Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Mr Mackinlay

  20. Have there been any discussions with the Irish Foreign Ministry as to what they construe by giving undertakings on neutrality? In a sense that does not mean much. Do they mean a comparable arrangement which Denmark has for instance on EDSP? I understand the neutrality position of the Irish Free State 1939 to 1945 but Irish Republic neutrality in this context is not too clear. I am very keen that we should accommodate them—and it does not seem a great problem—but what does it mean?
  (Mr Straw) I have not, as I recall, had conversations on this specific detail. I have had general conversations with my opposite number in the Irish Government for sure but I have not had detailed discussions with him here about what that means. There have been other discussions at other levels. You will forgive me if I cannot give details at the moment because they are not in public.

  21. You have referred to Belarus and the Ukraine earlier and the need for strict border controls which is manifest, and I understand that, but, equally, there is at the present time this cross-border trade, itinerant trade mainly down the border with Poland and mainly, but not exclusively, we are talking about Polish ethnic folk in the West of the Ukraine, west of Belarus. It does seem to me there is a great danger of us creating a curtain in real terms. How are we working to find some way of maintaining the border integrity for reasons of immigration and so on and fighting crime but, nevertheless, I am desperately worried that we will forget about this area of Europe.
  (Mr Straw) We will not forget about it and you are right to point to its importance. As the border of the European Union shifts eastwards and the countries on that border become of more critical significance to the European Union as a whole than they have been at the moment- and that includes the Ukraine, Moldavia and Belarus and countries further east, the Caucases and the South Asia Republics—we have important responsibilities to try and assist their development. I gave one example earlier in terms of a relatively small amount of money but relatively small amounts of money properly spent can make a difference to particular countries. I personally regard the development of these countries as a priority for me.

  22. Mr Heathcoat-Amory was with us the other day and although I probably have a different view to him about the speed of European integration, nevertheless, I thought he raised a very valid point to us about the signing up to the acquis of applicant countries particularly, though not exclusively, the small ones. He put forward, with some validity, the danger that people would put on their statute books the acquis and they would do it by one big enabling act or something like that when, one, in some cases they might not have fully digested what the responsibilities are and, two, there might not be the capacity or the commitment to fulfil it to the letter. It is difficult enough for us to keep abreast of Directives which come from Brussels as it is and to implement them. It does seem to me that this is an enormous task. We have a vested interest in seeing the acquis fulfilled; it is matter of right. Has there been some exploration of how this can be done?
  (Mr Straw) The density and complexity of the tests that amount to the corpus of EU law is a matter of concern. I remember talking to somebody involved in this field in one of the accession states who himself is a very distinguished lawyer saying that he found it, even though he had worked in this field almost all his life, extraordinarily difficult, and so it would be all the more difficult for his government, which was one the accession states. We recognise the problem; you are right to identify it. So, too, do the Commission. They have allocated an additional 250 million euro to spend on institution-building in the candidate countries this year to support so-called action plans which are about institution building in each of the Member States. We are also assisting them through involvement in over 100 projects as part of the EU's twinning programme in which quite a lot of members of this House are involved. There is this big issue of monitoring what they are doing. It is a problem with the smaller states or those with less developed public administrations systems.

  23. In the joint letter of Tony Blair and Chancellor Schroeder it did canvas this whole idea of the Council of Ministers acting legislatively that it can and should be in open session. Are you optimistic? Has this been picked up? Again, I am with it on this but this is quite important to a lot of folk here.
  (Mr Straw) This subject came up partly in the debate yesterday. The suggestion is that there should be television cameras in when councils are legislating. It happens less in foreign affairs councils than it does in some of the other functional councils. I think that is a good idea. Personally I think would be a bad idea to have reporters and cameras in when the councils are negotiating because all that would mean is that negotiations would have to move outside. The trade in terms of arguments about texts and motives and all the rest of it, which can take place in the room at the moment, would shift to other rooms and you would end up with less transparency, not more. That is what is in mind, but there are other things we have to do. We look forward to ideas from the Convention as well as from Seville about how the councils can better operate and more efficiently operate.


  24. Before I move further into the Convention on the Future of Europe, just one or two questions on enlargement. The normal pattern has been late-night sittings at the very end of the final Council and at the Council which takes place prior to the previous Presidency there is probably very little progress. Do you in that context expect any significant movement in respect of enlargement?
  (Mr Straw) It is not going to dominate the agenda and the Council where it will dominate the agenda will be Copenhagen in the autumn.

