Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)

RT HON GEOFFREY HOON, MR ANTHONY SMITH AND MS SHAN MORGAN

12 JULY 2006

  Q60  Mr Cash: Can I ask one last question on this which I started out on? Minister, it is to get to the guts of this. There is a real problem here and I expect you really appreciate it. We govern ourselves in this country by passing legislation in Parliament which comes from the voters when they choose Members of Parliament and that forms a government, and then we have parliamentary debates and decisions on hugely important matters to the people of this country. You know that, I know it and we share the concern that it should be right. How on earth would it be possible for a government to agree to transfer the decision-making process on matters relating to this particular issue of judicial and police co-operation with the range that it involves? How can you possibly have a position of taking account of views which might be expressed? Why can you not simply say, "This is something we cannot countenance because it would mean that decisions were taken in these vital areas which would be governed by Qualified Majority Voting and, therefore, we know would not necessarily conform to the views expressed in General Election manifestos"?

  Mr Hoon: I am not conceding for a moment that the Government have decided to do that.

  Q61  Mr Cash: You know the point I am making.

  Mr Hoon: In the interest of academic constitutional debate then the answer is that flows from section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 agreed by Parliament.

  Q62  Mr Cash: It does not because actually, Minister, if you make a decision in the Council of Ministers by Qualified Majority Voting then under that section, for which we, as a party, would want an override, you would not, we would say that we would disagree with the conclusion which had been arrived at, but you would say, "We will go along with it". My real question, however, is whether you will get to the point of allowing the Council of Ministers to create the situation in which we would be obliged to implement it under that section 2.

  Mr Hoon: Again, I am not suggesting that we would go along with it. What I am saying is the way in which European Union law is implemented in this country is as a result of the European Communities Act passed by Parliament. Unless and until that Act is repealed, qualified or changed in some way, that is the mechanism by which these issues are passed into our law and has been the case since 1 January 1973.

  Q63  Mr Cash: You baffle me, Minister, because you are still not answering the simple question. I am saying it would not get to that point if we were to exercise the veto because at the moment it is by unanimity. What I am asking is whether you can conceive of a situation in which your Government, you, as Minister for Europe, and the Prime Minister could agree to take away the sovereign right of the people in this country to decide as to whether or not it should go to the Council of Ministers and be decided by Qualified Majority Voting?

  Mr Hoon: I had not realised you were asking such a simple question. I have already answered that question, and the answer is we will make a judgment in light of all the factors which the Committee have very helpfully set out today as to whether or not that was in the best interests of the people of the United Kingdom. I have made clear in response to a question from David that I can conceive of circumstances in which there might be a strong argument on security grounds for more effective decision-making in this area. That is a matter which the Government have not yet decided on and have not yet decided to take forward.

  Q64  Michael Connarty: Before we move on to the next section, can I clarify a fact with you. Is it not a fact that if justice and home affairs matters are transferred to Title IV the Commission will then have the sole right of initiative in JHA European law?

  Mr Hoon: We have maintained the position where first of all that would obviously have to be decided in the first place by unanimity. We would then have the ability to opt-in to legislation should we choose to do so. There are a number of safeguards available to the United Kingdom as a result of what we have negotiated.

  Michael Connarty: We will move on to the next section. Mr Hoyle?

  Mr Hoyle: Something which is dear to your heart, Minister, is Gibraltar.

  Q65  Michael Connarty: Some of us respect the diligence with which Mr Hoyle pursues the interests of the voters within the EU!

  Mr Hoon: I have always respected his diligence, Michael.

