Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)




  1. I understand, Mr Ricketts, you are to be congratulated on your promotion. You are going to be our Permanent Representative to NATO. I do not know whether you wish to kick off with a general statement.
  (Mr Ricketts) Thank you, my Lord Chairman. Shall I introduce my colleagues? Tim Barrow is the head of our CFSP Department in the Foreign Office. Paul Johnston is the head of our Security Policy Department and therefore has been working particularly on the Defence Working Group for the Convention. Jill Parkinson leads all our work on CFSP aspects of the Convention and civilian crisis management. So I have my strong team with me. I do not wish to take up the time of the Committee, unless you think it would be useful, with an opening statement. I have prepared myself particularly on the External Affairs Working Group part of the Convention which Peter Hain has been the UK representative on, but I am also very much up-to-date on the Defence Working Group as well.

  2. It is particularly the external affairs that we are wanting to concentrate on. If we can kick off with a very general question, are you happy about the current state of the foreign policy, such as it is, within the EU? How would you like to see that changed or improved, or do you think it should be more ambitious or less ambitious, or left to nation states?
  (Mr Ricketts) It could always be more ambitious. I think what we are particularly interested in from the Convention and the changes that will come through the IGC is a more effective and more coherent CFSP. I think the Convention is a time to take stock of what you have done so far, and there have been significant improvements over the last two or three years: the appointment of Javier Solana, obviously. The impact that he has been able to make, particularly in the Balkans and on the Middle East process, I think are the two areas that I would single out in particular. That suggests that the EU is most effective where there is the biggest critical mass of interests of the EU, not only foreign policy but also economic policy and all the other instruments we can bring to bear. That has been very much the case in the Balkans, and it has not improved the position particularly on the Middle East peace process but it has at least improved international diplomacy, with the EU now playing a major part. We have also, of course, developed the ESDP structures, and are now on the point of being able use them in the Balkans for the first time, after the agreement between EU and NATO. So there have been significant institutional developments and they have, I think, improved effectiveness in some areas, but what I am struck by is that, where you move away from the near abroad, if I can put it like that, where the critical mass of EU interests begins to decline, then CFSP is strikingly less effective, and it is often down to one or two Member States—the UK of course and France in particular—who have an active foreign policy and can sometimes conduct it in the name of the EU. So I think if one can expand the area of effectiveness of CFSP, partly by institutional development but also partly by political will among Member States, that would definitely be a gain.

  3. Do you think that in some ways we have been able to tackle the Balkans because we understand the problems of nearer Europe more than we do problems further afield? I know the problems there are horrendously difficult, with all the usual difficulties between different religions, and so on, but we do think in some way that we have an understanding of European history.
  (Mr Ricketts) Of course, they are close to home, and they are on the borders of the EU, and we can bring to bear all the instruments of the Union, up to and including the prospect of eventual membership of the European Union, if the countries meet the conditions that we set. So we have incentives and we have levers that work particularly effectively in the Balkans. Those levers work with diminishing effectiveness the further away you get from the immediate near abroad. I agree with you that there is less of a critical mass of understanding and of perceived national interest at stake among many Member States as you move further away.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

  4. Mr Ricketts, the British position as expressed by Mr Hain in the Working Group seemed to hold to some extent in suspense the Government's view about the role of the High Representative and the role of the presidency until there had been greater clarity about the institutional reforms in the context of which these positions might be taken, but there have been developments since that report, particularly proposals from the Franco-German alliance, which have crystallised a powerful strain of thought now about both the role of the High Representative and the role of the presidency. There has also been the Benelux paper, which is going along different lines. My colleagues will want to raise specific questions about these institutional arrangements, particularly the High Representative, but I wonder if you can say anything at this stage about the decision-making processes and what you would like to see and what the Government would like to see in the final Treaty, paying particular attention to those parts of the report which spoke of the possibility of joint initiatives and which suggested a new provision in the Treaty to provide for the possibility of the Council agreeing by unanimity to extend the use of QMV, bearing in mind that, as things stand at present, it is most difficult to get agreement except on lowest common denominator issues. If the Union is to up its gain, it would be important to confront that question. How does the British Government seek to confront it?
  (Mr Ricketts) I think we start from a position of a number of clear principles: that we want the CFSP process to remain intergovernmental and under the authority of the Council principally; that we see a continuum between CFSP and ESDP, that is, that these are a series of instruments that need to be used together; and that, of course, in the area of foreign policy, and even more so in defence, individual nations in the EU will need to be able to protect their vital national interests when they perceive them to be at risk. So we I think would judge the institutional proposals against those broad criteria. I am quite sure that Mr Hain made clear in the Convention Working Group our unreserved support for the High Representative and his role and the strengthening of his role. We believe he has been a success, and we would like to see his role developed further. We can talk about the detail of that. When you come to the institutional provisions that you mention, for example, a right of joint initiative between the High Representative and the External Affairs Commissioner, you have to start making assumptions about the broader institutional architecture that results in the Convention, by which I mean, if we are going to have a double-hatted High Representative also taking on the functions of the External Affairs Commissioner, then right of joint initiative disappears, because it is a single individual. So it is difficult to take a position on that until you know with more clarity where that is going to come out. But we will certainly be ready to support proposals which we think will lead to a gain in the overall effectiveness and coherence of policy. On the issue of qualified majority voting, as you say, there are proposals in the Working Group report. They first of all recall that there are a number of existing proposals in the treaties as they are now, and will be when the Nice Treaty comes into force, which provide for QMV in certain circumstances on CFSP issues which have been very little used. One issue is whether we should not be concentrating first on making more effective use of the QMV provisions that already exist. A second is whether there would be value in having further discussion, as you say, of the possibility of an extension of QMV. We are prepared to look at proposals on QMV, but we will want to test them against the sort of principles I have set out.

