Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
MP, MS SHAN
7 JUNE 2007
Q20 Mr Clappison: Do you agree with
the idea of a European Foreign Minister as set out in the questionnaire?
You must know your own position.
Margaret Beckett: I am sorry.
Until it is clear that such a proposal is being put forward and
in what form I will reserve my comments. We can put forward all
sorts of theoretical propositions but what is important is what
is practically proposed and at the moment nothing is practically
Q21 Chairman: We may be dancing on
the head of a pin here. I am reading Article I-28 of the treaty
that exists at the moment and it says under section two that the
Union Minister for Foreign affairs shall conduct the Union's common
foreign and security policy. It is already in the treaty that
there is a Union representative of foreign affairs. What they
call them may become the controversy, not what the purpose of
the post is.
Margaret Beckett: I assume that
is the underpinning for Xavier Solana's present role which he
carries out very effectively.
Q22 Mr Cash: It still puzzles and
worries me that in the context of what you have just said there
appears to beI would just like to dig a little deeper on
this; I am sure you will be completely transparent about thiswhen
you say that you do not know the details because we have not started
negotiations, in all previous treaty negotiations of which I have
been awareI have been certainly aware of them since 1985it
would seem to me that the government does have negotiating positions
through Coreper, through the Foreign Office, through the Sherpas,
et cetera. It seems to me that in this case in the context, for
example, of the enhanced roleI take the Chairman's point
about the Foreign Minister in this contextyou do seem to
beI do not say this in any critical sense because you cannot
be blamed, if I can put it in very generous terms, for not knowing
something that you have not been told about. We know that there
are secret negotiations going on, on a party to party basis; that
there appears to be a divide and rule policy. I would just like
to invite you to give some indication as to how it is that you
are not in possession of the sort of information that we would
have assumed the Foreign Secretary of this country would be in
possession of in all other previous negotiations at a similar
stage in the run up to a proposed treaty.
Margaret Beckett: You say to me,
"We know that there are party to party negotiations."
There are not. There have not been. There has been a process whereby
Member States were occasionally invited to give some views. There
have not been negotiations.
Q23 Mr Cash: You do not know what
is going on.
Margaret Beckett: There is nothing
Q24 Mr Cash: Is that not pretty astonishing?
You have come here to discuss these matters.
Margaret Beckett: I came here
because you asked me to come and give evidence. If you had asked
me whether there was very much I could tell you, I could have
told you no before I came here.
Mr Cash: That is amazing.
Q25 Chairman: What we used to call
Sherpas are now called focal points and inanimate objects have
become humans. It is like the big ask. Questions become a big
ask. I am not sure who has changed the English language but the
focal points, I believe, are human beings. What are they discussing?
Margaret Beckett: Not very much.
Q26 Mr Cash: It is a mad hatter's
Margaret Beckett: I have read
all manner of things and all manner of fascinating articles about
the negotiations that are no doubt going on; the Sherpas are beavering
away and there will be a text with brackets. No.
Q27 Chairman: In 2004, I am reminded
that Her Majesty's Government insisted that they must have an
emergency brake process if there was any move to move matters
to qualified majority voting. Is that still the position of the
government as a backstop?
Margaret Beckett: In the dialogue
and discussion that was held then, that was one of the things
that was thought of as a way of mitigating some of the problems
that people perceived. I go back again to the fact that it is
not at all clear what will come forward. If I can be quite blunt
with the Committee, I think it all depends really on the degree
to which the presidency wants to try to get an agreement in June.
There are very disparate points of view still. We have not had
the report from the presidency. We have not really had much even
in the way of hints from the presidency, but it is far from clear
to me that there is emerging a substantial common ground of consensus
on which the presidency can build, which may be why we have not
heard very much.
Q28 Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister
might not be able to tell us very much about the people that are
in rooms not talking to each other. In answer to a previous question
regarding the position of a Foreign Minister, you declined to
say whether you were in favour or not. You might not be able to
tell us what the European policy may be, but can you not give
us some hint as to whether in principle there is any way, shape
or form in which you would accept there being a European Foreign
Minister? I would have thought that was a fairly straightforward,
yes or no answer.
