Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way. Surely he must know that there is a difference between control and ownership. We own overseas rather more than people own in this country. It is control of economic policies rather than the ownership of assets which must matter. I thought that even O-levels made that understandable.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I stand corrected. Britain maintains in particular a large amount of portfolio investment in other countries. The question as to how much of the City of London is now owned by others and how much British banks now own in other countries arguably suggests that the balance of control is more against us than for us.

Other noble Lords spoke of the British people and the sinews of nationhood, in that deeply emotive phrase. Their image is of a British society that is also unchanging. I spend my time professionally teaching British people aged 18 to 21, all of whom were born after we joined the European Community. My son attends a school where a quarter of the British citizens in that school are Moslems. British society has also changed a great deal. The idea of a coherent English nation, different and separate from the Continent, certainly does not fit with what I see in London and Bradford.

Turning to communications with the outside world, heaven knows, Mrs Thatcher's greatest monument to Britain is the Channel Tunnel, which enables me to travel to Brussels as fast as I can travel to Bradford--and which, my friends in Westminster Abbey tell me, now has the effect that, between 20 and 30 minutes after each Eurostar train arrives at Waterloo, there is a notable surge of tourists entering Westminster Abbey and asking for a cup of coffee in the cloisters. That is the whole globalisation of Britain--which has consequences, some of which are in this treaty. If 10 times as many people cross the English Channel each year as did 20 years ago

16 Feb 1998 : Column 104

(and the figure is of that nature) clearly the British police have to co-operate with police in other countries to a far higher extent than they did before.

If one wishes to defend British nationhood, one should talk about reintroducing proper border controls. It used to take me, as a student, four or five minutes to get through British Customs to British passport control. It now takes me about 20 seconds. Perhaps we need therefore to double or treble the number of immigration officers, Customs officers and others to cope with that great surge and defend British people and British nationhood.

We do not, of course, because we have not put together the old rhetoric of nationhood and sovereignty with what is happening outside in terms of our society, economy and communications--and, of course, of Europe itself. The Cold War has ended and we find ourselves, as many speakers have said, faced with the redefinition of Europe and with the most important issue facing the European Union; namely, is the inclusion of those former socialist states within our community of states.

Many good criticisms have been made in the debate regarding the inadequacies of preparation for enlargement so far. Again, the previous British Conservative Government, by their obstructiveness, contributed to the inadequacies. The over-preoccupation with monetary union has also left preparations for enlargement behind it.

Let me focus briefly on two aspects of the treaty which I hope we shall come to in Committee: the third pillar, the whole Schengen dimension, and the CSFP. Activity under justice and home affairs now accounts for some 30 per cent. of meetings serviced by the Council secretariat and some 40 per cent. of communications managed by it. That represents an immense growth over the past 10 years. It is not growth of European bureaucracy; it is driven by national police forces, Customs services and others wanting to work together.

In the assessment of Justice, a highly reputable non-governmental organisation, what this treaty puts forward is an improvement in transparency and a transfer of a number of functions from the third pillar into the European Community itself, giving better scrutiny and better judicial oversight.

Some of us will have many concerns about this--in particular, as to how Britain intends to handle the complicated opt-out and future opt-ins which, under the shadow of its Conservative predecessors, the Government negotiated. If, as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, what Europe should be about is travel without let or hindrance, the British Government, encouraged by their predecessors, were determined to slow that process down. I regret that.

There is much here with regard to strengthening the common foreign and security policy. When I look at the behaviour of the British Government as president of the European Union over the past few weeks, it seems to me that a number of people in the British Foreign Office have not read this part of the treaty. There is, for example, an agreement that members of the United

16 Feb 1998 : Column 105

Nations Security Council shall in all circumstances consult their Community colleagues. There is a statement in a protocol that the Western European Union is an integral part in the development of the European Union. A number of matters here provide us with the potential for greater co-operation in foreign policy, but that depends on close co-operation between the three key players in European foreign policy: the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I regret that the Government have made only limited progress in building closer co-operation with France and Germany since May last year.

We have touched on other changes in the treaty. I was puzzled by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, at the beginning of the debate. I have checked the Treaty of Rome and I note that Article 158 of the 1958 treaty says:

    "The members of the Commission shall be appointed by common accord of the Governments of the Member States".

What we have here is a relatively minor and useful move forward, not the shift from intergovernmental control to supranational control which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, seems to be suggesting.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, threw in front of us the biggest nightmare of all: that there is somehow a plot to build not a federal state but a unitary state in Europe. I am not sure where one draws that conclusion from.

We have had other fantasies of the nation state versus the European state, as if there were a European super-state. I believe we all understand the reality that the nation state is not what it was 50 years ago, that none of us entirely wishes to see a European state and that we are attempting to design something in between the two which can retain national identity while providing all of us with the means to pursue common tasks more efficiently than any of us can do alone. This treaty takes us some small steps in that direction. It has not done a number of things which it ought to have done. I look forward to examining some of its weaknesses and strengths in more detail.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, realises that the reason he gets through the Customs so much more quickly is that he is a noble Lord. When I was a mere "honourable" it took me ages to get through the Customs into America because the Customs officers always wanted to know what on earth "The Honourable" meant, and it was very difficult to describe.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, described the Bill in the words of another place as "modest but important". It may be modest, but it has taken up an awful lot of your Lordships' time. Perhaps I may give some small consolation to the noble Whip, Lord Whitty. I remind him that not only have three speakers scratched from the debate, but the brief guide to the Conduct of the House sets out that those noble Lords who have spoken and who are not in their place when the Minister comes to sum up, cannot expect to have their questions answered. And there are an awful

16 Feb 1998 : Column 106

lot of questions. My noble friend Lord Moynihan asked enough to enable us to go straight into tomorrow's debate on Iraq without going to bed. That is a debate in which both he and, to a lesser degree, I are involved, but we look forward to having the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, refreshed and well-slept because she has been able to have a full night and a full day today.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene. It is my understanding that it is the custom and practice of this House to refer to noble Lords who are replying to the debate as, "the noble Lord the Minister".

Lord Burnham: My Lords, all I can say is that I note what the noble Baroness said. I referred to the noble Lord as "the Minister".

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to him as the "Whip".

Lord Burnham: My Lords, yes, but later as "the Minister". Perhaps I can offer apologies, if apologies are deserved, to the noble Baroness.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan pointed out that we will have to enter into detailed consideration in Committee of the objective contained within Article 1 of the treaty, to move towards the establishment of economic and monetary union with the ultimate goal of a single currency. I look forward to the ingenuity of noble Lords in putting together the immense number of amendments we will undoubtedly see in this extremely short Bill where to date the longest number of words have been spoken per word in the Bill.

I wish to turn, following on from my noble friend, to the area of common foreign and security policy also covered in the treaty. We are told that one of the Government's aims at the summit was to retain Britain's veto, though it is true that the Foreign Secretary's pronouncements on that became increasingly equivocal as the summit approached.

The provisions of the treaty mean that the overall strategy on foreign policy issues will remain a matter for unanimous decision-making, so in that sense the Government succeeded in their aim. However, Article J13 provides for subsequent decisions on the implementation of those strategies, on the adoption of joint action committee positions (Article J4) and on decisions based on "common strategy" (Article J3) to be taken by QMV. We will be asking the Minister for a clear definition of exactly what is meant by a "common strategy", since it is nowhere defined in the treaty, and what decisions it is likely to result in--decisions which we would have no power to prevent.

It is true that we could abstain. Article J13a provides for a constructive abstention mechanism--referred to during the debate--although abstainers from the adoption of a decision must,

    "refrain from any action likely to conflict with or impede Union action based on that decision".

16 Feb 1998 : Column 107

If past experience has taught us anything, it is that constructive abstention is a tool best used in a "can't" not "won't" situation; when a country agrees with a decision but for domestic reasons is not able to participate in its adoption. I am sure that we have all seen many cases in Europe where that has happened. The Government will need to tell us if constructive abstention is an adequate and appropriate mechanism to deal with real disagreements between countries over foreign policy decisions.

As I mentioned, we have the Iraq debate tomorrow. That may well be considered to be a TEWT--a tactical exercise without treaty--for what will go on when this Bill becomes law and part of the European treaty. If it is not, we are going to find out what action will be jointly agreed and can be jointly taken by the European countries; who will say yes, who will say no, and what they will do about it when they have said yes or no. If it is not, it would appear that the Euro-train will be repeatedly stopped and delayed as the passengers pull the "emergency cord", as they may well do over Iraq. The Prime Minister is proud of this "emergency brake" mechanism, whereby no country can be outvoted if there are,

    "important, stated reasons of national policy",

which cause it to oppose a decision. But a Minister will need to come to the House to tell us what will constitute an "important, stated reason". Who will arbitrate on this matter? Who will say whether the action of a member state in this position would be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice?

What will happen if a common decision on strategy--here is where we come to Iraq--has been taken to take certain action if then a qualified majority decision is taken that the action should stop short of the use of force? If this country wanted to use force, would it be debarred from using it by the qualified majority voting provision? Would it be prevented from doing it if, for instance, it wished to support the United States?

Can the Minister further explain why the article which applies to the area of common foreign and security policy has been drafted via such a circuitous route, using the vocabulary of qualified majority voting, when in fact the article is based on the language of unanimity? I would therefore like an assurance from the Minister when he replies that the CFSP should be a complement to national foreign policies and not a replacement for them.

Today the nations of Europe live together in a state of interdependence, within a framework of collective standards and disciplines set by a number of international bodies, including the United Nations and the Council of Europe. No negative connotations should be attached to the possession and indeed the active promotion of our national foreign policy interests, even when they quite naturally differ from those of our neighbours. I believe that we have reached a time when the "national interest" can be defined as the collective expression of the democratic process in each of our countries; it represents the guiding spirit of democracy. It is for this reason that our foreign policy should be

16 Feb 1998 : Column 108

decided here, with the Foreign Secretary answerable to the House. No one disputes that close and effective co-operation with our neighbours should be pursued when it is in the interests of the people of Britain, but achieving common positions must not become a goal in its own right.

My noble friends and I offer the Government our unreserved support for resisting merging the European Union with the Western European Union. The Prime Minister is rightly proud of the article in the treaty which states that NATO, rather than the European Union, is the cornerstone of our defence. Likewise, the previous administration were proud of the explicit reference expressing a similar sentiment in the Maastricht text, which stated that nothing undertaken by the EU should prejudice the importance of NATO. But it is worrying that, under Article J.7, the text states unequivocally:

    "The Union shall accordingly foster closer relationships with the WEU with a view to the possibility of integration of the WEU into the Union".

The phrase "the possibility of integration" worries me. What guarantees can the Government give that, despite this possibility of a merger, enshrined in treaty form for the first time, no such merger will take place? For if this treaty gives an explicit recognition that NATO is the foundation of our common defence, it also gives an explicit recognition of the possibility of an EU and WEU merger, and the first steps towards a common defence identity for the European Union. A decision to send members of our Armed Forces to risk their lives, as may happen in Iraq--let us all pray not--must remain a decision for the Government, accountable to Parliament, and should not become a Community competence.

Furthermore, article J7 goes on to state that,

    "The CFSP shall include all questions relating to the security of the Union, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy ... which might lead to a common defence should the European Council so decide".

Given the statement before the election that,

    "Labour will not permit an EC Commissioner to determine our defence policy",

can the Government give an assurance that we are not slowly but surely moving into the orbit of an unrealistic, potentially damaging common defence policy?

I do hope that what the Minister said and the reply he can give us will be noted by the Treasury when it comes to prepare the finances of the strategic defence review and that what can happen is allowed for in the amount of money which is given to the Armed Forces.

In the course of this debate we have swung between the optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, at the other extreme. I hope that the Government will consider all aspects of this question. I hope that we can hear either tonight--it will take a long time--or in the context of amendments in Committee something which will make all Members, particularly on this side of the House, but also on the other, happier about our future under this treaty.

16 Feb 1998 : Column 109

9.41 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, this has been a lengthy and fascinating debate. It was perhaps a little lengthier than it might otherwise have been. But I can assure the House that I was not particularly embarrassed by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. My colleagues and some of my ex-colleagues will know that under old Labour we always had people moving procedural Motions on speeches for constitutional reasons. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, to the ranks. I was slightly more embarrassed by the subsequent plaudits that I received. I caution noble Lords that a round robin signed by my noble friend Lord Desai and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, who is no longer in his place, to the Prime Minister would not necessarily improve my chances of preferment.

There have been many interesting and thoughtful speeches. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Russell-Johnston. Clearly, the early educational work of Miss Marion MacDonald has borne fruit. I am sure that in our deliberations on European matters, in which the noble Lord is extremely experienced, he will be of great value to this House. He calls himself a purist: we have other purists in this House on European issues on various sides of the argument. He is welcome to join our debates.

Contributions have ranged widely, from the broad sweep of history to some pretty narrow questions of textual interpretation. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not follow some of the more elaborate historical analogies or some of the more esoteric interpretations. But I shall try to deal with as many of the points raised as I can. I shall read the debate in Hansard and reply in writing on any that I have missed. We shall also have what I perhaps hope and fear will be relatively lengthy Committee stages on the Bill.

Perhaps I may first make a central political point. For most of the debate I was pleasantly surprised. One or two of your Lordships failed to recognise that the May election meant a dramatic change in our relationship with Europe, but in general the balance of debate now recognises that the issue before us is not whether we participate in the European train but the speed, degree and detail of the way in which we do so.

I answer in his absence the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, as my noble friend Lord Brooke already has. At the last general election two-thirds of the British electorate voted for parties which were demonstrably more in favour of the European Union than the incumbent government. There cannot have been a clearer verdict. Therefore, I assume that is why the Front Bench, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Gray, has not demanded a referendum on the issue, as they did not that long ago in this House. We are in a new era. It is not an easy one, but it is one where our participation in the European project and the questions arising from it are in a sense very important but nevertheless second order questions as to how that project will develop.

The views held by noble Lords have varied. We have heard from those like my noble friend Lord Desai and the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, who have been deeply disappointed that the treaty did not go further. That was

16 Feb 1998 : Column 110

clear also from the tone of the contributions made by those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. On the other hand, we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Gray, my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington and various other noble Lords who have said that the treaty takes us far too far towards a federalist state. We heard an interesting speech from my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney who said that this treaty is not the relevant treaty; that it is only a minor adaptation of Maastricht and that it was Maastricht that was wrong.

I respect all those points of view. I have quoted others as saying that this is a modest but important treaty, while I have tended to use the term "a consolidating treaty". I believe that that is the best term. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, suggested, the treaty is a curate's egg, I would contend that there is more good in it than bad. In that sense, perhaps we should move into the details of the debate.

The Treaty of Amsterdam signalled consolidation, but consolidation with a purpose. The immediate purpose was to allow Europe the time and the political will to make the difficult decisions on how to make enlargement--the reunification of Europe--a reality. Such decisions will not be easy. Noble Lords have referred to the Community budget, the CAP, the structural funds, further institutional reform and the development of a common foreign and security policy, all of which must be faced up to in the context of enlargement. In our debate in July, I said that one of the most important points about the intergovernmental conference was that it was over. That was the tone of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield. He made very much the same point--that we have got it off the agenda. We can now concentrate on the central issues.

