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Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 1879-i

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee

on Thursday 8 March 2012

Members present:

Richard Ottaway (Chair)

Mr John Baron

Mike Gapes

Mr Frank Roy

Sir John Stanley

Rory Stewart

Mr Dave Watts

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon William Hague MP, First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Simon Fraser CMG, Permanent Under-Secretary, and Simon Manley, Director for Europe, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Q1 Chair: May I welcome members of the public to this sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee? Our main witness today is the Foreign Secretary, who is giving evidence to our inquiry into developments in UK foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on the European Union, and later on-if time permits-we will be looking at Iran and Syria. Foreign Secretary, may I give you a warm welcome on behalf of the Committee?

Any observer of the EU summit on 9 December would think, "This is no way to run a global currency." The impression was given of a mad scramble at the end. May I thank you for your letter to us of 15 February, in which you set out in some detail what had happened, and which did little to dispel that impression?

A summit was held with President Sarkozy on 2 December. Did he give any impression at that summit that he would agree to our requirements to protect the interests of Britain’s financial services sector?

Mr Hague: No. The sequence of this is set out in my letter, I think, and so you are understandably asking about the meeting with President Sarkozy a week before the summit. By the way, I should say that I am accompanied by Simon Manley, who is the Director for Europe in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as by Simon Fraser, who is the Permanent Under-Secretary and whom you know well.

Chair: I apologise for not welcoming you, gentlemen.

Mr Hague: So, on some of these questions, Simon-Simon Manley-may wish to elaborate.

The discussion about what would happen, what would be agreed, at the European Council on 8 and 9 December varied enormously in the months preceding it, as my letter indicates, with many countries being not at all keen on the idea of changing the treaties. France and Germany at a late stage proposed changes to the treaty, which our specific proposal was then a reaction to. So, no, President Sarkozy clearly did not-at the time of the actual Council-agree to our proposal, nor was he able therefore to agree to it beforehand.

Q2 Chair: With a French presidential election coming, isn’t it a bit fanciful to think that he might have agreed to something like that?

Mr Hague: It is not "fanciful" to think so. If France and Germany and other countries had placed sufficient priority on all 27 nations agreeing to a treaty, and this being a change to the treaties of the European Union, then of course they could have secured that agreement by agreeing to the protocol that we put forward. However, in the case of the approach of France-in particular-to these matters, it was clear that they were happy to have an agreement that fell short of 27, rather than one that was diluted in any way, as they would have seen it, by agreeing to our requirements.

Q3 Chair: Did we consider any other price, as it were, for protection of our financial services sector, other than treaty changes? Did we say, "Well, we’ll agree to something else", in exchange?

Mr Hague: We considered quite a wide range of options and these were discussed many times over the weeks before the Council, although without the advantage of knowing what the actual proposals would be since they only emerged literally the day before-48 hours before the Council. We discussed quite a wide range of options, but we were clear in the Government that if treaty change was what other nations were seeking, if treaty change was going to be agreed, then the protections that we were seeking would have to be part of the treaty, in this case as a protocol. That would be necessary to give us the necessary level of assurance.

Q4 Chair: We have read reports that Hubert Legal, the legal adviser to the EU Council, gave an opinion, initially, that the involvement of EU institutions could not be achieved outside of the EU treaties. Did you receive such an opinion?

Mr Hague: Any opinion given would be a verbal opinion. Simon may wish to expand on that.

Simon Manley: I think the reports refer to views that Monsieur Legal offered in the course of a discussion among officials the day before the Council. He offered slightly different advice perhaps during the course of the Council.

Mr Hague: So it is fair to say that the opinion of the Council’s legal service has varied on this.

Q5 Chair: Did we take legal advice on this problem?

Mr Hague: As you know, the Government do not confirm the fact or the substance of legal advice that we seek. We do have legal concerns, as the Minister of Europe set out at the European Scrutiny Committee and in the debate that was held on the Floor of the House last week, about some aspects of the treaty that have been agreed among the 25 nations, particularly relating to articles 3.2, 7 and 8. We have those concerns about the use of the Commission and the use of the European Court of Justice. As the Minister of Europe set out to Parliament, we have decided to reserve our position on the use of the institutions in this way.

Q6 Chair: I understand that: I am asking you to tell me not what the advice is, but what you believe. Do you believe that the institutions cannot be used outside of the treaty, notwithstanding that you may concede the point later on?

Mr Hague: Most of the powers given in the fiscal compact treaty, which was agreed among the 25, are things that they can do anyway with the European institutions. These are not new powers; they are not revolutionary, although they are intended to be a tightening of the fiscal discipline of the eurozone. There are some new provisions, including the use of the institutions. They are in the articles that I have set out. What I believe is the same as the Government’s position. The view of the Foreign Secretary is indistinguishable from the policy of Her Majesty’s Government, which is that we have legal concerns in those areas, that we have decided to reserve our position, that our objective in doing so is to ensure that the use of this treaty, and any way in which the institutions are used under this treaty, is limited to the matters within the eurozone with which it is designed to deal and does not become extended into the single market, into areas that we have expressed fears that it would be extended into. On that basis, we currently reserve our position on the legality.

Q7 Chair: So the reservation is because of your concerns?

Mr Hague: Absolutely.

Q8 Chair: May I move on to the single market? We rightly have a very strong position on the single market. Of course the single market goes right back to the 1980s, and it was largely got through in the 1980s as a result of QMV. Without that, many people think that it would not have got established. I note that we are not pulling back from QMV on the single market. That seems to be a contradiction in terms-to be firmly in favour of the single market yet against the very principle that established it in the first place.

Mr Hague: Are you referring to the protections that we were seeking in the treaty change, which include guarantees of unanimity? Well, that is right. We think that in these instances, unanimity would be required. I think that we set out-and the Chancellor has set out in some detail-at the Treasury Committee what we think would be necessary to protect the single market.

On important decisions, let me take an instance. One of the things we pressed for was unanimity on any proposals to relocate any of the European supervisory authorities’ headquarters, for example. We think that unanimity is justified on that if we are to avoid, in a change to European treaties, the eurozone working together in a tighter way, spilling over into having an effect on countries that are not in the eurozone to their disadvantage. In that sense, unanimity helps to protect the single market from eurozone agreements, and caucusing within the eurozone affecting other nations. That is how we would justify unanimity in those areas. In many of these cases unanimity is supposed to be the rule anyway. Simon, do you want to expand on this?

Simon Manley: That is right, and it is true to say that in the protocol we were also seeking to make it clear that the single market should work impartially. So, for example, we have brought legal action against the European Central Bank because of our concerns about its location policy, and what we consider to be a location policy that involves discrimination on the basis of which currency zone you are in. It is also about the impartiality of the single market.

Q9 Chair: It is fair to say that we are vulnerable to relocation whether we had signed the treaty without protection, or outside the treaty without protection. Either way, we haven’t got the protection we were wanting.

Mr Hague: Clearly, this was not agreed. The protocol was not agreed, and as a result the agreement among the 25 nations is not part of the treaties of the European Union, and does not have the force of EU law. Will we have to continue to seek to protect the single market, financial services and our national interests in other ways in the absence of having secured a protocol to changes to the treaties of the European Union? Yes, we will, and we will continue to do so vigorously.

Q10 Chair: Can I go back to your reservation on the fiscal compact? You have reservations about the use of the institutions. Are there any other reservations? Is there anything else that you are holding back on before expressing a view on the compact?

Mr Hague: We have expressed a view on it. We have not agreed to it as part of the treaties of the European Union.

Q11 Chair: Can you elaborate on your reasons?

Mr Hague: Clearly, there is a wider concern, which is what we were just talking about in relation to the single market, that if the treaties of the European Union were changed in this way-this is set out in my letter, and in the Chancellor’s letter to the Treasury Committee-that can spill over into the single market. That is a wider concern. In the detail of the treaty agreed-the fiscal compact treaty-we are concerned about the use of EU institutions in the way that I have set out. Those are our principal concerns. On the other hand, it is important to point out that we want the eurozone countries to succeed in stabilising the eurozone. We wish them well with that. We do not want to obstruct that, and that is another reason why we reserve our position on this rather than choosing to make it even more difficult for them.

Q12 Rory Stewart: Foreign Secretary, looking at the technical aspects of your negotiation, how much did you do to build support from other member states before the European Council meeting, and in particular, how much did you share with them any specific safeguards you were asking for? Could you have done more to build that support by sharing information?

Mr Hague: The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Minister for Europe all made a number of calls and visits before the Council to quite a number of member states. The Prime Minister travelled to Berlin and Paris; the Chancellor spoke to a number of Finance Ministers; and the Deputy Prime Minister spoke to a large number of Prime Ministers. They all expressed our concern that if there was going to be a treaty of 27 involving greater economic and fiscal integration among the eurozone, certain safeguards were needed. Many such conversations were held during the days and weeks ahead of the European Council. However, it must be stressed-I made the point briefly earlier-that specific proposals for what would happen at that Council emerged very late.

