Foreign Affairs Council (General)

– in the House of Commons at 3:57 pm on 23rd February 1983.

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Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid 3:57 pm, 23rd February 1983

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the general aspects of the Foreign Affairs Council which met in Brussels on 21 and 22 February, at which my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and I represented the United Kingdom. With the permission of the House and, I gather, at the request of the Opposition, I will deal with trade matters separately.

The Council agreed that the 1984 elections to the European Parliament should be held throughout the Community in the period from 17 to 20 May 1984. This means that we in the United Kingdom will vote on Thursday 17 May 1984.

The Council had a further discussion of the European Parliament's proposals for a uniform procedure for future elections to that Parliament. It is now accepted that it will not be possible to reach agreement on a uniform procedure in time for the 1984 elections, but the Council decided that a further effort should be made to see whether agreement could be reached on a common basis for extending the franchise.

There was a first discussion of the Commission's paper on Greenland's application to withdraw from the Community. This subject will be on the agenda of the March Council, when there will be a more detailed discussion.

Ministers took note of the Commission's report on seals. This report will provide the basis for a review by the Environment Council on 28 February of the case for further Community action.

The Commission introduced briefly its green paper on the future financing of the Community, which is one of the documents debated by the House on Monday. The Council agreed to discuss the paper further at its March meeting. I reminded my Community colleagues that the United Kingdom would certainly wish these budgetary matters to be discussed at the European Council—that is, at the summit meeting—on 21 and 22 March.

There was a preliminary discussion in the Council of the Community's attitude towards a new international sugar agreement. I made clear our support for the Community joining a new agreement and pressed for the Community to play a realistic, full and constructive part in the negotiations.

Finally, there was a ministerial negotiating conference with the Spaniards at which Community declarations on the customs union and on the European Coal and Steel Community were presented to the Spaniards.

Photo of Mr Ioan Evans Mr Ioan Evans , Aberdare

Hon. Members know that direct elections are to be held between 17 May and 20 May. Opposition Members are pleased to note that there is a failure to agree on a uniform electoral system. We welcome the decision that the European elections in the United Kingdom will be conducted not on a proportional representation system but on the traditional British system of first past the post. We support opposition to the proportional representation system because it provides no real connection between the electors' first preference and the final result. It also breaks the vital link between specific communities and their elected representatives. That link would be severely weakened if Members of Parliament were chosen through party lists or multi-Member constituencies.

Given the long delay in reaching a conclusion about refunds for the 1982 budget, and the increasing role of the European assembly in determining the form of refunds to the United Kingdom, what progress has been made in determining Britain's contribution to the Common Market in 1983? What views have been expressed by the Government on the Commission's green paper on the future financing of the Common Market, with the various options for increasing the EC budget that were dealt with in the debate on Monday?

In view of the clear demand by the people of Greenland to withdraw from the EC, will the Minister ensure that there will be no undue delay in meeting the wishes of the people of Greenland as that will set an important precedent for the British people?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about the electoral system. As he knows, the Community is about to discuss its long-term restructuring of finances. What the Government have said, and what I made clear yesterday in the Council, is that Britain must insist that in parallel with that long-term discussion, which we thoroughly support and wish to succeed, there must be urgent discussions about an interim solution for Britain in 1983 and later. My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury made clear in the House on Monday the Government's general views on this. There was no substantial discussion on it in the Council yesterday.

I advise the hon. Gentleman against hitching himself to the Greenland wagon. The matter will take a long time. We have just received the first Commission report. It is clear that many matters of substance will have to be discussed. We have no desire to stand in the way of the decision of the people of Greenland. Matters of substance have to be discussed. During our discussions this week in the Council with the member states of the Community, it became clear that they wanted to establish that there would be no premium for a country wishing to leave the European Community.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Opposition Whip (Commons)

How can it possibly be claimed that with five years between elections there has not been time to agree on a common electoral system, especially as the European Parliament has brought one forward? Is not the truth that the Government have held up the timetable because of the Prime Minister's personal determination never to see any kind of proportional system used in any election in Britain, and that the Labour party supports that view because anything which makes a mockery of British participation in the European Parliament is welcome to it?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. This is a turbulent question in virtually every member state. It is a question not only of whether one is in favour of proportional representation but of which system one wishes to agree upon. However, it has not been possible to reach agreement.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

Is it not open to our partners to reach agreement by adopting our system? Will Her Majesty's Government continue their resistance to the adoption of any system of proportional representation for the European assembly, bearing in mind that if it were adopted that would certainly be used as a precedent for our national elections to this House?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

Discussion will continue on this matter in the Community. It is clear that there will be no change in the European elections in 1984.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Apart from constitutional issues, the general Council appears to be dealing with matters which are the prime responsibility of the Exchequer and the agriculture, industry and energy Departments. Will the Minister comment on that?

Secondly, in respect of the finance green paper, can the Minister tell the House whether there are other Governments who do not wish to expand the Community's budget?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

The general affairs council tends, from time to time, to deal with general affairs.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's second point is yes, there are.

Photo of Mr Anthony Nelson Mr Anthony Nelson , Chichester

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members believe that the ideals and potential of the European Community, which many hon. Members uphold, will not be interfered with if a differential system of electioneering operates throughout member countries?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I do not think there is necessarily a connection between what the European Parliament does and what individual member states do in their national elections. For the time being, that is a subject on which progress towards a uniform system will continue to be slow and complicated.

Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Norwich North

To move into less controversial waters, could the Minister add a few more sentences to the sentence he uttered about the decision on seals and the environment Ministers' conference on 28 February?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

The German Presidency, the German Foreign Minister, was anxious to impress on everyone his view that this was a matter of high political interest and importance. We all concurred with that. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary goes to the environment Council next week he will wish to discuss with his colleagues the latest position, the clear pressure for action combined with the response of both the Canadian and Norwegian industries in suspending the impending culls of baby seals.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are hon. Members on this side of the Chamber who are disappointed that 10 years has not been sufficient to enable Britain and her partners to find a common system, whatever that system may be? Before my right hon. Friend embraces too openly the congratulations of the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans), he should appreciate that the present system is the only system under which the Labour party has a chance of being the majority party, either in that Parliament or in this one.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I am not embracing anyone on this subject. I am trying to stay clear of it. I am reporting on a Council meeting at which it became clear to everybody that there would not be a change in this respect for the European elections next year.

Photo of Mr Robert Parry Mr Robert Parry , Liverpool Scotland Exchange

Will the Minister ask his right hon. Friend, when he next meets the Council of Ministers, to express his concern and the concern of the House about the repression of human rights in Turkey, especially the torture and imprisonment of the leaders of the Turkish peace association, and call for the early release of its president, Dr. Dikkerman, a former ambassador, who is critically ill?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

That subject was not discussed in any detail. I know that strong views are held. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on the fact that Turkey has set itself a timetable for a return to democracy. Will we help her to achieve that and to improve the position regarding human rights by ostracising or by encouraging her?

Photo of Mr David Ginsburg Mr David Ginsburg , Dewsbury

Does the Prime Minister intend to call a general election for Thursday 17 May as that date features in the Minister's statement? More seriously, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there are no legal or expenditure problems which could arise if elections are held on that date?

On the method of election, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the sense of disappointment resulting from his statement about working out a common method extends to what has been heard from the Opposition Benches since it represents a serious retreat from the worthy position of the Leader of the Opposition?

With regard to extending the franchise, will the right hon. Gentleman say that the Government will stand firm on the position that they adopted in Opposition when they favoured an extension of the franchise for the European elections?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

The hon. Gentleman's first question is for the Prime Minister. The second question is for the Home Secretary.

The Government wish to extend the franchise. There is difficulty—I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands this—in legislating in this House in one way and then finding that there is a common Community position in a different direction based on another principle. The Government wish to extend the franchise to British citizens living in the Community for European elections. However, we want to do so in a way that is compatible with what other countries do. This is a complicated technical question, but I think that it will be discussed at a slightly faster rhythm than the electoral system.

Photo of Mr Albert McQuarrie Mr Albert McQuarrie , Aberdeenshire East

My right hon. Friend has said that he does not want to go into the subject of Greenland, but has his attention been drawn to the fact that if Greenland is permitted to leave the Community British fishermen will have to pay for the right to fish in Greenland's waters? In any future discussions within the Community on Greenland's withdrawal, will the right hon. Gentleman safeguard the interests of the British fishing industry?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

Yes, Sir. I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the Danish proposal, but this will be a negotiation on matters of substance. In the negotiations with Greenland we intend that the interests of the Community and of British fishermen in particular will be strongly upheld.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Rother Valley

The Minister has referred to Spain. Will he give an assurance that the present trading situation, which is grossly unfair to our steel industry, and especially our special steels industry, will be brought to a fair balance at an early date?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall deal with that point on the following statement.

Photo of Mr Michael Brotherton Mr Michael Brotherton , Louth Borough

Although I welcome the fact that there is to be no change in the electoral system in the short term, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be no change in any electoral system as far as this country is concerned without the full approval of this House?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

It would be presumptuous of me to answer that question, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is right.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Can a "slightly faster rhythm" be given to putting on the agenda the fraud and fudging that is now associated with end user certificates in the arms trade? In particular, should not Ministers discuss the alleged sale of Exocets to the Sudan—[Interruption]—which cannot be said to be an unimportant subject? Either it is true or it is not. If it is true, it should jolly well be discussed by European Ministers.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I read the press story. Of course, that subject did not come up at the Foreign Affairs Council and is not a matter for it. It is essentially an issue for us to investigate and we can then take any decisions that may arise.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

My right hon. Friend said that discussions on new forms of finance for the Community and on our budget rebate would be taking place in parallel. Will he give a categoric assurance that there will be no linkage between the two and that Britain will get a fair deal from the European budget irrespective of when and whether there is a new system for that budget? Will he also give a categoric assurance that the Government will not agree to any further sources of European finance, as there is no evidence as yet—indeed, the evidence is rather to the contrary—that European institutions manage to spend money more efficiently than we do and particularly as any further expenditure given to Europe will lead to a diminution in the authority of the House?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

We want a new system, because the present system causes the imbalances. We want to get away from having to negotiate temporary refunds. The fact that we want a new system does not mean that we agree to additional own resources. It means that the present system is not working properly. Therefore, we want that longterm discussion to succeed, but at the same time we cannot wait for it to come to a conclusion before getting further interim measures.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock and Port Glasgow

From his discussions with Ministers, can the right hon. Gentleman say how many member states have said that they intend to follow the European Parliament's recommendation and institute a modified form of proportional representation in their countries and how many intend to adapt their national systems of proportional representation for the elections on 17 May?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I do not know the answer to that. I think that all member states will now examine their positions in the light of the failure to agree on a common system. I do not know what the result of those reflections will be.