Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)




  40. May I clarify one point which Mr Illsley put. Where is now the debate in respect of the end product? Will there be options, or will there be a single text?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think the answer is, we do not know definitely, but Giscard has said that he would prefer a single recommendation or set of recommendations which have a consensus of the Convention behind them. I think that is highly optimistic, so long as I am a member. Also, I am afraid it will probably only be achieved by giving everybody something. All the institutions will get something of what they want. Meanwhile, the public will be utterly bemused and will regard this as another example of Brussels consulting itself and coming out with something that satisfies the political class but not them.
  (Ms Stuart) I do not think I can add anything to that.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  41. Ms Stuart, you are a member of the Praesidium, as I understand it. It has been said in certain quarters that the Praesidium is dominating the Convention. Could you just tell us actually what being a member of the Praesidium involves? Secondly, would you comment on the accusation and then perhaps I could also call in Mr Heathcoat-Amory to make his comments as well.
  (Ms Stuart) In terms of time commitment, it means there is certainly always a Praesidium meeting before the Convention meeting and there will be one in between that.

  42. That is a lengthy meeting, is it?
  (Ms Stuart) That varies. Some of them have sometimes been two or three hours. We had one meeting in early May which was virtually a whole day, which was more on the politics of it. At the beginning there was a real tension as to what would be the function of the Praesidium. The opposing views were that we either were the shop stewards whose job it was to deliver consensus from our group which we represent, or it was the drafting committee.

  43. Just remind us how many you are.
  (Ms Stuart) We are now 13—for those of you who are suspicious, this is a bad number! It originally was 12. So you have got two MEPs; originally two national parliamentarians, which were then augmented by a third from the candidate countries; two commissioners (which incidentally, is the sole representation of the Commission on the whole Convention); government representatives from the Troika (Spain, Denmark and Greece); the President; and two Vice-Presidents. Then the question was, "Will you do the drafting committee?" Those who wanted to do the drafting committee, then, by implication, almost had to impose the setting up of the working groups because they had become the drafting committee. I think there were early suspicions and tensions. The reality, as I see it now, is that we are a bit of both. By chairing the working groups, it is up to the Praesidium members to ensure that some coherence comes back but not impose their will. It is part of our function to deliver a kind of consensus from the blocks of interest which we represent. As I said, in practice, whenever strong representations were made to the Praesidium by the Convention for things to be changed, I hope the feeling was that we did respond and did change things.

  44. Perhaps you can tell us this, David, does she dominate you or does she respond?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I always like strong women, particularly when they are in a position of responsibility, and I believe Gisela is doing a good job in defending the interests of national parliaments and I am delighted that she is chairing the very important working group on the role of national parliaments. Can I just add that I think it is important that we get past the polite phase in the Convention and start to argue with each other. There is a slight tendency for people to read out prepared positions and they want everything. They want more of this and more of that, more democracy, and they want Europe to do more in the field of foreign affairs and security and the environment and social protection. We are not really making choices. To do that, I think we need to argue and ask difficult questions. This is particularly true about enlargement. Everyone is very polite and welcoming to the members from the accession states, and I am personally delighted, genuinely delighted, that they are there and I think they have a lot to offer, but there are some very difficult questions about enlargement. No one has really tackled the question of costs, the question of movement of people in the context of immigration problems, and we all know there are human rights and minority issues in these countries which are unresolved. We are, in addition, imposing on them the full burden of the acquis communautaire. I asked for a working group on the acquis. It is a huge burden.

  45. 497.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) It is 85,000 pages, I am told. So poor little Estonia and Malta are going to have to put all of that into their legal system and comply with it, and I do not think that is really realistic. Anyway, my request for a working group to slim the acquis was turned down. Possibly too heretical a thought. Perhaps they thought I was trying to roll Europe back. Well, to some extent I am but I think that should at least be considered and debated rather than turned down. I sometimes feel I am regarded as the man with the demolition charges here but what I am really trying to do is to challenge the consensus to get an outcome on which we can all advance.

  46. This is all very interesting but could you answer the question. Do you think the Praesidium is dominating the Convention?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I look to the Praesidium to generate this debate. Rather than simply try to deliver a unitary solution—which I think was Giscard's early hope—I would instead hope that the Praesidium is the ringmaster but encourages this almost adversarial debate which should take place on the floor of the Convention, rather than trying to sweep it all up into a convenient package. You may ask me: Is that happening? Gisela is in a much better position to tell you what goes on in the Praesidium but I believe that they are debating issues as well as rules.

  47. So you are really pleading guilty to your own political defence on the subject. You are failing to engage in argument on this issue at the moment but you would like to believe that the Praesidium would do the things which you have advocated this morning it is not yet doing.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) To emphasise, we are at a very early stage in all this. I think when the working groups report back to the plenary session in the late summer or early autumn, then we will be armed with more detail and we can start to challenge each other and ask these difficult questions. I would regard the Praesidium's duty not to try to deliver up pre-packaged solutions on each working group.

