The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Thatcher, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): It might be helpful to the Committee if I took a few moments to explain the purpose of the documents and the reasons why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended them for debate.
The documents have been grouped together under the heading “Schengen Governance” because they concern different aspects of the Schengen regime. Twenty-two of the 27 European Union member states are full participants in the Schengen free movement area, and Switzerland, Iceland and Norway have entered into agreements with the EU that associate them with the development and implementation of the Schengen acquis—the body of laws and policies designed to strengthen mutual trust between the Schengen states, thus making it possible for them to remove internal border controls.
Only the United Kingdom and Ireland have a full opt-out from Schengen. All other EU member states are under a treaty obligation to participate fully in Schengen, when they are deemed ready to do so. Although the UK and Ireland have chosen to remain outside the Schengen free movement area, each has a right to request to take part in some elements of the Schengen acquis. For example, the UK participates in the aspects that deal with policing and law enforcement.
Increased migratory pressures at the EU’s external borders have raised concerns about whether existing Schengen controls are adequate to stem the influx of migrants and have damaged mutual trust in the ability of the Schengen states to apply Schengen rules effectively to an agreed common standard. The European Council therefore signalled last June the need to strengthen the existing mechanism for evaluating how individual Schengen states apply the rules and to include, as a last resort, a safeguard clause to enable internal border controls to be reintroduced temporarily in a truly critical situation.
Document A—a draft Council decision on the full application of the Schengen acquis in Bulgaria and Romania—would establish the date on which Bulgaria and Romania could lift internal controls at their air, sea and land borders with other Schengen states and thus become full Schengen members. The Government support the full application of the Schengen acquis in both countries, but the Netherlands and Finland have blocked the draft Council decision. Document B—a Commission communication on Schengen governance—sets out ideas for strengthening the Schengen area, including stricter monitoring and evaluation of how Schengen states
Document C—a draft regulation—would amend the existing Schengen border code to establish a new EU mechanism to govern the reintroduction of internal border controls, in which the Commission would play a key role. Documents D and E—also draft regulations—would establish a new EU mechanism to monitor and evaluate the application of the Schengen acquis. The mechanism would include a new safeguard clause on the reintroduction of border controls, if the Commission considers a Schengen state to be unable to meet its Schengen obligations. The draft regulations are problematic for the UK because they are based on a provision of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union that excludes UK participation, even though the UK is involved in some aspects of the Schengen regime.
The European Scrutiny Committee recommended debating the documents together because they raise two distinct but related concerns. First, are the established procedures for admitting individual EU member states to full membership of the Schengen free movement area sufficiently rigorous and robust to ensure that the necessary safeguards are in place and can be effectively implemented when internal controls at air, sea and land borders are lifted? Secondly, do the rules and procedures ensure appropriate and effective governance of the Schengen free movement area, and do the Commission’s proposals respect the division of competencies between the EU and member states, as set out in the treaties?
The UK, along with Ireland, retains the right to exercise controls on all those entering the UK and is thus less dependent on other member states to police the EU’s external border effectively, so such questions might not seem to be of direct concern to the UK. However, the European Scrutiny Committee considered that any weakness in the management of the Schengen area and in the capacity of individual Schengen states to apply Schengen rules would be certain to increase pressures at the United Kingdom’s borders. We therefore believe that the documents raise important legal and political issues, which we have outlined in our reports and on which we look forward to hearing the Minister’s views.
The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for calling this debate to discuss current developments in the Schengen system. Despite our position outside the Schengen area, what happens there is clearly important for the UK, not least since the Schengen area is the main transit route for illegal migration to the UK. It is also important that we are not excluded from Schengen activities in relation to police and justice, as my hon. and learned Friend has just pointed out in his introduction to the debate.
