Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



Mr Connarty

  40. Perhaps I could suggest in fact that the mess we are getting ourselves into on food supplements and herbal medicines at the moment area is a very good example where a directive is coming from the EU and we are making a right mess of it in this particular government at this time.
  (Peter Hain) I could not possibly comment as a member of the Government.


  41. That was a preamble.
  (Peter Hain) But I know what you are saying.

Mr Connarty

  42. The Seville European Council also agreed that there should be "a multiannual strategic programme" for the three following years and "an annual operating programme of Council activities", which we would welcome and we would like to have prior knowledge of what is likely to be coming up. Will the European Council's three-year strategic programmes and annual operating programmes be available for this Committee and others to comment on before they are agreed, so as to avoid a wholly top-down, centre-out approach?
  (Peter Hain) That seems to me to be a good idea. I will happily look at that. That is not something I have specifically considered but I would like to look at that. On the face of it, as I say, it is a good idea, Chairman.


  43. But will it happen?
  (Peter Hain) We will try and make sure that happens.

Mr Connarty

  44. I think, Chairman, it is in line with the things we are suggesting in our own report, that there should be more and wider discussions. We do not want to end up as we are at the moment with industry coming to us as individual members and saying,"Where did this come from?", when we could have seen three years before exactly where it was coming from if we had a programme.
  (Peter Hain) Yes. If we could integrate the Commission's programming better with the Council's programme and then have a process of direct accountability prior to and after initiatives on legislation, that would be a good idea.

Jim Dobbin

  45. We will have a new configuration if the Development Council is to disappear. If the General Affairs and External Relations Council were to cover that issue on development co-operation, do you not think there is a danger that the wider foreign policy interests will dominate and perhaps marginalise the focus of development co-operation?
  (Peter Hain) I do not think so because at the European level it is part of the same foreign policy agenda. If you think, for example, of what we are trying to do in the Balkans, or for that matter what is going on in Afghanistan, there is as it were the hard end on foreign policy which could involve military action, peacekeeping, and then there is a softer end but equally, if not more important, is the development assistance programme. Integrating them under a common external relations umbrella actually helps to get a more coherent joined-up foreign policy position for the European Union. That is not to say it would be entirely determined by foreign ministers. Clearly, if there were development issues then the Secretary of State for Development and other development ministers in other Member States would be party to those negotiations and present.

Angela Watkinson

  46. My question is about the opportunity for formal scrutiny of reports going to the European Council. Presidencies frequently produce reports, such as progress reports on European Security and Defence Policy, too late for formal scrutiny for the European Council to which they are presented. Do you expect that better organised preparation before European Councils will assist more effective scrutiny or will papers such as the Presidency progress reports on the ESDP still emerge only at the last minute?
  (Peter Hain) I share your concern about this and it is precisely because we want Councils to be better organised that we pressed very hard for the reforms we got from Seville so that things do not just appear at the last minute or are added on by the Presidency almost like pulling rabbits out of a hat from time to time, or it seems rather like that, but that there is a coherent programme in which there can be room for the accountabilities which you refer to, and the whole thing has a much more long term strategic focus instead of a haphazard one.

  47. Are you optimistic that this is going to happen?
  (Peter Hain) I think the fact that those Seville conclusions were agreed unanimously means that everybody understands that we cannot continue as we are. It is not working with 15 Member States, let alone what it would be like with 25 or 27 or 28. These reforms have come not before time.

Roger Casale

  48. I think we do have to work together in this to make the process of scrutiny really effective and I think your presence again before this Committee today and your willingness to come before the Committee underlines your commitment to that. Today, the Prime Minister has come before the Liaison Committee, and set a real precedent in terms of the accountability of Government to this House. If the Government is successful in negotiating the kind of reforms to the Council of Ministers that we have been discussing, what commitments could you give on behalf of the Government to allow for greater scrutiny and greater accountability to this House in relation to European decision-making?
  (Peter Hain) I would happily look at any proposals you put forward, and you have put forward a number of proposals with which we agree.


  49. The Presidency report, Measures to prepare the Council for Enlargement, says that "some delegations" wanted the Council to be able, in certain exceptional circumstances, to have dossiers referred to it for a political decision, including a decision by a qualified majority if that is what the Treaty stipulates. "Other delegations" were opposed to this in principle, stressing the risk of the European Council being transformed into an appeal body for the Council. What was the Government's position on dossiers being referred to the European Council for a political decision by a qualified majority if qualified majority is what the Treaty stipulates?
  (Peter Hain) What we really wanted, Chairman, was a situation where, if a subject had been agreed by QMV in the lower Council formation, then if it was re-visited at the European Council level QMV would have to operate there, because effectively what you see is a series of vetoes exerted. The Common Agricultural Policy is an example of that where having qualified majority voting on the Common Agricultural Policy would actually be a big advantage. We did not quite get there. What it said was that it would be brought to the attention of the Council so that they could consider the implications for subsequent proceedings. What we will still push for is that principle.

  50. What impact do you expect the middle way, of allowing the European Council to take stock of current positions, to have?
  (Peter Hain) It is part of the preparation and pre-negotiation with more limited agendas. Some of the Council agendas just elongate almost by the day in the run-up to the Council meetings but with the more limited agenda, focusing on the big issues, with the new General Affairs Council underneath, an internal council as it were, meeting more regularly, managing the European Union more effectively, preparing for the European Council more efficiently, you should get to a situation where the really big decisions are made by heads of government and a lot of those earlier decisions are dealt with at a lower level. I think that would help overcome the problem to which you are referring.