  25. Then Kaliningrad; the Russian Federation and the European Union have reached an impasse in respect of Kaliningrad. Is there any way through that you can see? Is there any UK initiative in this respect?
  (Mr Straw) Mr Darroch is the man who has got everything at his fingertips.
  (Mr Darroch) The position on Kaliningrad is that, as you say, at the EU/Russian summit a week or two back there was a disagreement about the EU's proposal that Russians living in Kaliningrad who want to go to mainland Russian territory should need visas to cross Poland and Lithuania. What is going to happen at Seville is probably (though it is not certain yet) a Presidency paper with some ideas on ways of bridging the divide between the Russian position and the EU position. As of now, the EU position remains that visas would be required for Russians going between the two. We will see if the President comes up with ideas for new ways forward on this.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, you know that our colleague Gisela Stuart is not only a member of the Convention (and you very happily arranged for our Committee to put forward a member of the Committee in that respect) she is also a member of the Presidium and chairs a key working group in respect of relations with national governments. I am going to ask Ms Stuart to deal with any remaining questions on enlargement and also on matters relating to the Convention.

Ms Stuart

  26. I have given evidence over the last few sessions on how I thought the Convention was developing in front of this Committee. I would be very interested to hear from your point of view how the Convention is working.
  (Mr Straw) The jury is out with me although I pay tribute to the high quality of the parliamentary and governmental representative from the United Kingdom on it. I talk to Peter Hain a lot about the work of the Convention and I think that the people we have got representing all three parts, both from government and from Parliament, are people of a very high calibre and, if I may say, I would pay tribute to Ms Stuart for her work and for the fact that she has managed, by dint of her reputation, to gain election to the Presidium and then to chair this committee on national parliaments. So far, so good. As far as I know, you have not produced any reports, have you? What I hope too, however, and obviously I have followed what President Giscard d'Estaing says about his views, is that when the Convention does report, if there are genuine points of disagreement, then they are reflected in the report. Even though we said at Laeken that there should be options in the report, there will be a tendency to produce a single package. Unless there is a widespread agreement for a single package personally I think that would be a mistake. I also believe—and I made this point yesterday in the House—that the reinforcing and strengthening of the role of national parliaments is an extremely important part of the agenda of the Convention and making recommendations about that. It has always in my view been important but at this time—to pick up a point that you were raising Mr Anderson—there is no disagreement with the principle of the European Union but doubt about how it is working by many of our publics. It is extremely important that we rebuild confidence in the European Union by rebuilding the confidence of the component parts of that European Union, namely nation states, who are in the best position to represent the publics. This is not a super-federation or anything of that sort. It is the Member States that have signed up to treaties who make it operate. I cannot see of any other way in which it can operate than the basic structures being subject to inter-governmental treaty. We ought to strengthen that reality and into that comes the role of national parliaments.

  27. The Solana paper and of course the Convention itself will look at EU architecture, and you are saying that the process that is going on where the Council of Ministers and heads of states are developing some of the agenda, which some would argue should have been left to the Convention. What is your view about whether these reform processes should continue to go on within the current structure and be discussed at Seville for example irrespective of what the Convention does? Secondly, there is a suspicion amongst members of the Convention that the real deals are being struck when Giscard d'Estaing does his rounds of visiting heads of government. I assume as you were party to it that you will at least know what these meetings have been about and because members of the Presidium want to know what these discussions were, to what extent would those suspicions be true?
  (Mr Straw) I can only speak for the British Government. I have seen no evidence of any deals being struck. I was at one of the meetings with Giscard d'Estaing earlier in the year. I could not be at the second because I was somewhere else around the world, Canada or it could have been somewhere else, but this was an iterative discussion rather than deal striking. On your point about the Solana proposals, these are proposals, as you will be aware, for changes in the operation of the Councils of Ministers and the European Council which do not need Treaty changes and therefore are within the existing competencies of the European Council. It seems to me very sensible for us to get ahead and make the changes that can be agreed. They will not be set in stone because they are not in the Treaty; they are ones about streamlining the operation of Councils. If they work, fine, that can only be to the advantage of the more comprehensive changes that the Convention recommend the IGC brings in. If they do not work, then we can change them.

