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European Community (Council Of Ministers'meetings)

Volume 959: debated on Wednesday 29 November 1978

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the main business to be taken by Ministers of the European Community during December. The more detailed monthly written forecast was deposited on Monday 27th November.

Heads of State and Government will meet in the European Council in Brussels on 4th and 5th December. At present six meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for that month; full details are contained in the written forecast.

The Budget Council will meet on 5th December to consider the budgetary implications of the decisions taken by Heads of Government on the Regional Development Fund.

The Finance Council will meet on 18th December and will discuss the European monetary system and any follow-up action necessary in the light of decisions reached at the European Council. It will also discuss the Commission's draft annual report on the economic situation in the Community and the Commission's annual economic review for 1978–79.

The Agriculture Council will meet on 18th and 19th December and is expected to have a preliminary exchange of views on the CAP price proposals for 1979–80 and to consider further the wine market proposals and possibly matters concerning health and hygiene in the milk sector. No Fisheries Council has yet been arranged, but one may prove necesssary.

The Environment Council will meet on 19th December and will hold an additional meeting on 18th December to discuss environment policy generally. The Council is expected to consider the pollution of groundwater by dangerous substances, pollution caused by the paper pulp industry, the quality of water for human consumption, bird conservation and the cost of pollution control.

The Foreign Affairs Council will meet on 19th December and will review any need for follow-up action arising from the European Council. In addition, the Council is expected to discuss the GATT multilateral trade negotiations; current negotiations between the EEC and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, and those for a new EEC/ACP Lomé convention; to review progress in the negotiations on Greek accession to the Community and resume its discussion of the internal and external aspects of the Community's steel policy.

The Energy Council will meet on a date still to be decided and will resume its discussion of the Community energy situation. The Council is also expected to resume consideration of the place of coal in Community energy policy; to consider the scope for Community action in the areas of energy labelling and to discuss the progress of demonstration projects in energy saving.

The Minister referred to the Budget Council. Two weeks ago the Government were hard pressed in the House to publish the Economic Policy Committee document on British contributions to the budget, which had been leaked in The Guardian and upon which I think the Prime Minister drew when speaking at the Guildhall. When are we to see this crucial document?

Secondly, the Minister of Agriculture said yesterday that he still hoped for ministerial agreement on fisheries by the end of the year. The Minister of State has told us today, however, that there is no firm plan for a Fisheries Council. What is happening about that?

I turn next to European elections. When is the Council of Ministers to decide—there is no mention of it in the statement—on the salaries and allowances for Members of the directly elected Parliament? There is a lot of press speculation that the Government are under pressure to provide British taxpayers' money for political parties to campaign in these elections. Has this been discussed in the Council of Ministers, and what is the Government's attitude to this strange proposal?

As I have assured the hon. Gentleman, we intend to publish the document. That will be arranged as soon as we can complete the practical necessities.

Our position on the question of fisheries is that we want to make sure of securing progress. I am sure that the hon. Member, with his experience, will recognise that the preparatory work is most important. We do not want to rush into another Council just for its own sake. We are so committed to getting an effective policy for the whole Community that we want to make sure that the groundwork has been adequately covered.

On salaries and allowances, we have repeatedly made plain— and we stand by our position—that we believe that this matter must be settled well ahead of the election itself. Candidates must know the terms on which they are standing, just as the electorate has a right to know of those terms. The hon. Member asked about political parties in this country, but that has nothing to do with the Community; it is a matter for discussion between the parties.

I was surprised to hear that it is not intended to discuss the decision of the European Court at Luxembourg on 14th November, which appears to have most serious implications for this country's control over the movement of its fissile materials and the defence of atomic establishments. Has my hon. Friend picked this up yet, and will he be discussing it?

I presume that my.hon Friend is referring to the chapter 6 determination. In that context I agree that this is a significant issue, with profound implications for our future energy policy. We have a great deal of detailed work to do in analysing the implications of that decision. I can assure my hon. Friend that we have this matter well on board, and that we will want to see that there is proper deliberation on the matter within the Community.

I know that the Minister is a great advocate of open government. Will he tell us whether it is true that it was only because Britain and Italy blocked the vote of the other seven members on the Regional Development Fund that the European Parliament proposal to increase the size of the fund was accepted? Will he explain what factors the Budget Council will have before it in discussing this matter?

The hon. Gentleman's question goes to the centre of the relationship that exists between the Council and the Assembly. We have made it plain that we do not want the financial powers of the Assembly to be increased by the back door. That must be watched carefully. It is true that the proposals that were put forward in that Council now stand, but the last word has not yet been spoken, because the final size of the budget will have to be decided in the Council, and that is something upon which we shall have very firm views to express.

When will the Council of Ministers discuss the arrangements for textile imports from the Mediterranean associates in 1979? What levels are they thinking of, and will the Minister give us an assurance that the Government will stand by the commitment that they made this year to the textile industry?

