Oral evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday 10 June 2003

Members present:

Donald Anderson, in the Chair
Mr David Chidgey
Sir Patrick Cormack
Mr Fabian Hamilton
Mr Eric Illsley
Andrew Mackinlay
Mr John Maples
Mr Bill Olner
Mr Greg Pope
Sir John Stanley

__________

Memorandum submitted by the Secretary of State

for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: RT HON JACK STRAW, a Member of the House, Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, MR KIM DARROCH, CMG, Director General, European Union, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, MR PETER RICKETTS, CMG, Director General, Political, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, examined.

Q1  Chairman: Foreign Secretary, may I welcome you on behalf of the Committee along with Mr Kim Darroch, the Director General, European Union, and Mr Peter Ricketts, Director General, Political. Next week you will be at the Thessaloniki European Council. The Committee visited Greece in January and we learned that the theme of the Greek Presidency was "Our Europe", reflecting the view that there should be greater public participation in EU structures. What, if anything, has been achieved in that direction over the past five months?

Mr Straw: In terms of greater public participation, I do not think there has been any major change in the nature of public participation in the European Union. As you know, there are proposals for there to be greater public access to the workings of the councils and to have the legislative decisions of the councils made public and to a degree that is happening. The other thing I would say about the Greek Presidency's view of the European Union - because it is interesting with these changing presidencies to try and see the European Union through the prism of the host - is that in Greece you have a confident nation state with a strong sense of identity but also a very powerful sense that a good deal of the foundation for their democratic institutions post the dictatorship of the Greek colonels has been reinforced by their membership of the European Union.

Q2  Chairman: What has been achieved for the generality of Europe, apart from Greece, in terms of more public participation?

Mr Straw: Mr Darroch has very kindly pointed out to me that the Convention has been completely in public and it is fair to say that it has attracted a commensurate amount of publicity.

Q3  Chairman: Let us move on. Clearly much of the proposed agenda has been overtaken by the sourness over Iraq. When you and your colleagues go to Thessaloniki next week do you expect that the atmosphere will be better and that we will have recovered from that sourness over Iraq?

Mr Straw: Sourness is the wrong description of the atmosphere. I would say that it was more sadness than sourness. There was sadness that we had not been able to reach a clear position. For example, on 27 January there was a very good statement by the General Affairs Council, as there had been just before Christmas in NATO, which effectively meant all but four members of the European Union fully supported 1441, but then we went through a period in March where there was a division of the ways. What was striking at the informal meeting of Foreign Ministers which took place about five weeks ago in Greece was that people were ready to put the past behind them and everybody understands that what has happened has happened, the Union was split about half-way and we have to go forward not back.

Q4  Mr Illsley: Foreign Secretary, turning to the Convention on the Future of Europe which is in its final stages of work, although there are some areas which have not yet been fully agreed, what are you expecting to be presented with at Thessaloniki? Are you expecting a fully agreed draft treaty or do you expect a text which will still need agreement in some areas?

Mr Straw: I doubt that there will be alternative options in respect of the sections which have been dealt with. One of the possibilities provided for at Laekin was that there could be options, but the way that President Giscard has been operating is that he has been anxious to ensure a single recommendation from the Convention. You will certainly get the whole of Part One and most of Part Two at Thessaloniki. As you know, this week is the crunch week for the Convention and so it remains to be seen exactly how far they are able to finalise the rest of the text.

Q5  Mr Illsley: Do you have any preference on what you hope to be presented with? Would you prefer to see a final text with recommendations from the Convention itself?

Mr Straw: Our representatives, government and parliamentary, have been successful in what they have been doing and that is flagged up more in the foreign press than it is in the British press. I am very happy to provide the Committee with abstracts of some of the comments from the foreign press, but the prevailing theme in the foreign press, including the recent editorial in Le Monde, is that Britain has done well out of the Convention process on the whole. We have secured what we wanted to secure, which is a better functioning Union of nation states. The fact that the word federal was omitted is not just a semantic issue, it actually tells the big story about the direction in which we want the Union to go. That said, Mr Illsley, there are some issues on which we will not agree with what the Convention proposes and that is why it is very important everybody understands that it is for the Convention to propose, it is for the Inter-Governmental Conference of nation states and then for the individual parliaments to dispose, and there will be a lot of discussion about aspects of the Convention's proposals certainly so far as we are concerned where they are over our red lines.

Q6  Mr Illsley: On the three key policy areas, taxation, foreign policy and defence, do you anticipate that we will be able to keep our right of veto in those three areas, and will the concessions that the British government have won already survive the final drafting?

Mr Straw: I cannot anticipate exactly what the Convention will decide because they are in the middle of deciding that. What I can say is that maintaining a veto over foreign policy, over defence and over taxation are red lights for us. As you will be aware, the CFSP itself was established by Maastricht and I think, in a culmination of Nice and Amsterdam, there is provision for there to be QMV on the implementation of a common position agreed unanimously. For example, there is a common position on sanctions against the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. We have agreed, indeed I pushed for it, on QMV for the implementation of those sanctions so that we are no longer in the position that we were in in February of this year where in order to enforce the visa ban we had to get unanimity and we faced the problem that we had with the government of France. It seems to me to be perfectly logical for the Council by unanimity, when it has established a common position, to agree things like subsidiarity, but the important aspects of how that should be applied should not then be subject to a reverse veto by an individual Member State, which is essentially what we were seeing, but that is a caveat emptor.