  Q66  Mr Hoyle: We are both aware of the ridiculous situation that Gibraltar has faced, whether it is the European Single Sky policy, whether it is a ferry from Algeciras to Gibraltar or whether it is a Royal Navy ship—it was a cruise ship, it is not quite the case at the moment because they are easing the tension—that could not sail from a Spanish port to Gibraltar or from Gibraltar to Spain directly. This is in the face of EU rules, it is totally in breach of all agreements, and we all know, and I have been on the Committee, that all the time we have draft Community legislation on aviation matters, which continues to come before us, there is always a provision suspending its application to Gibraltar. This is absolutely outrageous. This is Spain's bully-boy tactics. I cannot understand why it is allowed to continue. I know you have been in very good talks and that we have almost reached agreement, but the question still is why on earth is Spain allowed to abuse its position and the UK Government are doing nothing about it to fight its corner with the EU?

  Mr Hoon: Michael, Lindsay tabled an extremely astute question the other day about relations between the UK, Spain and Gibraltar. I hope I have set out in some considerable detail a comprehensive answer to that question which I think was warmly received both in Gibraltar and Spain.[1]

  Q67 Mr Hoyle: Absolutely.

  Mr Hoon: I hope Lindsay will accept that answer from me because it was so well received and provides a platform from which a number of very practical discussions can now be taken forward. I believe those discussions to be in the interests of the people of Gibraltar as well as in the interests of the people of Spain. If that progress can be continued through the result of excellent work by officials in the Foreign Office and co-operation with the people of Gibraltar and Spain, I do think there is an opportunity for creating a much better situation in Gibraltar and Spain. Therefore, if you will forgive me, Michael, I will not follow Lindsay's rhetoric in the direction in which he would like me to go simply because I do believe today we have a better prospect of a sensible understanding of the situation which I hope will make some of those criticisms redundant in the quite near future.

  Q68  Mr Hoyle: There is a change of heart within Madrid, there is not a change of heart within the regional governments that continue, as you well know, to block easy access in and out of Gibraltar and have abused their position at customs. We still come back to the fact which worries me—and we have got the Chief Minister here at 5 o'clock next door and we will be hearing his views and how he welcomes what you have done so far—and the question still remains, if the talks are not satisfactory, the UK Government still has, and should do, to ensure the rights not only of the people of Gibraltar but that the Single Sky agreement puts travellers from the UK at risk travelling to Gibraltar. I cannot understand how we can allow that to continue if these talks fail or something goes wrong. What can we do to ensure that we still do not get the problem that we have had right along and that is Spain objecting to any agreement which includes Gibraltar?

  Mr Hoon: I have been to Gibraltar in recent weeks, therefore I was able to continue my long and binding friendship with Peter Caruana who has done a tremendous job on behalf of the people of Gibraltar. We have been involved in many conversations in the course of the last few weeks. The issue which you raised, Lindsay, is part of an issue that we are looking to try and improve the situation. We are still slightly short of an agreement. If you will forgive me, I do not judge, given the importance of these discussions, that it would help anyone for me to comment directly on the question at this point. All I can say is there is real progress. The question which I answered that you tabled demonstrates that progress. I hope that when I come back, if I have the opportunity, Chairman, to do so, I will be able to report on a very positive conclusion of the discussion we have been having. There has been real progress and at this stage I do not want to jeopardise that progress by responding directly to the points which Lindsay raises.

  Q69  Mr Hoyle: If it did go ahead, would you review the situation where Gibraltar has been excluded?

  Mr Hoon: I am not prepared to contemplate failure at this stage.

  Q70  Mr Hoyle: It is not a failure, it is just a matter of would you review it?

  Mr Hoon: What I am saying is I believe we have an opportunity to change the nature of the relationship for all time between Spain and Gibraltar. That is such a prize that I think many things can then flow from an easier relationship and that is so important, therefore many of the things you are raising as practical problems I hope can be resolved in the light of that better relationship.

  Mr Hoyle: A question to Michael then. Would you ensure if something did go wrong that we will have an early meeting with the Minister in order to discuss Gibraltar?

  Michael Connarty: I am sure the Minister will communicate what he hopes will be his impending success as soon as it is in writing. Can we move on to the question of enlargement?

