HC Deb 10 February 1977 vol 925 cc794-6W
Mr. Noble

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the EEC held in Brussels on 8th February.

Mr. Crosland

The second Foreign Affairs Council under my chairmanship took place in Brussels on 8th February and continued into the early hours of the morning. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs represented the United Kingdom with the Under-Secretary. The Parliamentary Secretary at the Scottish Office was present for the discussion of fisheries matters.

There was a full discussion in preparation for Dr. Soares' tour of Community capitals, which will start in London on 14th February and end in Brussels on 12th March. The Council agreed the lines of the helpful common response which member States would use with Dr. Soares, taking account both of the political importance of a positive attitude towards Portuguese aspirations for membership and of the economic and other problems which would have to be overcome. The Community will need to hear Dr. Soares' views before deciding on the next steps. The Council also discussed the preparation of the Community's mandate for negotiations with Spain to adapt the 1970 trade agreement between Spain and the EEC of Six to take account of the three new members. The Council set further work in hand and will return to this on 8th March.

The Community position for the next meeting of the General Committee of the Euro-Arab Dialogue, to be held in Tunis on 10th to 12th February, was approved. The Council reaffirmed the importance of the Dialogue for the further strengthening of the close links already in existence between the two regions.

There was a brief review of progress of the Commission's talks with Japan in various fields of trade relations. The Council agreed that the Commission should continue these talks and that the Council would return to the subject at a later meeting.

On budgetisation of European Investment Bank external loans, although the Council did not reach a final decision, there was general recognition of the urgent need to decide whether the guarantees for a number of European Investment Bank loans to third countries should be borne on the Community Budget. Additional economic and financial protocols to the EEC/Israel Agreement were signed.

It was agreed that work should continue on the Community's position on the issues involved in the CIEC, and that this should be discussed again at the Council on 8th March. We also agreed that officials should embark on an intensive programme of work on the Common Fund with a view to laying before the Council on 8th March an agreed Community position.

We dealt with a number of separate fisheries questions at the Council. I reported from the Chair on our exchanges with the Soviet Union about the opening of negotiations on future fishing levels. Member States agreed to keep each other closely informed about the action which each of them takes in its own waters to enforce the agreed limitations on the number of Soviet vessels permitted to fish between now and the end of March. I made it clear that British enforcement action would be taken steadily and firmly. The Poles and East Germans have provided lists of vessels to be licensed in this period. The Russians have not done so, and their fishing is now illegal.

The Council then discussed the internal fisheries régime. It became clear that agreement could not be reached at this stage on the quota levels proposed by the Commission for 1977 as part of an interim régime; and discussion therefore turned to the specific conservation measures which the United Kingdom and Ireland had proposed for immediate adoption. Subject to a Danish reserve there was agreement on a number of measures, including a ban on herring fishing in the North Sea from end-February to end-April, with the level of fishing thereafter to be determined on the basis of scientific advice. We hope that the Danish reserve will be lifted shortly. The Commission was asked to make proposals by mid-March on the compulsory use of larger-mesh nets for certain species and on controlling the carrying of nets of different mesh sizes during a single voyage. However there was no agreement on new stricter limitations on by-catches of certain fish or on establishing an area in which fishing for Norway pout would be banned at certain times. The latter measure is particularly important to the protection of immature white fish in the same area.

We reserved our right to introduce nationally the measures on which agreement was not reached. The Irish Government similarly reserved their rights. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State indicated that Her Majesty's Government need to take action very soon indeed to control Norway pout fishing off North-East Scotland. We are re-examining also the precise limitations necessary on by-catches. We would be glad to reach agreement in the Community on both of these measures if it is possible, but we cannot accept further delay in effective action. Our position on this was made clear in the Council. We will need to be satisfied in any regulation that our right to take unilateral conservation measures on a non-discriminatory basis after seeking the agreement of the Commission and to enforce such measures in our own waters is specifically recognised.

I suggested to the Council that progress on fisheries should be speeded up and that we should soon begin to look at some of the more basic issues which divide member States. It was agreed that a high level official working group should be set up to tackle both the short-term and longer-term questions. I hope that this group will help the Council to move ahead faster and avoid becoming bogged down in some of the detail with which we had to deal yesterday.