Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
MP, MS SHAN
7 JUNE 2007
Q40 Mr Cash: On the question of the
Charter of Fundamental Rights, you say that it would reiterate
the existing arrangements.
Margaret Beckett: It does reiterate
Q41 Mr Cash: I have to say it does
not because the European Convention on Human Rights is a duplication
of Strasbourg, whereas the Charter of Fundamental Rights, even
under Sarkozy's proposals which would apparently turn it into
a declaration, would in any case according to advice we have received
in this Committee from eminent QCs, as I said in The Times
the other day, amount to it falling into the framework of adjudication
by the European Court of Justice. That of course would make an
enormous difference. It is not just a reiteration; it is a completely
different change in the jurisprudence. When the questionnaire
from Angela Merkel suggests that we should put in something having
the same legal value, it is really just a plain deceit on the
Member States. It may be that you are not taken in by itI
trust not, though I was a bit worried by your response to the
question you were previously askedbut the bottom line is
that we must repudiate any suggestion surely of the Charter becoming,
according to the European Parliament this morning, an indispensable
part of the proposed new treaty, because they have just voted
by 469 to 141 to include it. Are you going to repudiate the Charter
of Fundamental Rights, which is the core question here, because
otherwise you get yourself into the most enormous legal bear trap?
Margaret Beckett: I can only repeat
that what we would support is a Charter of Fundamental Rights
that brings together existing rights, whether they are found in
the ECHR, in treaties or elsewhere.
Q42 Mr Cash: You would support it?
Margaret Beckett: We would support
one that brought together in one place existing rights. That is
something existing, not something new. Whether any such proposals
will come forwardand I am happy to say I have no responsibility
for the decisions of the European Parliament.
Q43 Mr Cash: You accept that the
European Court of Justice would adjudicate on the Charter, even
if it was a declaration?
Margaret Beckett: I accept that
this is a point of view that people hold and there are concerns
about it. Whether this is an issue that will arise is yet another
matter which remains to be discerned.
Q44 Chairman: One of the beginnings
of the discussion about enlargement was institutional difficulties.
It is clear that the Polish and Czech governments have come out
very strongly and say they favour changes to the voting weights
in the Parliament. Portugal opposes those changes, but surely
on something like this the government has a public position? What
Margaret Beckett: To be perfectly
honest, we could live with either outcome because if there is
no double majority voting then we keep the voting weight that
we have now. If it were to be introduced, then there is an argument
about it. It is suggested that it would somewhat increase our
voting weight from 8.4 to 12.2 but also there are slight differences
in the way in which majorities would be triggered and I think
on balance our view is that any change would be broadly neutral.
Q45 Chairman: For the UK?
Margaret Beckett: Yes, for the
Q46 Chairman: Was this not all about
making Europe more acceptable, not just looking after the little
interests of our own government's voting weight?
Margaret Beckett: I thought that
you were asking me about our view of the Polish and Czech concerns.
There are those who feel strongly that they wish to reopen that
particular issue. There are also others, not just the Portuguese,
who it is already clear would have grave concerns about that,
so again whether that will fly remains to be seen.
Q47 Kelvin Hopkins: Do you agree
with those such as the Czech Republic, Poland and the Netherlands,
who we understand are proposing that there should be measures
to strengthen subsidiarity, proportionality and the division of
competences between the European institutions and Member States?
Does the government support the idea of repatriating powers to
Member States if one third or a simple majority of national parliaments
Margaret Beckett: I think the
only people who have proposed repatriating competences are the
Czechs. One of the things I thought probably everybodyperhaps
even you, Mr Cashwould welcome in the Constitutional Treaty
was the strengthening of subsidiarity and the greater role for
Q48 Mr Cash: If it was ever going
Margaret Beckett: If that were
proposed, that is certainly something for which we would be likely
to have sympathy but we do not quite know whether that is part
of any package that would be put forward.
Q49 Chairman: In terms of the public
statements, I was very impressed by the ability and the willingness
of the Dutch Prime Minister to go to the European Parliament and
lay out some of his concerns and make some suggestions, one of
which was to bring back in the red card where, if one half of
the national parliaments thought that a proposal from the Commission
was breaching subsidiarity, it would have to be withdrawn, which
was one of the proposals that was put forward and I believe would
have been supported by our Committee in a Convention but it was
not carried in the Convention. What we got was a yellow card,
where the Commission would be asked to look again but they would
of course look again and do what they wanted anyway unless there
was a red card. It seems there is a very strong move towards the
national parliaments. It is not necessarily repatriating; it is
just not being willing to give up subsidiary issues to the Commission.
Is that not something that our government sees some sense in?
Margaret Beckett: I think I am
right in saying that there was a proposal from the Czech Republic
to be able to repatriate.
Q50 Chairman: That is not quite repatriation
but it is giving a firm balance towards the parliaments.
Margaret Beckett: We have always
expressed the view that there ought to be strong subsidiarity
and we have certainly always expressed the view that a greater
role for national parliaments is desirable. Whether or not we
get into the territory of red cards, yellow cards or the precise
detail and so on again remains to be seen, but the principle that
national parliaments should have a greater role and information
is something that I would hope no one would disagree with.
Mr Cash: Can you give me one example
Q51 Kelvin Hopkins: If it did come
about that we could repatriate some powers, have you any suggestions?
I have a few suggestions of my own which you may have heard in
the Commons beforefor example, agriculture policy. If agriculture
policy was repatriated, at a stroke we would get rid of the fiscal
transfer distortions, all the problems we have with the budget
ourselves and it would release a lot of those tensions that exist
in the Union at the moment. Indeed, if there were powers like
that repatriated, it might even make the British people and myself
rather less sceptical about the whole business.
