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EU: Justice and Home Affairs

Volume 694: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will publish a paper setting out which aspects of the justice and home affairs provisions of the European Union treaties they have opted out of, and on which of those aspects they have formal or informal opt-in arrangements.

My Lords, the UK does not participate in proposals under title 4 of the Treaty establishing the European Community—namely visas, asylum, immigration and civil judicial co-operation—until it opts in. The opt-in must be exercised within three months of publication or with the consent of the Commission at any time after its adoption. We will deposit in the Library a list of measures to which the UK has and has not opted in.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House very much indeed for that detailed Answer. Will she confirm that the Government can reassure themselves that, with the departure of the previous Prime Minister, there is not so much necessity to schmooze well known journals on the right-wing side of the spectrum regarding their views on Europe and to pretend, for example, that we are opting out of most of the JHA agenda while we are quietly—and quite rightly, too—opting back in to as much as possible? I have here a list of 54 examples of JHA opt-ins over recent years. Does she agree that now is surely the time for the Government confidently to stand up and be counted for the good of Britain and a united Europe?

My Lords, I cannot answer about schmoozing; I did not see any schmoozing going on. I am answering this Question partly because I am responsible for not opting in to three of the civil judicial co-operation measures and therefore felt that I had some competence in the issue. However, I can say that we do not opt into measures on legal migration, visa policy or, for example, management of the EU’s external border, where those measures are incompatible with our national interest and our policy of retaining frontier control. In those issues we will wish to continue to take that stance.

My Lords, as these so-called treaties are more or less identical to last year’s rejected constitution, will the Government consider honouring the commitment which they gave in their manifesto to provide us with a referendum on this issue?

My Lords, that didn’t take long, did it? I am very clear that the mandate says in terms:

“The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing Treaties and replacing them by a single text called ‘Constitution’, is abandoned”.

That is our position.

My Lords, the Leader of the House is no doubt aware that the Government have so far declined to opt into the long-term residence directive despite strong advice from the European Union Committee that it would be in our national interest to do so. Does she agree that the recent proposal to extend that directive to refugees gives the Government a welcome opportunity to opt in after all?

My Lords, I have looked into the question as I anticipated that the noble Lord might raise it. At this stage, it is under consideration.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend a question on a contiguous matter. I understand perfectly what she said about opting out and opting in generally. However, does the European Charter of Fundamental Rights have relevant legal issue in our jurisdiction or is it, as one former Minister said, on the same level as the Beano in legal debate? What is the Government’s position on the extent to which lawyers in this country should take careful note of the charter of fundamental rights, because it might be persuasive in our courts—or not?

My Lords, although the charter of fundamental rights is an important aspect of European work it is a backdrop to what is already happening within both the UK and the European Union as individual member states. We have made it perfectly clear that we do not see it as incorporating into UK legislation every aspect of the charter, and that position remains.

My Lords, how do the Government intend to ensure that, in the words of the White Paper the other day, the UK will continue to play “an active role” in the field of JHA with this proliferation of opt-outs? Do they not realise that there is a great risk of UK marginalisation in the building-up of an effective EU law enforcement capability? It also risks affecting UK MEPs, so that when the UK makes up its mind to opt into a subject, there will not have been UK influence in shaping that measure.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work that the noble Baroness does in the European Parliament, but I disagree with her on the issue of influence. Certainly, we did not opt into the three measures on the civil justice side but, as she will know, we are actively participating in two of them. Our reasons for not opting in can be varied and very different; for example, we have not opted into the maintenance proposals in the European Union because we are currently in discussion with the Hague on a broader set of negotiations, including the way in which that could be addressed, and that issue would be in jeopardy. We are actively participating in all the working groups, so what the noble Baroness says does not follow.

My Lords, do the Government agree with the former Italian Prime Minister, Mr Giuliano Amato, who has said that the mandate is deliberately written in such muddled and devious language as to be incomprehensible to the people of Europe and particularly to the people of Britain? Did I understand the noble friend of the Leader of the House to say in answer to the first Question this afternoon that there will be binding debates in your Lordships’ House and the House of Commons to clarify what the eventual treaty means before it is signed?

My Lords, I do not necessarily agree with former Prime Minister Amato. My noble friend said “debates”, not “binding debates”.

My Lords, what competences, if any, are proposed in the new treaties to be transferred from the member states to the European Union?

My Lords, I think that that is rather wide of the Question on opt-ins and justice and home affairs, but I shall write to the noble Lord and ensure that he is given the answer.

My Lords, if the noble Baroness does not agree with the former Italian Prime Minister, does she agree with the present Swedish Prime Minister, who has said that the United Kingdom has been offered a clarification of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, not an opt-out?

My Lords, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights is a different proposition. In my former role, I spent a lot of time discussing the fundamental rights agency and the charter. As I have said, it is very important to see the charter in the correct context of its role within the UK. Its legislative role is not to be seen as binding the UK Government, but it is a very important aspect of how the European Union works together.