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Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


Behind Closed Doors: the meeting of the G6 Interior Ministers at Heiligendamm

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Background

1.  Of the twenty-five Member States of the EU, the six largest account for three quarters of its population.[1] Collective decisions of their ministers on major aspects of EU policy in the field of justice and home affairs, while not necessarily conclusive, will inevitably have a major impact on the future direction of that policy. One would therefore expect that meetings of those ministers, and decisions taken at their meetings, would attract wide interest from the media, from the European Parliament and national parliaments, from interested non-governmental organisations, and from academics and others.

2.  This was not the case when the ministers of the interior of those Member States—the G6—met at the German Baltic resort of Heiligendamm on 22 and 23 March 2006. They discussed almost every aspect of EU policy of interest to them, and in many cases reached firm conclusions on the action which should be taken, and the timetable for it. However in the United Kingdom the meetings went almost entirely unnoticed. The Home Office did not issue a press notice, and the then Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP, who had attended the meeting on behalf of the United Kingdom, did not make an oral or written statement to Parliament. So far as we have been able to discover there was no contemporaneous comment in the broadcast media, and only minimal comment in any of the broadsheets.[2]

3.  The German Ministry of the Interior published the Conclusions of the Heiligendamm meeting shortly afterwards. An English translation was made available to us, and it was this that aroused our interest. We set it out in full in Appendix 5.

4.  The Heiligendamm meeting was the first at which Poland had been invited to join the ministers from the other five States, but it was not the first such meeting. The Home Office supplied us with the following background information:

  • The G6 meetings originated in 2003 out of discussions between former Home Secretary David Blunkett and French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Until the Heiligendamm meeting and the addition of Poland this group went under the name of "G5" rather than "G6". The format has stayed fairly constant, with the emphasis on informal ad hoc meetings, and meetings tend to take place (as at Heiligendamm) over a 24 hour period involving an overnight stay in the host country.
  • The rotating chair was part of the original concept and the order came about as different members volunteered. The order is now set but precisely where Poland will fit into the cycle has yet to be agreed. As it stands the cycle runs Germany-UK-Italy-Spain-France. The exact timing of meetings depends on the chair. There are no set time intervals between meetings but they tend to occur at 3-6 monthly intervals. For the UK meeting no venue has been finalised but we are provisionally looking to hold it in or around Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of October.
  • The agenda for each meeting is decided by the host State. There is usually a degree of informal discussion about the agenda before each meeting, as well as preparatory meetings of senior officials. The expectation is that the agenda should reflect at least in part any work that has been ongoing since the last meeting but there are no fixed rules.

5.  In a letter of 6 June the Home Secretary pointed out that there are other groupings of countries which meet regularly.[3] An example he gave was the Visegrád group. This is a grouping of ministers from the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland and Hungary which was set up in 1991. One of their common aims was accession to the EU. Now that they have achieved this, they will have common interests as EU Member States, but these are mainly the interests of a regional group. We note that they have a website giving details of past and future meetings;[4] the G6 group does not. Other regional groups mentioned were the Benelux, the Baltic Sea taskforce, and the Nordic Cooperation Group.[5]

6.  In oral evidence to us, Baroness Ashton drew an analogy between the G6 and the Common Law club, the members of which are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta.[6] Again, although all four are EU Member States, their common interest lies outside their EU membership. We think all of these are very imperfect analogies; the countries of the G6 have nothing in common except their size, and hence the weight they can bring to bear in negotiations.

7.  We see nothing objectionable in ministers from different Member States meeting informally for exchanges of views on any topics they wish. On the contrary, we believe such meetings are valuable in promoting dialogue and facilitating decision-making. As the Union becomes ever larger, the need for discussions in smaller groups will grow. The danger comes when such meetings assume such a degree of formality, and the decisions reached such a degree of immovability, that they appear to take over from meetings of the Community institutions. We appreciate that these institutions are sometimes criticised, and in particular that with enlargement they have grown cumbersome and unwieldy. This problem will not be resolved in the short term now that the fate of the Constitutional Treaty is in doubt; but nor can it be resolved by some only of the Member States creating alternative fora.