Mr Van Rompuy’s work produced the idea of a set of proposals that did not involve treaty change in a way that was ultimately decided, other than through the use of one passerelle clause under article 126 of the treaties. Otherwise, his objective-one of the options he set out-was to make the necessary changes in the eurozone without treaty change. That was certainly the preference of many of the European member states-possibly a majority of member states. In the light of the strong wishes of friends in Germany, that majority changed their opinion.

It was quite difficult for all countries in the run up to this Council to anticipate exactly what would be on the table. Even at the Council itself, the treaty changes were not in detail on the table-only the political intention to make such changes. Therefore it was not possible in the weeks before the Council to propose a detailed response to something, the detail of which had not been determined, decided or even proposed.

Q13 Rory Stewart: When the Prime Minister set off for the European Council, did he-or you or the Foreign Office in general-have an expectation of roughly how many member states might take our position or how the split would be in the European Union?

Mr Hague: No, it was not possible in the circumstances to make any robust estimation of that. Many countries were going to the Council undecided between Mr Van Rompuy’s proposals and anything that might be put forward by France and Germany. Many of those countries were in the dark about what would be proposed. So it was not possible to make any such estimation. It was possible only to put forward these proposals in the immediate hours and days before the Council and then to put them forward to other key heads of Government at the Council itself and in the margins of the Council. So, for instance, the Prime Minister and I had a meeting with President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel immediately before the Council to discuss our proposal. But the discussion at the Council was last minute-if you like, the putting of proposals by other nations on the table was that late in the day.

Q14 Rory Stewart: Presumably this was a disappointing result in some ways for Britain. Have you got a sense of why more member states did not support our position?

Mr Hague: Other member states were very anxious to find a way through the eurozone crisis, in whatever form they had to come to an agreement. Of course, they wanted it to be in a form that France and Germany in particular were able to live with and that the German Parliament would be able to support, so they gave great weight to that in the discussions. Yes, although it is disappointing that our proposals were not agreed, I think that the next best alternative is that this was not agreed as a European treaty-it does not have the force of European law, it does not bind us in any way, and that is the next best alternative.

Q15 Mr Baron: Foreign Secretary, you will appreciate that there are contrasting views about the strength of the UK’s position post the Prime Minister’s veto. There is a concern that, through the establishment of the fiscal compact, we have created, in effect, a sort of two-tier Europe and that, even then, it is not really addressing the core cause of the problem in the eurozone-of the eurozone crisis-which is a lack of competitiveness. How do you plan to police the fiscal compact, for example, to ensure that the euro summit remains within their remit and that the UK is fully informed of their discussions? Because, as I say, there is a concern that, without addressing the core cause of the problem, which is a lack of competitiveness, there is more bad news to come. One is concerned about the UK’s position.

Mr Hague: There are several important points. I absolutely agree that the core problem is a lack of competitiveness and therefore of growth. This, of course, was a matter on which the Prime Minister put a very strong emphasis at last week’s European Council. Indeed, the President of the Council and other heads of Government before the Council were sent a letter, signed not only by our Prime Minister but by 11 other Heads of Government, calling for specific measures on growth and competitiveness, many of which-I am glad to say-went into the conclusions of last week’s European Council.

This is absolutely right: there will be no long-term solution to the problems of the eurozone without economic growth. Barriers to economic growth have to be removed, and that will have a far more positive impact than any purely financial measures that can be taken. We are strongly engaged with that, and have a leading and central position in the European debate. For the letter, that like-minded group of 12 countries came together at our instigation. That brings us to the question of whether this is a two-tier arrangement, but I think it is too early to say that.

Of course, eurozone Finance Ministers have always been able to have their own meetings-that is well understood-and there are other groupings within the European Union. Some countries are part of the Schengen agreement and some are not, just as some are in the euro and some are not. That is not a fundamental change, and I can say confidently that the disagreements we had at the Council in December, and over the eurozone, have not spilled over into other areas. For instance, I have not noticed any impact at all of such disagreements on the work of the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union. If you sat in a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, you would not be able to determine what the position of countries was on the eurozone, as we discuss Iran, Syria and so on. Neither has our ability to take the lead on issues of growth been inhibited.

I do not think, therefore, that a fundamental division has been created within the European Union. Of course, we want to watch the situation carefully, and as the Prime Minister said, we will watch like hawks the use of this treaty, particularly under the articles to which I referred earlier. However, I don’t think that we will have any difficulty spotting anything that we do not like.

Q16 Mr Baron: May I press you on that, Foreign Secretary? There is quite a fundamental change. The eurozone leaders have woken up to the fact that you cannot have monetary union without fiscal union-hence the fiscal compact. There is, however, a lot of talk, certainly from the Germans and the French, about fiscal union leading to political union, and it is difficult to separate the two if you want complete harmony when it comes to fiscal union. I accept and agree with your point about the need for greater competitiveness. As long as Governments continue to spend more than they bring in, this crisis is not going to go away. All the summits that we have seen are nothing more than expensive sticking plasters, and the markets tend to concur with that view. They might have bought time, but that is all.

Given that, and that there is quite a fundamental change, what concrete guarantees exist that the fiscal compact will not-or cannot-act against the interests of this country, given the general view that the crisis has not gone away but been only postponed? It is not clear. We all agree on the need for greater competitiveness, but I do not see the supply-side reforms being introduced as sweepingly as they should be, and certainly the markets don’t see that. What concrete guarantees exist that the fiscal compact, this new grouping, cannot and will not act against our interests?

Mr Hague: Again, there are several things to mention. First, this is not part of the European treaty and does not have the force of European Union law. European Union law takes precedence over this treaty, as is clear in article 2. Secondly, as I said, we have reserved our position on the use of the institutions, and we will use our reservation about our position to try and ensure that they are not used in a way that is damaging to this country or unhelpful to the single market. Thirdly, it is important to point out that we hope that this operates in the interests of this country. We do want a stable eurozone. We can use different expressions to describe what has been achieved so far-I think "sticking plaster" is perhaps more pejorative than something I should say as Foreign Secretary. But it has been more than that because, of course, of what has accompanied the discussions at the December European Council and in the period since then-we have seen a much more active role by the European Central Bank in supporting the banking system within the eurozone that has relieved some of the financial pressure within the eurozone, while not addressing these fundamental problems. As you and I readily agree, those have to be addressed as well.

So it is not, as it stands, designed to be against the interests of this country. We have some leverage in defending our interests. It cannot take precedence over the treaties of the European Union.

Q17 Mr Roy: It was reported at the time that you said to the Prime Minister, if it came to a choice between keeping the euro together or keeping the Conservative party together, then it was in the national interest to keep the Conservative party together. Can you confirm whether you said that?

Mr Hague: I give the Prime Minister advice every day. One reason why that works well is that it is all confidential, so I am never going to confirm or deny advice that I have given the Prime Minister. I gave the Prime Minister many hours of advice on this particular subject and he and I were always completely at one on what to do.

Q18 Mr Roy: I will take that as a yes.

Foreign Secretary, can you give a single example of an additional protection for financial services that came about and was achieved because of the Prime Minister’s walk-out? Can you give us a single example?

Mr Hague: The protocol was not agreed, as I made clear earlier. The protection for the single market in financial services was not agreed, because no changes to the treaties of the European Union were agreed. Those things go together. Of course, they could have been agreed. But that was the price. Other countries wanted this to be a change to the European treaties-the EU treaties-and those things would have had to be agreed. Clearly-

Q19 Mr Roy: But not an additional protection-one single, additional protection. Can you tell me anything?

Mr Hague: We are not part of the-there is neither a protection nor anything against the interests of the United Kingdom in a treaty that is not part of the treaties of the European Union.

Q20 Mr Roy: Thank you. Do you expect, Foreign Secretary, an attempt to be made to incorporate the fiscal compact into the EU treaties before the end of this Parliament?

Mr Hague: No. I think 2016 is the date given-or the hoped-for deadline-by the 25 countries for the incorporation into the treaties of the European Union. Clearly, if they wanted to do that there would have to be a fresh negotiation about this and our requirements would have to be met.

Q21 Mr Roy: Foreign Secretary, can you tell us how many members of staff the Foreign Office has working full time on the Government’s agenda for repatriating powers from the European Union?

Mr Hague: Simon can expand on how many staff he has. We have a large Europe unit; they also work closely with the European policy staff in the Cabinet Office. We have started the work, but this work will expand over the coming months on the review of the balance of competencies, if that is what you are referring to.

Q22 Mr Roy: I am asking, how many members of staff?

