Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002
MP AND MR
1. Secretary of State, I am going to call Mr
Illsley shortly in respect of the key part of the Seville European
Council, that is immigration. I will just set the scene with a
short question. Clearly we have just had the French elections.
We will be having the German elections in September. Does this
mean there will be such a degree of hesitation now in respect
of key European partners that there is no serious prospect of
any major decisions being made at Seville?
(Mr Straw) No, I do not think it does.
Again, Mr Anderson, I cannot predict the outcome of Seville but
on some of the issues which are before the Council, in any event,
those are the subject of broad cross-party agreement in the Member
States. For example, if you take an issue on which we reached
finally very much an interim conclusion in the General Affairs
Council on Monday in Luxembourg, which is direct payments, an
element of the Common Agricultural Policy, and whether negotiations
about the future of CAP and direct payments should be directly
linked to enlargement or whether it should run in parallel with
it, we and the Netherlands and Germany, and a number of other
Member States, are on the same side on that. My very clear understanding
is that within the Netherlands and Germany there is a broad consensus
behind the position that their governments at the moment are taking.
There will be a change of Government in the Netherlands, because
it is an interim government taking place at the moment. The current
Foreign Minister, Jozias van Aartsen, is very confident about
the position he is taking and so too, I have to say, has Joschka
Fischer been on behalf of the Government of Germany.
2. On the financing of the CAP there is a remaining
(Mr Straw) Where we have got to is that some countries
do not want to see as rapid a phasing out of direct payments as
do we and Germany and the Netherlands. We are involved in a negotiation.
There is nothing new about that. Also what I would say as far
as the new Government in France is concerned is that at least
and at last, for the first time for five years, there is now what
amounts to a single Government in France. No-one in the current
French Government or French Parliament was responsible for this
part of the constitution in the fifth republic, designed in rather
different circumstances but cohabitation would stretch the imagination
and the patience of anybody involved in politics and it caused
very considerable difficulties to all the participants in those
French governments. It is in many ways to their great credit they
managed to work their way around it but it was very difficult
3. Foreign Secretary, immigration, which is
on the agenda for Seville, not least because the Prime Minister
wrote to his Spanish counterpart asking for a push because, in
his words "the Tampere agenda on illegal immigration has
become bogged down". Why do you think that is?
(Mr Straw) Principally it has become bogged down because
of the decision making processes of the Council of the European
Union. This is an area where first of all some of the changes
which we have been proposing to the way the Council operates would
greatly help just to speed up the whole process, to have less
turnover in the chairing of councils, to have a more strategic
European Council with the Heads of Government. For that to be
less the subject of a Court of Appeal also involves, in my view,
greater activity by the Commission but if you take one issue,
which is QMVqualified majority votingnow there is
a title which was agreed in Amsterdam in the Treaties of the European
Union, Article 62 to 67/68, which provides for Common Asylum Policy
and also provides for the European Union to move by unanimity
to QMV in respect of part of those areas. Bluntly, had we done
so, it would have been easier to make decisions. It is really
important that those of us who want a level playing field, which
applies particularly to the United Kingdom and a number of other
northern European countries, and say AustriaAustria is
the subject of much higher levels of asylum seeking than we are
per head of populationour desire and wish to achieve a
level playing field is not vetoed by countries which have a direct
sectoral interest in the playing field being very uneven. It is
an area, one of many, where QMV would actually help us.
4. You think it is the mechanics of the European
Union rather than a lack of consensus on the policy?
(Mr Straw) There was a consensus at Tampere, I was
at Tampere. Quite a lot has been achieved but it has been disappointing
that quite a lot has not been achieved. I think on the whole counter-terrorism,
criminal justice/co-operation area, the consensus coalesced rapidly
after September 11for reasons which are obviousand
a lot has been done there and that is part of the Tampere Agenda.
On asylum in particular, because it is much more to do with asylum
than with immigration, there was some agreement but not so much
until I would say the last year as asylum has risen up the agendas
of all the existing 15 European Member States. All understand
that, yes, we have to do more to improve legal immigration into
our countries in terms of work permits and schemes like that but
at the same time we have to take more effective action against
illegal immigration which is not only worse in domestic communities
but also worse for those who are patiently standing in a queue
waiting for their rights as legal migrants.
5. The Prime Minister, in his letter of 16 May,
makes several specific proposals including urgent action to strengthen
the EU's borders; a tougher approach with source countries on
returns; joint work on returns to Afghanistan and action to discourage
"asylum shopping". Have we any specific proposals which
we will put to Seville on strengthening the EU's borders? Will
they be compatible with enlargement?
(Mr Straw) They have to be. On strengthening the borders,
when I was Home Secretary we started to provide advice to immigration
and border police services in a number of countries to the east
of the existing borders of the EU. We are looking at more effective
co-operation at an inter-governmental level between border police
services of the EU. We are looking towards an arrangement by which
the EU agrees that it would help to pay for strengthening of the
borders so the countries which are most vulnerable to migration
across their borders, which are those to the east and the south
of the European Union, do not have disproportionately to pay on
behalf of the rest of the European Union. Also, we are doing work
with countries which are outwith the EU and outwith the accession
countries. So, for example, in the Ukraine we are spending £300,000
in providing them with advice about the running of the proper
border police service. On Afghanistan, I am pleased to say that
Afghanistan has been extremely co-operative in terms of taking
back refugees and a million have now gone back. Most of them,
it is true, from across the border in Pakistan but they are very
anxious indeed to receive back the many thousands of refugees
who are in this country, many of them highly skilled, and we want
to encourage them to go back. Would that, I am afraid, other countries
in the developing world have been as co-operative as Afghanistan
6. On that very point, the Prime Minister made
some comments on the question of perhaps withholding aid for source
countries who refused to co-operate on returns of illegal immigrants.
He was somewhat criticised for holding that view. Is that still
the Government's stance?
(Mr Straw) What David Blunkett talked about, and I
repeated his point, is what has been described as positive conditionality.
In association agreements, which are typically trade agreements
with a very large number of countries outside the EU, we lay down
conditions in respect of the observance by those countries, say,
of a raft of human rights and good governance requirements. Now,
increasingly, countries in the Middle East are laying down conditions,
also, about countering terrorism, as we have done with the Lebanon
in an agreement we have just signed and we propose to do in negotiations
which are beginning with the Government of Iran. Obviously I understand
the controversy here, and we have to be sensitive to this. This
is not about "punishing" the people of poor countries
because their governments are bad at redocumentation, let us make
that absolutely clear. I say, also, even when you have a government,
like the government of Zimbabwe, which has palpably failed its
obligations, as it has done under Article 2, the Cotonou Agreement
in respect of human rights, we have carried on providing aid to
the people of that country in terms of humanitarian relief, and
I am pleased we have done so because they do not deserve to be
starved for the sins of President Mugabe and his colleagues. There
are countries where the EU is providing quite a lot of aid and
it seemed to usthis was reflected in a consensus around
the table but not a unanimous agreement in the discussion on Mondaythat
to be able to say to these countries "Look here, you are
expecting these benefits from us, to show obligations of good
governance we happen to believe that an element of good governance
is that you should provide passports to people who are plainly
your nationals who have torn them up in order in an unfounded
way to claim asylum, how about it?" It enables us to have
that dialogue. The question of suspending agreement would be a
long way down the track. In most cases, I think probably all,
the country would then actually negotiate. It would give a lever
to the good people inside that government against those who may
have been, say, in league with corrupt border police to ensure
that passports were not provided too easily.
7. Are you able to tell us which countries the
Prime Minister had in mind?
(Mr Straw) I do not want publicly to give the list
because it would probably make the situation worse, with great
respect. I do not mind writing confidentially to the Committee.
I do not want to withhold the information from the Committee.
Chairman: Does that suit you, Mr Illsley?
8. Yes. Finally, Denmark has recently passed
a series of tough immigration laws, especially for cohabitation
of people under the age of 24. What degree of harmonisation is
going to be required within the EU to discourage "asylum
(Mr Straw) In my view we have to get to a situation
where first there is a common interpretation of what the 1951
Refugee Convention actually means because we are all subject to
the same law apparently. It lays down that there should be asylum
given to people in well founded fear of persecution, then it goes
into more detail. The interpretation of that varies from state
to state and, for example, in Germany and France they do not recognise
what is called non-state persecution in the way that it is recognised
by our courts and the courts of a number of other EU countries.
That in itself produces asylum shopping. People who are persecuted
by reason of their social groupthe persecution arises from
another social group not from the governmentcan claim asylum
in a number of EU countries but not those in those countries.
So that is one area. There is then a question of the kind of minimum
of support which is given in terms of what amounts to food and
assistance, that kind of support, then in due course rights to
work and so on and then in terms of processes, the number of appeals.
One of the complaints Germany has about its own system is there
are four levels of appeal whereas in other countries the appeals
are more peremptory. It is all that sort of area which we have
to look at where we need common policies.
Sir John Stanley
9. Foreign Secretary, as you know the Commission
has put forward various proposals in relation to asylum, seeking
a common definition of asylum seeker, etc.. I would like to ask
you do you envisage that the Commission and the Council of Ministers
are moving towards having an EU Directive in this asylum area?
(Mr Straw) I apologise for the fact that I am pretty
sure that will be the idea, yes, either a regulation or a Directive
and that was certainly what was anticipated by Commissioner Vitorino
when I was Home Secretary.
(Mr Darroch) Yes.
