Skip to main content

British Presidency

Volume 15: debated on Wednesday 16 December 1981

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


asked the Lord Privy Seal what progress has been made in resolving differences within the European Community during the British Presidency.

The main preoccupation of our Presidency has been the 30 May mandate, on which we have made a determined effort to resolve differences. In this context, as requested by the European Council, an informal meeting of Community Foreign Ministers, under the chairmanship of my noble Friend, was held at Lancaster House on Monday and Tuesday of this week. The purpose of the meeting was to consider the four outstanding issues on the 30 May mandate—milk policy, Mediterranean agriculture, a financial guideline for CAP expenditure and the problem of unacceptable budgetary situations. The Foreign Ministers had a useful discussion, though they were not able to reach final agreement. They decided that the next step was to invite the President of the Commission to make revised proposals for guidelines on the four points in the light of their discussion. They agreed to hold a further special meeting to consider these proposals as early as possible in January and, at any rate, before 18 January. It will now be for the Belgian Presidency to carry forward the work on the mandate. We for our part will give the fullest possible support to its efforts to reach an early solution.

During our Presidency we have taken forward discussions on many other difficult matters, not without success, for example in developing political co-operation, and the negotiations on enlargement.

Has the Government's experience of the Presidency resulted in their developing any sort of attitude towards the brevity of the six-month period, or a consideration of, for example, the idea of having an overlapping Presidency covering a period of 18 months and therefore being better able to sustain initiatives? The right hon. Gentleman said that enlargement had been carried forward. Can he say in what way that has been done, because it seems to me that there has not been any notable progress in connection with Spain's accession?

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the six-month period. It is short, particularly if, during any country's six-months Presidency, there are first the summer holidays and then Christmas. That cuts down the period much further. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a case for considering whether the period should be extended. However, it has not been and we give up our Presidency, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on 31 December.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about enlargement, because during the period of our Presidency many more dossiers were delivered to the Spanish and Portuguese, their replies obtained and the matter is being carried forward. I fully understand the impatience of Spain and Portugal to move these matters forward more quickly. We have sought to push them forward as fast as we can. They recognise that during our Presidency we have made as much progress as could be expected.

While recognising the Government's efforts during their Presidency, may I ask my right hon. Friend to say why we always appear to come off worst in the differences that occur between ourselves and other European countries? I particularly refer to the renegotiation of the multi-fibre arrangement, in which one of the basic issues in the mandate is the level of quotas for the next MFA, which will be established on a base level of 1982. That will undoubtedly lead to substantial additional unemployment, with the loss of a further 30,000 jobs in Britain. Will my right hon. Friend consider the real interests of Britain, which are often different from those of European mainland countries?

My hon. Friend pays great attention to these matters and he knows better than to say that. He knows that the Geneva negotiations about the MFA are being conducted on a mandate about which Britain had a considerable say. He also knows that we have produced, devised and had accepted by our European partners a mechanism to ensure that the sort of difficulties that he foresees—his figure of an extra 30,000 unemployed next year is nonsense—will not come about. This is because we have insisted in the mandate that the Commission has from the Community that a mechanism be devised and incorporated in any new arrangements to ensure that any low-cost imports cannot increase at a rate that would damage our industry to the extent suggested by my hon. Friend.

Apart from "a useful discussion", was any progress made in London this week on the reform of the CAP or the EEC budget?

Yes, Sir. Four matters were discussed in London this week. There was general understanding on two of them about the way in which we should move forward. On the other two, there was definite progress towards what we want. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, these negotiations are not easy. Everyone has to take account of every one else's interests. Each time these discussions take place we move closer to a solution, but we have not reached that solution yet. It would have been agreeable to us, for the sake of our Presidency, to have settled these matters before the end of the year. Indeed, that would have discharged the mandate given to the Foreign Ministers by the European Council earlier this year. However, we have not done so. Nevertheless, we have moved another stage nearer to the kind of conclusions that we want, and I hope that we shall get there before long.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it emerges clearly from his reply that by far the best hope of securing progress and resolving contentious issues within the EEC lies in allowing the Commission to assume the role that it was originally assigned in the Treaty, that is, as the initiator of a constructive compromise that is likely to be far more effective than that reached by horse trading between individual Governments?

Yes, Sir. That is what has happened. The Commission has been invited to go away and re-write the proposals for solving these problems. It has listened to the discussions, and it has been consulted by all parties. In my view, the Commission will be in a position to produce proposals which will bring us a stage nearer to the agreement that we all seek.


asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will list the principal achievements of the British Presidency of the European Economic Community to date.

Good progress has been made in a wide variety of areas. I propose shortly to place in the Library of the House a list of the issues on which decisions have been reached or significant progress achieved during the United Kingdom Presidency.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that one important achievement has been the way in which the British Presidency has sought to maintain a constructive and continuous dialogue between the Council and the European Parliament on budgetary matters? Does he accept that that is very important, bearing in mind that they are the joint budgetary authority of the Community?

Yes, Sir. This has been a useful step forward, and it is one that we initiated during our Presidency. It seeks to keep the Council of Ministers in closer contact with the European Parliament. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is now in Strasbourg addressing the European Parliament.

Will the Lord Privy Seal confirm that the list of the Government's achievements during their Presidency will be contained on the back of a very small postage stamp? Is he not genuinely concerned—if not, he should be—that no progress has been made on reforming budgetary arrangements, the common agricultural policy or the fisheries policy or dealing with non-life assurance, or the reduction in European air fares? Is he not further concerned that the major political initiative on the Middle East, which many of us on both sides of the House welcomed, has stalled, and its requiem read in Israel by the French Foreign Minister the other day?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong, and not for the first time. I have the draft of the document that I propose to lay in the Library of the House at the end of our presidency. It is already 15 pages of single-space typing, and it covers the whole range of our activities and those of our European colleagues. I do not know what size postage stamps the right hon. Gentleman uses, or whether he does not pay attention to what happens in the Council of Ministers, but this document will cover agriculture, fisheries, energy, environment, trade, aid, and many other matters. I invite him to read it as a new year resolution.

I am prepared to have a look at it, but is it not true that the document to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is a superb example of the work of the circumlocution office in the Foreign Office?

During our Presidency, obviously one of the objectives has been to move towards a resolution of the budget problem and a resolution of the problems of the CAP. My right hon. Friend said recently that we were moving towards what we want. Could he tell the British people, loudly and clearly, precisely what we do want?

I shall do so in two sentences. On the common agricultural policy, we want to ensure that expenditure on the CAP grows at a slower rate than the Community's resources—in other words, that there is a transfer of the weight of expenditure from agriculture to the social and regional policies and other funds of that nature. On the budget, our intention is that no country should be put in the unacceptable situation in which we found ourselves in 1980—in which the Germans now find themselves—and that the budgetary contributions of any country should bear some relation to its ability to pay.