Mr Hague: They can all be working on it or they will vary from day to day what they are working on. These are members of staff who range across the whole of European policy. Simon, do you want to expand on that?

Simon Manley: If you are looking at competencies as a whole, you would have to look at competencies across the union. I would look to draw upon the resources of my entire directorate and to be working in close concert with colleagues in the Cabinet Office and elsewhere in Government.

Q23 Mr Roy: I am still no clearer on the question. Do you have full-time staff working on it and, if you do, how many are working on that particular project? Could you write to me and to the Committee?

Mr Hague: It will vary from day to day and week to week. So there is not really a precise answer to that, because the number of staff will vary considerably. They are all available to do so.

Q24 Mr Roy: Depending on how many staff there are or are not working on this, when can we expect, or not expect, some result from the work that has been undertaken or not undertaken on the possible repatriation of competencies from the EU?

Mr Hague: I am not sure how long that work will take. That work has started within the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office. We will be taking a decision shortly within the Government about the further form that it will take. Therefore a further announcement will follow on the scale of activity within the Government and the extent of engagement with people outside the Government about it.

Q25 Mr Roy: Can we take it, then, that the Government plan to publish a White Paper on the repatriation of powers from the European Union? If so, when will that happen?

Mr Hague: That will depend on how we get on with that work and the form it takes.

Q26 Mr Roy: Do you expect a White Paper, then?

Mr Hague: I am not going to speculate about that at the moment.

Q27 Mr Roy: So you cannot say how many staff, you cannot say whether they are working or what they are doing and you cannot say what the end will be. Surely, Foreign Secretary, that is not really an answer. You have not answered any of the three points that I have asked you.

Mr Hague: I can assure you that there will be further announcements about it. This work will take place, and it will probably have very important consequences and outcomes. Be in no doubt about that. Don’t be too sceptical about it.

Q28 Mr Roy: What analysis has the Department carried out on the impact of Britain’s decision to walk away from the table at the European summit?

Mr Hague: Any impact within the European Union has not affected the way we work together on the whole range of issues within the European Union, as I briefly described earlier. Indeed, many countries have expressed, if anything, a renewed determination to work closely with us on economic issues, particularly growth. The German Foreign Minister was very quick-within 10 days of the summit-to come visit the United Kingdom and show the closeness of our relations, despite disagreements at the summit, and express Germany’s determination to work together on economic issues as well as all the political issues with which the European Union deals. Chancellor Merkel has said the same to the Prime Minister.

There has been no impact of any significance in the wider world. In fact, having travelled so far this year to five continents and many different countries, I can confidently say that not a single Foreign Minister in any other part of the world has ever asked me anything about the December European Council.

Q29 Mr Roy: Finally, can you explain the letter the Prime Minister referred to at the March 2012 summit meeting? It was different from the letter sent to the March 2011 summit. What are the differences between 2011 and 2012?

Mr Hague: One of the principal differences is that there is much more support for this. This was now a letter from 12 Heads of Government, with some real political determination to do something about it and incorporating many of the proposals into the conclusions of the Council. It would be disappointing if we did not see, over the next year, a much more intensified European approach to promoting growth and competitiveness than we have seen over the last year. Of course, many of the ideas are the same, but the political momentum behind them and the extent of support for them is, I think, much greater now, because many more Governments can now see that growth in economies across Europe is not going to come from Government spending or consumer confidence. It has to come from trade, and from advancing the single market.

I think we are much further along in winning that argument. Getting these things done in practice remains a challenge, but the Council held last week was very different in the tone of its discussion and its conclusions from the one a year earlier.

Q30 Mr Watts: We understand that the Government’s position at the moment is that it is inevitable that membership of the euro will lead to further fiscal integration. Does that not leave Britain on the outside of the mainstream, and how can Britain be a central partner and force within Europe if it is completely out of step with the rest of Europe?

Mr Hague: I would say it puts us in a different mainstream economically, not outside a mainstream. It is, of course, an enormous relief to all of us in Government, many people in the last Government and the whole nation that we are not in the eurozone. It does not leave us outside of anything we want to be in; let us be absolutely clear about that. The forecasts for this year, in a very difficult economic situation for all the developed economies, are, if anything, better for this country than for the eurozone as a whole and for many of the leading countries in the eurozone. If that is what it means to be outside the mainstream, let us be thankful for that situation.

Following the answers I have given earlier, I do not believe that anything that has happened so far has reduced our clout, leverage or ability to lead on all the other issues with which the EU is concerned. I have not detected any of that in all the deliberations that I have had over recent months about our policy across Europe on Iran and on Syria-on the global issues. It has not made any difference to those things at all. Indeed, on our ability to put forward ideas on growth and competitiveness, it has not inhibited that at all. So we should not be afraid of our own conviction that being in the euro would be a grave mistake for this country-now or ever.

Q31 Mr Watts: There are still fundamental differences between the members. What do you expect the EU to look like in 10 years’ time?

Mr Hague: That is a fascinating question. It would be almost foolish of me to hazard an answer to that. Following on from Mr Baron’s questions, it could develop in different ways. Of course, it is possible that the eurozone could become a much more tightly integrated group. It is also possible, however, that they will find difficulties in pushing such fiscal union further than what has so far been agreed in the fiscal compact. Even this has to have a referendum in Ireland, despite the difficult parliamentary deliberations in other countries.

I do not think it is possible to say with confidence what the EU will look like in 10 years’ time. If it changes in some fundamental way, we will want to make our own assessment of that-in this country, of course-but we should not do that without the benefit of knowing what is going to happen over the coming years. In the meantime, our concentration should be on promoting growth, working with our partners in the EU to do so, and continuing to work with them across a whole range of foreign policy issues, on which we work very well.

Q32 Mr Watts: Does that mean that in 10 years’ time-if it has not moved in the direction that you want it to-there might be a suggestion that we will leave the union?

Mr Hague: No, I am not saying that. We, of course, will always want the European Union to develop in a way that we believe in, which is the direction of nation states working closely together in their own national and mutual interest, with overlapping areas of co-operation and agreement. We should be relaxed about that. Some are in the euro; some are not. Some are in Schengen; some are not. That is something that we should not be afraid of or worried about.

Q33 Mr Watts: Recent events in Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo seem to indicate that the enlargement agenda is moving forward again. Is it not a bit strange that it is moving forward? One of the problems is that we are bringing people into the European Union whose economy has nothing in common with the rest. Are we just adding to our problems? Would it not be wise to take a pause and not go for enlargement until we have resolved the problems with the countries that have already been allowed in, whose economic policies are not in line with the rest of Europe?

Mr Hague: No. I very much think the opposite. It is very important to maintain the momentum towards enlargement. One of the principal benefits that the European Union has brought the world, and certainly brought to Europe as a whole, is the effect that it has on countries that are neighbouring to it or that aspire to join it. We have seen the tremendously positive effect on the countries of eastern and central Europe in the period before their membership and now during their membership. It is very important that those benefits are available to the nations of the western Balkans. Looked at from a long-term strategic point of view, whether it be economic or political strategy, to omit the nations of the western Balkans from the European Union would be a great error-a catastrophic error.

I also believe the same about Turkey. There may be differing views about that, but it is important to maintain that momentum. We must not let the crisis that has occurred in the eurozone make Europe inward looking. It is part of Britain’s role to make sure that we are outward looking. It is also true that some of the most dynamic economies in Europe have been those that have joined most recently. Poland, for instance, has a very strong economic performance at the moment, relative to other nations. That it was able to join benefits the EU. From the economic point of view as well as the point of view of long-term peace and security in the western Balkans, the European perspective of countries such as Serbia and Kosovo is very important and must be maintained.

Q34 Mike Gapes: Foreign Secretary, may I take you to European Union foreign policy issues, and also to some bilateral relationship issues? I want to begin by talking about France. In a previous answer, you referred to the relationship between our Government and President Sarkozy’s. Clearly, we have gone from an entente cordiale to what is being referred to as the entente frugale because of the defence co-operation agreement. Clearly, the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy have got over their personal animosities and tiffs and have recognised that these issues are important. Is the effort to restore relations with President Sarkozy the reason that the Prime Minister refused to meet François Hollande? Given that you were a Minister in John Major’s Government, you can recall, I am sure, the very difficult relationship that was then caused with President Clinton because of action taken by that Government when he was a candidate for election-before he was elected as President. Is it wise for us to start off with potentially the next President of France on such a bad relationship?

Mr Hague: First of all, it is hard to know which part of that question to answer or to quarrel with.

Q35 Mike Gapes: You can quarrel with all of it.

