HL Deb 12 October 1988 vol 500 cc916-26

5.40 p.m.

Lord Rippon of Hexham rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to persuade the Netherlands to join all the other signatories in ratifying the agreement to establish the European Foundation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Your Lordships will no doubt recall that as long ago as 1976 the Tindemans report on European Union proposed the establishment of a European Foundation to promote the concept of a "Citizens' Europe" leading to a better understanding of European Community action and the aims and nature of European integration. However, perhaps I may remind your Lordships briefly of the history of this project since that date.

In February 1977 an all-party Early Day Motion was set down in another place by myself, the then Mr. Cledwyn Hughes, now the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, Mr. David Steel, the then Mr. Michael Stewart, now the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, Mr. Jeremy Thorpe and Mr. Douglas Hurd. That Motion was signed by 334 Members of Parliament, an absolute majority of all Members, and called upon the Council of Ministers to: mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome by launching a European Foundation on the lines recommended by the Tindemans Report to be financed partly by grants from the member states and partly from private funds, with the aim of promoting either directly or through existing bodies any measures which would help towards greater understanding of European aims but placing the emphasis on human contacts such as youth activities, university exchanges and the like".

As a consequence of that, on the initiative of the then British Labour Government, the European Council at its summit meeting in Rome in March 1977 agreed to mark the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome by establishing a European Foundation on those lines.

Subsequently, after a detailed report from the Commission, the Council at Copenhagen in April 1978 laid down the aims, tasks and the seat of the Foundation, which was to be in Paris, and agreed in outline its structure and financing. France generously agreed to provide free of charge a historic building in the Marais district. A formal agreement was necessary—and this is significant—because of the absence in the Treaty of Rome of any provision for cultural or related matters.

The agreement was signed by the Foreign Ministers of all the member states in Brussels in 1982 at the celebrations held in the presence of the King of the Belgians to mark the 25th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Articles 2 and 5 of the agreement explain that the Foundation's activities should include promoting information on the efforts to unite Europe, encouraging the study of languages, fostering exchanges, promoting a better understanding of the European cultural heritage and furthering a greater understanding of European integration.

That was to be done in the first place—but again I think this is important—but not exclusively, among the peoples of the Community, and the governing body was to be broadly based including representatives of the Council of Europe as well as of the European Parliament and the voluntary organisations.

Above all, when it came into operation the Foundation was to be primarily supportive of the activities of the many voluntary organisations active in the European field; for example, the European Youth Orchestra. The various organisations would put forward projects which the Foundation could support financially, the funds coming partly from the millions of pounds which governments had committed themselves to provide and partly from private sources.

In the latter regard it may interest your Lordships to know that Sir Geoffrey Howe, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote a letter to the preparatory committee, which had been established in Paris, dated 27th June 1985 in which he said: The United Kingdom revenue authorities have agreed that where private donations are made to the Foundation under covenant we will be able to supplement these donations by a further contribution from the United Kingdom Exchequer in the way possible under United Kingdom law for charitable bodies". Meanwhile the process of ratification proceeded slowly but steadily. The United Kingdom and Denmark, which incidentally were criticised while the agreement was being drawn up for being dilatory and wanting to spend a lot of time on detailed arrangements and to ensure proper financial control, were the first to ratify. Others followed. In Germany the agreement has had to be ratified by all 11 Landerä and in both language areas in Belgium. All that remains is ratification by the Netherlands Parliament.

Although the Chamber of Representatives has given a positive vote, the Senate has so far refused consent. The reasons for this what is in effect a veto are obscure: there is a mixture of concern that the Foundation is not wholly a Community institution, concern that it might overshadow their private cultural foundation in Amsterdam, plus a certain amount of jealousy that the headquarters are to be in Paris. None of those can be regarded as matters of overriding national importance.

The question is what the Government can do about it. If ratification by the Netherlands cannot be secured, can the Netherlands Government be persuaded to allow the Foundation to be established by some other process? I believe that legal advisers to the French Government have indicated that that might now be done. However, as matters stand at present, years of work have been wasted and the voluntary organisations deprived of much-needed financial support.

