Examination of witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 10 JANUARY 2001
VAZ and MR
1. Minister, welcome to the Committee. You and
I have shared many meetings in the past in the city of Westminster
but I think this is the first time we have ever met in a forum
of this kind. It is certainly a first for me and I hope at the
end of an hour it will be a pleasure for you too. Our Chairman,
Jimmy Hood, is unfortunately absent today because of a family
illness and has to remain in Scotland, so the Committee has asked
me to take the chair for this sitting. Could I warmly welcome
you, therefore, and perhaps ask you to introduce your colleague.
(Mr Vaz) Yes. Thank you very much for your kind introduction.
Mr Bevan is the head of EUD(I) in the Foreign Office and has been
largely responsible for all the work that has gone into preparing
for Nice on the official side.
2. Perhaps I could start the questioning. As
you know, the Committee is looking into the outcome of the Nice
process and perceptions of the outcome clearly differ. I understand
that in the evidence that you gave to the Lords Committee, you
stated that Nice had delivered a stronger Britain in a wider Europe.
Another perception that one has read in the press is that it has
diminished public confidence in the institutions of the European
Union and led to the ten smaller states being extremely angry
with the larger ones. Perhaps you could indicate what your view
is about the overall effect of the Nice process on public confidence
in the EU and its institution.
(Mr Vaz) Mr Chairman, having been present at Nice
I know you will expect me to be biased in what I am going to say
but I am delighted that Nice secured all the objectives that the
government had and, indeed, went far beyond our expectations.
The negative comments in the press came from the fact that it
lasted slightly longer than we might have anticipated and some
members of the pressand, indeed, some officials and othersmay
have packed only three shirts not expecting a five-shirt Council!
Apart from the fact that it lasted longer than anyone had anticipated,
it was a council that I think we can regard as providing for enlargement;
it will secure for us, as I said to the House of Lords Committee,
a stronger Britain and a stronger Europe, and our objectiveswhich
were to win more power for Britain and to make sure that European
Union was modernised and ready for enlargementwere all
met. As for the confidence of the British people and the European
people in the whole concept of the European Union, that is a process
that must go on. I do not think one particular Council meeting
is going to have an effect one way or the other, but I think it
is the duty of this Government to keep reminding people about
the benefits of Britain being in the European Union.
3. Can I follow that up with two quick questions.
Firstly, do you think the process in Nice had any effect on the
position of the Commission and particularly the President of the
Commission? Has it weakened their position at all? Secondly, has
the process marked a shift towards a more intergovernmental working
of the European Union, rather than the traditional communautaire
(Mr Vaz) What was clear was an understanding that
the decisions in the end had to be made by the Prime Ministers
and the heads of government, and that these decisions that are
taken at European Council meetings have got to be done on that
basis. That is the whole nature of representation. It was not
a question of a greater amount of power going to the Council as
opposed to the Commission, or the Commission's objective not being
met. We were confident that the process had to be completed in
order to make the changes that were necessary and, judging from
the reaction from the Commission and others, I was satisfiedand
know that the Prime Minister wasthat all parties of the
European Union regard Nice as a success.
4. Could I ask a couple of questions about majority
voting? I understand that aspects relating to family law are excepted
from it. Could you explain how far that exception goes in terms
of family law?
(Mr Vaz) I will leave the technical bit, if I may,
to Mr Bevan who is the expert on the articles. Our approach to
QMV was quite straightforward, which was would we accept it in
those areas where it was in Britain's interests to accept them.
As far as the legal process is concerned, we did not affect the
jurisdictions that we currently have as a government. We were
not there to change any of the basic articles which would mean
that the law of this land would change. What we were keen to do
as far as the legal process was concerned was to make the operation
of the European Court of Justice much more efficient, the procedures
much more effective, and to move to QMV in areas of appointments.
Those are the areas we most concerned ourselves with. In total
we agreed to QMV as far as 31 articles and 35 measures were concerned.
This is, of course, less than what was agreed by the previous
Government during their various councils if you add the Maastricht
Treaty and the Single European Act, but I do not think it is a
question of numbers; very much a question of moving to those areas
that were in our interests as a country.
(Mr Bevan) We agreed to extend qualified majority
voting in a total of 31 articles. Of those, there are a series
of articles that relate to Title IV which is the section of the
Treaty that deals with asylum, visas and immigration, and on all
of that area the UK has had, since Amsterdam, the right to opt
into measures that are agreed under that Title, so none of the
provisions that are agreed under that Title will apply to the
UK unless we decide to opt in. One of those, and I think it may
be the one you are referring to, Article 65, relates to civil
judicial co-operation where, as you say, there was an exception
made in family law matters, but other civil judicial co-operation
matters will be subject to QMV.
5. So maintenance, child abduction, guardianship
rights, for example, would be excepted?