I think that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government, in the face of a good deal of pressure, have stood very firmly in favour of the multifibre arrangement, which has been laboriously and carefully negotiated with Mediterranean producers and others. We certainly hope, at the Council in December, to discuss the details of what is envisaged for 1979.

Will the Minister answer the last two questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd)? When will the House be told the Minister's decision about using taxpayers' money as support for political parties during the elections?

The conduct of elections is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. There will be other opportunities for discussing with him that kind of domestic detail.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Order. The question of the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) did not arise from today's statement.

It was anticipated that there would be a meeting of the Education Ministers of the Nine within the Council during December. Why has that meeting been postponed?

Basically because the necessary preparatory work has not yet been completed. I think that my hon. Friend will agree that we would be getting into a sad situation in the Community if we reached the point at which institutional demands took precedence over substantive discussion. We want to ensure that when meetings take place there is something real to discuss and that the ground has been prepared.

Why has the important proposal for a European export bank apparently disappeared from the face of the earth?

That is an interesting question. I shall consider the matter and let the hon. Gentleman know.

Is it riot true that we were told during our debates that the EEC had nothing to do with education? Would not the meeting of the Education Ministers have been strictly irregular? Will my hon. Friend tell us about the meeting of the Economic and Finance Council on 18th December? Will he confirm that if the Heads of Government come to some agreement next week they will, at the Council on 18th December, be concerned with R2790/1/78, and that that document at that meeting will in some form be passed?

It is our view that the European Council made its decision quite properly. Therefore, it is fully within its rights to carry out a review in December and to ascertain how best to proceed.

We are always grateful to the Minister when he tells us what is about to happen in the European Community but, on the other hand, we would like to know what has happened. May we have an assurance that Ministers will make oral statements in the House after the more important meetings have taken place? Ministers have not been doing so recently.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we try to make statements whenever possible and in whichever form after important meetings of the Council. That is the Government's policy. Sometimes. practicably, it is not possible. In that event we always try to put before the House a Written Answer or a written statement of some sort.

At any of the meetings will it be possible to discuss the 47p subsidy per pound now being placed on butter supplied to the Soviet Union? is my hon. Friend aware that among Members in the House and among British taxpayers the overwhelming majority are fed up with paying for these subsidies? It is felt that action should be taken as expeditiously as in the Ford issue.

I hope that my hon. Friend is well aware of the Government's priorities for the reform of the common agricultural policy. One of our highest priorities is to try to restrain price increases for produce, especially where there are wasteful surpluses. I am surprised that my hon. Friend has not recognised the considerable achievements that have been made in that direction by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

In his statement the Minister made reference to the problems of the wine regime wtihin the EEC. How have the Government responded to the criticism from Brussels that our taxation system is geared in favour of beer and against wine?

That is not strictly relevant to the statement that we are discussing. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are as concerned as anybody else that we should have a sensible and rational organisation of the wine market within the Community. The objective of the discussions on wine next month will be to try to get supply and demand into better balance.

The Minister is not able to give us a specific date when the Energy Ministers will be meeting, but will he give me an assurance that when they meet they will discuss seriously British exports of coal to the EEC? Is he aware that before we joined the EEC we were told that there would be a remarkable market for British coal? Does he accept that so far the EEC has bought far more coal from outside Europe than from Britain? When is that to be remedied? Inasmuch as we have to take in EEC vegetables, fruit and various other commodities at prices much higher than those on the world market, why cannot the other members of the EEC take our coal in return?

I fully recognise the strength of feeling in the House about coal and the Community. To be candid, we are disappointed that more progress has not been made on an effective coal policy within the Community. I can assure my right hon. Friend that that is something to which we are deeply committed.

Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that British interests will be properly protected when, on 18th December, two meetings will take place simultaneously—namely, the finance meeting and the meeting of the Agriculture Ministers? Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that after EMS comes into effect, and if the Republic of Ireland joins the system and Britain does not, agricultural trade with the Republic of Ireland valued at over £1,000 million per annum will be placed in jeopardy? Is the hon. Gentleman aware of that, and will British interests be properly protected by the two debates on the same day?

I am aware of the implications in the hon. Gentleman's question. I hope that the House is about to have ample opportunity to debate those implications in fuller detail. The Government will be listening to what is said today from both sides of the House. As for meetings of different Councils on the same day, that frequently happens, and it is not my experience that it inhibits the effectiveness of the discussion.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the European Parliament's demand that the Regional Development Fund be increased from 600 million to 1,000 million units of account has been confirmed by the Council of Ministers? Is not that in direct contravention of its treaty powers? Do the Government intend to oppose the Parliament at the next meeting of the Heads of State?

Before that and other aspects of the budget come into effect, the Finance Council will have to give its consent to the new maximum rates for the budget as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has made it clear in the House that he does not believe that the last word has yet been spoken on that subject.

Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that when the Council of Foreign Ministers meets on 18th December the results of the elections held in Namibia will be discussed? At that meeting, will consideration be given to what the European Community can do as a whole to help towards a solution of the problems that will arise for the European Community if we do not have peace and stability in that area?

