if they come along on Tuesday evening next to a hastily-summoned meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, after agreement is reached—if indeed it is ever reached—on the major outstanding points considered by the European Council. it will still be necessary for the European Parliament to agree with the Commission on the transfer of funds. But I imagine that in such circumstances—agreement in Brussels in the European Council—there is unlikely to be much opposition in Strasbourg to this transfer of funds. Perhaps when the noble Lord replies he will answer that point.

For the rest, I am happy to learn that at least there has been some progress on the crucial budgetary issue, and even more happy to hear that there has been some notable progress on the agricultural front, though I agree with the Government that there is still a long way to go. I had hoped that the apparent agreement on the limitation of milk, agreed in the small hours of yesterday morning I believe, could be regarded as a major step forward, but no doubt my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie will be expressing his view and our view on this important point.

Of course, the general conclusion is that everything depends on what happens in Brussels on Monday or Tuesday. As regards that, we shall have an opportunity to discuss these major issues tomorrow when we consider the report of our committee on the financing of the EEC.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their response to this Statement. I shall pick up as many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, as I can. I am not sure I agree with the noble Lord that the result of this Council meeting was wholly negative. Certainly we would have wished that the Council would have reached a decision on the regulations, which I referred to in the Statement, so that our refund could have proceded without further delay. As I say, agreement has now been reached between the Council and the European Parliament.

To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, on the future mechanics of these arrangements, the noble Lord described them quite correctly. After the matter has been considered, hopefully positively, by the additional Foreign Ministers' Council which is to be held next week, it will then have to go to the Commission, as I understand it, to effect a transfer from one heading to another, then back to the Parliament for final approval. I hope that those subsequent stages are likely to prove mere formalities once the Foreign Affairs Council has agreed to this matter. We therefore see no difficulty in achieving a satisfactory outcome to this matter by the end of March, as has always been anticipated.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me which countries had held out against an agreement on this occasion. I understand that it was France and Italy whose views were such that it was not possible to reach agreement as we had hoped.

As for the forthcoming European Council, a number of important matters, referred to in this Statement, are to be taken at that Council. As the Statement says, the French Presidency is circulating papers on those matters and we hope very much that important progress can be made in those areas. However, I think it must be fair to say that these matters have preoccupied European Community thinking for quite a while now, and it would perhaps be unrealistic to imagine that full and complete agreement on all those matters can be reached at the next European Council. We hope nevertheless that substantial progress can be made.

I can confirm that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has had important meetings with various European leaders since the last Council and I am certain that the rapport that has emerged from those meetings will assist very much in the forthcoming Council.

The noble Lord also asked me about the size of our net contribution after Spanish accession, when it comes to pass. The press report, which I think emerged today, or yesterday, about the amount involved, is of a sum much greater than the reality of the situation, but, as my right honourable friend said at Athens, we would be prepared to countenance a modest net contribution to achieve that particular outcome.

The noble Lord also asked me about the question of support for the mining industry in this country. This is something to which we attach particular importance, not so much to support uneconomic mining activities but rather to mitigate the social effects when mines, unhappily, have to be closed for the reasons with which the noble Lord is familiar. Those are the principal points put to me. If there are any others, I shall be happy to try to deal with them.