Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. I take that as a compliment!
  (Peter Hain) It is a supreme compliment; that is why I always try and prepare diligently for your sittings. We have also tried to get a wide range of views through regional visits, as I say, seminars, radio phone-ins and interviews, but the problem is that, if you called a meeting on a wet night in Dudley on the future of Europe, I guess the turnout would be quite low!

Roger Casale

  21. The French National Assembly held a two day convention for civil society groups last year in preparation for the Convention. I wonder if the Minister would say if he thinks such an idea could work in the UK. If something similar were tried here, would it have Government support?
  (Peter Hain) I think it has been important that Parliament's representatives on the Convention have been able to report back to Parliament through this new mechanism. I have been discussing with local governments regarding holding a conference with local government representatives at some time before the end of the year to discuss the indications of the future of Europe debate for local authorities. Civic Society, as you know, had its own day and a bit at the end of last month in the Convention and there were many British representatives there. The Foreign Office is due to open up a website which will promote interaction and debate for members of the public. I would look at all ideas, providing they were practical, in a sympathetic way.

Mr Cash

  22. With regard to National Parliaments, I note that in the Laeken Declaration, rather patronisingly, it says that a second question which also relates to democratic legitimacy involves the role of National Parliaments. We all know that there are a lot of people at the Convention who, quite frankly, put much more emphasis on the European Parliament and think the National Parliaments are really rather an irrelevant and obsolete institution. However, those of us who know the truth know that that is exactly the opposite way round and we have produced an excellent report, which I hope you agree with, regarding the importance of enhancing the role of National Parliaments. The question that I am particularly concerned about therefore is in relation to the so-called principle of subsidiarity and I would be grateful if you would give me one example, even one example, of any subsidiarity that has been applied at any point since 1992 in order to give me one indication of one thing that has been done in that context. What role do you think the National Parliament should have in enforcing National Parliaments? Has the Government abandoned support for a second chamber? Have the Government given any thought as to whether verification of compliance with subsidiarity should take place at the beginning or the end of the legislative process? What do you think about our Committee's suggestion in that excellent report that National Parliament should refer items of legislation to a subsidiarity "watchdog" or some other body for examination of compliance with the principle of subsidiarity? I have to say that I would disagree with the idea that we should refer it to a watchdog simply on the grounds that I do not believe subsidiarity is actually prospectively going to happen as Mr Lamassoure said himself. Lastly, do the Government have any view as to what additional mechanisms or procedures should be adopted to enhance the role and influence of National Parliaments at European level? In other words, in essence, do you believe that National Parliaments are the key to the future of democracy in the European Union as we clearly state in our excellent report—?
  (Peter Hain) One proposal of which you do not agree with.

  23. No, simply because I do not see any evidence of subsidiarity. Let us not worry about theological discussions. The real question is, do you really believe that National Parliaments are the key to this because, after all, we do actually have occasions such as this but, in addition to that, all our proceedings are reported in Hansard and we actually have a genuine democratic process, despite the whipping system which needs to be reformed. Do you not agree that really we do represent an objective to which perhaps other nations might aspire in this convention?
  (Peter Hain) Yes, I do. I agree almost entirely with what you say and I agree that the Committee's report was an excellent report and I am not courting, as it were, sympathy by saying that. I genuinely think that some of the ideas you presented were absolutely in line with our own thinking and were very helpful, not least in focusing on the importance of subsidiarity and on the fact that national parliamentarians really are the key body to police subsidiarity. It has not been effectively policed until now, I agree with that. It is vital that we reconnect the European Union institutions with the citizens of Europe and that is one crucial way in which to do it through national parliamentarians. The idea of a second chamber as a vehicle comprising representatives of National Parliaments was one idea suggested by the Prime Minister two years ago. The important principle he was saying is that national parliamentarians should police subsidiarity, so he is in agreement with you and happily with me on that. I think that thinking has evolved since then and the ideas that the Committee put forward in this respect are very close to the Government's thinking and actually, when we have been putting that idea forward, we have met quite a lot of support amongst other members of the working group on subsidiarity that I sit on. The other way in which accountability in the institutions of the citizen is best achieved is through Member States, through the Council of Ministers, and I was interested in the proposals you put forward on that. In respect of National Parliaments, that is the second or first, whichever way you look at it, form of accountability which I think it is imperative to ensure we secure.

