Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20 Ms Stuart: It has not been changed. It is the Testament. It is about the European Council Chair. Before the Draft was handed over to the IGC[4]there were extensive discussions, there were quite significant Members who wanted to create not just a President of the Commission and a President of the Council but also allow for the possibility of these two functions to be combined.

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q21 Ms Stuart: And there were various Drafts going backwards and forwards. The Draft that we have in front of us, Article 21:3 says, "The President of the European Council may not hold a national mandate."

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q22 Ms Stuart: The wisdom for not saying that they may not also hold another European mandate at the time was that this was such a big job that the two could never be combined. And in the Foreign Office's Short Guide to the European Union—

  Mr Straw: Its excellent short guide!

  Q23 Ms Stuart: The short, Short Guide—two-thirds of the past and one-third of the future, but it is very short, at page 34 it says: "The President of the European Council would not be a President of Europe."

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q24 Ms Stuart: I am slightly concerned because in evidence to the Dutch parliament—the Dutch are now holding the presidency—it is stated that the government specifically told the parliament on 31 March that the possibility should be kept that in future the President of the Commission can also be the President of the European Council, and subsequently the Dutch legal department added that Article 21:3, "The President of the European Council may not hold a national mandate", should be read explicitly as only excluding national mandates and no other European mandates.

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q25 Ms Stuart: That would, on the face of it, be quite a clear difference in interpretation between two major players. What is the UK Government's understanding?

  Mr Straw: We disagree with the position. I remember this coming up. There are two points to make. One is that even if this was within the Treaties, which we do not think it is, you could not just slip this through, you would have to get a decision of the Council to do it, on which there would have to be a unanimous decision. So we would have a veto on it in any event. But, secondly, we do not believe there is a base for this because if you look at Article 125(7), with which you will be familiar, it says, "In carrying out its responsibilities, the Commission shall be completely independent." Without prejudice to Article 127(2)—and that was in respect of the European Foreign Minister, and I claim some parentage for that bit—"The Members of the Commission shall neither seek nor take instructions from any government or other institution, body, office or agency." And "another institution or body" is within the European Union, ie the Council. So they shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties or performance of their task. I did go through this at some length. Our view is that it is outside the Treaties. I do not think I am wrong about that, but even if I were we would have a lock on it.

  Q26 Ms Stuart: Because if the Dutch Legal Services thought that this was a proper interpretation of the text, there is a theoretical possibility that the European Court of Justice, if called upon to interpret the Constitution, would read it as saying it was possible, and given that both of these positions are appointed by Qualified Majority Voting, if the UK was the only country that had that interpretation, how are we protected?

  Mr Straw: We are. There were some suggestions around at the much earlier stage that you should roll these two jobs into one, but that would be to recast the fundamental institutions of the European Union because they are based on separation of Council, Commission and Parliament. It is just there. It is not quite the old classical division of tasks but you have the Executive, which is the Council; you have the administrative arm, which is the Commission; you have, as it were, the legislative arm which is, for these purposes, Parliament, but also includes national parliaments. Then you have the separate court. If you had a single bod doing these jobs you are effectively seeking to merge the Council and the Commission, and I think in the real world that that cannot happen without a clear political decision. I know that that QMV is required for the posts. But the other thing is, Ms Stuart, say that we are around the room in the European Council and somebody has a rush of blood to the head and they say, "Right, we now have Joe Soap in as Commission President and we would like to have Joe Soap in as Council President as well," and let us assume there was a market for that and there is a QMV for this, and there were none of these legal problems, and we are clearer there, then those who were not in favour of this, which would include the UK, would then go off to the ECJ[5]The ECJ is a very slow body and it would take a long time and meanwhile there would be complete deadlock inside the European Union. So far from being clear it is the opposite of clear in the text, and I do not think it is going to happen.

  Q27 Ms Stuart: With the greatest respect, it is your interpretation that the absence of the political will would not allow this to happen. Both are on QMV and if the Dutch Legal Services, there is a theoretical possibility that the ECJ may interpret that, would it not be wise to get a clarification that it is not actually within the structure?