Lord Powell of Bayswater

  5. My recollection is that Article 23 of the Maastricht Treaty expressly ruled out the extension of QMV to defence and foreign policy. Is that correct? So we are now deciding that we do not believe in what we wrote in the Maastricht Treaty.
  (Mr Ricketts) I have not said that.

  6. You have said we are prepared to consider extending it, so you must be prepared to consider ruling out what we agreed to in the Maastricht Treaty.
  (Mr Ricketts) I certainly have not said we were considering extending it into the area of defence, and that highlights one of the difficulties that proponents of an extension of QMV face. They have to answer that. One of the principles that I set out was that we attached importance to a continuum between CFSP and ESDP, and I would find it extremely difficult to make an arbitrary judgment at a particular point that a CFSP issue had become an issue of security and defence and therefore fell into the area of unanimity. That is a difficulty for the proponents of an extension of QMV, and we are not proponents of it. We would like to see the existing arrangements, which are carefully delineated, put to use first, before going further.

  7. Could you just remind us what those arrangements were? I remember common strategies was one, but I cannot remember what the others were.
  (Mr Ricketts) Yes. The current provisions are that decisions in CFSP are by unanimity except where the Council takes decisions on the basis of a common strategy, or adopts a decision implementing a joint action or common strategy, or any decision implementing a joint action or common position. Under Nice, QMV would be introduced for the conclusion of international agreements in pursuit of a common position or joint action, and for the appointment of special representatives. So they are in very limited areas, and they are effectively when a decision has already been taken by unanimity to go for a common strategy.

  8. I see the suggestion has been made in a debate in this House that one could have an extension of QMV if major members of the European Union had a right of veto. Do you actually think that is a starter? Or is it just an ingenious suggestion which does not correspond to the real world?
  (Mr Ricketts) I cannot see how that could ever be written into the Treaty. If countries were intending to rely on informal assurances outside the Treaty, that would be a good deal weaker. What I think has been considered is some provision for reference to the European Council in a case where a country decided its national interests were at stake, and if the European Council were then to decide by unanimity, that would effectively provide for a country to be able to take a stand against the issue, but it would elevate it to a position where there was a very serious political crisis and unanimity could not be found. There are mechanisms like that which we would be willing to consider, but in principle, our point of departure is that we are looking for an effective CFSP and in a way, the pressures of achieving unanimity can contribute to a result where there is a sufficient buy-in by all Member States for it to be effective.

  9. But equally, pressures for QMV could place significant additional constraints on national foreign policy making.
  (Mr Ricketts) We would have to look very carefully at proposals for extension of QMV. That is clear.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