  24. The problem—and that is why I produced a sort of minority report on the Committee's recommendations having agreed with 85/90 per cent of it—is not whether or not you think it is a good idea, the question is what you do about it having regard to the construction of treaties and the realities of institution arrangements. It is actually very difficult if not impossible to achieve these principles, which we all applaud, about subsidiarity and—
  (Peter Hain) No, it is.

  25. If I may just finish, unless you actually give to the National Parliaments and, let us face it, the necessity of being able to say "no" when a matter of national vital interest really arises because, if you do not have the ability to say "no", then, frankly, it is all just a waste of time and it is just a talking shop. Let us get away from the generalities and could you be kind enough to answer that question. How do you manage to give back, quite rightly which you endorse and the Prime Minister appears to endorse, power to the National Parliaments in the context of qualified majority voting without enhancing that by the power of saying "no" when you really mean it?
  (Peter Hain) I do think that National Parliaments should be given the right in some form—the Committee has put forward a very interesting proposal which we are looking at closely—to say "no" if any bit of legislation has integrated where it should not have done. I thought what was encouraging about the Laeken Declaration was that, for the first time, it considered the option of reversing the flow of decision making to the centre and said that we could consider repatriating powers to nation states. So, that was a major achievement. I would see National Parliament as having solved policing powers and subsidiarity. The real difficulty of COSAC, for example, in its present form, which, to be perfectly frank, I suppose you could build on, is that the European Parliament is represented there. European Parliament is a vested interest as is the European Commission and as is the Council of Ministers. You could have them making their representations to any subsidiarity body of national parliamentarians, but I do not think you can have them actually making decisions.

Mr Connarty

  26. On that very theme, we note that there was a three day study visit seminar organised by the EPP Members of the Convention. One of the things they felt very strongly about when they came back and they held a press conference to tell everyone was in fact that any subsidiarity question should go to the Court of Justice. You will have seen in our report that we take the view that any subsidiarity question should be referred to a political body, it is quite clearly a political matter rather than a matter for the Court of Justice. Do the Government concur with our view or with the view taken by the EPP?
  (Peter Hain) We concur very strongly with your view. That is the position I have argued in the subsidiarity working group. These are not decisions that should be made by lawyers, they are decisions that should be made by accountable elected representatives of National Parliament.

Mr Steen

  27. You may have covered this point because I came in after you started. You used the phrase "the British position" in answer to a question. Is there a simple statement about the British position or is it more complicated? If it is simple, can you tell us. If it is complicated, perhaps not.
  (Peter Hain) It depends to which issue you are referring. The British position broadly is that we want to see a Europe more closely connected to its citizens through National Parliaments in respect of subsidiarity policing and governments making key strategic decisions through the Council of Ministers reporting back to Parliament and being more transparent in the way they make their decisions. That is the British position. At the same time, I want a strong Commission. I do not want a weak Commission because a weak Commission would not have the determination to act against France for flouting the lifting of the beef ban, for example. In many respects, you could point to cases in recent years where the Commission has not been as strong as it should be in terms of enforcing the rules objectively and impartially. So, we do not want a weak Commission but we do not want a Commission either, together with the European Parliament, which is accreting all the power to themselves when actually the real accountability that I think people are looking for is their own ministers going to make decisions, being seen to make decisions and not doing so in secret, and then being accountable for those decisions to their parliaments and their publics. That is our vision and that is our position in a nutshell.