  48. Of course, you are a third of the way through your allotted time. You realise that. Could you just tell me something about the Secretariat. I understand Sir John Kerr, who has of course a very splendid record in this country, is running the Secretariat. How is that working? Is it giving both of you the back up that you need? Would you also tell us, as you are answering to this Committee, whether you think we, in this Parliament, are giving you, as our representatives, the back-up (secretarial services, research assistants and all those other things) which you certainly need in order to put forward the views that you are putting forward.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I am very grateful to the House of Commons for funding a dedicated researcher, which I have and who comes out with me to help me. It does not create an equality of arms between myself and the MEPs and the well-briefed ministers, but it is a huge help. Our office facilities over there are very primitive: I cannot, for instance, pick up my e-mails from the parliamentary server, but that is a technical problem which, though it has taken them four months, I hope they will eventually solve. I have no complaints about what the House of Commons is trying to do. On the second issue, the Secretariat, I am sure, is looking always for the end solution and trying to find the right compromises through this maze. And, of course, one has to sympathise: it is very difficult to assemble one or even several texts for all the different views expressed. Sir John Kerr is the man to deliver something and I think we are lucky to have a British person in that position of influence. Perhaps I can just make the additional point that the Secretariat or even the Presidency is not all powerful in one respect, which is that in the mornings before the plenary we also meet, either in our political family groups or, in our case, in a meeting of the national parliamentarians. That is under the chairmanship of the country that happens to have the six months' Presidency. That, in our case, has not been well organised by the Spanish. We hope for better things when the Danes take over in July. I think, to echo a previous point, that one of the reasons that national parliaments are not punching their weight so far in the Convention is that the Spanish Presidency were not good at synthesising a point of view on which we could perhaps table ideas between us in order to enhance the influence of the national parliaments.

  49. Would Ms Stuart like to comment on those various points? Also, as you are a member of the Praesidium and have extra responsibilities, are you getting the back-up help that you need from this Place?
  (Ms Stuart) I pay full tribute to the House authorities for the speed at which they have responded to our needs. As we always criticise creating big bureaucracies—and, of course, two researchers would be better than one—I think, in terms of the facilities that have been made available to us, they allow us to function. But may I make two additional points? One is to pay tribute to the House's foresight in setting up a Brussels' office. Only three out of the other 15 countries have a permanent representative there. Nick Walker, who is based in Brussels, has been of tremendous support also in helping to get the national parliamentarians coordinated. One of the things which we have done, with the agreement of the Danish, is actually to create a permanent structure now so that we do not change with the Presidency all the time, so that our support does not change when it goes into the Greek Presidency, that we already work together as the Troika now, so that we organise it a bit better. In terms of the Praesidium Secretariat, there is a minimum support. I have been given two officials to support the work of the working group and I think that is sufficient. But, just as a personal aside, for any politician to see three thorough professionals like Giscard D'Estaing, like Giuliano Amato (the other person whom we have not mentioned, the former Italian Prime Minister) and like Sir John Kerr and simply to watch them operate, I think is a joy and something to learn from.

  Sir Patrick Cormack: That is a very nice positive answer. Thank you very much.