Q7  Mr Olner: How convinced are you that Europe is able to have a really solid fist against Zimbabwe? Is it just rhetoric or are we able to do something?

Mr Straw: We gained a common position which was secured in February of last year. Bear in mind, Mr Olner, the fact that we had proposed there should be EU monitors there. They went there, they were robust, they got to a position where they could not operate and it was their report saying that they could not operate effectively and the outrage which was widely shown within the Council that led to the first common position and to that being strengthened later last year and renewed in February this year. It is just a fact that any one foreign policy issue is likely to have greater resonance for historical reasons in one country rather than another. Just as what happens in Côte-d'Ivoire is a huge story in France, it is less resonant here, although it is very serious, the reverse is true in respect of Zimbabwe. One of the values of being able to call on 15, and in time 25, Member States is that, because there is this idea of solidarity, there is a forum laid on to achieve solidarity in pursuit of individual national foreign policy objectives and, self-evidently, we have been much stronger in our battle for rights of self-determination for the Zimbabwean people by being able to engage our other European Union partners.

Q8  Sir Patrick Cormack: I hope there will be a very robust statement on Zimbabwe, but could I ask you about something else, Foreign Secretary. What do you expect to emerge in the final treaty on the subject (a) of the reform of the Commission, and (b) of the president, and what line do you think the Council of Ministers will take?

Mr Straw: On the president of the Council or the president of the Commission?

Q9  Sir Patrick Cormack: The president of the Council.

Mr Straw: What we are arguing for is for there to be a full-time president of the Council and an end to the formal rotating presidencies. The reason for this is because at the moment the fact that there is a permanent Commission but rotating presidencies, now every seven and a half years and shortly to be every twelve and a half years, means that the balance of power has shifted in favour of the Commission. What we want to see is an even equilibrium between the Commission on the one hand and the representatives of national governments and parliaments on the other in the Council of Ministers, which I think is better described as a Council of Nations. In our view that will not happen so long as the existing arrangements continue and that is why in our view you need a good full-time president of the Council and I think we will achieve that, but again it depends on the IGC. I should also say that we are in favour of maintaining the idea of a host presidency so that whilst you would have the full-time president, countries would rotate every twelve and a half years in terms of their opportunity to showcase the European Union in their country and to run informal meetings, but here I draw on the analogy of NATO. NATO councils are chaired by the NATO Secretary General, he is a permanent individual, he chairs them well, he is able to provide continuity, but you also have a mixture of meetings in Brussels at NATO headquarters and meetings in what amounts to a host presidency.

Q10  Sir Patrick Cormack: That is okay, but you are going to have a president of the Commission and a full-time president. You are going to have a plethora of presidents, are you not?

Mr Straw: You will not have a plethora, you will have two, which I would not call a plethora and you have a president at the moment. The question is do you have a president who is able to speak up for the member nations and to be of equal weight with the president of the Commission. Those who are concerned - and it is a legitimate concern on all sides of the House - about the gradual slipping away of the power of nation states in my view should recognise the sense of having a full-time president. Far from trying to lead to a communitisation of the policy, the idea of this is that we should make more effective the Council of Ministers.

Q11  Sir Patrick Cormack: Would it not be better to have your president of the Commission designated as secretary general, it is good enough for the United Nations after all, and to have your supreme political figure quite clearly above that man or woman?

Mr Straw: I do not accept that. The way the Union operates is that you have this balance of power between the Commission as the initiator of legislation, on what are at the moment Pillar I areas but the core business of the Union, and you have the European Parliament, as well as having its representative role, sharing decision making in those areas of co-decision and then you have the Council of Ministers. You already have a president of the Council, we are not adding to the number of office holders. The question is do you have that president drawn on a six monthly basis from the nation states. I make no comment about individual nations. Firstly, at 25, running the Union would be and will be a challenge for the bigger Member States like the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, but we have the capacity to run a presidency and we almost certainly will be doing so at the end of 2095, but it can overwhelm the smaller members. Without making a comment on an individual presidency, I have seen that happen and in those circumstances what then happens is that the Commission, in practice, are calling more of the shots. I believe that unless we get a proper balance between the Commission running the centre and the nation states through the Council then public confidence in the Union will be undermined and the Union will be less efficient.

Q12  Sir Patrick Cormack: Is it not going to undermine the very validity of the concept of an organisation of nation states if you do not have a rotating presidency and you have one person plucked from one nation who is going to be president for a very long time?

