HC Deb 20 February 1967 vol 741 cc1148-54
Mr. Frank Allaun

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what action he proposes following the announcement by the West German Government that they no longer feel bound by their offer to buy British military equipment worth £31½ million to help offset the foreign exchange costs of the B.A.O.R.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

The Federal German Government have made no statement on this subject and we have therefore no reason to believe that a final decision has been taken. Herr Duckwitz warned us that the Federal Government were thinking in these terms when he was in London on 9th February, and we made it clear that we could not accept this as the Federal Government's last word. The position now is as it was stated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the House on 16th February. We shall be pursuing the whole question at the tripartite talks, which are due to resume shortly.

I would remind the House that the German offer of £31.5 million was formally recorded in the joint communiquè approved by both Governments at that time. The then German Minister of Finance told us that it should be regarded as guaranteed. It was also recorded that they hoped to improve on it. My right hon. Friend and I, of course, discussed this when we were in Bonn, and I am confident that the German Government see this, as we do ourselves, as a problem for which a solution must be found.

Mr. Allaun

Is the Foreign Secretary suggesting that the Bonn Finance Ministry's statement on Saturday did not represent the Bonn Government? Since Herr Strauss has now gone back even on his previous utterly inadequate offer, will our Government start drastically reducing our forces in Germany now without waiting till July? Secondly, to overcome housing difficulties, will the Government demobilise men and slow down recruitment?

Mr. Brown

I do not regard statements in the newspapers, which are not in fact the reports of what Ministers and Prime Ministers have said, as necessarily being Government decisions, whether they happen in this country or in Germany, and I repeat to my hon. Friend that there has been no statement by the Federal Government, no communication to us, and that the tripartite talks are due to resume next week. I am not, therefore, called upon to do anything in the meantime.

Lord Balniel

While I am glad to hear that no final decision has been reached on this matter, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he would agree that, in broader terms, if we are interested in getting into Europe politically, it is unwise to threaten unilateral withdrawal of troops from Europe militarily?

Hon. Members


Mr. Brown

I honestly urge the noble Lord to keep these two issues separate. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] We can stir up an awful amount of difficulty in all kinds of directions if we muddle up these two things. I do not want to make unilateral withdrawal of troops if it can be avoided, but for quite a different reason. Any withdrawals on the Continent of Europe should be due to rational discussion and decision about the level of forces that we need there to face any particular threat at any particular moment; I think this is the atmosphere in which to look at it. But, of course, that does not mean that we, Britain, should be faced with a special problem of foreign exchange with which nobody else is faced.

Mr. Winnick

But is it not a fact that it is about time we stopped allowing ourselves to be played about with by the West Germans over this question? Since we cannot afford troops in Germany and if the West Germans are not agreeable to paying the cost, is it not really about time we said to them that those troops should come home?

Mr. Brown

I do not agree, and I actively dislike the opening sentence of my hon. Friend's question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We and the West Germans and a lot of other people in Europe have a tremendous interest in not repeating the mistakes for which the last generation paid in the 'thirties; I do not want to walk the same road again. On the other hand, I repeat that if we are going to keep troops on the mainland of Europe, it is not only for our own benefit —although let us remind ourselves, it is in large part for our benefit—but also for other people's benefit, and, therefore, we ought to look at the consequential results of such an operation.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Would the Foreign Secretary not agree, in considering the posting and the keeping of British forces overseas, that there is a much stronger case for keeping British forces in Malta than in Germany, because in Malta there is little foreign exchange which is affected?

Mr. Brown

I do not think the two questions are connected, but even if they were I am not sure that I would agree.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the Foreign Secretary not aware that some of his colleagues—for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as others—have frequently stated over the past year or so that if we cannot come to an arrangement with the Bonn Government we should withdraw some of our troops? Why the change? If he says it has nothing to do with our going into the Common Market, what has it to do with? If he is asking the House to wait till July and some arrangement is made, are we to understand that nothing is to be done in the meantime?

Mr. Brown

On the first point, there is no change. If my right hon. Friend will do me the courtesy of reading what I have said, he will see that there is no change from what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said and I have said here. On the second point, I repeat that this has nothing to do with the question whether we should then go into wider European Economic Community. I have fogotten what the third point was.

