Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Foreign Secretary, may I welcome you and your colleagues to the Committee? I see Mr Mark Lyall Grant, Mr Kim Darroch and Mr Stephen Wright. The agreement is that we start with some questions on Zimbabwe. The Committee will be meeting Baroness Amos next Wednesday for a fuller coverage of Zimbabwe. We then go on to preparations for Laeken and there will be a debate in the House today for which these questions will be highly relevant. We then go on for the remaining part of the morning to the foreign policy aspects of the campaign against terrorism. Clearly, we see that the crisis in Zimbabwe mounts both politically and economically. We have the land expulsions, the rule of law threatened with friendly judges appointed, the free press challenged and manipulation of preparations for the presidential elections in March. On the economic side, inflation and unemployment climb. Half a million Zimbabweans face hunger and a fall in investment confidence which affects the region as a whole with the South African rand falling to historically low levels. When you attended the Abuja summit on 6 September, you welcomed that agreement. Do you now admit on reflection that you and your colleagues were in effect taken in, played along, to gain time before the Commonwealth summit, the CHOGM meeting at Brisbane, and it is now clear that President Mugabe had no intention to change and no intention to honour the promises made on his behalf at Abuja; he has now had his chance and now is the time for the international community to take tougher decisions?

  (Mr Straw) I do not accept the assumption behind your question at all. We all went into the Abuja negotiations with our eyes open. The crucial thing that I said, once the Abuja text had been agreed in the hotel in Abuja, was that we would judge its effectiveness by whether it was put into action, not by the words on paper. If you are asking me were those negotiations worthwhile, yes, they were very important and they remain very important.

  2. Do you accept that President Mugabe had no intention of honouring the agreement?
  (Mr Straw) Let me deal with why they were important and then I will deal with what was in President Mugabe's mind. They were important in two respects. First, in breaking out of the parody that President Mugabe and the others in Zanu PF had tried to erect, that what he was involved in was a bilateral dispute between the old colonial, imperialist power, the United Kingdom, and the former colony, once Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and that all the problems which had faced Zimbabwe to an increasing degree over the last 20 years could be placed at our door step. We changed that from it being seen as a bilateral dispute to being a multilateral dispute, critically, one in which South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, along with Jamaica and then Australia, Canada and ourselves were involved. Secondly, we laid down in the Abuja text a clear framework for judging whether progress was going to be made in Zimbabwe following it and for judging the behaviour of the Zanu PF Mugabe government. Both of those are very important. Do I believe that Abuja has been followed? No. I said exactly that in the House last Tuesday in parliamentary questions. There is little in the Abuja text that has been followed. What has happened as a result of Abuja, however, is that international pressure on a multilateral basis on Zimbabwe has intensified and I do not believe that that would have happened without Abuja. To cast my mind back to June/July, there was hesitation inside the European Union as to whether action should be taken under the Cotonou Agreement to move from Article 8 to Article 96. Indeed, although we thought there was a good case for moving straight to Article 96 that was not a general view and it was agreed therefore to give the Zimbabweans another few months. The result of Abuja and what has not happened since then was that, when this came before the GAC on 29 October, they reached this agreement that we should move to Article 96. And, more importantly, the move to do that was led by the Netherlands and Finland, not by ourselves. This was widespread recognition of the problem. Secondly, within the Commonwealth, the failure by President Mugabe and Zanu (PF) to implement the spirit of Abuja and its letter in terms of the restoration of the rule of law has led to increasing frustration elsewhere in the Commonwealth. I called a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministers Action Group, CMAG, on Monday. As it turned out, it had to be an informal meeting on the telephone because Nigeria was unable to take part, but six members of CMAG took part in this, all very concerned indeed about the situation. We have agreed to meet in London in the week beginning 17 December. The date is still to be agreed.

  3. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is likely to meet roughly at the time that the 75 days under the Cotonou Agreement expire.
  (Mr Straw) No; in advance of that. The 75 days expire in January, but it is up to 75 days. Cotonou says you have 15 days to give notice of the shift from Article 8 to Article 96 and up to 60 days for confirmation.

  4. What proposals by way of sanctions would you and the British Government favour?
  (Mr Straw) I am not going to speculate about what exact sanctions we may or may not favour because for me to speak publicly about that without agreement of colleagues would be to re-bilateralise the matter. One thing, however, I would rule out is economic sanctions against Zimbabwe because they would not hurt the leadership of Zimbabwe; they would hurt the people of Zimbabwe who have already suffered.