The Treaty of Amsterdam--and the fact that we have agreed a treaty--gives us the ground on which we can build and the context in which we can take key decisions. As my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney said, it is legitimate for noble Lords to raise wider issues. I shall do my best to respond, but my objectives tonight are much less ambitious. The Bill that I am presenting to the House does not pretend of itself to answer all--or, to a large extent, any--of those questions. The treaty simply gives us an improved legal and institutional structure in which to operate. The Bill simply gives authority for the ratification of that treaty by incorporating into British law those parts of the treaty that we are required to incorporate, principally the amendments to the first pillar of the Community treaties.

I turn now to some of the detailed points that have been raised. A whole range of points were raised about the institutions of the Community. I shall refer first to qualified majority voting. We have heard predictable and dire warnings about the dangers of signing up to more QMV. On the other hand, we have heard the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and others defend the extension of QMV. I believe that, judged on its merits, the extension of QMV was in the national interest. Indeed, extending QMV is not new. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, signed up to 30 extensions of QMV in the Single European Act. She was right then--and I believe that we are right now.

16 Feb 1998 : Column 111

There is another big difference between ourselves and the Conservatives on this issue. The Opposition and even my noble friend Lord Stoddart--perhaps I should say "particularly my noble friend Lord Stoddart"--condemn the extensions of the powers of the European Parliament. However, the very extension of qualified majority voting raises questions of accountability and legitimacy. It is there that the need for the European Parliament to have a strengthened role in legislation arises. Therefore, by and large, we have extended co-decision between the Council and the European Parliament to those areas where qualified majority voting will now apply in the treaty.

I recognise that certain noble Lords--my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington is perhaps the most experienced and knowledgeable--object to most of this legislation. My noble friend also made the valid point that there is concern in this country that once legislation is on the statute book other member states will be less effective than ourselves in enforcing, or even transposing, that legislation. I understand those concerns. As part of the commitment of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to attempt to complete so far as possible the single market during the period of our presidency, his main emphasis is on the enforcement of existing EU legislation, as is the priority in the programme on the completion of the single market put forward by the successor of the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, Commissioner Monti. Clearly, enforcement in other members states and our own courts of law is very important for the completion of the single market.

As to the institutional issues that remained unresolved, the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan, Lord Wallace and Lord Cockfield, and my noble friend Lord Grenfell, all referred to the disappointment, which I share, that the IGC was unable to grasp the nettle of reform of the Commission and the weighted voting system in the Council. We were close to agreement. The institutions protocol in the treaty will ensure that key decisions will be taken before enlargement. There is no reason to believe that the enlargement negotiations will be held up as a result. Any enlargement will involve an examination of voting weights and the number of commissioners as part of the accession negotiations. That is precisely what we are doing. To try to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, the protocol on institutions is quite clear. Article 1 of the protocol provides that the Commission will consist of one per member state on enlargement, but only if

    "by that date the weighting of votes in the Council ... has been modified in a manner acceptable to all member states".

Therefore, we give up our second commissioner only if we are satisfied on the far more important issue of the re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers.

Other noble Lords have raised wider issues on the institutions and expressed disappointment. The noble Lords, Lord Cockfield and Lord Garel-Jones, made interesting proposals, but I fear that they are beyond the bounds of political reality at Amsterdam or in the near future. Queries were raised particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, about the powers of the

16 Feb 1998 : Column 112

Commission and the Commission president. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and others made it quite clear that the nature of the Commission was that it was consensual on employment and collegiate in operation. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to the fact that commissioners were appointed under the terms of the original Treaty of Rome by common accord. The criticism of Amsterdam for extending the powers of the president of the Commission in selecting commissioners and exercising political guidance merely extends that common accord. He cannot impose a British Commissioner on a reluctant British government or any other government for that matter. It makes good sense for the Commission President to have authority over the Commission and to be able to work well with his or her commissioners. An efficient co-ordinated Commission works in everybody's interests.