Mr Straw: I do not accept that. I would just make two points. One is that we have a High Representative in terms of foreign affairs, Javier Solana, who shares that position with being Secretary General of the Council. He happens to be Spanish, but he was chosen by agreement and it has been a very successful appointment and he complements the role of the individual Foreign Ministers and the Heads of Government rather than undermining them. The second point I would make is that we have proposed, alongside having a full-time president - and there is a separate issue of a foreign affairs representative, a Javier Solana figure - that there should be team presidencies, so instead of one Member State having eight functional councils, like agriculture and environment and ECOFIN for six months in twelve and a half years, you have four Member States who will share the presidencies of these functional councils for a two-year period and that would lighten the load on them, but they would still get the host presidency every six months. We have done a chart, which I am very happy to share with the Committee, which illustrates that what we are trying to do is to get the best out of the current arrangement with a new arrangement so that the nation states have a greater weight within the councils of the European Union than in practice they do at the moment. This is a great patriotic reform.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I shall need a lot of convincing, but there we are.

Q13  Mr Pope: Foreign Secretary, could we turn to the position of the new EU Foreign Policy Chief. In the past we have expressed some reservations about this proposal, the Prime Minister has as well, but I get the impression that UK government policy is warming to the idea. One of the things that we have expressed concerns about in the past has been double-hatting, the merging of Javier Solana's post with that of Chris Patten. Could you tell us what the Government's current view is, and could you also say a word about what you think the job title should be? I think there has been some reservation about calling it an EU Foreign Minister.

Mr Straw: On the title, I would prefer the person to be called an EU Foreign Affairs Representative rather than EU Foreign Minister. It is not in the same fundamental category as QMV or income tax. The reason I would prefer it to be called European External Affairs Representative is because I think calling the person a Minister implies something that this person cannot be. If you are a Minister representing a nation state then you have to have a policy on everything unless you have yourself decided you do not have a policy. In the European Union the European Foreign Minister would have been in the risible position if, when asked what his policy was on the most important issue affecting international affairs, namely, Iraq, he would have to say, "I have two policies, one in favour and one against". If he is a representative then he is representing those areas where there is a common position and necessarily having to stay on the sidelines where he does not. Denis Macshane, who is something of an historian in this respect, has drawn to my attention the fact that when Schuman and Monet put together the European Union as was in its early days they deliberately chose titles which were not a replication of those of national governments but complemented those of national governments and I think it is better that way. Javier Solana has been very successful and so, too, is Chris Patten in doing his job and the relationship between the two has worked, but it has worked principally because they are both members of the human race determined to get on with what are inherently quite complicated constitutional positions and make it work and they have a high respect amongst Foreign Ministers and Heads of Government. What we want to see is Javier Solana's role responsible to the Council upgraded - and leave aside what we call it - so that he would chair the Foreign Ministers Council for the same reasons that I have explained in respect of the European Council Heads of Government meeting, he would have better funds available to him. There is this issue of double-hatting. What we are against, because I think it is impossible to sustain, is a situation where the foreign affairs representative of the Council is also a full member of the Commission. He would be pulled two ways. He would then have to accept the collective responsibility of the Commission in the College of Commissioners as well as the collective responsibility imposed on him by the Council, he would be serving two masters and we do not believe that is possible or sensible. I also believe that, however carefully you drew the text, it would communitise foreign policy and we are not in favour of that. On the other hand, there are various suggestions by which the single person could have a special status as a commissioner. Whether we get that out of the Convention remains to be seen, we may have to ask for it in the IGC.

Q14  Mr Pope: I agree with all of that. The stated aim is that you do not want to communitise foreign policy and I think we can all sign up to that and agree to that, but the trouble is that upgrading the status of Javier Solana's post at the moment will be the effect of it. Is the danger not that this new enhanced post will give more and more power and de facto communitise foreign policy?

Mr Straw: More and more power from whom?

Q15  Mr Pope: From you.

Mr Straw: No, they will not from us. We will be responsible for our national foreign policy and foreign policy, although there will be a single text which will be called the Constitution, but it will be kept outwith the European Court of Justice and so on so will not be communitised. Whereas in respect of agriculture that is a policy that has been communitised and is broadly subject to QMV, the environment is subject to co-decision as well, foreign policy will not be, it will be in the ownership of the European Council and then of the Foreign Ministers Council. It makes sense for more resources to be available and to a degree that would involve a transfer from the Commission. I do not have any problem at all with the added value that a Javier Solana figure can bring. If you look at what he has been able to achieve as our representative inside the quartet, he has been able to do more than individually we could do, the whole represented by Javier is greater than the sum of the parts. Or look at what he has been able to achieve in the Balkans, if ever there was a case for having a common foreign policy it was the mess that European nations within the EU made of the Balkans in the early 1990s where we allowed ourselves to be played off one against the other and thousands of people lost their lives as a result of that. I saw Javier Solana with George Robinson, two full-time officers of two of the major alliances to which we belong, actively working in Macedonia to prevent conflict there and civil war and - touch wood - they have done so and that would not have been achieved in my judgment without us vesting authority in Javier.

Q16  Mr Pope: Could you say a brief word about the accountability of this new foreign policy person. How are they going to be held to account by nation states and will there be an enhanced role for the European Parliament?

Mr Straw: The normal way that the chairman would be held to account is by regular reporting to the Council of Foreign Ministers and to the European Council, the Heads of Government and then through the individual Foreign Ministers to their national parliaments. I am accountable and responsible to the Commons and to your Committee for my conduct of British foreign policy in the European Council as much as I am anywhere else and that is essential if it is to remain inter- governmental.

