European Community

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 26th May 1982.

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Photo of Mr Francis Pym Mr Francis Pym , Cambridgeshire 4:23 pm, 26th May 1982

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the decision of the United Kingdom's Community partners to extend indefinitely economic measures against Argentina; regrets the way in which the Community's customary procedures were set aside at the Agriculture Council on 18th May; and supports the Government in its efforts to establish clear procedures for the conduct of Community business and to secure continuing equitable arrangements for the United Kingdom's budget contribution. This is the first occasion on which, as Foreign Secretary, I have had the opportunity to address the House on the European Community. I am glad to be able to do so now because I have always been convinced that the decision we took to enter the Community was the right one and in Britain's best interests, and that the best course for the British Government to pursue is to make a success of it. Membership of the Community is one of the central features of our foreign policy, and, in my view, that will remain so.

Some opponents of British membership seem to hold as a matter of faith to the proposition that it is an unmitigated disaster, but it is not necessary—nor reasonable—to go to the other extreme to justify our policy. It is a question of balance, not of absolutes. The balance is one that I calculate to be very much in favour of our playing a full and active part in the Community.

The motion before the House illustrates the point that we are not dealing with unmixed blessings or unmitigated disasters. The support we have received from our Community partners in the Falklands crisis is extremely welcome, and I hope that the House will take this opportunity to make that unmistakably clear. At the same time, the violation of the Community's customary procedures at the Agriculture Council on 18 May was very unwelcome, and we all want to make our views clear on that point.

The last part of the motion makes it quite clear that much work remains to be done if we are to secure our objectives both on procedures for the conduct of Community business and on our budget contribution. The favourable balance to which I referred at the outset is something we have to work hard for, and that will always be so.

I want to speak first about the support we have received from our Community partners over the Falklands crisis. Their action immediately after the Argentine invasion was exemplary. They gave us the fullest support on the political level, and, with unprecedented speed and unanimity, they enforced an arms embargo and other economic measures against Argentina.

Nothing can detract from the importance of those decisions at the very moment that we were attacked by a foreign aggressor. Our partners are continuing to support us in pressing for the implementation of Security Council resolution 502 Eight of these countries have just renewed economic measures for an indefinite period. The two which, for domestic political reasons, have found themselves unable to do so have undertaken to ensure that this does not undermine the general effort. The practical effect of the import embargo will now be increasingly significant for Argentina.

I believe that the action of our Community partners and our Commonwealth partners, and of Norway and the United States, is without precedent in an international dispute of the sort in which we are now engaged and something that we welcome and appreciate greatly. I think that there was good reason why this support was forthcoming. Certainly the issue itself is one on which we should expect all democratic Governments to take the same view as we do. But within the Community there was also the solidarity that comes from a sense of common interest and common purpose, and from the growing practice of working more closely together in international relations.

Compared with the problems on the economic side of Community activity, this political co-operation receives less publicity. It might get more if it did not work so well. Its value cannot be measured in tonnes or calculated in millions of units of account. But it is a valuable and important aspect of membership, and I have been impressed with it during recent weeks.

The growth of European political co-operation was of particular interest to my predecessor, who can take much credit for what has been achieved. I want to do what I can to see that this co-operation continues to develop because it is a source of strength to this country as it is a source of strength to our partners.

The solidarity shown over the Falklands is an example of the Community working at its best. I want to deal now with an example of the Community at its worst. There is no doubt that the vote at the Argiculture Council on 18 May constitutes a major departure from the way in which Community business has customarily been conducted. It is a departure which will have the most serious implications for the future if we are not able to establish clear procedures which everyone follows as an essential basis for confidence between member States.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food reported to the House last week, he expressed the Government's deep concern and dismay at the events which took place at the meeting on 18 May. For the first time since the Community resolved the most serious crisis of its early years by reaching the Luxembourg compromise 16 years ago, decisions were taken by majority vote despite the fact that a member State had made it clear that very important national interests were at stake. The point is of fundamental importance, as this House will appreciate perhaps more than any other Parliament or Assembly.

It is worth recalling the history. The Treaty lays down how Community decisions are to be taken. In many specific areas unanimity is the rule. It is the rule also if the Community is to take decisions in new areas, not provided for explicitly in the original Treaty. But the Treaty also provides that in certain other clearly defined areas of Community business decisions shall be taken by a system of qualified majority voting, with each member State having a prescribed number of votes.

In 1965 the French Government argued that qualified majority voting should not be applied if a member State considered that its very important national interests were involved; they proposed an amendment to the Treaty to this effect; and they backed up their demand by boycotting the Community institutions for a period of seven months. The other five member States refused to accept an amendment to the Treaty, and the text of the compromise which was reached in January 1966 records an agreement to disagree.

The Luxembourg compromise is thus not a legally binding agreement. But the French view was tacitly accepted and it has been the consistent practice of the Community, without any exception until 18 May, than if a member State makes clear that its important national interests are involved, discussion is continued and no vote is taken. In other words, it became a procedural convention. It is this convention that has now for the first time been set aside, and without the agreement of all the parties involved.