(Mr Bevan) That is a point I would need to check.
6. Can I move on to community incentive measures
that I understand were prescribed with relation to combating discrimination.
Could you perhaps explain what those measures might be?
(Mr Vaz) I would imagine the measures would be trying
to encourage people not to discriminate against their fellow citizens
largely, as you describe them, as incentives to try and campaign
and publicise the need to be against discrimination. There are
no fundamental points here. You are referring, of course, to Article
13. Our position on Article 13 is very clear; that we will only
move in those areas where we feel that it is in our interests
to do so, but the incentive measures you describe are really to
publicise the work of anti-discrimination measures.
7. What would the incentive amount to, though?
(Mr Vaz) I do not know. It has just been agreed, I
would imagine, the incentive would be to publicise it in the way
I have just described. I do not think we accept it as a great
8. Would it extend to encouraging positive discrimination?
(Mr Vaz) I would not have thought so. I believe quite
firmly that there is a view across Europe that discrimination
is wrong, whether it is religious or on the grounds of race or
for any other reason, and I think that there was a positive acceptance
that it is right that we should publicise these measures.
9. But is there not the same view that positive
discrimination not only would be wrong but that it may be contradictory,
indeed, to the human rights legislation we now have in this country?
(Mr Vaz) I would think yes. There is no great move
on the part of member states to have a positive discrimination
agenda. There certainly is not on the part of this Government.
10. Could I just come back quickly to point
number two of Mr Bevan's answer with respect to the question of
the exception of qualified majority voting in relation to family
law? I think you said, slightly to my surprise and it may just
be that the legal drafting has not been completed yet, that you
were not quite sure whether child abduction and maintenance, et
cetera, would be included. The reason I ask is that I declare
a sort of interest in that I am a member of the all-party committee
on child abduction and there is the famous case, for example,
of our current British Ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer and his
wife in the United States and the book she wrote about the abduction
of her children by a German citizen. Also there are about 39 cases
that I am aware of where the German courts have been reluctant
to allow the child to be returned, which one might have hoped
would have been the case under Article 4 of the Hague Convention.
The real question, therefore, that I am concerned about is the
uncertainty that appears to exist in this context and to ask the
Minister if he will do everything he can to ensure that this exception
is construed against the idea of child abduction and to put as
much pressure as possible on the German government to accept the
idea that, in a modern world, child abduction is not only obnoxious
but that no individual national jurisdiction, such as that in
Germany, should construe it in favour of the father in relation
to laws that go back, as I understand it, to the 1930s.
(Mr Vaz) I can assure Mr Cash that, in principle,
we are with him. Of course, child abduction is quite wrong and
that is why we have made it quite clear that what we want is better
judicial co-operation rather than one jurisdiction which you cannot
have because there are different aspects of family law in different
member states, and nothing that we did at Nice affects the basic
family law of this country because it is passed by Parliament.
But I think where you can have co-operation we should ensure that
that happens. I cannot comment, as I do not expect Mr Cash will
expect me to comment, on the Meyer case but our sympathies are
quite clear and obviously Lady Meyer has gone through a tremendous
amount of anguish because she has not been allowed to see her
sons. But that is a judicial matter; it is not a matter for ministers,
and representations have been made in the past to the judicial
services there. But I would certainly take on board your point.
11. Perhaps you could look into it.
(Mr Vaz) I will pursue it in the way you have mentioned.
12. You said in your opening in response to
the Chairman's suggestion that we had won more power for Britain.
You will not expect me to accept that and I will challenge you
for the following reasons. If you look at the share of Britain's
votes in the Council of Ministers, our share has actually dropped
from what at the present moment is the equivalent of 11.5 per
cent of votes to now only 8.4 per cent. That does not seem to
me to suggest that we have won any power in that context. If I
can move on to the double majority voting which obviously has
to be aggregated with the question of voting in the Council itself
because we are dealing with the combination of population and
the voting in the Council of Ministers, the position is that now,
under this clauseand the German press has made it quite
clear they regard the German nation as having been the victors
in this matterany particular proposal has to be backed
by countries representing 62 per cent of the EU's population.
As a result of this, Germany and two other large countries such
as France or Italy will be able to block anything they do not
like whereas Britain will need more than two other countries to
oppose undesirable decisions. Surely, therefore, the net result
is that, both on the question of the Council of Ministers and
the question of population, far from winning more power, we most
emphatically have lost it and our influence is on the wane. Can
you explain that and explain the point you made in that context
at the beginning of this session?
(Mr Vaz) No, Mr Cash, our influence is not on the
wane. We increased the number of votes we are going to have on
the Council from ten to twenty-nine. We are a big state.
13. We are talking about percentages.
(Mr Vaz) We will talk about percentages in a moment.
