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House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
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European Standing Committee Debates



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Martyn Jones
Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
Byers, Mr. Stephen (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral, South) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)
Merron, Gillian (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)
Munn, Meg (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Simpson, Mr. Keith (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)
Stanley, Sir John (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Committee B

Tuesday 21 April 2009

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

European Union and the Arctic Region
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 relevant documents to the Committee?
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Yes, Mr. Jones, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It might help if I explain a little of the background, and why the European Scrutiny Committee has recommended the document for debate. The Commission communication reviews EU interests in the Arctic and proposes action on three main policy objectives. The first is protecting and preserving the Arctic, the second is promoting the sustainable use of resources, and the third is enhancing the Arctic multilateral governance. The communication notes the many challenges and opportunities for the Arctic, and, in particular, those associated with climate change, use of resources, and the protection of the Arctic environment. The Commission sees the document as a first step towards an EU Arctic policy. A further Commission communication later this year will outline more detailed proposals.
The Committee felt that the explanatory memorandum from the Minister for Europe neither summarised the document properly nor outlined in any real way the Government’s views. Given the area in question and the countries and issues involved, the Committee felt that the communication already raised a number of important questions that need to be explored now. There is an established Arctic governance in the shape of the Arctic Council. Its members, Canada, Denmark, which includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States of America, already include those Arctic member states with a direct interest, and two European economic area member countries. In addition, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain are observers, as are China and various intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations.
The United Nations convention on the law of the sea and the International Maritime Organisation provide an international framework to determine governance issues related to the Arctic sea bed. Five Arctic states—the United States, the Russian Federation, Canada, Norway and Denmark—have committed themselves to addressing overlapping claims within the framework of international law, including UNCLOS, as well as working through the IMO. There are also other pertinent international treaties, such as the United Nations framework convention on climate change, the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants and the convention on the prevention of marine pollution by dumping of wastes and other matter. With respect to hydrocarbons, the five Arctic rim states, together with the three other Arctic states, which are Finland, Iceland and Sweden, co-operate through the Arctic Council to agree common guidelines for hydrocarbon activity. The UK, as a state observer to the Arctic Council, has contributed to that work and will continue to do so. With regard to the north-west passage, key issues are seen to include ensuring that any navigation is undertaken safely, and that primacy is accorded to the environmental protection of the region. That suggests that the rules for navigation through the strait should be agreed by the IMO.
In sum, only a handful of EU member states are directly concerned in the Arctic. That has an important bearing on whether the Commission is entitled to make recommendations on the Arctic in the name of the EU as a whole. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the range of existing mechanisms, the Commission sees Arctic governance as fragmented and lacking effective instruments and an overall policy-setting process, with gaps in participation, implementation and geographical scope. It says the EU should
“work to uphold the further development of a cooperative Arctic governance system based on the UNCLOS”,
including to
“enhance input to the Arctic Council in accordance with the Community’s role and potential”,
with the Commission applying for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council “as a first step”.
Different considerations apply, however, to EU member states, as opposed to the Commission, seeking to formulate an EU foreign policy on the Arctic. It is plain that EU member states will want to ensure that geopolitical developments in the Arctic proceed in a manner that neither undermines fundamental EU interests nor threatens EU or international security. The second pillar of the EU —the common foreign and security policy—gives EU member states the mandate to formulate a policy on the Arctic to address such concerns. The CFSP is intergovernmental: policy is made by the 27 EU member states in the Council of Ministers. Importantly, the Commission has neither a formal role nor a right of initiative under the CFSP.
Nevertheless, certain policy proposals in the communication assume a power to act on the part of the Commission that is questionable on the grounds that it has no competence to do so under EU law or, where it does have competence, that such action would be better taken at national rather than EU level. Examples in the communication of the former include “Support to indigenous peoples and local population”, “Research, monitoring and assessments” and “Tourism”. Examples of the latter include “Environmental and climate change”, “Transport” and “Fisheries”. If the Commission were to propose legislation on those latter issues that was directed largely at the three EU Arctic states, such measures would be likely to breach the principle of subsidiarity on the grounds that the policy objectives were not aimed at the EU as a whole and could therefore be better achieved at national level.
Therefore, it is not at all clear, at least to the Committee, what the Commission’s competences are in this regard or what issues could be more effectively tackled, and international mechanisms genuinely enhanced, by having a bigger EU or Community role. How is the role that the Commission sees for itself to be carried out properly under the existing treaties? Or does the Commission anticipate an expanded role for itself under the Lisbon treaty? All in all, the Committee felt that the House should have the opportunity to hear more about the Minister’s thinking and to discuss the relevant issues now, rather than simply awaiting further detailed proposals from the Commission.
The Chairman: I call the Minister to make an opening statement.
4.37 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I, too, am delighted to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I look forward to discussing this important issue and I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for the opportunity to do so. I also thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham for his opening words. He has explained further some of the issues that that Committee wishes to explore.
Let me give an assurance immediately that the Commission’s communication provides only a general framework for the EU’s approach to the Arctic region. As such, it is a step towards the development of a more detailed EU Arctic policy. As the hon. Gentleman said, it highlights a number of important Arctic issues, but it does not go into significant detail on any one subject. However, we have the opportunity today to share views on the broad topics raised, and I am happy that we do. I hope that I will be able to answer any questions that are raised.
