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Session 2008 - 09
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European Standing Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Clive Betts
Bryant, Chris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
Clapham, Mr. Michael (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)
Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) (Lab)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Spellar, Mr. John (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)
Stanley, Sir John (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Williams, Mrs. Betty (Conwy) (Lab)
Rhiannon Hollis, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Committee B

Tuesday 9 June 2009

[Mr. Clive Betts in the Chair]

External Service

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 this Committee?
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I wish to make that statement. Before I do, may I say, Mr. Betts, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon and may I also congratulate the Minister on his promotion and his new role? We look forward to hearing a great deal more from him on the subject of Europe and the European Union.
It might help the Committee if I set out some of the thinking behind the European Scrutiny Committee deciding to send this document for debate. The document deals with the European Commission External Service, which is a network of more than 120 Commission delegations in third countries and international organisations staffed by Commission officials. The Commission officials are responsible for presenting, explaining and implementing EU policy—in particular external assistance—analysing and reporting on the policies and developments to the countries to which they are accredited and conducting negotiations in accordance with a given mandate.
As proposed in the previous communication of June 2007, the Commission now confirms that in 2009 it will upgrade several of its existing delegations and open two new ones. In each case, the communication cites local operational reasons and the need for more work on EU initiatives that have already been agreed by the councils as reasons for the readjustments. We understand that 34 new jobs will be created, and they will be funded from existing lines within the current EU budget.
In other circumstances, these relatively modest proposals might not have excited great interest. However, the Scrutiny Committee noted that unlike in 2007, the website of the director-general of external relations now says nothing about how it sees its future if and when the Lisbon treaty is finally adopted. The treaty says of the External Action Service that the High Representative “shall be assisted by” it and that its
“organisation and functioning...shall be established by a decision of the Council.”
The then Minister for Europe essayed some tentative and limited views on that, but large questions remain open. Within the communication itself, the Commission rationalised, in part, several of the proposed changes by monitoring political processes and political relations between the EU and the country concerned notwithstanding the existence of a network of EU special representatives who were similarly tasked and, in some cases, even on the same ground and whose future role is unconsidered.
Moreover, it was not entirely clear what the Minister had in mind when she talked about the “brigading” of the existing constitution. Delegations with the Union’s other external policy resources led to greater effectiveness and more accountability to the member states through the High Representative, whose relationship with the member states would, of course, be complicated by virtue of his being chair of the External Relations Council and also a vice-president of the Commission. That is notwithstanding the uncertainties of how he or she might relate to other relevant commissioners, the Commission President and the permanent President of the European Council.
Neither the Commission nor the Minister has said anything about what the External Action Service role might be in relation to the provision of consular services. That is a contentious area in which the 2007 communication envisaged a greatly enhanced role for the Commission and the new External Action Service.
The Minister talked of British missions continuing to work closely with Union delegations to ensure that
“where we have an agreed EU policy, the resources of the Union are effectively deployed to ensure its implementation in third countries and at international organisations.”
The then Minister said nothing of who, at the end of the day, would co-ordinate whom. Article 24 of the Lisbon treaty says:
“The Member States shall support the Union’s external and security policy unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity and shall comply with the Union’s actions in this area.”
If the Lisbon treaty is finally adopted, all of this will no doubt be covered in the Council decision, but the Scrutiny Committee thought it right for such issues to be vented now, so that the House has the opportunity to question this Minister and hear his views in greater detail.
The Chairman: I call the Minister to make an opening statement.
4.34 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): It is a great pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Betts. I have never had such an honour, and it is also a great honour to have this different job. I am grateful for the comments made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere, although he referred to this as a promotion. I do not think that any job is a promotion from Deputy Leader of the House—[Interruption.]—because that is a job in which I get to be as rude as I possibly can to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, who just harrumphed.
Before taking questions, I want to outline briefly some of the issues before us. This is a simple measure. In all honesty, all that is happening is that the European Commission is changing some of the provision that it makes in certain parts of the world regarding its External Service. It is increasing its representation in some areas, and opening new offices in others. In particular, there will be a new permanent representation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and a new delegation in Uzbekistan. Existing regional delegations in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Nepal, Togo, Liberia, Djibouti and Yemen will be upgraded to become fully fledged delegations, and there will be new administrative arrangements for places where there is a Commission presence distinct from its delegations. Those are in Belize, Comoros, the Congo, Mongolia, Burma, Panama and Samoa—all places where the European Commission’s presence is important and significant, and in some cases places where there is a dramatic regional significance to the important relations that are needed between the European Commission and the region. In certain circumstances, they are places where there is an important development responsibility, and where the Commission is deploying large amounts of money on behalf of member states.