As for the role of the European Parliament in this connection, it is already the case that indirectly--perhaps in a sightly drastic way--the European Parliament can veto a British nominee by voting against the endorsement of the whole Commission. But the involvement of the European Parliament in the appointment of the Commission president is surely an improvement in accountability and the relationship between the various institutions of the European Union.

Another institution that normally attains considerable prominence in these debates is the European Court of Justice. In this debate it attained rather less prominence than I anticipated. It was left largely to my noble friend Lord Stoddart to raise these points. The Government believe that if the European Union is to work effectively, the Court of Justice must have strong if carefully circumscribed powers. This new treaty strikes a careful balance which we believe will serve the Union well. For the record, perhaps I should set out the scope of the limited extensions in the powers of the court which are dealt with in Article K.7 of the new treaty. That gives the court a very limited role in the JHA pillar. It is limited to preliminary rulings jurisdiction but only for those member states who choose to accept it. We have indicated that we would not in normal circumstances go down that road. It also deals with jurisdiction to review the legality of framework decisions and decisions adopted by the Council and jurisdiction over certain disputes between member states and between member states and the Council. A further power is contained in Article L of the treaty, which gives the Court jurisdiction over the fundamental rights implications of the institutions' action--of the institutions, not of member states--within the JHA pillar within the limits set out in Article K7. The Prime Minister agreed to those provisions because they are central to the effective operation of the treaty and in the UK interest.

In the previous debate I described the flexibility provisions almost as "the dog that did not bark"; nevertheless, there are some important flexibility provisions, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney pointed out. The flexibility provisions which were agreed in Amsterdam are nothing like those which were being rumoured

16 Feb 1998 : Column 113

before the treaty was agreed. They are modest, sensible provisions, allowing for some degree of diversity in the way the Union operates.

We were not strong advocates of such flexibility, but we recognised that it was a priority for some others. However we did ensure, as did others, that any decision to use flexibility mechanisms can be made only with the consent of all member states, any one of which can exercise a veto through the emergency break provisions. That is a key provision which will prevent flexibility from opening damaging divisions in the Union and the development of a two-tier Europe; secondly, it is made explicit that action undertaken under flexibility must remain open on equal terms to all member states which wish to join later; and, thirdly, the treaty protects the achievements of the single market by ruling out any undermining of the acquis. In short, the flexibility provisions which were agreed at Amsterdam will rule out the development of a two-speed or cumulatively hard core second class Europe. They are modest proposals which allow for differentiation as a last resort and when circumstances allow.

There are some institutional changes which will be required before the full effect of enlargement takes place. To that extent it is true that Amsterdam did not make as much progress as was hoped on some points, but all the institutional changes which were made move in the right direction. Those institutional changes which remain to be agreed and achieved have been set in the right context and atmosphere of co-operation between the existing member states of the EU.

There were of course issues which were never thought likely to be resolved at Amsterdam, and never time-tabled so to be, by even the most federalist of the member states and certainly not by the previous British government. They relate to reform of the EU budget. I agree with everyone--from the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, through the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones--that the reform of the budget will be essential before we can move fully into enlargement mode. That is particularly true of the reform of the CAP, but there must also be reform of the structural funds and the assurance that any reduction in the structural funds to existing member states will be shared fairly. Facilities and resources will be available to ensure that applicant countries can meet the criteria for membership over the period of negotiation for their accession.

We shall need a detailed renegotiation of the budgets. That will start during the period of the UK presidency, continue intensively under the Austrian presidency, and move into next year. I agree with noble Lords who say that that is essential before we engage in substantial enlargement.