Sir John Stanley

  5. Foreign Secretary, I think you would agree that one of the very few bright features of the situation in Zimbabwe is the limited remaining number of extraordinarily brave journalists who are doing their best to uphold press freedom and objective press reporting in that country. You will also be aware that the Zimbabwean Government has introduced their Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, so-called, under which all journalists in Zimbabwe are going to be made subject to a one year, renewable licence, renewable by the state. You will also be aware, because you have reacted to it, that President Mugabe has threatened to dub individual journalists, including some British journalists, as "terrorists" which potentially carries the death penalty in that country. Against that background, could you tell the Committee what steps the British Government is taking through the international community to make it absolutely clear to President Mugabe that attempts to shackle, intimidate and carry out any extra judicial action against the remaining independent journalists in Zimbabwe will be regarded as absolutely unacceptable?
  (Mr Straw) I entirely share your view about the absolute unacceptability of what Zanu PF have done here. It is further evidence of their desire to rig the system and further evidence of their desperation about the degree to which, over the last five or six years, they have patently lost popular support. They are now trying to reinforce what support they have by the usual methods of people who are desperate undemocratically to cling on to power. There were two big moves. One was to brand a number of journalists—who are not foreign citizens; they are Zimbabwe citizens who are working for foreign newspapers—as assisting in terrorism, which was preposterous, and then to bring in this new law which is designed to license journalists presumably on the basis of good behaviour as far as Zanu PF is concerned. I issued a very strong statement against that and made protests to the government in Zimbabwe through our High Commissioner, Brian Donnelly. What you by implication raise is the bigger question of what can the United Kingdom do unilaterally about these things. We do not run Zimbabwe. It is an independent state and, in the ultimate analysis—

  6. I said internationally.
  (Mr Straw) Internationally, we use this to build up the case against Zimbabwe very strongly, particularly with the African nations. You will have seen remarks from President Mbeke of South Africa which are increasingly critical and hostile to the Zimbabwe regime. That is of very great importance in the politics in southern Africa. Those remarks are reflected by similar concerns by the government of Botswana. It was the Foreign Minister of Botswana who chaired this teleconference that we had on Monday and there is a delegation, as he was telling me yesterday, from SADC, the Southern African Development Community, which is going back to Harare on 10 or 11 December.

Mr Illsley

  7. I have a couple of questions on the presidency. To what extent, if any, have the events of 11 September derailed the Belgian Presidency and, conversely, has the increased threat of terrorism helped the agenda to move on in terms of the presidency?
  (Mr Straw) I do not think they either derailed or rerailed the Belgian Presidency. Any presidency has to be resilient to events, either within Europe or all over the world, which are unanticipated. They moved commendably quickly following the atrocities on 11 September. You will recall that there was a meeting of the General Affairs Council which was held on the Wednesday of that week, the 12th, and then of the European Council of Heads of Government which was held on the Friday. Following our decisions in the European Council and the General Affairs Council and then parallel decisions of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the Belgian Presidency has been very assiduous in pushing the antiterrorist agenda, which the JHA agreed in detail under the endorsement of the European Council. That is now moving ahead in this Parliament as well as in a number of other legislatures. People may say we should have gone faster, but with my extensive knowledge of the workings of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, on unanimity, Third Pillar, by convention, this is good speed in comparison with what has gone on before. To that extent, the Belgian Presidency can claim some credit. What is also true is that, as our agendas and those of the media across Europe were filled with the atrocities of 11 September and its consequences, other issues have gone further down the agenda and that obviously includes the debate about the future of Europe which would have dominated the European agenda but for 11 September.

  8. Turning to the idea of smaller countries holding the presidency, the Prime Minister has already commented on this. Is it feasible now for smaller countries to hold the presidency, especially under an enlarged Europe? Is it feasible for us to continue with this system of the rotating presidency on the basis that perhaps small countries do not have the institutional capacity to hold the presidency? Should we be looking at team presidencies for the future?
  (Mr Straw) It is feasible to do it. In the four and a half years I have had experience of the European Union, there has been no necessary correlation between the efficiency of a presidency and the size of the country concerned. It does not follow that just because a country is large it will run the presidency with huge skill. On the other hand, I think you are right to say that, other things being equal, it is more difficult for small countries to run the presidency. In addition, we are at the limit at 15 of the principle of a rotating presidency.

