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Session 2007 - 08
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European Standing Committee B Debates

Diplomatic and Consular Protection

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells) (Con)
Hemming, John (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD)
Hill, Keith (Streatham) (Lab)
Murphy, Mr. Jim (Minister for Europe)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Neil (Wigan) (Lab)
Hannah Weston, Richard Ward, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

European Committee B

Monday 23 June 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Diplomatic and Consular Protection

4.30 pm
The Chairman: Does a Member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the document to the Committee?
Keith Hill (Streatham) (Lab): Yes, that is my desire, Mr. Bercow. Let me begin by expressing a slightly ambiguous sentiment. It is at once a source of delight and anxiety to serve under a Chairman of your daunting and excellent reputation in this place. None the less, I am sure that we and our proceedings will be entirely safe in your hands.
It might help the Committee if I take a couple of minutes to explain the background to the Commission communication before us and the reasons why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended it for debate in the European Committee.
As matters stand, article 20 EC and article 46 of the European Union charter of fundamental rights provide that every EU citizen
“shall, in the territory of a third country in which the Member State of which he or she is a national is not represented, be entitled to protection by the diplomatic or consular authorities of any Member State, on the same conditions as the nationals of that Member State.”
That being so, Council decision 95/553/EC makes provision for action by member states in cases of arrest and detention, accident or serious illness, acts of violence, death and repatriation, and advances of money being required by citizens in difficulty.
Member states have also developed the so-called “lead country” mechanism, whereby one—it is usually one, although it can sometimes be more than one—member state diplomatic mission in a third country assumes responsibility for EU citizens who are not represented there, as the main vehicle for implementing the article 20 EC obligations.
The Council has also created a working party on consular co-operation to organise exchanges of information on national best practices and to draw up guidelines on the consular protection of EU citizens in third countries. Experience during the south Asian tsunami and in Lebanon in 2006 seemed to demonstrate that the existing arrangements worked pretty well in serious crises, as well as in routine individual cases.
However, the Commission’s 2007 green paper, which the European Committee debated in May 2007, and the more recent communication before us, argue that further measures would more effectively fulfil the article 20 rights in the treaty establishing the European Community. There are several proposals covering the full range of consular services, and they are set out in the annexes to the documents before us.
I have been asked to report to this Committee that it is the view of the European Scrutiny Committee that several of the Commission’s proposals appear to go beyond ways in which the provision of consular services by member states might be improved. Arguably, they encroach on member states’ responsibilities in ways that would lead not to the better, but possibly to the worse provision of services, including for UK citizens.
When the European Scrutiny Committee examined the precursor green paper, it noted that consular services were the responsibility of member states. It also noted that the provision of such services is the area in which diplomatic missions most often and most critically interface with members of the public. Matters of great sensitivity are often at issue in what can be the most challenging circumstances and when the individuals concerned are at their most distressed and vulnerable. Furthermore, the Committee noted that consular services are at the top of Ministers’ and officials’ agendas at home and abroad. It also noted that a good level of co-operation already existed between member states and that work was under way to improve it further.
The Committee felt, however, that it was difficult to envisage circumstances in which missions staffed by officials responsible to the Commission could begin to provide a service of the same high standard and with the same immediate accountability. Although the Committee recognised that there might be scope for practical support in specific circumstances, I have been asked to express the hope on behalf of the Committee that the Government will resist what might be considered the expansionist elements in the proposals.
In summary, the Committee sees no basis for the implication that development of the “lead country” mechanism will not suffice and would prefer that the Commission return in due course with a revised action plan that recognises member states’ long experience of providing effective consular services, and produces properly costed proposals that are consistent with its proper role and demonstrate added value.
4.34 pm
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon and perhaps even this evening, Mr Bercow. I am almost as pleased to follow the excellent introduction by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. He gave us an insight into the rationale for the Committee’s thinking in affording us the remarkable opportunity to have two and a half hours’ discussion on this important issue today.
The document before the Committee is part of an ongoing discussion on EU consular co-operation. I know that it has raised some concerns about the principle of involvement by the European Commission in consular matters. I aim to address those concerns and set them in a wider context.
In 2007-08, more than 13 million British passport holders were resident abroad and more than 70 million trips were made by British nationals. For the most part, that is trouble-free, a fact that is aided in no small part by the excellent Foreign and Commonwealth Office online guidance and comprehensive and highly responsive travel advice. Nevertheless, we believe in co-operation with our European partners and we already benefit from the sharing of information among member states. We welcome the chance to explore that further.
On 5 December 2007, the Commission published a communication entitled “Effective consular protection in third countries: the contribution of the European Union—Action Plan 2007—2009”. A document whose name is that long is sure to be long in content as well. It published that along with two supporting addenda. The communication drew heavily on the EU green paper on the same subject, published in November 2006. That was debated in European Standing Committee in May 2007.
