Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


7 JUNE 2007

  Q1 Chairman: Can I welcome you, Foreign Secretary, to this meeting? It is the first meeting I have chaired where I have had the privilege of the Foreign Secretary coming before us but I think your predecessor did attend a previous evidence session. What I intend doing is making an opening statement to try to put into context for the people who are here and also those who will read our proceedings exactly why we are holding this evidence session and what we hope to get out of the dialogue which we will have with you. I believe you do not want to make an opening statement. The questions we will ask are designed to elicit the government's position on key issues. In every case, Members may want to ask supplementaries in the light of the Foreign Secretary's answers. One of the Committee's key concerns is the way in which, despite an avowed welcome for `parliamentary contributions to the debate', the government has resisted every request from the Committee for a statement of its views on what sort of changes there should be to the present institutional arrangements or for a sight of either the Berlin Declaration or the Presidency Progress Report ahead of the relevant European Council meetings. You have also said that you will not publish the government's response to the 12 questions about EU institutional reform and the Constitutional Treaty sent to Member States by the presidency. Instead, the government has repeatedly tried to—the words we have in our text are "fob off"; I think it is in fact to shield from—the House of Commons the answers to the questions that they have been seeking. The mantra has been that "there is no consensus. We will tell Parliament what it is, as and when there is one". The Minister for Europe's 5 December 2006 written statement on the principles that would guide the government's overall approach talks of pursuing British interests, modernisation and effectiveness, consensus, subsidiarity, the use of treaties and openness. Instead of information from the government, sadly we have had to rely upon joint press conferences given by the Prime Minister and his Dutch counterpart after their discussions in London in April and media speculation, which is never helpful in these matters, about the government's view on key issues such as the ending of the rotating six monthly presidency, the definition of a Foreign Office Minister for Europe, possible changes to the voting weights and more use of qualified majority voting on a number of issues. That is the background with which we feel we have come to this session. It is of non-transparency, sadly, on the questions we would like the government to answer and I think the country would have liked the government to answer much more publicly before now. The presidency questionnaire to which we referred seemed to be concerned with securing only cosmetic changes to what has been referred to as the Constitutional Treaty to make it more acceptable. What is the government's view on the approach taken? Is that the approach? What is the government's view on that approach if it is the approach that has been taken?

  Margaret Beckett: I hear what you say. I take entirely of course the Committee's concerns. I do understand that for example you would have liked to have earlier sight of the Berlin declaration. If I may say so, so would we, but we are in the hands of the presidency of the day, as ever, and we have to work within the structures, agreements and understandings of the European Union. You mention the questionnaire, the document circulated by the presidency, and you have read into it—I can sort of see why you have—the thought that maybe this was meant to create the impression that there would just be cosmetic changes. I do not know what the original purpose was of sending round these questions but they have played really no role in whatever discussion there has been, which is why we have resisted being drawn on some of the content because, should negotiations begin which no doubt at some point they will, some of the answers to these questions would be an issue of the British Government's negotiating stance. This document was sent round. My own impression of it is that it was meant to try and get people to think about what the position of other Member States might be, what they could live with, et cetera, but it has not I think I am right in saying played any real part in the discussion. At no point have those felicitously called our focal points been invited to address these questions or to answer them. It has just lain on the table. I really cannot tell you what the original purpose of it was but whatever it was I am not sure it has served it.

  Chairman: I think I understand the process that you outline.

  Q2  Mr Cash: I asked the Prime Minister at a certain point during the last two years, at a time before the Second Reading of the Bill which your party voted for to implement the whole of the Constitutional Treaty, which obviously I opposed, whether or not there was fundamental change in the arrangements. He said no. Subsequently, I suspect because he came to the conclusion that perhaps some of us were right in saying that there were fundamental changes, he then agreed to have a referendum. Given the fact that now the proposals under negotiation must surely involve, as they stand, the question of the repeal of the existing European Union and EC treaties which were embedded in the existing constitutional arrangements, which your government has signed and which your party has voted for in the House of Commons, would you now confirm that the Constitutional Treaty as such is dead? That is the simple question: is it now dead?

  Margaret Beckett: I speak from memory but I think I am right in saying that the Prime Minister has indeed indicated that he came to the view that there should perhaps be a referendum on the original Constitutional Treaty, if I can call it that, because he came to the view that perhaps, yes, there were changes in it that could be considered as somewhat fundamental in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

  Q3  Mr Cash: Which he had originally disputed.

