European Council (Rome Meeting)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th December 1975.

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The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

Photo of Mr John Tomlinson Mr John Tomlinson , Meriden

Q7. Mr. Tomlinson: To ask the Prime Minister when he next plans to meet EEC Heads of Government.

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

Q9. MR. MARTEN: To ask the Prime Minister when he next proposes to meet the Heads of Government of the Common Market countries.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

The Prime Minister, to answer Questions Nos. Q7 and Q9.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and I met our European Community colleagues at the European Council in Rome on 1st and 2nd December.

We reviewed first the world economic situation, in the light of the summit meeting at Rambouillet on 15th and 16th November. I found my colleagues in broad agreement with the conclusions reached at that meeting, on which I have reported to the House. The European Council also dealt with a number of items of Community business and made satisfactory progress with the arrangements for the Conference on International Economic Co-operation—CIEC. Copies of the working documents agreed at the meeting have been placed in the Library of the House.

There was general agreement with our proposals on financial control in the Community, on which I drew from our experience in the House of the working of our own Public Accounts Committee and the Accounting Officer system, proposals which I had put forward and which will be published shortly as a White Paper. I believe that this represents an important step towards ensuring effective control over voted expenditure in the Community.

The European Council agreed that direct elections to the European Parliament shall take place in May or June 1978, but that any country which at that date is unable to hold direct elections shall be allowed to appoint its representatives, as is done at present. I made it clear that we accept in principle the commitment to direct elections in the Treaty of Rome. This issue was decided by the referendum; Article 138(3) of the Treaty of Rome is mandatory. But I added that we required a further period for consultations with political parties in this House and for consideration of the matter by Parliament before we could adopt a final position about holding direct elections ourselves as early as 1978. The Council will now continue its examination of the matters to be decided at the Community level, such as the number of seats and distribution between countries, and will prepare a draft convention for submission to the next European Council in March.

The European Council agreed on the introduction of a uniform passport which may be issued as from 1978. As far as passport union is concerned, I made it clear that, for our part, the timing would depend on progress with revision of our own nationality legislation, and I could give no assurances about the timing of that legislation. The European Council also adopted a British proposal that Community Ministers responsible for law and order should meet to discuss matters coming within their competence.

Finally, the European Council discussed at great length the arrangements for the CIEC. and a compromise agreement was reached which fully safeguards Britain's interests.

On substance, agreement was reached for the first time in the Community on two important elements which have already been agreed by eight member States in the International Energy Agency, including the United Kingdom—namely, emergency oil sharing and the principle of a minimum safeguard price mechanism. The latter point is particularly important. In the words agreed in Rome, the Council will decide as soon as possible appropriate mechanisms to protect existing supplies and ensure the development of alternative sources of Community energy, on reasonable economic terms, and to encourage conservation in the use of energy. In October we made clear in Europe—I did myself directly to the Federal German Chancellor—that we were concerned to get a viable agreed Community position on energy before the conference. We made it clear that it seemed to us reasonable that the nine member States should be represented through the Community where there was a common policy, but that there was every reason why the United Kingdom should be present in its own right, as one of the eight industrialised country representatives at a conference of such far-reaching importance, so that we could put forward our own views where these were not covered by a Community mandate. In November my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs made this clear to the House. What was important, as he stressed and as I have stressed, was that we should have a much more far-reaching, agreed mandate for the Community as a whole.

I believe that the agreement which my right hon. Friend and I were able to secure after lengthy discussion in Rome—very lengthy—namely, that the United Kingdom should have a separate voice both at the Ministerial Conference and in the four commissions which will subsequently be meeting at official level, achieved our purpose. [An HON. MEMBER: "Tell us another."] The Community will be represented by a single delegation, and the spokesman will be the Presidency of the Council with the Commission. But during the Ministerial Conference the United Kingdom and Luxembourg—[Laughter.] I am interested in the levity with which the Opposition treat a fellow member of the Community. During the Ministerial Conference the United Kingdom and Luxembourg, the latter in her capacity as the next President of the Council

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

—will, in the words agreed in Rome be invited to present additional statements throughout the meeting, and in the four commissions representatives of member States who will form part of the Community delegation will also be able to comment on specific questions. Both at the Ministerial Conference and in the commissions our statements will be consistent with whatever Community position or mandate has been agreed by us. But in our interventions, both by my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary at the Ministerial Conference and by our officials in the commissions, we shall be able to draw attention to particular problems and be able to make a United Kingdom contribution which reflects our own very different situation and experience.