  10. I really wanted to ask if you are looking for any significant changes in the constitutional arrangements for the conduct of foreign policy, or if you are really basically saying you are quite satisfied with the arrangements that have been arrived at in previous intergovernmental conferences and agreements, and you see no particular need for development of a constitutional nature.
  (Mr Ricketts) I do not myself feel that constitutional evolution itself is going to lead to a more effective and ambitious CFSP. The primary ingredient is political will among Member States. Institutional development can be helpful, but absent political will, we will never have a truly effective CFSP. That said, we think that there are a number of proposals in the Convention Working Group report that would contribute to a more effective CFSP. One issue which will to some extent determine what is needed is decisions on the institutional framework and whether or not we go for a double-hatted High Representative and an External Relations Commissioner. Another would be whether we get the proposal agreed for an elected Chair of the European Council. Those issues will be very important influences on effectiveness of CFSP. At a more detailed level, some of the proposals in the Working Group, for example, a clear definition in the Treaty of principles and objectives of EU external action, would be useful. A clearer focus for EU development policy on reducing poverty and a clearer management of Commission development programmes would be useful, subject to the overall architecture, bolstering the High Representative's role, including chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs formation of the General Affairs Council and greater control of the resources. Those are the sort of institutional improvements which would, I think, contribute to a more effective CFSP, but without the political will to really make it work, they will not make an enormous difference.

Lord Powell of Bayswater

  11. Mr Ricketts said at the beginning that the areas of foreign policy where the European Union had been successful were the Balkans and the Middle East peace-making process. I would certainly quibble over the latter. But if we have been successful, we have been successful without QMV. Where has the absence of QMV been a constraint on EU foreign policy making from the British point of view?
  (Mr Barrow) One of the successes in the Balkans, as Peter was saying, was that we brought together a whole range of the instruments at the EU's disposal, and of course, not all of them are subject to unanimity. So I think it is not quite fair to those proponents of more QMV to say that it has been in the absence of QMV that we have been successful in the Balkans. Turning to what Peter was highlighting before on the question of constraints upon the EU by having unanimity, the argument would be that where there is less of a critical mass of Member States interest, then there is the risk that you are not therefore able to move forward as quickly as you would like or get agreement on those sort of policy areas. I should stress that those who are proponents of QMV suggest it not with the idea that there would be lots of votes undertaken under QMV, but it would be a stimulus to more rapid agreement, still effectively by consensus, but that the knowledge that the QMV provision is there aids progress in discussion, rather than having votes, which indeed I think you can see across other areas of EU business.

  12. Given the wide experience that Peter Ricketts and you both have in foreign policy making, do you not think that in practice an extension of QMV would be more likely to constrain the United Kingdom from pursuing foreign policy which its elected governments have chosen to pursue, for instance on issues like Iraq, than to actually benefit the overall British interest?
  (Mr Ricketts) I think it is difficult to make that judgment absolutely. I come back to what I said at the beginning: we are not proponents of an extension of QMV. We are proponents of an effective foreign policy. I can see that in an enlarged EU of 25 Member States the case for effectiveness can sometimes be supported by having further opportunities for QMV, but they would have to be applied very carefully so as not to put a country into a position where it felt that its key national interests were being overruled, because that would translate a procedural problem into a crisis. It is a question of balancing the need for effectiveness where you can see sometimes that it would be useful to be able to conclude that there was a majority and to move on to action, as against protecting key national interests. That is where the balance has to be found, and I think we would be at the cautious end of that spectrum. But I am not ruling out everything in terms of extension of QMV.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

  13. I see the argument for the extension of QMV if you have an addition of a large number of states, and you did indicate there would have to be some selection, as I understood it, as to how it could be done, but how could you spell that out beforehand, and would HMG be considering an amendment of the Maastricht Treaty?
  (Mr Ricketts) The way all of these treaty changes would be done would be through the intergovernmental conference that will follow this Convention, which will produce a new treaty that will require ratification. If there are any proposals adopted through that process, they will change the Treaty, but as I say, we will approach this cautiously. By and large, the UK is in favour of action under CFSP rather than inaction, and so by and large, we will be interested in getting things done and in ensuring that things are not held up unnecessarily. So from that point of view, one can imagine that there might be circumstances in which some careful extension of QMV would be necessary. I say again, there are some provisions already which have not, as far as I know, ever been invoked, so in principle, we have been able to do what we have done so far by unanimity, and I do not see any crying examples where QMV would have made a huge difference.

  14. You would have to have some guidelines, would you not? Looking at it very carefully, case by case, is one thing, but in practice, if the law is laid down, it is very difficult then to wriggle. Should you not have guidelines of some kind in order to ensure that we do not trespass on national interests by an extension?
  (Mr Ricketts) Absolutely. Just so I am not misunderstood, what I meant was we would look carefully at the proposals that came forward for constitutional amendments. Once adopted, yes, they would have to be applied very carefully. For example, they would have to provide, as the Treaty currently does, for exclusion of issues such as defence and security from QMV, because I do not believe any country would be prepared to take decisions on committing its armed forces or policies that might lead up to that on the basis of majority voting where a country could be outvoted. The provision would have to be clear that in this developmental stage we are willing to consider what proposals other people put forward before deciding our position.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

  15. Would you not agree though, Mr Ricketts, that defence issues and decisions usually are preceded by a question of foreign policy? I cannot see why we can be happy to have one regime for defence and another for foreign policy. They seem to me to be equally important in terms of defining the national interest.
  (Mr Ricketts) I very much take that point.