  Q71  Mr Borrow: Minister, can you say a few words about the future enlargement of the EU and the way you see things developing? In particular, there is concern in respect of the agreed accession of Bulgaria and Romania which is likely to go ahead irrespective of whether or not both countries have reached European standards on issues such as criminal justice because decisions have already been set in train. I would like you to comment specifically on that, but perhaps you might also say a few words about the general position.

  Mr Hoon: As far as the general position of enlargement is concerned, the United Kingdom continues to strongly support enlargement. We believe that it has been of great benefit to Europe and not only to the countries that have joined but also to existing Member States to have a larger market in which to do business and to have countries which respect human rights, democracy and the rule of law as members. I do not entirely agree, David, that Bulgaria and Romania will go in irrespective because there is a further report which we expect from the European Commission. They produced a report in May setting out some concerns they had about progress in a number of areas, different for each country but roughly in the area of justice and dealing particularly with organised crime. Obviously the Commission will be looking at those matters again before they produce their further report which will come to Council, I anticipate, in October. It is not irrespective, it is a rigorous process which the Commission goes through. The United Kingdom will obviously want to see satisfactory answers in the further report from the European Commission in the light of the criticisms that were made in the previous assessment.

  Q72  Michael Connarty: I think the point being made by Mr Borrow is the longest they can be prevented from entering is 18 months because they will come in in 2008 regardless. That is the point. It is not whether they will come in in January of 2007, but if they still appear not to be up to the acceptable standard they will come in in 2008.

  Mr Hoon: All I am doing is emphasising what is a rigorous process, a process I have been involved in in different countries in various ministerial capacities and even before that other capacities. There is a determined effort by the European Commission to look across the range of government activities to ensure that candidate countries satisfy the rules and requirements of membership of the European Union. If something was found to be seriously amiss, it is not necessarily the case, there is still an emergency arrangement that could prevent even 2008 being the date for accession. I do not believe that will happen. This is not a process which proceeds irrespective of what happens as the Commission look at the various dossiers which they have to examine. Therefore, what we will be looking for is both a sense that the Commission have conducted that examination rigorously and have provided proper safeguards for existing Member States to the effect that both Bulgaria and Romania have met the standards which are required.

  Q73  Mr Borrow: One of the concerns that some of us would have is that however rigorous the Commission may be in terms of their processes, eventually it is a matter for the Member States to make the decision. When the 10 came into the EU a couple of years ago, not all of the entry criteria were met by all 10 countries, there was a bit of horse trading that went on in order to ensure that went through. I think certainly my concern would be if you have got a system in place supposedly that is independent and rigorous before a country can gain entry then it is important that Member States, as well as the Commission, operate that process rigorously and do not allow political horse trading to subvert the rigorousness of that system itself.

  Mr Hoon: I agree.

  Q74  Mr Heathcoat-Amory Because no-one ever dares say "no" to enlargement, the EU has invented this new jargon about absorption capacity. I notice from the Brussels Conclusions again that the Commission is to do a report on absorption capacity which will take into account: " . . . the issue of present and future perception of enlargement by citizens". In other words, public opinion is now going to drive this. Given that a large majority is against Turkey joining in Austria and France, both of which have been promised referendums, is this not another example of politicians steaming ahead with ideas and leaving the public way behind and, therefore, there is a terrible disillusionment in Turkey in store when they are going to be blocked by using this absorption capacity idea? Does that worry the British Government given the view that Turkey's accession is desirable?

  Mr Hoon: The phrase "absorption capacity" has been around for quite a number of years, I think as long ago as 1999 it was first used in EU text, but I would be willing to check that. It is not a new idea or a new concept. Indeed, I am sure members of the Committee will accept that as a matter of common sense Member States have to consider whether it is possible for the existing members of the European Union to absorb new Member States. That is part of a consideration which already takes place as the various dossiers are examined. It is not the case that there is a specific agreement as to what absorption capacity will mean, and that is precisely why there is to be a further discussion about it in December and why a paper will be produced by the European Commission. These are matters which have to be discussed. In terms of public opinion, France has decided, for the future at any rate, that the question of membership would be subject to a referendum and, therefore, there is a direct test of public opinion in France for that purpose. That is not to say that every country will be expected to follow France as an example.