Mr Hague: I am going to, I think. Thank you for the opportunity to do so. There is no personal animosity between the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy. If you could see them discussing things together, as I did at the summit that we had in Paris on 17 February, you would see that their relationship is excellent. It has been excellent throughout their time in office in an absolutely sustained way. That does not mean that they always agree about everything. Of course, as in any strong relationship, there is sometimes a disagreement. Clearly, at the time that we have been talking about-the European Council in December-the Prime Minister wanted these safeguards in the treaty and President Sarkozy was not agreeable to that, but that has not contaminated or affected the wider relationship or the warmth of their relationship. It is true to say, as I have said several times in the last few months, that in foreign and defence policy, the co-operation between the United Kingdom and France over the last 18 months has been the closest than at any time since the second world war and that continues. That is true today over all the main global issues.

In the discussions that we are having this week at the UN Security Council, it is the United Kingdom and France working solidly together that helps to drive things along-that is true whether it is at the Security Council or in foreign policy deliberations in the European Union. That will continue to be the case with any Government in France, just as I hope it would continue to be the case with any Government here in the United Kingdom. We have perfectly good relations with the Opposition in France. It is not the position of the Prime Minister, Chancellor Merkel or of many of the other European leaders to meet the Opposition leaders during the election campaign in France, but that will in no way inhibit any co-operation with a French Government of any complexion.

Q36 Mike Gapes: May I just check something? Mrs Merkel has actually said that she is going to campaign in France for the other side of the Merkozy duo. Is our opposition influenced by not wishing to fall out with Mrs Merkel?

Mr Hague: No, our position is different from that. It is not the Prime Minister’s intention to campaign in the French election. He was asked about that.

Q37 Mike Gapes: Does he think that it would do good or harm?

Mr Hague: He was asked about that and he did say that he was not sure whether it would be helpful to President Sarkozy, so we must bear that in mind. We do not take any active part in the elections in our neighbours. There is perhaps a slightly different tradition between Germany and France in taking an active part. It is generally different on the continent from our attitude in Britain. So the Prime Minister is not going to take an active part in that, but equally he’s not going to meet presidential candidates other than the President. After all, there are a variety of presidential candidates in France-quite a field-and if the Prime Minister is going to embark on meeting them all, that may not be the best use of his time between now and the end of April.

Q38 Mike Gapes: Can I get back to the defence co-operation with France? Although it’s important for our bilateral relationship, is this in a sense undermining the relations that would exist within the EU of 27, the fact that the UK and France have moved ahead and that other EU states are not part of a similar process? Doesn’t that actually weaken the collective EU approach?

Mr Hague: No, because this is co-operation on things that no one proposes the European Union doing together. Our co-operation with France includes co-operation on nuclear matters, to which the EU has no relevance at all. It includes, as you know, work on future joint expeditionary forces. I can’t envisage-I wouldn’t want to envisage-the EU ever playing a role in such forces. It also involves being able to work on how naval forces can work very closely together.

So this is something in which Britain and France have a particular role. We are, by some distance, the principal military powers in Europe. And so I do think it adds to the collective punch, if you like, of Europe in the world for Britain and France to work closely in this respect and it doesn’t detract from any of the other work that we do in the EU.

Q39 Mike Gapes: Do you see possibilities for similar bilateral co-operation with other EU states on other areas?

Mr Hague: There are possibilities, yes, for other bilateral co-operation. I don’t think it could be as deep or broad-certainly not as broad, although perhaps it could be as deep in some ways-as with France, because of the factor that I have just mentioned, that we and France account for a very large share of the defence spending of the countries of the EU. And so there are things that each of us do in defence-we are getting into defence here, rather than foreign affairs-that no other nations in Europe do, so of course our co-operation can be broader.

Q40 Mike Gapes: Which issues and which countries?

Mr Hague: You are asking me a hypothetical question to which I helpfully answered, "Yes". I can’t then go on to give you a list of all those things that we do. Of course we work together. We have very intense co-operation with different countries on different subjects, but not always on defence. We work together very closely with Germany on climate change, for instance, but I thought you were asking in the defence field.

Q41 Mike Gapes: No, I said generally other bilateral issues.

Mr Hague: I see. Well, that would be an example. The German Foreign Minister and I have co-ordinated a great deal over the last 18 months on raising climate change issues, both globally and in the EU. That is an example.

Simon, do you want to give other examples?

Simon Manley: Just to add to that, there is a great deal of interest when we speak to the new Governments in places like Italy and Spain in the kind of reform experience we have had in this country. So, whether it be reform of public services, reform of procurement or economic reform more generally, there is a great deal of interest and we are trying to work with those new Governments as they confront the economic and structural changes they face.

Q42 Mike Gapes: The Government have a policy of trying to strengthen bilateral relations with countries outside the EU and some emerging powers around the world. But at the same time, the EU itself has also established so-called strategic partnerships with many of those same countries. Is there a view that you come across sometimes when we talk to countries that we wish to have a bilateral relationship with that they would rather do it with the EU collectively than complicate things by having bilateral relations with individual EU states?

Mr Hague: No, there isn’t that view, on the whole. I think they want both and they should have both. But on the whole, I don’t come across that view. I think that many of what we might loosely call the emerging powers in the world strongly value intensified bilateral relations. For instance, China places great importance on its bilateral relations with the United Kingdom, France and Germany, notwithstanding whatever relations it may arrive at with the European Union.

Brazil is at the top of my mind, because I visited Brazil in January, and that is very true in its case. There will be no substitute, now or in the future, for having our own strong diplomatic service with, in my view-and I am ensuring it happens-an expanded diplomatic footprint in the world, and maintaining and intensifying our own bilateral relations. That can be supported and buttressed in various ways by the efforts of the European Union, but there will never be any substitute for us doing that ourselves.

Q43 Mike Gapes: What about those countries where we don’t have diplomatic representation? You are talking about the External Action Service. There are some parts of the world where we don’t have any resident diplomats. Do you see a role there?

Mr Hague: It is true. We are reducing that proportion of the world where-

Q44 Mike Gapes: There are still quite a few countries.

Mr Hague: Remember that on the whole, Europe will not be able to fill that gap, because they won’t have representation in most of those places either. The External Action Service will not have more than about half the number of posts that we have overseas-that is a quick estimate on my part-so it is much more likely to be the other way round, and that the United Kingdom is represented in places where the External Action Service is not.

Q45 Mike Gapes: There are countries in Francophone Africa, the Pacific and even southern Africa, such as Swaziland and Lesotho where we have withdrawn and the service is run from Pretoria. There are examples of places where we do not have a resident diplomat, and where the European Union might have an office. In that case, would we be content to go through the EAS network, or would we rather do it through a bilateral relationship, for example, with France or Germany?

Mr Hague: We cover those from our other posts. We are expanding, and opening embassies-for example, in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. Madagascar is a country where we hope to open an embassy soon. The number of such countries in Africa, whether Francophone Africa or southern Africa, where we are not represented is getting smaller, but where we are not represented, we cover them from other capitals.

Q46 Mike Gapes: Have you never had a thought about perhaps developing a relationship with the External Action Service, and that it might take on that role?

Mr Hague: I hope that we will always have a good relationship with the External Action Service, and of course there are many different ways of co-operating together. I hope we will not work in conflict in any way, but I stress that the creation of a European External Action Service is not and in my view will never be a substitute for our own strong diplomatic service. Its functions should not and must not be eroded in any way by the creation of an External Action Service.

Q47 Rory Stewart: In your first speech in July 2010 you remarked on the fact that despite us having 12% of the population of the European Union, we had only 1.8% of the officials, which I think has now crept up. What happened between 2007 and 2010? What was the Foreign Office thinking about? What was its rationale for reducing the number of officials so remarkably?

Mr Hague: That would have to be directed at my predecessor. I have enough to do dealing with what they did, without trying to divine what they were thinking at the time-the officials will not make such comments about my predecessors. If I try to mount a defence of policy in the past, with which I strongly disagree, I think that because there had been a period when the European Union was expanding with new countries coming in from the east, to achieve wider representation of staff within EU institutions, those countries supplied most of the new arrivals. In the expectation that that would happen, there was less emphasis in the United Kingdom. But I think the national eye was taken off the ball on this subject, and that is why we have now returned to it. I can tell you what we have been doing.

We have launched a concerted effort to raise awareness of EU careers, and have encouraged British nationals to apply for the institutions. In the first year of this effort, so far, we have seen a 30% rise in British applicants to have a career in the European Union. We are determined to do better than that this year. We offer support to those applicants, including free training for those candidates invited to the assessment centre, to increase their chances of getting through. There is more we can do to increase the success rate, but we have made a decent start at this. We are working with the Commission directly to address significant imbalances in the staffing of the EU institutions. That is a start. We have just launched an EU careers month. Indeed, I have done my own podcast to support that, so that relevant applicants can receive directly the encouragement of the Foreign Secretary to get a career in the European Union.

