Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-17)




  1. First of all, let me on behalf of the Committee welcome you here. We congratulate Greece on having taken up the presidency, and we are very much looking forward to having a discussion with you on how you see your programme for the six months working out. I understand you would like to make an opening statement. I should tell you first that this is being televised for the parliamentary network.

  (Mr Sandis) Thank you very much. It is a great honour and pleasure to be with you here. I will try to be as brief as possible in giving you a short outline of our priorities, and I will try to answer any questions to the best of my ability. This is the fourth time since joining the EC that Greece has assumed the rotating presidency, and it will probably be the last time we do so under the existing modalities. Changes are underway. As you know, discussions are taking place. We do not know what exactly will come out of them, but things will certainly be different. We assume the presidency at a critical point internationally and we face many challenges. We assume the presidency at an interesting time for the EU as well, since the Copenhagen decision will lead to EU enlargement by 10 new countries. Our vision is to have a bigger EU, a better EU, an EU that is closer to the citizen, and a stronger EU internationally. The message of the presidency is "Our Europe belongs to all." We have set out five priorities: enlargement; reforming the Union; the follow-up of the Lisbon process; the big chapter of security, justice and immigration; and the place of the EU in the world, in other words, external relations. Enlargement is our main priority. We have to complete all the necessary preparation for the submission of the text to the Commission for their agreement in February, then to the European Parliament, and finally for the signature of the 10 new countries on 16 April in Athens. Following 16 April the 10 new countries will become what we call "active observers." They will participate in all the deliberations but without a right of voting. We attach great significance to the continuation of the accession negotiations with the two Balkan countries, Bulgaria and Romania, we will try to close some chapters and start talks on chapters with financial implications. Turning to Turkey, Copenhagen left Turkey's prospects open. Greece was in favour of an even earlier date, but we will work hard during our presidency to promote Turkey's role towards Europe. During our presidency we must revise the accession partnership. We are organising the first troika meeting at a ministerial meeting in Ankara on 31 January. Minister Papandreou will be there with Javier Solana and Commissioner Verheugen. Also, in April we are holding an Association Council with Turkey. Moving to our second priority, reforming the Union, first of all we must apply some of the Nice decisions, the co-decision process, and there is the Convention. The Convention, as you know, is a novelty. We are having this kind of deliberation before amending the treaties for the first time. We agreed a timetable in Copenhagen according to which the report of the Convention will be submitted in due time to be examined at the June European Council. We very much hope that this timetable will be met, and then the Council will launch the intergovernmental conference to take place under the Italian presidency. Our position is that through the Convention, and afterwards through the IGC, we want to achieve a Europe which is effective, democratic, and a force for stability in the world. The Lisbon process has gone a third of the way towards 2010. Our aim is to maintain an equilibrium: on the one hand, sustainability of growth rates and, on the other hand, social cohesion and employment. There are many issues on the table. I just name a few: entrepreneurship and small businesses, the European knowledge economy, interconnecting Europe, more and better jobs, strengthening of social cohesion, and safeguarding future prosperity through sustainability. The fourth area of priorities is the area of freedom, security and justice, including in particular immigration, both legal and illegal. The problem of immigration will be the main issue to be discussed at the June European Council. We think there is still a deficit as far as the development of common policies is concerned. With regard to legal immigration, we will work for better social and economic inclusion of immigrants, and we will carry on talks on the Directives on long-term residency and family reunification. At the same time, we are in favour of a comprehensive immigration policy. We believe that illegal immigration is a collective problem, which needs collective answers and cooperation by everyone. We are awaiting the report of the European Commission on the practical implementation of joint actions regarding the external frontiers. We are also going to work closely with the United States on fighting terrorism. We will carry on the efforts to fight criminality. As you know, there was a conference here on 25 November concerning criminality in the western Balkans, and we are following this up very closely. The fifth and last priority is EU and the world, external relations. First of all, let me tell you that during our presidency we envisage organising three summits: EU/Russia, EU/Western Balkans and EU/Africa. We have great interest, as you will understand, in the Balkans. We will carry on promoting the stabilisation and association process. Minister Papandreou visited the region a few days ago and, as I said, one of the three summits that will take place during our presidency is with the western Balkan countries. As far as I know, Croatia will be submitting an application, which we welcome, and it will be judged on its own merits and will make its way to the Commission and so on. The Middle East: in our capacity as presidency we participate in the Quartet, we participated in the conference organised by the British Government a few days ago, and we will work closely together following the Israeli elections, when the road map that was decided last December will become public. Iraq is our main preoccupation. This will be discussed among EU ministers next week, on the 27th. Our position is that we fully support Resolution 1441, and we support the inspectors' work. Indeed, Dr Blix was in Athens yesterday. We believe that whatever is decided must be done within the framework of the Security Council of the United Nations. We will work closely in many areas with the Americans, but in particular, as I said, on terrorism. We envisage an EU/Russia summit to take place in St Petersburg. There was a troika meeting with the Russians a few days ago, when they put forward the first ideas of what they would like to be on the agenda. I should also mention ESDP in this context. We want to strengthen the competitiveness of the European defence industry, and also to improve our capability. ESDP is not antagonistic to NATO; what we are doing is in very broad cooperation with NATO. In conclusion, I would stress that we are aiming at a European presidency for all Europeans and certainly not for a Greek presidency. I hope I have not taken too much of your time, and I am at your disposal to answer any questions.