I do not believe that anybody doubts the need to strengthen the understanding of, and support for, European policy. Therefore, I must ask the Minister this. What action do the Government now have in mind to promote the objectives which they have so firmly supported over the years? In May of this year the Commission published a document entitled The European Community and Culture which says that we must take a new initiative now that those of 1977 and 1982 have been prevented. Are we to start the whole legal process all over again? The Commission's report refers to the difficulties, the legal uncertainties due to the position under the Treaty of Rome and the scant monetary resources which are available. All those difficulties would be removed if the Netherlands could be persuaded to ratify the 1982 agreement. If not, what ideas do the Government have for removing the difficulties to which the Commission referred in its May report?

Of course the Dutch Senate asserts parliamentary sovereignty; so be it. Other nations may one day do the same, although I should hope for more intelligible and worthy reasons. If that would ever happen, the Dutch parliamentarians will have to sit in their no doubt subsidised glasshouses and not throw stones at anyone else for not being sufficiently enthusiastic Europeans.

I confess that I am dismayed and disillusioned by the behaviour of the Netherlands Senate although not wholly surprised. I cannot forget, although eventually I must have been disposed to forgive, how the Netherlands nearly wrecked Britain's application to join the Community, and almost certainly drove Norway out, because of its greedy demands for fishing rights.

The best that can be said is that the Dutch Senate has taught us a salutary lesson. It has demonstrated in the clearest possible way that the Prime Minister was right when she said in another place on 30th June of this year: Many people in the European Community talk in grandiose terms but do not always take the necessary practical steps to get things done".—[Official Report. Commons, 30/6/88; col. 530.] In the meantime I trust that Her Majesty's Government will confront the narrow nationalistic obstinacy of the Dutch Senate with the wider, grander and more practical vision of Europe shown by the Prime Minister in her wise speech in Bruges.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Nathan

My Lords, I am delighted to take the opportunity afforded by the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, to consider the European Foundation and perhaps slightly to extend the points that he raised. I regard it, and have done so for many years, as of the very first importance that the European Foundation should become fully operative and in being. I should like to indicate to your Lordships the wider factors which have been in my mind. It is remarkable that members of the European Community have been working ever more closely together in the fields of trade, commerce, industry and so much else. But no suitable institution exists for carrying on, on a Community basis, objects which we in this country call charitable. Indeed, the lack of an institutional basis has given rise to great difficulty in establishing co-ordinational activity in social education and similar fields based upon the voluntary sector.

Many years ago I was concerned with a body whose purpose was the interchange of information over the entire range of social welfare and youth services, the establishment of common training for teachers and youth leaders and similar joint enterprises on a European basis, by which I meant, and mean now, a European basis constituted by the membership of the Council of Europe—that is, some 21 members. The creation of one independently financed foundation or charity, call it what you will, to undertake throughout Europe responsibility in relation to the matters to which I have referred is difficult if it cannot derive funds from donations, large and small, from all the participating countries. Grave problems arise in creating such a body, which will enjoy the benefits of charitable status or its equivalent in all participating countries. It is particularly difficult to find solutions to these problems because each country is jealous of its rights and duties. Fiscal factors relating to charities are so complicated and varied that it is difficult enough to understand them in one country, let alone a large number.

Thus attempts to find an answer by assimilating the laws in all the states concerned have foundered; too much was attempted at one step. Efforts resolve these institutional problems started many years ago and have been the subject of many conferences, some under the aegis of the Council of Europe. Tentative steps have been taken to create institutions for charitable purposes by agreement between governments. I am thinking of the Council of Europe's Youth Foundation and the Foundation Sauve Venise.

But the European Foundation which is so nearly in being is to my mind much more significant. First, it is an institution created by the members of the European Community who are working together closely in so many different fields. Secondly, and related to that aspect, its objects are very wide-ranging. It therefore provides an instrument through which the member states, and even citizens directly, can contribute to charitable activities to be carried out in all parts of the Community and thus provide yet a further unifying influence. The British Government, as I understand it, accept that donations under covenant to the European Foundation will qualify for the same tax treatment as such donations to any charity constituted in this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Rippon, referred to the letter written by Sir Geoffrey Howe, the then Chancellor, which I have seen. I assume that the principles enunciated in it are still applicable in the changed fiscal regime with regard to charities which has been introduced in recent years. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that that is so.