Mr. Shinwell

I asked whether we shall have to wait until July before we get a final solution.

Mr. Brown

We have undertaken, in return for some arrangements that were made, that we would not remove troops off the mainland until the end of June. That was an undertaking honourably entered into for honourable purposes, out of which we have received practical benefits. I am sure that the House would wish us to keep our part of the bargain.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Does this not show that the question of support costs is a good deal more difficult than the Government thought when the Prime Minister in this House sneered at those who negotiated agreements under the previous Government?

Mr. Brown

If it shows anything, it shows that it was a good deal more difficult than those who negotiated took account of at the time.

Mr. Alfred Morris

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his attempt to calm the atmosphere on this matter, may I ask him whether he would agree that it would be a cynical breach of faith for the West German Government to depart in any way from the guarantee, and can he say what contingency planning there has been for the housing of families and troops if they commit this breach of faith?

Mr. Brown

The whole House knows that there is no better calmer of emotions than I am. On my hon. Friend's second point, I think it would be a rather serious matter if the arrangement which was entered into in good faith was departed from. With regard to the third part of his supplementary question, I think that I ought not to be pressed to answer a hypothetical question.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are some interests in this country, including some so-called national newspapers, which are only too ready to stir up bad relations between this country and West Germany? At the same time, will he assure the House that he will continue to make clear to all our allies in N.A.T.O., including the West Germans, that it is only if this country can get into a healthy balance of payments position that we can play our full part in the N.A.T.O. Alliance?

Mr. Brown

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on both points. To stir up bad feeling with the West Germans is one of the worst steps that we could take. I repeat that, having lived through the 'thirties in my formative period, I feel that one of the worst things that could be done again would be to stir up the feelings which make it difficult for a democratic Government to live and thereby feed the forces on which the non-democratic forces grow. I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman about that. I agree with him, too, on his last point.

Dr. Dunwoody

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that if the Federal Government should repudiate the assurances of their predecessors, our commitments in West Germany are bound to be less binding on us than they otherwise would be?

Mr. Brown

I do not really see how I can be expected to answer a hypothetical question. We have not reached that position yet. Hon Members may choose to decide for themselves that we may some day reach it, but we simply have not reached it yet. If my hon. Friends want to avoid the mistakes of the 'thirties, the best way they can help is by stopping acting as though they assume that any democratic Government in West Germany is a bad one.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be no withdrawal of troops without full and adequate consultation with our N.A.T.O. as well as W.E.U. allies?

Mr. Brown

Again, we are in the hypothetical question area. Should it be necessary to consider withdrawal, of course we shall observe our treaty commitments.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will my right hon. Friend confirm absolutely that the Government stand by the declarations made on this subject to the House of Commons and the country by the Prime Minister on 20th July and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 3rd May last year? Would he not also agree that the postponement of the conclusion of this matter from last autumn to this spring was done as a convenience for the West German Government? Would he not agree that it would make it all the more reprehensible if the German Government were to use that interval to go back on pledges which they had already made?

Mr. Brown

The reply to the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question is, yes, all our statements are in accord. On the second part of the supplementary question. I have no evidence that the West German Government were, as my hon. Friend puts it, making a convenience of it. There are problems both ways. As my right hon. Friend said when we came back from Bonn: we understand theirs and they understand ours. I do not think that there is any reason to assume that either is trying to take advantage of the other.

Mr. Tapsell

When the Foreign Secretary is reflecting, as he has done three times today, on the unwisdom of stirring up bad relations with the West German Government, is he satisfied that it is an entire coincidence that the apparently less cordial relations between Britain and Germany in recent days bear no relation whatever to his recent remarks about the the Oder-Neisse line?

Mr. Brown

That had to come from somewhere. The hon. Gentleman has fulfilled his rôle. In West Germany there was no difficulty at all as a result of what I had said. If the hon. Gentleman had read all that I had said instead of what he was fed, three words taken out of context, he would understand that.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

Would my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to stop German nationalist feeling rising as it did in the 'thirties would be to bring back foreign troops from German soil?

Mr. Brown

I do not believe that I accept that at all. One of the reasons, in my view, why we have had a longer period of more stable peace after the Second World War than we had after the first is that other countries are now deeply concerned with the stability of the Continent, and I think that we should be awfully silly to throw it away.