I come now to the issue of frontiers. Again, that did not feature as largely as I expected. I shall return to a possibly throw-away remark of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. He claimed that the security of frontiers had been negotiated by the previous government. That is not so. If there was any progress made before May, it was due, if anything, to the line taken by the Labour Party in opposition. I should know: I do not believe that it is

16 Feb 1998 : Column 114

any great secret that at the beginning of last year the Dutch presidency, dealing as it was with a lame duck British government, judged it right to try to ascertain the views of the Opposition. With perhaps slightly less wisdom, the conduit chosen to convey those views was me. I indicated to the Dutch presidency that a Labour government would agree with the then government and would not join in the free movement chapter then proposed. I found it slightly surprising a few days later when it appeared in the press that that had been recognised by the Dutch presidency. But what certain Tories now claim as a triumph for themselves was a reflection of the view reached by the Dutch presidency that no British government would at this stage move into the then draft proposal for a chapter on free movement.

The fact remains that no text was agreed prior to the election and that at Amsterdam the great success in this area by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was to take that negative exemption that the Dutch presidency had accepted and turn it into a clear and explicit legal security for our forms of migration control and border control. That was a substantial negotiating achievement.

I recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and others regret that we cannot be participants in this free movement area and in the Schengen agreement. But we have all recognised that there are different patterns and histories of migration and administrative systems. It was wise to stay out of the free movement area agreed by our Continental partners.

I turn to an issue which is in part related but is different. It is slightly bizarre that those who have been most vociferously against us touching the Schengen agreement with a bargepole are now criticising us for failing to negotiate an easier way to join. Nevertheless, as a result of the criticisms which have been levelled here and at great length in another place, I need to set the record straight about what happened at Amsterdam. First, this is a limited issue. The United Kingdom Government, can of their own volition, join the free movement area at some future stage. Should the ambitions of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, be achieved and the Government change their mind, we can join without let or hindrance by the other member states. We can also join in any future development of Schengen. Therefore, the only area in dispute is that of UK or Ireland wishing to join in the existing Schengen acquis. Of course, we and the Conservative Party are clearly opposed to joining the bulk of that in any case.

My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been accused of being negligent in that respect. Therefore, I should lay down what happened. During the course of the debate at the European Council, Spain proposed an amendment to the Schengen Protocol to bring in unanimity for UK and Irish participation in the existing Schengen acquis. At the insistence of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, there was agreement that any such amendment should be submitted in writing by Spain. No such amendment was submitted.

When the revised treaty text was circulated after the summit, we subsequently learnt that the unanimity requirement had been introduced into the text. We took

16 Feb 1998 : Column 115

that up with the presidency and a number of member states and as a result of that intervention we obtained a declaration that provides protection for the UK's interests in this area. That declaration states that other member states may invite the Council to seek the opinion of the Commission before it decides on a request by the UK to participate in any measure in the existing acquis. Moreover, member states also undertook to use their "best efforts" to enable the UK to participate.

That was a messy situation, but let it not blind us to the substance. The Amsterdam Treaty is a distinct improvement on the previous situation. Before Amsterdam, the situation was that the UK could, had we wanted, have sought full Schengen membership or remained completely outside the Schengen agreement. No halfway accommodation was available to us. We now have mechanisms written into the treaty which enable us to seek to take part in the existing acquis and to participate in future developments without restriction when that is considered to be in the national interest.

Several other issues related to migration. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked about improving the situation for asylum-seekers and about the backlog in relation to asylum-seekers. As has been registered in this House, we recognise that there is a serious situation. An inter-departmental study of the asylum process was announced in August. It is an extremely complex study, examining the process from beginning to end. As part of that process, we are looking at how best to tackle delays and to deal with the backlog of asylum cases. We expect to have the outcome of that study very shortly.

My noble friend Lord Stoddart raised the question of Europol. Under the articles governing Europol--for example, under Article K.4--there will not be any possibility of a police force operating in the United Kingdom without government approval. Indeed, Article K.4 allows a police force to operate in the territory of another member state only in liaison and agreement with and support of the authorities of that state. Of course, Article K.4 is subject to unanimity.

Moreover, on the second point raised by my noble friend, Article K.7 does not bind future parliaments.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page