Q48 Rory Stewart: Just to push finally on more things that could be done to get the numbers up, do we have a sense of the target and of where France is compared with us, for example, in terms of the relationship between population and official representation? Is there more that you could do in terms of increasing the European fast stream entrants and putting more investment into training?

Mr Hague: Yes, there are-I will come on to the European fast stream, but we are doing more in that regard as well. It is not so much about having a target although, as you said earlier, we should bear in mind that we have 12% of the population but only around 4% of staff in the institutions. I shall give an example of what has happened recently in the establishment of the External Action Service and in terms of secondments, which is a slightly different thing but is also important. According to the most recent figures I have seen, we are second only to France on seconding people into the EAS. That is something that has been happening over the last year. So you can see that we are really taking the initiative on this. Do either of my colleagues want to comment further?

Simon Manley: As we are two former secondees to European institutions, the most important thing for us is to increase the sheer number of British nationals applying for the institutions. That has been very much our focus: increasing the understanding among the university population in particular of the EU institutions as a clear option. In addition to that, as the Foreign Secretary has said, since 2010, we have reintroduced the European fast stream, which is a means of bringing young graduates into the British civil service and training them with a view to them joining the European institutions. So we have got 30 new entrants across the civil service as part of that fast stream. That is a channel that we hope will be feeding people through the system. The most important thing is the sheer number of people we want to see applying for the institutions in the first place.

Q49 Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, you gave a very welcome robust statement in answer to Dave Watts about the strong desirability of the countries of the western Balkans becoming members of the EU. Against that policy position, could you tell the Committee what steps the British Government are taking to try to maximise EU pressure on Mr Dodik and the Republika Srpska leadership to make them realise that the only decent long-term future for Republika Srpska and, indeed, for the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina is EU accession? To achieve that, they will-reluctant as they are to do so-have to face the necessity of constitutional changes to the Bosnia and Herzegovina constitution to enable them to progress accession. Secondly, could you also tell us what steps the British Government are taking to mobilise EU pressure on Greece, which is possibly not too difficult at the present time, to end their wholly unjustified obstruction of the accession of Macedonia?

Mr Hague: To take those in reverse order, we do discuss with Greece and the Government of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia the way forward. Of course, we cannot make them come to an agreement with each other. We want them to do so and we strongly support the EU perspective of the former Yugoslav Republic. Of course, you are rightly drawing attention to the fact that that country’s bid to join NATO and the EU has been held up because of this long-running name dispute. In December 2011, the International Court of Justice ruled that Greece had breached the bilateral interim accord with Macedonia by blocking the latter’s membership of NATO in 2008. That does not of itself seem to have moved matters along, and the current political uncertainty in Greece, as well as the economic situation, does not help.

Quite a lot was being discussed; this was a very active subject under the former Greek Government of Mr Papandreou, but the concentration of the current interim Greek Government ahead of the elections is very heavily on the economic situation, and the extent to which they feel that they have a political mandate to reach agreement on this matter may be limited. However, we continue to raise the issue with them, and if agreement is not reached in the coming weeks we will, of course, continue to raise it very vigorously with a future Greek Government once elections have been held. We attach a lot of importance to that and I have had many discussions with the Prime Minister of Macedonia about the issue, as has our Prime Minister.

On the question about Bosnia and Herzegovina and the position of Republika Srpska, it is important for that country’s European Union perspective to be maintained. There has been some progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina this year, with agreement on a new state Government and state budget, and on two of the three conditions-those on the state aids law and the census law-for the stabilisation and association agreement to come into force.

There is, however, much more to do, quite urgently, on issues such as the 2012 budget and aligning the constitution with the European convention on human rights. Political relationships remain tense and divisive ethnic rhetoric remains rife. Furthermore, the country continues to suffer from acute economic problems, which requires all concerned, including in Republika Srpska, to be conscious of that and make the necessary efforts. I am looking forward to welcoming the new Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina to London, and I am keen to work with him to ensure that the stabilisation and association agreement can come into force as a step on the country’s path to a European future.

Q50 Mr Roy: Foreign Secretary, can I take you to the final conclusions of the summit? The Prime Minister said he got significant changes made to the actual document. Can you confirm that, for example, the commitments in the document on the energy market, which he claims are new and there because he asked for them, were in fact already included in the conclusions of the February 2011 EU summit? He said that he asked for provisions on micro-enterprises, but they had already been included months earlier in a EU summit. The single market was already included in October 2011, and although he said he asked for a reduction of trade barriers, those measures were also included in the October 2011 summit. Why was it said, "That’s what we asked for and that’s what we got because of the stance we took", when actually, the conclusions had been made previously?

Mr Hague: Partly because most of those things weren’t in the draft conclusions before the Council met. I do not have all the conclusions here of all previous Council meetings, and many of these subjects will certainly have been referred to before. But they were not in this Council, and it is really important not only to keep up but to intensify the momentum on such issues, as I described before. It was very important that the Prime Minister and his 11 colleagues who signed the letter put those subjects forward to get them into the Council conclusions this time, and to increase the pressure for something to be done about them, rather than just have them in Council conclusions.

Q51 Mr Roy: But they were already in the Council conclusions from previous European Union summits. In other words, it was not new business, and it was not a new victory over anything. All it did was regurgitate what had already been said.

Mr Hague: Well, we would have to go through all the previous conclusions, but I can tell you that all these subjects are missed out of the draft conclusions. When the Council concluded, they were in there. That does count as a victory in the European Union. There is no doubt about that.

Q52 Mr Roy: But none of them were new. Is that correct?

Mr Hague: Well, maybe I will write to you to point out what is new.1 Simon, do you want to expand on that?

Simon Manley: Just as a general point, Foreign Secretary, the areas are not necessarily new. We have spoken before about the importance of free trade agreements and of the digital single market, and we have spoken before about energy liberalisation. The two key things are, first of all, that in the draft conclusions as they initially emerged before the Council, those commitments were not there. The sort of forward-looking commitment that we and 11 other member states of the European Union were seeking were not in those draft conclusions. They were incorporated into those conclusions over the course of Thursday evening and Friday morning at the Council.

If you look at the detail of what was in those conclusions, we went further in scope than we had done previously in some of those key areas. That is what we think we achieved at the European Council. We have taken it forward, and we have ensured that many of the commitments previously made are being properly pursued. That is the work that we have got to take forward over the next few months.

Q53 Mr Roy: But if the commitments were made before, are you saying that they weren’t properly addressed in European Union summits before?

Mr Hague: They had been addressed, but it is really important that action is taken on the growth and competitiveness agenda that we were discussing earlier. We are hopeful that the nature of the discussion as well as the conclusions at last week’s Council will lead to that, but it requires constant follow-up.

Q54 Mr Baron: Foreign Secretary, I remember with fondness your campaign many moons ago to save the pound. Many of us subscribed to that, and I would like to think that you and we were right at the time. What worries a number of us is that that enthusiasm is now being diverted into saving the euro, despite evidence to suggest that it may not be in some countries’ best interests. One looks at Greece, for example. I suggest to you one economic statistic: since the second world war, there have been some 70 to 80 examples of countries leaving currency blocs. In the vast majority of those cases-in fact, I struggle to think of an exception-those countries have benefited.

The worry, from many economists’ point of view, is that keeping countries such as Greece inside the euro forces austerity packages to be more severe, because they do not have the compensation of devaluation. Does it trouble you that we could be supporting a policy that is actually forcing greater austerity on to certain populations, particularly in southern Europe?

Mr Hague: There are legitimate arguments about this. It would trouble me if we were forcing such things on people. I don’t think that is the case with Greece. All the evidence is that not only the Greek political leaders but the Greek population wish to stay within the euro. That is their democratic decision. Of course, it is open to them in the coming elections to vote in a different direction if they want to, but as far as one can read it, all the evidence says that that is what they want to do. I think we should have sympathy with them in that objective. I don’t feel we’re forcing anything on them as a result.

If Greece decided democratically that it wanted to leave the euro, it would then face many difficulties, of course. It is not straightforward. It is hard to find an exactly parallel case, of course, and the euro was not designed in a way conducive to allowing countries to leave it. There are formidable physical and economic difficulties in doing so which should not be underestimated. I think the key point for us as democratically elected parliamentarians is that all the evidence is that the people of Greece wish to make the effort to stay within the euro.

Q55 Mr Baron: I think we can all agree that what is needed is greater competitiveness. That should be the agenda of the eurozone, and indeed the EU generally: to cut back on regulation and encourage greater growth to grow our way out of the eurozone crisis. The key problem is Governments spending more than they are bringing in, and until that is addressed the markets will remain in unforgiving mood. Are you as optimistic as some, perhaps-I am certainly not in that camp-that the supply-side reforms have been put into place to ensure that Europe, and particularly the eurozone, becomes more competitive? I know we have talked a lot about it, but there is very little sign of anything happening on the ground, and very little sign of concrete agreement.