Sir John Stanley

  50. When the Foreign Secretary came in front of us on 13 March after the Barcelona Council, I referred him to what the Government said in their February 2000 White Paper which was headed ITC Reform for Enlargement—British Approach to the European Union Intergovernmental Conference 2000. In that White Paper the Government stated: "Clearly some areas, such as treaty change and accession, will have to remain subject to unanimous agreement. The Government has also made it clear that we should insist on retaining unanimity by the key issues of national interest such as treaty change, taxation, border controls, social security, defence and own resources." Later on, I asked the Foreign Secretary, in relation to each of those five items on which the British Government had previously said we should insist on retaining unanimity, on which of those five items that still remained the British Government's position. The Foreign Secretary responded: "There is a Convention on the future of Europe on which a representative of this Select Committee sits. That is likely to come forward with a series of proposals and from that we will make decisions. If you are asking me: am I going to say to you now that, whatever the arguments put forward by the Convention and whatever the change in circumstances, we regard the current position on QMV and unanimity as fixed in concrete? the answer is no, because I cannot believe that would be in the interests of the British people." So the Foreign Secretary indicated that the British Government's current position is that each of those five areas previously stated in the White Paper as being ones on which the British Government believe that we should insist on retaining unanimity is apparently up for further consideration as to whether unanimity should be maintained by the British Government. I would like to ask you both this: In this key area do you get the feeling so far—and I appreciate, of course, this may only be very much personal judgment from each of you at this stage—that, within the Convention, any area that previously was regarded as being sacrosanct as far as retaining unanimity is concerned might now be an area that would be the subject possibly of being moved into qualified majority voting subsequently? Or do you get the view that within the Convention there may be still just one or two areas, for example treaty change, just to take an example, which you think the Convention will, by a majority at least, be absolutely firm on retaining as items that should be remained subject to unanimity?
  (Ms Stuart) I think it really is too early to tell, but I just want to put two arguments which surprised me when I first heard them and, on thinking through, I see some real reason behind. One argument was put forward against extension of QMV and maintaining the single veto because they said it actually forces government to state what they really think and it forces them to take responsibility for their decisions—because with QMV they very often can hide behind others. I had not thought about it in that light before. The second one was that realisation that in the last five years or so QMV has very often been used not to achieve decisions, which is what we thought originally its purpose was, but to split up blocking minorities, and in some areas QMV has been the very mechanism by which countries have prevented decisions happening. I am using that as an illustration. We are at a stage when people are really thinking through what is important and what is not. Where is QMV actually in our interests? In Britain, for example, we want it on some justice and home affairs issues. Some decisions have been made more on QMV than others have. So my personal expectation will be that you we will have a process where people will really think this through a bit more clearly, on what it means in reality, and there will be such things, like treaty changes, where I will be extremely surprised if people would not continue to insist that that must be subject to veto.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) The retreat has already started, in fact, on unanimity. On border controls, it may be perhaps true that we will retain those and not submit to majority voting on that form of security; nevertheless, Lady Scotland, the Foreign Office Minister in the last plenary, said that on asylum and immigration matters this should be a common policy decided by majority voting, so I regard, to that extent, our borders will be subject to majority votes. On tax, I think they will not be called taxes, they will be called charges, and they will be subject to majority voting. Also, on the structure of our tax systems rather than the actual level of tax, we will also lose unanimity. Of course, one reason the Irish voted no in the Nice Treaty is that they do not like the enhanced cooperation proposals in the Nice Treaty because they see this as one way in which the national veto could be overridden even on constitutional issues. For instance, if the Irish vote no on a subsequent treaty and the Nice proposals are in place, all the other countries could agree to move ahead, with or without permission of the Irish Government, under the enhanced cooperation proposals, leaving the country that says "no" isolated. In a way, that is an indirect way of overriding national vetos even on treaty changes. So the whole matter is very much under review. It is said that eating words is a nutritious diet but I think the Foreign Office can look forward to quite a meal of this at the end of the Convention. If I could just make one more point, Chairman. All this tends to be justified because of enlargement. It is said that, if we have a union of another 10 members, of course we must have more majority voting, but that is a technocratic solution. It is not a democratic advance; it is simply saying to Member States and electorate that they are more likely to be out-voted and find themselves in minority, and perhaps permanent minorities, on permanent issues. That, in the eyes of the citizen, is a loss of democracy, not a gain. But it is always dressed up in terms of enlargement, because: Who can be against enlargement?

  51. Could I raise another area of a great deal of interest and importance, which is the issue of the six months' rotating presidency. That is certainly seen, particularly by some of the smaller countries, as being a really unique opportunity whereby they are able to be, for a six-month period, centre stage in Europe. Can you tell us whether you see the Convention moving towards the suggestion that has been made of the Presidency being occupied on an elected basis through the Council of Ministers and being held, say, for a period of two years rather than six months. Is that gaining ground or not?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I would comment that this raises the issue of tension between the big and the small states. The bigger countries like this idea because they want the European Union to have a personality at its head on the world stage; small countries see the dangers, that it simply gives more influence to the big countries. I do not know how that will come out. Personally, I feel this is starting at the wrong end. It is trying to create a more efficient, more effective Europe rather than a democratic Europe, and it also feeds the sort of vanity of the European Union that it must challenge America on the world stage. I, personally, do not agree with that as an ambition unless Europe does more together at a lower stage, in which case it can earn its place on the world stage rather than simply taking it as something of right.
  (Ms Stuart) I will get to the point even if it may not sound very immediate. If you want national parliaments to have a greater influence on European decision-making and want to be involved earlier—which I think we probably all agree that we do want—then we need to be able to lock into a process which is much more long-term and strategic. The Commission brings forward its proposals on a strategic basis and there is a mechanism there. The one part of the jigsaw which at the moment chops and changes all the time and has no strategic direction is at the Council of Ministers' level, when, with the change of a Presidency every six months, you also change the kind of priorities. I think there is an increasing awareness that the current system of the Council of Ministers with the Presidency is an unworkable one. I am at this stage slightly agnostic as to what I think the precise details of the changes which are needed are going to be, but I think it will have to be on a three-year, if not five-year, kind of block, where you have a permanent head of this but then you could still have your Vice-Presidency which is a host country. You could still meet in the various countries, which gives them that kind of exposure, that kind of buying into the feeling of being part of it, but still have a stronger and more permanent strategic role within the Council of Ministers. What is important for me is that, if we want to have a strong Commission, a strong Council and strong national parliament then there has to be kind of equality and synchronisation in the way in which they work. That view is increasingly getting support, rather than a specific proposal on what this will look like.


