Diplomatic and Consular Protection

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Mr. Hands: But what about all the cases that do not involve consulting the national’s home country or any financial transfer? One could quite easily get an entirely different opinion from, say, the Finnish and British consulates on a case involving child support or adoption, or the various other issues that come before consular officials. Surely the Minister must see that there is no mechanism in place to prevent shopping around?
Mr. Murphy: That is an entirely fair question. All the questions have been fair, but that one is even more so—not just because I thought about it when preparing for the debate and sought the assurances that the hon. Gentleman is asking for. Not wishing to second-guess or predict the unpredictable nature of human behaviour in times of difficulty, I considered the issue very carefully at the weekend and again today. I am assured, and reassured, that in host countries there are informal networks involving different EU member states’ diplomatic posts and consular services, and that information is exchanged with a view to watching for exactly the type of thing that the hon. Gentleman suggests might happen—shopping around among different consular posts looking for the answer that is wanted, and continuing until it is given.
Perhaps I may add that if in a third country we were to represent an EU national whose country was not represented there, we should have to seek the permission of the country where the citizen was, before being able to act for that person. For example if the UK was asked to provide support for a citizen of another EU member state who was in prison and wanted support in that situation, naturally the country in which the prison and citizen were situated would ask on what basis the UK would provide the support. That is another protection against the type of tourism that the hon. Gentleman quite reasonably asks about.
Mr. Francois: I want to ask about passports. As I understand matters, the Government have said they broadly approve of the placing of the wording of article 20 in United Kingdom passports. I think that they are against inserting a retrospective sticker, but they are in favour in principle of putting the wording into new passports. Have I understood correctly that that is the Government’s view?
Mr. Murphy: Typically, the hon. Gentleman has understood it perfectly.
Mr. Francois: I am grateful for the compliment. That being the case, and as the Minister said earlier that he would like the wording to be simplified somewhat, does he have that simplified wording to read out to the Committee?
Mr. Murphy: I do not, but we have until 2010 to come up together with that simplified wording so that our respective constituents can, as they jet off on holiday, read it in plain English, stamped on their UK passport, with no stickers.
Mr. Hands: I have one other question on the disparity, or disequilibrium, between different EU countries’ representation. Inevitably a small country is far less likely to be represented than a country such as the United Kingdom. What mechanisms does the Minister think will be in place to compensate larger countries for providing consular services to smaller ones?
Mr. Murphy: The main one is cost recovery on any financial advances that are offered to citizens.
Mr. Hands: I understand that in relation to financial advances and cash payments, but what about the amount of staff time spent, which could be considerable on a long legal case? If, for the sake of argument, the British embassy provided a Lithuanian national with the services of a local lawyer, how would we be compensated for all the time spent on that?
Mr. Murphy: There is no circumstance in which the British embassy would provide any national—even a UK national—with a lawyer, so the idea of our providing one for a Lithuanian would rightly have the Daily Mail pretty angry, although not as angry as I would be.
Mr. Hands: I thank the Minister for that clarification; perhaps I should try a more theoretical example. If there were a case that involved significant staff time in our embassy, high commission or consulate abroad, what mechanisms would be in place to recover the expenditure from the citizen’s home country?
Mr. Murphy: As I said earlier, there were 98 cases across the planet. The information that the Foreign Office has is clear: the costs in that regard have not been of the type that the hon. Gentleman has alluded to. However, we keep these matters very closely under review, as other member states would.
We should also reflect on the fact that we do not have consular service centres in, for example, many of the French-speaking west African countries, such as Niger, Mali and Togo. There is no UK mission in those countries, but support is provided to our citizens if necessary. The French did a fantastic job in the evacuation of Chad, which involved some UK nationals. We were not represented there in the way that the French were. On one hand, we are talking about 98 citizens across the planet; on the other hand, there are many countries in which we are not represented but where our citizens, under article 20 —once it is stamped in their passports from 2010—will have a clear understanding of the rights that they enjoy.
Mr. Hands: Presumably the Minister sees this as a potential opportunity for further rationalisation of our representation abroad. He mentioned French west Africa, for example, where a number of British embassies have closed in recent years. Presumably, if we have access to the French ability to provide consular assistance, that could well lead to the closure of further British outposts. Is that part of what he is planning?
Mr. Murphy: Absolutely not.
The Chairman: If no more hon. Members wish to ask questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 5947/08 and Addenda 1 and 2, European Commission Communication, Diplomatic and consular protection of union citizens in third countries; recalls that such Communications are not legally binding; underlines that the provision of consular assistance remains a matter for Member States; and in this context, welcomes the Commission’s Communication as a contribution to continuing reflections on promoting consular co-operation among EU Member States.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]
5.11 pm
Mr. Francois: May I begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Streatham for so ably introducing our debate on behalf of the European Scrutiny Committee? May I also congratulate the Minister on something? A relatively small band of people in this country have read the Lisbon treaty. He is one, I am another and other hon. Members in this room have done that, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells are among the select band of people in the United Kingdom who have read the beast from start to finish. I congratulate the Minister on his award from The House Magazine as Commons Minister of the Year. That did not escape our attention. I say without being churlish in any way that he won an award and the people of Ireland voted no, so I think we are square. It is a pleasure to see him in his place today.
We have already heard that EU co-operation in the area of consular protection dates back to the amended article 20 of the treaty of Rome. If you can stand it, Mr. Bercow, I shall repeat it, and you will see the reason why in a minute. Article 20 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.”