Mr Hague: No. On what has been done so far, no. A lot more will need to be done. In discussing this with other Governments in the European Union, there is certainly a new and sometimes dramatic recognition of this. That is very true, for instance, of the new Government in Italy, who were enthusiastic signatories to the letter we discussed earlier. There is a real sense of purpose about that Government in what they are doing. The new Government in Spain have the chance to put some real momentum into such reforms. They will all face the classic political difficulties in doing so, and the resistance of vested interests to doing so, so it is not possible to say with 100% confidence that they will succeed. I think there is a much stronger recognition of this around Europe, however, and we want them to succeed. Whatever our view about that-you and I have had the same view about the euro for a long time-and whether it was a good idea in the first place, we should now want it to succeed and be stable. That is in the interests of this country as well as of our partners.

Q56 Chair: Foreign Secretary, may I take you back to an answer you gave to Frank Roy’s first group of questions about the desire of the 25 to incorporate the eurozone agreement into EU treaties? You said the deadline for that was 2016, and if they wanted to go down that road a fresh negotiation would be required. Will you elaborate on that point a bit? Do you intend to negotiate, or would you simply say, "We set out our requirements back in 2011 and they have not altered"?

Mr Hague: It is hard to elaborate much on that, because there has been no discussion about this with any of the other Governments so far.

Q57 Chair: But it is there in black and white.

Mr Hague: Oh, yes, it is in their treaty; it is not something we have agreed to. The treaty states: "Within five years at most"-that is why I was talking about 2016, because that would be the end of 2016 or early 2017-"following the entry into force of this treaty…the necessary steps shall be taken". We are not signatories to that agreement, which is why I say that any effort to include it in the treaties of the European Union would require a fresh negotiation. It may well be that our negotiation position would be exactly the same, but that is for consideration at the time.

Chair: Thank you very much. Can we move on to Iran and Syria? I will ask John Baron to open the batting on Iran.

Q58 Mr Baron: Foreign Secretary, the condemnation of Iran, as people well know, is almost an annual event in the diplomatic diary, but it has become more intense this time around. In our debate last week, when asking for hard evidence of a nuclear weapons programme, paragraphs 52 and 53 of the latest IAEA report were cited. I would suggest to you that those are full of qualified assumptions; words such as "possible", "indicates" and "may" are as strong as they go. There is no hard evidence, I would put to you, of the manufacture of nuclear weapons or of a decision to do so-a fact confirmed, as you are probably aware, by the US Director of National Intelligence very recently.

That leads me on to suggest that there is nothing in the IAEA report that indicates a breach of article II of the NPT. That article, as you well know, makes it illegal for any non-nuclear signatory to manufacture nuclear weapons. Would you, therefore, agree that it is entirely within the bounds of the treaty for a signatory to conduct research into nuclear weapons technology as implied by article X of that treaty?

Mr Hague: Iran is in breach of UN Security Council resolutions calling for it to desist from uranium enrichment and from-

Q59 Mr Baron: I accept that, but can we just address NPT article 2 issue first? You make a valid point about the resolutions and we will come on to that.

Mr Hague: Our concern, of course, is that Iran may be putting itself in a position where it could make a rapid break-out from the non-proliferation treaty. That is our concern and that is a deeply alarming prospect. That is why the UN Security Council has passed the resolutions that it has and why the IAEA board of governors has adopted resolutions-I think, from memory, they are now in defiance of 11 different resolutions of the IAEA board-and this is part of a wider pattern of behaviour. As we know, whatever our arguments about what the evidence shows, it is indisputable that Iran has repeatedly sought to conceal aspects of its nuclear programme and has now embarked on the enrichment of uranium to 20% on a scale and in a way that is incompatible with any peaceful use for that enriched uranium that it may have. All these things add up together into an overall picture.

Q60 Mr Baron: To be specific, do you agree or not, just on the narrow point of whether Iran is in contravention of the NPT, particularly as defined by article 2? As we stand, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that is the case. In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has manufactured a nuclear weapon.

Mr Hague: We have never said that Iran has now manufactured a nuclear weapon. I do not think anybody has asserted that. Different views have been expressed at different times, sometimes relating to the period before 2003, about research into a nuclear device, but we have never asserted that Iran has manufactured a nuclear weapon. We do take the accumulation of facts, some of which I have been describing, as an indication that that may be something that they have in mind. We cannot wait and just do nothing diplomatically or on the sanctions front, while awaiting a moment where Iran has put itself in a position for a rapid break-out from the non-proliferation treaty.

Q61 Mr Baron: I think we can accept that research as defined by the NPT is allowable and that there is-I think you said yourself, just now-no evidence to suggest they have actually contravened the NPT. But we are saying that they have contravened a number of UN resolutions.

I suggest, Foreign Secretary-it is a subtle point, but relevant here-that resolutions are reflections of the political views, biases and, if you like, fears of Security Council members at any given time and they can be wrong. There was no shortage of resolutions, for example, leading up to the Iraq war, regarding WMD, but I do not think anybody could disagree now that we did go to war on a false premise: there were no WMD in existence.

Can I therefore lead us on to what is, perhaps, prevalent in a number of people’s minds: concern about a possible military intervention-I am not suggesting by the UK or the US, but perhaps by Israel? Would you acknowledge that an attack on Iran without authorisation from the Security Council would be an act of aggression in breach of the UN charter?

Mr Hague: What action, and when, is in breach of the UN charter, I think we would have to define at the time, if it happened. I mentioned in the debate in the House that we have argued-we have given clear advice to Israel-that they should not make, under these circumstances that prevail now, a military strike on Iran. We have expressed that view clearly and many other nations have expressed that view.

Q62 Mr Baron: So you would agree that, without authorisation from the Security Council, it would be an act of aggression?

Mr Hague: I think we would have to define that-there are, of course, different circumstances, including self-defence, in which countries can take action. So I am not going to speculate in advance about the legality or otherwise of action that any nation may take.

Q63 Mr Baron: There are only two examples, are there not? There is either self-defence-you can obviously act in self-defence-and you can act with authorisation from the Security Council. But outside those two examples, any attack on any country is an aggression. Would you agree or not?

Mr Hague: Well, then you are into the definition of self-defence, of course. That is why I am not going to speculate about that. But are we in favour of it? No, we are not. We have made that view clear to the Israelis, just as I have made that clear in Parliament.

Q64 Mr Baron: May I move on to the existing policy of sanctions and sabre-rattling? Einstein is said to have remarked that the definition of madness is to keep on doing the same thing while expecting different results. I think there is clear evidence that the sabre-rattling and sanctions policy, so far at least, has failed. Under sanctions, for example, the Iranians have even moved forward the oil embargo deadline with regard to France and the UK. One of our hopes, Mr Mousavi, an official leader of the Green Movement, said in the 2009 elections-as you will be fully aware, Foreign Secretary-that any compromise on the nuclear programme would be seen as surrender. Do you accept that Iran is not going to move on this issue? It is an instinct of defiance that they have with regards to this issue-it is seen as of such paramount importance. All that sanctions and sabre-rattling do is to reinforce the pragmatists and people generally in Iran behind the hard-liners.

Mr Hague: No, I do not accept that argument in general, as is well known from the debate that we had. First, I do not accept the description "sabre-rattling" of the policy of this country or of other nations around the world that feel strongly about this. I have been very clear that 100% of our efforts on this are devoted to a peaceful, diplomatic solution, which is certainly not sabre-rattling. We have warned of the consequences of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, but we have not been advocating or calling for military action. So I do not accept that definition.

I do think that the sanctions policy is important and that agreements such as the one we have made in the European Union to end the purchases of oil from Iran are important and can have an effect in giving leverage. Mr Baron says that the Iranians have moved forward the deadline, but purchases of Iranian oil by France and the United Kingdom were already absolutely minimal, and it has no impact at all on this country.

Q65 Mr Baron: May I just ask, Foreign Secretary, moving us on from this, whether you accept that opportunities to better relations between the two countries have been missed on both sides? I am thinking particularly of early after 9/11, when Iran showed solidarity with the US, in the early stages of the Afghan war, and the reward, from our point of view, was to label the Iranians as part of the axis of evil, which led directly to the replacement of the reformist and moderate President Khatami. One accepts that they were wrong to rebuff President Obama-one is not being an apologist for Iran, and one does not agree with their state-sponsored terrorism or their human rights and all that-but would you accept, as former Foreign Secretaries have, that there have been opportunities missed on both sides for better relations?

Mr Hague: To a limited extent on the, if you like, western side of this. I do not think that opportunities were missed by the United Kingdom. I paid tribute in the debate that we had a couple of weeks ago, as I have done before, to my predecessor Jack Straw, who made I think five separate visits to Tehran and who made an extraordinary effort to arrive at a rapprochement with Iran. Of course one can question whether he had the necessary support at the time, from the United States and other countries. Perhaps not. To that extent, one can say that opportunities might have been missed, but not by the British Government or by the previous British Government.