  Mr Straw: The clarification is here. May I ask you, if I may, what you think is meant by 125(7), "The Members of the Commission shall neither seek nor take instructions from any government or other institution, body, office or agency"? Does that not include the European Council?

  Q28 Ms Stuart: I am quoting a much higher authority, and that is the Dutch Legal Services and I would be interested, if it is possible, to get clarification on that.

  Mr Straw: With great respect to the Dutch Legal Services I think you should regard me as higher authority than that!

  Q29 Ms Stuart: Not on QMV. I think it may be helpful if you are pursuing this further if you could let us know, for clarification on this? May I now move on to the Commission? The latest round of appointments of the Commission had two rather high profile Commission appointments: one, Mr Buttiglione, who then did not become a Commissioner, and one in relation to the French Commissioner where essentially we were in a position that a previous criminal conviction was not made public, and a very common European morality was applied, which said that as long as it was not public it was not a problem—this eight months' suspended sentence. Has anything been learned or any conclusion been drawn for the next round in five years' time, whether we need to make changes in those Commission appointments?

  Mr Straw: Leaving aside the issue about Mr Buttiglione, can I say this about Monsieur Barrot? I did go into this in some detail and I thought that there was no substance to the argument that what had happened to Mr Barrot rendered him ineligible to serve in the Commission. The fact of the matter was that there was a conviction—we can provide you with the details—but were what Gary Titley, the Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, said himself on the radio were "technical offences". There was a conviction; it was very widely publicised at the time, and once something is publicised it is publicised—it was on websites, it was known. Subsequently there was an amnesty—not a presidential amnesty of the kind that happens after presidential elections in France—an ordinary amnesty which excised these particular convictions from the record, and under French law they have an extension of what is our Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which is that if someone has been pardoned of a crime it is as if the crime has never been committed. I have to say that there are some arguments in favour of such an approach, that if someone has been pardoned that they should not have hung around their neck the fact that they have also been convicted. That is their law, which we should respect, and Monsieur Barrot's argument is that it is unlawful to refer to this—I gather it is an offence to do so—and so that is why he did not refer to it. Moreover, in any event, the fact of what had happened to him earlier was known, and he had been in post for six months. People had not become amnesiac in the intervening six months; they had known about it, and it was on record, on the website. My personal view—I have no direct locus—but I made my views known was that there was no basis whatever to seek to challenge an appointment.

  Q30 Mr Mackay: Foreign Secretary, I am sure you would agree that the appointment and subsequent final election of a Commissioner was a pretty unedifying spectacle and we want to try to avoid a similar spectacle in the future. Just dwelling for a second on the case of Jacques Barrot, I do not believe that you could conceive of circumstances that somebody could be appointed a senior minister to a British Cabinet who within four years had received an eight months' suspended sentence, could you?

  Mr Straw: Their system works in a different way from ours and we should not suddenly pluck something out of their system, nor assume that because it is France that somehow it is a system that operates as well or less effectively than us in terms of the individuals. I can certainly conceive of a situation where somebody has had a technical conviction and has subsequently won an appeal in respect of it so that he was acquitted; or there was an amnesty and he then serves in public office. Why should he not? Moreover, it is also worth pointing out that in Mr Barrot's case my understanding is that he was about to exercise his right of appeal when the National Assembly promulgated this more general amnesty. So that obviated the need for an appeal but it also meant that he did not have the opportunity to put his case before the Appeal Court. So without going into the exact details, if being innocent until proven guilty means anything, but also an acquittal means anything, or a pardon, if someone is pardoned and does not have a conviction, you certainly should not retry them and convict them in terms of the punishment you impose on them by stopping them getting jobs later for which otherwise they are qualified. I do not see the point.

  Q31 Mr Mackay: Foreign Secretary, you almost certainly would agree that on the back of the first Italian appointment this is all unfortunate and does not tend to give confidence in the Commission, and that all Member States have to be very careful on who we put forward to the President of the Commission at any given time to be our country's Commissioner.