We are a big state and over successive governments there have
been absolutely no changes with regards to the percentage of votes
we have as compared to the smaller states. One of the purposes
that we wished to underline in Nice was that we were prepared
to give up our second commissioner provided we had a substantial
reweighting of votes and to that extent we were in the same position
as France and Germany. When I was before the Lords Committee there
was a lot of concern being expressed over whether or not Germany
would get more votes than the UK and France, for example. As Mr
Cash will know, all the big countries retained parity; we got
exactly the same votes as Germany and France even though, of course,
Germany has a larger population and, therefore, if you look at
the percentage of votes for the big states as compared to one
of the smaller states, for example, the Netherlands or indeed
Denmark, the United Kingdom has indeed won more power. You mentioned
double majority. That of course was one of the scenarios that
could have been adopted. What we have is, in a sense, a triple
test. You have the first test which is that you have to reach
the qualified majority vote; secondly, you have to have a majority
of member states. Thirdly, if a member state invokes the population
clause, then, as you just said, you have to show that 62 per cent
of the population are behind you. We have no problem with qualified
majority voting, and the whole purpose of having qualified majority
voting is to make the institutions of the European Union much
more efficient and effective. It now counts for 80 per cent of
the decisions that are taken by the European Union and we have
been on the losing side only twice last year, and therefore I
do not understand Mr Cash's logic on this. I am not sure whether
he is in favour of qualified majority voting or against it because
whenever we say we are moving to it Mr Cash jumps up and says,
"You are surrendering the veto", and then when we find
there are various tests you have to jump over on QMV, Mr Cash
says, "There are too many tests". I do not accept that
there is an historic combination between France and Germany. I
believeand I have done this job, I know, not for a very
long time but for the time that I have seen the European Union
operatethere are no set patterns where certain countries
vote with others. That certainly was not the case at Nice. Countries
vote according to what is in their interests and to say that France
and Germany will always vote together in order to block X, Y or
Z just does not hold water. Countries will make decisions on what
is best for them.
14. Could I finally, therefore, quote Mr Schroeder
himself seeing as he is the Chancellor of Germany, who saidsome
say sarcasticallyas follows: "one could speak of double
majority but one does not have to". I think it would be as
well to leave it to Chancellor Schroeder to have the last word.
(Mr Vaz) Well, I would like to have the last word.
You quote Chancellor Schroeder, who had a very successful Council
working with our Prime Minister; Germany and the United Kingdom
were able to work together in order to secure the deal at Nice,
and we had no problems with individual heads of government putting
their countries' views across. Our Prime Minister did so with
great eloquence and managed to secure an excellent deal for our
15. Relating to the danger of a rift opening
up between the larger and smaller member states, and you will
have this engraved on your memory because there were some very
considerable disagreements between the member states, and the
Czech Republic in particular was very concerned about the outcome
and so, I believe, was Romania, and I think others are reviewing
the situation, do you not agree that there is a very serious problem
which is now emerging which is what was described as a "power
grab" by the larger states by several commentators who were
at Nice, and who have looked at it subsequently, and that the
larger states are therefore accused of having engaged in predatory
voting tactics, and that the result is that, in fact, we could
be faced with a very serious rift and some commentators even saidI
think it was the European voice of Mr Simon Taylor in particularthat
there was a severe danger that it would poison relations between
the larger states and the smaller ones? What is your comment on
(Mr Vaz) Of course, the Czech Republic and Romania
are not member states so they were not present to voice those
opinions. I can only tell you what the ambassadors from the applicant
countries have told me, and at the Foreign Office this morning
I addressed a meeting of applicant countries, which is that they
were delighted at the outcome of Nice. Of course, every country
wants more votes, that is the nature of international politics,
but in the end the applicant countries for the first time ever
were on a sheet of paper with the United Kingdom and with Germany
and France, and the worst possible thing for the Czech Republic
or Romania or Poland was to be left off. They were on there; they
have been allocated their votes; and I have no Ambassador or Minister
for Europe from any of these countries expressing concern to me.
Of course, commentators will express concern, that is what they
are paid to do, but the people who have to go back to their parliaments
and people and explain what is happening were delighted with the
outcome. I think it is a very fair outcome. Can I just say, Mr
Cash, that if we had come back with a deal that put the United
Kingdom's votes at the same level as Denmark you would have been
very cross with me. We have come back with a deal that retains
our position as a big country, keeps us on parity with Germany
which has a larger population, and that is a very good outcome
indeed. That is what you expected this Government to do and that
is what we have done.
