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European Community (Council Of Ministers' Meetings)

Volume 929: debated on Wednesday 6 April 1977

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I will, with permission, make a statement on the two EEC Council of Ministers' meetings which my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary chaired in Luxembourg yesterday. The first was a joint meeting of Foreign and Finance Ministers at which my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary was co-Chairman, and the second a Foreign Ministers' Council.

Before the Councils met, my right hon. Friend joined the Presidents of the Commission and of the Assembly in signing a Joint Declaration on Fundamental Rights. I am placing the text in the Library.

In the joint Council we looked at the broad priorities for Community expenditure in 1978. There was general agreement on the need to contain agricultural expenditure to concentrate more of the Community's resources on action related to urgent, social needs, especially unemployment, and to see that these resources are applied to the maximum effect. The joint Council also looked at a number of institutional questions including the proposed introduction of a new European unit of account in the Community Budget. These points will be pursued in detail and if necessary considered at a further Council.

In the Foreign Minister's Council we considered the line to be taken on a number of questions which will arise in the joint ACP-EEC Council to be held in Fiji on 13th and 14th April. We agreed the Community's approach to the next stage of the CIEC talks: it was not possible to cover all the points which will arise in an on-going negotiation, but we have a sound basis which will be developed as the talks continue.

We discussed a number of fisheries questions, including third country negotiations. We agreed to a continuation of the interim measures to control third country fishing. In this context I pointed out the difficulties caused for Britain by Faroese restrictions. We decided that a renewed effort must be made to break the deadlock with Iceland; and it was agreed that a joint Commission-Presidency delegation should visit Reykjavik to discuss the whole question of fisheries arrangements between Iceland and Member States. While the proposal arose in the context of fish, our aim will be to set the fisheries problems in the wider context of the whole EEC-Iceland relationship. I hope to take part in these talks on behalf of the Presidency, along with Commissioner Gundelach representing the Commission.

The other major fisheries question, which led to a difficult discussion in the Council, was the unilateral action which the Irish Government are proposing to take to restrict fishing by vessels above a certain size in their waters. I resisted pressure to agree to the Commission's counter-proposal, which was one of the items discussed in this House on 28th March. This would have involved Community control of fishing over a large area of water within United Kingdom fishing limits, including the English Channel.

Under the guidance of my right hon. Friend, it was finally agreed that countries fishing in Irish waters would be asked to submit fishing plans which would be review by the Commission and the Irish Government with a view to meeting Irish conservation requirements on a non-discriminatory basis. Discussions are continuing on the detailed application of this measure in order to finalise the arrangements whereby the Commission or member States will be able to apply it in practice.

My right hon. Friend chaired a successful ministerial negotiating session with the Greek delegation in the course of which the Presidency made clear on behalf of the Community that the Greek negotiations will be handled on their own merits and that we shall aim to carry them forward as quickly as possible, while ensuring that the important issues are fully explored and negotiated.

Finally, the Council welcomed the Portuguese application for accession and invited the Commission to prepare its Opinion in accordance with the normal procedure but keeping in close touch with member Governments.

I thank the Minister of State for his statement and for the timeliness of it. I have four questions.

Is the Minister aware that the House generally will agree with the conclusion about the need to contain agricultural expenditure, but will he explain how he reconciles that view with the extraordinary performance of his right hon. Friend at the Council of Agriculture Ministers a week earlier?

Secondly, he mentioned the introduction of a new European unit of account in the Community budget. Are we to understand that this differs from the Lomé unit of account which we understood would be introduced into the budget? Will he give an assurance that the introduction of such a unit will not substantially increase the United Kingdom's budgetary contribution?

I note that fisheries occupied an important part of the meeting. While we all hope to see a renewed effort on Iceland, and we are glad that the serious problem of Ireland has been overcome, we are generally apprehensive about the continued failure to reach a conclusion on the inshore fisheries question. This is causing our fishermen great anxiety.

Finally, the Minister's remarks about the potential accession of Greece and Portugal are welcome. The Community should, by every means available, encourage democratic developments in these countries.

I thank the right hon. Member for the constructive way in which he put his four points—with certain reservations about his first point. As for the containment of agricultural expenditure, we are particularly anxious that there should not be an undue buildup of surpluses at the expense of consumers. This is central to the whole of our negotiations which will be resumed and, we hope, successfully concluded when our interests are taken account of, later this month.

