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European Community (Council Of Development Ministers' Meeting)

Volume 933: debated on Monday 20 June 1977

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With permission, I should like briefly to report to the House the outcome of the meeting in Luxembourg last week of the Council of Development Ministers.

The Development Council made considerable progress last Thursday. The main item for decision concerned EEC aid to non-associated developing countries, on which no progress was made at the last meeting in March. Last week we did succeed in reaching agreement in principle to the release of the 45 million units of account for the non-associated countries included in this year's budget, and on the general lines of the guidance to be given to the Commission for the expenditure of this money, including that the funds will be distributed to Asia and Latin America in the ratio of 3 to 1.

There remains a problem of securing a draft regulation, and the Council will return to this at its next meeting. What matters is that the non-associated countries can now have this assistance, provided that the European Parliament will accept this procedure, which will, of course, be without prejudice to the future. I very much hope that it will.

We also made further progress on food aid. At our last meeting, some member States were unconvinced of the need for an increasing programme of Community food aid. The Commission withdrew its proposal for this, and we asked for a paper by the Commission analysing the food needs of the developing countries. On the basis of this, we reached agreement that there is certainly a continuing need for food, and, subject to a reserve by two delegations, our conclusion was that the Commission should bring forward once again proposals for an increasing programme.

Our last main item was a general discussion, based on an excellent paper from the Commission, on questions of rural development, agriculture and food production in the developing world. We invited the Commission to carry forward our most valuable discussion by arranging a meeting between experts on rural development.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. As regards the first point that she made, does she know that in the House generally there is a considerable measure of interest and anxiety about what appears to be an imbalance between the aid granted to the associated countries of the Community and to the non-associated countries, particularly those in Asia?

In view of what the right hon. Lady says, does the procedure which is now proposed mean that not only would the European Parliament have to accept that it did not discuss this matter before it went into effect but also that this Parliament would not have an opportunity of debating the issue of this aid to Asian countries before the provisional decisions reached by the Council came into effect?

Second, on the subject of food aid, will the right hon. Lady accept that, while being fully sympathetic to the need for a food-rich area such as the Community to make provision for the wants of countries where there is a severe dearth of food, the House generally may feel that there is a greater urgency in ensuring own-production of food within the areas concerned? Would she, therefore, accept that the last paragraph of what she has said has great relevance to the question of the future provision of food for the countries in question?

On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, there is no doubt whatever, and there is general agreement within the Development Council, about the absolute priority to be given to increasing food production within the developing countries. But it is equally accepted, particularly on the basis of the very good Commission paper which was presented to us on this matter, that this takes some time, a matter of years. One cannot increase agricultural production overnight. In the meantime, given the great need for food in the developing countries, the Community needs to increase its general food aid.

As I say, two delegations had to lift their reserve on this proposition, but this was the general understanding. It does not conflict one tiny bit with the total appreciation—I think that the British Government have been in the lead on this—that increased food production within the Third World is the key purpose at which to aim.

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, the 45 million units of account are now to be released. There is a problem in that the European Parliament now has to unblock its disapproval of the procedures. Given the extreme need of the non-associated countries for assistance of this kind—and very rapid assistance—I very much hope that the European Parliament will be prepared, at least on an ad hoc basis, to accept this decision for this year, given that the general framework regulation has still to be resolved.

I completely accept, with the right hon. Gentleman, that there is general agreement in this House about it. He may recall that this was one of the essential questions under debate in our own renegotiations on this matter. We got only a tiny bit of the way there, but we still press on, and a certain degree of progress was achieved last week.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the debate last Monday it emerged that there would be an increase in the token amount which she has announced today for non-associated countries only on condition that there was greater harmonisation of policies within the EEC? Can she say a little more about that? Is the United Kingdom approach to overseas aid—that is, to help the poorest in the poorest countries—shared by our other partners in the EEC? If it is not, can my right hon. Friend tell us which are the countries which have the greatest doubts on this policy?

If I may put it in this way, I think that whatever I was required to say last Monday on this matter has to some extent been overtaken by the results of the Development Council meeting in Luxembourg last Thursday. We have agreed to release the 45 million units of account. This is not related at this moment to a necessary resolution of the framework regulation question, which, as I have said, we have postponed to a further meeting. We have agreed that the general criteria governing the distribution of this money should concentrate on the needs of the poorest countries and the poorest people. Hence, we have agreed, within the context of the natural problems of actually disbursing the money and identifying projects, that the proportion on a general overall framework should be three to one—three for Asian developing countries and one for Latin America.

This was to some extent a compromise in that the Latin-American countries cannot be regarded as being among the poorest. Nevertheless, what it means is that as a result of this compromise three-quarters of the 45 million units of account stand to be spent on the poorest Asian countries before the end of the year.