  9. On the basis of the length of time?
  (Mr Straw) Seven and a half years. British governments tend to change less often in their personnel than most European governments where there are more changes, perhaps because they are more often based on coalitions. To go up to 20, 21, 22 or 23 would mean that a country would not get a presidency more often than once every 10 or 11 years. My belief is that the convention which will be established by Laeken will deliberate on this issue. What kind of presidency do you have? There are a lot of ideas around. There is a proposal to have the presidency solely in the hands of the large countries. I do not think that would run. There are proposals for each council to elect its president and for the president to serve for a longer period than six months and therefore for there to be a kind of college of presidents. I think there is a lot more behind that because what I have observed in the nine or ten presidencies in which I have been sitting in councils is that who the president is, what their chairing skills are like, what their negotiating skills are like, makes a phenomenal difference to whether you get the business done. It is particularly true where you are making decisions on the basis of unanimity, but it is also true on the basis of QMV. I share your scepticism about the future of a revolving presidency. As to exactly what change we introduce, we should and have put forward many ideas into the convention and we shall see which ones start to take off.

Ms Stuart

  10. The Laeken Council generally: you face a considerable tension of interest. You spoke in the Chatham House speech about an institution that involved devolution rather than revolution and that we should focus on outcomes, not processes. The Prime Minister, in his speech to the Polish Stock Exchange, floated an idea where we may have a chamber or mechanism by which competencies could be returned to nation states. We need within that context some kind of framework as to where we should be heading or it will become much more focused and before we know it we will have created a super state rather than the super power we wish to be. In that context, how will you judge whether Laeken was a success or not?
  (Mr Straw) Laeken is not making decisions about the future of Europe. It is making decisions on the process by which an IGC in three years' time makes those decisions. Expectations will therefore not be raised too high. All these are very important issues that you raise. They have to be debated and addressed inside the Convention and then at the IGC. How do I rate the success at Laeken? Clarity about composition of the Convention, where we are very close to agreement. I think that is satisfactory, for reasons I will come back to. Then, reasonable clarity about how the Convention will operate. One of the things on which we have reached understanding in the General Affairs Council is that the Convention should have as its starting point the four principles laid down in the Nice conclusions and should aim to produce options for discussion at the IGC, rather than laying down a series of prescriptions. We want to see a gap between the end of the Convention and the beginning of the IGC so that above all national parliaments are able to offer a view on the various options that are raised. Coming back to your first point, drawing on the Prime Minister's Warsaw speech and the one I made at Chatham House in July, what we were both saying there was that the European Union is a union of nation states in which we pool and share sovereignty in order to give our own people a greater degree of control over their own lives, but it will work best if it works as this union of nation states, not as a super state. That view is reflected in the composition of the Convention and, subject to any final decisions that are made by the European Council in Laeken, the proposition is that there will be 15 representatives, one from each of the member governments, 30 national, parliamentary representatives, two from each of the national parliaments, one European parliamentary member from each of the countries and representatives of the Commission and so on. The nation state is properly represented in that composition.

  11. One of the issues surrounding qualified majority voting—I do not expect you to know the detail of the Directive—is there is currently a difficulty about the prospectus Directive which is to do with liberalisation of financial markets which has a disproportionate effect on London but not other Member States. We currently have a system where we in London have a huge, disproportionate interest in one issue but we will end up with a compromise which we simply can live with, not one which is in our interests. Yet, other Member States because of the population rating, have a disproportionate influence. Is any thought being given to potentially look at weighting qualified majority voting which brings interest in rather than the rather crude mechanisms by heads of population?
  (Mr Straw) I am sure Mr Darroch has every detail of this prospectus Directive in his head because his skill and perspicacity go before him. I think it is extremely difficult to have a system where the weight of voting would vary according to the weight of interest. How you would arrive at that, by what process you would translate the pros about the interest in terms of the numbers and in terms of the weighting, would be extremely difficult. As you know, what has been achieved in this government is that we have a reweighting to our voting to give us a greater proportion of the interest in QMV. On any one issue, there can always be an argument as to why any one country should have a veto. There are some issues on which you have to have a veto: national defence, various tax matters and so on. I was struck during my period on the Justice and Home Affairs Council, having begun very strongly attached to the idea of a national veto, as to how often QMV in parts of the JHA agenda would have been helpful to the United Kingdom because we wanted to move things forward. We wanted changes to take place. On one issue after another, you find yourself blocked by the most extraordinary local, national interest. I remember beating my head against a wall in frustration at the fact that the Austrians were refusing to agree to a directive on the recognition of driving disqualification, which is rather important, because in Austria we were being told the maximum period for which you could be disqualified was 28 days; whereas the minimum we wanted in the directive was 31. It took a ludicrous degree of effort and time to try and square this circle. The Austrian ministers were saying to us, "If only we could just do this, our parliament would put up with it." There is a fine balance here. Without knowing the detail of this now famous Directive, I would only observe, however, that what is important on things like that is that not only can we vote at the time when the Directive comes before a council but how much influence we are able to exercise in UKREP, through the office here and through other government departments to get it through national lobby groups in Brussels, to get in on the ground floor.
  (Mr Darroch) The idea is that the Nice Treaty settle on voting weights, not only for the existing Member States but for all the Member States who are hoping to join in the next few years. Nice should have and we think has settled the whole question of voting weights until we have completed this phase of enlargement. Secondly, the Convention can choose to look at any issue that concerns it. That does not mean it is inconceivable that the Convention will want to look at this subject again but what the Convention should be doing is going back to the Nice agenda, those four subjects agreed at Nice, and focusing on them. Thirdly, on this particular Directive, I am not expert but a single market in financial services across the EU is very much in the United Kingdom's interests as one of the main financial service providers in the world, so it is an objective broadly that is very important to us. Lastly, QMV. The figures suggest that we get out-voted under QMV less often than most of the other major EU states. On the whole, QMV works in our favour, not against us.