Roger Casale

  28. I am delighted to hear that there is a convergence between the Government's view and the view of this Committee about some of the big strategic issues relating to the future of Europe and I am sure that is because we both want to see a Europe that is much stronger in the future and also a stronger European Union, that is to say an EU which is more effective in terms of its output, more democratic in terms of input ie more accountable to the citizen. However, I wonder Minister if you would go further. Do you recognise that there is not just a convergence but a real complementarity between, what the Government are putting forward in relation to reform of the Council of Ministers and what this Committee is putting forward in relation to enhancing the role of National Parliament. If we have a European Union in the future where the role of national governments, through the Council of Ministers, is greater, then unless we have an enhanced role for the National Parliaments, the so-called democratic deficit will increase. The line of accountability for Government Ministers lies through National Parliaments and, while nobody on this Committee, as far as I know, is seeking to take away powers from the European Parliament, I think we must recognise that in relation to holding individual Government Ministers to account, it is National Parliaments that have the primary role.
  (Peter Hain) I think that is absolutely right. We want to see a much stronger and more effective Council of Ministers with the European Council at its head which operates more strategically and has more of a political grip on the European Union and provides that focus and that political direction and that is why we have put forward a whole series of reforms. I was delighted to see that the Committee's thinking is very much in line with ours in terms of proper leadership, in terms of the President of the Council and an end to the rotating presidency system and so on. However, as you say, the other side of that coin is accountability back through National Parliament.

  Chairman: We may come back to more questions on the Convention but I want to now come on to asylum and immigration.

Jim Dobbin

  29. Cross border patrol and migration of people is really very high on the agenda. Illegal immigration and the development of common policies and also attempts to improve the management of borders where agreements and criteria have been set. Can you give us some examples of the kind of measures and positions that the Council envisages taking against countries which do not co-operate in the joint management of migration flows.
  (Peter Hain) First of all, what we did not decide and what the British Government never intended should be the case is that there should be sanctions applied to punish poor countries. That story was hyped up before the Seville Council and was never really part of our objectives. It would be pretty absurd to try and do that. What we agreed was that the European Union should be able to review its relationship with countries which failed to co-operate in respecting their international obligations to re-admit migrants who have been smuggled illegally. That is a question of international obligations. It is really a question of saying to countries in the process of that review, "Look, we have a relationship as Europe with you with a lot of development assistance and trade opportunities that benefit both Europe and the country concerned and we expect you to, for example, pursue standards of good governance and, in this instance, to accept you into national obligations of accepting returns of illegal migrants."

  Chairman: We will now turn to the reform of the Council.

Mr Cash

  30. At the Council, I and many others think very disappointingly, was the agreement that Council debates would be public but would be confined to the co-decision procedure and indeed, even worse than that, it would only be during the initial stage of the procedure and at the end. Quite frankly, Minister, if you applied that to the British Parliament, which after all is a legislative body as indeed is the Council in this context, how on earth would you be able to justify it? I am not saying that this is your personal responsibility because you may disagree with it, but how on earth did it come about that the opening of Council meetings to the public when legislating was restricted to co-decision, and indeed the corollary to that is, what is the justification for it now that the principle that the Council legislates in public has indeed been conceded?
  (Peter Hain) I agree with you. I think there should be full transparency. Where the Council is legislating, where governments are declaring national positions and when they are speaking to those positions, not when they are negotiating . . . The sensitivity at Seville was where we did not get completely what we wanted but we did get, as you say, openness on dossiers and legislation on dossiers subject to co-decision and that was a big step forward because that has never been achieved and we ought to welcome that, but we wanted to go the full hog, subject to the necessary restriction of excluding the negotiations because you simply would not get real negotiations, they would take place in a corridor outside or, as in the United Nations Security Council, what happens is that there is a separate room alongside where the really hard negotiation is done in private. So, I am sure you would accept that proviso. I do not think you can defend the situation any more whereby the Council and the Council of Ministers are not transparent. One of the problems of the disconnection between the citizen and the institutions of Europe is that there is not transparency and accountability. People do not know how decisions are made. Issues develop into a morass of EU decision making and the process is not—

  31. Could I perhaps offer a thought on that which is that nobody expects meetings of the Cabinet to be held in public because that is all part of the position which is adopted before it is put into the constitutional context where accountability applies and it is at that point that you have to have the transparency so that those who would seek to call people to account have a template against which to ask the right questions.
  (Peter Hain) I agree with you which is why I said I agreed with you, but I would just make this distinction. You mentioned the British Cabinet and you quite rightly said that nobody would expect that to operate in anything other than private. We are talking not about a Government of Europe, we are talking about an inter-governmental process and that is a very different position.

