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European Community(Ministerial Meetings)

Volume 959: debated on Monday 4 December 1978

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10.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects next to meet his ministerial colleagues in the EEC.

17.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he intends next to meet other EEC Energy Ministers.

20.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects next to meet other EEC Energy Ministers; and if he will make a statement

I expect to meet other EEC Energy Ministers at the next meeting of the Energy Council, which is provisionally arranged for 21st December. I am also arranging a series of meetings with three Commissioners who have expressed an interest in the development of various aspects of British energy policy.

When the Secretary of State goes to the Council, and assuming that a suitable opportunity arises, will he confirm to his colleagues that he recognises that concerted moves at a European level are now a necessary part of seeking a limitation on oil imports from outside the area of the Community by, say, the mid-1980s? Is he satisfied that enough is being done in this regard?

I strongly favour co-operation with our European colleagues, but the only meaning I can read into what the hon. Gentleman says is that we should deplete our own North Sea oil resources at a rate designed to replace imported oil. That is not the view of Her Majesty's Government. It does not make sense to suppose that, if one transfers power from any member State to the Commission, that is of itself any advantage in the development of sensible Community policies.

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity at that meeting or others to make it abundantly clear that the British Government will continue to oppose any interference by the Common Market in our policies on oil, gas or coal? Will he also make it clear that this should be interpreted by those in Brussels not as Ministers displaying any anti-Market sentiments but as defending proper British interests?

I made a speech at the last Energy Council, and I received a consent to release the statement I made. I made that statement available on Friday and it is in the Library. I set out in that statement my attitude on these matters. I do not regard it as being hostile to the development of energy policy in the Community that member States should be able to develop their own policies and safeguard their own interests. I have never complained once in the past three and a half years at the energy policy pursued by any other member States. I would not expect them to complain about us.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has been suggested in many circles that Ministers who take a strong anti-Common Market line on the Continent are sometimes being outflanked by the Prime Minister in top-level negotiations? Will my right hon. Friend watch out for any sinister developments of that kind in his own Department?

I cannot comment on that proposition, but I noticed that The Guardian this morning started to reshuffle Ministers, on similar lines to its reshuffles of the letters in the words that it prints.

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to discuss with his European counterparts the implications of the decision of the European Court on 14th November, which appears to show that the Community owns our fissile materials and is responsible for the movement of those materials and for the defence of the atomic energy establishments in this country?

Our Law Officers are carefully examining that judgment—and I advise hon. Members who are interested in European matters to read it—which appeared to imply that the Commission had the power through Euratom to look after the fiscal safeguards of our sites and to control the ownership and movement of fissile or special material. I took the opportunity on Friday of having a talk with Commissioner Brunner on another aspect of the matter—namely, the interpretation of chapter 6 of the Euratom treaty. I think that these are substantial matters on which the House would not want me to give an answer until I have had a chance of examining them more fully.

Will the Secretary of State have words with the Nigerian Minister or Commissioner for Oil and Energy before he goes to the EEC in order to see whether the Commonwealth supply of oil from Nigeria—production of which is well down on previous years—could be used by certain of our Commonwealth partners in order to help them in their oil requirements and save them from having to look towards British oil to meet their needs?

I shall look at that point. However, the argument is not about the sale of oil from the North Sea. Most of the exports go to EEC countries. The only question is the control of oil policy. That is the key question, and on all the other matters about co-operation in the moment of crisis and so on we are working very well. However, I believe that each member State inevitably will require —as the Germans, the French and ourselves are doing—to retain control over its energy policy. That has nothing whatever to do with the reluctance to sell oil or other materials.

Is it not a fact that the Secretary of State's tactics at recent meetings have done nothing to advance the agenda which has been before the Council of Ministers on each occasion? Has this not meant, in effect, that the Secretary of State has delayed British coal export markets because of his attitudes and tactics? Is it not a fact, for examples, that both Denmark and Belgium import coal from outside member countries? Why does not the Secretary of State do something about helping the market for British coal in those countries?

The hon. Member is wrong in supposing that the argument about a coalburn scheme has anything whatever to do with the tactics of Ministers. Many countries in the EEC have access to cheap Polish coal, and we cannot persuade them to spend more on buying Community coal in pursuit of Community interests. This has nothing whatever to do with the tactics of Ministers or with the attitude to refineries. The losses of the French refineries are attributable to the fact that the French Government insist that oil reaching France comes in French ships. We have stood firm on refineries and we are trying to get a coalburn scheme agreed.

I have had discussions with Count von Lambsdorff recently and with the British and German coal chiefs, who came to my office. We are pressing this matter as hard as we can. The Under-Secretary has been raising it for 18 months, but so far we have been unable to get other countries to agree to the scheme.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us his policy in the Energy Council towards the specific Commission proposals for subsidising infra-Community trading in power station coal?

I have strongly supported the development of a coal policy and the coalburn in the EEC. However, there are certain schemes for coalburn in the Community which would impose a net cost upon us because they would be primarily directed at the coking coal side, where German subsidies are at £2,788 million a year. These are complex matters to deal with in question and answer. I would welcome a chance for a debate on EEC energy policy as soon as it could be arranged in the House.

How can the Secretary of State say that this is not a question of tactics by Ministers when he has already admitted that it would have been far better if the coalburn scheme had been brought up before the question of refineries arose? Was it not a failure on the part of Ministers and the British Government in not getting this scheme agreed a long time ago? It would have brought enormous benefits to the coal industry of this country in view of the very heavy stocks that we have at present. Is it not a final condemnation of the Secretary of State that with the very strength that we have in energy, which should enable us to take advantage of the situation in Europe, he has totally failed to bring back any benefits for this country?

The hon. Member is totally wrong. Our position in the EEC is that we are overwhelmingly the biggest contributor in energy terms, and this makes us the foundation of a successful EEC energy policy. We raised the question of the coalburn scheme earlier. I then agreed to the Euratom loan scheme in order to show our readiness to agree, but in response the coalburn scheme was not agreed. It must be an acceptable scheme which benefits this country as a major coal producer. I beg the hon. Member not to pick up every tittle tattle of criticism in Brussels and amplify it in such a way as to seek—as he consistently does —to undermine the interests of this country in the EEC and elsewhere.