Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Secretary of State, I am going to call Mr Illsley shortly in respect of the key part of the Seville European Council, that is immigration. I will just set the scene with a short question. Clearly we have just had the French elections. We will be having the German elections in September. Does this mean there will be such a degree of hesitation now in respect of key European partners that there is no serious prospect of any major decisions being made at Seville?

  (Mr Straw) No, I do not think it does. Again, Mr Anderson, I cannot predict the outcome of Seville but on some of the issues which are before the Council, in any event, those are the subject of broad cross-party agreement in the Member States. For example, if you take an issue on which we reached finally very much an interim conclusion in the General Affairs Council on Monday in Luxembourg, which is direct payments, an element of the Common Agricultural Policy, and whether negotiations about the future of CAP and direct payments should be directly linked to enlargement or whether it should run in parallel with it, we and the Netherlands and Germany, and a number of other Member States, are on the same side on that. My very clear understanding is that within the Netherlands and Germany there is a broad consensus behind the position that their governments at the moment are taking. There will be a change of Government in the Netherlands, because it is an interim government taking place at the moment. The current Foreign Minister, Jozias van Aartsen, is very confident about the position he is taking and so too, I have to say, has Joschka Fischer been on behalf of the Government of Germany.

  2. On the financing of the CAP there is a remaining impasse?
  (Mr Straw) Where we have got to is that some countries do not want to see as rapid a phasing out of direct payments as do we and Germany and the Netherlands. We are involved in a negotiation. There is nothing new about that. Also what I would say as far as the new Government in France is concerned is that at least and at last, for the first time for five years, there is now what amounts to a single Government in France. No-one in the current French Government or French Parliament was responsible for this part of the constitution in the fifth republic, designed in rather different circumstances but cohabitation would stretch the imagination and the patience of anybody involved in politics and it caused very considerable difficulties to all the participants in those French governments. It is in many ways to their great credit they managed to work their way around it but it was very difficult for them.

Mr Illsley

  3. Foreign Secretary, immigration, which is on the agenda for Seville, not least because the Prime Minister wrote to his Spanish counterpart asking for a push because, in his words "the Tampere agenda on illegal immigration has become bogged down". Why do you think that is?
  (Mr Straw) Principally it has become bogged down because of the decision making processes of the Council of the European Union. This is an area where first of all some of the changes which we have been proposing to the way the Council operates would greatly help just to speed up the whole process, to have less turnover in the chairing of councils, to have a more strategic European Council with the Heads of Government. For that to be less the subject of a Court of Appeal also involves, in my view, greater activity by the Commission but if you take one issue, which is QMV—qualified majority voting—now there is a title which was agreed in Amsterdam in the Treaties of the European Union, Article 62 to 67/68, which provides for Common Asylum Policy and also provides for the European Union to move by unanimity to QMV in respect of part of those areas. Bluntly, had we done so, it would have been easier to make decisions. It is really important that those of us who want a level playing field, which applies particularly to the United Kingdom and a number of other northern European countries, and say Austria—Austria is the subject of much higher levels of asylum seeking than we are per head of population—our desire and wish to achieve a level playing field is not vetoed by countries which have a direct sectoral interest in the playing field being very uneven. It is an area, one of many, where QMV would actually help us.

  4. You think it is the mechanics of the European Union rather than a lack of consensus on the policy?
  (Mr Straw) There was a consensus at Tampere, I was at Tampere. Quite a lot has been achieved but it has been disappointing that quite a lot has not been achieved. I think on the whole counter-terrorism, criminal justice/co-operation area, the consensus coalesced rapidly after September 11—for reasons which are obvious—and a lot has been done there and that is part of the Tampere Agenda. On asylum in particular, because it is much more to do with asylum than with immigration, there was some agreement but not so much until I would say the last year as asylum has risen up the agendas of all the existing 15 European Member States. All understand that, yes, we have to do more to improve legal immigration into our countries in terms of work permits and schemes like that but at the same time we have to take more effective action against illegal immigration which is not only worse in domestic communities but also worse for those who are patiently standing in a queue waiting for their rights as legal migrants.

  5. The Prime Minister, in his letter of 16 May, makes several specific proposals including urgent action to strengthen the EU's borders; a tougher approach with source countries on returns; joint work on returns to Afghanistan and action to discourage "asylum shopping". Have we any specific proposals which we will put to Seville on strengthening the EU's borders? Will they be compatible with enlargement?
  (Mr Straw) They have to be. On strengthening the borders, when I was Home Secretary we started to provide advice to immigration and border police services in a number of countries to the east of the existing borders of the EU. We are looking at more effective co-operation at an inter-governmental level between border police services of the EU. We are looking towards an arrangement by which the EU agrees that it would help to pay for strengthening of the borders so the countries which are most vulnerable to migration across their borders, which are those to the east and the south of the European Union, do not have disproportionately to pay on behalf of the rest of the European Union. Also, we are doing work with countries which are outwith the EU and outwith the accession countries. So, for example, in the Ukraine we are spending £300,000 in providing them with advice about the running of the proper border police service. On Afghanistan, I am pleased to say that Afghanistan has been extremely co-operative in terms of taking back refugees and a million have now gone back. Most of them, it is true, from across the border in Pakistan but they are very anxious indeed to receive back the many thousands of refugees who are in this country, many of them highly skilled, and we want to encourage them to go back. Would that, I am afraid, other countries in the developing world have been as co-operative as Afghanistan about this.