  32. I think we might disagree about a lot of that.
  (Peter Hain) I do not suppose you are favouring a Government of Europe any more than I am. We are talking about an inter-governmental process. In that inter-governmental process where Ministers or, in the case of the European Council, Heads of Government arrive for a limited period, a day or a day-and-a-half, to negotiate big issues, you have to negotiate, although there is a lot of preparation done, and legislate and declare positions. That is not the same as having a weekly Cabinet meeting and then reporting to parliaments. It is a different system. I think there have to be variations which is why it cannot be transparent 100 per cent of the time, but it should by fully transparent, as I say, when it is legislating—

  33. So you are going to continue to press for this.
  (Peter Hain) We are and I have already pressed for it in the context of the Convention on the Future of Europe and we are determined to press it fully and I think we will have a lot of support in doing so.

  34. What about a Hansard report in order that we can actually read it as well as hear the reports if someone is good enough to come along and tell us?
  (Peter Hain) I do not see a problem with that in principle. It sounds like a remarkably sensible idea, if I may say so.

Mr Hendrick

  35. It is concerning me that the Minister is agreeing greatly with Mr Cash! We have talked about inter-governmental and so on and repatriation of powers. Which powers do you think should be repatriated?
  (Peter Hain) I think what we need to do is first of all make sure that we do not get the continued "competence creep" that we have seen. At the moment, we will consider powers of themselves. I think the principle of repatriated powers is the important thing. At the present time, there are no powers for repatriation at the top of my agenda though, if the Committee suggested any, I would happily look at them. What I would like us to do is not go into a straitjacket where you have a catalogue of competences which means that you can never have flexibility. For example, if you had asked me a year ago at a hearing like this whether I would have agreed with a lot of justice and home affairs measures being put effectively into the first pillar subject to common policy and communitisation and so on, I would have said "no", but in the aftermath of the terrorist attack and some of the things we had to do to get a common arrest warrant and so on, it has actually been a very sensible way to go, asylum policy being another example. I think we have to evolve and learn but I think we also have, in drawing up a new dispensation for Europe's constitutional arrangements, to be very clear as to what is a national policy and what is a European policy.

  36. I agree with what you are saying, that there needs to be some flexibility, for example to move things into the first pillar, but that is moving things—
  (Peter Hain) That are already in European competence?

  37. Yes, in that direction. What I am talking about is powers and competencies which currently exist. If you do not mind me saying, I do not think saying that we are for it in principle and not having in mind any specific examples is a tenable position. What powers would you like to see repatriated? Putting forward a principle without any rationale behind that principle or any example of where that principle would benefit people is not a beneficial proposition. What examples could you give the Committee?
  (Peter Hain) As I say, what is important is the power that exists there to do it rather than drawing up a list. I have not seen a list which I would be particularly impressed by saying what should be repatriated. I would perhaps make a related point and that is that the European Union often legislates with a pretty heavy hand and we are arguing that it should pursue policies with a lighter touch. It does not always need an all-embracing directive straitjacket or regulation straitjacket. It could be, as we have seen on the Lisbon reform agenda, for example, co-ordination of policy rather than legislating in a very restrictive way, and maybe legislating on set principles and leaving it to nation states as to how they implement those.

  38. These are treaties that have been agreed and these are powers that the European Member States have signed up to. Are you saying now that you want to unravel that process?
  (Peter Hain) You are asking me on the one hand do I want to repatriate any of those powers.

  39. Yes; that is unravelling it.
  (Peter Hain) I have said that I want the power to do so should the necessity arise, but if you are asking me do I have in mind any specific examples, no, I do not at the present time. What is important is to establish the principle that you can do so if the situation changes and you decide that is where you want to go.

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