Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)




  1. Minister, thank you very much indeed for giving of your valuable time to come and meet us here. Congratulations on your appointment to this very important post. We look forward to seeing you on many occasions. I hope that you will feel the same way, having been through this little exercise today. Maybe you would like to introduce your two colleagues to us.

  (Mr MacShane) Thank you very much, my Lord, and may I congratulate you on your election to this chairmanship. I hope our discussions will prove fruitful. On my left is Mr Simon Featherstone and on my right is Mr Nick Baird, both of whom deal at the highest level in the Foreign Office with matters we will be discussing this afternoon.

  2. Would you like to make an opening statement to us?
  (Mr MacShane) Only in the sense that I am a new boy. My view of Europe is that it should be a process of discussion and education rather than fixed positions. I have enjoyed sitting behind this table in previous incarnations as Parliamentary Private Secretary and thought that the questions and the testing, sometimes almost to near destruction, of aspects of European Union policy by this committee and others has been extremely productive and useful. That is all. I would rather get on with the business if that is possible.

  3. I think that in the course of our questions you will be bringing out for us what the main priorities are for the EU over the next six months. I would rather like to go straight on into the question of the Convention if I may. As you are very well aware, the arrival of Joschka Fischer at the Convention and now Dominique de Villepin seems to be raising the stakes quite considerably. I am wondering what practical measures Her Majesty's Government are taking to keep the UK's role in the Convention running smoothly.
  (Mr MacShane) I welcome the fact that the Foreign Ministers of Germany and France are now on the Convention, just as I welcome the fact that Peter Hain is keeping Britain's Convention seat. I have never really understood the theory that says, "The Minister is dead. Long live the Minister", and the new chap is meant to pick and run with everything. Peter Hain's presence on the Convention I think will retain continuity and Mr Fischer and Mr de Villepin will have to come and feel their own ways into the Convention as well. We (the Foreign Office) are collaborating very closely with Peter Hain. He has taken a member of his private office from the Foreign Office on a temporary secondment into the Welsh office and the same team of officials that also report to the Foreign Secretary and ultimately to the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister will keep supporting Peter, as indeed will all the officials working at UKREP in Brussels. It releases me, if I may say so, to do more travelling around Europe to discuss in the capital cities British thinking and ideas on the Convention.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

  4. Minister, in the early days of the Convention much was made of re-connecting with the voter but recently observers have been commenting, which I think is substantiated by the papers that come in front of us now, that the notion of re-connecting with the voter seems to have been dropped. Could you give me your impression and the impression of your colleagues on whether in fact this remains an aspiration or is it too onerous to re-connect?
  (Mr MacShane) I think the question of re-connection or connectivity, as it is sometimes called in the Convention jargon, remains a top priority and I expect that that also lies behind the thinking of the French and German governments who have joined with us in each putting one of their most senior Cabinet ministers on the Convention. I would say that some of the ideas that are emerging, particularly to connect national parliaments to the oversight of Europe, the Congress proposal from M Giscard d'Estaing, the extra proposals to allow national parliaments to have their word on EU legislation before it goes forward, are serious ways of connecting Europe as a whole back through national parliaments in particular. It is an important issue for me and I think for many members of both Houses to the voters. This morning I was there with the Minister of Europe from the Polish Government and she laid great stress on that need to connect Europe to the Polish people who will of course have soon in a referendum to endorse the accession agreement of Poland to the European Union.


  5. I was reading that 70 per cent of the Polish people, it would appear, who are going to vote say that they will vote yes but things could go horribly wrong. Maybe we will come on to that when we get on to the enlargement issue. One of the issues in the Convention which is of great interest to the Committee is the vexed issue of the Council Presidency. Could you advance some of your views on that to the Committee?
  (Mr MacShane) It is an idea that Britain has put forward and I think there is considerable support for it. People want to see both a strong Commission and a strong Council. People accept that under the present rules the idea of waiting for 12Ö years before any individual country can take its turn at the Presidency does not make sense. People accept that a Council chairman, probably a senior political figure, obviously no longer involved in national office, could act as a chairman for team Presidencies, could act as a spokesperson for the Council, not really a "Mr Europe" but as a point of discussion and contact between different European countries and the Union institutions. There is also discussion of whether or not and how he or she might be appointed, confirmed or elected. I do not know if you want me to go into that. It is there on the table for discussion and it is welcomed, I think, as a very serious British contribution. Not everybody is in agreement with it but that discussion goes on.