A Council decision in 1995—for the record, it was decision 95/553/EC—unanimously, as was required, provided for co-operation between member states in specific instances, such as the death or arrest of or violence against citizens of unrepresented states. It is worth noting that the Government argued strenuously—during the Nice treaty negotiations, I believe—for a specific article excluding passports and identity cards from areas in which the EC could propose provisions under this area.
Article 20 and the decisions based on it have led to the right for citizens of unrepresented EU states to request UK consular help on the same basis as UK citizens. The numbers seeking help are, currently at least, not very high. The Government state on page 7 of the document bundle that in 2006-07, only 98 cases of EU citizens being supported by UK missions were reported, compared with a total of 34,874 cases in which UK subjects received support, so the percentage is very low.
The European Commission has now sought to increase co-operation and its role in that area. In its green paper of 5 December 2007 and subsequent action plan, it identified consular protection as
“one of the strategic policy objectives for the Commission.”
The reason behind that is given on page 35 of the bundle, which states that further co-operation in that area would be, in the Commission’s opinion, a
“tangible expression of Union Citizenship”
and that although
“it is indeed the case that Member States have primary responsibilities in this area. The Commission wishes to help them discharge those responsibilities. A progressive and gradual approach is therefore necessary.”
As someone who served in the Whips Office, I know what “We are here to help” sometimes means. It seems that the Commission has made that generous offer for its own purposes. In other words, the Commission tacitly admits that there is only a thin legal basis for proposing further initiatives in that area, at least under the current treaty, but because it believes that doing so would help build European citizenship, it seems that it intends gradually to push the rules to the limits nevertheless.
What is proposed? The Commission’s green paper proposes a number of initiatives to push forward its stated aim of expressing “Union citizenship”, which are summarised on page 2 of our bundle. First, it proposes ensuring that member states publish the wording of article 20 inside their passports. It has said that it could be done either as new passports are printed or, curiously, by placing stickers inside existing passports. Secondly, it proposes establishing common consular offices, which could provide financial assistance to EU citizens in distress. Thirdly, it also proposes joint training of consular staff. Fourthly, it proposes broadening the scope of consular assistance to include non-EU family members, something that the UK does not do generally at the moment, as the Minister will know. Lastly, it proposes establishing procedures for the repatriation of the remains of dead EU citizens.
Her Majesty’s Government have published a response, which is included on page 6 of the bundle. Their responses show differing levels of enthusiasm for the Commission’s various proposals. For instance, on the subject of article 20 being reproduced in passports, the Government have agreed with the proposal in principle, but, as the Minister has reiterated today, they would like to see clearer wording, which we do not have available unfortunately—I will come back to that too.
With regards to EU consular offices, the Government have said that they are concerned with the proposal and do
“not favour a system of common offices”,
but still seek further “clarification”. The Government do see a role for exchange of best practice in joint training. The Government have said that extending consular protection to non-EU family members is “unlikely to be feasible”—their words—and that they are concerned that the Commission will try to extend article 20 to include it. The Government have agreed that there is scope for co-operation on the repatriation of remains, but wish to do that between member states rather than with the Commission. I hope that I have summarised the Commission’s proposals and the Government’s response for the Committee.
Before considering the responses further, it is worth noting that the European Commission has already said, on page 14 of the bundle, that
“the entry into force of the Reform Treaty will provide a clear legal basis for EU law in this area.”
I entirely accept, Mr. Bercow, that you do not want the rest of this afternoon to turn into an ersatz debate on the Lisbon treaty, but one part of that treaty is very germane to the debate, and I hope that I will be able to make that plain to you and the Committee. The quote refers to the fact that the Lisbon treaty would have inserted a new legal base into article 20, which would have become article 23 of the treaty of Rome under the consolidated text, if the Lisbon treaty had come into force. The treaty of Rome says that the EU will henceforth be able to pass binding directives to stipulate in detail how member states must fulfil the responsibility contained in article 20. If we take article 20 as written, Lisbon adds:
“The Council, acting in accordance with a special legislative procedure and after consulting the European Parliament, may adopt directives establishing the coordination and cooperation measures necessary to facilitate such protection.”
I raise that because, if Lisbon had come into force that would have affected the interpretation of article 20, and binding European legislation could have been brought in. Very importantly, under the Lisbon treaty’s provisions, that legislation would be decided by qualified majority voting, so the UK would not have a veto. I do not know whether, when the Minister did his weekend reading, he missed it, but under the Lisbon treaty, the situation would be taken further, and member states’ rights, which he pressed so hard in his opening remarks, would be seriously fettered. The situation, therefore, would have gone further than he suggested to the Committee. With the Irish having said no, logic dictates that there is no legal basis for furthering that proposal, so he should— hopefully—be reassured that those fears will not be realised. If he could say that he entirely respects the Irish decision and that that is the end of the matter, the Committee would be very grateful, but I suspect that we will not hear that.
In conclusion, the Government’s response to the proposals shows differing levels of enthusiasm. Currently, they retain a veto, and could block them coming into force, but were Lisbon to come into force, those provisions could be amended by legislation, even if the UK Government objected—yet another reason why the treaty was such a bad deal for Britain and why it should not come back from the dead. However, despite that, the one proposal for which the Government have voiced particular approval is for inserting the words of article 20 into new UK passports. It would appear, however, that the legal effect of those words might still be unclear. The Government want to clarify the wording, but they cannot present that wording to the Committee today. Yet they are asking us to take note of the document. As the Minister cannot tell us the wording that could in future go into UK passports, the Opposition should reject the Government motion that we take note of the document. We urge other Committee members to support us.
5.21 pm
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