A number of key points are fundamental in understanding this document. My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham alluded to some of them in his excellent introduction. First, the Commission communication has no legal force. It has not yet been fully debated or agreed by EU member states. Secondly, as is acknowledged in the action plan, the primary responsibility for the provision of consular assistance rests with member states; consular assistance is a member state competence. Thirdly, the action plan consists of a series of proposals intended to help member states to discharge their consular functions more effectively, but key to that is member states, not the Commission, undertaking consular functions.
As we stated in the original explanatory memorandum, we welcome co-operation with the Commission where appropriate, but we believe that it is important to respect the correct division of competence and practical expertise. It is the role of embassies, high commissions and consulates to provide high-quality consular services and assistance to our travellers and long-term residents overseas. Several specific proposals are set out in the action plan and I will summarise our views on them.
Article 20 of the treaty establishing the European Community states:
“Every citizen of the Union shall, in the territory of a third country in which the Member State of which he is a national is not represented, be entitled to protection by the diplomatic or consular authorities of any Member State, on the same conditions as the nationals of that State.”
We take seriously our obligation under article 20 to assist unrepresented EU citizens. We appreciate the help given to our nationals in locations around the globe where we are unrepresented. Indeed, there are only three capitals in the world where all 27 member states of the European Union are represented: Washington, Beijing and Moscow.
What is important under article 20 is that the person is provided with assistance on the same conditions as the nationals of the member state providing the assistance. It does not create a general right to consular assistance or a presumption that national practices will be harmonised. It merely requires member states to provide consular assistance to unrepresented EU nationals on the same terms as their own nationals. Consular assistance in the UK is not generally provided as a matter of right but as a matter of policy.
The Commission suggests that the numbers of those requiring assistance could be substantial, but that is not our experience to date. The number of serious cases of assistance to unrepresented EU nationals dropped from 120 in 2005-06 to just 98 in 2006-07, compared with 34,874 cases of assistance to British nationals in the same year. The Government will continue to monitor the trends closely and will take action as necessary if it appears that assistance to other EU nationals is placing a strain on our respective systems.
We welcome the Commission’s suggestion of publicising article 20 further. We agree that a version of the article should be added to UK passports when they are reprinted in 2010, but we do not agree with the proposal to insert stickers into existing passports as an interim measure. We also welcome the establishment of an EU website with links to sites for member states, on the basis that there should be no unnecessary duplication of member states’ areas of expertise, such as travel advice.
On harmonisation of practices, other member states face different demands and have different approaches. Any attempt to harmonise practice requires all 27 member states to concur. There may be opportunities to simplify practice in matters such as repatriation of remains or procedures for financial allowances and advances, but we also recognise that in some matters it is challenging to find common ground and mutually beneficial solutions. For example, a number of EU countries provide consular assistance to third-country nationals who are resident in that member state. Although we are willing to show some flexibility in crisis situations and although we strive to keep families together, that is not a route that we are willing to take in providing day-to-day consular assistance.
We are keen to co-ordinate with our EU partners. Many smaller states find advantages in collocation, and we collocate with EU partners in a number of posts around the world. Where EU member states find collocation a helpful solution in providing consular assistance, it is for them to implement it. The rules and principles enshrined in the Vienna convention on consular relations provide for the provision of consular assistance by states, not intergovernmental organisations or their institutions, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said.
The United Kingdom Government have spoken strongly against an EU Commission suggestion to take the lead in establishing a pilot project for common offices. However, we welcome the proposals of the incoming French presidency, which plans to launch a discussion of structures for co-operative working from a member state perspective. It is important in that context to see what more we can do to exchange best practice and training. The incoming French presidency will also set up a taskforce to exchange ideas and best practice in consular training. We are rightly proud of our consular training programme, which is delivered in our regional training centres around the globe, and we are happy to share our experiences with other member states while drawing from other examples of good practice across the EU.
There has been some comment about obtaining the consent of third countries. The UK believes that the Vienna convention on consular relations provides adequately for the exercise of consular functions on behalf of third countries as needed for the effective operation of article 20. We are open to discussion of consular clauses in individual bilateral agreements, but we believe that seeking formal agreement to reinforce what is already accepted in third countries would be a major and wholly unnecessary task.
The Chairman: We now have until half-past 5 for questions to the Minister. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that those should be brief. It is open to an hon. Member, subject to my discretion, to ask a series of related questions, one after the other. I hope, however, that in doing so hon. Members will bear in mind the interests of other Members who may also want to pursue a sustained line of questioning.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I want to begin by asking the Minister what treaty legal basis was envisaged for the establishment of EU consular offices, as proposed in the Commission’s green paper, and what work, if any, has already been undertaken to establish them.
Mr. Murphy: My intention, if you are comfortable with it, Mr. Bercow, is to give relatively short answers, to allow as many questions as possible to be asked. As the hon. Member for Rayleigh is, I think, aware, there are currently 118 Union delegations across the planet, doing important work; that is already an established process and way of working in the European Union—it is the basis for existing work and progress.
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