Transparency and accountability

8.  From what we have said in paragraph 2 above, it will be clear that transparency was not among the attributes of this meeting. Statewatch pointed out that "there is no formal requirement to publish an agenda or minutes, there is no system of access to documents, there is no process of public consultation or impact assessment, and the existence or activity of any working groups…is unclear."[7] Tony Bunyan, the director of Statewatch, elaborated on this in his oral evidence.[8]

9.  These are meetings arranged not just weeks but months in advance, and it would no doubt be feasible to publish in advance the agenda, and any papers to be considered. While this would certainly be desirable, we are not ourselves inclined to be too critical of the failure to do so. The G6 group, though it has a degree of formality, has no formal constitution or position in the EU system. We can see that ministers wish to keep their agenda flexible until shortly before the meeting, and would not wish to hamper frank exchanges of views in advance of the meeting.

10.  The position after the meeting is different. Statewatch has described these meetings as "utterly lacking in the rudiments of accountability as understood at national or EU level."[9] Mr Bunyan spoke to the same effect in his oral evidence.[10] In our view it is desirable that, once the meetings have taken place and the ministers have reached decisions, these should be given the fullest publicity. The Home Office seems on the contrary to have gone out of its way to disclose little or nothing about the meeting.

11.  We asked the Home Secretary to allow a minister to give oral evidence to us. He was initially reluctant to do so,[11] but on 27 June he agreed that Joan Ryan MP, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, should give oral evidence to us the following day. She was accompanied by Peter Storr, the Director of the International Directorate at the Home Office, who was with the former Home Secretary at Heiligendamm. We put to Ms Ryan the failure of the Home Office to disclose anything about the meeting. She told us that the usual practice was to put the conclusions of G6 meetings on the website of the Ministry of the host State, as had been done in March. She offered to place the Conclusions of the October meeting on the Home Office website. She did not think access by English-speaking people to a German website, or indeed by Polish-speaking people to an English website, would cause any problems; there was no attempt to prevent anybody knowing what the Conclusions were.[12]

12.  At a time when the European Council has agreed a new Policy on Transparency, with many of its debates open to the public and broadcast in all Community languages,[13] there is every reason why Parliament and the public should be given the fullest information about a meeting of this potential significance. Ministers returning from Council meetings are expected to report back by written ministerial statement; the same should apply to meetings of the G6. The Home Office should publish the Conclusions of all G6 meetings—in English.

13.  We recommend that the results of subsequent G6 meetings should be fully publicised by the Home Office. A written ministerial statement should be made to Parliament. The papers should be sent to this Committee, and to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee and Home Affairs Committee.

The position of the other nineteen Member States

14.  A G6 meeting is not a forum in which ministers of some only of the Member States can purport to change EU policy, or even to make formal proposals for changes to EU policy (as opposed to expressing a hope or expectation that such policy will change). It is not clear that the ministers recognise this. The Conclusions record that other Member States "will be fully informed about proposals made by the G6 countries and can participate in their implementation". This is an extraordinarily patronising way of referring to the interests of three quarters of the Member States. There is no suggestion that those States might have views of their own about the desirability of these proposals, and so far from being grateful for being allowed to participate in their implementation, might even be opposed to them. Ms Ryan told us that there was not "any desire or wish among the G6 to ride roughshod over small Member States";[14] but that in our view is the result. The G6 should recognise that they are not the Europe des Six.

15.  Inter-governmental groupings of this type, which lack the basic democratic requirements of accountability and transparency, have in the past led to the Schengen agreement and the Schengen Convention. Neither EU citizens, nor their representatives, nor indeed those Member States that were not originally part of the Schengen group, had any say on these policies of fundamental importance. They were presented with a fait accompli.[15]

16.  A more recent example is the Prüm group. This group, initially of five Member States (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria), was joined by France and Spain for the signature of a Convention on the exchange of DNA profiles, fingerprints and vehicle registration data.[16] This to our mind is a perfect illustration of the dangers of a small group of Member States taking steps which pre-empt negotiations already taking place within the EU institutions. Article 1(2) of the Prüm Convention provides that any Member State may accede to it, and Article 1(4) sets out the aim "of incorporating the provisions of the Convention into the legal framework of the European Union". But those provisions are now set in stone, and are being treated as if they were already part of EU policy. Any Member State wishing to join the Convention must take it as it finds it.[17] If the Convention does become part of the legal framework of the EU, that framework will for practical purposes have been imposed by seven Member States on the other eighteen; and those eighteen include the United Kingdom.[18]

Matters discussed at Heiligendamm

17.  The matters discussed at Heiligendamm are recorded in the Conclusions under the following headings:

This is followed by a brief summary of "the positive results of cooperation achieved so far".

18.  The Conclusions on two of these issues raised questions which we thought should be investigated. The first was the suggestion that law enforcement agencies should have access to Eurodac and to the VIS database. We deal with this in the following chapter. The second issue, dealt with in Chapter 3, is the relationship between the principle of availability and data protection.


1   According to figures for 2004 supplied by Eurostat, of the 456.8 million inhabitants of the EU, 340.4m (74.5%) lived in Germany (82.5m), France (59.9m), the United Kingdom (59.6m), Italy (57.9m), Spain (42.3m) and Poland (38.2m). Back

2   There were articles in the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph on Friday 24 March. Back

3   Letter of 6 June to Lord Grenfell: see Appendix 4. Back

4   www.visegradgroup.org  Back

5   Evidence of Peter Storr, Q 100. Back

6   Q 7. Back

7   Written evidence, p 14. Back

8   Q 49. Back

9   p 14.  Back

10   Q 58. Back

11   See the correspondence between Lord Grenfell and the Home Secretary set out in Appendix 4. Back

12   QQ 82, 88, 89, 93. Back

13   Annex I to the Presidency Conclusions of the European Council, 15-16 June 2006, document 10633/06. Back

14   Q 96. Back

15   On 14 June 1985 Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands-five of the (then) ten Member States-signed an Agreement gradually to abolish all controls at their internal borders. On 19 June 1990 they signed a Convention providing for the abolition of all internal border controls, together with a number of compensating measures on policing and immigration. Article 140 of the Convention provided that any Member State might become a party to the Convention, and between 1990 and 1996 all of the remaining (by then 15) Member States except the United Kingdom and Ireland signed Agreements to accede to the Convention. None of these Agreements made amendments to the Convention. On the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam on 1 May 1999 the Convention and all these Agreements, together with a large body of implementing measures (the "Schengen acquis"), were integrated into the European Union. Back

16   The Convention was signed at Prüm, Germany, on 27 May 2005. Ratification was approved by the Austrian Bundesrat on 21 April 2006, by the Spanish Senado on 6 June 2006, and by the German Bundesrat on 16 June 2006. It will enter into force between these three States ninety days after the deposit of the instruments of ratification. The ratification is less advanced in the other four States party. It will enter into force for each of these ninety days after the deposit of the individual instruments of ratification. On 4 July 2006 the Italian and German Ministers of the Interior signed a Joint Declaration recording the intention of Italy to accede to the Convention. Back

17   Oral evidence of Tony Bunyan, QQ 56, 61.  Back

18   The United Kingdom would be bound only if it opted in. On 14 March 2006 Baroness Scotland of Asthal, in reply to a starred question asking whether the Government proposed that the United Kingdom should become a party to the Convention, told the House: "The Government are looking closely at the Prüm Convention. No decision has yet been taken. We expect to come to a preliminary view in the next few months." On 22 June an official of the Commission told us that the United Kingdom was "in negotiations". However in evidence to us on 28 June, Ms Ryan told us that nothing had changed since March (Q 129). Back

19   We were interested to see that "With regard to returning illegal residents, the ministers agreed to coordinate their actions in dealing with countries of origin and transit particularly in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, to take coordinated action encouraging greater cooperation with third countries and to actively support the Commission in negotiating and concluding readmission agreements…" These are all matters on which we commented in our recent report Illegal Migrants: proposals for a common EU returns policy (32nd Report, Session 2005-06, HL Paper 166).  Back

20   Respectively the Second Generation Schengen Information System, which is the subject of a separate inquiry by Sub-Committee F of this Committee, and the Visa Information System. Back


 
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