  52. On the working groups, Ms Stuart, you chair one of the key groups. Can you say anything about the case for coordination of the work of the several groups? We have had, I am sure you will have seen this, a very helpful paper, sent to us by Giovanni Grevi of the European Policy Centre[1], showing the degree of integration which already exists. It might be helpful to give the Committee (i) the way in which the work of the several groups will be coordinated and (ii) a bit more about the proposal to establish further groups and in what areas.

  (Ms Stuart) The working groups in many ways are overlapping. If we want to look at the whole spectrum of the European Union then there will always be a strong interrelationship. The most immediate overlap between the group I am chairing and another group is the one of subsidiarity and we have actually planned for a joint session in September. One of the key people who will give evidence to the working group and national parliament is an academic author called Maurer who did a survey of what all the European countries are doing and he is also giving evidence to the group on subsidiarity. So we are trying to make sure, where there is already a natural overlap, that we also to meet as committees. As to further groups, I think some of them are already clear that they will have to happen because of the remit of Laeken and also the requests—

  53. In which areas?
  (Ms Stuart) I would expect to see working groups on justice and home affairs. I would expect to see working groups on European security and defence policy. I would expect to see working groups on the way the instruments work and how to police them.

  54. Would the timetable allow that? Remember, we are moving after the August break into a period where, presumably, ideas will be collected together by the end of each year. If new working groups are established in the autumn, there will be very severe time pressures on these groups.
  (Ms Stuart) But they will also, I think, become smaller. At the moment, my working group is some 30 people. I think they will become smaller and they will have shorter remits of their reporting back.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  55. It is very helpful to have all this evidence this morning. We are grateful for it. You have made a report to the House. How often will you be reporting to the House?
  (Ms Stuart) I was hoping—but we were not quite able to do it—that the second report would actually be with us this week. At the moment we are looking at 24 June for the second report. It is theoretically on a monthly basis, though in some months the calendar month does not make any sense: as nothing will be happening in August, there will not be an August report. But the second one is in the pipeline.

  56. You report to the House. How does the House indicate to you, other than via this Committee, what it thinks of those reports? Are you satisfied that there is an adequate mechanism for you to know how your colleagues in the House are viewing what you are doing on their behalf?
  (Ms Stuart) I think this is where we are hoping the new committee, where the standing order went to the House last—

  57. Of which we are all members, of course.
  (Ms Stuart)—are able to set up meetings of that as early as possible. I think that will be the mechanism by which both Houses can feed back.

  58. Would you concur with that?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Yes. In addition, there are other committees interested in the subject. The European Scrutiny Committee is, I understand, to produce its report on this at the end of this week. We have a debate this afternoon on European affairs. I think all these are extremely important ways of asserting not just British interests but national parliamentary interests, which, as we have indicated so far, are wanting at the minute in the Convention.

  59. May I just be allowed to ask a policy question? It seems to me that fundamental to any successful enlargement is a successful reordering of the Common Agricultural Policy. Is your Convention addressing that? If so, how is it addressing it, and with what optimism do you view those addresses?
  (Ms Stuart) The answer is no. You see, the problem is some people would argue that CAP should be taken out of EU level and repatriated to national governments. That is a policy decision. What I think the Convention would look at is: Are you going to have a mechanism by which you would this kind of process to occur?—rather than say, specifically: "The CAP is something which you should take out."
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think it was a great mistake to open negotiations with 10 candidate countries without solving the problems of the CAP and the existing inequalities in the budget. That was not resolved at the Berlin Summit in 1999, as it should have been. As too often happens, we are then drifting forward, pushing these difficult decisions in front of us, but they have got to be faced at some point and I would like a working group to have gone into this. It may be difficult, it might have even caused some controversy, but that is what the Convention should welcome. To widen my answer slightly, I also asked, specifically, for a working group on the economic future of Europe, because, in my view, the European Union does not have a political or social future unless it is competitive in the world. Far too much of the discussion is very internal to the European Union. I want us to be aware of the wider world—both our competitiveness in the wider world in an economic sense and also I would like to have witnesses from developing countries. The European Union has the highest peak tariffs against developing countries of any of the trade blocks. The EU launches more anti-dumping measures against developing countries than American or Japan according to the recent Oxfam report. The European Union may be popular or unpopular in Europe itself—and we can debate that—but I know, from my experience as a former Foreign Office Minister, it is extremely unpopular in a number of developing countries, where it is seen as a rich man's club. So it is those wider global issues that I want discussed in the Convention as well, and so far they have not been.

1   Section entitled "The Europe we need", found at Back

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