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European Community (Meetings Of Council Of Ministers)

Volume 912: debated on Wednesday 26 May 1976

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the business to be taken in the Council of Ministers of the European Community during June. The monthly forecast for June was deposited yesterday.

At present, five meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for June. The Foreign Ministers' meeting, which begins on 31st May, will continue on 1st June. [Interruption.] Foreign Ministers will meet again on the 28th and 29th; Energy Ministers on the 10th: Agriculture Ministers on the 21st and 22nd; and Social Affairs Ministers on 29th and 30th June. [Interruption.] There will also be a tripartite conference on 24th June of Finance and Employment Ministers, the Commission and European employer and trades union organisation. [Interruption.]

As part of the follow-up to the informal meeting of Foreign Ministers on 14th and 15th May, Ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council on 1st June are likely to resume consideration of the Tindemans Report and direct elections to the European Assembly. They are also likely to discuss passport union. On 31st May, Ministers will sign the Commercial Cooperation Agreement concluded in March 1976 between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the EEC. [Interruption.] There will also probably be consideration of Commission proposals for an agreement with Iran; the Community's external financial commitments; financial aid internal regulations in relation to the Maghreb and Malta; and discussion on Spain and Cyprus sherry. Ministers will also consider the siting of JET and preparations for Association Councils with Greece and Turkey.

At the Council on 28th and 29th June, Ministers will resume discussion of the overall Mediterranean approach and relations with the member countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Ministers at both Council meetings will consider the problems posed by the prospect of 200-mile fishery limits and the current state of work in the four Commissions set up following the Conference on International Economic Co-operation. [Interruption.]

Ministers at the Energy Council will resume consideration of the energy policy guidelines adopted by the European Council on 1st and 2nd December 1975 and measures to be taken in the event of oil supply difficulties.

In June, Agriculture Ministers will resume their discussions of imports of New Zealand butter in the period 1978–80 and will also probably consider amended arrangements for beef imports.

At the Social Affairs Council, Ministers are expected to have before them draft directives on the safeguarding of employees' rights in the case of mergers and on the education of migrant workers' children. They will also consider uniform payment of family benefits and may consider the outcome of the tripartite economic and social conference to be held on 24th June.

The tripartite conference on 24th June is expected to focus on the employment situation in the Community. [Interruption.] The outcome of the conference is likely to be considered at the Social Affairs Council.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a great swell of background noise and it is impossible to hear the Minister speaking.

The hon. Gentleman is a little late. I called for order twice. The House seems to be excited.

The Minister has outlined a formidable programme of work, but perhaps this it not the best moment to cross-examine him on it. However, will he reaffirm the undertaking which has often been sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) that the Minister concerned will make a statement to the House on any of these meetings at which significant decisions are taken?

I reaffirm that assurance absolutely, but I do not necessarily think that my interpretation of "significant" will agree with that of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten).

During that long, rambling statement, which none of us heard, I believe that I may have heard some reference to the Ministers of Agriculture meeting to discuss something to do with butter and beef. If that is the case, may we have an assurance that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will discuss the question of the allowance of the import of beef from Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries without let or hindrance and will not play ball with the other Common Market countries in storing beef to keep the price up and thus prevent the British housewife from getting beef at a reasonable price? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that no agreement will be reached unless we discuss it in this House?

I am sorry if my hon. Friend did not hear all my statement but, knowing his assiduity in this matter, I am sure that, if he has read the written statement yesterday and has checked all the details in it, he will understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will be preserving the interests of the British consumer. At the same time, he will want to balance the interests of the agriculture industry in this country. A balance has to be struck between the two.

What preliminary proceedings will there be in this House before the meeting at which direct elections are to be further considered?

I have already told the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that the Government accept without qualification that these are matters on which the House has to express its opinion, and the Select Committee was set up exactly for that purpose. I hope that it will move at such a speed that the House can consider and vote upon its report before any definite decisions have to be taken in the Council of Ministers. If, however, the House is sceptical about that, it might, as I have said, be reassured by one thing—that there cannot be direct elections until a Bill is carried in the House making it possible, and therefore the House's veto, if one wants to talk in such florid terms, is absolute.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the reports in reputable English newspapers that the Commission is proposing that the Community should repudiate the agreement reached in Dublin in 1975 for the import of New Zealand butter into this country after 1980? Can he assure us that the British Government will not accept any repudiation of that agreement?

I assure my right hon. Friend that repudiation will be intolerable and, therefore, impossible. We undertook commitments to New Zealand. Those commitments we have to fulfil, and we will fulfil them.

Does the Ministers statement mean that the 200-mile limit is now official Community policy? Is it intended to discuss either the Icelandic situation or further representations at the Law of the Sea Conference? Is it intended to discuss the position of individual countries and their limits within the Community, and the protection of fishery stocks?

The Community is not yet corporately committed to the 200-mile limit. We have accepted that a 200-mile limit is the most likely outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference, but other member countries of the Community do not believe that it will be and hope that it will not be. Our policy will be to encourage other member nations to accept the reality and act on that principle.

The right hon. Gentleman's question involves the vexed issue of Community competence. We will insist that the Community's right to negotiate these matters with third countries, including Iceland, is in part dependent on its willingness to produce a common fisheries policy which meets the needs of the British fishing industry. One of our primary obligations and enthusiasms in the Community in the next six months will be to obtain a revision in that policy, and all other fishing issues will have to be subservient to that.