As set out in the explanatory memorandum submitted to the Scrutiny Committee on 16 December 2008, the Commission communication is just the first stage in a process towards an EU Arctic policy. That process will involve substantive debate over many months, and the UK’s input will of course be co-ordinated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We will also draw heavily on the expertise of other Whitehall Departments that lead on the relevant policy areas.
The Arctic is of course of global importance. The polar regions have a profound effect on the world’s climate and oceans, and they are a unique barometer for the scientific study of climate change. The Arctic is one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet, and the resulting increase in ice and permafrost melt has already had dramatic impacts on local environments and ecosystems. The capacity for further global impacts is clear for all to see.
The Arctic is also important to the UK, and we pursue the relevant issues bilaterally and multilaterally. Our policy focus is split into three interlocking areas: first, protecting the unique nature of the Arctic environment; secondly, ensuring the sustainable development of hydrocarbon and other resources in the Arctic; and, thirdly, ensuring sound governance of the Arctic to regulate issues such as access, shipping, fishing and trade. Those issues, which the Commission’s communication rightly identified as key, are managed through a range of governance instruments, as the hon. Gentleman said. Although there is no single, overarching Arctic treaty, there are a number of bilateral and multilateral agreements and treaties that provide a comprehensive legal basis for the management of the Arctic. The most significant of those is the UN convention on the law of the sea, which provides a framework for the management of the sea bed. In addition, the Arctic Council seeks to provide a forum for the discussion and resolution of a range of Arctic issues. The UK is a state observer to the council and actively contributes to its work.
Climatic and environmental changes are, as we know, resulting in changing social and economic pressures on management and governance. The reduction in sea ice has opened up vast areas of the ocean for the first time. Some scientists predict that the Arctic ocean will become ice-free during the summer shortly, which has led to increased interest in hydrocarbons and access for shipping and fisheries, all of which could have profound effects. Right hon. and hon. Members who have been provided with the communication will see that it outlines the reasons for the interest at European level, albeit in general terms.
International Polar Year, which concluded in March, focused the international spotlight on a range of science that is being conducted in the polar regions. Much of the project’s work will, we hope, provide an improved understanding of climatic and environmental processes and changes, not only in the polar regions, but globally. The UK made a significant scientific contribution to International Polar Year, with British scientists involved in almost half of the 229 approved projects. We also play a role in other matters that affect the Arctic, such as the UN framework convention on climate change and the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants.
EU member states are already very active in the Arctic: the territories of three member states extend into it, two Arctic states are members of the European economic area and all non-European Arctic states are strategic partners of the EU. However, Arctic issues are important to the whole EU, not only the states with territories in the region. We therefore welcome the Commission’s communication as the first step towards a broad EU Arctic policy. We have made clear to the Commission that all EU member states must be fully consulted and involved in the development of such a policy. That is partly for the reasons of competence referred to by the hon. Gentleman—there is a mixture of EU and member state competence on a number of the issues raised in the Commission’s communication. Full consultation is necessary given that the UK and others already actively engage on Arctic issues and have clear interests at stake.
Closer to home, the UK Departments with the relevant expertise on such matters share the interest of the FCO in seeing the EU add value to global efforts to find solutions to the challenges that we face in the Arctic, which are ensuring the sustainable development of resources, fair and equitable access to Arctic waters and the long-term protection of that great and important wilderness. I am grateful for the Committee’s interest, and I look forward to an engaging debate and, importantly, an ongoing constructive dialogue in future.
The Chairman: We now have until 5.30 pm for brief questions to the Minister. I will allow supplementary questions if they are relevant.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and the hon. Member for Luton, North, who serve on the European Scrutiny Committee, are here, and I thank the Committee for its work.
As the Minister and my hon. Friend said, this is an important subject, not least for the United Kingdom. Historically, our interests were maritime, fishing, exploration and defence, even if they have now moved on. However, there are some important questions to consider, some of which my hon. Friend touched on, and I would like to put three or four of them to the Minister, if there is an opportunity.
My hon. Friend touched on the question of scrutiny. Given that the European Council’s draft conclusions are directly relevant to this Committee, why were they not provided to us for consideration? The conclusion of the European Scrutiny Committee’s ninth report, paragraph 1.15, states:
“If the Minister is going to refer to draft Council Conclusions as part of the explanation of the Government’s view, we feel that the least that she could have done would have been to enclose those draft Conclusions with her Explanatory Memorandum. Alternatively, she should have explained what those draft Conclusions contain.”
That is an important point, and perhaps the Minister will respond to it.
Has the Minister noted paragraph 1.16? It states:
“We also feel that the areas discussed in subsequent correspondence outlined above should have been outlined in the first instance in a more substantial Explanatory Memorandum.”
This seems to be pretty thin fare for the Committee to consider.
The second element that I want to touch on refers back the point made by my hon. Friend, which is that the European Scrutiny Committee obviously felt strongly about competence. The Commission’s communication covers a number of areas relevant to developments in the Arctic region, most notably the environment, fisheries, energy exploration and shipping. The Committee has raised the question of the Commission’s competence in the recommendations in respect of the communication. I do not think that the Minister dealt with that question in her opening comments. Is she content that the Commission has competence in all the areas it raises? Has the Foreign Office discussed competence with the Commission?
My third point is territorial claims. Paragraph 1.7 of the European Scrutiny Committee report rightly notes that the communication fails to mention the most pressing political issue of all vis- -vis the Arctic. That is a notable omission. The Minister made some brief points on that question in her letter to Lord Roper—points that might helpfully have been included in the explanatory memorandum for this Committee.
Some questions are left unanswered. Given the forums in which continental shelf claims are made, does the Minister believe that the Commission does not have competence in this area? Is that why there is no mention of it in the communication? Continental shelf claims should certainly be discussed with our European partners. Have she or her ministerial colleagues done so at the General Affairs and External Relations Council or bilaterally? Is this an area where the Government are seeking or are minded to seek a common EU position?
I will conclude at that point and quit while I am ahead.
 
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