On the unit of account, we can agree to a new unit being used for the 1978 budget, but we have to insist on following the interpretation proposed by the Commission of the effect of the change on Article 131 of the Treaty of Accession, which determines our contribution in 1978. We are determined that the arrangements that were made for our accession should not be set aside by the introduction of the new unit of account.

On inshore fisheries, we see this as a very high priority and we are committed to working for an effective common fisheries policy. But if this is to be successful, it will have to take account of the special needs of the British fishing industry and the disproportionately large contribution being made to Community needs from the traditional fishing grounds of the United Kingdom. It would be irresponsible to ignore this or to rush it.

I am glad that the right hon. Member made that statement about Greece and Portugal. We are very deeply committed to helping Greece in its efforts to join the Community.

Is the Minister aware that the Government's resistance to a scheme of control within our fishing limits is very welcome? Will he comment on the report that agreement is about to be reached with Norway which will entitle the Norwegians to fish for herring up to 12 miles from British coasts? If this is true, does it not sell the pass over the 50-mile limit? If it is not true, will the Minister reaffirm that it is his intention to get a 50-mile national limit for this country?

I thank the right hon. Member for what he said. He also said it very forcefully in our debate the other night. We are glad to have the right hon. Member's support for the line that we are taking on fisheries policy.

As far as agreement with Norway is concerned, I know of no positive grounds for supporting the right hon. Member's interpretation. The negotiations have not been completed. They will be completed as quickly as possible. We are concerned with facilitating an effective Community policy on fisheries as a whole. Of course our traditional fishing grounds and our approach to fishing must be taken into account in reaching a decision. That accounts for the temporary difficulties—and I hope that they are temporary—that we are experiencing at the moment.

Is it not unfortunate that in the midst of the discussions the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) should have made a public speech in Brussels attacking our Minister of Agriculture and British agricultural policy? Unless the right hon. Member wishes to deny the interpretation of his speech, it is obvious that this was just another example of members of the Conservative Party promoting the interests of all countries except their own.

Of course it is for the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) to comment in his own way and in his own time on that observation. If we are genuinely committed to making something meaningful of this Community, nothing in the end but positive results can come of facing up to the basic interests that are at stake, and any tendency to sweep under the carpet large and important national interests that are at stake in coming to common solutions might well prove counter-productive in the long-term fulfilment of the objectives that I know the right hon. Gentleman takes seriously.

I congratulate the Minister on the signing of the Declaration on Fundamental Rights. However, do the Government consider that that declaration goes far enough in relation to the laws of England and Scotland, which give a better guarantee of fundamental rights than the declaration?

On fishing, does not the Minister feel that there is grave danger in the delay in coming to a fixed, clear statement of where inshore fishermen stand? Is it not a fact that during this period of delay there is such disquiet that it is now affecting the number of boats at sea, investment and the number of people who are prepared to go into this industry? What has been decided for our inshore fishermen? Are we to be stuck with a 12-mile limit, while little Ireland is able to act in protection of her industry in contrast with what seems to our fishermen to be a rather meek submission?

The Declaration on Fundamental Rights is, of course, a declaration of policy, and it has no legal force. It concerns the activities of the three Community institutions. Therefore, what the hon. Lady says about the law in the United Kingdom is obviously relevant.

The hon. Lady raised a point about the common fisheries policy. I re-emphasise what I have already said. What we are determined to do is to get a common fisheries policy that will work and be effective. We believe that if it is to work and be effective it will have to take into account the special needs of the British fishing industry and the especially large contribution that we are making. We believe that it is far more important to get this right than to rush it and perhaps find ourselves confronted with a non-workable solution.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, may I reassure the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) that the reports of my speech that I have seen were exceedingly accurate. They were, indeed, accurate, because I consider, together with many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that the Minister of Agriculture has severely damaged the British industry in the Community.

I cannot allow the right hon. Gentleman to make that observation unchallenged. The fact is that my right hon. Friend is pointing out in unequivocal terms to his Community colleagues certain fundamental British interests that are at stake.

I am convinced that if we are to have a Community that is viable, nothing but good can come out of facing up to the fundamental issues that are at stake.

