WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002
Donald Anderson, in the Chair
RT HON JACK STRAW, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and MR KIM DARROCH, Director, European Union, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, examined.
(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.
(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 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 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
(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.
(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.
(Mr Straw) Yes.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 Fáil and we look forward to that.
(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.
(Mr Straw) I am not sure they were. There was an assumption but it was not a positive confidence.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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!
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Straw) That is not problem, it is a complication. Denmark is outwith that structure so Greece assumes the chair.
(Mr Straw) It may be possible to reach some ad hoc arrangement, but yes is the answer.
(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
(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.