Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 391 - 399)



Mr Connarty

  391. Good morning and welcome to the Committee. Thank you for coming along this morning. We think we are undertaking a very important piece of work to look at the future democracy and accountability in the European Union. Do you wish to make a statement before we start asking you questions?

  (Sir Stephen Wall) I do not think so, but may I just introduce my colleagues: Michael Roberts who is Head of Division within the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office and with me has the responsibility for supervising the work we do on scrutiny; and Philip Budden who is our expert on European institutional issues and is part of the delegation which Peter Hain is leading to the European Convention.

  392. May I start by asking you to explain for our interest as well as for the record what the Cabinet Office European Secretariat does and explain its relationship with the Foreign Office, other departments and UKREP? In particular in what ways does the Cabinet Office's role vary between the first pillar, European Community matters and the second and third pillars on foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) The European Secretariat was set up when we joined the European Union and its role fundamentally has not changed since then. We are the Secretariat which services the European Policy Sub-Committee of the Cabinet, which ever since we joined has been chaired by the Foreign Secretary. On a day to day basis at official level we co-ordinate the work of departments so that there is advice going to Ministers, hopefully agreed collectively, on European policy issues and we also have responsibility for supervising implementation of what Ministers decide in order to make sure that all departments in Whitehall are singing from the same song sheet and that we have not left any bases uncovered in terms of doing what we need to do. That means on the one hand making sure that the UK Permanent Representation have the guidance and instruction they need. We have a weekly meeting on a Friday which is attended by the UK Permanent Representative. We have ad hoc meetings going on the whole time with other Whitehall departments which the UK Representation take part in, either in person or by video or telephone link, where we talk about the issues coming up in working groups or in the Committee of Permanent Representatives. We also try to make sure that in terms of furthering the interests of the Government we have co-ordinated the lobbying activity which goes on with our European partners because obviously an essential part of the business is not just negotiating in Brussels but actually trying to influence colleagues in other EU capitals. That is a job which is done both by the Foreign Office, through our embassies but also directly by individual departments, people talking to their opposite numbers from ministerial level right down through the official chain.

  393. As EU Adviser to the Prime Minister what role will you personally play in respect of the Convention on the Future of Europe?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) My job in that sense will be twofold. I am responsible in the role I play within No.10 for making sure that the Prime Minister has the advice he needs when there are issues which will come to him for decision and he clearly will get advice from Peter Hain, advice from the Foreign Secretary and my job will be to make sure he has that advice in timely fashion. It is also part of my job as head of the European Secretariat to ensure that the whole of Whitehall is effectively consulted on issues as they arise. Our job is to ensure that happens at official level and that advice is put in in a timely way to Ministers and if necessary discussed by the European Policy Sub-Committee under the Foreign Secretary's chairmanship.

Mr David

  394. May I ask how you see not so much the technical debates on the Convention but how you see the Convention concluding? Do you see it coming forward with any big idea or has the British Government any vision which it would like to see developed during the foreseeable future up to the next inter-governmental conference? In other words, how do you see the European Union developing over the next few years? Would you see the Council of Ministers getting more assertive and clear inter-governmental co-operation becoming the linchpin for Europe's development?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) We do have an opportunity. We did have a convention, on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but the Convention in this form for this purpose, that is for trying to make recommendations about the future development of the European Union, is something new. The Laeken Declaration which was agreed under the Belgian presidency sets a rather big agenda for that Convention. What we are trying to do in the Government in terms of our position is work out how to make a European Union of 25, 27 and ultimately more countries work effectively. What we have had in the European Union is something which has worked extremely well. We think that the basic balance between the institutions we have had over the years is the right one, but it is clear that simple addition of ten more Member States in the first instance, which we strongly welcome and think will make a big improvement both to our stability and ultimately the collective prosperity of the Union, nonetheless does pose problems. Six, 9, 12, even 15 people sitting round the table can negotiate. With 27 it is very difficult to do that. At the very least new methods of working of a kind which Jack Straw put forward in the speech he made a couple of weeks ago, or improvements of the kind which the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schröder put forward in their paper for Barcelona, those kinds of things will be necessary. But we are invited by the Laeken Declaration to look more fundamentally than that at whether there are issues like a shift of competences, simplification of the treaties, which can actually make the whole process simpler to understand and simpler to implement. That is the most important task which the Convention has and it is a very daunting one for all the reasons we know.

Mr Davis

  395. I was very interested in your interview with the Foreign Policy Centre newsletter and this famous quotation which was picked up by The Times. I am sure you remember it.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) How could I be allowed to forget it?

  396. You would not expect to be allowed to forget it this morning. "There are certain aspects of the Reformation and anti-popery that find an echo in modern euro-scepticism". Could you explain what you meant? Apart from your aunt's prejudice against Catholics, which you describe in your interview, what do you really mean by that?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) The point I was seeking to make was that there are elements of euro-scepticism which are obviously nationalistic and the point I was making, which I thought at the time was not a particularly original one, was that if you look at the Reformation, the Reformation is as much about the expression of English nationalism as about religious reform. That was really the only point I was seeking to make.

  397. You are not suggesting that Catholics should not be euro-sceptics or that euro-sceptics are anti-Catholics, are you?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I was not attempting to make any suggestion about individuals and I recognise that different people of different religious persuasions hold different views. I was making a point about the Reformation in so far as the Reformation itself was an act of expression of national identity as much as about religious issues.

  398. Why did you then go on to describe your aunt's prejudices? You did not say your aunt was a nationalist. You said that your aunt was prejudiced against Catholics and, you added, should be euro-sceptic today.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) The point I was seeking to make was that the letter which my aunt sent to my father when he was about to marry a Catholic, arguing that his children, that is I and my sister, as it turned out, should not be brought up as Catholics said "Don't forget that you come from yeoman stock of the finest in England". The point was much more about English national identity in her view than about her views of the teachings of the Catholic Church. That was the point.

  399. In retrospect, do you regret making that comment?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) It would be cowardly of me to recant my heresy, if that is what it is, but I do regret one thing and that is that I do believe that the role of a civil servant is to be in the background not the foreground and had I thought that my remark would put me into the foreground, then I would not have said it, not because I cannot take the heat but simply because I do think the role of an impartial civil servant is to be in the background.

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