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Trade Deficit (Eec Countries)

Volume 889: debated on Monday 24 March 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade what is the size of the United Kingdom's trade deficit with countries of the EEC to the latest date for which figures are available for 1974.


asked the Secretary of State for Trade what is the visible trade deficit with EEC, on a balance of payments basis and seasonally adjusted, for the last 12 months.

In 1974 the visible trade deficit, on a balance of payments basis, with the EEC Eight is provisionally estimated to have been £2,035 million. Comparable figures are not yet available for later periods.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that everyone in the House will find those figures deeply disturbing? Can he give us any kind of assurance that the situation in 1975 will not be even worse? Has he any evidence from estimates that he might already have in the Department that perhaps we are beginning to turn the corner in 1975 and that we can at last begin to see the long-awaited benefits of EEC membership?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend in what he has to say about the seriousness and the gravity of these trade figures. I regret to have to tell him that the evidence is that the deficit is growing quarter by quarter. If I were to give, as I will, in reply to my hon. Friend the available figures for the past three months, the position would be clearer. The figures are on a crude trade basis and not on a balance of payments basis and they may slightly overstate the eventual outcome. However, on a crude trade basis the present deficit for the past three months—namely December, January and February—is running at a rate of £2,600 million a year.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall the debates in 1972? I refer him in particular to what the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said quite clearly on 20th June—namely:

"our entering the Communities…will be a positive and substantial contribution to our balance of payments, and will not result in any deficit at all"—[Official Report,20th June 1972; Vol. 839, c. 318.]
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it was on that sort of statement that some of my hon. Friends were persuaded to vote for the Common Market?

There is no question but that events have disproved that forecast. It is not only the authority of the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that one has to draw upon for persuading people in that period of the advantages of membership. Similar statements were made, although in broader terms, in the 1971 White Paper. That was the then Government's major recommendation to the British people and to Members of Parliament that they should join the EEC.

Does my right hon. Friend confirm that a major reason for the large deficit lies in the import of manufactured goods from Germany in particular and from other EEC countries? Will he tell the House how the problem could be ameliorated by exit from the Market and the creation of a free trade area?

I thought I had answered that point in answer to a previous supplementary question. It seems that I shall have to do it again. I said to the House—it obviously was not listening at the time —that a free trade area agreement would face us with broadly similar problems in terms of industrial goods except in so far as higher food prices might affect the structure of costs in Britain's industry and, therefore, our export prices. What I said was that outside the European Community we would have the advantage of such cheap food as there is, and I believe that the supply of such food is much larger than my hon. Friend suggested. Further, we should not have to make a contribution to the Community budget and we should have far better control over capital movements.

In reply to an earlier question the Secretary of State said that if we were to withdraw from the Common Market there would be a very advantageous position for Britain in negotiating new trading arrangements in a free trade area. Is that the view of the Cabinet, is it merely the view of the five dissenting Ministers or is it merely wishful thinking?

I have been asked this question before and I stand by the answer that I have given.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for raising a point of order now rather than later, but I shall not take up very much of the time of the House. The Secretary of State said quite categorically in his first answer to this set of questions that the deficit to the EEC on the manufacturing account was growing. There is no truth—

Order. The content of an answer cannot possibly be matter for a point of order.