Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


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 them.

  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 it—I trust not, though I was a bit worried by your response to the question you were previously asked—but 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 forward—and 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 is it?

  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 UK.

  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 agree?

  Margaret Beckett: I think the only people who have proposed repatriating competences are the Czechs. One of the things I thought probably everybody—perhaps even you, Mr Cash—would welcome in the Constitutional Treaty was the strengthening of subsidiarity and the greater role for national parliaments.

  Q48  Mr Cash: If it was ever going to happen.

  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 where—?

  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 before—for 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 competitiveness.

  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 present arrangements.

  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.

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