As the hon. Gentleman said, no extra cost is involved. All the new responsibilities are being undertaken using budgets that are already agreed on, and there is no legislative change. If I might slightly contradict what he implied in his questions, we are referring solely to the External Service of the European Commission, and how that relates to the various other bodies that are present on behalf of the European Union around the world. We are not talking about the External Action Service, which will come into place if and when the Lisbon treaty is ratified. That is an important point, because we are not talking about a legislative change. The Government are trying to ensure that the House is fully aware of the arrangements that are being made.
I believe that the provisions are good for Britain, because contrary to those who believe that it is wrong to have any common foreign and security policy, I think that it is in Britain’s interest for the European Union to have such a policy. It is important because it complements what we as a country can do. In recent years, whether in relation to Zimbabwe or Iran, we have seen that where the European Union is able to share a common foreign and security policy, we are able to deliver far more than when members states battle on their own. In Britain’s case, that is not least because many of the issues that we want to take up on a worldwide stage are not necessarily issues that would have occurred to all 27 members of the European Union. Once we have corralled all 27 members of the Union into a common position, we can speak not only with our own strong voice, but with the strong voice of Europe, which is far more likely to be effective.
The hon. Gentleman asked one specific question in relation to consular services. I hope to reassure him on that, because we have no intention for the European Union, or the European Commission, to provide consular services on behalf of either the United Kingdom or others. It is true that some member states already co-operate to provide those services around the world, but that is expressly not the Government’s intention, nor indeed is anything that is related to that by the External Service changes outlined in the Commission’s document. Without further ado, I am more than happy to answer any questions.
The Chairman: We now have until half-past 5 for questions to the Minister. I remind members of the Committee that these should be brief. Subject to my discretion, it is open to hon. Members to ask related supplementary questions together.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Betts. I, too, welcome the Minister to his new role. Will he say more about what exactly is the proposed role of the EC delegation to the Council of Europe?
Chris Bryant: The role already exists, because the Commission has already been moving it forward. Clearly, the Council of Europe is an important organisation in terms of establishing regional relationships beyond the boundaries of the European Union. It is vital in our relationships with Russia and on a range of different issues where the European Commission has a declared and shared aim, and it is already working with the Council of Europe.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I, too, am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Betts, and I welcome the Minister to his new position. I am sure we shall enjoy his company in the European debates and Committees. I note that he is sad to be leaving his previous job, because he will not find the opportunity to be rude to me on occasion, but he is a man of great initiative and I am sure that he will find the opportunity to do so.
The question that I would like to raise relates to the explanatory memorandum. In paragraph 17, the then Minister for Europe pointed out that if the Lisbon treaty were to come into force, the delegations would be made more accountable to the member states through the High Representative. Obviously, increased accountability is something that we welcome. That is why, like his Government, the Liberal Democrats supported the Lisbon treaty, but its future is not certain at the moment. What consideration have the Government given to how such delegations can be made more accountable under the existing structure should the Lisbon treaty not come into force ?
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. I will try my best to be rude to her.
The Government, like the Liberal Democrats, want to ensure that the Lisbon treaty is ratified and comes into force, not least in this particular area. We believe that it will provide much greater clarity and consistency while meeting the core objective that we have always had, which is that common foreign and defence policy, as laid down in the treaty, will always be on a unanimous basis. That provides two strengths. One is that it means no member state is forced to co-operate in a foreign policy that it does not share. That is essential to the nature of statehood within the union. Secondly, it also gives us the advantage that once we have got everybody to co-operate on a policy, we can provide much greater clarity and force and speak with a greater mandate. It is important to recognise that 26 countries have already gone through the parliamentary processes that are necessary, although two—Germany and Poland—still have to go through some other processes before full ratification. If and when we are able to complete the process, there will be a clear line of accountability. It is more difficult at the moment. That is one reason why we want to see the treaty fully ratified. Would that the whole the House shared that view!
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Other than the line management structure in the Lisbon treaty being ratified, how could one tell the difference between the External Service and the External Action Service in practice? Given that we already have an exchange of diplomats and Foreign Office exchange, how would the External Service be different if I saw it in reality?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend points to something on which we do not know the answer. It is not just that I do not know. The truth is that the work has not yet been done and it would be inappropriate for it to be done because the treaty has not been ratified. We have to think about all possible outcomes whether the treaty ends up coming into force or not. It would be remiss of me if I speculated on how it could be different.
However, my hon. Friend is right to refer to the point that I made about line accountability. Instead of having two separate people taking charge of the issue—namely, the Commissioner for External Relations and the High Representative—there is just one person, the High Representative. That clears up some of the lines of accountability for the budget and the financing of any work that comes under this heading.
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Prepared 11 June 2009