  16. Mr Barrow's answer seemed to me to go in exactly the opposite direction. You are saying we must stick to it for defence but for foreign policy it is different. Have I misunderstood?
  (Mr Ricketts) I do not think that is quite what he was saying. We are not proponents of this, and we do have a very strong principle of non-application of QMV to defence and security, and you rightly say that it is extremely difficult to draw any kind of arbitrary point along a continuum from foreign policy through to defence policy. At the moment, the line is drawn in economic policy, and the dividing line is between most aspects of economic policy, which are by QMV under the Community aspects, and then CFSP, which is not, except the provisions that are already in the Treaty, which are effectively about implementation of decisions already taken, so that one's vital national interest is protected by a unanimous decision to adopt a policy, and then there are certain careful provisions that allow QMV in the implementation or execution of that policy. That is the sort of way in which one may be able to square the circle.

  17. Are you saying that we will accept QMV for foreign policy where we would not for defence policy?
  (Mr Ricketts) I am not saying that. I am saying that we start from a very sceptical position about further extension of QMV. I am not ruling out any extension of the carefully targeted provisions that already exist in the Treaty, but I would rule it out in the area of defence and security policy. In saying that, I entirely recognise the point you rightly make about the difficulty of that distinction. That is a problem for the proponents of QMV really to find a solution to.

Lord Williamson of Horton

  18. This is a different subject. I am sure that, like me, you know every sentence in the report of the Working Group on External Action. I am going to come back on the point about the External Representative. The whole of the Working Group considered that the current roles of the High Representative and the Commissioner for External Relations should be reconsidered, and a large trend emerged in favour of a solution which would provide for the exercise of both offices by a European External Representative. You referred to that earlier, and you said you would like to see clarity about that in due course, but those of us who have spent at least some part of our career in the diplomatic service like to try and pin down the diplomatic representatives. My question is, what is the view of the United Kingdom about this possibility of putting together the High Representative and the Relex Commissioner, and if we do not have a view, how do we see the balance of argument? Do we see these things are for it and those things are against it?
  (Mr Ricketts) We have not taken any final position because we are still at a developing stage of this dialogue. You have four options set out in the External Affairs Working Group, which are effectively submitted for consideration, recognising that there is a clear link between decisions on this and other decisions on the institutional architecture that will emerge first in the Convention report and then in discussion through the intergovernmental conference. This is not a time for fixed and settled views; it is a time for shaping policy options. We also, as Lord Maclennan said, now have the Franco-German contribution to the Convention, which is not detailed, but appears to come down fairly close to the fourth option, what was called in the Working Group report the "EU Minister of Foreign Affairs." Our own approach to this is, first of all, to say, as I said at the beginning, that the High Representative has been a success, that his role and effectiveness needs to be further reinforced, so that the ideas in the first option in terms of giving him greater support from the staff, greater ability to influence resource decisions, closer links to the Commission, are all valuable proposals from our point of view. When we come to the proposals that would fuse the two jobs in one person, we have a number of questions that we would want clear answers to before we are able to rally to a particular proposal. For example, would the individual be subject to collective responsibility in the Commission? Would the individual have a vote in the Commission? How would we arbitrate differences between the Council and the Commission if in one individual fused responsibilities of the Council and the Commission? Would this individual be able to chair the GAERC, the foreign ministers' level meeting, if he was also a full Commissioner? So there are a number of questions that we need answers to. We are not closed to the idea of a single individual exercising powers which the two currently have, but we would want to be very clear about the institutional positioning of that individual and their responsibilities, and we do not have clear answers to those questions yet, so we do not have a clear view. The debate seems to be developing in an interesting way in the light of this Franco-German contribution, and if I understand that contribution right, it seems to place the individual more on the Council side of the divide than the Commission side of the divide.

  19. One of the consequences of having a single person is you would not have a troika. That is the recommendation. Do you see that as an advantage?
  (Mr Ricketts) I would see that as a gain, Lord Williamson, yes. I do not believe the troika as it functions at the moment is of great benefit to the European Union.

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