Lord Scott of Foscote

  6. Minister, I wondered if you could help us with the state of play on the negotiations for a constitutional treaty of Europe? We know that Giscard d'Estaing has produced a skeleton constitution and we know that Professor Dashwood has produced a draft constitution as a basis for further discussion. There has been considerable discussion on the issues of whether the proposed constitution should have a bill of rights by the incorporation of the Charter or by the European Union's accession to the Human Rights Convention, or both. What I am not at all clear about, and I wondered if perhaps you could help, is what the Government's approach to these issues is at the moment, what its negotiating stance is.
  (Mr MacShane) I would commend the very good essay of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in The Economist of perhaps six weeks or two months ago with a very handsome cartoon of him looking like Thomas Jefferson to illustrate it where the Foreign Secretary said, Yes, Europe does need a constitutional settlement that defines what Europe does, what the nations do, what other component, political and governing, elements within the Union do, so we have crossed that Rubicon in the sense that in the past many British ministers threw up their hands in horror at any notion of a constitution. We have put forward not a government proposal but we did ask Professor Dashwood to put forward some ideas. M Giscard d'Estaing has put forward a draft text which everybody is looking at and getting to grips with. There are many professional working groups discussing it. There is the issue of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. There is the issue of status of any constitution. I think that that debate will be open. People want a Europe that works. That probably is my general impression of what the rest of Europe wants and the British Government, which sees a constitution in essence as a set of rules by which people can live together in harmony and tolerance, believes that a declaration of a constitutional set of rules would be a good thing.

  7. Including the Charter?
  (Mr MacShane) The issue of the Charter again is being discussed. I have looked at the Charter pretty closely and, as originally drafted, of course, we were happy with it as a declaration. Now work is being put into it to include what are called in the jargon horizontal protections because if I may, my Lord, give a specific example, I raised with German friends, who are terribly keen on the Charter being fully incorporated, the fact that under the German Grundgesetz or Verfassung (their constitution) about four million sector workers, including for example firefighters, are banned from going on strike. I said, "Under Article 28 [I think it was] of the Charter, the right to strike is guaranteed to all European citizens, so that means of course that your four million public sector workers now have the right to strike." "Oh, no, Dr MacShane. The Charter cannot be superior to German law." If one actually looks, and I think the key one is Article 51(2), it says that the Charter does not establish any new power or task for the Community or Union or modify powers or tasks defined by the treaties. If one looks within the existing Charter—this is ahead of any modifications—there are protections to say that it does not supersede national laws or that it should be applied in accordance with national laws. If we can get that kind of protection in we may be a lot closer to finding the Charter acceptable, but I do stress that that is hard, grinding, detailed work. My friend, your colleague, Lady Scotland, is the lead on this. Lord Goldsmith, of course, has a very keen interest in it, and work progresses.

Lord Williamson of Horton

  8. This is another variant of the many premature questions which you will receive before next June, and it is on this point about the constitutional treaty. The constitutional treaty, however it is drawn up, of course has to go through all the procedures of a treaty. We are completely amending the system. It has to come back here, it has to be cleared by the parliaments and everything has to be done with it, so it is a central part of the results of the Convention. I wonder whether you have thought a little about how this is going to be handled in relation to public opinion? I am sorry to come back to it but these things can prove controversial even though the Government itself may support the approach. This is going to be a big event, this part of the result of the Convention, probably the biggest event, and I do think that it does need a little bit of thought about how this is going to be handled with public opinion even as early as this. I do not know if that is a fair comment.
  (Mr MacShane) My Lord, I completely agree with you, believe me, and I worry and have worried for some years about the handling of public opinion on all matters European. Britain does not have a written constitution. I suppose the last decent stab at it was the 1688 Bill of Rights which you will find quoted on a number of public buildings all over Europe as the first great constitutional settlement on offer to parliaments in Europe before Mr Montesquieu came along and took the story a bit further forward. I think that people do want a clear set of rules. What a constitution should do is provide clarity. I agree that constitutional courts and other courts then existing interpreted that clarity but people I think will appreciate at the end of this process a clear statement, and let us not forget that it is for the Convention to propose but for governments to decide and any future agreement on the re-writing of the treaties as you rightly allude to will have to be agreed by unanimity. I do not think it will be us alone who have care in this matter. France is very proud of its constitution. It was set up before the French constitutional court. I do not think France will sign up for much that is seen as it were as overriding the very careful checks and balances in the fifth constitution.