In recent times, as you point out yourself, the speech in which President Obama set out the opportunity for a better relationship with Iran has met nothing other than a rebuff from Iran, but I do want to make this point, that on 14 February we-Baroness Ashton-received a reply from the Iranian negotiator Mr Jalili to the offer of renewed negotiations. As I am sure you will have heard in recent days, the E3 plus 3, of whom we are one, have agreed that there will be negotiations. The date and venue of those negotiations are now being decided, but this is a fresh opportunity for Iran to come to such negotiations, in, we hope, a different spirit from previous negotiations, without such preconditions at the beginning of those negotiations that all negotiation is meaningless. We will be approaching it in a spirit of trying to reach an agreement-of course, of always maintaining our offer to be of positive assistance to Iran with civil nuclear power, if they can clearly demonstrate to us, and the rest of the world, that their nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

I do think that the imposition of additional sanctions and the strong words that many of us have used round the world on this issue may have contributed to Iran coming back to the negotiating table. There could be an argument about that; but it has not prevented the opportunity of negotiations being resumed. Without that sanctions policy the likelihood of Israeli military action that we discussed earlier would be greater, not smaller.

Q66 Mr Roy: On Iran, Foreign Secretary, you told me on the Floor of the House that you spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister twice during the time of the embassy siege. Have you been approached since then to have a meeting with him, or have you approached him to have a meeting? If not, would you welcome it if Salehi did make contact to have a meeting with you?

Mr Hague: We have not discussed having a meeting, or had a meeting, since then. I do not in any way rule that out in the future, but you will understand that our concentration is on these negotiations with the E3 plus 3 being resumed. It is very important for those to go through that channel. Baroness Ashton is the representative of those six nations. I do not want to see a lot of side-negotiations going on. That is why we have not been looking at a meeting in current circumstances.

Of course, if those negotiations show anything like a promising start, then it will be easier to have other meetings with the Iranians. So I do not rule that out. We have not broken diplomatic relations, even though both embassies are closed, but we have not discussed a meeting since the closure of the embassies. Nor have we had such a meeting.

Q67 Mike Gapes: Foreign Secretary, President Obama just made a very important speech to the American Israel Political Action Committee, in which, if you look at it very closely, he makes very firm statements against Iran having a nuclear weapon, but he does not use the language which the Israeli Government are using, which is about capability. I would be grateful if you could tell us: how closely are we working with the US? Was there anything in President Obama’s speech that came as a surprise to the Foreign Office; or were you aware that this was a position which would be put-and do we agree with that?

Mr Hague: We work very closely with the United States on this, as you can imagine-and with France as well, and with Germany; and more closely with China and Russia than we have so far managed to do successfully on Syria, which you may want to come on to. So we work very closely with the United States, and I feel the bulk of President Obama’s speech made exactly the same argument that we have been making here in this country-clearly not in favour of military action under current circumstances; very much in favour of intensifying sanctions and giving the push for negotiations to be able to succeed.

So I think we are perfectly content with the President’s speech and in agreement with that argument that he was making. None of that came as a surprise to the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister and President Obama will be able to discuss this subject in some detail during the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States next week, so we will continue to work closely with the Americans. That does not mean, of course, that the American position about what may happen in the future is exactly the same as ours, but we will continue to work closely with them on it.

Q68 Mr Watts: The Americans seem to indicate that, in line with what you have just said, they much preferred sanctions and political pressure at this stage, but they remain of the position that it would be unacceptable for Iran to develop nuclear capacity and if that happened and it got close, there would be a cut-off point where military action was taken. Is there a cut-off point for the British Government? If the Americans and other leaders took the view that nuclear capacity was being built up and was then a danger to the region and the rest of the world, would they then take part in military action to stop Iran getting its nuclear capacity?

Mr Hague: This is a question for the future really. Our position and the American position is that options are not taken off the table. That is not a position that Mr Baron agrees with, but the House of Commons endorsed that position by a very hefty majority a few weeks ago. That is the American position too. Nevertheless, it is very true that, as I said earlier, 100% of our efforts are devoted to a peaceful diplomatic solution. I am not therefore going to speculate about why, under what circumstances or when we would at any point shift from that policy. We want this to succeed.

Q69 Mr Watts: So we would not rule out direct military action or supporting military action under some circumstances?

Mr Hague: It is our position that options are not taken off the table. I do not think that it is necessary or desirable to go into more detail on that.

Chair: May we move on to Syria now, Foreign Secretary?

Q70 Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, we are all revolted and appalled by the appalling behaviour of Assad and his forces against the civilian population in Syria, including this morning’s report of men, women and children being murdered in cold blood while trying to flee across the border into Lebanon from Homs and the villages thereabouts. Reading those reports, I was reminded somewhat of the behaviour of the SS extermination squads in Eastern Europe and Western Russia during World War 2.

The Prime Minister has rightly called for the collection of evidence against Assad and his henchmen, and that, one hopes, will enable processes to begin to bring them, or attempt to bring them, to justice. Can the Committee be assured that, following that statement by the Prime Minister, the British Government will take every possible step at the United Nations-I accept that may not be easy, given the Russian and Chinese position-to secure a resolution to bring Assad, and those immediately around him with responsibility for these atrocities, before the International Criminal Court?

Mr Hague: The assembling of evidence is very important, and I think that Britain can play an important role in this. It is an appalling and unacceptable situation, as you describe. A few weeks ago, I set out the sorts of things that we will do-that we are now doing-including assembling evidence from people who have crossed the border and ensuring that such evidence can be properly documented and recorded, so that whenever justice can be done in the future, it will be done and the evidence will be there.

It would be wrong of me to raise your hopes about getting a UN resolution that includes a reference to the International Criminal Court, now or in the immediate future. However much we may be in favour of that in the future, we are concentrating our efforts currently at the UN Security Council on trying to achieve a resolution. We are again in negotiations with China and Russia on this subject, as we have been over the past two days in New York. Further discussions will take place today in New York to try to achieve a united resolution, bearing in mind the humanitarian needs; the need to support the work of the Arab League; the need to support Kofi Annan in his work as the UN and Arab League Special Envoy; and the need to put pressure on the regime to cease this violence. We are working on all those things.

That is a difficult negotiation, even as it stands. It would not be possible to agree-certainly not now-a resolution in the UN Security Council that included a reference to the ICC. That clearly is something that Russia and others would not agree to, so that, I think, is a later goal. It is not something that we can realistically attain at the moment. We can help with the documentation of abuses, and we are doing that.

Q71 Sir John Stanley: We understand the difficulty about attainment, but is there not a moral responsibility on the British Government-and like-minded Governments, although the British Government have a particular role as one of the permanent five in the Security Council-to press for a UN Security Council resolution referring Assad, and those around him with this responsibility, to the International Criminal Court, not least to expose Russia and China, if they so wish, to endorsing this utterly immoral blood-letting of the Assad regime?

Mr Hague: We have a moral responsibility in many different directions, all of which we have to take into account. If it is possible-it may not be possible, of course-to achieve agreement at the UN on a resolution that supports the objectives that I have been talking about, and which makes it easier, in various ways, to deliver humanitarian assistance and to support the kind of political process that a UN Special Envoy is designed to encourage, we have a responsibility to do that, and to try to achieve a resolution that supports those things. If you are saying to me, "Do not agree any resolution unless it includes a reference to the ICC"-

Sir John Stanley: No, Foreign Secretary, I did not say that.

Mr Hague: That is the implication.

Q72 Sir John Stanley: No, I did not say that, and there is no such implication.

Mr Hague: Okay, fine, but that is the kind of choice that it would come down to. It would be nice if we could just write the UN resolutions, but were we to say that there must be a reference in any UN resolution to the ICC, in current circumstances, it would make it impossible to pass any resolution. Our moral responsibility to try to help in many other ways would then not be fulfilled.

Q73 Sir John Stanley: Why does it have to be a choice? Why not do both?

Mr Hague: It is a choice because it is a negotiation at the UN. Through negotiation, there are myriad choices. It is very difficult to agree any resolution, and that is very evident from the vetoing of two strong attempts we have made with our partners to achieve a resolution, in October and on 4 February. It is very difficult to agree any resolution. I am not saying that we will succeed in that now, but it would make it impossible to do so were we to insert, in the draft, things that other permanent members of the Security Council find completely impossible, if that is a choice.