  Mr Straw: We are very careful about who we put forward and I think it is very well known that Peter Mandelson came through his hearing before the relevant parliamentary committee in Strasburg with flying colours and was regarded, rightly, as somebody of very great talent and experience. Could I just say this about the Buttiglione saga? For sure, the fact that there was deadlock and a drama was unfortunate but, on the other hand, if you want a system of parliamentary scrutiny then it is going to be exercised. There is plenty of demand, let me say—and I have my reservations about this—for more extensive parliamentary scrutiny of various public appointments, maybe including Foreign Secretary.

  Q32 Andrew Mackinlay: Or appointment of British Commissioner.

  Mr Straw: If you give parliament these powers they are going to use them.

  Q33 Mr Mackay: Let me reassure you that I, for one, would not propose that the Select Committee should be cross-examining you before your appointment as Foreign Secretary; I think that would be a very dangerous step. But you, Foreign Secretary, raised Peter Mandelson's name in answer to the last question, and since his scrutiny by the parliament there have been very serious allegations about potential involvement in the coup in Equatorial Guinea. I think it would be helpful today for you to confirm to this Committee that he made no contact to you, your Ministers or any of your civil servants in the Department at any point during the last 18 months concerning Equatorial Guinea.

  Mr Straw: I have answered, Mr Mackay, some detailed parliamentary questions on that; they are all on the record, and I think that it is fair to all concerned if I refer you to those questions.

  Chairman: Foreign Secretary, the historians will probably say that the most important decision facing you at that time will be Turkey and accession. I would like to call Mr Pope to start on Turkey.

  Q34 Mr Pope: Just on the subject of Turkey, how far apart is the British position and the French/German position on whether or not Turkey should become an accession state?

  Mr Straw: There is agreement—and there has been for a long time—about the principle of negotiations, beginning with Turkey. Germany and France are in a slightly different position on these. President Chirac and Michel Barnier have actively supported the principle negotiations beginning with Turkey's accession. It happens to be a matter of public record, however, that there is widespread scepticism/opposition to this across all political parties in France and that was illustrated by a debate in the National Assembly in October. In Germany, again the government is very positive. There is an internal debate in Germany and there it is more a debate on party lines with the CDU/CSU taking a particular view about this, and of course this playing into domestic politics about the integration or otherwise of the very large ethnic Turkish population within Germany. So we are going to have to go through a process of negotiation in terms of the text, but my hope and belief is that we will end up with a text which is satisfactory, which does commit the Union to starting negotiations next year.

  Q35 Mr Pope: I understand that there must be some domestic difficulties for President Chirac over the issue of Turkey, and it may be that he is just talking tough in advance of the Summit; but he was on record as saying last week that one option which could come out of the Summit is offering Turkey much less than full EU membership, that it could be offered a privileged partnership; that in any event the talks could be pushed back until the second half of 2005, which would enable a French referendum on the Constitution to be out of the way in the Spring of 2005 and not allow those two issues to be confused. It struck me that both of those things are not really compatible with British policy. I would have thought that we want talks to start not as far away as the back end of 2005; also—and correct me if I am wrong—I did not think it was the British Government's position that something much less than full EU membership should be offered to Turkey. I am a strong supporter of Turkey becoming an accession state and I assumed that was the Government's position as well?

  Mr Straw: On the exact timing, what month is specified, that is a matter for negotiation next week, before the General Affairs Council on Monday and the European Council on Thursday/Friday. We want to start as early as possible but, frankly, in the long march of history two or three months either way will not make that much of a difference because in any event once Turkey knows that formal negotiations—with a capital "N"—are going to start in this month in 2005 they can get themselves further ahead down the track than they otherwise had been if they had started it sooner. So in 10 years' time, as Turkey comes in—and I use 10 years as an illustration, by the way—when you look back I think this difference of three or four months will be neither here nor there. The issue, however, as to what are the negotiations for is an issue of real substance. We are clear that these are negotiations leading to membership. As with any other negotiations for membership it is conceivable that something happens on the way, but I have been profoundly impressed, and so has the European Council, by the progress that has been made by Turkey over the last three years, and it is my belief that they will get themselves into a position where, over time, they will be able to accede to all the chapters leading to accession. I should say, too, that the Commission has confirmed that Turkey fulfils the critical criteria; they have confirmed that and therefore the judgment is that we should open negotiations.