Is the Minister aware that there is enthusiasm—almost elation—among fishing Members that at long last the EEC, after at least 14 weeks, is to pick up the Icelandic nettle? Will he be leading this delegation? When he talks about bringing Iceland within the Community, does he mean that we shall be offering her special terms of entry with her products into Europe and in the event of not getting a settlement that we shall deny her access to Europe? What is happening about quotas in Norwegian waters? In Hull we have no idea what the quotas will be. We are laying up ships—two on Monday and one yesterday. That means that 90 men from the ships, and twice that number on shore in ancillary activities, will be unemployed.

I made plain to my colleagues in Luxembourg yesterday what was at stake for the British fishing industry, specifically in the context of what we might be being asked to give up in Norwegian waters. We are determined to see, as I have said already, that whatever negotiated settlement comes out of this recognises just how much is at stake. At a time when the Community is talking a great deal about unemployment, we must take this matter very seriously, not only for fishermen themselves but for industries related to the trawlermen and what they are doing at sea.

On my hon. Friend's observations about Iceland, I say only this—and I hope that we shall not talk at this juncture in any sort of language that would seem to smack of threats and aggressive postures. We are going in a spirit of constructive friendliness to meet the Icelandic Government to talk about the real problems that exist, but we shall be firm, because not long ago Britain was getting 172,000 tons on average—largely cod—from those waters, and now we are getting nothing. There are other countries with interests at stake as well. We shall be talking firmly but in a friendly way, but we shall be talking about wider relationships between the Community and Iceland, as well as fishing.

When the hon. Gentleman welcomes progress on the accession of both Greece and Portugal he carries the House with him. However, did he and the other Ministers discuss the danger that in well-meaning intentions to support the cause of democracy in those countries by giving them early membership we may be exposing their economies to strains which membership imposes and which they are not yet ready to bear? [Interruption.]

Without commenting on my hon. Friends' interjections, let me say that we realise that there are quite serious transitional financial problems for the countries named. Those are things that the Community will be looking at. The Commission will be looking at them and reporting to the Council of Ministers as appropriate However, we are determined to do everything that we can as a Community to strengthen the cause of democracy within Europe as a whole

Has the Council of Ministers considered a request that the Commission should be enabled to raise funds on the international money market? If so, what view was offered by Her Majesty's Government?

Ideas on the possibility of financing part of the Community budget from borrowing, for example, when the present 1 per cent. VAT rate limit is reached, and possibly within the context of an expanded budget, are still at a very early stage. It is, therefore, premature to form a view until the implications have been thoroughly examined.

Will my hon. Friend say something more about the Council's discussion in preparation for the CIEC meeting and, in particular, whether, in view of the impasse that appears to have occurred in UNCTAD about a common commodity fund, the Community has made any further progress on this matter?

A common fund to facilitate a programme of commodity agreements which may come out of UNCTAD circles is primarily a matter for UNCTAD, but we expect that there will be discusison within the context of the CIEC on this matter. The Community has taken a positive and constructive line. If my hon. Friend reflects on what actually happened in Geneva as distinct from what may have been reported in some quarters, he will appreciate that the Community took a very positive position, particularly compared with what happened in Nairobi a year ago.

I should like to emphasise again the very special concern in Scotland, particularly North-East Scotland, over what has been reported about what may be agreed with Norway. To the extent that Scottish fishermen may not be compensated for what we may have to give up in relation to fishing off Norway, should we not be aligning ourselves with the Irish Government in the attitude that they are taking if we are to achieve proper control of a band of up to about 50 miles?

In the best possible Communautaire spirit, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I specifically drew my colleagues' attention in Luxembourg yesterday to the fact that we were not discussing in a political vacuum, and I drew their attention to the strength of feeling that was expressed in the debate in the House a few days previously. We shall in no sense overlook the points that the hon. Gentleman has very validly made.

On the basis of his recent experience at EEC meetings, does the Minister believe that there is now a realistic chance in the European Community for switching the balance within the CAP slightly more away from price support and more towards structural support? Secondly, is there any chance of persuading our Community partners to view their agricultural problems, notably in France and Italy, more in perspective of the regional and social problems that they are, and therefore to carry that burden on the regional and social funds and not on the food prices paid by British housewives?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this was much in the mind of Ministers yesterday. Among the points emphasised were the need to get the balance of expenditure right not only within agriculture but between agriculture and the rest, and that there are important social, economic and industrial priorities that need higher consideration than they have received in the past.