Margaret Beckett: No. This is
one of the things that one gives considerable thought to, as to
how one handles the situation in which we presently find ourselves.
One of the conclusions that I have come to is that the less I
say about what we might in principle accept and what we might
not, the more I preserve the maximum amount of negotiating space
to resist anything that I think is not in Britain's national interest.
I appreciate that is unsatisfactory for the Committee and I apologise
to you for that but, since we are so much in uncharted waters,
not knowing what will be proposed, the more I say, "We could
live with this. We cannot live with that", the more I am
giving away my negotiating room, which I am always deeply reluctant
Q29 Richard Younger-Ross: You understand
that that is one of the frustrations of these Committees, that
there is little this Committee can do or say to influence what
you are going to do and then negotiate but be told it is a fait
Margaret Beckett: I understand
the frustration that is being expressed and I completely understand
why the Committee would make such an assumption but I think you
have assumed a stage in the process that we just are not at.
Q30 Richard Younger-Ross: Maybe you
will be further on when you meet the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Margaret Beckett: Not necessarily.
Richard Younger-Ross: I am on that as
Q31 Mr Clappison: I was going to
ask what you thought about having a presidency of the European
Union in addition to having a European Foreign Minister because
that too is on the table, a change from the present arrangements
where is a six monthly presidency which is held by the host state
to having a more permanent form of presidency in the form of an
individual who is somehow chosen, but I think I can make an educated
guess as to what your answer is going to be. Never mind. I will
hope for the best.
Margaret Beckett: You are absolutely
right in predicting what my answer is going to be. Part of the
difficulty that all of us have is that we as a government accepted
a range of things with varying degrees of enthusiasm or concern
in a huge, comprehensive package. Whether or not you share Mr
Cash's description of it, that huge and comprehensive package
is not now there. That means that the nature of the judgments
that you make will be different because you are talking about
a set of proposals hopefully of a different style and balance
and in a different context and we do not know what they are going
Q32 Mr Clappison: If I may say so
with respect, you are not painting a very inspiring picture of
the European Union. The Chairman said at the beginning that the
slogan which this was launched under was "Bringing Europe
closer to its people". At the moment, we are getting the
impression that Europe is saying to its people, "We will
keep you as far away as possible" because they are not being
told anything at all. They are being kept in the dark. This is
not going to launch any enthusiasm because a reasonable person
might well draw the conclusion from what you are saying that this
is all bad and we are just trying to mitigate as much as possible
and put the best possible gloss on it. Somebody could come to
that conclusion, could they not?
Margaret Beckett: The people of
Europe are as well informed as they can be in the sense that they
know what their governments said about the Constitutional Treaty
and about the various issues within it. They know that there are
those who have ratified and those who, no doubt particularly domestically,
would express various degrees of enthusiasm for how much of the
original proposals should be retained. That is at the moment all
there is to know.
Q33 Mr Clappison: Can I ask you something
specific about something which has been said in the past? Would
you agree that the creation of a European Union Foreign Minister
and a European Union President would be constitutionally significant
and would amount to a constitutional treaty?
Margaret Beckett: I certainly
do not intend to reach any conclusion of that kind until I see
what is being proposed and the context and the nature of it.
Q34 Mr Clappison: You have a commitment
on this from one of your predecessors. After the no vote in the
French and the Dutch referendum, your predecessor almost two years
ago today was asked this on the floor of the House of Commons
when he was giving a statement about this. He was asked by one
of your colleagues who said, "I am sure the Foreign Secretary
would agree that among the things that are synonymous with the
European Union are back door, back room deals. Will he assure
me that one matter that he would certainly submit to a referendum
is the creation of a Foreign Minister and a European President?"