  Q36 Mr Pope: Some observers have suggested that some other obstacles could be put in the path of Turkey's progress. One of the things we know is that Turkey is going to enter into a Customs Union with all EU Member States and some people have suggested that that would amount to a de facto recognition by Turkey of Cyprus, and I think most people would welcome that. Others have suggested that Turkey will have to recognise Cyprus at some point. I certainly assumed that that would be at some point during the accession talks, between now and perhaps the 10 years to which you referred. Other people have suggested that Turkey will have to recognise Cyprus before the talks can be opened at all, and that seems to me quite a dangerous path down which to go.

  Mr Straw: The start of the negotiations depends on the Copenhagen Criteria; they have met those negotiations. The specific obligations for Turkey as regards Cyprus were set out in the accession partnership with Turkey of 19 May 2003, and that said that, "Turkey must strongly support efforts to find a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem, through the continuation of the United Nation's Secretary-General's mission of good offices and of negotiations on the basis of his proposals." Turkey did that. That again is confirmed by the Commission report. There were other reasons why those proposals were not successful, but they were not to do with the role played by Turkey. Furthermore, the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 26 April welcomed the contribution made by Turkey—and I was at that meeting—to the settlement negotiations. So formal recognition by Turkey of the Republic of Cyprus is not a pre-condition of starting negotiations. It is a plain as a pikestaff that as accession negotiations progress relations between the two countries would have to undergo a gradual process of normalisation. You could not have two countries in membership of the European Union who did not bilaterally recognise each other, and that is obvious. But in terms of the stages, Turkey has done what it was asked to do.

  Q37 Mr Pope: That is really helpful. I just wanted to ask a final question about Cyprus, because the Committee visited Cyprus a few weeks ago and one of the things we talked about was the closed ports in northern Cyprus. Obviously we accept that the acquis of EU membership is suspended in the North of the island, but it seemed that at the heart of the European project is the free movement of people and goods that has been denied to the people of northern Cyprus despite the fact that they voted, for example, for the peace settlement and the Annan Plan—

  Andrew Mackinlay: Allegedly.

  Mr Pope: I do not think it is alleged, I think they did vote.

  Andrew Mackinlay: I will not argue with you but—

  Chairman: Mr Mackinlay, please.

  Q38 Mr Pope: I have not heard that view, and my understanding is that 65% of the population of northern Cyprus voted for the Annan Plan, but I stand to be corrected. In any event, could you tell us about what proposals there may be to open ports to EU trade in the North of Cyprus? It seems to me that it is in the interests of the people of northern Cyprus and it is in the interests of the rest of the European Union to be able to trade freely and to move people and goods. Will that be on the agenda?

  Mr Straw: It will not be on the agenda for this Summit. When we had the discussion in the Foreign Affairs Committee, the General Affairs Council, on 26 April, we asked the Commission to produce two draft regulations to deliver on a commitment to end the isolation of Turkish Cypriots: one, enabling preferential direct trade between the North and EU Member States on a tariff quota system; the other dispersing 259 million Euros of aid to the North. These regulations have yet to be agreed, and, as I have just indicated, they are likely to be discussed at the European Council. Our position is that we recognise the importance of direct trade but that there are differences over the appropriate legal base. Part of the difficulty is over the legal basis, one requiring unanimity or QMV, and we are looking forward to these problems being resolved in the New Year. In the background here there is an issue of, if the EU goes down this path would it end up by de facto recognising the so-called Turkish "TRNC"?

  Q39 Chairman: Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

  Mr Straw: The answer to that is no. I have made our position absolutely clear, and so has every other Member State, that they are not going down that road. But meanwhile we should not penalise the people of northern Cyprus who, as I recall, Mr Chairman, voted by a margin of about 65% to 35% in favour of the Annan Plan.

  Andrew Mackinlay: Flawed franchise, just for the record, as you were looking at me.

  Chairman: Mr Mackinlay, please. Mr Hamilton.

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