Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
MP, MS SHAN
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 tothe words we have in our text are
"fob off"; I think it is in fact to shield fromthe
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 itI
can sort of see why you havethe 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
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 accurateplease somebody
kick me if I am not phrasing this quite correctlyto 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 Rightsin
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
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
Q7 Mr Cash: Not by me.
Margaret Beckett: I have not forgotten
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 mediawhat the presidency wishes to do
is being impliedand 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 alsoI
think this is in the public domainvery 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
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
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 itwe know that they desire itis
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
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
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
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.