Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

WEDNESDAY 10 JANUARY 2001

MR KEITH VAZ and MR JAMES BEVAN

Mr Marshall

  1. Minister, welcome to the Committee. You and I have shared many meetings in the past in the city of Westminster but I think this is the first time we have ever met in a forum of this kind. It is certainly a first for me and I hope at the end of an hour it will be a pleasure for you too. Our Chairman, Jimmy Hood, is unfortunately absent today because of a family illness and has to remain in Scotland, so the Committee has asked me to take the chair for this sitting. Could I warmly welcome you, therefore, and perhaps ask you to introduce your colleague.
  (Mr Vaz) Yes. Thank you very much for your kind introduction. Mr Bevan is the head of EUD(I) in the Foreign Office and has been largely responsible for all the work that has gone into preparing for Nice on the official side.

  2. Perhaps I could start the questioning. As you know, the Committee is looking into the outcome of the Nice process and perceptions of the outcome clearly differ. I understand that in the evidence that you gave to the Lords Committee, you stated that Nice had delivered a stronger Britain in a wider Europe. Another perception that one has read in the press is that it has diminished public confidence in the institutions of the European Union and led to the ten smaller states being extremely angry with the larger ones. Perhaps you could indicate what your view is about the overall effect of the Nice process on public confidence in the EU and its institution.
  (Mr Vaz) Mr Chairman, having been present at Nice I know you will expect me to be biased in what I am going to say but I am delighted that Nice secured all the objectives that the government had and, indeed, went far beyond our expectations. The negative comments in the press came from the fact that it lasted slightly longer than we might have anticipated and some members of the press—and, indeed, some officials and others—may have packed only three shirts not expecting a five-shirt Council! Apart from the fact that it lasted longer than anyone had anticipated, it was a council that I think we can regard as providing for enlargement; it will secure for us, as I said to the House of Lords Committee, a stronger Britain and a stronger Europe, and our objectives—which were to win more power for Britain and to make sure that European Union was modernised and ready for enlargement—were all met. As for the confidence of the British people and the European people in the whole concept of the European Union, that is a process that must go on. I do not think one particular Council meeting is going to have an effect one way or the other, but I think it is the duty of this Government to keep reminding people about the benefits of Britain being in the European Union.

  3. Can I follow that up with two quick questions. Firstly, do you think the process in Nice had any effect on the position of the Commission and particularly the President of the Commission? Has it weakened their position at all? Secondly, has the process marked a shift towards a more intergovernmental working of the European Union, rather than the traditional communautaire approach?
  (Mr Vaz) What was clear was an understanding that the decisions in the end had to be made by the Prime Ministers and the heads of government, and that these decisions that are taken at European Council meetings have got to be done on that basis. That is the whole nature of representation. It was not a question of a greater amount of power going to the Council as opposed to the Commission, or the Commission's objective not being met. We were confident that the process had to be completed in order to make the changes that were necessary and, judging from the reaction from the Commission and others, I was satisfied—and know that the Prime Minister was—that all parties of the European Union regard Nice as a success.

Mr Robertson

  4. Could I ask a couple of questions about majority voting? I understand that aspects relating to family law are excepted from it. Could you explain how far that exception goes in terms of family law?
  (Mr Vaz) I will leave the technical bit, if I may, to Mr Bevan who is the expert on the articles. Our approach to QMV was quite straightforward, which was would we accept it in those areas where it was in Britain's interests to accept them. As far as the legal process is concerned, we did not affect the jurisdictions that we currently have as a government. We were not there to change any of the basic articles which would mean that the law of this land would change. What we were keen to do as far as the legal process was concerned was to make the operation of the European Court of Justice much more efficient, the procedures much more effective, and to move to QMV in areas of appointments. Those are the areas we most concerned ourselves with. In total we agreed to QMV as far as 31 articles and 35 measures were concerned. This is, of course, less than what was agreed by the previous Government during their various councils if you add the Maastricht Treaty and the Single European Act, but I do not think it is a question of numbers; very much a question of moving to those areas that were in our interests as a country.
  (Mr Bevan) We agreed to extend qualified majority voting in a total of 31 articles. Of those, there are a series of articles that relate to Title IV which is the section of the Treaty that deals with asylum, visas and immigration, and on all of that area the UK has had, since Amsterdam, the right to opt into measures that are agreed under that Title, so none of the provisions that are agreed under that Title will apply to the UK unless we decide to opt in. One of those, and I think it may be the one you are referring to, Article 65, relates to civil judicial co-operation where, as you say, there was an exception made in family law matters, but other civil judicial co-operation matters will be subject to QMV.

  5. So maintenance, child abduction, guardianship rights, for example, would be excepted?
  (Mr Bevan) That is a point I would need to check.

  6. Can I move on to community incentive measures that I understand were prescribed with relation to combating discrimination. Could you perhaps explain what those measures might be?
  (Mr Vaz) I would imagine the measures would be trying to encourage people not to discriminate against their fellow citizens largely, as you describe them, as incentives to try and campaign and publicise the need to be against discrimination. There are no fundamental points here. You are referring, of course, to Article 13. Our position on Article 13 is very clear; that we will only move in those areas where we feel that it is in our interests to do so, but the incentive measures you describe are really to publicise the work of anti-discrimination measures.

  7. What would the incentive amount to, though?
  (Mr Vaz) I do not know. It has just been agreed, I would imagine, the incentive would be to publicise it in the way I have just described. I do not think we accept it as a great fundamental move.

  8. Would it extend to encouraging positive discrimination?
  (Mr Vaz) I would not have thought so. I believe quite firmly that there is a view across Europe that discrimination is wrong, whether it is religious or on the grounds of race or for any other reason, and I think that there was a positive acceptance that it is right that we should publicise these measures.

  9. But is there not the same view that positive discrimination not only would be wrong but that it may be contradictory, indeed, to the human rights legislation we now have in this country?
  (Mr Vaz) I would think yes. There is no great move on the part of member states to have a positive discrimination agenda. There certainly is not on the part of this Government.

Mr Cash

  10. Could I just come back quickly to point number two of Mr Bevan's answer with respect to the question of the exception of qualified majority voting in relation to family law? I think you said, slightly to my surprise and it may just be that the legal drafting has not been completed yet, that you were not quite sure whether child abduction and maintenance, et cetera, would be included. The reason I ask is that I declare a sort of interest in that I am a member of the all-party committee on child abduction and there is the famous case, for example, of our current British Ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer and his wife in the United States and the book she wrote about the abduction of her children by a German citizen. Also there are about 39 cases that I am aware of where the German courts have been reluctant to allow the child to be returned, which one might have hoped would have been the case under Article 4 of the Hague Convention. The real question, therefore, that I am concerned about is the uncertainty that appears to exist in this context and to ask the Minister if he will do everything he can to ensure that this exception is construed against the idea of child abduction and to put as much pressure as possible on the German government to accept the idea that, in a modern world, child abduction is not only obnoxious but that no individual national jurisdiction, such as that in Germany, should construe it in favour of the father in relation to laws that go back, as I understand it, to the 1930s.
  (Mr Vaz) I can assure Mr Cash that, in principle, we are with him. Of course, child abduction is quite wrong and that is why we have made it quite clear that what we want is better judicial co-operation rather than one jurisdiction which you cannot have because there are different aspects of family law in different member states, and nothing that we did at Nice affects the basic family law of this country because it is passed by Parliament. But I think where you can have co-operation we should ensure that that happens. I cannot comment, as I do not expect Mr Cash will expect me to comment, on the Meyer case but our sympathies are quite clear and obviously Lady Meyer has gone through a tremendous amount of anguish because she has not been allowed to see her sons. But that is a judicial matter; it is not a matter for ministers, and representations have been made in the past to the judicial services there. But I would certainly take on board your point.

  11. Perhaps you could look into it.
  (Mr Vaz) I will pursue it in the way you have mentioned.

  12. You said in your opening in response to the Chairman's suggestion that we had won more power for Britain. You will not expect me to accept that and I will challenge you for the following reasons. If you look at the share of Britain's votes in the Council of Ministers, our share has actually dropped from what at the present moment is the equivalent of 11.5 per cent of votes to now only 8.4 per cent. That does not seem to me to suggest that we have won any power in that context. If I can move on to the double majority voting which obviously has to be aggregated with the question of voting in the Council itself because we are dealing with the combination of population and the voting in the Council of Ministers, the position is that now, under this clause—and the German press has made it quite clear they regard the German nation as having been the victors in this matter—any particular proposal has to be backed by countries representing 62 per cent of the EU's population. As a result of this, Germany and two other large countries such as France or Italy will be able to block anything they do not like whereas Britain will need more than two other countries to oppose undesirable decisions. Surely, therefore, the net result is that, both on the question of the Council of Ministers and the question of population, far from winning more power, we most emphatically have lost it and our influence is on the wane. Can you explain that and explain the point you made in that context at the beginning of this session?
  (Mr Vaz) No, Mr Cash, our influence is not on the wane. We increased the number of votes we are going to have on the Council from ten to twenty-nine. We are a big state.

  13. We are talking about percentages.
  (Mr Vaz) We will talk about percentages in a moment. We are a big state and over successive governments there have been absolutely no changes with regards to the percentage of votes we have as compared to the smaller states. One of the purposes that we wished to underline in Nice was that we were prepared to give up our second commissioner provided we had a substantial reweighting of votes and to that extent we were in the same position as France and Germany. When I was before the Lords Committee there was a lot of concern being expressed over whether or not Germany would get more votes than the UK and France, for example. As Mr Cash will know, all the big countries retained parity; we got exactly the same votes as Germany and France even though, of course, Germany has a larger population and, therefore, if you look at the percentage of votes for the big states as compared to one of the smaller states, for example, the Netherlands or indeed Denmark, the United Kingdom has indeed won more power. You mentioned double majority. That of course was one of the scenarios that could have been adopted. What we have is, in a sense, a triple test. You have the first test which is that you have to reach the qualified majority vote; secondly, you have to have a majority of member states. Thirdly, if a member state invokes the population clause, then, as you just said, you have to show that 62 per cent of the population are behind you. We have no problem with qualified majority voting, and the whole purpose of having qualified majority voting is to make the institutions of the European Union much more efficient and effective. It now counts for 80 per cent of the decisions that are taken by the European Union and we have been on the losing side only twice last year, and therefore I do not understand Mr Cash's logic on this. I am not sure whether he is in favour of qualified majority voting or against it because whenever we say we are moving to it Mr Cash jumps up and says, "You are surrendering the veto", and then when we find there are various tests you have to jump over on QMV, Mr Cash says, "There are too many tests". I do not accept that there is an historic combination between France and Germany. I believe—and I have done this job, I know, not for a very long time but for the time that I have seen the European Union operate—there are no set patterns where certain countries vote with others. That certainly was not the case at Nice. Countries vote according to what is in their interests and to say that France and Germany will always vote together in order to block X, Y or Z just does not hold water. Countries will make decisions on what is best for them.

  14. Could I finally, therefore, quote Mr Schroeder himself seeing as he is the Chancellor of Germany, who said—some say sarcastically—as follows: "one could speak of double majority but one does not have to". I think it would be as well to leave it to Chancellor Schroeder to have the last word.
  (Mr Vaz) Well, I would like to have the last word. You quote Chancellor Schroeder, who had a very successful Council working with our Prime Minister; Germany and the United Kingdom were able to work together in order to secure the deal at Nice, and we had no problems with individual heads of government putting their countries' views across. Our Prime Minister did so with great eloquence and managed to secure an excellent deal for our country.

  15. Relating to the danger of a rift opening up between the larger and smaller member states, and you will have this engraved on your memory because there were some very considerable disagreements between the member states, and the Czech Republic in particular was very concerned about the outcome and so, I believe, was Romania, and I think others are reviewing the situation, do you not agree that there is a very serious problem which is now emerging which is what was described as a "power grab" by the larger states by several commentators who were at Nice, and who have looked at it subsequently, and that the larger states are therefore accused of having engaged in predatory voting tactics, and that the result is that, in fact, we could be faced with a very serious rift and some commentators even said—I think it was the European voice of Mr Simon Taylor in particular—that there was a severe danger that it would poison relations between the larger states and the smaller ones? What is your comment on that?
  (Mr Vaz) Of course, the Czech Republic and Romania are not member states so they were not present to voice those opinions. I can only tell you what the ambassadors from the applicant countries have told me, and at the Foreign Office this morning I addressed a meeting of applicant countries, which is that they were delighted at the outcome of Nice. Of course, every country wants more votes, that is the nature of international politics, but in the end the applicant countries for the first time ever were on a sheet of paper with the United Kingdom and with Germany and France, and the worst possible thing for the Czech Republic or Romania or Poland was to be left off. They were on there; they have been allocated their votes; and I have no Ambassador or Minister for Europe from any of these countries expressing concern to me. Of course, commentators will express concern, that is what they are paid to do, but the people who have to go back to their parliaments and people and explain what is happening were delighted with the outcome. I think it is a very fair outcome. Can I just say, Mr Cash, that if we had come back with a deal that put the United Kingdom's votes at the same level as Denmark you would have been very cross with me. We have come back with a deal that retains our position as a big country, keeps us on parity with Germany which has a larger population, and that is a very good outcome indeed. That is what you expected this Government to do and that is what we have done.