There are three proposals to debate today. First, the temporary reintroduction of internal border controls in the Schengen area. Secondly and closely related to the first, the creation of a new evaluation and monitoring mechanism. Thirdly, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area. Owing to our non-participation in Schengen provisions on border controls and visas, the UK has no vote on the proposals as currently
The background to the first two proposals was considered in detail by this Committee in the debate on migration flows in the southern Mediterranean, held on 17 October. As the Committee noted, this year more than 50,000 migrants arrived in the EU by sea, mainly from Tunisia and Libya, putting great pressure on southern EU member states. That is only one part of the pressure on the EU’s external borders. The EU’s border agency, Frontex, has reported that 104,051 illegal migrants entered the EU in 2010, by crossing land and sea borders, especially those between Greece and Turkey. The equivalent figure in the first two quarters of 2011 was 74,151—an increase of 78%, which was entirely due to the large increase in sea crossings.
Since the end of the conflict in Libya, the number of sea crossings in the southern Mediterranean has declined rapidly, but there has been a significant increase in the number of people entering the EU via the Greece-Turkey border. Those figures, which of course take no account of the much larger number of people who enter the EU legally and then overstay, are sufficient to show the scale of the problem that faces the Schengen area and that could impact on our own border.
Those flows prompted the European Council in June to recommend that the Schengen system should be reformed and strengthened. The European Council conclusions include both a more effective evaluation mechanism and the possibility of temporary reintroduction of border internal controls, as a last resort in exceptional circumstances. The conclusions emphasise the fundamental importance of free movement in the EU and make it clear that the new measures will not affect the rights of people entitled to freedom of movement under the treaties.
The European Council also emphasised that member states have responsibility for protecting their portion of the EU’s external borders and that any member state is acting in the common interest of all member states. The Council conclusions look forward to the development of smart borders, including an entry-exit system and registered travellers’ programme, and support other reforms, including plans to make funding more flexible and accessible, to strengthen the operation of Frontex and to encourage greater co-operation between national border guard services. We broadly support those proposals, but we have made it clear that any additional financing must be sourced from the re-prioritisation of existing funds within the budget.
Against that background, our broad reaction to the first proposal, which establishes new procedures for temporary reintroduction of border controls, is that it appears to be a useful move towards improving the internal discipline of the Schengen area. Although Schengen rules can in principle be enforced through infraction proceedings, that does not directly address the problem of illegal migration flows that affect the remainder of the Schengen area. Where there are persistent serious deficiencies in external border controls, operated by one of the Schengen area states, I believe that it is right to introduce a mechanism that allows the reintroduction
We share the concerns of a number of member states that the Commission has taken this opportunity to seek to reduce the power of the Schengen area states to re-impose border controls for periods of up to 30 days on grounds of a serious threat to public policy or internal security. That power has been used on numerous occasions by member states—for example, to prevent disorder at international football matches. The most recent example was when Norway and Sweden decided to reintroduce controls in response to the terrorist incidents in Norway. There have been no reported examples of the power being abused.
The Commission has proposed to transfer the decision on the reintroduction of border controls from member states to itself, except in urgent cases and then only for a maximum period of five days. In most member states’ opinion, which I share, that proposal does not properly reflect the primary responsibility of member states in matters of internal security. The Home Secretary made it clear at the September Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting that we strongly disagree with that element of the proposal.
The second proposal is the creation of a new Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism. That replaces a previous proposal that was published in 2010 and deposited for scrutiny. Both proposals aim to strengthen the process for assessing a member state’s compliance with Schengen rules and standards after its accession to the Schengen area. Unannounced visits based on risk assessments by the EU agencies will enhance the effectiveness of the process, which will also include multi-annual inspection programmes, questionnaires, announced visits by teams of experts from member states and action plans to remedy weaknesses.
The proposal issued in September this year is directly linked with the border controls proposal in that any decision to reintroduce border controls on grounds of persistent serious deficiencies in border controls can only be made after an evaluation has been carried out and the member state concerned has been allowed three months to implement its findings. We broadly support the stronger evaluation process, which is part and parcel of strengthening the discipline of the Schengen area. However, as with the border controls proposal, we are concerned by the Commission’s intention to control all aspects of the process of evaluation and monitoring and by the link between that process and decisions on matters of internal security. We would want the balance moved back in favour of greater control by member states.
As the Committee knows, we also remain firmly opposed to the Commission’s proposal to use article 77(2) as the legal base for this measure. This is not the legal base originally envisaged by the EU and would exclude the UK from taking part in the mechanism, even when it is being used to evaluate the implementation of Schengen provisions on police and justice matters in which the UK is a full participant. We believe that the Commission’s choice of legal base is unduly influenced by the desire to give the European Parliament an enhanced role through co-decision. We do not accept that the UK should be excluded in this way, and in company with the majority of member states, we are pressing the Commission
The third proposal is a Council decision which allows Bulgaria and Romania to accede to the Schengen area. In June this year, the Justice and Home Affairs Council decided that these two countries have met the technical requirements for full Schengen membership. That conclusion was reached only at the end of a lengthy period of peer evaluation in which they had been questioned, visited and scrutinised in detail by member states and the Commission. Both countries have invested substantially in surveillance systems, physical border security and staff recruitment and training to meet the required standards.
The Government support the accession of both countries, as they have met the technical requirements. That is, of course, entirely unconnected with the decision that the UK has to take before the end of this year on whether to renew the transitional controls on the access of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals to the UK labour market. The Government will announce their decision in the next few days, and I will write to Committee members to inform them of the decision. As required by the accession treaties, the decision will be based on conditions in the UK labour market, not on the position of Bulgaria and Romania in relation to the Schengen system. When the two countries join the Schengen area, their nationals will still be subject to border controls when travelling to the UK, as are all EU nationals.
Two member states have not yet agreed to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area. Although they agree that the two countries have met the Schengen standards, they link their accession with continuing monitoring under the co-operation and verification mechanism that monitors the progress of new member states in tackling corruption. However, that mechanism is outside the Schengen acquis. Bulgaria and Romania have already met the legal requirements for accession to the Schengen area within the terms of the Schengen system.
The proposal, which was formally deposited for scrutiny on 14 September, would have allowed their full accession to Schengen. That proposal was superseded shortly afterwards by one based on a two-stage approach to accession. It is still classified, but it has been made available to the European Scrutiny Committee on a confidential basis. As the new proposal refers only to aspects of the Schengen system in which the UK does not take part, the UK would be unable to vote on it. I am conscious that the security classification makes it difficult for us to debate the proposal in detail, and we continue to press for it to be lifted at the earliest opportunity. We will keep the European Scrutiny Committee informed of any developments.
The Committee should support the Government’s approach for stronger governance of the Schengen area, while safeguarding the member state’s primary responsibility in matters of internal security. Our intention is to secure an effective evaluation and monitoring mechanism, which includes the UK in respect of Schengen provisions in which we take part, and we support Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the Schengen area given that they have met the criteria and standards required of them under the terms of their Act of Accession.
The Chair: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that they should be brief. Subject to my discretion, it is open to hon. Members to ask related supplementary questions.
I welcome what the Minister has said this afternoon, but how would he characterise the Finnish and Dutch opposition? Does he believe that the Finnish and the Dutch are bringing into play matters that have absolutely nothing to do with the Schengen accession?
Damian Green: As I explained in my introductory remarks, the Finnish and the Dutch are trying to link the actual accession with matters that are unrelated to the technical evaluation. The British Government take the view that, since Romania and Bulgaria have jumped the hurdles put in front of them, we support their accession now, but as a country that argues for the capacity of member states to make their own decisions on European affairs, it is not for the Government to comment on or, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, characterise the position of other member states.
Chris Bryant: The Minister referred to a further version of the proposal from the Commission that we are not all allowed to see, but I understand that it says that there may be a staggered accession whereby sea and air are dealt with first—perhaps in March of next year—and that there will then be a further accession in relation to land borders. Is that true?
Damian Green: As I explained, the Commission has not removed the security classification on the proposal, so, as the hon. Gentleman is perfectly aware, I am incapable of discussing its details because I would be breaking the security surrounding it if I did so. I agree with what I imagine is his position: it would have been much better and easier for us to have this debate if the proposal was not still confidential, but it is and that is where we are.
One paper in the bundle refers to the regulation creating a European account preservation order, and it states that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has said that the Government have not yet decided whether they will opt in. Will the Minister tell us whether they will?
Chris Bryant: The public consultation on that regulation ended on 14 September and there are obviously key elements that unusually relate to Gibraltar. What consultation has there been with Gibraltar?
Chris Bryant: It is two months since the consultation ended and this matter will have significant effects for UK banks. The Government’s consultation document seems, broadly speaking, to be sympathetic to much of what is in there, but elements could affect our financial services industry. When do the Government intend to make their mind up?
Chris Bryant: The Minister referred to the fact that internal borders have been reinstated on a variety of occasions, sometimes to deal with public order incidents and so on, and most notably in relation to Sweden and Finland. However, can he provide us with a list of all the occasions when borders have been reinstated? The key issue of whether that matter should be left to member states or whether the Commission should play a role is difficult to adjudicate on, when one does not know quite how often such a measure has been used.
Damian Green: I will happily write to the Committee with a full list. I would be slightly surprised if the hon. Gentleman was implying that the Opposition believe, as he seems to, that the Commission should take that final decision. I hope it would be the view of everyone on the Committee that ultimately it is for member states to maintain responsibility for their own borders.
Chris Bryant: There are clearly circumstances in which the United Kingdom, due to its own security issues, might want a border to be reasserted within the Schengen area. Has that occurred in the past couple of years and, if so, will the Minister provide us with details?
Damian Green: It is not for us to instruct other countries as to when they should use the provisions under the Schengen treaty to re-impose Schengen internal borders. It is absolutely the British Government’s position, however, that we want the Schengen system to work effectively, because it has an impact on our borders and, in particular, on the juxtaposed controls in northern France.
There are times when those controls may well come under more pressure. To give a specific example, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, over the summer, when the Libyan conflict was at its height and large numbers of people were coming across from north Africa, there was the possibility of there being much greater pressure at our juxtaposed controls. That was not the case, but one can quite easily see such a situation happening. In general, we want a strong Schengen system. We want member states to have the ultimate control over their own borders, because that in itself helps us to maintain our strong borders.
Chris Bryant: One of the papers in the bundle refers to the EU-Australia passenger name record agreement, which was signed off by the European Parliament on 22 October. When does the Minister expect that to be implemented?
Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I was at the Justice and Home Affairs Council while that was being signed. It is significant, and although it will clearly take some months for the whole apparatus to be fully implemented, I hope that the Committee will join me in welcoming it as a realistic step forward. The signing of PNR agreements—with Australia and, we hope, subsequently with the United States—is extremely important for our border security. The fact that, with relative ease, the PNR agreement with Australia has passed through the European institutions is wholly to be welcomed.
Chris Bryant: I agree with the Minister. I remember desperately trying to persuade other Governments around Europe that they should have been signing up to the American agreement a couple of years ago. We did not even manage to persuade British MEPs to vote for that, so it was quite a difficult weekend. Will he update us on how the PNR agreement with the United States is coming along?
Damian Green: As the hon. Gentleman says, this is a long, tortuous process that has crossed the change of Administration in this country. I am happy to assure him that Ministers in this Government, too, are working very hard to ensure that we have a proper agreement with the Americans, just as he did when he was a Minister. Perhaps all I can say is that we are 18 months nearer than we were 18 months ago, when we came to power. It would perhaps be foolish of me to try to put a time scale on when we will achieve ultimate success.
Chris Bryant: It sounds as though that is going just as badly as when I was involved. One common anxiety—newspaper articles about the European Union over the past few months provide some evidence that this might be a real concern—is that electronic information about people’s flying patterns has become available to newspapers, which have stolen such details or bought them off airlines and others. Can the Minister reassure people that that is not the case?
Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman has greater expertise than me with regard to newspaper hacking. His question is not directly related to the papers in front of us, but he is right to be concerned about data protection more widely in the provision of information across borders. I will take that issue away and look at it.
Chris Bryant: The Minister has rightly said that it is the Government’s ambition for the proposals to result in no additional cost to the EU taxpayer. Has he looked at the costings and does he think that they are accurate? How much will the new proposals cost and out of what other budget will they be met?
Damian Green: The cost of the proposals can be met out of the budget that the Commission puts towards border security as a whole. We are very clear about that: this is a question not of increasing the budget—the hon. Gentleman has seen the agreement on next year’s budget, which was reached last week—but of reprioritising within existing budgets. We believe that there is enough funding within the overall border control budget to allow the desirable things that need to happen, without busting open any other budget.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The Minister has said that in the next few days the Government will announce their decision on whether Bulgarian and Romanian nationals will be able to enter the UK labour market without restriction. The Minister will recall that the previous Government decided—one of a minority of EU Governments to do so—to give free access to the earlier group of eastern European countries that entered. It was anticipated that 20,000 people would come from Poland, but in the event 800,000 came. Will the Minister and the Government bear that in mind when they make their decision?
Damian Green: I am particularly grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, because I heard myself say the same thing on many occasions over the past four or five years, but the story always bears retelling. I am happy to assure him that the overall immigration effects of decisions that we take about transition controls are very much at the forefront of our mind.
Kelvin Hopkins: The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area will mean that another considerable external border is made available for movement into the European Union by illegal immigrants and others—terrorists or whatever—along the long coastline of the Black sea and the border with Turkey. Are the Government concerned that that might put even more pressure on the illegal immigration targeting Britain, which comes from right across the European Union?
Damian Green: There are concerns, of course, which is why the negotiations between Romania, Bulgaria and the Schengen area have been long and difficult. Romania and Bulgaria have had to prove their technical ability to control their borders, and they have now done that to the satisfaction of other member states, which we accept. Any British Government would be concerned about anything that might lead to increased attempts illegally to cross our borders. That is why successive Governments have decided to stay out of the border part of Schengen.
Kelvin Hopkins: It is interesting that Finland is one of the countries that did not immediately agree to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, despite Finnish Ministers telling us on a visit a couple of years ago that people did not want to emigrate to Finland because the weather is too cold and the language impossible.
Is the European Commission concerned that the shibboleth of free movement is starting to fragment and crumble at the edges, which is one reason why it is trying to take back for itself decisions on restoring internal borders?
Damian Green: Among the many bodies on behalf of which I feel incapable of speaking the European Commission features quite prominently. I would not dream to look inside the collective mind of the Commission and speak for it. If the Commission thinks it should take powers in this area away from member states, for whatever reason—whether or not it is to protect what the hon. Gentleman describes as the shibboleth of free movement—the British Government would oppose that. We think that it is for member states to have the ultimate decision on such matters.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am pleased to hear that, but I am sure that, from time to time, the Minister has heard some of the gossip in the bars and restaurants of Brussels. [ Interruption. ] Maybe he does not visit bars.
There have been rumours in recent months that a number of countries are considering passport controls at their borders. Denmark proposed to introduce passport controls, but then a Labour Government were elected and they disposed of the proposal. Other countries are concerned about large flows across their borders. Is not the reality that free movement is now being talked about as a problem, rather than an opportunity?
Damian Green: That is certainly the case in some areas. In the interest of truth and clarity, I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that, by some mysterious process, whenever I am sent to a Justice and Home Affairs Council, it is always in Luxembourg, rather than Brussels—I never see the fleshpots of Brussels. To put it mildly, there are fewer fleshpots in Luxembourg than in Brussels, certainly in my experience. The hon. Member for Rhondda shakes his head; his knowledge of fleshpots around the world is clearly much greater than mine.