16. Can I follow this up and say, first of all,
I am sorry I did not hear the beginning of your oration but I
picked it up pretty quickly. I was at Versailles with the Scrutiny
Committee and it seemed there was a tremendous consensus about
two different approaches. The consensus was that some countries
favoured what they called the "big bang" approach, and
others favoured what was called the "regatta" approach,
the regatta approach being that you only admit a country, smaller
or larger, once it reached the finishing post and satisfied all
the conditions, and the big bang approach, which the Germans were
advocating, was that you let all the smaller and larger countries
in together because, although some of them may not have reached
the qualifications and the criteria which was required, you just
took them in as a lump group, five or ten at a time, just to get
moving. Of course, the view also was the French were moving the
finishing line so the regatta approach never reached the finishing
line. Following on from the Nice summit, do you see the big bang
approach taking place in Europe or whether the regatta approachwith,
hopefully, the winning post kept in the same placeis likely
to be the next stage?
(Mr Vaz) Mr Steen raises a very important point which
is going to be the challenge over the next few years. Having visited
a number of applicant countries, every one of them wants to be
in the first wave. We recently had a Presidency report and Commissioner
Verheugen is doing an excellent job but he is being pressed. Individual
countries want to be first and also other countries will tell
you, in a private and confidential way, that they would prefer
to go in with other similar countries, and that is going to be
the challenge. I personally -[there is no government view on this]favour
a situation where you only qualify if you have met the criteria.
I think it would be quite wrong to admit countries that had not
reached various criteria, opened and closed all the chapters of
the acquis, and were ready and fit to join the European Union
because that would only create problems for the future. I know
it is going to be disappointing if we have a situation where a
country joins every single year for the next ten yearsI
do not think that is going to happen. I think countries are going
to join in groups but it is now too early to say it is going to
be all together or just a few and that is really the challenge
of the Swedish Presidency. I am delighted that one of the key
themes for the Swedishand, indeed, the Belgian presidency
that followsis an attempt to push this forward. Now that
we have been through Nice and provided Parliament ratifies the
treaty and, as you know, we are committed to bringing this legislation
before the House as soon as possible, we will be ready for enlargement
by the end of 2002 and then it is up to the applicant countries,
but I do not think we should try and force the pace and make countries
join before they are ready, though our philosophy is quite simple;
we want them to join as soon as possible.
(Mr Bevan) Adding to that, Nice achieved three important
goals in taking forward the enlargement dossier. First, it agreed
the institutional changes; secondly, very importantly, heads of
state and government endorsed the Commission's strategy paper
for enlargement which envisages concluding negotiations; and,
thirdly, it agreed that those countries who had signed accession
treaties by the time of the next IGC in 2004 will be invited to
participate. That is a very important step forward.
17. Moving on to enhanced co-operation, specifically
I am concerned about the implications for co-operation under Title
V, common and foreign security policy, which is based on Maastricht
and Amsterdam, which is why I am so opposed to it, as you might
imagine. The question is whether, in fact, the effect of this
new Article J, ie that co-operation cannot be used for the adoption
of common strategies, joint actions or common positions and can
only be used to implement these actions and common positions?
Right at the heart of all this is the provision which is in the
Amsterdam Treaty already, and indeed, traces back to Maastricht
as well, which is that, once they have made a common decision,
they are then able to operate on the basis of qualified majority
voting. As I understand it, in a declaration the Government has
agreed or has attempted to secure a position in which defence
would not be included in relation to a qualified majority vote
but it has already been conceded under Amsterdam by this Government,
and the iniquity began with Maastricht which I opposed by putting
down 240 amendments.
(Mr Vaz) Indeed, and I have just been reading Mr John
Major's memoirs on this very subject -
18. Not very reliable, I suspect.
(Mr Vaz)where you feature very prominently,
Mr Cash. We are waiting for your memoirs.
19. You will get them in due course!
(Mr Vaz) When enhanced co-operation was first put
forward, we also had our reservations, as you know, because we
kept saying to other countries and other member states, "In
which areas? Give us an example where you want to use enhanced
co-operation", and they never really came out with them and,
therefore, we are in new territory. We made clear our view on
defence and that is it must be by unanimity. I think we are going
to have to look and see what discussions come out of this but
we are very clear that, as far as defence is concerned, you will
need to have countries working together on the basis of unanimity
within enhanced co-operation which, as you say, you trace back
to Maastricht and the discussions beforehand. I think it is for
those who want to use it to give us examples of where it can be
used, and the fundamental principle that applies in dealing with
enhanced co-operation is that we will not want to see it adopted
in any area that will undermine the effectiveness of the acquis
communitaire, because that is what countries and nations have
joined up to, and, therefore, I think we are going to have to
wait and see in what ways it can be used, but you are right to
single out defence and you are right to reinforce our commitment
to ensuring that all countries need to be part of that decision-making
process. What we also do not want to create with enhanced co-operation
is any view that there is going to be a two-tier Europe; that
there are going to be five or six countries that are going to
form the hard core, if I can put it like that, that will move
forward and all the other countries will just have to follow or
be left behind. We are not going to accept that, and that was
implicit in the conclusions and the discussions that took place