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European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 4th June 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office) 4:15 pm, 4th June 2008

My Lords, it is a great delight to be at the beginning of Report stage. I shall follow fully the advice in the Companion, which suggests that I do not deploy arguments that I have deployed at great length in the Committee of the whole House. I shall try my best to deal with the points that noble Lords have rightly raised but not to go on at length by repeating what I hope I made clear in Committee was the Government's position.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that this is an important area. We dealt with it extremely well in the many amendments in Committee, although I accept that it is an important issue to be returned to at Report. I will deal first with what the amendment would do in relation to a report and then come on to the nub of many of the contributions: the External Action Service. That will serve your Lordships best. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, as did other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in the last speech before I stood up, that the amendment is simple: could there be an annual report on the objectives? I considered this carefully. On the face of it, it is a simple and straightforward amendment. However, I am not one for adding on to procedures that I believe work effectively and well in scrutiny. Some of the conversations that I have had with noble Lords over the last few days have sought the best and most effective forms of scrutiny without adding on new glossy brochures or any other kind of unnecessary report.

Currently, we deposit information in Parliament. We provide an explanatory memorandum on any European Union document that is published on the development of the common foreign and security policy, as we do for the annual report from the Council to the European Parliament on the main aspects and basic choices of the policy. Ministers and senior European Union officials appear regularly before the parliamentary committees of both your Lordships' House and another place, at the invitation of the relevant committees. As noble Lords will be aware, the Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend David Miliband, appears before the Foreign Affairs Committee before every European Council. His next appearance is on 11 June. The Minister for Europe gives evidence to the Lords European Union Select Committee and Sub-Committee C after the European Council. Just for completeness, I should add that since November 2007 there have been two Foreign Affairs Committee evidence sessions on Europe, eight House of Lords European Union Committee sessions, including the sub-committee, and one Commons European Scrutiny Committee evidence session.

Our scrutiny arrangements work extremely well. As I indicated, they include other figures appearing before the committees. High Representative Javier Solana is keen to work with the national parliaments and makes great efforts to accommodate parliamentary calendars. My argument against another report is that I believe that the current procedures already work effectively and should remain. The scrutiny position is clear and I do not believe that there is anything to be added by providing yet another report in this context.

The heart of much of the discussion was the role of the External Action Service. I should like to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Park, who I know could not be with us for much of our Committee debate. She raised an important issue, which is in a sense at the core of her concerns. I quote Article 4.2 of the treaty of the European Union, which will come into force as the Lisbon treaty:

"The Union shall respect the equality of Member States before the Treaties as well as their national identities, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and local self-government. It shall respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security. In particular, national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State".

In other words, it does not become part of any External Action Service. I hope that the noble Baroness will look carefully at that reference and come back to me if she has any further queries. She need have no fear of anything within the External Action Service.

When we discussed this in Committee, we talked at great length about what the role and function of the service would be. I made it clear that its purpose is to assist the high representative in carrying out the mandate that he is set by the member states. It is not about creating a new bureaucracy. People coming into the External Action Service will be drawn from the Council secretariat and the Commission services that already work on external issues with member states' representatives, structured through secondments. These are opportunities for diplomats from individual states, but it is not about creating a consular system or a diplomatic service to rival that of individual member states. That is important.

The purpose, as I indicated in Committee, is to try to improve the coherence of the delivery on the ground so that, for example, we can bring together the support of the European Union to help areas around the world that are emerging from conflict with peacekeeping and policing missions and so on and try to deal with longer-term issues such as development. If we are to help in some of the most difficult areas of the world, we need coherence and it makes sense to try to bring this together.

Noble Lords need not fear that this takes anything away from the Diplomatic Service of this country. I know from questions that have been raised by noble Lords in the House that they are concerned about the role of embassies, but in 2007 we had more embassies open than we did in 1997. It is important to see the External Action Service not as a rival but as helping to support coherence in European Union activity in parts of the world where the European Union has a genuine and proper role to play.

There has been much speculation about what discussions have taken place and when. Of course, there was the Daily Telegraph article on that point. Nothing alleged in that article or in what has been said contradicts anything that the Foreign Secretary has already said. Noble Lords who have been involved in Europe or in any organisation of any kind will know that, when proposals are on the ground, it is common to have preliminary conversations about what the outcome might look like. Those conversations are not binding and do not have any force or weight; they are simply discussions that we would expect officials to have in all circumstances, every time one considers any form of legislation of any kind in any parliament anywhere. We ensure that discussions take place about how, if we were to do this, it would be implemented. That is completely normal, rational and to be expected. That would be the basis of any discussions that took place.