Mr Darroch: On the European Parliament point, it is not yet decided what provisions, if any, there will be about any powers the European Parliament will have to ask for the European ExtCom representative to appear before them. It will not be precisely the same powers of accountability that the European Parliament will have over the rest of the Commission because, as the Foreign Secretary has said, we expect this individual to have a special status of some sort in the Commission. So there will be a difference, but what precisely it is is yet to be decided.

Q17  Mr Chidgey: Foreign Secretary, turning to the Convention and defence, it appears that the United Kingdom and France have triumphed in the Article of the Convention which deals with European defence. Do you feel that you have won all the important battles in the Convention over European defence? Are you confident that the final version of the document will reflect the UK's concerns over the communitisation of European defence?

Mr Straw: I think so, but there is no appetite whatsoever in the European Union for defence to be communitised. I was talking to Joschka Fischer about this yesterday and he was making the point that Germany has a different view of the development of powers within the European Union generally. Germany, by its own constitution, its national parliament, the Bundestag, has to decide on the deployment of any of their troops. This is not something they can ever give up to any other institution. He says that the idea that Germany would ever be party to a communitisation of defence policies is not the case. I am not going to declare satisfaction until I have seen the final text that is delivered at Thessaloniki and we have examined them. In any event, there will be a period for reflection on all the texts and they will then go into the IGC, but I am broadly satisfied about the direction.

Q18  Mr Chidgey: Returning to your comments about your counterparts and colleagues in the Bundestag, as far as the UK is concerned, did any useful contribution to the Convention come out of the mini-defence summit which was held earlier this year between France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, or do you believe that that meeting was somewhat ill-timed and divisive?

Mr Straw: In the world in which we live if four Member States want to get together to have a conversation and make proposals that is a matter for them and, famously, other Member States got together and wrote letters in support of the British-American position on Iraq. Such things are going to happen and the bigger the Union gets the more likely they are to happen. We did not go to the meeting on 29 April as we did not believe that it would serve a particularly helpful purpose.

Q19  Mr Chidgey: Are you confident that as the negotiations on the Convention draw to their close and subsequently NATO will remain the cornerstone of European defence?

Mr Straw: We are determined that it should do so. That was really the whole debate so far as "Berlin plus" is concerned, ensuring that we did not duplicate strategic headquarters but that we made use of NATO's facilities, even if it was us who were operating a force, as we are in the DRC with France and Belgium.

Q20  Mr Chidgey: How can you ensure that the European Armaments and Strategic Research Agency, if it is established, does not become just another "talking shop"?

Mr Straw: I am going to hand that question over to Mr Ricketts.

Mr Ricketts: It is something that we have been interested in for a long time, to develop more of a focus on capabilities and the development of capabilities in Europe and more effective procurement of defence equipment. The way this Agency is shaping up with a lot of British input suggests it is going to be able to play that role for us. We will be very concerned to see that it does not develop in any protectionist direction and also that it does become a valuable tool for putting pressure on countries to improve their capabilities. I think it is shaping up in a hopeful way.

Q21  Mr Chidgey: Have you had discussions in the Convention process on the inclusion of our NATO partners, in particular the USA, in the areas of arms procurement and defence research, bearing in mind that we are an awful long way from meeting the capabilities that have been set out some years ago? Foreign Secretary, you will remember how we questioned you on this in the past.

Mr Ricketts: I think our watch word is that we should have an open defence industrial arrangement and open procurement practices in Europe and we will be working to make sure that the Agency supports that.

Q22  Chairman: Does the Government have a view as to whether British Aerospace should join Boeing Lockheed or Thales?

Mr Straw: Sorry, I am not going to get into a public discussion about that.

Q23  Mr Maples: Foreign Secretary, the Charter of Fundamental Rights is something that bothers me and I think it bothers the Government although perhaps to different degrees. It is incorporated in the draft that has come out of the Convention. We were told in Brussels by our Permanent Representative to the European Union that the Government thought it had ways of allowing the Charter to be incorporated but surrounding it with wording which would prevent what are essentially political rights, and I am sure you would agree it is very vague. It talks about a right to continuing education for instance, it would prevent individual citizens of the UK going to the European Court, it would enforce those rights against the Government here and, I suppose, by implication get UK parliamentary legislation declared inconsistent with the Charter. How do you propose to avoid that problem or do you intend to try to get the incorporation of the Charter removed at the IGC?

Mr Straw: How we have been intending to avoid the problem is by what are being described as horizontal articles which would reduce the effect of the Charter. It is a complicated legal area. It is likely that the Charter will be included in the text, maybe in Part Two or maybe in the Protocol, which we would prefer. What we will have to do then is examine the text in great detail and decide whether or not this is acceptable. It is an area where our own legal tradition collides with the prevailing legal tradition of the European Union, which is essentially a civil law one. Other countries who have recent, declaratory constitutions do not have the difficulty we do of a single status for legal texts, so they will have in their opening constitutions statements of aspiration and their courts are able to recognise these statements of aspiration and not be the subject of too much litigation. In our system one statute is taken similar to another and the text is there to be interpreted, so it is a different tradition and that has caused problems in other areas.

Q24  Mr Maples: How do we propose to curtail that?

