Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

TUESDAY 14 DECEMBER 1999

MR KEITH VAZ MP, MR MARK LYALL GRANT AND MR COLIN ROBERTS

Chairman

  40. In saying that, are you saying that the force will not need the sort of equipment that Lord Howell was suggesting it might need because it is carrying out a different role?
  (Mr Vaz) It needs the capability to carry out the Petersberg

  tasks and what we have a problem with and what Kosovo shows us is the fact that we are not able to do these things and we ought to be able to do these things, and European Defence Ministers need to focus on this. When I went to my last GAC meeting, I was accompanied by the Minister of Defence, Geoffrey Hoon. When I went to the WEU meeting a week later in Luxembourg, he also was there. This is a new era and we need to co-operate, but what we do not need to do is in any way to undermine the work that is being done with NATO; we have to do it with NATO.

  41. I do not think, with respect, Minister, that anybody around this table was saying that here today. I think the question from Lord Howell was whether we are not going to need some hardware that we do not possess in the European Union and for which we rely on the United States. What I am not quite clear on from your reply is whether you are saying, "Well, we won't need that because that will come through NATO, but what we will need is a different sort of force which may not need this high-tech equipment".
  (Mr Vaz) Well, we will need the capability to carry out the tasks that have been set to us. Defining individual sorts of military equipment is not, in my view, productive. What we seek to do is work with NATO to achieve these capabilities and I think that we can achieve that and I do not think it is a big problem.

Lord Howell of Guildford

  42. I was just going to say mildly in my own defence that I did not make any of the suggestions that others have suggested, but I just asked about the point about extra expenditure which the Lord Chairman has reinforced. I understand from your answer that you think we will not need extra expenditure to achieve this.
  (Mr Vaz) No, I do not. I do not think we need extra expenditure. What we do need is a refocusing of the expenditure that we have and what we need to encourage our European partners to do is to look again at what they are doing on defence so that they also are focused on what we are trying to achieve.

  43. And more specifically I asked whether this would require Treaty changes and are they going to be included in this round of Treaty changes or will we need yet another round of Treaty changes?
  (Mr Vaz) I do not anticipate that this is going to result in a new Treaty.

  44. Or Treaty changes?
  (Mr Vaz) Not as part of this IGC.
  (Mr Lyall Grant) It is possible that there will be some Treaty changes. I think the defence debate will be taken forward on a sort of parallel track to the IGC, and it is not formally part of the IGC, but that track, it has already been decided, should come to a conclusion at around the same time, December 2000. If that track ends up recommending unanimously that there should be some Treaty changes, then obviously one could take advantage of the IGC and come to a conclusion at that time to make those Treaty changes, but I think it is too early to conclude whether they will be necessary or not.

Viscount Brookeborough

  45. Minister, on the point of the European army or not, are we not the victims of terminology as we normally use it? I do not think anybody is suggesting that the army would consist of all those nations' forces, but we are talking about having a force which is ready to take on something like Kosovo and, as you said, it has not been a tremendous success maybe, but the way to have it as a success is to have a force which trains together in the type of jobs and tasks that it would take on, to have a commander who nowadays is not only a soldier, but a diplomat, and we have seen that, whether it has been General Rose or whether it has been the German general present. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, we have to have a headquarters, we have to have command and control within a unit. This may not be a big army, it may be a small army, and I do not necessarily see the conflict with NATO, but I am not quite sure why everybody gets so upset about the idea that we should have a European force that is capable of co-operating with its different arms and so on that may be used.
  (Mr Vaz) Because there is not going to be an army, my Lord.

  46. But a force is an army if it is a certain size.
  (Mr Vaz) It is not going to be an army. I know I sound as if I am being very pernickety about these things, but I think you cannot describe it as an army. It is not going to be an army. You are right, though, that it is going to need new political and military structures and we need to look through that and that is one of the points at paragraph 28 of the Helsinki Conclusions, but what it is not is it is not a separate army, and I know that you disagree with me—

  47. I believe it is a force.
  (Mr Vaz) It is just your description of the word "army", which it is not, but what it will be is we are going to have all the forces working together and we need the structures of course that will deal with this change, but it is just the word "army" that implies a single European force and that is not what it is going to be.

Lord Williams of Elvel

  48. Could I just ask the Minister, following on from what Lord Brookeborough has said, assuming that this proposed European force—let's not call it an army—is to remain within the NATO context, that we are not trying to set up something different from NATO, presumably it needs not only hardware, but it needs also software because all the NATO control and command systems work from the Pentagon, so is the Minister saying, "No, we are going to develop a whole new series of command and control systems"? If not, then why is it not part of NATO in the first place?
  (Mr Vaz) Well, we are going to be working with NATO throughout all the discussions and all the activities that we have. There is no question that we are doing things on our own. Whenever we have discussed in the European Union defence and foreign policy issues, we subsequently have had a discussion with our non-EU NATO partners and we have then had a discussion with the applicant countries so that everybody is informed. We do not believe that the way forward is to duplicate what is already there.

  49. So it is all NATO commands, NATO codes, NATO encrypts?
  (Mr Vaz) Well, there is bound to be an overlap and there is bound to be that consultation, but what we want to be able to do is for those purposes that I have outlined, the Petersberg tasks, we need to be in a position, in Madeline Albright's words, to be able to look after our own back yard. The Americans have no problem with that and NATO will co-operate with us because we are going to be in constant communication and contact every day throughout this whole process with NATO, and there is no question of us being separated from them; we have to be because they are the cornerstone of our defence policy and that will always remain the case.

  Lord Williams of Elvel: I think you have answered our questions pretty well, Minister.

  Chairman: I think, Minister, that this is a subject that will come again with our new Sub-Committee which is looking at such matters, so I think that you and others will be getting an extension to these questions from Lord Williams and Lord Howell in the future. Can we move now to the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Lord Hope of Craighead

  50. Minister, at the end of last week you very kindly wrote a letter to the Chairman in which you gave some background information on the steps which are being taken to go ahead with the drafting of the proposed Charter of Fundamental Rights. There are just one or two points that I would like to ask you about this, bearing in mind that the Sub-Committee, of which I am the Chairman, will be looking at this issue, I think, early in the new year and it is quite important that we understand where the Government stands on the issue. In the letter, you say, first, that the Government welcomes the Charter initiative and you then go on to say that you "would not support a Charter which acted as a platform for an extension of EU competencies", and in the third to last paragraph, the impression is given that what you are looking for is something which is in the nature of a political statement of existing rights "without legally binding effect, and not incorporated into the Treaties...without prejudicing legal certainty". Now, the point that troubles me, having listened to a number of contributions at the COSAC meeting early this autumn, is that there is a very big difference between the attitude which you describe there and the view taken, as I could understand it, of some other Member States and also the position of the Parliament. The Parliament, for example, is supporting the view that from the outset it should be made clear that the Charter would have a mandatory character and provide the citizens with access to the Court—that is, the Court of Justice—so if that is to be the regime, it is totally different from the idea of a political statement with no binding effect which you have described. The question really is this: is it likely to be possible for you, as these discussions develop, to hang on to the approach which you have described, bearing in mind the expectation of citizens within the Union which are likely to be raised as this issue comes into greater prominence?
  (Mr Vaz) Well, the Charter is a very important document and we welcome the fact that Cologne agreed to have a Charter of Fundamental Rights, and we have chosen as our representative from the Prime Minister one of our most distinguished lawyers, a Member of the Upper House, Lord Goldsmith, and from the Upper House also Lord Bowness is going to be the parliamentary representative, as is Wyn Griffiths from the House of Commons, so we have a good team, but the team is not there to agree to create a binding document. I think I prefer my view to the view of the Members of the European Parliament, which is that what this will be is a showcase of existing rights, rights that have been conferred by either the Treaties or legislation. It is not a seed for a constitution, but it is there to do exactly as I have just described and we will resist any attempts to make it binding. Certainly in the conversations I have had with colleagues, there is no particular desire to make it binding and turn it into a Treaty because, frankly, nobody regards it as being necessary. Of course in the European Parliament, there are going to be different views because Europe is a place of some 370 million people, so of course people are going to have different views with so many countries and the Parliament representing individual constituencies et cetera, et cetera, but Cologne decided on certain things and there is no reason to change those decisions.

  51. I think the problem is that everybody can say they welcome the initiative, but when one finds they are talking about quite different things, it is very important to be clear where the Government stands on the issue and that the Government would be prepared to defend its position, as you have described it, if it gets into a really detailed argument.
  (Mr Vaz) I can assure you that I will certainly be defending our position vigorously. My position has not changed since I signed that letter. The European Parliament of course is entitled to make its own views known, but our representatives are well aware of the purpose of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, what it seeks to achieve, and how we can take matters further in the discussion. We welcome it and we believe it is an important document, but it is not going to be binding in a legal, contractual sense.

Chairman

  52. So why have it?
  (Mr Vaz) Why have it? Because it is very important that people realise what their rights and responsibilities are. One of the criticisms that most people have about the European Union is that they hear a lot about butter mountains and wine lakes, but people said to me on this roadshow, "But what does it do for me? I like it, but what does it do for me? Does it get my roof mended? Does it do something about my blocked drains?" "No, it does not, but what it does do is it provides you with a list of rights which you would not have had had you not been part of the European Union". People do want to know about rights.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

  53. But surely the issuing of a document does not mean that rights are granted by an organisation.
  (Mr Vaz) No, but, my Lord, the rights are there.

  54. Yes, but they do not stem from the European Union, do they?
  (Mr Vaz) Well, they do stem from the legislation and the Treaties that we have entered into as a result of being part of the European Union. That is why it is a European Union Charter of Rights.

Lord Goodhart

  55. Is there not a danger that the Charter is going to lead simply to confusion with the European Convention on Human Rights just at the time when we are incorporating that into our own domestic law? There is already a great deal of confusion in the ordinary public mind between the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, so is that not going to make this problem worse?
  (Mr Vaz) I would hate to disagree with someone as eminent as Lord Goodhart on these matters, but I do not think people will be confused. Of course there will be an overlap with the Convention in some circumstances, but, as Lord Goodhart says, that is going be incorporated whereas the Charter is not and there are going to be lots of rights that have been conferred by Treaty or legislation because of our membership of the European Union which are not contained in the European Convention and we believe that this is an important document to have. Presentationally it is important and I think that it really ought to be well publicised and it ought to be produced in simple language so that people understand what is being suggested. The Council of Europe is also going to be sending observers to the drafting body and they make no objection to the fact that there is going to be a Charter.

Viscount Bledisloe

  56. But is it just a plain man's guide to the rights which already exist? First of all, it is not a Charter at all, but it is just a Commission hand-out, and, secondly, it certainly does not need a large negotiating body to tabulate the rights that already exist. It cannot possibly on this description be the important document that you describe it as, can it?
  (Mr Vaz) It is an important document, and I can assure you that it is not going to be a Commission hand-out, but it is going to be a sensible—or perhaps I should rephrase that—

  57. I was not suggesting that it was not going to be sensible.
  (Mr Vaz) It is going to be clear, concise, presentable, exciting and all these things that we would expect for a Charter for the new millennium.

  58. But it is not a Charter if it is merely a list of what exists, is it?
  (Mr Vaz) It is a Charter.

  59. The Magna Carta was not a list of what already existed, was it?
  (Mr Vaz) The Magna Carta was a binding contract between the sovereign and the people. This is not a Magna Carta, I can assure you of that. It is going to be a Charter that sets out clearly and precisely for the first time in the history of the European Union what European Union citizens gain, benefit from as a result of being part of the European Union.

  Chairman: So the question one asks is why is this great concatenation of people being brought together, if that is the right word, 16 representatives of the European Parliament, two representatives of this Parliament, although how any two people can be representative of this Parliament is totally beyond my comprehension, but there we are, and they are all going to sit around solemnly and produce a document which could be produced by officials in Brussels with no more trouble?


 
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