But the most crucial element in any institution created to collect funds for public charitable purposes is public confidence in its integrity. The public must feel secure that the money collected will be safeguarded from misuse and will be applied to the purposes intended. That is why supervision is a most important factor in establishing a European Foundation. It is more important than fiscal privileges, which it seems that it will enjoy. The constitution provides for the security of supervision, so in my view it is well adapted to the purpose and will, I hope, come fully into effect in the manner that the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, mentioned.

But, more than that, the Foundation will provide an example and a precedent for others to be formed devoted perhaps to particular needs. I hope that with time a body of experience will be built up to form the basis of a generalised law of charities or foundations throughout the Community. That would be far more likely to be a fruitful course than an attempt now to harmonise the very different laws in the member states.

For all those reasons I very much hope that the required ratification by the Netherlands will be given and thus enable the European Foundation to play its important role in the Community.

5.56 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Riggs

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, for having brought his Unstarred Question before the House so early this evening. I am also grateful to him for explaining the whole background to the the agreement and the steps taken towards its ratification. I should like to stress how pleased I am that it was indeed Tony Crosland as Labour's Foreign Secretary who gave his blessing in 1977 to the establishment of a European Foundation.

I have a very pleasant personal recollection that the Foundation was first proposed in 1976—as the noble Lord, Lord Rippon. Said—in a report on European integration by Mr. Leo Tindemans, the then Belgian Prime Minister. This reminds me of the years I spent in Brussels and in Paris when expectations for the future of the EC were running very high. There were innumerable initiatives to advance integration, and this was certainly one of them. Now, all these years later, I believe it is much to be regretted that this brave idea has still not taken off because the Dutch Senate has refused its consent. I believe it would be a tragedy if all the years of work by the preparatory committee were to go to waste. We, on this side of the House, certainly want to see the Foundation in place and operating to promote greater understanding between the people of the Community through cultural exchanges. youth activities and joint communication projects.

We should also very much welcome—this was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Nathan—any support that the Foundation might give to voluntary organisations operating on a European level. We firmly believe that at present the establishment of such a body is very appropriate. Surely, the great economic goals of a united Europe as intended by the creation of a single market by 1992 cannot be achieved in isolation. Alongside, we must surely build a greater social and cultural understanding as an integral part of the process. In this the European Foundation would certainly have a very important role to play.

But such a body if not representative of the Community as a whole is of little value. I believe I heard the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, refer to the possibility of establishing the Foundation by some other process. I hope that this would not mean that it should be done without the consent or co-operation of the Dutch. I see the noble Lord shaking his head; I am grateful to him.

The noble Lord has advanced various reasons for the Dutch behaving very much out of character—in the past they have been very Community minded—and being so narrow-minded as to reject this initiative. As the noble Lord said, the major reasons are that the proposed activity of the Foundation is already covered by the Council of Europe and the European Cultural Foundation, a privately funded organisation, as the noble Lord said, based in Amsterdam, which might suffer as a result of the Foundation's move into areas where the ECF has been involved. They fear that the European Foundation might pile up too great a bureaucratic structure and that in any event there was no commitment in the Treaty of Rome to create such a body. Lastly, they believe that the principles and the objectives of the Foundation are a little backward-looking rather than focused, say, on technology and communication, which the Dutch see as being more important.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, I shall be interested to hear from the Minister whether he believes that some of these objections by the Dutch can be removed. Despite the objections I firmly believe that as the Foundation has gained favour with all the other member states then the Dutch should bow to majority opinion and ratify. I have no doubt about that.

Although it can be said that the original objectives of the Foundation were perhaps not defined clearly enough, there is no doubt that the EC mechanisms for furthering economic integration are far and away more extensive than the frameworks for developing human and social advance. No kind of balance has really been achieved between these two sides of the Community development. In the light of that there is no doubt that the more frameworks that there are for social and human advance of some kind or other the more hope there will be of getting the balance right.

