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Caroline Flint: I attempted to address that earlier and I think that I was clear. There is a difference of view between the ESC and the Government and Cabinet Office guidance on what is eligible to be deposited. The European scrutiny strategy review was delivered to the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 8 December and endorsed by the European Council on 12 December. The review is a non-binding, non-legislative document and cannot be classed as an inter-institutional document, as it was delivered to the Council by Mr. Solana.
The declarations of the European Council are political tools and are not legally binding. Therefore, they are not mentioned in the scrutiny reserve resolution, or in Government guidance. As indicated in my letter of 18 February, the Government guidance acknowledges that some documents are harder than others to obtain prior to agreement at the Council. That was the case here and as soon as a final version of the text, endorsed by the European Council, was available we deposited it in Parliament. As I said in the evidence session on 4 February and explained earlier, we did not have a final version of the text until it was adopted at the European Council on 12 December. I have already stated that, in my view, those declarations are not subject to the scrutiny reserve, yet we deposited the document with an explanatory memorandum and are debating it today. We are working to overcome the differences expressed in the evidence session on 4 February and we have written to the Chair of the ESC outlining how that will be done. Clearly, where there is a difference of opinion over what is liable to scrutiny, that is a particular point on which we might not reach agreement.
Mr. Francois: I hear what the Minister says, but for the benefit of the Committee—I am sure Committee members know, but it bears repeating—the ESC is an all-party Committee of the House with a Labour, not Conservative, Chairman. It would appear that on a number of recent occasions the Minister has ended up in dispute with him. Given that she is always trying to argue that the EU should have greater transparency, and be made more popular in Britain by being more open and transparent, why is she being less than transparent about these very important matters? She is undermining her own argument.
Mr. Francois: No.
Caroline Flint: Not quite. As the hon. Gentleman has outlined, there is no partisan point to be made here, as the Chair of the ESC is a fellow Labour MP.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Illsley. I am very happy that we are debating these important documents.
I would like to bring the Minister to the actual substance of the documents at hand, in particular pages 35 and 36, which are the part on the presidency report on ESDP. Everybody is aware that since those reports were made there have been very concerning developments in the middle east. I note that the report talks about a possible expansion of the EUPOL COPPS mandate, at the beginning of 2009, in respect of the Palestinian Authority. Is she in a position to update the Committee on whether the EU’s evaluation of the Palestinian Authority’s needs, in terms of the police mission, has changed since the developments in Gaza at the beginning of 2009? What can she tell us about potential changes in terms of the Rafah crossing point? That is also mentioned on page 36 of the document, with the EU pointing out that it is ready to redeploy there as soon as conditions allow. Have there been any developments on that issue, in the negotiations with Israel and Egypt?
Caroline Flint: I will start with the EU border monitoring mission in Gaza. As colleagues are aware, following the crisis in Gaza, the EU mission at Rafah was reinforced to prepare for reactivation. The crossing has not yet been opened, so the mission continues to plan for an immediate deployment should the political situation allow that. The opening of the crossing is dependent on an agreement being reached between Palestinian factions and between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel. It will also require agreement and co-operation from the Government of Egypt.
Recent events, including the breaching of the border on 23 January last year, have highlighted how important the issue is. The programme has facilitated the crossing of nearly 500,000 people since it was deployed at the end of November 2005. We continue to work and to do what we can to try to reopen the border, but it is a difficult situation. I will be happy today to inform the hon. Lady of any further developments that I am unaware of. I was present at a meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council where the important matter was discussed regarding what the EU could contribute.
In terms of lessons, one key recent achievement has been the expansion of the mission’s rule of law section that focuses on police-related criminal justice issues. That was recognised as an area in which the mission could do more. The section produced a detailed assessment of the criminal justice system in January, and is now working on an action plan that will be completed in the spring. It will be discussed with local stakeholders as it develops. We are active in both areas, but in terms of reopening the border situation is proving difficult.
Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that on this enormous range of matters, which are crucial to this country, it is important that all sections of opinion within the House are heard in the Council of Europe? That is true in relation to Ministers of all parties from other member states and in the European Parliament. In that context, how does she assess the decision of the main Opposition in this country to leave the European People’s party and absent themselves from discussions on those key matters that are of vital interest to the people of this country?
Caroline Flint: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We hear the Opposition say how much they want to be more involved in these discussions, but they place themselves on the relatively isolated fringes of Europe through the alliances that they have chosen to make recently. In 2009, we have more friends and allies in the European Union than we inherited in 1997. Because of our constructive—sometimes robust—approach, we have been able to make positive headway in a number of areas. That is of benefit to us because security and peace, whether in Europe or beyond Europe’s borders, is fundamental to the security and safety of UK citizens.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The right hon. Member for Norwich, South has raised a valuable point. There are many in this House who have an opinion and an interest in these matters before they are decided. However, as it happens, these matters were already decided before any section of opinion in the House had the opportunity to express any view on them whatsoever.