Mr Straw: We are looking at getting these horizontal articles in. We are looking at whether the commentary on it can also be reflected in some kind of incorporation. We are not there yet, but, Mr Maples, I suspect I share a similar interest with you in ensuring that whilst we can sign up to these aspects as aspirations, what we are not willing to do is to see them as shackles on the future control by our own Parliament of these rights which would be subject to change here.

Q25  Mr Maples: It seems to me that what you are trying to achieve is going to be very difficult, if not impossible. I am wondering if it would not be simpler, since this is not fundamental to what the Convention is trying to do with the Constitution, either to insist that it be taken out or that the UK has an opt-out from it?

Mr Straw: I do not think that will prove necessary. We do not rule anything out in terms of what happens in the IGC. It is worth repeating that - and many people do not understand this outside this place - the Convention has been working for 15 months, it is coming forward with proposals. When we get them at Thessaloniki there will be a pause for breath, a lot of examination of them and then there will be really serious negotiation in the IGC and it is up to us whether as a Member State we are willing to agree to particular aspects of it. I think it needs to be appreciated that in a lot of countries, particularly those with a post-war history of dictatorship or totalitarianism like the eastern European ones, Greece, Portugal, Spain, their notion of having a declaration of rights is really rather important to them and if we can safely embrace those rights as well without them being a shackle on us then I think we should, but the question is exactly how we can achieve that.

Q26  Mr Hamilton: Foreign Secretary, can I ask you about timing in all this because I think it is quite crucial given the accession of the new member countries next year. What do you think are the chances of agreement on the Constitution and the conclusion of the IGC taking place before the end of this year? Do you think there will be a new Treaty of Rome?

Mr Straw: I do not know is the answer. My guess is it will go into next year, but it may not. In any event, in terms of the role of the new members, the conclusions of Copenhagen made absolutely clear that any treaty, whether it is of Rome or Dublin, cannot be signed until after May of next year, so there are then 25 signatory states not 15 and that means that whenever it actually finishes its work all 25 will have a similar say over it.

Q27  Mr Hamilton: Is there not a danger that the new Member States might try and unpick some of the things that have been agreed?

Mr Straw: No, because they are participating anyway. Some people have said is there not the reverse danger that the new Member States will get squeezed out, but because they have the same ultimate veto as any other Member States they would have the same rights to participate in the IGC, that was the importance of that provision.

Q28  Andrew Mackinlay: I was persuaded about the function of the president, who is to be "elected", but we have a problem in the English language and we also have a problem, you and I as politicians, in the perception outside with the word "president" because that is the word for "chairman" in English. Is there not a case either for calling this person secretary general or finding a brand new word to be introduced to our European/English languages or in the English text of the treaty where we require somebody else? It is not as though we can interchange president for chairman. Or we can find some other choice. Politicos might agree, but how it might be presented outside has created an awful lot of unnecessary tension, and there are also malevolent people who know better by focusing on these words "directly elected president".

Mr Straw: Rogue elements as well.

Q29  Andrew Mackinlay: We could choose what the interpretation is, could we not?

Mr Straw: I understand the point and it is a point to which I am very sympathetic, as I indicated. In terms of what you call it, an EU Foreign Minister, is that the best title and I have expressed my view about this. However, I do not think there is any chance of shifting away from this title.

Q30  Andrew Mackinlay: In English text?

Mr Straw: Yes, because we have had a president of the Council ever since we joined the European Union and before that.

Q31  Andrew Mackinlay: And before that, Denis Macshane is right, it was a high authority and they were higher representatives.

Mr Straw: If I am speaking in Thurrock or Blackburn, and I enjoy doing both, my defence of this title is that this person is a president representing the nation states and standing up for the nations of Europe.

Q32  Andrew Mackinlay: I hope that you will look at that again on reflection. On the referendum, as somebody who is supportive of the European "project", it does, nevertheless, seem to me that when you and I campaigned in 1974 for a referendum, "for a fundamental re-negotiation of common market entry terms", at that stage nobody, statespersons or the public, could have contemplated the quantum of subsequent treaties. Firstly, if it was good enough for a referendum, is it not so now? Secondly, is not part of the problem that those of us who are supportive of the European project never go out and sell it, it is all one-way traffic? Would it not be a good thing for us to be able to campaign and argue for Europe in a way in which we have not done so in the past because we have not been focused on a referendum?

Mr Straw: I remember the 1975 referendum campaign rather well.

Q33  Andrew Mackinlay: There was a campaign to get the referendum in the first place.

Mr Straw: There was a campaign to get a referendum.

Q34  Chairman: What did you do in the great campaign, Foreign Secretary?

Mr Straw: I voted No. That was then.

Q35  Chairman: Foreign Secretary, please continue.