As the right hon. Lady knows better than anyone, in matters of agriculture so many of these countries depend upon monoculture. Does she now say that as a result of the discussions her partners in the Council of Ministers are now more sympathetic towards countries which are dependent on one or two crops and are now more likely to give greater access in future to those crops in order to enable those countries to improve their standard of living?

I think that it is true that there is agreement regarding agricultural production and access to markets. We found this last Thursday in the very general discussion which we had on rural development and agriculture, which I had proposed at our March meeting because, frankly, I felt that it would be good for the Development Ministers to discuss development issues without precise words on a piece of paper to be agreed or disagreed. Clearly, there is very general agreement among the Development Ministers of the Nine on agricultural production and, indeed, there is an understanding that access to markets for developing countries' semi-processed and processed goods is almost a necessary consequence of that. This is very generally understood among Development Ministers. But one of the problems in Brussels and Luxem- bourg, as also here in Whitehall, is that there can be an inadequate understanding between various Departments and Councils about particular conclusions.

Will the right hon. Lady take it that we on the Liberal Bench both welcome the decision and congratulate her on the part which she played in it? Could she take the opportunity also of paying a specific tribute to the work of Claude Cheysson, the Commissioner, partly because it is sometimes worth pointing out in the House that the Commission is sometimes right? Finally, in regard to the European Parliament and the procedural problem to which the right hon. Lady drew attention, can she confirm that the Parliament as an institution has played no part in delaying the basic nature of this decision up to now?

I am very glad to agree with the hon. Gentleman in his first point. In my view, Claude Cheysson is one of the best Commissioners of the European Commission. In my experience—I have known him for many years now—he has always offered constructive and, indeed, radical propositions to us. The problem has not been in the Development Council and the Commission. It has lain, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, in certain difficulties on the part of certain member countries.

On his second point, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Until now, the matter of the release of the money from this year's budget—that is, the 45 million units of account—was, as it were, blocked as between objections from the European Parliament and difficulties within the Development Council. I should not for a moment say that the European Parliament had so far been holding it up. What I do say, however, is that now we have got the matter through the Development Council I very much hope that even on an ad hoc basis for this year, while we wait to resolve the outstanding problem, the European Parliament will agree that the money can be disbursed. If it does not, the only sufferers can be the poorest countries.

Are we to infer from what the right hon. Lady has said that there is nevertheless an impasse between the Council of Development Ministers and the European Parliament, and this is in large measure a reflection of the failure of our partners on the Continent to understand the special position of non-associated countries, especially the very poor in Asia? If that be so, is there any special step which we can take in this House? For example, could not the matter be debated, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) suggests? Is there not some step which we can take whereby the facts of life and the realities of the Third world can be brought home to the European Parliament?

It is certainly true that there has been this continuing problem, throughout this year at least, and at the last Development Council meeting in March, which was the first one at which we held the Presidency, we found that there was an impasse. There was no clear indication that we could find a way through to the release of the 45 million units of account set aside in the budget. We have now found a way in the Development Council. The difficulty is that there is a block at the moment by the European Parliament, which I am sure can be overcome. In precise answer to the hon. Gentleman, I would say that if our delegations from this House, from all parties, to the European Parliament could impress the matter upon our European colleagues there, perhaps in these terms, "All right. There is this procedural problem of arriving at a framework regulation and arriving at the precise nature of the responsibilities as between the Commission and the Council, but can we resolve that a little later and, for the time being, allow the 45 million units of account from the budget to be spent?", I am sure that the European Parliament would respond to the appreciation of all parties in this House of the fact that that is essential.

Several Hon. Members rose——

I propose to call the three hon. Members who are now standing, if we can have brief questions and brief answers.

How is the proposed food aid to be channelled? Will it be channelled through existing international institutions, or is it seriously proposed that we should have yet another institution for the distribution of food aid?

No, there is no new proposal for the way in which the food aid will be channelled. It will be done according to the traditional precedents of the EEC.

In her understandable enthusiasm for encouraging agricultural production in underdeveloped countries, will the right hon. Lady undertake to read the reports of the groundnuts scheme and learn from the mistakes of her earlier Labour predecessor, who had the same enthusiasm?

I regard that as the most trivial comment I have heard in the House for some time. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the lessons of the groundnuts scheme, both positive and negative, were fully learnt—how long ago was it?—30 years ago.

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that she has not had a letter from Mr. Cheysson telling her what she may or may not say in this House? Secondly, on the question of aid and trade, can she say something about the Community's attitude to the Multi-Fibre Arrangement, which does not seem to be doing much good to some of the Asian countries?

I can indeed confirm that what I say in this House is what I say. I tell the House what I think I should tell it, and nobody influences me as to what I should tell it. The Multi-Fibre Arrangement is not my direct responsibility. Naturally, I am concerned about a number of Third world interests in this matter, particularly those of the Asian countries, but, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, any questions about it would need to be directed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade.