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Amsterdam Treaty

Volume 301: debated on Tuesday 25 November 1997

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If he will make a statement on those provisions of the Amsterdam treaty title on immigration, asylum and visas that allow the United Kingdom to opt in subject to national veto. [15988]

The United Kingdom will have the right, under the Amsterdam treaty, to take part in the adoption and application of measures proposed under new title IIIa to be inserted into the European Community treaty. UK participation in measures on immigration, asylum and visas which form part of the existing third pillar acquis is an absolute right and not subject to challenge. In the case of the present Schengen acquis, to none of which the UK is a party, the unanimous agreement of the other states is required, but that is qualified by the Council declaration that the decision shall be taken on the basis of an opinion by the European Commission, and that every country shall use its "best efforts" to enable the UK to participate.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept responsibility for the late-night blunder during the negotiation of this title of the treaty, which led the Prime Minister inadvertently to mislead the House on 18 June this year, when he said that, if Britain decided to enter into those parts of the treaty, no other country could block us?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely correct in what he said to the House. Article 3 of the UK-Irish protocol says:

"The United Kingdom or Ireland may notify the President of the Council in writing… that it wishes to take part in the adoption and application of any such proposed measure, whereupon that State shall be entitled to do so."
What the Prime Minister said to the House is accurately reflected in that protocol.

Why did Her Majesty's Government allow this part of the Amsterdam treaty to be framed in such a way that Gibraltar will never be allowed to opt in, because, as the Foreign Secretary must know, Spain will use and insist on its veto should Gibraltar ever want to join and opt into the arrangements? Is it simply that Her Majesty's Government do not care about Gibraltar and give it a low priority, or was it just a Government cock-up?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his friendly intervention!

First, I strongly resent the suggestion that Her Majesty's Government are not committed to the sovereignty or protection of Gibraltar. No part of Europe has more occupied my thoughts in the past two months than Gibraltar. Secondly, there was no cock-up during the Amsterdam treaty negotiations. Spain did propose an amendment to have the effect of bringing in unanimity for UK participation in the Schengen acquis. I did challenge it and Spain withdrew that amendment. There was an agreement that there should be an amendment only if it was submitted in writing by Spain. No such amendment was submitted during the hearings of the Amsterdam negotiations.

The subsequent change to the treaty was a bilateral agreement between Spain and the Dutch presidency. When, a week later, we received the text that contained that change, we obtained the declaration to which I have referred, but I repeat: there is no intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government to enter the Schengen acquis. On the contrary, the main gain from the Amsterdam treaty for Britain is that it has achieved a clear legal foundation for our border controls, which was never obtained by the Conservative party in 18 years.

The right hon. Gentleman's first and second replies clearly contradicted each other. Did not the Prime Minister boast to the House on 18 June that no other country could block our opt-in? The Foreign Secretary has now admitted that Spain can block that opt-in and he has claimed that Spain and Holland undertook some form of bilateral agreement after the summit. Was not the Prime Minister inaccurate in what he told the House on 18 June?

The Prime Minister was entirely accurate in what he told the House and I have quoted from the UK-Irish protocol. I advise the hon. Gentleman to consult the original text, where he will find that there is a clear distinction between immigration, visa and asylum provisions under pillar 3, which are clearly provided for in the way in which the Prime Minister told the House, and the Schengen acquis, to which we are not and have no intention of being a party.