Mr Steen

  16. Can I follow this up and say, first of all, I am sorry I did not hear the beginning of your oration but I picked it up pretty quickly. I was at Versailles with the Scrutiny Committee and it seemed there was a tremendous consensus about two different approaches. The consensus was that some countries favoured what they called the "big bang" approach, and others favoured what was called the "regatta" approach, the regatta approach being that you only admit a country, smaller or larger, once it reached the finishing post and satisfied all the conditions, and the big bang approach, which the Germans were advocating, was that you let all the smaller and larger countries in together because, although some of them may not have reached the qualifications and the criteria which was required, you just took them in as a lump group, five or ten at a time, just to get moving. Of course, the view also was the French were moving the finishing line so the regatta approach never reached the finishing line. Following on from the Nice summit, do you see the big bang approach taking place in Europe or whether the regatta approach—with, hopefully, the winning post kept in the same place—is likely to be the next stage?
  (Mr Vaz) Mr Steen raises a very important point which is going to be the challenge over the next few years. Having visited a number of applicant countries, every one of them wants to be in the first wave. We recently had a Presidency report and Commissioner Verheugen is doing an excellent job but he is being pressed. Individual countries want to be first and also other countries will tell you, in a private and confidential way, that they would prefer to go in with other similar countries, and that is going to be the challenge. I personally -[there is no government view on this]—favour a situation where you only qualify if you have met the criteria. I think it would be quite wrong to admit countries that had not reached various criteria, opened and closed all the chapters of the acquis, and were ready and fit to join the European Union because that would only create problems for the future. I know it is going to be disappointing if we have a situation where a country joins every single year for the next ten years—I do not think that is going to happen. I think countries are going to join in groups but it is now too early to say it is going to be all together or just a few and that is really the challenge of the Swedish Presidency. I am delighted that one of the key themes for the Swedish—and, indeed, the Belgian presidency that follows—is an attempt to push this forward. Now that we have been through Nice and provided Parliament ratifies the treaty and, as you know, we are committed to bringing this legislation before the House as soon as possible, we will be ready for enlargement by the end of 2002 and then it is up to the applicant countries, but I do not think we should try and force the pace and make countries join before they are ready, though our philosophy is quite simple; we want them to join as soon as possible.
  (Mr Bevan) Adding to that, Nice achieved three important goals in taking forward the enlargement dossier. First, it agreed the institutional changes; secondly, very importantly, heads of state and government endorsed the Commission's strategy paper for enlargement which envisages concluding negotiations; and, thirdly, it agreed that those countries who had signed accession treaties by the time of the next IGC in 2004 will be invited to participate. That is a very important step forward.

  17. Moving on to enhanced co-operation, specifically I am concerned about the implications for co-operation under Title V, common and foreign security policy, which is based on Maastricht and Amsterdam, which is why I am so opposed to it, as you might imagine. The question is whether, in fact, the effect of this new Article J, ie that co-operation cannot be used for the adoption of common strategies, joint actions or common positions and can only be used to implement these actions and common positions? Right at the heart of all this is the provision which is in the Amsterdam Treaty already, and indeed, traces back to Maastricht as well, which is that, once they have made a common decision, they are then able to operate on the basis of qualified majority voting. As I understand it, in a declaration the Government has agreed or has attempted to secure a position in which defence would not be included in relation to a qualified majority vote but it has already been conceded under Amsterdam by this Government, and the iniquity began with Maastricht which I opposed by putting down 240 amendments.
  (Mr Vaz) Indeed, and I have just been reading Mr John Major's memoirs on this very subject -

  18. Not very reliable, I suspect.
  (Mr Vaz)—where you feature very prominently, Mr Cash. We are waiting for your memoirs.

  19. You will get them in due course!
  (Mr Vaz) When enhanced co-operation was first put forward, we also had our reservations, as you know, because we kept saying to other countries and other member states, "In which areas? Give us an example where you want to use enhanced co-operation", and they never really came out with them and, therefore, we are in new territory. We made clear our view on defence and that is it must be by unanimity. I think we are going to have to look and see what discussions come out of this but we are very clear that, as far as defence is concerned, you will need to have countries working together on the basis of unanimity within enhanced co-operation which, as you say, you trace back to Maastricht and the discussions beforehand. I think it is for those who want to use it to give us examples of where it can be used, and the fundamental principle that applies in dealing with enhanced co-operation is that we will not want to see it adopted in any area that will undermine the effectiveness of the acquis communitaire, because that is what countries and nations have joined up to, and, therefore, I think we are going to have to wait and see in what ways it can be used, but you are right to single out defence and you are right to reinforce our commitment to ensuring that all countries need to be part of that decision-making process. What we also do not want to create with enhanced co-operation is any view that there is going to be a two-tier Europe; that there are going to be five or six countries that are going to form the hard core, if I can put it like that, that will move forward and all the other countries will just have to follow or be left behind. We are not going to accept that, and that was implicit in the conclusions and the discussions that took place at Nice.


 
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