  6. On that very point, the Prime Minister made some comments on the question of perhaps withholding aid for source countries who refused to co-operate on returns of illegal immigrants. He was somewhat criticised for holding that view. Is that still the Government's stance?
  (Mr Straw) What David Blunkett talked about, and I repeated his point, is what has been described as positive conditionality. In association agreements, which are typically trade agreements with a very large number of countries outside the EU, we lay down conditions in respect of the observance by those countries, say, of a raft of human rights and good governance requirements. Now, increasingly, countries in the Middle East are laying down conditions, also, about countering terrorism, as we have done with the Lebanon in an agreement we have just signed and we propose to do in negotiations which are beginning with the Government of Iran. Obviously I understand the controversy here, and we have to be sensitive to this. This is not about "punishing" the people of poor countries because their governments are bad at redocumentation, let us make that absolutely clear. I say, also, even when you have a government, like the government of Zimbabwe, which has palpably failed its obligations, as it has done under Article 2, the Cotonou Agreement in respect of human rights, we have carried on providing aid to the people of that country in terms of humanitarian relief, and I am pleased we have done so because they do not deserve to be starved for the sins of President Mugabe and his colleagues. There are countries where the EU is providing quite a lot of aid and it seemed to us—this was reflected in a consensus around the table but not a unanimous agreement in the discussion on Monday—that to be able to say to these countries "Look here, you are expecting these benefits from us, to show obligations of good governance we happen to believe that an element of good governance is that you should provide passports to people who are plainly your nationals who have torn them up in order in an unfounded way to claim asylum, how about it?" It enables us to have that dialogue. The question of suspending agreement would be a long way down the track. In most cases, I think probably all, the country would then actually negotiate. It would give a lever to the good people inside that government against those who may have been, say, in league with corrupt border police to ensure that passports were not provided too easily.

  7. Are you able to tell us which countries the Prime Minister had in mind?
  (Mr Straw) I do not want publicly to give the list because it would probably make the situation worse, with great respect. I do not mind writing confidentially to the Committee. I do not want to withhold the information from the Committee.

  Chairman: Does that suit you, Mr Illsley?

Mr Illsley

  8. Yes. Finally, Denmark has recently passed a series of tough immigration laws, especially for cohabitation of people under the age of 24. What degree of harmonisation is going to be required within the EU to discourage "asylum shopping"?
  (Mr Straw) In my view we have to get to a situation where first there is a common interpretation of what the 1951 Refugee Convention actually means because we are all subject to the same law apparently. It lays down that there should be asylum given to people in well founded fear of persecution, then it goes into more detail. The interpretation of that varies from state to state and, for example, in Germany and France they do not recognise what is called non-state persecution in the way that it is recognised by our courts and the courts of a number of other EU countries. That in itself produces asylum shopping. People who are persecuted by reason of their social group—the persecution arises from another social group not from the government—can claim asylum in a number of EU countries but not those in those countries. So that is one area. There is then a question of the kind of minimum of support which is given in terms of what amounts to food and assistance, that kind of support, then in due course rights to work and so on and then in terms of processes, the number of appeals. One of the complaints Germany has about its own system is there are four levels of appeal whereas in other countries the appeals are more peremptory. It is all that sort of area which we have to look at where we need common policies.

Sir John Stanley

  9. Foreign Secretary, as you know the Commission has put forward various proposals in relation to asylum, seeking a common definition of asylum seeker, etc.. I would like to ask you do you envisage that the Commission and the Council of Ministers are moving towards having an EU Directive in this asylum area?
  (Mr Straw) I apologise for the fact that I am pretty sure that will be the idea, yes, either a regulation or a Directive and that was certainly what was anticipated by Commissioner Vitorino when I was Home Secretary.
  (Mr Darroch) Yes.

