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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

European Communities (Definition of Treaties)(Agreement between the European Community and its Member States and the Swiss Confederation on the Free Movement of Persons) Order 2000

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 27 November 2000

[Mr. Jonathan Sayeed in the Chair]

European Communities (Definition of Treaties)(Agreement between the European Community and its Member States and the Swiss Confederation on the Free Movement of Persons) Order 2000

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Agreement between the European Community and its Member States and the Swiss Confederation on the Free Movement of Persons) Order 2000.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Sayeed, and look forward to your chairmanship.

The order paves the way for the ratification by the United Kingdom of an agreement with Switzerland on the free movement of people. The agreement is one of seven bilateral agreements between Switzerland and European Union member states, the implementation of which has been discussed by the respective parties since 1994. The agreements—which were signed at the EU's General Affairs Council in June 1999—cover air transport, land transport, trade in agricultural products, the elimination of technical barriers to trade, public sector procurement, research in science and technology and the free movement of people.

The order deals with the free movement of persons agreement, which is the only agreement of the seven to require individual ratification by each member state. The ratification process is necessary because the agreement combines Community and national competence. It was laid before Parliament as a treaty earlier this month, and this Order in Council is the next significant step in the process. The order provides for the implementation of the agreement by specifying it as a Community treaty under the European Communities Act 1972.

Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association, but not of the European Economic Area. Under an EEA agreement, the 15 EU member states and the three participating EFTA states are united in a single market. They are all governed by the same body of Community law. The EEA agreement gives participating EFTA states full access to the four freedoms of the European Community's internal market—freedom for goods, services, capital and people—and allows equal conditions of competition.

Switzerland voted against joining the EEA in 1992. The Swiss chose instead to negotiate a series of bilateral agreements with the EU, including the free movement of persons agreement, which was approved by the Swiss in a referendum earlier this year. The agreement will enable nationals of all contracting-party countries to benefit from equal rights to free movement. Once the agreement is in force, nationals of contracting-party countries and members of their families will have the right, in the territories of all contracting-party countries, to enter, reside, work, provide services and set up as a self-employed person. Nationals of each contracting-party country will have equal living, employment and working conditions in all the contracting-party countries. That will enable Swiss nationals to exercise the free movement rights that are accorded by the agreement in the UK, including use of the EEA/EU channel at UK immigration controls.

We are pleased to be ratifying the agreement, which will build on the excellent bilateral relationship between Switzerland and the UK. Switzerland is the UK's 13th largest export market and our third largest market outside the EU. Switzerland invests more money in the UK than any other EU country and Swiss companies employ some 100,000 people in the UK. The President of Switzerland has visited the UK twice this year, furthering those good relations. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales paid a successful official visit to Switzerland earlier this month.

We are keen to ratify the agreement as soon as possible in order to help maintain good relations with our EU partners and Switzerland. I am grateful to the House for its early consideration of the order.

The UK hopes to show its commitment to these agreements by early ratification. Once ratification of the agreement has been completed in all member states, all seven agreements will come into force simultaneously. I commend the order to the House.

4.35 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I begin by echoing the Minister's words at the start of our proceedings: it is a pleasure to serve under your august chairmanship, Mr. Sayeed. I shall do my level best to remain in order, but I have no doubt that I should be authoritatively, though kindly, brought to book were I to fail in that objective.

As the Minister said, this is one of seven agreements that were signed in February 1999, and if all goes well from the Swiss point of view, it will come into effect on 1 January 2001. The Minister has rightly underlined the sectors to which the agreements will apply, and it is as well to emphasise that the agreements' proponents judge that they will yield real benefits. As a matter of fact, they will apply to employed persons, self-employed persons and unemployed persons who have sufficient financial resources to stand on their own feet.

The Minister rightly underlined the urgent need—from both the Swiss and EU points of view—to ratify the agreements. She will be interested, and possibly relieved, to know that the Opposition support the agreements and the order that is required to effect the one applying to Britain. However, I would like to highlight a number of points in the hope that she can offer compelling responses.

First, what assessment has the Minister made of Professor Straubhaar's study of the significance of the transitional periods that feature in the proposed agreement? She will be aware that his paper expressed a view on both the consequences of the agreement and movement by the Swiss towards the European Union. I should be interested to know the British Government's attitude to that considered contribution to the debate.

Secondly, the Minister will be aware, so far as Britain is concerned, of the creation or continuing existence and use of joint committees for management of the agreements. Who will serve on those committees? Will those committees report and, if they do, will their reports be made public? When can we expect to see them? Will minutes of their deliberations be placed in the Library?

Thirdly, there is the issue of cross-border workers' entitlements. Given the Minister's close attention to the fine print of the proposed agreement, she will be aware that cross-border workers will henceforth have the right to purchase a second home, but not a holiday home. Was that the result of a negotiation, and if so, what position did Britain take?

Fourthly, will she confirm my understanding—such confirmation would provide significant succour to my right hon. and hon. Friends—that the passage of the agreement through the approval of the order will entail no new supranational competence whatsoever? In other words, will the content of the agreements be the subject of, and determined by, intergovernmental co-operation? There is no question of a new federalist monster developing on top of that that already exists.

Fifthly, for the elucidation of Committee members who have not studied the agreement in the close detail that it warrants—I am sure that almost all have done so— what line did the Government took on the transitional periods? Under the agreement, Swiss persons will be entitled to freedom of movement in the European Union after two years, but the corresponding right to freedom of movement for the citizens of the European Union in the Swiss confederation will apply after 12 years. That is presumably the result of negotiation. It would be interesting and informative to know whether the European Union had a single negotiating stance to which this country signed up without protest, or whether alternative positions were proposed during the discussions.

Finally, will she gladden my heart by assuring me that no public expenditure implications will arise from the agreement?

Those are the inquiries to which I would like responses, but in principle, the Opposition discern nothing objectionable in the agreement. It would be not only innocuous, but highly beneficial to the Swiss confederation, the United Kingdom and other EU member states if all the agreements endured their passage.

4.39pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I have always believed that one of the greatest advantages of belonging to the European Community is the freedom of movement that we enjoy within members states to study, work, travel and set up business following the removal of obstacles that previously made it more difficult for our citizens to enjoy that freedom. I am not only a believer in that freedom, I have been a practitioner of it since I was at university. I was an apprentice in a French laboratory, my first job was in Holland and Belgium, I have a home in France and I have been involved in setting up business in the five major countries of the European Community.

Will the Minister clarify whether existing freedoms are being extended by Community states to Swiss citizens and by Switzerland to citizens of Community states, or whether Swiss citizens in the Community or European citizens in Switzerland will enjoy less freedom of movement? Are we, in essence, extending to non-member countries the freedoms that previously were enjoyed only by member countries?

Secondly, if that is so, does not the treaty confirm that it is possible for Switzerland, which is outside the European Community, to obtain the freedoms that we enjoy in the Community without conceding sovereignty or loss of control over its ability to govern itself? In that case, would not it be absurd to suggest that the UK could not retain its freedoms in the Community if other member states went further down the route of political integration and we did not join them in that process?

Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that the Swiss have not been impelled into the agreement by the previous imposition of artificial obstacles or restrictions on the movement of Swiss nationals in European countries?

Fourthly, will the Minister confirm that the Swiss, while negotiating this splendid agreement, which will be as beneficial to them as to us, retain their freedom over tax, including double taxation agreements with other member states? Fifthly, the Swiss have not been required to subordinate to supranational rules on sex, racial equality and employment, or to other such rules that abrogate their domestic social security arrangements.

 
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Prepared 27 November 2000