  28. One of the things which I heard being expressed about the current proposals of the Convention—it was expressed by someone involved in the Amsterdam negotiations—was that what appears to be happening is that all the deals which were struck on behalf of UK plc are being dismantled bit by bit, including the pillar structure, by the Convention. Is that your impression?
  (Mr Straw) You are much closer to this than I am. I have to say I think it is extremely important for us that the pillar structure is maintained, particularly the difference between pillar one and pillars two and three. You could argue that pillars two and three legally amount to, roughly speaking, the same thing because they are about inter-governmental matters, but it is necessary to separate the pillars for common foreign and security policy from pillar three, which is justice and home affairs, and that distinction is important. We are opposed to the communautisation of defence and foreign policy because if you were to communautise defence and foreign policy, in due course perhaps subject to QMV, the European Union would cease to be an association or union of nation states because, by definition, the nation state is, above all, the unit of government which has a monopoly over the use of force within that territory. So that would go. On criminal law, which is basically what is left under pillar three, yes, we should better co-operate. We should do what (I say modestly) I proposed and then got going when I was Home Secretary in a speech I made in Avignon the day I found out about Pinochet so it was in late October 1998, that in place of having corpus juris, common legal space, you had mutual recognition of legal systems, which happens in its own modest way for example through the European arrest warrant. That has, in my view, to be inter-governmental. The idea that you can get to a harmonised land law in the European Union defies the imagination and certainly defies the intellectual capacity of the whole of the EU's lawyers.

  29. I am afraid the bad news is that at the Convention debate last week on justice and home affairs there were numerous calls for the dismantling of the third pillar. Giscard d'Estaing himself said he did not recognise the third pillar as a proper pillar structure and therefore incorporation in the first pillar would be not only perfectly acceptable but be a logical conclusion. Given that there is an amount of debate going on which calls for this greater involvement, when can we see a statement of United Kingdom policy on the pillar structure?
  (Mr Straw) By the sound of it, quite soon. Thank you very much for that early information about what is going on in the Convention. I gather many flowers are blooming and some are wilting inside this Convention structure. I am aware of those who think that we should have criminal law or other aspects of domestic law placed under the Community. I only say that we have had experience of a political Union here with a monopoly over the use of force in the United Kingdom since 1707 but no British Government from that day on was mad enough to try to harmonise Scots law with English law. If the European Union want to try and do it and then try and harmonise it with Lithuanian law, I wish them luck.

  30. Just a final point, in yesterday's debate in the House there was a very lively exchange about the legal status of the Charter of Human Rights. What would the UK Government's position be if the Convention came up with full integration of the Charter?
  (Mr Straw) If it is taken into the bosom of the Treaty, we are opposed to that. There was a discussion about this and the Opposition were making a not very good point by saying that the Charter was now legally enforceable because courts were referring to the Charter. As Mr Anderson and I can certainly confirm and anybody else who is a practising lawyer around this table—Ms Stuart—are there any other takers?

  Mr Mackinlay: Barrack room!

Ms Stuart

  31. The best!
  (Mr Straw) If you had been admitted to the Bar we would have ensured that you were disbarred a long time ago, Mr Mackinlay! Proper lawyers here will confirm that plenty of documents and texts are argued about in court which are not necessarily legal authorities all the time. So that was a poor point raised by Mr Spring. The Charter of Rights was negotiated on the basis that it would not be a legally enforceable text equivalent to treaties or regulations and it is not in an appropriate form. We have a problem, which we are working on inside the British Government, which is that the approach of some other countries and some other justice systems is to say we all know that this is a bit of flim-flam which is included in the text so we will not take much notice of it. That may be possible for other legal systems but it is not possible for ours. If something is called law then we treat it literally in terms of what it says. So there is work that we are doing, both to look at why our systems operate rather differently from other countries but also to better inform other countries. Some of the very broad and rather extravagant claims made in the Charter of Rights would cause them very significant difficulties if they became legally enforceable.


  32. One or two further questions. Secretary of State, you said in response to Mrs Stuart that the Solana proposals for streamlining the Council were a matter to see how they would develop and were a matter, effectively, for them. We now know that on Monday this week Mr Prodi suggested a streamlining of the Commission which would have something like an inner cabinet, with several members therefore excluded from the inner sanctum. Is this, in your view, entirely a matter for the Commission themselves or does our Government have a view on that proposal?
  (Mr Straw) Could I also say that some Solana proposals would require Treaty change for sure. We think that they should be the subject of consideration after Seville, but some do not. On President Prodi's proposals, they were principally for the better internal management of the Commission. Of course, Member States have an interest in those for sure, but our basic starting point is that the President, along with the Commission College, is responsible for management of the Commission, and so we are willing to look at any proposals on their merits. For sure, the current system does not work all that well, there is overlap, and it would work still less well with an expanded Union. Another reason why it is important that we get Nice in place.