I begin by asking the Minister about the European security review conducted by Mr. Solana. She talked about the final version being available on 8 December. When did the Government receive any version of that document?
Caroline Flint: We have been influencing the review because it was a refresh of an existing document. I have made it clear that in areas such as climate change, energy security, and responsibility to protect people, for example, we were influencing that agenda. We are pleased to see that reflected in the final document.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman. There are opportunities in this House and elsewhere for Members of Parliament to raise questions, through letters to Ministers, Adjournment debates, Public Bill Committee debates, scrutiny debates and parliamentary questions. Through any of those mechanisms, Members are able to ask the Government where our thinking is on a number of issues. Already in this job, I have endeavoured to share with Members what Government thinking is in a variety of cases, including how we are influencing these documents. I refer Members to my letter of 18 February to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, in which I clearly outlined the timings. The ESS final review was received and discussed by the Council of Ministers on 8 December and the final report—a review is not a report until agreed by the Council—was published on 12 December as a reference document for the presidency conclusions, along with annexes covering a declaration on capabilities and a statement on international security. Within the given parameters, I have tried to keep Parliament engaged with and involved in this process, and I did inform the House of Mr. Solana’s review in my pre-General Affairs and External Relations Council written ministerial statement on 8 December.
The Chairman: Before calling further hon. Members to ask questions, we should move away from the difference of opinion on the review between the European Scrutiny Committee and the Minister, and from the Opposition’s decision to change their allegiance within the European parliamentary bodies, and bring the questions back to the content of the two documents—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman wish to ask a supplementary question?
Mr. Clappison: Oh yes. That is helpful guidance about the content of the documents, Mr. Illsley. In the light of that, I point out that the report states that
“Awareness of the ESS among the general publics...is low”
and that a conscious effort should be made to remedy that. What have the British Government done to remedy that lack of awareness of the security strategy and in particular this review of it, a copy of which the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee specifically requested before it was agreed on 8 December?
Caroline Flint: This is a framework document that allows us to make decisions. There has to be unanimity on all these matters; we have to decide on each occasion whether we will participate. First and foremost, the UK Government look at the benefits and the risk to the civilian or military personnel that we might provide for the mission. It has to be clear that there is a double-locking key for anything that requires our engagement, but this review allows us to have a sense of the areas in which the European Union’s ESDP could apply. To that end, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should talk more about the missions and how they contribute to our well-being and safety. I would welcome better communication and resources with which to communicate the worth and benefit of the missions, which have been substantial. They contribute to security and safety; perhaps not as directly as some people in this country might want, but very clear pathways can be drawn to protecting people overseas, to ensuring peace and ultimately to what happens in this country. So, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s request to do more about promoting how positive the civilian or military missions are.
Mr. Clappison: But my question was: “What have the Government done?”
Caroline Flint: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we look at how we can communicate, and at how our involvement in European security defence policy is important for UK aims, and I am looking at what more we should do. It is not for us necessarily to publicise the document; the issue is why we are engaged in the document and what is important. It is about the principle of engagement in these co-operative ventures, which we have an absolute right to participate in or not. It is important that when we agree to participate in one of these missions, we do our utmost to explain why we are taking part, what is in the UK’s interest, and, importantly, what is delivered. We should discuss that more with the British public.
Mr. Francois: I shall take your hint, Mr. Illsley, and refrain from responding during questions on our new group in the European Parliament, but perhaps when we get to speeches I will get a 30-second right of reply.
Turning to the issues raised by the documents, as the Minister knows, they refer to the treaty of Lisbon and its effect on European security and defence policy. I would like to ask her directly about article 28 of the treaty, specifically, article 28C(7), which states:
“If a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states.”
Is that, in effect, a mutual defence guarantee, similar to article 5 of the Washington treaty?
Caroline Flint: I will provide the hon. Gentleman with more detail. My understanding is that although that is in the document, we have an absolute right to decide which missions we take part in. We have a veto, and the treaty does not mean that something could happen in the European Union and somehow or other, 27 member states would be obliged to take part because of that wording. We have a lock-in to ensure that we have an absolute right to veto in terms of our voluntary presence, whether in a civilian or military mission.
Mr. Francois: With respect, the Minister has not answered the question. [Interruption.] Well, I do not think that she has. I shall put it to her again: is it a mutual defence guarantee? A number of EU countries regard it as one. She simply needs to say yes or no. Which is it?
Caroline Flint: What I have said is that, clearly, we have a right to say what missions we take part in. Therefore, we would not automatically be expected to go to the defence of another country in the way that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. I am happy to come back to that point with details about the article he refers to later in the debate.
Mr. Francois: Given that the treaty is integral to the documents we are debating this afternoon, I am a little surprised at the continuing vagueness of the Minister’s answer. This is a really simple question: has the Minister read the elements of the Lisbon treaty that relate to defence?
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