  10. Again, can you confirm for the record, because it will be material in law, that if there is an EU Directive on asylum it will not only in law override UK domestic legislation on asylum but it will also override UK obligations under the Asylum Convention?
  (Mr Straw) As you know, under Section 2 of the European Communities Act there was a Directive, we then have to transpose that. So what overrides it is the transposition rather than the Directive but under an obligation to transpose the Directive into our own domestic law. If we fail to do that we can be taken before the European Court of Justice which is a different position from if there was a regulation which would automatically come into force in every European country. The issue of whether any country's domestic law can override an obligation that each country has signed up to in the United Nations is a very interesting one but the advice I was hoping to receive was that it could not. That would be the view taken, I am certain, by our highest courts in this country and I believe equivalent constitutional courts of other countries. There is no suggestion, let me say, that the obligations that each Member State has under the United Nations Convention on Refugees 1951 would be abrogated by this. Indeed, at Tampere but certainly in the draft that we looked at on Monday in the GAC, there is continuing reference to obligations under the 1951 Convention. There may come a time, and I raised this in a speech I made in Lisbon two years ago, when we need to review those obligations. To pick up what Mr Illsley was asking me, the fact is that the interpretations of those similar obligations vary so much.

  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, this is a complex legal area and with the permission of the Chairman I would like to ask if you could let the Committee have a further note on this issue. I am asking you this against the background of another area in which I take a close interest which is the area of child abduction where with the EU's involvement increasingly in family law, the all-party group in this area has been advised that the proposed EU Directive will override not merely British domestic law in this area but also, potentially, the operations of the Hague Convention on Child Abduction. That is a parallel degree of legal relationships and I think the Committee would be most interested to have the Foreign Office view as to whether or not the implications of an EU Directive in this area could materially change one way or the other the UK's obligations under the existing Asylum Convention and, indeed, the obligations of all existing EU Member States.


  11. Is that alright?
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

  12. Secretary of State, I would like to move on now to two new areas, enlargement and the Convention on the Future of Europe as they relate to Seville. Firstly, in respect of enlargement we know that the assumption is that the key decisions will be made at Copenhagen in December and the relevant Commissioner, Gunter Verheugen, has said that he hopes that ten of the applicant countries will by then have satisfied the various Chapters. In your judgment, have there been recent developments that have put a question mark over that, particularly the new concern with immigration? Has there been such a reaction of public opinion within those countries, particularly those which are not very enthusiastic, as to put in question the timetable?
  (Mr Straw) The United Kingdom Government is very strongly committed to keeping this process of enlargement on track with a view to it being settled by the end of this year and then joining in 2004. You will know that the British Government and the British Prime Minister have been in the lead in the whole process of enlargement. A lot of faith and confidence is being placed by the accession countries in the UK and we are not going to let them down.

  13. "We" being the UK Government.
  (Mr Straw) The UK Government. I cannot say for certain what the result will be, but I think there is a wide understanding around the table of the Councils of the European Union about the importance of ensuring that we do meet these deadlines. Yes, there are some still difficult chapters to be negotiated, not least agriculture, but they are not going to be become any easier to negotiate by putting off the day when they have to be negotiated. That is the position there. As to opinion in the accession countries, there has been a lively debate in those countries about whether they should join the European Union and competition between parties—they are democracies—but I do note that the recent result in the Czech Republic committed the election parties to joining.

  14. I am thinking rather more of the opinion in the existing EU countries which has been soured, as one has seen, in elections by concerns about crime and immigration. Has this in your view altered the context?
  (Mr Straw) No, and if you take the countries where there have been recent elections, in France, President Chirac and the parties of the Assembly are very strongly committed to the European Union. After all, France was a founder member of the European Union. One very good thing about these results its is how the National Front in France have been driven out of sight. After some dalliance with the far right the French voters have comprehensively rejected them. As colleagues here know, the situation in the Netherlands was always more complex with Pim Fortuyn.

  15. You think the momentum is sufficiently strong to overcome those problems on the financing of the CAP in respect of the applicant countries because, as I understand it, agreement has still not nearly been reached within the relevant council.
  (Mr Straw) For many of the applicants most chapters have been closed but inevitably the most difficult chapters are still to be closed and that includes those relating to agriculture. It is my hope and belief that we will stay on track for the accession of the ten countries. I think that there will be some hairy moments between now and then. There is nothing new in that inside the European Union. That is my belief; I cannot be certain about it.

  16. Can you indicate in respect of the result of the Irish referendum what is the current thinking on the way of getting around that result, assuming that there could be remaining difficulties if there was no change in the Irish vote?
  (Mr Straw) There has been an election in Ireland. Again, all the parties in Ireland are committed, as I understand it, strongly to the European Union, but particularly the party of the government.

  17. That was the position last time.
  (Mr Straw) I know that is true. If you want a definitive answer you are going to have to ask the Government of the Republic of Ireland, not me. From what I recall they are committed to holding a further referendum later this year. There is a significant mandate for the Taoisseach to do that and for Fianna Fail and we look forward to that.

  18. What is the fall-back position?
  (Mr Straw) With the greatest respect, we will have to wait and see, but most of the Irish politicians to whom I speak are reasonably confident about a yes vote in that result.

  19. They were last time.
  (Mr Straw) I am not sure they were. There was an assumption but it was not a positive confidence.

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