North Atlantic Free Trade Area

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th July 1968.

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Photo of Hon. Richard Wood Hon. Richard Wood , Bridlington 12:00 am, 26th July 1968

I apologise for getting in the way of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who would no doubt dearly like to continue the debate. I welcome the opportunity of discussing such an important matter and have listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser) said about dead and embryo ducks, but I still believe that a large majority of hon. Members are convinced that our future lies in some form of close association with Europe. I none the less share the view of the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) that there are no prizes to be gained through a policy of static inaction.

We all agree that we must move forward. It is important that the opportunities open to us should be examined carefully, however strong our convictions, which I share, that any course to which we give serious consideration should be compatible with eventual membership of an enlarged Community, perhaps bridging the Atlantic Ocean as well as the narrow strip of the English Channel.

What we cannot do is to take action or initiate examination—and I agree with the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) about this—which might turn us away from a future in Europe, for not only in E.F.T.A., which many supporters would conclude should be included in such a grouping, but also in the Community, we have many good friends, passionately anxious that Britain should play an important part in Europe. Most of us cannot contemplate the idea of abandoning them. As the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Boston) said, a considerable number of valuable studies are taking place many of which are inevitably based on assumptions which may be correct but which may be proved wrong.

The main subject of the debate is a concept of this kind, and it is clear that our study of it must be based on assumptions, because it is a concept and not a fact. This underlines the folly of nailing our colours firmly to the ghostly mast of the Atlantic Free Trade Area or, on the other extreme, of assuming that the concept can never become a reality.

I understand that a number of hon. Members see the Atlantic Free Trade Area as an alternative to the E.E.C. Clearly it cannot be such an alternative unless it first becomes a practical possibility. If that happens it may well begin to appear to a great many of us as a step beyond the E.E.C, rather than as an alternative to it. All of us, whatever our views of existing arrangements in Europe or possible groupings across the Atlantic, are wholeheartedly in favour of any steps to liberalise trade both within Europe and with North America and beyond. The essential first step is the successful implementation of the Kennedy Round of tariff reductions.

Other objectives will naturally follow. They may be difficult to realise but they are clear. First, the complete elimination of all tariffs between the Kennedy Round countries and, ultimately, the removal of all non-tariff barriers to free trade. If we and other nations were seriously committed to objectives of this kind, it could be fairly claimed that we were already in spirit, and desired to be in practice, associated in an Atlantic free trade area.

My contention is that while these manifold studies of the Atlantic free trade area make progress and should be encouraged to make further progress, studies upon which we shall eventually be required to pass a political judgment, we can simultaneously determine to give our support to all sensible steps towards lowering trade barriers, in the conviction that it is in this organic way that the concept of a free trade area is likely to grow into reality.

If this were to happen, it might still be possible for us one day to look back on the rejection of Britain by Europe in the last decade as a blessing in disguise because it would, conceivably, eventually have made possible an economic grouping more extensive than Europe, including Europe but with other nations beyond, and even more important than the existing Community.