  2. Thank you very much, Ambassador. That was extremely helpful. You have covered the five points very much to our satisfaction. I have to tell you that, unfortunately, one or two members of the Committee, who are involved in the debate or in the statement on Iraq, will have to leave, but I am very happy that at least they have been here to hear what you have had to say and they have benefited from that. If I may start the questioning, I would like to start with reforming the Union, and then I will come back to enlargement. We know that since the Seville Summit it has been the practice that the two presidencies in any one year should cooperate in drawing up a common operational programme for the year. Based on your experience of close cooperation with the next presidency to define the EU strategic priorities for a year rather than just six months, do you believe the time has come to scrap the six-monthly presidencies?
  (Mr Sandis) First of all, from my experience in Brussels, there has always been some form of cooperation between presidencies a kind of roll-over and so on. A Europe of 25 will be different from a Europe of 15. The debate is on. On the other hand, we should not be too quick to condemn the existing system of a rotating presidency. It has been in place since the beginning of the EC, and up to now it has worked. We have had some very good presidencies from the so-called smaller countries. Having said that, I am not implying that we should keep it as it is, but it is one option amongst the various options that are on the table, so we should consider it. At the same time, a few days ago there was the Franco-German initiative, with some interesting ideas. Some of those ideas had already been expressed by the UK Government—not all of them but some of them—as far as the election of the President of the Council for a two-and-a-half or five-year term. What we seek is to reform, bearing in mind the balance between democracy, efficiency and, as I said, strengthening the position of the EU in the world. Everything is on the table. One of the options is the rotating presidency. I do not know what the final outcome will be. Most probably there will be changes. There is pressure for change from some of the big countries and there is resistance from some of the smaller countries. At some stage there will be a compromise, as it usually happens.

  3. Could I ask you a question about the Thessalonika Council and what you are expecting of it? It seems to many of us that, now that you are getting people in the Convention like the Foreign Minister De Villepin, Joschka Fischer, Papandreou, Senora Palacio of Spain and so on—the "big guns"—the question arises are we not expecting Thessalonika to hear some real, concrete decisions? It would be hard to imagine that the heads of government are later in the IGC going to say something different from what their foreign ministers have agreed in the Convention. What is left for the IGC?
  (Mr Sandis) First of all, as I understand, the report of the Convention is mostly the report of the President of the Convention. Certainly the aim is to present a report which reflects 75 or 80 per cent of the participants, but it is not a report of the foreign ministers. Secondly, the European Council is not an IGC. It meets in Salonika as the European Council. I do not think even Mr Giscard D'Estaing knows what the contents of his report will be, but depending on the contents, which we will know some days in advance, the presidency will.prepare itself. It is premature now to say what exactly will happen, but one thing is for certain: if we have the report on time, as agreed in Copenhagen, we will decide to launch the IGC. We must not forget that a specific point in the Copenhagen conclusions was that the 10 accession countries will participate fully in the decision-making at the IGC, but in order to avoid legal problems, if the IGC concludes before 1 May 2004, what was decided is that it will be signed after 1 May 2004. It is not just the 15 countries that are involved in the IGC but the 25 countries on an equal basis.

Lord Dubs

  4. In your opening statement you referred to support for beginning negotiations with Turkey regarding their accession. I wonder if you could say a little bit about the possible connection between that and the resolution of the situation in Cyprus. How optimistic are you, and do you make a linkage between negotiations with Turkey opening and tangible progress in Cyprus?
  (Mr Sandis) First of all, as things stand, the final decision will be taken at the end of 2004 in the light of the Commission report, which will judge how Turkey behaves during this period by implementing the accession partnership. I am happy that you have asked me about the Cyprus problem. I worked in Cyprus for 11 years, and I am still dealing with problems related to Cyprus. We believe that there is now a unique opportunity to solve the Cyprus problem. I am not saying we will not have such an opportunity in the future, but if there is no solution now, it will probably take many, many years. We have the Kofi Annan plan on the table. It is certainly not the ideal solution, it has problems associated with it, but it is a basis for negotiation. The Greek Cypriot side accepted it immediately as a basis for negotiation. It took quite some time for Mr Denktas and the Turkish Government to accept it as a basis for negotiation, but the eventual changes to the Annan plan talked about by Mr Denktas publicly shows that it is not accepted as a basis for negotiation. If you want to change the philosophy and the basic elements of the plan, it is obvious you are not accepting it as a basis for negotiation. There are some positive elements. One is that for the first time the Turkish Cypriots themselves have decided to take their fate into their own hands. We have seen demonstrations over the last few months, in particular the one last week. If you consider that the population, the Turkish Cypriots, not the population of the occupied part, are less than 100,000 and the others are settlers, and you have 70,000 of them demonstrating in favour of a solution, this is a very significant message. On the other hand, we have a new Turkish Government, sometimes being positive, but there are contradictory messages. If you read their public statements, one day they are positive, another they are negative. They want change, but to what extent we do not know. There are elections taking place in the Republic of Cyprus, yes, but all three of the main contenders have accepted the Annan plan as a basis for negotiation. Two of them are the President and the Attorney General, who is his main adviser in the talks. So this will not influence the position of the Greek Cypriot side. Am I optimistic? I really do not know. It all depends on the other side. On the other hand, Greece has to negotiate directly with Turkey on one aspect: security, the number of troops that are going to remain on the island, and the modalities. Our position of principle was that there should be no troops, either Greek or Turkish, but just the international force. However, since Turkey insists on having some troops, and the Annan plan mentions this, we have twice proposed to Turkey that we start bilateral talks on this particular issue, but up till now they have said they are not ready. In summing up, this is a historic opportunity. We hope that in the end reason will prevail. Certainly a solution to the Cyprus problem will tremendously improve the Turkish position in its effort to join the EU, because one of the first rules of the EU is respect for the rule of law. Even the Turkish Foreign Minister in one outburst has said, "If we don't solve the Cyprus problem, when Cyprus joins the European Union, we will be occupying territory of the European Union." I hope I have answered your question.

Lord Radice

  5. Ambassador, are you in favour of the changes which the Commission has proposed to the Stability and Growth Pact?
  (Mr Sandis) The answer to that is very simple. The Stability Pact was agreed following difficult negotiations. You know that we had to accept many demands from countries that were in favour of a very rigid discipline—they have problems now but that is another story. No, we are not in favour of change at this time.

  6. So you are not in favour of the proposals put forward by the Commission?
  (Mr Sandis) No. They are not official proposals. They are ideas which have been mentioned in statements and interviews and so on.

  7. I think they go a bit further than that actually, Ambassador; they are in an official document from the Commission.
  (Mr Sandis) Yes, but we are not in favour of them.

  8. Therefore you will not be supporting those ideas during your presidency?
  (Mr Sandis) I do not know if the Commission wants them to be discussed. We could not exclude that, but we are certainly not in favour, as I say.

Baroness Maddock

  9. One of the areas that my own Sub-Committee has been looking at is consumer protection, and I understand that you place quite a big emphasis on this area. I wondered what you could tell us about your priorities in the area of consumer protection.
  (Mr Sandis) As you know, three main targets have been set by the Commission Communication: high common standards for protection, application of the rules of consumer protection, and contributions from the consumer organisations. We are going to work towards advancing those goals. We are going to work on the follow-up of the "green bible". We are organising a discussion at ministerial level on 7 and 8 May 2003. We are also going to promote various proposals such as administrative cooperation for the protection of the consumer. We are expecting a proposal from the Commission for financing activities in favour of the consumer and security of services. As you know, in June we are planning a Consumer Protection Council. There is a lot on the table. The presidency tries to set the pace, but at the end of the day, the cooperation of all Member States is necessary to reach concrete conclusions. But consumer protection is high on our agenda, and I must say that the Prime Minister himself, who many years ago worked in the Ministry of Commerce, has a particular sensitivity about consumer issues.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

  10. Ambassador, the Commission sees 2003 as being a year for major transport issues, including, rail safety and network interoperability, liberalisation of freight traffic and many other issues, and safety at sea, including the introduction of restrictions on single-hull tankers following the break-up of the Prestige and all the environmental damage caused by that. Are any of these priorities for your presidency?
  (Mr Sandis) Yes. Safety at sea is one of our main priorities. I was only reading this morning that the Commission will shortly submit concrete proposals, and they are already in contact with us and other interested countries such as France, Spain and so on. At the same time, we are in close cooperation with the IMO. Secretary General O'Neil and his assistant were in Athens a week ago. What happened to the Prestige, and before that to the Erika, concerns Europe, but safety at sea is a matter of global interest, so we are working in close cooperation with the IMO. Greece, as you know, is the only EU country which has a separate ministry for mercantile marine apart from the Ministry of Transport. Towards the end of the month we will be having an in-depth discussion. Apart from safety at sea, we are going to promote what is called a second railway package, which includes the security of the railway networks, access to the railway market, and in those proposals we will try if possible during our presidency to reach political agreement—it may not be possible to conclude the details, but at least political agreement—among Member States. There are other priorities in the transport area, but I have just mentioned the most important ones.

Chairman: I would like to move on to foreign policy, and after that we will go to justice and home affairs. There are some interesting questions to ask about the environment and sustainable development but we do not have sufficient time, I am afraid, and I do want to cover some rather important points on foreign policy and justice.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

  11. Your Excellency, you mentioned that you were going to have three summits, and I assume one of them is the summit which President Putin has set up in St Petersburg. Also, your Foreign Minister and your Prime Minister have both referred, as indeed you did too, to the idea that you wish to build more bridges right through to the Caucasus and also, of course, you mentioned Eastern Dimension policy. Would you be taking that policy before the meeting in May, and has the Russian agenda in any way coincided with your hopes? You mentioned that you now feel they have an agenda. Do you not think that those three summits may be an immense task for six months? I say nothing of Africa, which is another enormous problem.
  (Mr Sandis) I will not mention anything about the Africa summit. It is a very important meeting, but there are well-known problems, and we are trying, in close cooperation wit the UK Government, to find ways of solving them. What we know from the Russians is that the topic of the summit is "Common European History and Culture" and we must discuss among the 15 to reach a common position. What they have in mind is, if possible, to establish closer ties between Russia and the EU. I do not think any of the Member States would object to that, but we have to determine the modalities. They fear that there might be economic repercussions from enlargement, as when Finland joined, and we are going to discuss this as well. Another interesting issue is that they want cooperation in fighting drugs from Afghanistan. I do not think anyone would object to such an idea. We had a first preliminary meeting of the troika with Russia, two days ago. They will come up with concrete proposals; they have just given a first idea. The significant thing is not always to reach concrete decisions but to give a political signal. I think the summit has great politicial significance since the European Union, following expansion, will for the first time include countries that used to belong to the Warsaw Pact but some were part of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, we want to have close ties with Russia, and I think this is also one of the priorities, and rightly so, to which Prime Minister Blair attaches great importance. You also asked me about the other countries, Ukraine, Moldova and so on, which will be our direct neighbours from 1 May next year. Let me remind you that the European Council in Copenhagen referred to a long-term approach, promoting both democratic and economic reforms, and certainly these countries do need this kind of reform. This is not something just for the Greek presidency; it will carry on to the next presidency. We are going to work, along with the Commission, in starting to discuss ideas and perhaps proposals to help and influence those democratic and economic reforms as agreed by the Copenhagen European Council.

  12. Do you think it will be necessary to agree on the new common position and strategy on Russia internally before you go to St Petersburg in May?
  (Mr Sandis) As I understand it, we must start discussing the partnership that we have with Russia during our presidency. Yes, I can confirm that the revision process of the common strategy for Russia must be completed during our presidency. So we are certainly going to work on that.

Lord Scott of Foscote

  13. There is a four-part package which has been under discussion for a long time now within the European Union to try to get a common policy for dealing with asylum seekers. Many people think the most important element of the package is the proposed directive for identifying the status that ought to be accorded to refugees, not only under the Geneva Convention but also under some other international instruments. This is the so-called Refugee Qualifications Directive. What progress do you expect to be made in bringing the negotiations about that to completion during the Greek presidency?
  (Mr Sandis) This examination began during the Danish presidency, under which the definition and conditions were widely accepted. According to Seville, it should be adopted by June 2003. During our presidency we will focus discussion on the remaining open issues, with a determined view that we respect the timetable set by Seville, and conclude before the end of the presidency. We welcome, if that is the right word, lots of asylum seekers. Some move to other countries, others stay in Greece. Some are genuine asylum seekers; others are illegal economic immigrants. We attach great importance to this issue, so we will do our utmost to continue the quite significant work done by the Danish presidency, and we hope to conclude it in due time.