The Member asking that was from your benches, the hon. Member
for Vauxhall. The then Foreign Secretary replied, "Those
points are central to the European Constitutional Treaty and of
course I see no prospect of their being brought into force save
through the vehicle of a Constitutional Treaty." Are you
prepared to stand by that commitment which was given by your predecessor?
Margaret Beckett: We are not envisaging,
nor would we support, a Constitutional Treaty. We envisage an
amending treaty. Whether that is a point of view that will gain
support among all our European colleagues remains to be seen.
Chairman: I understand the position you
are in. The idea of having a presidency that is not just six months
long is so logical that I would defend it to the last breath I
have. I think many other people who apply logic rather than prejudice
may do the same. I know you are constrained as Foreign Secretary
from giving us your personal opinion.
Q35 Jim Dobbin: We have discussed
two possible worlds, one a Foreign Secretary and one the possibility
of having a permanent presidency. Can I suggest another option
to see how you feel about that? That is the alternative of developing
a new troika presidency, a team approach, and whether that might
possibly give some sustainability to those independent nations
that make up the European Union.
Margaret Beckett: I know that
part of the proposal in the Constitutional Treaty was indeed the
formation of a team presidency. There is merit, I believe, in
such an idea of different presidencies working together. Under
the present structure as a matter of factI am not sure
whether we started it; I think maybe we didwe proposed
to a couple of our predecessors in the presidency and those who
followed us that we should try to draw together at least four
or five presidencies in order to plan and develop the work of
the Council in a coherent and consistent way through consecutive
presidencies. That was something we instigated before we were
in the presidency and I believe it is being followed by our successors
in the presidency. Something along the lines of a team presidency
is possible without the need of a treaty change and is indeed
to a degree occurring.
Q36 Chairman: We have just come back
from visiting the incoming Portuguese presidency, having visited
the German presidency. Anyone who went on that visit saw the synergies
and the logical progressions. Everyone from this Committee who
went, of all parties, was impressed by the sense of purpose and
continuity that was not always there in the past.
Margaret Beckett: I think it was
a real weakness of the way in which the Union and the presidency
worked in the past that there was a tendency for each presidency
to want to start completely afresh, to make its own mark on things,
and it rather overlooked the way in which presidencies working
together could handle particularly difficult and complex dossiers.
Q37 Nia Griffith: If we could turn
to the issue of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, perhaps you
could clarify for us a little bit the situation as it stands at
present. We understand that in the questionnaire the presidency
asked Member States if they could accept replacing the full text
by a short cross reference having the same legal value. This seems
like some sort of restatement of the Constitutional Treaty but
what was the government's response to that and where does the
government stand on the Charter?
Margaret Beckett: We did not make
a response to it; nor indeed were we requested formally to make
any kind of response. With regard to the Charter, we are mindful
of the fact that the Charter, broadly speaking, reiterates existing
rights. We are content for something to reiterate existing rights.
It is a different matter for something to extend rights. However,
this is one of the aspects of the former Constitutional Treaty
which arouses very strong, very different points of view. There
are Member States, as I think the flavour of what is said in the
questionnaire conveys, who are very attached to the importance
of the Charter. There are others who are less so.
Q38 Nia Griffith: For example, the
Czech Republic's view which is said to be taking the European
Convention on Human Rights as opposed to having the Fundamental
Charter. Would that be a view that you would have some sympathy
Margaret Beckett: It is something
the Czech Republic has indicated is a point of view they would
take but again we would judge this issue on its merits as it comes
along, if it does.
Q39 Nia Griffith: As we have our
own Human Rights Act, do you feel that in a way this is not an
area which it is particularly appropriate to be pushing further
with EU Member States?
Margaret Beckett: The Charter
reiterates existing rights. With regard to the ECHR, as you say,
we are involved as I think every Member States has endorsed the
ECHR. There is an argument to say that it is something the EU
as a whole could accede to but there could potentially be legal
complexities because different Member States have slightly different
approaches. That obviously is something that could raise concerns.