  Margaret Beckett: You ask if the treaty is dead. I am not sure whether it is helpful to consider whether the treaty is dead or not. Simply, there is no proposal to bring back the Constitutional Treaty in its original form and I think we are on record at various levels as saying that were such a proposal made we would continue to take the view that that would require a referendum. You speak about the wider negotiations. I can completely understand why the Committee will be probably sceptical and certainly impatient but I have to tell the Committee that there have been nothing that you could call wider negotiations. I referred to this area of discussion and debate in the House the other day in terms analogous when we talked about frozen conflicts. This is a frozen debate. It remains the case that there is no consensus, as far as we are aware. It remains the case that there are areas of considerable disagreement. It remains the case that nothing that you could really call negotiations have taken place, which is why the government's negotiating position has not changed.

  Q4  Chairman: What we are particularly seeking is some kind of assurance that what is not on the table is a proposal to repeal any of the existing EU or EC treaties, because that was clearly planned by the Constitution.

  Margaret Beckett: I do not want to mislead you. I think it would be accurate—please somebody kick me if I am not phrasing this quite correctly—to say that there is nothing on the table. I think it is very unlikely, by the way, that something will come back that will propose repealing the existing treaties but I cannot tell you that it will not because there is at present nothing on the table.

  Q5  Mr Cash: You know that the European Parliament this morning has voted by 469 votes to 141 to adopt the proposals of the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, which brings back literally everything including the new primacy of the European law, the Charter of Fundamental Rights—in fact, the entire shooting match? I hope you can confirm to me that there are no Labour Members who voted for that proposal.

  Margaret Beckett: I have absolutely no idea how Members of the European Parliament voted.

  Chairman: Or Conservative Members, I would imagine.

  Q6  Mr Cash: They had better not.

  Margaret Beckett: I refrained from taking you up on your observations about our party voting for this because I am very mindful indeed of the fact that most of the things about which you complain were introduced by a Conservative government.

  Q7  Mr Cash: Not by me.

  Margaret Beckett: I have not forgotten that.

  Q8  Jim Dobbin: If there were to be a new treaty and if the new treaty was an amended treaty, could you possibly outline what parts of the existing EU and EC treaties might be changed and in what respects?

  Margaret Beckett: I cannot, to be honest, because in these present rather peculiar and difficult circumstances we have been quite determined to keep our powder dry. We have continued to say quite succinctly, I think, that what we would look for is a treaty which is very different from that proposed as the Constitutional Treaty for something that was in a perfectly understandable and straightforward, historical lineage, an amending treaty. It should be very different from the Constitutional Treaty proposals and, to use the phrase of the Prime Minister which I find quite helpful, it should not be proposing the characteristics of a Constitution. That is where we have hung our hats and where we stay.

  Q9  Richard Younger-Ross: The Foreign Secretary very carefully used the words "meaningful negotiations". I am wondering if you used the words twice whether negotiations preclude discussions. Can you confirm whether there have been discussions about these matters, although they might not be negotiations?

  Margaret Beckett: There has been a certain amount of exchange of view in which we have made exactly the kinds of points that I have just made to Mr Dobbin. Maybe it would be helpful if I just tried to say something a bit more general to the Committee. When I refer to it as a frozen debate, I mean that almost literally. In so far as the matter is ever mentioned and there are exchanges on it, it is usual for someone to say that 18 Member States have ratified the Constitutional Treaty or sometimes to refer to the fact that 21 or 23 of them would ratify it; and therefore it is for those who have a problem to tell everybody else what the problem is. That is about it really. I ventured to say to some of my colleagues not so long ago when this kind of passing reference was being made for some reason that it seems to me that some of our colleagues are in denial about the fact that the Constitutional Treaty in its original form was rejected by the people of France and the Netherlands. Up to this point, I think they mostly still are in denial. If I did use the word "meaningful" I did not mean it to carry any significance at all, I assure you. There has not been anything that you could really call negotiation and not much that you could really call discussion perhaps because the differences of view are still so considerable that it is hard for people to identify the ground on which that discussion might take place.

  Q10  Richard Younger-Ross: The media has been full of comment that the presidency wished to do this and wished to do that. I find it incredible that all this should be going on in the media—what the presidency wishes to do is being implied—and there is not a discussion between our government and the German presidency on these matters.

  Margaret Beckett: What perhaps you are overlooking is that a lot of that comment relates to process. It is clear that the German presidency, for example, very much wishes to reach some kind of agreement in June. They also—I think this is in the public domain—very much wish for that to be a process of agreement that can be so clear that it would allow a quite short IGC, perhaps in the Portuguese presidency. That certainly is something that has been aired. What the prospects are of such an agreement frankly at this moment in time I cannot tell the Committee.

  Q11  Chairman: Do you not think, given that we set out to reconnect Europe to the people of Europe, that the six months in which it seems the secrecy has been of primacy and not public, open debate. We have had to rely upon brave souls like the Prime Minister of the Netherlands to try to lay out his contribution to the European Parliament. That has damaged the credibility of the whole process. For those of us who are very pro-Europe and pro-EU as a structure for the politics and the citizenship of Europe, do you not think it has been completely damaging in the last five months for people to see this frozen negotiation? What they really mean is they see negotiations going on in secret, behind a Chinese wall, denying them any access to the process.