Q74 Rory Stewart: Foreign Secretary, it seems that there is now much more international consensus on Syria, and there is consensus, particularly, that there is no obvious military solution. Even our humanitarian options are quite limited at the moment. Everything is therefore beginning to rotate around the idea of a political solution, and some kind of regional settlement. What can we, the British Government, do, except in the multilateral UN arena, to ensure that that kind of political settlement or regional solution happens? In particular, what can you do, in terms of personnel and human resources, to reinforce Frances Guy? Can you put emphasis on the bilateral relationship with Russia in a different way? Can we put pressure on other countries in ways that we are not at the moment?

Mr Hague: We can do a lot, and I believe we are doing all these things. We are, of course, a major player in maintaining and intensifying international pressure on the regime, in the form of sanctions and in the form of encouraging the assembling of the Friends of the Syrian People group, which met in Tunisia. I attended that meeting on 24 February, and there will be a further meeting in Turkey in the near future, the date of which is being agreed. There will be an expanding group of nations, including many Arab, as well as European, nations.

We are intensifying our engagement with the opposition. When you referred to Frances Guy, you were talking about our ambassador-level representative to Syrian opposition groupings. We are intensifying our talks with them, and we will give practical support so that they are able to meet and operate outside Syria. We want them to take a peaceful approach; we are not supporting anybody approaching this in a violent way.

You are quite right that it is difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance, but we contribute to the international agencies that are supplying humanitarian assistance, whether that be food rations, clean drinking water, or medical supplies and so on. We are doing all those things. We helped to finance, through the United Nations, Kofi Annan’s work. We are ready to support that in many practical ways. I have already had a discussion with him, as has Alistair Burt, the Under-Secretary of State.

We can do all those things. It is deeply frustrating that those things do not bring violence, torture and murder immediately to an end, but they are all ways of supporting a political process-a political transition-in Syria, which is what the Arab League plan calls for. A political transition is what is most desirable. A situation in Syria over the coming year which sees the violent complete overthrow of the Assad regime has unknowable consequences for that region and neighbouring countries. Similarly, the successful violent repression of opposition by the Assad regime leaves a totally unsustainable situation, and is also a threat to peace and security in that region, so what we should all desire is a political transition, but that is something the regime have not yet been prepared to countenance.

Q75 Rory Stewart: Finally, Foreign Secretary, what personnel or resources can you attach to this? That kind of political solution is so complicated, given the amount of time you will have to spend with the Egyptians, Russians and Jordanians, and the number of staff who will be needed if the UK is really to take a lead on this. If we are choosing to focus on that kind of political settlement to reach a solution, how many resources have we currently got attached to Syria, and how many more could we bring to bear on the system?

Mr Hague: I might ask Simon Fraser to talk about this, particularly as he has not had an opportunity to speak yet today. It has been one of our concerns for some months now to increase in the Foreign Office the resources able to deal with the situation in Syria. That has so far worked very well.

Simon Fraser: We have been moving resources around to deal with successive crises. At the moment, in the Foreign Office, we have over 20 staff in London alone working on Syria, which is quite a considerable number. We have been obliged to withdraw the embassy from Damascus for the time being. We are actively considering how we can maintain our direct diplomatic focus on Syria in the region, and we are thinking about how we can deploy staff to maintain that work alongside the work on the opposition. There are a range of ways in which we can maintain that direct focus. More broadly in the region, we have surged staff on to a range of issues, so that we maintain our engagement with the Arab uprising as a whole. Looking forward, as you know, we are working on strengthening the resilience and size of what we call our Middle East and North Africa cadre, including our Arabists, to ensure that in the years ahead, because this is an ongoing situation, we are able to keep the right level of expertise and numbers of people focused on these issues.

Q76 Chair: You probably heard the reports that last night Leon Panetta gave evidence to the US Senate, saying that the US was considering non-lethal logistical support for the rebels. At the Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister rather ruled that out. That was on Tuesday. Might we now reflect on this and consider whether we might offer any support, along with the Americans?

Mr Hague: We will always consult closely with the United States. I have got Mr Panetta’s comments here, which in the main are very close to how we describe the situation ourselves. He said that they would build "multilateral international consensus", which is what we are engaged in. He said they would "maintain clear regional support from the Arab world", which is what we are doing. They would "make substantial contributions to the international effort", which is what we are doing. They would "have a clear legal basis" for what we do and "recognise…the limitations of military force", which is something I have also explained on this subject.

I am looking for the section most relevant to your question, Chairman. He said: "we are working with the Friends of Syria…to help strengthen the opposition, to try to encourage the various groups to unify and lay the groundwork for a peaceful, orderly transition".

Q77 Chair: I think he was being asked about whether he was going to supply communications equipment.

Mr Hague: We can help, and will continue to offer help to peaceful Syrian opposition groups-practical assistance. That has been our consistent position throughout the Arab spring and uprising, whatever we call it. We have helped in non-lethal ways. We helped in that way with opposition groups in Libya. I also do not rule out supplying more non-lethal help. We have not countenanced doing that beyond groups that are, so far, located outside Syria and trying to pursue a peaceful, democratic opposition.

Q78 Chair: The difficulty is that with reports that al-Qaeda is now operating inside Syria, we are not sure where any physical support may end up.

Mr Hague: That is a consideration in trying to provide practical assistance, as is the difficulty of providing it, of course, to anybody inside Syria; that is quite a logistical difficulty as well. It is one of the difficulties that we have here-that the opposition has not formed a united group. There are many different elements that make up opposition in Syria. That is one of the constraints upon us, yes.

Q79 Mike Gapes: May I take you back to your remarks about the possibilities of getting something through the UN system? Isn’t the reality that a Government who are prepared to flatten one of their own cities-Grozny-are unlikely to support any position in the Security Council that would in any meaningful way lead to a significant change in Syria? Should we not therefore expend our energies not on trying to shift Russia to a minimalist position, which is what we will get, but on creating a coalition of the willing who are prepared to do something on a humanitarian front?

I want to press you on the implication that we are dependent on Russia before we can do anything to help the people in Syria in any meaningful way, because otherwise it would be against international law. Is not article 51 of the UN Charter applicable if a neighbouring state such as Turkey decided that what was going on in Syria was a threat to peace and security in the region? Is it not possible that Turkey, as a member of both NATO and the Islamic world, could help get together such a coalition? I am not saying that we militarily participate, but could give logistical and other support. Is the time not near when we need to get humanitarian corridors and zones in Syria to protect the civilian population from being massacred?

Mr Hague: You are raising the fundamental issues about this, which I am happy to respond to. It is important to be working on both tracks-I will come to the question about humanitarian corridors in a moment-and to be doing both these things. It is important to be working in a wide international coalition of countries that are working together on this. That is what we did in helping to bring those countries together in Tunisia. As I say, we will be meeting in Turkey again, and that coalition will strengthen all the time. That is not mutually exclusive; we are also working at the United Nations on trying to get a resolution.

In your question, you expressed-not surprisingly-scepticism about what Russia will agree to. We are all sceptical about that after the experience of the past six months, but that does not mean that we should stop our efforts to work with China and Russia. I had a lengthy discussion with the Russian Foreign Minister last Friday about what we could do at the United Nations, and the Prime Minister also discussed that when he called President-Elect Putin on Monday.

While we should not be starry-eyed about this, it is certainly true that China and Russia are paying a diplomatic price for the position that they have taken. They are paying that price throughout the Arab world, particularly in the opinion of the people of many Arab nations. That is something of concern to them, and it should be of concern to them for the longer term. They should also be concerned about their ultimate national interests in Syria.

This depends, of course, on one’s analysis of what will happen ultimately, but if our view is correct-that the Assad regime cannot recover its credibility internationally or internally, after spilling so much blood, and that one way or another it is doomed-it is actually in the national interests of Russia and China to support a political transition at some stage. While we all should be sceptical about this-we are conducting the negotiations at the UN in that spirit-we should nevertheless continue to try to achieve a meaningful resolution that supports the work of Kofi Annan and, of course, we will have to have many other things as part of it. That is why we continue with that.

On the question of whether this broad coalition of nations would support humanitarian corridors, there are several obstacles. One is that they would not remotely all agree about that, and it is quite important to keep that coalition together. The second is that there are immense practical challenges in doing so. That is why, although this idea has been floated over several months, Turkey, for instance, has not pushed that concept forward or been prepared to do it itself, because any such assistance would have to be effective. To be effective, it would require either the agreement of the Assad regime, which is not forthcoming, or overwhelming military force in order to maintain such safe areas or humanitarian corridors, and a readiness to embrace all the consequences of using such military force inside the territory of another nation. To go back to Mr Panetta’s remarks to the US Senate, he expressed some of the difficulties in approaching it in that way. There are immense, frustrating difficulties.

Q80 Chair: Foreign Secretary, thank you very much indeed. That was an excellent session, and we appreciate your time.

Mr Hague: Thank you very much indeed.


[1] See Ev 21.

Prepared 13th June 2012