Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from Graham Avery CMG

1. This submission addresses the following questions posed by the Committee:

To what extent should the December 2011 European Council and its outcome be seen as a watershed in the UK’s EU policy and place in the Union?

Between now and 2020, what institutional architecture and membership should the UK seek for the EU? Should the UK embrace a formalised two (or more)-tier EU and start to develop ideas for multiple forms of EU membership?

2. In summary, I argue that:

(a)The UK’s “veto” at the European Council, as seen by its partners, illustrated significant aspects of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

(b)The EU already has the characteristics of a multi-tier system; the UK will face grave risks if it remains in the outer circle.

(c)The UK has a strong interest in participating in the main political and economic decisions of the EU, including the shaping of its foreign policy.

3. I am a Senior Member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, Senior Adviser at the European Policy Centre, Brussels, and Honorary Director-General of the European Commission. My evidence is based on personal experience of 40 years as a senior adviser and administrator in Whitehall and Brussels (see biographical note at end).

Implications of the December 2011 European Council

4. The British “veto” at the summit was not, according to commentators, the result of strategic planning on the part of the UK, but a response to the unexpected failure of negotiations in which the UK requested guarantees for Britain’s financial sector in return for ratifying amendments to the Treaty. According to sources in diplomatic circles and the EU institutions in Brussels, this incident illustrated a number of aspects of Britain’s relationship with the EU:

(a)The partners were unwilling to compensate the UK for ratifying a deal that imposed no new obligations on it. As one diplomat remarked “we would have liked you to join with us in changing the Treaty, but we didn’t see why we should pay you for it”.

(b)Although the UK’s position was presented as a “veto”, it did not stop 25 other partners from continuing with the process of ratifying the changes in another way. As another diplomat remarked “we prefer you to join with us in doing things together, but you are not going to stop us from doing things without you if we think it’s necessary”.

5. These remarks were made—more in sorrow than in anger—by persons friendly to the UK. Others are more critical of British attitudes, for example “you continually preach at us, saying that the success of the euro is a priority, but you show little solidarity; as a result, Britain loses influence and credibility”. Others have remarked that the preparation of the December summit on the UK side was below the professional standards expected of British negotiators.

6. The events of December may not represent a watershed in the UK’s relationship with the EU, but they did demonstrate that when Britain stands outside important EU policies, it has little leverage with its partners.

Multi-tier Membership of the EU

7. The EU already has the characteristics of a multi-tier system: 22 of its 27 member states are in the Schengen zone, and 17 are in the euro-zone. This has not had much impact so far on the EU’s institutions, which still operate mainly in a unitary fashion, but the increasing importance of decisions concerning the euro-zone is beginning to create problems and tensions that will be aggravated by the recent compact involving 25 member states.

8. The EU’s enlargement from 15 to 27 did not result, as some predicted, in more “variable geometry”. Although the 12 new members could not join Schengen or the euro on their entry to the EU, they have progressively qualified for membership of the “inner circles” and continue to do so. The UK thus finds itself in a diminishing minority in the “outer circle”.

9. The Coalition’s Programme for Government stated “We will ensure that the British Government is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners”. This declaration sits uncomfortably with the actual situation in which the UK is a commentator, rather than an actor, in current decisions on the euro-zone.

10. Britain’s EU policy encourages by default the development of a multi-tier system in which the UK remains in the outer circle. The members of the inner circles will continue to develop common actions and common policies, and take decisions without other members having a vote or being at the table. Whatever assurances may be given, they will naturally tend to ignore the interests of the outer circle.

11. If you are not at the table, your point of view is not likely to be taken into account. Decisions taken without you may not go in the direction that you prefer, and may go in directions that are against your interests. A non-British commentator has expressed it brutally in the following way: “if you are not at the table, you will be on the menu”.

12. As a matter of national interest, the UK needs to be involved in all the important political and economic decisions concerning Europe. This is a question of realism. If the development of common policies is left to Germany, France, Italy and others, this may lead to serious economic and political problems for us. The EU poses difficulties and problems for the UK (and for other members) but it remains the most effective system that has been devised of organising Europe in political and economic terms. It is an illusion to think that, if Britain pulls back, the EU will disintegrate, or limit itself to a common market. Without an effective British presence in the balance of power—in the inner circle—the EU may move in directions that are not in our interest.

13. Two practical conclusions:

(a)The British government should be more proactive in the development of European policies in areas where we have a decisive contribution to make and much to gain; this is especially true of foreign policy, a field in which the UK has the experience and resources to shape policy in ways that correspond to British interests.

(b)When the sovereign debt crisis is resolved, and the euro-zone is stable, a future British government needs to address the question of joining the euro. In the long term we cannot evade this question if we are to play a decisive role in Europe.

Britain’s Role in the Development of EU Foreign Policy

14. The most important feature of the Lisbon Treaty was the creation of new structures for foreign policy—the EU’s High Representative and the European External Action Service. This reform, which brings together the economic and political instruments of foreign policy, offers the possibility for the EU and its member states to act more effectively to deal with regional and global problems.

15. There are few areas of foreign policy where the UK can be more successful acting on its own than acting together with its European partners. In Beijing, Delhi and Moscow the Europeans exert more influence jointly than individually. As for Washington, an American diplomat with experience in London and Brussels recently told me “in the State Department we naturally want to cooperate with the Europeans acting together; when they act separately—and particularly without the UK—it’s less useful for us”.

16. Although the European External Action Service—the EU’s embryonic diplomatic service—has had a difficult birth, it offers a chance to project the interests and values of the EU’s member states in a more efficient and cost-effective way. In this, British ideas and British personnel can have a decisive influence. If it’s true that the common agricultural policy was fashioned by France, and corresponded largely to France’s interests, then surely the future common foreign policy should be shaped by Britain.

Biographical Note

Graham Avery is Senior Member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, Senior Adviser at the European Policy Centre, Brussels, and Honorary Director-General of the European Commission. He has given evidence on a number of occasions to Committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

In the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in London (1965–72) he headed the unit responsible for negotiations for accession to the EC, and later (1976) served as Private Secretary to two Ministers.

In the European Commission in Brussels (1973–2006) he worked in agricultural policy, foreign affairs, enlargement policy, and the cabinets of the President and other Commissioners. His last post was as Director for Strategy, Coordination and Analysis in the Directorate General for External Relations.

He has been Fellow at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University; Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute, Florence.

Visiting Professor at the College of Europe, and Secretary General of the Trans European Policy Studies Association.

In the Queen’s New Year Honours 2012 he was appointed Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG) for services to European affairs.

21 May 2012

Prepared 10th June 2013