Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


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 proposed.

  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 be—I would just like to dig a little deeper on this; I am sure you will be completely transparent about this—when 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 aware—I have been certainly aware of them since 1985—it 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 role—I take the Chairman's point about the Foreign Minister in this context—you do seem to be—I 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 going on.

  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 tea party.

  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 to do.

  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 accompli afterwards.

  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 well.

  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 to be.

  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 fact—I am not sure whether we started it; I think maybe we did—we 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 for?

  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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 31 July 2007