10. Again, can you confirm for the record, because
it will be material in law, that if there is an EU Directive on
asylum it will not only in law override UK domestic legislation
on asylum but it will also override UK obligations under the Asylum
(Mr Straw) As you know, under Section 2 of the European
Communities Act there was a Directive, we then have to transpose
that. So what overrides it is the transposition rather than the
Directive but under an obligation to transpose the Directive into
our own domestic law. If we fail to do that we can be taken before
the European Court of Justice which is a different position from
if there was a regulation which would automatically come into
force in every European country. The issue of whether any country's
domestic law can override an obligation that each country has
signed up to in the United Nations is a very interesting one but
the advice I was hoping to receive was that it could not. That
would be the view taken, I am certain, by our highest courts in
this country and I believe equivalent constitutional courts of
other countries. There is no suggestion, let me say, that the
obligations that each Member State has under the United Nations
Convention on Refugees 1951 would be abrogated by this. Indeed,
at Tampere but certainly in the draft that we looked at on Monday
in the GAC, there is continuing reference to obligations under
the 1951 Convention. There may come a time, and I raised this
in a speech I made in Lisbon two years ago, when we need to review
those obligations. To pick up what Mr Illsley was asking me, the
fact is that the interpretations of those similar obligations
vary so much.
Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, this is
a complex legal area and with the permission of the Chairman I
would like to ask if you could let the Committee have a further
note on this issue. I am asking you this against the background
of another area in which I take a close interest which is the
area of child abduction where with the EU's involvement increasingly
in family law, the all-party group in this area has been advised
that the proposed EU Directive will override not merely British
domestic law in this area but also, potentially, the operations
of the Hague Convention on Child Abduction. That is a parallel
degree of legal relationships and I think the Committee would
be most interested to have the Foreign Office view as to whether
or not the implications of an EU Directive in this area could
materially change one way or the other the UK's obligations under
the existing Asylum Convention and, indeed, the obligations of
all existing EU Member States.
11. Is that alright?
(Mr Straw) Yes.
12. Secretary of State, I would like to move
on now to two new areas, enlargement and the Convention on the
Future of Europe as they relate to Seville. Firstly, in respect
of enlargement we know that the assumption is that the key decisions
will be made at Copenhagen in December and the relevant Commissioner,
Gunter Verheugen, has said that he hopes that ten of the applicant
countries will by then have satisfied the various Chapters. In
your judgment, have there been recent developments that have put
a question mark over that, particularly the new concern with immigration?
Has there been such a reaction of public opinion within those
countries, particularly those which are not very enthusiastic,
as to put in question the timetable?
(Mr Straw) The United Kingdom Government is very strongly
committed to keeping this process of enlargement on track with
a view to it being settled by the end of this year and then joining
in 2004. You will know that the British Government and the British
Prime Minister have been in the lead in the whole process of enlargement.
A lot of faith and confidence is being placed by the accession
countries in the UK and we are not going to let them down.
13. "We" being the UK Government.
(Mr Straw) The UK Government. I cannot say for certain
what the result will be, but I think there is a wide understanding
around the table of the Councils of the European Union about the
importance of ensuring that we do meet these deadlines. Yes, there
are some still difficult chapters to be negotiated, not least
agriculture, but they are not going to be become any easier to
negotiate by putting off the day when they have to be negotiated.
That is the position there. As to opinion in the accession countries,
there has been a lively debate in those countries about whether
they should join the European Union and competition between partiesthey
are democraciesbut I do note that the recent result in
the Czech Republic committed the election parties to joining.
14. I am thinking rather more of the opinion
in the existing EU countries which has been soured, as one has
seen, in elections by concerns about crime and immigration. Has
this in your view altered the context?
(Mr Straw) No, and if you take the countries where
there have been recent elections, in France, President Chirac
and the parties of the Assembly are very strongly committed to
the European Union. After all, France was a founder member of
the European Union. One very good thing about these results its
is how the National Front in France have been driven out of sight.
After some dalliance with the far right the French voters have
comprehensively rejected them. As colleagues here know, the situation
in the Netherlands was always more complex with Pim Fortuyn.
15. You think the momentum is sufficiently strong
to overcome those problems on the financing of the CAP in respect
of the applicant countries because, as I understand it, agreement
has still not nearly been reached within the relevant council.
(Mr Straw) For many of the applicants most chapters
have been closed but inevitably the most difficult chapters are
still to be closed and that includes those relating to agriculture.
It is my hope and belief that we will stay on track for the accession
of the ten countries. I think that there will be some hairy moments
between now and then. There is nothing new in that inside the
European Union. That is my belief; I cannot be certain about it.
16. Can you indicate in respect of the result
of the Irish referendum what is the current thinking on the way
of getting around that result, assuming that there could be remaining
difficulties if there was no change in the Irish vote?
(Mr Straw) There has been an election in Ireland.
Again, all the parties in Ireland are committed, as I understand
it, strongly to the European Union, but particularly the party
of the government.
17. That was the position last time.
(Mr Straw) I know that is true. If you want a definitive
answer you are going to have to ask the Government of the Republic
of Ireland, not me. From what I recall they are committed to holding
a further referendum later this year. There is a significant mandate
for the Taoisseach to do that and for Fianna Fail and we look
forward to that.
18. What is the fall-back position?
(Mr Straw) With the greatest respect, we will have
to wait and see, but most of the Irish politicians to whom I speak
are reasonably confident about a yes vote in that result.
19. They were last time.
(Mr Straw) I am not sure they were. There was an assumption
but it was not a positive confidence.