I believe that now in 1988, after all these years have passed since the birth of the idea, perhaps the original objectives should be given a clearer focus. While it is right that the Foundation should be set up, it is equally right that we ensure that it does something really useful. For example, I believe that it would have an important role in providing a forum for exchanges and contacts on a multilateral basis. I have no doubt that at present a good deal of money goes into bilateral cultural and educational exchanges, but if the Foundation was really to get going there would be so many more opportunities for countries that have regular bilateral contacts to do so under the umbrella of the Foundation.

It is clear that the relationship between the EC group of countries and the EFTA members states is changing. The Foundation could be the instrument for enabling dialogue between the EC and EFTA. The founding fathers of the Community saw the frontiers of the real Western Europe very much wider than they are drawn at present. The Dutch have accused the Foundation of duplicating the work carried out by the Council of Europe. If its objectives became more clearly defined and, if necessary, were adjusted, the work of the Foundation could surely be made complementary to that of the Council of Europe rather than overlapping it. It would be well placed to provide a flexible framework for supporting youth activity, university exchanges and the movement of young people working throughout the EC whose numbers are growing so much. In this way it would widen the frontiers for these contacts.

I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say regarding the Government's plans for making the Foundation a reality. I believe that the long interlude between its inception and the present time provoked by the Dutch can be used to good effect. The opportunity which we now have can be used to examine its objectives more carefully in order to ensure that they fit present requirements and the current state of the Community exactly. It is for that reason that we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, for giving us this opportunity to examine its objectives during this debate.

6.4 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I begin by adding my thanks to those of other noble Lords and those of the noble Baroness to my noble friend for raising this matter tonight.

My noble friend has described the history of the proposals for the European Foundation, and I am acutely aware of the role that he has played in its preparation and of his continuing interest. Your Lordships will be aware that the Netherlands Government announced in January this year that it had concluded that there was no possibility of ratifying the agreement to establish the European Foundation. The Netherlands Government itself was in favour of the Foundation, but like all member states which had signed the agreement establishing it, it was obliged to obtain ratification from its Parliament. This proved to be unattainable. The First Chamber, or Senate, voted against the agreement on 19th May 1987 and, I understand, by a substantial majority.

My noble friend knows that we fully supported the idea of the European Foundation. Indeed, we were the first to ratify—as long ago as 25th May 1983. We felt it was a positive step in the direction of promoting European consciousness. It would have had the practical advantage of providing a clearing house for ideas for European cultural projects which could then have been referred elsewhere; namely, to the European Cultural Foundation in Amsterdam, among others.

We also welcomed the proposal to involve the private sector in this venture and agreed to provide tax exemption for private donations to the foundation. The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, asked me about that and I will return to it in a moment. We had hoped it might develop into something like the Ford or the Rockefeller Foundations. Certainly we had received sufficient correspondence from members of the public to indicate that there was a demand for this kind of body in developing European cultural contacts. It is surely self-evident that in this type of venture the involvement of the private sector is very much to be encouraged.

But in the absence of ratification by the Dutch Parliament we felt that we could not go ahead because the purpose of the foundation was to foster the European idea and this would have been very difficult to do without the participation of all EC member states. In 1987 the Dutch Government looked again for ways out of the impasse. However, it came to the conclusion that it would be unable to persuade its Parliament. There therefore now appears to be no prospect of the Foundation coming into existence and I have to say to my noble friend that it would be wrong for me to suggest otherwise. Disappointing as that is, we must therefore look to other ways of stimulating interest in the European idea, and there are a number of ways in which this is being done which I wish to refer to.

During the German Presidency of the EC in the first half of this year, cultural Ministers agreed to the establishment of a Cultural Affairs Committee composed of national officials and the Commission. The committee had its first meeting on 13th July. The United Kingdom welcomed this new initiative and is playing a full part in the committee.

The committee did not come into being specifically as a response to the failure of the Community member states to establish the Foundation. But it is a move towards a more positive approach to cultural co-operation within the EC, a role which the Foundation might otherwise have filled. The new committee is charged with scrutinising and overseeing all new proposals for cultural action within the Community framework and reporting back on these to Ministers. Work will concentrate initially on proposals in four priority areas: the audio-visual field, books, training and business sponsorship, as well as follow-up to resolutions previously adopted by Ministers.