Let me move swiftly on to border controls. There may well be an increasing number of debates about free movement. From my point of view, the key is the abuse of free movement. All institutions in Europe—national Governments, the Commission and the Parliament alike—will have to face the real problem that if the right of free movement, which is one of the central pillars of the agreement, is increasingly used by people as a way of attempting to claim benefits for which they probably should not be eligible, or other such abuses of the system, it will call into question one of the central benefits of EU membership for all member states. The issue is becoming increasingly live, particularly in the Netherlands.
The hon. Member for Luton North mentioned that the Danes reintroduced something like border controls and that an incoming centre-left Government have weakened them, as is characteristic. At the same time, the Dutch Government have reintroduced something that is, in certain ways, like police patrols, and I am aware that the Commission is very interested in that. There is a stirring in the undergrowth about the issue. The key is tackling the abuse of free-movement rights, and that is where the softest spots will be in years to come.
Kelvin Hopkins: It is interesting that we have a supposed centre-left Government who seem to be more committed to neo-liberal ideology, which is what free movement is about, than right-wing Governments. Is it not sensible for Britain to start to move the question of border controls up the agenda? Given that we have our own strict internal border controls, could we not advocate those as sensible for other countries, as that would be beneficial for Britain and for the EU as a whole?
We have indeed kept our border controls while being a full member of the EU. This Government certainly think that that is sensible, as did the previous Government. There appears to be no desire in this country for us to join the Schengen area, and I do not think that we are going to change.
It is not for the British Government to tell other countries how to organise their border controls in the way that most suits them. As I have said several times, we are interested in the success of the Schengen area. We are particularly interested in the external Schengen border—the European border where Schengen states adjoin non-EU states—because that can have a direct impact on our borders. It therefore seems sensible to sign up to those parts of the Schengen acquis that we can, and to participate fully, inasmuch as we can, in organisations such as EASO—the European asylum support office—and Frontex so that the external European border can be as strong as possible. Part of the way in which we protect our own borders is to ensure that the EU’s wider border is as well protected as possible, and we will continue to do that.
Kelvin Hopkins: If those seeking to emigrate illegally to Britain or the EU in general know that there are internal borders, they will have to target the countries directly and will not have the right of free movement across the EU to get to the country at which they are aiming. Would that not be beneficial, particularly for Britain?
Damian Green: It may be, but in the end it is for other Governments to decide whether the benefits they get from having no border controls at all within the Schengen area outweigh the disadvantages. As the hon. Gentleman knows well, it is not just members of the EU that sign up to Schengen, as countries that are not members of the EU are part of the Schengen group. There are clearly attractions that other people see in the arrangement, and this is a matter for each individual state to decide.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 14357/11, a Commission Communication: Schengen governance—strengthening the area without internal border control, No. 14359/11, a Draft Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No. 562/2006 in order to provide for common rules on the temporary reintroduction of border control at internal borders in exceptional circumstances, No. 16664/10, a Draft Regulation on the establishment of an evaluation mechanism to verify the application of the Schengen acquis, No. 14358/11, an amended proposal for a Regulation on the establishment of an evaluation and monitoring mechanism to verify the application of the Schengen acquis, and No. 14142/10, a Draft Council Decision on the full application of the provisions of the Schengen acquis in the Republics of Bulgaria and Romania; and supports the Government’s approach for stronger governance of the Schengen area whilst safeguarding the Member States’ primary responsibility in matters of internal security; securing an effective evaluation and monitoring mechanism which includes the UK in respect of Schengen provisions in which the UK takes part; and supporting the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area as they have met the criteria and standards required of them under the terms of their Acts of Accession.
This has been a very interesting sitting. As I said at the outset, what happens in the Schengen area is important to us, and we will continue to engage fully with the discussions and make our views known. We support strong governance in the Schengen area with a proper balance between member states and the Commission, both in the evaluation processes and in taking decisions about border controls.
For us, the internal EU debate about Schengen governance is primarily about combating illegal immigration and rectifying a lack of trust over border controls, as the hon. Member for Luton North just made clear. We support measures that we believe will help to strengthen those areas of the EU external border that are currently most under pressure, as long as national sovereignty on security issues is respected. We are concerned that the European Commission’s current proposals on temporary border controls do not reflect member states’ primary responsibility in matters of internal security, border control and the prevention of illegal migration. Schengen and free movement are separate issues, and we think that that important distinction is often elided by the Commission.
The UK is clearly not in the Schengen area, but we are very much a part of EU free movement. We do not think the two are exactly the same. Free movement has been, and is, one of the great achievements of the EU. It is a principle that we and other member states defend but, as I said, that right is jeopardised when it is used by individuals who seek to claim residence rights and associated benefits when they have no entitlement to do so. The Government are committed to tackling such abuse and protecting free movement as a key right for EU citizens as part of our overall approach of protecting our borders and maintaining a fair and robust immigration system. I hope that we have covered all the issues raised by hon. Members and I commend the motion to the Committee.
Kelvin Hopkins: It might have been a slip of the tongue, but I clearly did not mean internal controls. I am absolutely in favour of the Union and I hope that my wonderful Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish friends will stay with us in perpetuity.
My hon. Friend also referred to free movement as a shibboleth. Most recent opinion polls show that although many people have many criticisms of the EU, one of the things that they most value about our membership is freedom of movement. I remember growing up in Spain under Franco. When we left, we were not allowed to take any money out of the country, so as we queued as a family at customs, we had thousands of pesetas in our pockets because there was no freedom of movement. An important element of what has changed is that one in six British people now go on holiday every year to Spain. Something like one in eight go to Greece, although it may be slightly different next year.
Kelvin Hopkins: We must draw a distinction between the freedom to go on holiday and to visit one’s friends or family abroad, and the right to move to and work in another country. They are very different things.
Chris Bryant: The freedom to go and work in another country has also been one of the important elements that enabled British business to flourish. Our reliance on European markets has increased. I was going to say to my hon. Friend that while what he referred to might not be a shibboleth, it might be a monolith, which is why the Minister is right that there are elements that we need to look at seriously with regard to its practical operation through which people are enabled to come to the United Kingdom and claim benefits that they then send back to another country. These elements are part of a monolith, which perhaps needs to be looked at and dismantled.
The Minister tried to tease me into saying that I thought that the European Commission should determine whether countries in Schengen should not be allowed to re-impose border controls. As I am sure he knows, that is not my view at all. However, there is an inherent contradiction and a difficulty, in that it is always in everybody’s interests within the European Union for there to be strong border controls at the outside and, where necessary, within both Schengen and the European Union. That is a matter of interest to every citizen throughout the whole EU, even if that does not mean, as the Minister was suggesting, that we want to be able to tell Italy suddenly that it should have better border controls in Lampedusa or wherever. However, at the same time, as article 72 makes absolutely clear, border and security control must, obviously, be the responsibility of the member state. No one can do it better; it has the people with the best access to the police or the border force in their country, and we firmly believe that that
Like the Government, we support the general thrust of the EU on monitoring and evaluation, but we agree with the Minister that instead of using article 77(2), which refers to the European Parliament and Council acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, it is important that we use article 70, which states that the Council may act on a proposal from the Commission. That basically throws the emphasis to the Council, and therefore the elected Governments within the Union, rather than the European Parliament.
It is certainly true that there is corruption in Romania and Bulgaria. Indeed, when I was Minister for Europe, I said regularly that many member states felt that we had moved towards those countries’ accession rather too fast, given the home affairs and justice concerns, because there is still a substantial degree of corruption. I am also conscious that there is a specific problem with people trafficking in those countries that must be dealt with, as I hope it will be.
The European Parliament reached an agreement at its meeting on 13 October and I think there is broad political consensus, albeit not unanimity—of course, the unanimous principle is convenient at some times, but a pain at others. We now see Romania blocking Dutch flowers from the country and something of an escalation of the argy-bargy, if that is a parliamentary term, between the four countries concerned. Broadly speaking, we agree with the Government. We would not be unsympathetic to a two-stage system for Romania and Bulgaria, and we would like to see accession as soon as possible so that trafficking and corruption in those countries can be dealt with effectively.