  Margaret Beckett: They are not.

  Q12  Chairman: Maybe they should be. Maybe the Secretary of State should have been negotiating these things in public and telling the public what the issues of debate were.

  Margaret Beckett: I can completely understand and I feel fairly confident that I will have a similar exchange in the not too distant future with the Foreign Affairs Committee when I give evidence to them. I can completely understand that colleagues in the House find it surprising and are perhaps even somewhat sceptical about the fact that really there has not been the kind of discussion and negotiation on which Members wish to be informed.

  Q13  Mr Cash: Is this really a new Berlin wall, in other words?

  Margaret Beckett: That will probably serve well for tomorrow morning's Today programme rerun, but I am not sure that I would so characterise it.

  Chairman: I think you have the concerns, I do not think just of this Committee and of Parliament but of the people of the UK at this moment.

  Q14  Mr Clappison: One of the things on the table in the respect that there are other parties to these negotiations who desire it—we know that they desire it—is the transfer of third pillar competences covered by intergovernmental cooperation to first pillar competences which are covered by the Community rules and in particular I am thinking of judicial and police cooperation. The Home Affairs Committee has looked at this. They have said that moving the criminal law from the third pillar to the first pillar would be a major constitutional change which is not justified. We know what other parties want on this. Do we agree with it?

  Margaret Beckett: I am aware of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee and I understand the point that such a proposal would be indeed a major change. However, it is not clear. Part of the difficulty I have in giving evidence to the Committee is it is not clear whether any such proposal remains on the table or will remain on the table. It is and has been from the beginning a matter of some controversy.

  Q15  Mr Clappison: Do we agree with it?

  Margaret Beckett: We would not agree to anything that we believed was not in Britain's national interest. We can see the argument for greater cooperation in some of these areas, as for example led to the introduction of the European arrest warrant which I think quite famously helped us in detaining one of the people who was accused of some of the terrorist acts in this country last year. I accept that the issue of such a transfer would be a very different matter.

  Q16  Mr Clappison: I agree with you that that has been a success under the present cooperation but you know that there are parties in this who want to go much further and transfer the matters which are dealt with under that part of the Constitution, the third pillar, into the first pillar where it will be subject to all of the Community rules, the European Court of Justice and qualified majority voting and it could result in criminal law being made for this country through that method. Do you accept that that is constitutionally significant because that is what is on the table.

  Margaret Beckett: You say it is on the table. Actually, as far as I know, it is not on the table. We do not know what is on the table at present.

  Mr Cash: It is a joke. You do not even know as Foreign Secretary what is going on.

  Q17  Chairman: Please show some discipline.

  Margaret Beckett: May I say in response to that it is not that I do not know what is going on. It is because nothing is going on.

  Q18  Mr Laxton: Can I be a little bit specific because there continues to be talk of the need for an EU Foreign Minister. How do you see that working within the existing constitutional arrangements and the arrangements between Member States, the Council of Ministers and the Commission?

  Margaret Beckett: Again, this is something that is proposed in the Constitutional Treaty. Whether it will be part of the proposals that are put forward now remains in question. All Member States are sensitive about their role in foreign affairs and certainly we have been repeatedly on record as saying we regard this as an intergovernmental matter. Equally though, greater cooperation sometimes can be extremely beneficial. I am quite mindful for example of the fact that in the discussions that we have been having as the EU three plus three with the government of Iran about nuclear power that the emissary who has been conducting those negotiations on behalf of all six of us has indeed been Xavier Solana, who is presently the high representative. I would assume that the thinking behind the original proposal was that some similar arrangement would be considered but whether that is part of any proposals that will be put forward remains to be seen.

  Q19  Mr Clappison: You said a moment ago that this was in some doubt but, as far as this is concerned, we know that it is something which is desired by the parties because the German questionnaire, which I believe you have admitted receiving, spells it out. Can I remind you what the German questionnaire says on this briefly? It has asked you the question: "How do you assess in that case the proposal made by some Member States to use different terminology without changing the legal substance for example with regard to the title of the treaty, the denomination of EU legal acts and the Union's Minister for Foreign Affairs?" Do you agree with the idea of the Union's Minister for Foreign Affairs?

  Margaret Beckett: First of all, I did not dispute the fact that there are Member States and indeed perhaps other players who hold the view that this would be desirable. I never have disputed it. The fact is it is a matter of intense controversy. There are others who disagree equally strongly. I can only repeat that it is not clear at present that such a proposal will be put forward and I believe it is very much in the interests of those who wish to see British national interests protected and preserved that we do not carry out our negotiations in public, especially when they have not started.

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