The hon. Gentleman has great knowledge of European affairs and I would have expected him to recognise that the Council of Ministers is not where such issues are discussed. These issues are discussed in the context of political co-operation of the Nine, where there has been a great deal of effective deliberation about policies towards Southern Africa and our mutual interests that are at stake. I am sure that we shall watch extremely carefully what happens in the elections, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we do not recognise as valid.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Order. If hon. Members ask brief questions, I shall be able to call all those who have been rising to ask questions.

Why is it that we are compelled to buy agricultural products from the Common Market when they can be obtained cheaper on the world market, yet there are large stocks of coal in Britain and coal is being imported into the Common Market from outside? That coal is being dumped. In fact, it has been heavily subsidised by other countries in the Market.

My hon. Friend is emphasising the point made in a previous question. I repeat that we are concerned that more progress has not been made on Community policy in connection with coal. We shall continue to press for progress to be made. As for the common agricultural policy, we want to cut out wasteful and costly surpluses. We also want to try to achieve better import opportunities to the Community for reasonably priced foodstuffs from outside the Community.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the chemical industry in the United Kingdom has failed to deal with that part of the industry which produces heavy chemicals, such as sulphuric acid? Will he assure the House that when the Ministers meet to discuss environmental problems they will do something to assist the British people to overcome the problems that exist in Sutton, St. Helens, as a result of the Leathers chemical industry emitting large quantities of toxic acid into the air?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It always seems that there is pressure from two directions. There is pressure from some people for a reduction of Community competence, while others exert pressure in favour of extending that competence. As to the discussions on environment, it is envisaged that what will happen in December will be essentially a Second Reading debate about European policies towards the environment as a whole. If my hon. Friend cares to make sure that we are fully briefed on the specific point that he has in mind, I shall see whether my right hon. Friend can cover it.

Will the Minister confirm that the proposal concerning the 1,000 million units of account that were asked for by the European Parliament for the Regional Development Fund, which proposal Ministers failed to defeat, now stands as he put it? Will he also confirm that this figure is, in real terms, substantially less than was proposed for the fund three years ago, and that such transferences are absolutely essential if the regions are to take their proper place in the Community?

I know the strength of the hon. Lady's feelings on this subject. She has made them clear to me in this House and elsewhere before. I assure her that we note the strength of her argument. I ask her to bear in mind what I said earlier, namely, that there are bigger issues at stake here, affecting the whole relationship between the Council and the Assembly.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is no money in the Labour Party to finance these Common Market elections? Does he agree that it is wrong in principle to ask taxpayers to finance these elections for this expensive Assembly for expensive people? Would not the sensible thing be for a Minister to go across there and get the elections adjourned, if not cancelled?

I know my hon. Friend's strong views on the European Assembly, but those elections are to take place, and if that is the case I am sure that what everyone in the House wants to see is that they take place in the best possible democratic spirit.

Can my hon. Friend tell me whether, during the series of meetings that are to take place, there will be a discussion on EEC directive 77/62/EEC on the advertising of public service contracts over £130,000? Is he aware that other EEC countries are not giving us the same opportunity in this connection? Does he realise that this can have a terrible effect upon hard-pressed industries such as the textile industry?

I am glad to be able to assure my hon. Friend that the last time I was in Brussels I took up this point specifically with Commissioner Davignon and made clear to him the strength of feeling in this country about what is happening.

Is my hon. Friend aware that his view that a fisheries meeting will be arranged if necessary is the understatement of the year? Does he not appreciate that the fishing problem is extremely urgent and that we must take every opportunity to try to inject a sense of realism into our Common Market partners so that they understand the strength of the British case on fishing?

We stand firm on the principles, which have frequently been put to the House, of conservation, access and quotas. We also realise that if we do not get an effective common fisheries policy, stocks might be irreparably damaged. There is, therefore, urgency. If we want to make progress which will take account of our needs, it is important that the constructive, preparatory work is done so that the formal meeting is not destined to failure.

Can my hon. Friend say why the Council of Ministers should not discuss the illegal occupation of Namibia by South Africa? Can he also say whether there will be any discussion of the behaviour of European companies, such as Ever Ready and ICL, within South Africa in terms of the EEC code of conduct?

This is a matter of the constitution of the Community. The Council of Ministers, as such, does not discuss wider political issues of this sort. They are discussed in political co-operation of the Nine on separate occasions. As I have said, the subject of Southern Africa, not least Namibia, has been extremely high on the agenda at all times and will continue to be until the issues are resolved.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the House, and everyone else, is often in difficulty when we discuss EEC matters, because we refer to somewhat obscure reference numbers? Does he agree that that sometimes goes for Ministers, too? Is he aware that when my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) asked about document R/2790 the subject matter was not the Regional Fund but EMS? Will that be discussed on 18th December?

I am certainly used to obscure points from my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I am sorry if I did not hear correctly the reference number that he quoted. On the subject of EMS, obviously the Council will be taking any necessary steps to follow up what the European Council has decided at its meeting earlier in the month.