HL Deb 19 November 1998 vol 594 cc1370-2

3.30 p.m.

Lord St. John of Bletso asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they are using their influence with the South African Government and the European Commission to conclude the European Union/South African Free Trade Agreement (FTA) this autumn, as envisaged at the Cardiff European Council.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government want to see a successful conclusion to the European Union/South Africa Trade, Development and Co-operation Agreement by the end of this year. Talks are continuing at official level between the European Commission and South Africa this week. Indeed, they are taking place at this very moment. We believe that the basis of a deal on trade is now on the table. Alec Erwin, the South African Trade and Industry Minister, said in London on Monday last that he believed that if European Union member states could back the outline deal that he and Commissioner Pinheiro discussed in October agreement was in sight. We are closely involved in the negotiations to help resolve the remaining difficulties.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging Answer. Is he aware that the negotiations between the South African Government and the European Commission have taken more than four years, raising concerns of EU protectionism in the agricultural sector? At a time of high and growing unemployment in South Africa, with a labour intensive agricultural sector, can the Government put pressure on the European Commission in more onerous terms to stop putting further obstacles in the way before such an agreement can be reached?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, to be precise, the present negotiations are taking place on a mandate from the General Affairs Council to the Commission in March 1996. But the noble Lord is right. We are extremely keen to see that the negotiations are carried to a rapid and successful conclusion. We very much hope that it will be possible for decisions to be made at the General Affairs Council on 7th December.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, can the Minister say what bilateral discussions are taking place? If not, will he take better action with some of our southern partners who seem to have taken the most ridiculous nitpicking attitude towards a free trade agreement, which is absolutely essential if the United Kingdom and the European Union are to retain their credibility as a free trading area?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the amount of lobbying that has taken place, even during the Austrian presidency, is amazing. The lobbying by this country has involved the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and junior Ministers. They have lobbied the President of the European Commission, the Austrian presidency and the individual member states which are concerned. In addition to those political contacts, there have been incessant official contacts.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the package put by Mr. Pinheiro in October was acceptable to the South African Government, who were prepared to sign on the dotted line, since when different elements within the Commission have tried to unpick that agreement? Does he recall the ringing tones of support for South Africa following its establishment of a democratic government? There were ringing cries of friendship. Will the Minister accept that the Commission's behaviour reminds one of an old Scottish saying, "Touch my pocket and friendship's out"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, all of us are disappointed that since South Africa has escaped from apartheid we have not been able to achieve a free trade agreement. My noble friend is right, as I indicated in my Answer, that the outline agreement which was on the table between Commissioner Pinheiro and South Africa would have been acceptable to South Africa. However, the Commission is still operating on a mandate from the General Affairs Council and member states still have to be involved.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be utterly anomalous for all those countries of Europe which pressed so hard for a new South Africa not now to put their money where their mouths are?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, yes. We have always said that we want to see these negotiations successfully concluded and we want the objections of individual member states to particular parts of the agreement to be overcome. However, the difficulty is that if a free trade agreement is to be acceptable to the World Trade Organisation it must cover approximately 90 per cent. of all goods and services. That is very difficult to achieve.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the terms which have been set out in the free trade agreement could be likely to lead to high-scale unemployment in the agricultural sector, which is the one area still open to unskilled labour in South Africa?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, no, I do not agree. The terms set out will cover agriculture, in particular fruit, which is the most important South African export. I accept that the noble Lord is right in linking agriculture in South Africa with employment.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, on this last day of the Session, perhaps I may say to the Minister that I am sure the Government are genuine in their desire to see agreement reached with South Africa. However, does he not appreciate that unless the Government go to Brussels and confront the Commission head on with the problem that is at the centre of the issue, there is still a residual agricultural protectionism? Unless that is resolved, frankly, it does not matter how keen the Government are to settle the matter and achieve an agreement; that will not be the case.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government are doing exactly what the noble and learned Lord described. We are at this very moment in Brussels engaged in negotiations with the European Commission in order to try to overcome the difficulties he describes. We are totally on the same side on this matter.

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is particularly important to put pressure on Portugal and Spain to stop holding these negotiations hostage with their ridiculous vendetta against South Africa for calling its fortified wines "sherry" and "port"? That has been happening for more than 200 years. As a matter of fact, all the wines and spirits from South Africa account for only 0.5 per cent. of the European Union's imports from South Africa.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, sherry and port represent a widespread problem which my noble friend will recognise. For example, champagne producers have succeeded in stopping anyone else anywhere in the world calling anything produced by the méthode champenoise champagne. The difficulty extends to sherry and port, too. Australia has agreed to stop producing "sherry" and "port", but with a long derogation period. That may be the solution for sherry and port from South Africa.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 3.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 3.37 to 3.45 p.m.]