The United Kingdom is keen that any proposal for action should be practical, responsive to the needs of those it is intended to benefit, clearly justified and cost effective. A major priority will be to eliminate duplication of work going on elsewhere. Also in the EC we have recently agreed to implement a programme of youth exchanges with our Community partners, to be known as Youth for Europe.

Within the Council of Europe, a varied programme of activities promoting cultural cooperation is organised through the European Cultural Convention, which has been signed by all the 21 member states of the Council as well as by Finland, the Holy See, San Marino and Yugoslavia. These 25 states are represented in the Council for Cultural Co-operation (CDCC), the body which is responsible for drawing up and carrying out the Council of Europe's activities in this field. The CDCC's 1988 programme concentrates broadly on two main lines of action derived from the Council of Europe's current medium-term plan. They are European citizenship and cultural identity and education and culture in the changing society.

The CDCC's current projects in the cultural field include the organisation of European art exhibitions, which I am told are very good, the establishment of European cultural routes, a major study of culture and regional development, work on the promotion of poetry, co-operation between research libraries and the cultural implications of new communication technologies. We are actively involved in a number of these.

Apart from these multilateral activities, we continue to attach great importance to our bilateral cultural relations with European countries. The British Council is represented in almost every European country. In the case of the Netherlands the level of cultural exchange has been particularly high this year and there has been an increase in the British Council allocation. Although the Netherlands may not have ratified the European Foundation, it has certainly been active in promoting with us a series of events to celebrate the William and Mary Tercentenary. Your Lordships will recall the moving ceremony in Westminster Hall in July to celebrate the constitutional aspects of the Terecentenary of the Glorious Revolution and the international significance of the Bill of Rights and 300 years of strong and deepening Anglo-Dutch ties. But there is also a full programme of Anglo-Dutch cultural events, both here and in the Netherlands, which run well into next year.

I am pleased to say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been able to contribute some £ 68,000 towards the costs of the William and Mary Tercentenary Trust, the body responsible for organising the programme in the United Kingdom. There have also of course been contributions from other departments, including incidentally the Ministry of Defence, as well as substantial private sponsorship from firms which have business interests in the Netherlands.

The tercentenary has got off to an excellent start. Many of our Dutch friends were in Westminister Hall in July and there have already been a number of Royal visits in both directions. There is much more to come, and I hope that those present will take the opportunity to visit some of the exhibitions being organised around the country to remind us of the cultural legacy which we owe to the Dutch.

I should like to turn to some of the points that have been raised during the course of the debate. My noble friend Lord Rippon asked whether there is any possibility that the Netherlands Government can be persuaded to find some different way forward in establishing the Foundation. I understand that they have considered various options but have come to the conclusion that none of them would be possible. I think I am right in saying that the document setting up the Foundation requires the unanimous consent of all of those who originally agreed to it.

Lord Rippon of Hexham

My Lords, I think it is a little unwise to refer to it just as a document. It was an agreement in the nature of a treaty. Apart from the Single European Act, it is the only one that has been brought before the Community in all its 30 years.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend is quite correct to say that this was a formal document at the very least. It is binding therefore upon all those who signed it to ensure that they comply with its terms, which include ratification. It is Dutch ratification that is missing.

The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, referred to the fiscal privileges to which the British Government were able to agree and which were duly communicated to the authorities concerned. I should explain that the fiscal privileges would have come into force when the Foundation itself came into being. As it is not in being at the moment, and now has no prospect of becoming so, the question of fiscal privileges does not arise.

I share my noble friend's disappointment that the European Foundation has not got off the ground as had been hoped. I know that he has travelled to Paris on numerous occasions for meetings of the preparatory committee. I am told that the committee has had 28 meetings, and I dare say that my noble friend has attended all of them. However, I hope that what I have said will go a considerable way towards reassuring him that the Government attach great importance to cultural activities in Europe and that we wish to make full use of the existing fora to maintain our involvement in those activities. We regret that the European Foundation will not, it seems, now come to pass, but we pledge ourselves anew to its purpose and to its aims.