Mr Straw: Allow me to finish the rest of the sentence. I am perfectly willing to justify the position I then took on the basis that there were no alternatives available to the development of Europe, and if we had stayed out it would have been Europe at eight and we would have developed different sets of institutions. Today it is different because Europe is at 25 and there is no significant alternative to the Union to which we belong and we all had to accept the result of that referendum. I would also say to you, Mr Mackinlay, that I remember the debates exquisitely and part of the argument that was put before the British people was about the way in which the Union would be bound to develop. Knowing that, it was, nonetheless, the British people who decided by a margin of two to one that they would join and that was an end to the argument. On this issue of a referendum, and I will be talking some more about this tomorrow in the debate in the House, we have referenda in this country and we have developed a practice of having a referendum where there is a fundamental change being made to the nature of the constitutional arrangements and it has been most often used at a regional or local level or in respect of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: do you have a Scottish Parliament or do you not, do you have a Welsh Assembly or do you not, do you have a London Mayor or do you not, do you have a Mayor for Hartlepool, or where Parliament has decided that it is sensible to leave it to a choice of an area, for example do you have Sunday drinking in a particular part of Wales or do you not. In terms of the UK, we have only ever had a referendum on do we go into what was then the common market, do we stay in the common market, do we come out on an absolutely open and shut case. On any basis, the changes being made by the Convention, even if they were to go forward unamended, which they will not, they will be reduced, are less significant than those in 1986 and the Single European Act and particularly those of Maastricht.

Q36  Andrew Mackinlay: I do not want the referendum necessarily on the Convention but on the quantum. It is the Single European Act, Maastricht and Laekin where we need to reaffirm our commitment.

Mr Straw: The point that Denis Macshane made today, which I thought was an interesting one, was that there has been a reaffirmation of our membership of the European Union at successive general elections because, as he pointed out to us quite correctly, in the 1980s it was our party which said vote for us and we will reduce or diminish our role in Europe and we got the verdict that is well known from the electorate. The same is true in 2001 where there has been another quite crushing defeat of a party at a second election. We have had that endorsement. I do not think it is appropriate to have a referendum on the basis of here we are, "Do you like it or do you not?" There is certainly, on any comparative basis, no grounds for having a referendum on the results of this Convention and the IGC given that there were not referenda on the results of Maastricht and the Single European Act. Douglas Hurd pointed out to the House during intensive debates on whether there should be a referendum on Maastricht that no one had even proposed a referendum on the Conservative benches on the Single European Act even though the changes were the most major since we had joined. In respect of Maastricht, it will be recalled that there were a band of rebel Conservatives who were causing trouble to the then Government, but a long list of luminaries, whose names it would be embarrassing even for me to read out to members of this Committee, voted against that proposal and it was roundly defeated.

Q37  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, can I suggest to you that you made the wrong comparison on the question of a referendum. The comparison as far as this Government is concerned is not with the practice of previous governments in relation to EU treaties, surely it is between the present Government's decision to give the people - and make great play of it - a referendum on the question of the single currency. How do you justify a surrender of our interest rate control - and granting a referendum on that issue - when you do not provide a referendum on the question of a major constitutional change?

Mr Straw: Allow me to quote "You would say that, wouldn't you?", because I have in front of me the division list for 21 April 1993 when you voted against a referendum on Maastricht.

Sir Patrick Cormack: That was then.

Q38  Mr Chidgey: This is now!

Mr Straw: The difference is the circumstances have changed in respect of our membership of the European Union. No one is seriously proposing that we can put the clock back, but the criteria for a referendum have not changed since 1993. I find it very easy indeed to justify a referendum in respect of a single currency and not in respect of things which are likely to flow from the Convention. In respect of the single currency, what we are dealing with is effectively an irreversible decision, it is a yes/no decision, do you go for the pound or do you go for the euro, and that also involves some transfer of power from the British Parliament to European institutions, particularly to the European Central Bank. We never denied this, it is just true and it seems to me it is of sufficient magnitude for us to put that before the British people. I may say that in doing that we are acting differently from quite a number of European Member States who, faced with a decision of that magnitude, decided not to put it to their people and that included France and Germany, amongst others. So far as the Convention is concerned, it is making some important internal changes in the running of the European Union, in my judgment making it more efficient and to make it work better in the interests of nation states, but it is not fundamentally affecting the relationship between Member States and the Union and, therefore, the case for a referendum is simply not made.

Q39  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, I think the case you have put forward is completely specious on the two criteria which you have set forward. You have said first of all that the criteria for having a referendum in relation to the euro is irreversibility and the transfer of power from national governments to European institutions. Surely in the case of the forthcoming IGC, without any question whatever - it has been supported by your Government - there is going to be a transfer of power from Member States to European institutions and we all know that once treaty changes are made they are totally irreversible.

Mr Straw: I do not accept that. You could go through some areas where there are proposals being made for some extension of QMV, but that does not really involve a fundamental transfer of power. Indeed, often through QMV - this was Margaret Thatcher's argument for QMV 17 years ago - we are better able to meet the wishes of the British Parliament than not, because we cannot be in a position where our national interests can be a subject of veto by other Member States, some of which have fewer than a million people in them. Sir John, if you decide that as an overwhelming rule it is Parliament that must decide on issues and that you use referenda sparingly then you have to have some rules for the use of referenda, particularly for the UK as a whole. Our judgment has been that you use them for fundamental changes to the constitutional state of the country as in respect of our membership of the Union, which was the point of the referendum in 1975, or in respect of the currency. We may end up on different sides if and when we go for the euro, but I do not think anybody is arguing about the magnitude of that change. Let us go through what the Convention is proposing: it is proposing a full-time president of the Council, it is proposing some changes in the way in which the president of the Commission may be proposed, it is proposing some way in which the Commission is run, it is proposing some improvement in the efficiencies of the Union and some changes in QMV and there is the issue Mr Maples raises about the Charter. It does not involve a fundamental change in the relationship between the European Union and the nation states.