Margaret Beckett: There are more
ways than one of dealing with the fiscal transfers but while I
understand the point if we were to move out of the area where
there was a common policy for agriculture across the European
Union there might be even greater distortion, lack of competitiveness
and problems in dealing with this field than there are now. I
do not say that lightly.
Q52 Mr Clappison: One of the things
that does concern Members of the Committee is fishing policy and
there was a concern that the European Union was going to increase
its competence over fishing by excluding the national competences,
a matter of interest for our Scottish Nationalist colleagues.
What is the Government's view on that?
Margaret Beckett: I am sorry.
It is far from clear that any proposals along those lines are
likely to be in the package that is put forward, unless the worst
fears of Mr Cash and Mr Clappison are fulfilled and somebody tries
to re-offer us the whole Constitutional Treaty as was.
Q53 Mr Cash: On the question of repatriation
and the acquis communautaire, as you know, the future Prime
Minister has made a number of points about the necessity to maintain
and to ensure that we have economic competitiveness. In order
to achieve that and the regulatory burdens that come out of the
European Union, I am sure you would acknowledge that we either
have to get all the other Member States to agree or, if not, to
achieve his objectives or to achieve the objectives of any government
in the national interest, we would need to make a decision. Either
we accept the status quo because others would not allow us to
become economically competitive, or we would have to override
the 1972 Act and require the Law Lords and the other judiciary
to obey the latest Westminster Act. As you know, I put forward
this proposal which was supported by the Conservative Party in
both Houses of Parliament last year. Could you tell me whether
the government, as you represent it now, would rule that out even
if it meant that we could not achieve economic competitiveness?
Margaret Beckett: It is a rather
sweeping set of statements, if I may say so. Certainly I do not
take the view, speaking personally as Foreign Secretary, that
our economic competitiveness is automatically undermined by decisions
that are taken in the European Union.
Q54 Mr Cash: Even though it costs
£80 billion a year?
Margaret Beckett: For example,
I well recall when I was at the DTI pushing through an agreement
on restricting state aid precisely because of its impact on British
Q55 Kelvin Hopkins: I have a shopping
list of those competences which perhaps ought to be repatriated
to national parliaments, one of which is fishing. Would it not
be a helpful suggestion if those land locked countries with no
interest whatsoever should not vote on the common fisheries policy?
What about aid?
Margaret Beckett: Since we have
just persuaded some of them, I rather think, to join the Whaling
Commission I am not sure that I can afford to agree to that.
Q56 Kelvin Hopkins: Another area
is international aid where one could not call it a competence
but it is an incompetence that the European Union is notoriously
bad at international aid. We are much better at it and perhaps
if Member States looked after their own international aid arrangements
it might help the poorer parts of the world rather more than the
Margaret Beckett: Speaking for
myself, I have some understanding and sympathy with the point
that you make and have had for many years. Despite the staunch
defence mounted by Mr Cash of his party's position, that is something
that disappeared a very long time ago. It has long therefore been
the case that, because we do give a substantial part of our aid
through the European Union, it is advisable to try to make that
system as effective as possible. I was, I think I am right in
saying, very shortly after we joined the European Community, as
it then was, first a special adviser and then a parliamentary
private secretary in what was then ODA, so I have some sympathy
with the point of view that you express. However, we joined the
European Union and the British people reaffirmed that in 1975.
That is the law.
Q57 Mr Cash: Let us have a referendum.
Margaret Beckett: We did have
a referendum on it, unlike you.
Chairman: Mr Cash, please resist the
temptation to get a dialogue going. We are not in the House. We
are not trying to make little interventions to go on the record.
We are trying to get some evidence here.
Q58 Mr Laxton: The UK has traditionally
favoured further enlargement. I am pleased to say that as a nation
we have been a real driver for that. Would you agree that a new
treaty should incorporate the Copenhagen criteria and make it
clear that further enlargement would be permitted only where applicants
were clearly in compliance with those new provisions? There is
a certain amount of evidence in some cases that in the past they
have not been compliant. Is the UK opposed to adding any further
conditions to those laid out in the Copenhagen criteria?
Margaret Beckett: There has not
been any discussion about adding to the Copenhagen criteria. I
think it is just the Netherlands that has raised the idea, in
a new amending treaty, because they like us believe there should
be a different kind of treaty and an amending treaty, that maybe
that treaty should include the Copenhagen criteria. Without getting
drawn into the issue of the merits of the proposal per se
I would simply say that our general inclination is, because we
believe this is least likely to cause even more difficulty than
already exists, perhaps it is unwise to seek to add things to
what was already considered in the Constitutional Treaty. It is
already quite enough for people to try and consider what parts
of the formal Constitutional Treaty proposals they would wish
to retain, if they wished to retain any, without getting into
new territory and saying, "While we are at it, why don't
we add something?" My general inclination, almost as a matter
of negotiating technique, is that opening up new issues that are
not already part of this mix might not be very smart.
Q59 Chairman: Can I ask a question
on energy policy which is rather close to my heart? I recall during
the Convention that there was a proposal to have a clause on energy
which I believe would have prevented us, should the competence
have moved to the Commission, from signing a treaty with Norway
which is now delivering 20% of the UK's gas, because the competence
to agree such bilateral arrangements would have fallen to the
Commission and not been allowed for a nation state. What, if anything,
would you like to see on energy policy in any treaty that may
come forward that would be more relevant to the needs of the UK?
Margaret Beckett: Without being
drawn particularly into any detail, I do not myself find particularly
attractive the notion that we might be trying to add to some of
the things that were already under consideration. I think we are
in enough trouble as it is, if I can be quite blunt about it,
and I am mindful of the fact that in the area of energy and indeed
climate change the European Union has continued to work, despite
not having some new treaty arrangements and so on. That encourages
me to think that this is not something that is a problem that
we need to deal with at the present time.