Mr Pope

  12. Can I ask some questions about the future of Europe? It seems to me that we have lost the plot on Europe. I suspect that in my constituency most electors do not see the European Union as being relevant to them. They feel a sense of alienation from the process. It is only something that really matters to the political class. I noticed that Peter Hain said in a speech on 31 October: "We have lost our way in explaining to the people of Europe what it is we are doing in Europe—even what we are trying to achieve." Is there not some sense of responsibility in the government for this? We are not going to speak with a clear, pro-European voice and the case for Europe is going by default?
  (Mr Straw) I can only speak for my constituency and my constituents but that of course includes yourself, Mr Pope.

  13. I can tell you what my view is.
  (Mr Straw) My take on what my constituents feel is slightly different from yours. My constituents do recognise the great importance of our membership of the European Union. It does have a direct impact on their lives. You know the area very well. It is very heavily based on manufacturing. There are still big manufacturers like Phillips, which is a European company par excellence. There is also British Aerospace at one end of the valley and Rolls Royce at the other which, although they are British companies, have very large European connections with subcontractors and so on. We have done our own polling, to be published this afternoon under a parliamentary question. I am sure the Committee will be very interested to see it. It shows a significant level of support for the principle of membership of the European Union and if there was a rerun of the 1975 referendum on membership, "Do you want to stay in or out?", I am clear that there would be an even bigger majority today than there was then. People understand how we are part of Europe and we have to stay there. Where I agree with the sense of your question is the people's respect for the institutions of the European Union is much less than it should be. That is not a criticism of people's perceptions; it is a criticism of the institutions. We have to do a good deal of work to raise those perceptions, to cut through the thickets of obscurity and obscurantism in which the European Union often works. It is a big job to do that. I do not agree with you that we have not been clearly speaking out in favour of Europe. If you go to the speeches that all of us have made, we have been. Criticism normally comes the other way, that we have been too unambiguous in favour of our membership of Europe and also our vision for Europe. Our vision for Europe is not a federalist vision in which the nation state is submerged into some super state. It is however a vision of Europe which recognises the importance of the nation state but also recognises that sovereignty is something which, if you give a little away, you end up getting back a lot more in practice. That is what we should be aiming for.

  14. I agree with you that there is a problem of perception and I agree that some of the fault for this lies with the way the institutions operate. They are remote. Some of the responsibility for this goes back to the United Kingdom government and I do not think that the government has made a particularly clear, pro-European voice. I find it worrying that the Prime Minister has said that they would make a judgment on the economic test for the euro within two years. Presumably that is within the next 18 months from now and yet what we seem to have is no clear voice at the heart of government. The Chancellor has one view; the Prime Minister has another. I could speculate as to which one of those two you are closer to but how can we hope to prosecute a referendum within 18 months if we are not doing that groundwork now on making a really strong case for the European Union?
  (Mr Straw) Your question to me was about the European Union; it was not—

  Mr Pope: It is still about the European Union. If there is going to be a referendum, how can we hope to prosecute the referendum successfully if the groundwork is not being done now on making the case for a successful Europe?