My right hon. Friend's statement indicated that the Tindemans Report on European union will be discussed yet again. Can he give an assurance that there will be a debate in this House before that report is discussed for the second time? If it cannot be debated before 31st May, can we have a debate before 28th June, thus fulfilling the obligation to the House which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced shortly after taking office in that post?

The report has been discussed formally and informally more than twice among European Foreign Ministers and will be discussed several more times before the Community feels in a position to implement it or reject it. Whether a debate should be held between the first and second or the second and third meetings is a question for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who will no doubt have taken note of what my hon. Friend has said.

Among the many meetings which the right hon. Gentleman's rather muffled statement has given us to believe will take place, the one of the Energy Council is not unimportant. The issues concerned with the framework of energy policy centre largely around the floor price. The House will be interested to know where we are going on the Joint European Torus and also on Euratom finance. Will these matters also be dealt with at the Energy Council meeting?

I am sorry that the statement was muffled. That was not my responsibility but that of the House, which is expecting another statement of some sort in a few moments. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Joint European Torus will be discussed. We shall adopt the same position as a month ago, which is that Culham is the appropriate site. The financing to which the right hon. Gentleman drew attention will also be on the agenda for one meeting or another.

I think I heard the Minister say, above the hubbub in the House, that the Minister of Agriculture would take steps to preserve the interests of the British consumer with regard to beef and butter. What are the steps that he will take?

What my hon. Friend heard me say was that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture would next month—as he has done during the last 28 months—balance the importance of preserving the interests of the consumer with the equally important task of preserving the domestic industry, because indeed the British consumer is in no small measure dependent on our making sure that the domestic industry is viable. Balancing those two things, which may on occasions appear irreconcilable in the short term but which are wholly the same in the long term, will be the continued intention of my right hon. Friend.

On the question of direct elections, which the Ministers will discuss, may we have an assurance from the Government that they will not unreasonably force the pace of the work of the Select Committee? If the Select Committee comes up with a report based on insufficient evidence and investigation, it will not be taken very seriously.

I do not think that the Select Committee feels that the problem exists as the hon. Gentleman has described it. The Select Committee knows the reality of the situation. There is a timetable of work within the Community. Quite uniquely, the Government have invited the House of Commons to set up a Select Committee which is monitoring the Government's attitudes and commenting on the Government's decisions. If the Select Committee, of which I am honoured to be a member, wants to influence Government decisions before they are taken rather than comment on them after they are taken, the Select Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I shall allow the hon. Gentlemen to indulge in their scathing indignation in a moment—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think I am in order in pointing out that only you can decide who shall or shall not make any statement in the House. My right hon. Friend was saying that he would give permission to an hon. Member to make a statement, but it is you, Mr. Speaker, who give permission.

Order. Since I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis), on that harmonious note perhaps the Minister will continue.

The Government—as was understood and accepted by the House when we debated these matters—must, if it is to influence Europe, operate in relation to a timetable which is not altogether according to our decisions. What we hope, and what I believe the majority of the House hopes, is that the Select Committee will operate at a speed which enables the House to influence the Government before the decision is taken. That is certainly our wish, and I believe it to be the wish of the House as well.

Will the Minister give the House the assurance that when he goes to the Commission he will let it know that all sections of the British fishing industry are absolutely adamant that nothing less than 100 miles is acceptable? Will he also tell the Commission that in the forthcoming negotiations which will be necessary with a country on the other side of the North Sea—namely, Norway—only a representative of the British Government will carry out these negotiations and not somebody in the EEC who knows nothing whatsoever about the problem?

I would find it very difficult to say that in good conscience, because when I last attended the Council of Ministers and talked about our needs, being invariably within 50 miles of the British shore and most often within 35 miles of it, I received a telegram of support and congratulations from the leader of the Scottish fishing industry.

May I take it that the appropriate Ministers will be discussing the harmonisation of import control throughout the EEC, now that Italy has introduced import control?

What I hope the Foreign Ministers will consider is the traditional policy of the Community to help those members who have special economic difficulties. When the Government of Italy, suffering from problems from which we have never suffered—I hope my hon. Friend will not suggest otherwise—came to the Community for special aid, the Community was ready to provide it. I have no doubt that that is absolutely consistent with the general attitude of the Nine.

Whatever view we may take about direct elections, does not the Minister agree that it is an insult to the House and to the Select Committee to hint that a decision may be taken about this before the report of the Select Committee is received?

No, I do not agree, because the decision is by no means in our hands. I do not agree also for a second reason. If the House disapproves of the position that the Government take up, the House has absolute power in its own hands not to vote for a Bill to implement direct elections. Those of us who have been involved in the question of direct elections have said for almost two years that whatever else is a Community competence, as opposed to the competence of the House of Commons, this cannot be in that category. If the House of Commons does not approve of the corporate decision on direct elections within the Nine, the House of Commons can refuse to pass the Bill that makes that possible. What the Government are asking is for the Commons to help them in making their initial decision as to what compromise solution they come to. If, however, the timetable makes it impossible for the House of Commons Select Committee to advise the Government sufficiently early, I say again that the eventual power is in the hands of the House of Commons, which may, if it so chooses, defeat a Bill proposed to it by the Government for implementing direct elections.