  14. Does "due time" mean by June?
  (Mr Sandis) By June, yes. As I told you, in the European Council of June there will be a re-assessment of the whole situation of immigration, asylum seeking, etc. The more open issues we close, the better, so that we can devote the discussion to the remaining big issues.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

  15. Your Excellency, in your introductory remarks you said one of your main priorities was immigration, and that would touch on terrorism. My question is about integrated management of the EU external borders, and how you plan to take forward the implementation of the Commission's communication there. Can I link with that the way of paying for it, which is the financial burden-sharing, and finally whether you would be in favour of the gradual establishment of a European border guard?
  (Mr Sandis) As you know very well, we are in the receiving line because of our geographical proximity to many of these countries, and also because of the geography of our country, with all the islands. So we attach great importance to this. As a country, we hope to concentrate efforts up to June 2003 on formalising a comprehensive proposal in this field, achieving a common integrated risk assessment mechanism, creating a core curriculum for border guard training and consolidate uniform EU provisions concerning external borders management, promoting common visa data—and this is a very important aspect—and considering the feasibility study by the Commission concerning the burden sharing between Member States and the Union for the management of external borders. We would follow up the feasibility study on illegal immigration by sea, which will be presented by the Commission early this year. Lastly, we will work to establish an effective ILO network against illegal immigration in third countries. Over and above that, we attribute special priority to the issue of shared and equitable financing by all Member States of the required activities in the fight against illegal immigration. In this context we would make specific proposals for the conclusion of a legislative initiative and operational actions to be adopted by the June European Council. There is a lot on the table. We are, as I told you, directly interested in that, and we will do our utmost. You are at the end of the line, and we see the consequences, but believe me, we suffer as well. Many of them do stay in Greece, and we have acute social and security problems and so on. That is why I said in my introductory remarks that this is a common problem and it needs, if possible, a common solution with the cooperation of us all, because the aim is the same. On the other hand, certainly, we have to take care of the legal immigrants. A lot of work must be done pending the directives, which we hope we will conclude, or at least take them to a much more detailed stage, during the six months of our presidency.

Baroness Stern

  16. Ambassador, Minister Papandreou has said that he would like to see a more balanced debate about the problems of illegal immigration but also the benefits of legal immigration, which I think certainly our Sub-Committee would find very welcome. Can you tell me what the Greek presidency will do to promote this more balanced debate throughout the EU?
  (Mr Sandis) First of all, we intend to launch some brainstorming initiatives, and the first debate, which is the Athens Immigration Workshop, takes place in Athens at the end of this month, 31 January and 1 February, to give an opportunity to air and debate the latest thinking on how Europe can best manage immigration. This initiative will introduce the political dialogue which will be followed by the EU ministerial European conference, which has as its motto "Managing Immigration for the benefit of Europe" which will take place in the middle of May in Thessalonika. This is the general approach, but since you are talking about immigration, and I mentioned legal immigration, there is a proposal on family reunification the table. We think there was considerable progress during the Danish presidency, and we will seek at working party level and then at higher levels to prioritise that, to narrow as much as possible the outstanding issues, with the hope that the Council in its February meeting will reach a political agreement. On the other hand, the draft directive on the status of third country nationals has a much longer way to go. The Danish presidency dealt with the first two chapters, but we will try to deal with the rest of the outstanding chapters and the outstanding issues, with the aim of reaching political agreement before the end of June. I do not think it will be possible to conclude it, but at least if we reach political agreement, that would enable the Italian presidency to conclude the matter.


  17. Ambassador, thank you very much indeed for answering our questions so fully. This has been very informative and extremely helpful to the Committee. On behalf of the Committee, I wish you well. You have set out a very ambitious programme, and we admire the way in which you are anxious to get ahead and get some real results out of this. I am fully conscious of the fact that the next few months are going to be very difficult ones. There are large events looming which may distract all of us, but we do wish you well and hope that you will achieve as much as possible of what you have set out to do. We shall follow with great interest the Greek presidency through the next six months. Thank you again for coming. We will send you a transcript of these proceedings for you to look at and send back with any comments.
  (Mr Sandis) Thank you very much, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to outline our priorities in the limited time that we had at our disposal. Let me add the obvious: if any of you need any information or clarification, myself and my colleagues are at your disposal.

Chairman: Thank you. I am sure we will take you up on that.

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