  Q75  Jim Dobbin: On the Turkish accession, the Turkish issue, and the tripartite relationship between the Greek Cypriots, the Turkish Cypriots' co-operation and Turkey itself, where does the problem lie? Who is at fault here? What is the relationship like?

  Mr Hoon: Sorry, can you repeat that?

  Q76  Jim Dobbin: With the possibility of Turkey coming in as part of enlargement, these are three neighbours, who is being obstreperous or difficult?

  Mr Hoon: No-one at the moment.

  Q77  Michael Connarty: Do you wish to expand on that?

  Mr Hoon: I attended the most recent General Affairs Council Meeting where the first chapter of the negotiations in relation to Turkey's accession was both opened and closed and demonstrated that the process is underway. I accept that there are some rather more difficult issues than science and technology in our way in the future, but I think opening accession negotiations with Turkey last September was a great success for the European Union. I think it is wholly consistent with long-standing British foreign policy and therefore something I have strongly welcomed and continue to do so. I am not suggesting that there will not be difficulties, there always are difficulties in these discussions which we will have to overcome, but I am not yet anticipating what they are.

  Q78  Nia Griffith: There are a couple of issues about Turkey. Obviously when we were there we were very impressed by the economic progress and their enthusiasm, but there still seemed to be a stubborn reluctance to recognise the need for improvement in certain areas, obviously human rights being the main area. How do you see negotiations proceeding? There was a feeling that they were being picked on and that we were making the rules up especially for them and this love of the constitution which they copied from the Italians in 1924. How do you see progress with dialogue going forward?

  Mr Hoon: It will be the same process that we were discussing earlier in relation to Romania or Bulgaria. There will be a range of tests—I cannot use a better word—and respect for human rights and the rule of law will be a key aspect of that. It is something which, as we have demonstrated very recently, the European Union takes very seriously and will apply rigorously. All I would say is we started this process, there are going to be issues that we will have to discuss directly with Turkey, and I am sure there will be areas where Turkey will find it difficult. All candidate countries find it difficult to move their standards to those of the European Union. Having said that, I think the objective ultimately of Turkish accession to the European Union is an important one strategically, economically, and I think politically. With a country which has a large Muslim population, sees itself as being Western and sees its institution as being secular, I think the prospect of Turkish accession is something we should consider very carefully. There are a number of problems that if for whatever reason we fail ultimately I think it will make the position very difficult for the European Union and, therefore, is why successive governments of the United Kingdom have supported the Turkish accession.

  Q79  Mr David: Obviously Turkey's accession, if it comes about, is ten, 15 years from now, possibly more, and it is difficult to predict how things are going to go exactly. Can I urge the Minister to think aloud? Bearing in mind that the Enlargement Commissioner has speculated that there might be a possibility at some time in the future, when it comes to the sensitive issue of the free movement of labour, that some sort of special arrangement could be made regarding Turkey. Is that something which you think could be debated and discussed at some point in the future?

  Mr Hoon: First of all, I would not want any suggestion of silence on my part to suggest that I am agreeing to your timetable, so I do not think it is sensible at this stage at the start of negotiations to be putting a timetable upon them. What we have always done in relation to the process of opening our market is look at the best interests of the British economy at the time as well as obviously whatever legal obligations we have. The question of accession has been separate from the process by which we have opened up our labour market. If you invited me to comment on it, I would say that would remain the case with all new countries because there is a separate process to resolve those issues.


1   HC Deb, 4 July 2006, c932W Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 31 July 2006