Get EU-r tanks off our lawn! Cameron opens up new front against EU power-grabbing
The Prime Minister is fighting a secret battle against EU attempts to take more of the UK’s national powers back to Brussels, internal Government documents have revealed.
Ministers have ordered British diplomats around the world to report any incidents of EU “competence creep”, where European officials attempt to take charge of duties that are traditionally carried out by national embassies. The counter-offensive against Brussels was ordered in the early days of the Coalition, long before Foreign Secretary launched his “comprehensive audit” of European Union powers and their impact on the UK in the summer – and long before the punishing internal skirmishes that have troubled the Government in recent weeks.
Foreign Office (FCO) documents have revealed that concerned embassy staff have already reported a series of breaches of international agreements, accusing the EU of butting in on key issues including consular and visa services, the response to humanitarian emergencies overseas and the fight against “tourist scams”.
The European External Action Service (EEAS), seen as the EU’s own foreign ministry, is highlighted as the greatest threat to the independence of UK missions. One FCO official warned that: “This is serious stuff and we don’t want to give the European Commission/EEAS a way in on consular.”
Details of the Government’s attempts to keep the EU tanks off the UK’s lawn have emerged amid renewed debate over Britain’s relationship with its European partners. The Coalition Agreement, published by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in May 2010, pledges that the Government would “ensure that there is no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament”, and “examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences”.
Within days of assuming office, Foreign Secretary William Hague sent a secret “eGram” to UK embassies across the world, warning them to be alert to the dangers of competence creep.
A catalogue of internal emails, obtained by the IoS under freedom of information legislation, has now revealed that agitated British diplomats have since reported a series of threats to “red-line issues”, where the Government held non-negotiable positions on the extent of EU powers. The email traffic lays bare a deep distrust of the EEAS, in particular over consular duties including looking after Britons abroad – and records a list of complaints about EU officials attempting to take over embassy meetings across the continent.
Within weeks of the Coalition coming to power, the FCO informed one senior UK official overseas that EU or EEAS interference in consular activity was “an absolute red line for us”. An email from London to the diplomat added: “If the Commission call a meeting to discuss the issue, feel free to attend, but please speak to the Commission ahead of the meeting to brief and head them off. You can then chair. This will avoid any embarrassment in open forum. This is serious stuff and we don’t want to give the European Commission/EEAS a way in on consular.”
An official at a British embassy in Europe subsequently reported: “A EU rep was at the meeting yesterday. He said that he was ‘in charge’ of the consular group. This … caused some concern. I had to formally reply and reminded him that the European institutions had no competence in this area. He did not reply.”
Another official advised: “We certainly want to avoid any public showdowns with the EU if we can. But EU hosting is far from ideal and we should absolutely not accept any instructions on consular from the EU delegation.”
When the issue of embassies coordinating their response to crises emerged as a growing point of conflict with Brussels, an FCO official warned: “The main issue … is that we do not think EU input is necessary, and we think it risks creep. It also pushes the bounds of Lisbon Treaty language.” Another added: “An example of creep was a recent Western evacuation from Gaza. The Commission provided some assistance by providing their cars … Now, they use that as an argument for consular powers.”
An FCO spokesman said the department wholly supported “an EEAS that acts in support of FCO action in areas where the EU has competence”.
He added: “But, equally, we have also been completely clear we’re not in the business of allowing the EU to take on any additional competence beyond that set out under the treaties. The Coalition Agreement is clear on that and the FCO is ensuring that is implemented.”
Points of conflict:
In November 2010, a senior FCO official told colleagues in Europe: “The [European] Commission and some member states assert that the [Lisbon] Treaty has given the EU institutions wider responsibility for representation, but we do not agree.” The following month, a concerned British diplomat in an unnamed European country was told: “The issue of who chairs local EU consular meetings is a sensitive one for us and other [member states]. It took many months of intense negotiations in Brussels to agree the wording in the consular guidelines that state ‘unless otherwise agreed by capitals, the chair will be a member state decided locally, with the support of the EU delegation’.”
Another official was told: “Position yourself to chair the EU [Heads of Mission] consular meeting? That sounds like a good idea – as we can ensure these meetings really are about coordinating [member states’] consular efforts, rather than any attempt by the EU delegation to up its role in consular activity.”
Oct 10: “We need to avoid gradual accretion of EEAS influence in the consular field … We cannot have a situation where the Commission is openly questioning [member states’] competence in this area.”
One British ambassador in Europe reported that his local EU head of delegation was “very exercised about this”. He added: “He says he is under pressure from Brussels to take on consular work, but doesn’t want to.”
Sept 10: The UK objected to the EU signing a letter protesting about the number of “tourist scams” targeted at Europeans abroad. “The EU does not have competence in tourism, and therefore has no role signing this letter.”
Complaints over the EU butting into crisis arrangements
“UK opposes any consular role for the EEAS – either in ‘normal’ or ‘crisis’. not envisaged under Lisbon Treaty – UK red line, seen as an example of competence creep. We oppose any EU role in coordinating crisis response.”
An “eGram” from the FCO in December 2010 reported that the UK had set out its view that “there could be no further transfer of competence and out concerns that EU institutions … were not seeking agreement from member states before implementing new arrangements on representation. We did not want to, but if we could not rely on our view on representation being respected, we would stand up in plenary sessions to express our concerns about EU delegates seeking to represent us.”
Oct 10, official reports that a counterpart from another country has admitted that “they are under instructions to let the EU delegation take the lead in conducting its support, coordinating and supplementing functions on consular affairs.”
Response – “Might be worth mentioning strength of ministers’ resolve on this.”Tagged in: cameron, eu, europe
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