I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned people trafficking. We are also particularly concerned about child trafficking and the problems that arise in countries where corruption is an issue—I would not say that it is endemic, but it is certainly a problem, and such problems will get worse as free movement between Romania, Bulgaria and the rest of the EU takes place.
Several months ago, the European Scrutiny Committee visited the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. The people there talked about internal border controls. They did not want to speak too loudly, because they would raise the ire of the Commission, so they spoke in hushed tones and used the term “shibboleth” or “holy writ”—it was certainly a religiously symbolic word—about free movement. [ Interruption. ] The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham might remember better than I do. They realised that the principle was
Chris Bryant: I am sorry to intervene on my hon. Friend, but it is worth bearing in mind that a lot of those in the UK who have been people trafficked were people trafficked within the UK. Trafficking does not, by definition, mean that one has crossed a frontier or border. It is about the use of the person concerned—the slavery into which they are introduced—rather then crossing borders.
Kelvin Hopkins: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I would like an increase in the police force and more spending on the policing of internal trafficking and the problems that arise from it, but we have seen the opposite in recent months. I do not want to be party political, but it is a fact that we are seeing cuts in the police force.
More recently than my visit to Warsaw, I attended a meeting in Brussels at which such issues were also under consideration. I was the only person who mentioned the problem of internal borders—it was like a secret that dare not speak its name. Countries were clearly thinking about these things, but no one at the meeting mentioned it apart from me, although perhaps I am a bit of a stirrer who may end up causing problems. We know, however, that the French have been concerned about their border with Italy and about Francophone north Africans coming in through Italy. Once they are into Lampedusa, they are into Italy and then they are effectively into France. We therefore know that other countries are concerned.
I believe that the countries of the European Union—not just Britain, but others—will have to look at the issue more seriously. We have high unemployment and there is the possibility of moving towards a serious economic downturn with much higher levels of unemployment. Unemployment in Spain is already appalling—well above our own bad levels. Despite the fact that we have 1 million unemployed young people, other countries are in a worse state. There will be internal tensions unless we start to take seriously large movements of people across borders inside the European Union. Holidays are one thing, and visiting one’s friends or going to football matches is not a problem, but actually emigrating from one place to another is something that will be more challenging within the European Union in years to come. We ought to face up to that reality. Britain has, but other member states will be thinking along the same lines in time, and they will be sensible to do so.
We are right to have our strong border controls. Certain recent leaks have not been to everyone’s taste and have generated a lot of controversy, but strong border controls are part of a nation state’s essence. We can be perfectly friendly and internationalist, and have international solidarity, but free flows of large numbers of human beings across borders is a recipe for tension and instability, and that is not a wise way forward.
Damian Green: We have had an interesting debate. I was fascinated by the speech made by the hon. Member for Luton North. He said that it was controversial to be in favour of strong borders and reducing unsustainable flows of immigration, but I am happy to assure him that that is not at all controversial among my hon. Friends because it is Government policy.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I am glad to hear that that is not controversial, but does not the Minister think that there is a fundamental problem when trying to control internal immigration flows if the external borders are so uncontrolled? Why are the Government not putting more pressure on our European partners to control external borders through a much stronger Frontex? That should be directed centrally, rather than being simply for the invitation of host Governments at the point when they are in crisis.
Damian Green: I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying that he would wish the Commission to have complete control of Frontex and to be able to use it as a centralised European border force without being invited into other countries. I can think of no better way of promoting a lack of a feeling of solidarity than for the Commission to start telling individual member states what they can and cannot do with their borders and how they should be operated, which is the implication of what he says. Frontex has no border guards or technical equipment of its own and its staff have no powers at the border. If he is suggesting that they should have powers, that would be seriously controversial—not only on both sides of the House, but also in all countries of the European Union. However, I feel that we are straying beyond the documents before the Committee, so shall conclude by urging hon. Members to support the motion.