Therefore, we secured our objective, the economic mandate, including minimum selling price. [Laughter.] I am surprised at the rather anti-national view taken by the Opposition. We pressed to secure a mandate, including MSP and emergency sharing. We have that mandate. We also have the right to speak there, which we did not have before. British interests in the field of energy are safeguarded, and general agreement was expressed by my colleagues at the end of the debate that the resolution of so difficult a problem had enhanced, not endangered, the cohesion of the Community.

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

May I thank the Prime Minister for that brief answer? Will he confirm that the decisions and compromises reached at this so-called European Council meeting are not binding upon the British Parliament? Second, now that the Government—as a result of this conference—have clearly illustrated that they have a policy of appeasement, will the Prime Minister suggest that the next meeting should take place at Munich?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

That question was not up to the hon. Gentleman's usual high standard. I have always had a high regard for him. At the conference in Paris, called by the French Government and not by the Community, we obviously reserved our right and that of the British Parliament on any decisions which might come out of that conference. We were concerned that we should have the right to put British interests on energy. There is no EEC mandate on this and no EEC responsibility under the Treaty. We are in a different position from the other eight members of the Community by virtue of our position as an oil producer. I believe that we have asserted British rights at the Rome conference, including the right to express our separate position. Nothing will be done which in any way inhibits our right to continue as an oil producer under whatever rules are decided by this House.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Wandsworth Battersea North

Does my right hon. Friend feel that events in Rome have justified the many promises we have had that essential British interests would always be maintained in the EEC?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Yes. An essential British interest is our rights in respect of North Sea oil. My colleagues in Rome were in no doubt—we certainly left them in no doubt—about the volume and scale of Britain's position as an oil producer which by 1980 will far transcend that of many of the most important existing oil-producing countries, for example in the Gulf and elsewhere. We wanted to be sure that there was a mandate on oil agreed by the Community. Up to now eight countries of the Community, including Britain but not France, as members of the IEA have worked out policies that we regard as internationaly essential. The French have never accepted them. The success at Rome is that we now have a Community position in respect of the IEA.

Photo of Mrs Margaret Thatcher Mrs Margaret Thatcher Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in spite of his considerable verbal skill, what he has succeeded in doing is to subject Britain to a series of humiliations

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley

This is what you voted for.

Photo of Mrs Margaret Thatcher Mrs Margaret Thatcher Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

—and to antagonise many friends upon whom we rely to help us out of our economic difficulties? Could he not have achieved the same results, about which he now boasts, by co-operating with our friends in the manner foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech when, he will remember, he promised that this country would play its full part in the EEC, devoting particular attention to the achievement of a common approach to the world's political and economic problems"?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Yes, and that is what we achieved at Rome. [Interruption.] If I understand the right hon. Lady, what she is saying is that she would not have had Britain asserting the right to speak at this conference. If I am wrong, she will get up and tell me.

Photo of Mrs Margaret Thatcher Mrs Margaret Thatcher Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The right hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding me. He could have achieved this through co-operation instead of antagonistic tactics.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The right hon. Lady is totally deluding herself. We insisted that it was right for Britain to be able to express her position as an oil producer, also on other commodities on which we have taken an initiative. This is what was agreed. If we had gone tamely along as the right hon. Lady suggests—we saw the Conservatives' record in negotiations—we would not have got what we have.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Yes, we were speaking for Britain. We have been criticised by the Conservatives because we spoke for Britain. There was no sign, no hope, of getting in advance of the Paris conference any agreement on either MSP or energy sharing. [Interruption.] I notice the levity with which Conservative Members treat this. If I had accepted the right hon. Lady's advice, we would not have achieved this.

As for the final part of the right hon. Lady's question, she may be reassured by what I am about to say. At the end of the discussion a number of my colleagues, including the President of France—after an 11-hour meeting, 9½ hours of which were spent on this issue—said that as a result of the Council's discussion on this subject we had, as a Community, come out stronger, not weaker. [Laughter.] All right. Laugh at the President of France. Tory Members will not have many friends left.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates , Petersfield

Read the French papers.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

This is where the right hon. Lady is wrong. She would not have held out; she would have surrendered. It might amuse the right hon. Lady if I read an extract from Le Monde of 4th December. I have it here in French, but for greater accuracy it has been translated. I will read it for the good of the House. It says: In any case thanks to Mr. Wilson's excesses—

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

—European energy policy has made in a few hours more progress than it has since the birth of the Community. Therefore, I say to the right hon. Lady that the Conservative Party is no good at standing up for Britain and it does not even represent Europe.

Photo of Mr Evan Luard Mr Evan Luard , Oxford

Can my right hon. Friend confirm, as has been stated in the Press, that if the conference decided to set up a commission specifically concerned with energy questions the chairmanship may be held by a British official?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

This is a matter for the conference to decide. The question of the chairmanship has not been discussed and was not discussed at Rome.

Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel , Roxburgh Selkirk and Peebles

Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that not all of us accept that lengthy discussions have intrinsic merit unless they are on a point worth discussing? Does he accept that during the whole period of the renegotiation and the referendum we used up a lot of good will and credit among our European friends, who are now totally dismayed, first by the Foreign Secretary's posturing on the energy conference and then by the dragging of our feet on the timetable for direct elections? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that our Community friends now take the view that if Gaullism is dead in France it is alive and well in this country?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I suppose that the hon. Member has been reading the Press on this. There were reports on Tuesday morning of a most dramatic kind occupying several column inches about a row we had on this subject on Monday. It had never even been mentioned when those newspapers went to press. The hon. Gentleman must not be so easily misled. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that short discussions are better than long ones. One way of having a short discussion is to give in. This we refused to do. [Interruption.] We had to go through all the agonies, including the referendum, because the Conservative Party gave in on every point in the Common Market negotiations.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that he is having to explain himself out of this difficult mess because he refused to accept the advice of the Labour Party at the time of the referendum and followed the advice of the majority of those on the Opposition Benches? Does he not understand that the only people who can be critical on this issue today are those of my hon. Friends who tried to steer him away from this disastrous course at the time of the referendum? Does he not appreciate that these disasters will occur over and over again until the British people wake up and stop the rot?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

My hon. Friend is displaying less than his usual fairness and objectivity in these matters. The Government carried out what was contained in our manifesto by entering into renegotiation and introducing legislation for a referendum. The referendum was utterly decisive. If there are some who refuse to accept that decision, they are those who do not accept the result of a British national referendum.

Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East

Does not the Prime Minister accept that the better course in these circumstances would have been for him to have honestly admitted a change in policy and a defeat? His attempt to camouflage this abject surrender does nothing to heighten any outsider's estimate of the intelligence of this House. Does he not accept that it is illogical not to press for separate representation at the conference in view of the separate energy situation between the United Kingdom and other EEC countries, particularly when there is at present no accepted energy policy covering the European Community?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I made it clear in my recent consultations with the German Federal Chancellor that we were not prepared to leave to purely Community representation the representation of British interests if there was no mandate, if there was no Community energy policy. We now have such a policy. We now have a policy which has been worked out by eight of the nine countries, with others, at the IEA.

It is important that we should have that policy. I hope that the whole House will welcome the fact that we have it. We have it because of the stand taken by my right hon. Friend and me at the meeting at Rome. There would not have been any hope of having these matters adopted by the Community but for the stand we took. It is important that we should have not only a voice to disagree with the agreed mandate, which is still to be finalised although we have now given the guidelines to it, but a voice with which we can put forward the special interests of the United Kingdom. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is as weak as the Conservatives in the defence of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Glasgow Cathcart

Is not the Prime Minister deluding himself by interpreting this Grand Old Duke of York approach to the energy conference as something other than the most shameful humiliation for himself and for the United Kingdom? Will he say something about the so-called agreed policy? What about the minimum price? Are the reports of a minimum price of $7 a barrel in any way accurate? If so, how can the right hon. Gentleman say that that is in any way consistent with the interests of Great Britain?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The hon. Gentleman's opening words are totally wrong. We secured—as I say, it was not easy—not only the right of British representation, which perhaps he opposes—I do not know [Interruption.] It is clear that the Conservatives oppose it. However, we have got it. If they do not like it, they should say that they object to Britain being at the conference.

As regards the mandate, I have quoted what has been said in Europe on the matter. For the first time it seems that the IEA point has been recognised.

As regards the minimum safeguard price, selling price or floor price, whatever it is to be called, we did not attempt to reach any agreement on what the price should be. This is a matter for the IEA. We had the problem that the French are not members of the IEA, but they have gone along with the IEA policy in the way I have described. It will be a matter for the IEA to work these things out. It is true that figures of $7·50 and $7 were mentioned. However, those figures were not discussed and we did not propose any figures. Those figures were mentioned illustratively by individual delegates, but it was not the task of the Rome Conference to decide unilaterally on behalf of the Nine what the selling price should be.

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

As one who has not always seen eye to eye with the Prime Minister. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Secretary most warmly on having fought so toughly for British interests and, in the interests of European co-operation within the EEC, on having come to such a sensible and pragmatic compromise at the end of the day?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The whole House knows of my hon. Friend's commitment to Europe. He has made it plain on many occasions. In the past it has sometimes been a little more unconditional than that of many other Members in different parts of the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for correctly perceiving what some Opposition Members, blinded by prejudice, have been incapable of perceiving—namely, that this has been a valuable step forward not only for British interests but for European cohesion.