Mr Illsley

  15. The perceptions of the press as well. There is a very hostile press in terms of Europe, as you know.
  (Mr Straw) When I was giving my answers, I was talking about our membership of the European Union. I accept we could not go into the euro without being members of the European Union but we have been members of the European Union without necessarily being members of the euro. It is a more discrete point. On the press, Mr Illsley, some newspapers are hostile to our membership of the euro. Others are enthusiastic and one or two are in the middle. Those who are hostile to the idea of our being members of Europe per se have to think a bit about how far they are in line with their own readers, not least given the outcome of the last general election where, after all, we kept being told that this was a referendum on Europe, not on the euro and a fairly clear conclusion was offered by electors. Mr Pope, to come back to your point about the euro, there is one policy on the euro and it is a policy which the Chancellor set out at the end of October 1997—and it was repeated in our manifesto—which says that we are in favour in principle of membership of the euro. The point at which we will decide whether or not it is appropriate to recommend membership of the euro depends on these five tests which are basically about the degree to which our economy and Europe's own economy have converged and how far that convergence can be sustained. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have both made it clear that it will be an assessment which will be made public within two years and there is technical work going on with that now.

Mr Pope

  16. Mr Illsley earlier raised the role of smaller nation states within the European Union. We can all agree that the smaller states in Europe for most of the 20th century feel they have been pushed around by the larger states and the European Union is seen as a way forward to stop that happening. If we go back to the famous dinner on 4 November in Downing Street to discuss Afghanistan, is there not now a three tier Europe? There are the states which the United Kingdom would invite, France and Germany. There are the states that the United Kingdom will not invite but will allow to come when they stamp their feet. That is, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. There are the excluded states that will not be allowed in no matter how much stamping they do and those are the smaller states.
  (Mr Straw) It is a neat way of putting it but it is not one with which I agree. There was one small state there which was the Netherlands. The Belgian Presidency was also represented. There is an understandable anxiety by the smaller states about the larger states and that anxiety is heightened on issues of foreign and defence policy, where the difference between the larger states and the smaller ones becomes more striking. There is an additional factor here: as the focus of events moves to the United Nations and to relations with the US, the United Kingdom and France, two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, tend to attract more attention than the other states, including some of the other larger states. These relationships have to be handled with care. All that said, as I made clear in my previous appearance before this Committee, the overall effect of the leadership which the Prime Minister provided on Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism has been significantly to enhance our reputation across Europe. We need to make decisions at 15 inside Europe or whatever number of Member States, but we cannot have a situation where you can either meet bilaterally or at 15 but you cannot meet in between. We have to try to persuade our colleagues that that is the case. I have said very gently to one or two colleagues in smaller countries that there are plenty of smaller countries which meet in small groups. The Nordics do, sometimes with Norway, sometimes without. The Benelux countries have famously met for years and years and some Europeans meet.


  17. The offence caused by that dinner suggests that it was a diplomatic blunder. What lessons have you learned?
  (Mr Straw) It was not a diplomatic blunder. It shows the popularity for leaders of coming here. No one came to London to say they wanted to take part in a blunder. They wanted to come in London because they wanted to take part in something they thought was important. That was the point of it.

Mr Chidgey

  18. Turning to European defence, you are aware that at Laeken EU members will be asked to declare the ESDP operational. I would like to refer you to a speech made by Peter Hain on 28 November: "When we say the ESDP is operational we mean that it has a basic framework to fulfil basic tasks such as humanitarian rescue missions, not that it has the ability to engage in peace enforcement operations." I am a little at odds with that when I look at the FCO memorandum, paragraph 21, where it says, "The European Council should adopt a Presidency report on the European Security and Defence Policy ... the report should state that the EU already has a limited capacity to act in civilian and military crisis management. The EU will be in a position to take on increasingly demanding operations as the assets ..." and so on. What capacity does the EU already have for acting in civilian and military crisis management?
  (Mr Straw) What Laeken is likely to declare is what is said here, that the EU already has a limited capacity to act in civilian and military crisis management. There is a limited operability of the ESDP. That is the adjective likely to be in the conclusion, although I cannot guarantee that. I can see why you are making this point because there could be an implication from the memorandum that somehow the ESDP was already fully operational, albeit on a small scale. That was not what was intended in terms of the wording. It was talking about the European Union as Member States of the European Union and, although it was not under EU auspices, if you look at the post Essential Harvest operation in Macedonia which had been led by Germany as the lead nation from the EU with a bit of input from the United States, the ESDP will firm up that kind of operation. The really important news is that there has been an understanding achieved with Turkey, as you will have seen from the newspapers, on the future of involvement in NATO.


  19. Has that been confirmed?
  (Mr Straw) It has not been made public yet but it has been confirmed by Turkey. There are currently discussions going on elsewhere in Europe about it. That will mean we will be able to get ahead with the ESDP using the NATO planning assets or in some cases maybe those of one or two of the Member States.

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