Chairman: I think we have had a good run on this. We will hear this debate again on the floor of the House. I would like to move on to several of the key regional issues including Cyprus, Congo, Zimbabwe, then defence. Mr Hamilton?

Q40  Mr Hamilton: I wanted to ask you about Cyprus. Mr DeSoto, on behalf of the United Nations, tried to negotiate a settlement between the two parties and I think many commentators would say that it was Mr Denktash, the leader of the northern Cypriots, that scuppered that. Yet on 23 April the "Green Line" was opened and tens of thousands of Greek Cypriots flooded across the border into the north and, likewise, Turkish Cypriots to the south. We have also seen huge demonstrations by the northern Cypriots, indeed one estimate put it at pretty much the entire population of northern Cyprus, saying we want to be part of the European Union and yet this 12 million assistance that has been offered by the European Union has been refused by Mr Denktash. How do you interpret the actions of Mr Denktash and the future for Cyprus as part of the European Union, because it would be a huge tragedy if that small population of northern Cyprus were to be excluded from the benefits of EU membership?

Mr Straw: We greatly regretted the fact that it had not been possible to secure an agreement so that a united Cyprus was able to enter the European Union and DeSoto and our own special representative Lord Hannay and many others worked to secure such a result, as did George Papendreou, the Greek Foreign Minister and the new Turkish government as well. I regret the decisions which Mr Denktash took. However, as you suggest, I think the Turkish Cypriot people in Cyprus have shown by voting with their feet that they want unity and they are going to carry on and get it. My last point is that we are very much in the vanguard of arguing to assist Turkey joining the European Union. We would want to assist with their application.

Chairman: We are summoned by bells. We have still a number of regional issues to cover, the DRC, Zimbabwe, Iran and Iraq, culminating in some defence questions which I hope we can finish when we come back. We will make what progress we can then and then we will go into private session. Thank you.

The Committee suspended from 3.55 pm to 4.05 pm for a division in the House

Chairman: Foreign Secretary, can I try and make progress on the remaining questions before we move into private session. I would like to call Mr Maples, please.

Q41  Mr Maples: Foreign Secretary, moving to European defence, when the Committee visited Brussels and NATO it took considerable comfort from the way the government has succeeded in tying the European element of defence into NATO, and my understanding is part of those arrangements are that NATO gets first choice and the European Union, the way they react, does not. Is that correct?

Mr Straw: I am going to ask Mr Ricketts to answer that because he is about to go to NATO as our ambassador, so he is even better informed than am I.

Mr Ricketts: The texts talk about ESDP undertaking operations where the alliance as a whole is not engaged; that is the formula used. It has never been explicitly stated that NATO would have a right of first refusal - and, indeed, I do not think it would ever happen as formally as that. There is a more informal arrangement of discussion and openness and transparency so that both the European Union and NATO know what the issue is, and from that it emerges whether the alliance is going to take something on, or ESDP.

Q42  Mr Maples: But you would expect that that means that NATO gets first choice - if not in the formal sense, at least the European Union would only get engaged if NATO did not want to, or was not interested, or something like that?

Mr Ricketts: I think transparency has been our watchword, so all concerned have the opportunity to say whether they think it should be NATO or ESDP.

Q43  Mr Maples: Why did that not happen in the case of the French force going to the DRC?

Mr Ricketts: In the case of that the French offered to lead a force. In fact, there has been discussion in NATO - there was discussion in NATO at the Madrid meeting last week and there has been discussion in the NATO council and in the EU - and the conclusion is that the ESDP is going to take on this operation led by the French. So I think there has been a degree of --

Q44  Mr Maples: There is a report of this in The Times today which says that that is not so, that the French effectively declared this an EU operation before the Madrid meeting and got it ratified at the Madrid meeting but there was no question that NATO had not been offered the option to get engaged itself. I am not suggesting it would have done; I am simply suggesting the French have found a way around the formula we have devised - again.

Mr Straw: I have to say I do not see it that way. We are very grateful to France for the constructive role they have played, and for historical and other reasons it is appropriate for them to take the lead --

Q45  Mr Maples: I do not deny that. It is a question of whether it is an EU operation.

Mr Straw: It has been done in a very co-operative way, that is all.

Mr Ricketts: Exactly. I did not recognise that report in The Times this morning as representing the feeling that I get. There has never been any question that NATO would want to undertake this role. There have been discussions about the need for a military operation both in the NATO council and in EU bodies as well, and it has emerged that this is going to be an ESDP operation led by the French.