Lord Neill of Bladen

  9. Minister, could I take you back to the Charter for a moment? Some of us were having an interesting discussion with Lady Scotland yesterday. Can I put to you a very elementary point about this? We have got the European Convention on Human Rights with a very big body of case law developed by the Strasbourg court. We have now got the Human Rights Act which makes that effectively primary English law. Now you have this Charter. Either that is the same or it is saying something different from the Convention. I think you have already given an example from Germany which showed that it says something more. But under the horizontal provisions, 51(1) I had in mind, the amended version of 51, it is immediately proposed to restrict the more extensive ambit of the Charter by saying it is not to go beyond the competence within the Union. In other words everything that could be done, I am putting to you, under the Charter could already be done by virtue of the treaties plus the Convention, so why bother about a Charter?
  (Mr MacShane) My Lord, I think you may have a profoundly valid point. Bagehot wrote a whole book called The English Constitution based on precedent, statute, and case law. It is not the European tradition and I think people are fed up with picking their way through the different treaties, the different obligations upon European states, not just by the conventions that you mentioned but a whole range of international treaties, and they would like a clear guiding set of rules. That is what one—from a British point of view; I do stress that—would hope that any final constitutional declaration or constitution without the Charter would incorporate and we are working towards that. I did remember hearing one of my predecessors here say that at the end of the day anybody could cite any important document to a judge deciding a constitutional issue. What we are trying to do I think is to get into territory where the rules define competences and then the competent bodies get on with administering the rules, but I fully accept that ultimate 100 per cent clarity in law, as anywhere else, is probably difficult to achieve.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

  10. This is following on from Lord Williamson's question when you agreed that the conventional's constitutional treaty may require a certain amount of careful handling with public opinion in this country. I wonder if you could see any case, in view of the significance of what may come out of the Convention, for departing what has been the process by which the European treaties have been built up over the years, which is really using the treaty making power of the royal prerogative to agree matters in Brussels and then bringing them to Parliament for ratification under the pressure that if Parliament does not agree with them we would by then be in breach of our treaty obligations? In a nutshell, in view of the importance of what may be put forward by the Convention and before it is agreed at the next IGC, do you see a case for Parliament here not only expressing an opinion on what may have been decided but actually deciding it and in practice giving the Government the executive permission if you like to go ahead with whatever has been proposed, or do you just see that the same old system of treaty making powers being used and then it being brought to Parliament more or less as a fait accompli?
  (Mr MacShane) Chairman, I am a very strong parliamentarian and I have been surprised in the short time that I have been in this job by the amount of time (which I fully welcome) that I am required to spend formally at committees like this, on the floor of the House in Westminster Hall, in an adjournment debate and informally with colleagues of all persuasions discussing matters European and explaining that aspect of policy. That dialogue and conversation I actually find very fruitful. The short answer to Lord Pearson's question is that Parliament has got the power at any stage, it seems to me, to demand of the executive an account and to table some motion which can overturn, reject, review or consent to what has been decided. I cannot envisage that changing in any way.


  11. I would like to move on to enlargement if I may. Forgive me if I am introducing a topic which you might not have been expecting on enlargement, but I understand that today a so-called sweetener package has been agreed, probably a net £1.3 billion, to help particularly with border controls, nuclear safety, and of course a topping up of direct payments to farmers. Some people think that the proposal put by the Danish Presidency on that latter issue may have been a bit too generous. Could you tell us if you feel that this package will go some way to satisfying the acceding countries in their concerns about not being net contributors to the European Union in the first year of their membership?
  (Mr MacShane) I certainly hope so. I have made a point of visiting applicant countries, four only so far, on the spot, but also of having intensive bilateral meetings in other capitals and in London with ministers representing as many applicant countries as possible. You are quite right. All of them are concerned: The Prime Minister of Poland made that point forcibly in a speech he delivered this morning. We all knew that in the closing days of the negotiations there would be some margin of manoeuvre to try and help countries with specific problems, but there are a couple of underlying principles we should not forget. First, with respect, my Lord, the Brussels Council has said that no country will be worse off for joining the European Union. That is an absolutely fundamental point. Secondly, the amount of direct payments to farmers will be at the rate of 25 per cent for existing members. What can happen within countries' budgets in terms of what they decide to do with some EU money that they have been allocated (what is in the jargon called a top-up payment) is for them. In all my talks I have said that the European Union is not a zero sum game, that there are opportunities to be seized and that, if anything, they should be seeking to break away from a more subsidy oriented view of the European Union to one that develops new industries and new economies, creates new jobs that can drive both new and existing EU Member States forward. But, as I say, there are genuine concerns and a lot of pressure on the applicant countries about the terms of accession and if this helps smooth the path to what I think will be a historic and successful Council in Copenhagen then I certainly would welcome it.

  12. Can you confirm that any top-up arrangements that may be announced today will not mean that the ceiling of

40 billion for the period 2004-2006 will be broken and that it can all fit into that total of

40 billion? I see your officials nodding.
  (Mr MacShane) I turn to officials for specific advice on that. There is always a bit of a teeming and labelling, to use an expression from the steel industry in any government budget, but the very clear message that I have been given is that the overall package is not going to be increased, that the 25 per cent capital direct payments will not be changed, but there may be elements at the margin case by case, for example, in one country they had a very obscure alcoholic liqueur that the Government there was very concerned about. I must say it threw me—not that I drank it, but the issue rather threw me. I do not know if you want more information from one of my officials but they have been told, not just by us but also by other countries, that that is a little bit of help for the final slipway into Europe but that is the deal.

Lord Jopling

  13. Minister, can I ask two related questions surrounding the position of Turkey? First of all, with regard to Cyprus, what prospects and how important is it to get a Cypriot agreement between Greece and Turkey arranged before the Copenhagen Summit and to what extent do you think that that is going to be made impossible by virtue of Turkey having a new government and, on the other hand, the real contrived, extended convalescence of the Turkish Cypriot leader in New York? It seems to me, having been in Istanbul just ten days ago, that the Greek Government has given a green light to the latest proposals and Costas Simitis seems to be getting on very well with the Turks, which is hopeful. How important is it to settle this before the Copenhagen Summit and what happens with regard to Cyprus if that has not been settled at that stage? The second question is with regard to what the Government's attitude is to Turkish accession to the EU, particularly following the Giscard outburst. Again, it seemed to me that there was a very strong counter-attack raised by the Turks following Giscard's comments and could you tell us how the Government sees Turkish accession in the next few years?
  (Mr MacShane) My Lord, on the first question, I have had discussions with colleagues, principally from Greece and Cyprus, with the Cypriot Foreign Minister this morning over breakfast and the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been meeting with Turkish leaders, including Mr Erdogan. We had told all of our interlocuteurs that this is a convergence of the currents of history. They have got an extraordinary chance to seize the possibility of a settlement in Cyprus based on Kofi Annan's very detailed proposals which do not satisfy, cannot satisfy, every demand of every side. We have been encouraged by the fact that the new Turkish Government under the leadership of Mr Erdogan has said that it wants a settlement on Cyprus. I understand Mr Erdogan or some of his colleagues may be in New York as I speak, or en route, and I see a shake of a head from a very knowledgeable head on the Committee in this matter, my Lord. The question of Mr Denktash one has to leave to Mr Denktash but undoubtedly this is a terrific moment and, as I said to the Cypriot Foreign Minister this morning, "There is more room for some discussions up to the end of February but if you slip past Copenhagen without a clear commitment to a settlement and without bringing all the people of Cyprus on board"—Mr Clerides has certainly indicated support and Mr Simitis certainly has, as you have indicated—"then our successors in years to come will be discussing the Cyprus problem". Linked to that undoubtedly are the European Union aspirations of Turkey. I believe strongly that they should be encouraged. I wrote an article to that effect in The Observer on Sunday. It is where the British Government has been for some time. We recognise the difficulties. We recognise that any question of entry would be long and arduous and negotiations would be difficult, but General de Gaulle called for a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, and Ankara, let alone Constantinople (Istanbul as it is now called), lies to the west of the Urals and it is towards Europe that Turkey should look. It is the duty of the European Union in my view to open the door to Turkey and ultimately to promote peace and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean, including particularly Cyprus.

Chairman: Can we move on to the European economy, and particularly to the growth and Stability fact? I understand that the Commission will be very shortly presenting its own reform proposals where presumably they are going to try and come up with an answer to how to combine long term fiscal discipline and short term flexibility, and we shall be very interested to see what proposals they come up with.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

  14. The rules governing the Growth and Stability Pact, Minister, have attracted a lot of criticism and have been treated even with contempt by some Member States. Do you think the rules can be amended and is there scope for that?
  (Mr MacShane) As the noble Lord says, my Lord, the Growth and Stability Pact is now firmly in the frame for discussion and there is the dilemma of those countries that have got a very sensible and rigorous fiscal and monetary policy, which I believe include the United Kingdom and the Eurozone members of the Growth and Stability Pact that have played by the rules, and those countries that have not are now feeling that the corset is a bit tight and needs relaxing. I think that the British position of having some flexibility is the right way forward. The Government (and the Chancellor in particular) has made clear that it wants a prudent interpretation of the Growth and Stability Pact and that it wants sustainability and public investment over the economic cycle to be taken into account. I think more people are coming round to thinking that some of this British thinking is probably the right way forward.

Lord Brennan

  15. Minister, clearly mobility in all directions is of importance in Europe, but as to illegal immigration I have two questions. First, how do you assess developments in the near future and after enlargement on a European border guard and any other measures to control such immigration and, secondly, what are the plans within Europe to reach agreements, if they can be reached, with the countries that will be adjacent to an enlarged Europe to control and measure immigration?
  (Mr MacShane) We are not expecting any imminent developments on the discussions about a European border guard. Those discussions are going on and I think we will have further progress to report early next year. There is a commissioner looking at an Italian feasibility study into a European border guard and of course the Justice and Home Affairs Working Group to the Convention have looked at this but without coming up with any real conclusive agreements. We believe strongly that we need a clear, well controlled European border and that was discussed with our Polish friends today and in other meetings because Poland will now become the first eastern border of the European Union. We are having to talk to transit countries. We have got to look at the source of immigration. Yesterday I chaired a meeting on organised crime in south east Europe, the Balkans, and there of course mass movement of people, legal and illegal, is a huge problem. It is constantly under review and I think that generally the issues of security, immigration and people movements are right at the top of the agenda and the French Interior Minister, M Sarkozy, will be visiting London to discuss this with our Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett next Monday.


  16. You mentioned the conference on organised crime which prompts me to put this question to you. I understand that there is some problem about whether or not the money is going to be forthcoming to pay for the European Union taking on the policing of the Bosnian police on 1 January when it becomes a European responsibility and that the European Parliament has been very sticky on this. They are not prepared to agree this unless they get greater powers of scrutiny overall on foreign and security policy. Do you or your officials have any view on whether or not this money is going to be forthcoming?
  (Mr MacShane) I have a whispered communication, my Lord, that it was resolved in conciliation yesterday. You are right; I did seek papers on this and it was one of the areas where the European Parliament was in its dialectical process with the Council and the Commission. If it would be helpful to the Committee I am very happy to write in detail on the outcome of yesterday's meeting.

  17. But there has been conciliation?
  (Mr MacShane) That is what I am advised, my Lord.

Lord Jopling

  18. I suspect that whatever you saw, Minister, on organised crime, south east Europe is nothing compared with what exists in Kaliningrad which is one of the major areas of problems over immigration and illegal immigration. Would you not think that the proposal which has had some support for having closed trains going between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia really opens the way to becoming a vehicle of very easy illegal access into the European Union following its enlargement to cover Poland and Lithuania? Would the Government think there was any merit in looking at an alternative scheme which I think some people have been proposing, certainly I have, that instead of having closed trains one might follow the example of some of the very cheap international air carriers with which we are familiar in this country, like easyJet, to provide a cheap air shuttle between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia which maybe the European Union could help with in terms of finance, which would save problems with illegal immigration, it would avoid problems of people getting on trains and then jumping off them for one reason or another? Do you not think that a cheap air bridge might provide a way of getting round this quite serious problem?
  (Mr MacShane) My Lord, the term "sealed train" in the context of Russian history should worry us all after the head of the German general staff once put a certain gentleman into one and sent him up to the then St Petersburg and he caused a great deal of mayhem for the rest of the century. I am attracted to the idea of easyLith or easyJet flying between Vilnius and the different countries of Russia. I was in Vilnius with the Lithuanian Government discussing—

  19. I am talking about Kaliningrad.
  (Mr MacShane) I know, but then you go through Kaliningrad. I am not quite sure I am ready to lay an extra burden on the European Union of financing it and if the gentlemen who run Ryanair and easyJet think there is a profitable market to be made between Ko­nigsberg and the rest of Russia, well, good luck to them. In the meantime we have to deal with the very real problem, the human problem, and there are two parts of Russia; no-one is disputing that, then the facilitated transfer document (FTD) proposal which has been agreed between Russia and the European Union does seem to me to be the right way forward. I myself wonder whether the fears are as real as we might imagine. Russia through the Ukraine and Belarus has got many other borders if it wants to send Russian people to come into Europe. The sealed train proposal is being studied at the moment and when that study is done that will help guide us in final decisions, but of course it may be too expensive to upgrade the track in order to have a train trundling through the Lithuanian countryside and Kaliningrad and Russia at the kind of speed that we are certainly used to in continental Europe.

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