Photo of Mr Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Brighton, Pavilion

With all respect to the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, I congratulate the Government of finding a Luxembourgeois or petit bourgeois solution to save the face of the Foreign Secretary and to get him out of an intolerable and impossible position. However, I ask a more serious question. The Foreign Secretary made it clear what he thought of the importance of Britain's position as a financial centre because of the City. He said that that was just as crucial as our oil interest. However, we have not heard very much about that in the Prime Minister's statement. Perhaps he will enlighten us as to how this interest is to be directed.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I resent the right hon. Gentleman's Hohenzollerian contempt for small nations. All nine members of the Community are members of the Community on equal terms. They each have the right to succeed to the Presidency, and Luxembourg will be the next nation to succeed to it. I was not particularly concerned which other country should have the right to speak. I was concerned that Britain should have the right to speak.

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman, in common with his party, treats this matter with such levity. I always thought that hon. Members who sit below the Gangway on his side of the House were more serious than those sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, but the right hon. Gentleman has disproved that.

The reason why we did not have to come to any decision on the financial question is that the Community has so far not attempted to reach mutual agreement on a mandate on financial matters. There is a Finance Commision which will be of great importance to us, as will be the raw materials one. Here again, we have vast expertise in raw materials as a nation, including those who practise these matters in their day-to-day business. We have agreed that we shall work out a financial mandate progressively. As soon as we see how the conference goes, we shall be assiduous in the matter. The right hon. Gentleman need have no anxiety on that score.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most of my hon. Friends agree that this is not a laughing matter? Is he also aware that 180 of my hon. Friends signed a motion congratulating the Foreign Secretary on his firm stand in getting Britain a seat at the oil conference? Is he aware that there is bitter disappointment among my hon. Friends because of what has happened?

May I make a point about my right hon. Friend's comment yesterday about going for the moon and landing on Snow-don? I should have thought that anyone going for the moon and landing on Snow-don would think that that was pretty disastrous. Perhaps it would not have been so bad to land on Everest, but we did not even get on to the lower slopes of Everest. Is my right hon. Friend aware that we feel great resentment about this? Would it not have been better never to have gone for a seat at the conference rather than to end up in the way that we have?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

In my submission, my hon. Friend is entirely wrong. On aiming for the moon and landing on Snowdon, my hon. Friend has more experience than I have in these matters. But he is totally wrong in his conclusion. We pressed for a seat if there seemed no other way of expressing our interests and no Community mandate. However, we can be sure of this: having got the mandate revised in the way that we wanted, which would not have been possible if we had not taken the stand that we did, and having got the right to speak, I think that our interests are fully protected. When my hon. Friend has had time to study these matters, I am sure that he will agree.

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

Is the Prime Minister aware that the most serious aspect of this is that he may believe what he has been saying about having a Roman triumph? When he thinks about it, he will realise that he has made a fool of himself and, unfortunately, of the country as well.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinions. However, in all these questions I have not been asked whether we were right to demand the right to speak where our interests went beyond those of the Common Market. The Leader of the Opposition did not address herself to that and nor has any other Opposition Member. If the answer is "Yes", we were right to act as we did. Is the Conservative Party so regretful that we have now got what could not have happened perhaps for many years—that we have now got into a European energy mandate the minimum selling price—[An Hon. Member: "Then what is it?"]—I meant the principle of the minimum selling price—and emergency energy sharing, which until then was supported by eight Community countries but not by France? Are the Opposition resentful that where the Community was divided on this matter all Nine are now committed the same way? If they are not interested in standing up for British interests, I understand. But if those are not their positions, they should support and welcome what we have achieved.

Photo of Mr James Wellbeloved Mr James Wellbeloved , Bexley Erith and Crayford

However my right hon. Friend presents the outcome of the oil question, it is clear that the achievement falls far short of the ambition. Is he aware that Fleet Street cartoonists will mourn the passing of the British de Gaulle but welcome back the Grand Old Duke?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

This is the third time in less than 24 hours that we have had the Grand Old Duke joke, which I remember originated in 1958 in this House about a flight over Cyprus.

When my hon. Friend has had time to reflect, I hope that he will address himself to these questions: were we right to press for the right to speak and to change the mandate, and have we got all that? We have got it by the tactics that we pursued. I do not know whether my hon. Friend regrets that we got it or regrets that we tried to get it.

Several hon. Members:

Several hon. Members rose

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. Business Question.

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Prime Minister's replies, I beg leave to give notice that I shall seek an early opportunity to raise the matter on the Adjournment.