Q46  Mr Hamilton: Foreign Secretary, I want to move on to Iran for a minute and our constructive dialogue through the European Union with Iran on human rights issues. That contrasts, of course, quite strongly with Donald Rumsfeld and his declared policy for pressing the US to support regime change in Iran, which is a slightly different policy to supporting it in Iraq. As we know, the USA has branded Iran part of the axis of evil yet we have very good diplomatic relations and we are engaging in the dialogue through our European allies. Do you think, firstly, that our relationship with our European allies is strong enough to win the crucial influence in the changing European Union whilst maintaining our special relationship with the USA? How do we fit here? How do we make sure that we win that crucial influence with Iran through our European allies and yet do not upset the USA?

Mr Straw: Let me just make it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that it is no part of the policy of Her Majesty's Government to seek regime change in Iran --

Q47  Mr Hamilton: Thank goodness.

Mr Straw: -- and you will also note that President Bush has publicly said that there is no question of military action in Iran by the US and, of course, not by the United Kingdom. Now, so far as our influence within the European Union is concerned and our close relationship with the United States, I have never seen these as alternatives - indeed, I think the one underpins and supports the other. This has been one of the issues at large over the last two years; we have set our own foreign policy but we gain influence in the United States when we are able to be in a position where that foreign policy that we are pursuing at a national level is also supported by the European Union. In any event, these days the European Union does not see itself as a counterpoint to the US and the lesson of Iraq was, far from it being Europe versus the US, it was the United States and about half the European Union, I am afraid to say, versus another half.

Q48  Mr Hamilton: But the problem here is that we in Great Britain and it seems throughout the European Union want a constructive engagement with Iran to try and ensure that some of the human rights violations are resolved and torture is ended and some of the positive elements which have already taken place do take place, yet the USA has no diplomatic relations with Iran and puts them amongst the axis of evil, which we do not.

Mr Straw: Sometimes friends disagree. We can have an honest disagreement about our approach to Iran with the United States. We can have honest disagreements with our friends amongst European Member States - sometimes. You try and work as hard as possible to avoid and minimise these differences and certainly not accentuate them, on some of which, sometimes, you have a difference of emphasis. So what?

Q49  Mr Olner: Foreign Secretary, I just wanted to bring you quickly back to terms of convention and defence. You expressed a wish that you did not want to go down the route that the Chairman suggested you might about USA procurement, military industries and so on. There is a tremendous amount of military industry in the United Kingdom with British Aerospace and Rolls Royce aero engines and there has to be a convergence somewhere between US defence companies and European defence companies. I think what the workers in those industries would want to know is how passionate you are in ensuring that British industry does survive that?

Mr Straw: I am both completely passionate about it on a dispassionate basis as Foreign Secretary and I am completely passionate about it on a more immediate basis as the member of Parliament for Blackburn since the largest single employer in my area, a mile outside my constituency boundary, is British Aerospace with its Salmesbury plant which must employ 4,500 people, and at the other end of the valley we have Rolls Royce at Barnoldswick and many other supporting industries, so I am well aware of the importance of our defence industries day-to-day to my own constituents, and along with the rest of the government we are in the business of fighting very hard for the interests of British defence industries and their work people.

Q50  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, in paragraph 19 of your memorandum to the Committee for this session, you say in relation to Iraq, "The EU has committed itself to play a significant role in the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq", and then you go on to say at the end of that paragraph, "We welcome this EU commitment in principle and are looking forward to discussion on what form this might take". I have to say I found that disappointingly vague and obviously before this particular ministerial council you must have a clear idea as to what form the British government would want the EU's role to take, and I wonder whether you could share that with the Committee?

Mr Straw: There is, first of all, the issue of emergency assistance and the Commission has committed itself to 100 million euros of funding for emergency assistance in Iraq. There is also the question of drawing on EU expertise in respect of recent operations in the Balkans on policing and police reform. As you will also be aware, Sir John, a number of European Member States or about-to-become Member States, including in different capacities the Netherlands - well, there is a large number of them but Poland is going to take the lead over one of the sectors - are contributing personnel equipment and other resources under the aegis of the coalition provisional authority. The last point perhaps to make is that on 24 June there is going to be a UN technical meeting of donors to which the European Commission has been invited to attend.

Q51  Sir John Stanley: What role does the British government see the EU taking in the work of political as opposed to economic reconstruction?

Mr Straw: I think that it may have a role in terms of projects for institutional building and things like that. It will not for the time being have a key role in the rebuilding of the political processes. The immediate responsibility for that under 1483 is that of the coalition provision authority under Bremer, and as we get the Iraqi interim administration established we want to see influence and ultimately power shifting to that, and then alongside that there is already beginning a constitutional process to establish constitutional representative democratic government in Iraq. The key outside participant to that is the isolations and, as you know, under 1483 a special representative has been appointed by the Secretary General who will work alongside the coalition provisional authority with the Iraqi people.

Q52  Sir John Stanley: What degree of support do you think the US administration is likely to provide for an EU role in Iraq both on the political and economic side?

Mr Straw: I do not think it would fall to the US to do that, with respect. It is the EU there providing military aid. There is also a good deal of work for the Member States who themselves have experienced a traumatic change within the lifetime of their population to pass on their experience - for example, Romania is under a dictatorship and they in the space of 12/13 years have done remarkable things in institutional building.

Chairman: Foreign Secretary, it is bells again. I would like to thank you and your two colleagues.