Today, for two hours, William Hague appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee specifically to be questioned on: “The future of the European Union: UK Government policy”, Hague being accompanied by Sir John Cunliffe, CB, UK Permanent Representative to the EU (UKREP) and Simon Manley, CMG, Director, Europe, FCO. The proceedings can be viewed here and the Hansard Record here*. An initial question that comes to mind is why Simon Manley attended as one knows not because he appeared to have his mute button permanently depressed. To say that this was, most definitely, the William Hague Show would be an understatement – but I digress.
The debate is well worth listening to if only to question what the likes of Mike Gapes, Mark Hendrick and Rory Stewart are doing on this committee. Having said that, there were a number of good questions put by Andrew Rosindell, Ming Campbell, John Baron and, most notably, John Stanley – his last intervention being the most important.
Worthy of mention was the questioning from Andrew Rosindell who queried whether the UK should leave the EU, did William Hague see any “replacement” alliances that could be used, namely the Commonwealth. Hague responded that he did not see the Commonwealth as a “single” alternative nor as a “trading bloc”. A further question on whether Gibraltar would be allowed to partake in any future referendum on EU membership brought forth the reply from Hague that while Gibraltar was eligible to partake in European elections but not general elections, the question of Gibraltar’s participation in any future referendum was a matter for amendment as presently that option was not available.
On the question of free trade agreements Hague was also guilty of being asked the question posed to Cameron, namely who is this “we”. Replying, Hague stated that “we” have recently negotiated free trade agreements with South Korea and Singapore but without making clear the “we” to which he referred was not the UK but the EU who had done so on behalf of all Member States.
Ming Campbell pressed William Hague on the question of what work had been carried out in the event that the result of a No’ vote at the time of any referendum – to which Hague replied that there had not been any such work, initially prevaricating:
“‘he job of the Foreign Office is to work on those priorities I was talking about earlier, the agreed programme of the Coalition government: it has a full programme of work on Europe as my colleagues and officials will attest… that is their job, the judgement about the consequences of leaving, is for political debate in the future at the time of a referendum.”
When pressed by Ming Campbell on this, Hague said:
“We are not doing a preparatory exercise at the moment.”
John Baron inquired what “red lines” the Conservative Party had when it came to “renegotiation” Hague responded that there were no “red lines”. When pressed again by Baron who could not believe that there were no “red lines”, once again Hague repeated that such did not exist.
Bearing in mind this hearing was scheduled for two hours, eventually after over an hour and a half came the question I had been hoping for, one raised by John Stanely:
“Foreign Secretary, are you satisfied legally – and I stress legally – that it is open to the British Government to go to our fellow Member States and say that we want to carry out a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of our membership of the EU – our new “Deal with the EU” as our Government has termed it – without first having given notice, under Article 50 of the Treaty that we wish to leave the EU.”
William Hague: “Well, whatever we have to do legally, we will do. But most of the discussion we have been having today is in the context of treaty change in different ways in the European Union, some treaty changes needed by other members of the European Union. We are not the only people looking for treaty change; but whatever we need to do legally to carry out the political programme that we put forward to the Conservative Party or to carry forward then any governmental responsibilities, we will do that.”
John Stanely: “I’ve asked you a very key legal point; you haven’t been able to answer that question and I quite understand that; could we have the answer to my question subsequently in writing, please.”
William Hague: “Well, we are happy to elaborate but this is a question for the future, so giving notice about anything doesn’t arise at the moment but we will implement any legal requirement in order to carry out any manifesto commitment at the next election. Happy to elaborate on that.”
John Stanley: “Thank you. I am asking you formally if you could give the answer to the committee whether, under the terms of the existing treaty, the UK wishes to carry out a substantial negotiation of the terms of its treaty membership it first has to give notice of its intention to leave the EU under Article 50. “
William Hague: “We will send you some formal advice on that”
John Stanley “Thank You”
In other words, to a very simple question from John Stanley – answer was there none. That Hague refused to answer can only show that (a) the question had not been considered as reliance had been placed on vetoing any treaty change unless the UK “got its way”; (b) that there was no intention of invoking Article 50; or (c) that neither he nor Cameron actually understood the Lisbon Treaty, let alone read it.
One also has to question whether the “formal advice” to be sent to the Foreign Affairs Committee will see the “light of day” – ie, will it voluntarily be made public; and if not, why not.
* Will insert link which at the time of writing is unavailable.
Afterthought: Thank heavens that at long last at least one parliamentary committee has a “stanley” that can cut through all the waffle with one stroke of the blade!