  51. Is this compromise likely to impede reform of the Common Agricultural Policy?
  (Peter Hain) You mean the compromise agreed at Seville?

  52. Yes.
  (Peter Hain) No, I do not think so. In fact, it will encourage it. It just has not gone the full way which would have secured it.

Mr Connarty

  53. We have recently had a session with your fellow Minister, Lord Filkin, on what seemed to be threats to some of the fundamental principles of the European Charter of Human Rights. We also have the ongoing discussion about the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which seems to add to ECHR a catalogue of social and economic rights, so there are still some questions to be answered. Would the proposed incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights into a Constitutional Treaty for the EU cause the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights to have parallel and therefore potentially conflicting competences over human rights issues? What is the Government's attitude towards the proposed incorporation of the Charter into the Treaty and what is the Government's view on the alternative suggestion of the EU's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights?
  (Peter Hain) We are willing to look at the accession to the Convention on Human Rights in a sensible and sympathetic fashion provided we see exactly what it means. I think the problem with the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as it is presently constituted, just wholesale into the Treaty, is that it could—in fact would in our view—start to influence domestic law in a way that was never intended. In that form it is completely unacceptable to us and we have been working very hard to draw the attention of Member States to the implications not just for us with our common law based system, because we are particularly vulnerable, but also to other Member States' system of law. To be frank, Chairman, the fundamental rights are seen as a motherhood and apple pie document by a lot of Member States and people say, "How can you possibly object to this?", and, when you read it, it is a very fine declaration of human rights and so on. However, they have not really looked beyond that and considered what the implications are. I have pointed out, for example, to German delegates at the Convention that their ban on essential workers having the right to strike—there is a ban on those essential workers in the German constitution having the right to strike—could be overridden, in fact probably would be overridden, by wholesale incorporation, unamended, of the Treaty without the horizontal articles preventing that happening being strengthened and stiffened. They were really quite amazed at this, so we are doing some fairly heavy lifting to try and get a more intelligent debate about that at the present time but ultimately it is not acceptable to us. We do not mind incorporation in some form with those necessary safeguards built in but not wholesale incorporation, which is just not acceptable.


  54. Minister, has there been much progress in relation to the possible simplification of the EU and EC treaties at the Convention so far, and is there much support for their fusion into one Treaty with a single legal personality for the EU?
  (Peter Hain) There is a consensus that we need to simplify the Treaties in some form. We very much support that point of view. There are two broad alternatives for doing that. The one that I suppose is symbolised by the text produced by the Florence European Institute is a wholesale re-structuring of the Treaties and simplification into what would amount to an entirely new text of the Treaty. We do not want to go down that road because it will put up for grabs virtually everything that has been painstakingly negotiated in the past, or there is the second alternative, which is a bolt-on-the-front option, if I can put it in that fashion, of a new statement of constitutional principles: what the European Union is about, where the limits on its competences are, what is reserved to a national level, what operates at a European level, how it is organised and, to the extent that the existing Treaties are amended, for example, by ending the six-monthly rotating Presidency system, as we and your Committee favour, then you would amend the Treaty article concerned in that new statement, that bolt on the front. Those are the two options and we are exploring support for the second of those options which is the one we favour.

Mr Cash

  55. Forgive me for saying this but I have been addressing this question over the last 12 years.
  (Peter Hain) Rather longer than I have.

  56. I first met Mr Ehrlemann in 1986 or 1987 and we talked about this, so you can imagine how long the Florence Institute and its inspiration have been working on this, because they have it as an objective to create a constitutional arrangement, whether it is by way of a treaty or a specific constitution, and I will leave it at this, that I actually find it extremely dangerous, once you get into that arena, because it then acquires many of the characteristics of—wait for the dreadful word—an autochthonous constitution, which means that it grows from its own roots, and this is a rather dangerous position to be in, but it is related to the next question I would like to raise, and that is the question of the personality because the two run together. The problem is this, that if you have a legal personality, as I think you may concede we already appear to have with regard to trade, but you apply it to the Union as a whole, which is what some of the Member States and members of the Convention would want, you then get into a position in international law which, combined with the movement towards a constitutional arrangement of the kind we have discussed, does move us down the route which, for all the fine words about returning power to the national parliaments and all the rest of it, actually puts us in a very parlous condition and I would not like to accuse anybody of a sleight of hand but actually this is very much what is going on. I do not want to elaborate this other than to ask you whether the Government itself has emphatically come to the conclusion that a single legal personality would be utterly at odds with what the Government itself and you yourself today have declared, for example, with regard to national parliaments and at the bottom line, if I may say, Minister, in a very urgent sense, the only means of preserving genuine democracy and legitimacy and accountability for the citizens of Europe, including in particular the United Kingdom. I regard this as a hugely important question. Could you please say that you are not going to agree to a legal personality?
  (Peter Hain) We are not inclined to.

  57. Inclined?
  (Peter Hain) Let me finish. The European Community already has a legal personality through—and I am sure you are familiar with every word—Article 281 of the Treaty of the European Communities, but the European Union does not have.

  58. That is the point.
  (Peter Hain) Although there is an issue as to what, if it operates as you implied, in an international context, its actual personality is. I think we should look at this with an open mind but with a very wary eye as well in order to see exactly what the agenda is. Lord Maclennan is on the working group that is looking at this.

  59. Robert Maclennan who used to be in this House?
  (Peter Hain) That is right.

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