  33. You think they are essentially a matter of internal reorganisation?
  (Mr Straw) I need to ask Mr Darroch as to whether or not they would require the approval of the Council. For sure, they need to be discussed with Member States but they are more to do with the internal running of the Commission, they do not affect the Commission's powers.
  (Mr Darroch) President Prodi's proposals, as I understand them, are that the Commission should have a designated number of Vice Presidents who would be responsible for broad areas of policy and then a layer of Commissioners below that who would be responsible for selective areas of policy under these Vice Presidencies. He would have meetings once a fortnight of the full Commission and more regular weekly meetings of him and the Vice Presidents, so it is essentially a two- layered structure. We have not had these formally out yet. I am not sure that they require approval by the Council or that they would require Treaty change. It may be, as the Foreign Secretary suggests, a matter for the Commissioner. Perhaps we should write to you to set out exactly what the legal position is.

  34. The problem might be for those countries who might feel they would become second class, excluded from the cabinet of decision and it is for them really to kick against this if they so wish.
  (Mr Straw) One of the things that I think President Prodi has made clear is that this would not be a matter of all the Vice Presidents coming from big Member States and the more junior Commissioners from the small ones. There is a principle of equality of treatment.

  35. I would like to turn to the European security and defence policy. Let me then start on this. I think when you came before us towards the end of last year there was the Turkish problem that Turkey was prepared to prevent any progress on that policy as a NATO member in terms of the sharing of NATO assets unless its own aspirations were met. In large part as a result of skilful diplomacy by both by the United States and particularly by the United Kingdom, Turkish agreement was reached, I think, in December of last year. Then a further problem arose in respect of the unhappiness of Greece with the deal which had been reached. The first question that therefore follows is is there any serious expectation that there will be progress at Seville in or before 1 July or in any other forum on responding positively and satisfying the Greek objections?
  (Mr Straw) Discussions continue is the answer. They were continuing in the margin of the GAC on Monday in Luxembourg. I do not want to go into detail about them but they relate to this matter. There have been two particular clauses in the so-called Ankara text which have caused difficulty respectively to Greece and Turkey at paragraphs 2 and 12. So there is a lot of imagination going into whether it is possible to accommodate the concerns of the two countries in one and then the other. I cannot be certain what the outcome will be but we very much hope that there will be a positive outcome.

  36. As I understand it, there are particular problems because Denmark is not a member of the structure and Greece has the next following Presidency and take over as President of the ESDP element for one year effectively from 1 July.
  (Mr Straw) That is not problem, it is a complication. Denmark is outwith that structure so Greece assumes the chair.

  37. Unless agreement is reached the ESDP will not be able to take over the expected role on Macedonia.
  (Mr Straw) It may be possible to reach some ad hoc arrangement, but yes is the answer.

  38. But your judgment is that there is a serious prospect of the Greek objection being met and satisfied before the end of this month?
  (Mr Straw) You will forgive me for not wishing to give odds on this. It has been a very complex negotiation which tries to take account of the sensitivities of both the Turkish Government and the Greek Government. I am grateful to you for what you have had to say about th negotiators from the British Foreign Office who worked many hours and worked extremely hard with the US Government and the individual governments concerned to secure an agreement. So too has Javier Solana and I may say the Spanish Presidency is very committed and creative in trying to secure an accommodation here. The negotiations go on.

Sir John Stanley

  39. Can you update us as to where the British Government and the Council of Ministers are on the issue of having meetings with the Council of Ministers, particularly when legislation is under discussion, in public.
  (Mr Straw) With great respect, I did answer that question a moment ago. Were you out? I can repeat it if you want. The answer is that we are committed to having cameras and reporters in when we are legislating. As it happens, as far as foreign affairs is concerned there are not that many occasions when we are legislating because that happens only when you achieve a common position. The most recent case would have been sanctions on Zimbabwe. I am not in favour of having cameras and reporters in when we are negotiating for reasons that everybody understands. There was slightly less comprehension in the Chamber in that case. I would have thought it was blindingly obvious that all that would happen is that they would negotiate outside the room.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, we have kept you in the field for a long time. We have covered Gibraltar and we have covered Seville. On behalf of the Committee I would like to thank you very much indeed.

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