Select Committee on European Scrutiny Fifth Report


FIFTH REPORT


    The European Scrutiny Committee has agreed to the following Report:—

CONVENTION TO PREPARE FOR THE 2004 INTER-GOVERNMENTAL CONFERENCE

Background

1. The Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) at Nice in December 2000 called for 'a deeper and wider debate about the future of the European Union', involving, in addition to Member State governments, the European Commission, the European Parliament, representatives of national parliaments and 'all those reflecting public opinion'. The following questions, 'inter alia', were to be addressed:

2. The IGC also declared that 'Addressing the abovementioned issues, the [IGC] recognises the need to improve and to monitor the democratic legitimacy and transparency of the Union and its institutions, in order to bring them closer to the citizens of the Member States'.[2] The debate, now commonly known as the 'Future of Europe' debate, is to lead to a further IGC in 2004. Steps are being taken to encourage debate throughout the EU, and we have ourselves begun an inquiry concentrating on the last of the four subjects (but also looking at the first), entitled 'Democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliaments'.

3. There have been calls from the European Parliament and others for a Convention to examine the matters for discussion at the 2004 IGC, rather than the preparation being left entirely to governments. This would be similar to the Convention which drew up the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

4. EU Foreign Ministers agreed in principle on 8 September that there should be a Convention.[3] There are also intended to be mechanisms whereby the Convention can draw upon the views of 'civil society'. Further decisions were made at the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 8 October, and final decisions on the Convention will be set out in the Laeken Declaration to be agreed at the European Council on 14-15 December. The Convention is intended to start in the first half of 2002 and to continue for about a year, leaving an interval before the start of the IGC.[4] It is taken for granted that, like the earlier Convention, it will meet in public.

5. However, there are signs, as discussed below, that decisions which will have a major impact on the Convention's proceedings are being made by Ministers in Council without any parliamentary consultation. We therefore thought it important to present our views in this short Report, and we note that some other parliaments, including the European Parliament, have also done so or are in the process of doing so.[5]

Objectives and terms of reference of the Convention

6. Although four subjects were listed in the Declaration annexed to the Treaty of Nice, there have been calls for the terms of reference of the Convention to be wider, sometimes for extending them to cover greater use of qualified majority voting and co-decision between Council and European Parliament.[6] We do not believe that this Convention can make a useful contribution on highly detailed matters which have already been extensively debated and fought over, such as the precise subjects to be subject to qualified majority voting and co-decision. Our view is that the terms of reference of the Convention should be focused on the four points agreed at Nice, but that the Convention should be free to range over related constitutional or institutional matters.

7. It is not yet clear what the Convention will be asked to produce. The possibilities are a set of options, a single proposal or set of proposals, or something between. COSAC[7] on 5 October decided that the Convention should be tasked to put forward 'a coherent draft proposal'. In our view, a set of options would have little influence on the IGC without a clear indication of which the Convention preferred. On the other hand, there would be little point in putting forward a single proposal which only just commanded a majority. The GAC on 8 October decided that the Convention's main aim should be 'to elaborate on the options open to the IGC'.[8] Ministers clearly prefer options, but this vague wording leaves all the possibilities open. We recommend that the Convention, in elaborating on the options, be required to give a clear indication of which options it prefers, and that it be able to put forward alternatives for which there is substantial support. We further recommend that the European Council commit the IGC to explaining publicly its reasons for rejecting any of the conclusions of the Convention.

Composition of the Convention

8. It was agreed by the GAC on 8 October that the Convention should include representatives of the 15 EU governments, 30 representatives of national parliaments, 16 members of the European Parliament and one or more Commission representatives.[9] This is the same as the Convention which drew up the Charter. In addition there would be observers (without voting rights) from the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the candidate countries. The composition of such a Convention is inevitably somewhat arbitrary, and we do not dissent from the proposed composition.

9. The House of Commons (like the House of Lords)[10] will have only one Member on the Convention. It will be difficult for a single Member to 'represent' the Commons on a range of complex issues, but the representation of the House will be more of a reality if the appointment is made formally by the House and the Member concerned consults and reports back to other Members. We intend to play our part as a Committee in ensuring that there is effective consulting and reporting back during the Convention. We believe it would be helpful if the Member was selected from within the European Scrutiny Committee. We recommend that the Commons Member on the Convention be appointed formally by a motion in the House, that the Member be selected from within the European Scrutiny Committee, and that arrangements be made for the Member to consult and report back to other Members. One means of doing so would be allocation of time for debates on Thursday afternoons in Westminster Hall.

10. Both the GAC and the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee have proposed that the candidate countries be represented as fully as existing members but without voting rights.[11] Arguments can be put on both sides as regards voting rights. On the one hand any decisions made at the subsequent IGC will affect them once they join; on the other hand they are not members yet and there is no guarantee that all will become members. It is of course possible that some will be members in time for the IGC, the date of which has not yet been fixed. On balance, we accept the GAC's decision about the representation and voting rights of the candidate countries.

11. For the Convention on the Charter there was provision for substitutes to attend. We see advantage in continuity among those attending, and we therefore recommend that limits be placed on the number of meetings for which a member may send a substitute and on the changes which may be made in the designation of substitutes. Our remarks on the Commons representative in paragraph 9 above would apply equally to any substitutes.

Operation of the Convention

12. The Convention will have a President and a steering group or Praesidium. The GAC decided on 8 October that the President of the Convention should be appointed by the European Council in Laeken,[12] and names are already being floated.[13] In our view, the President should be neutral, and should not seek to push his or her own views in the Convention. In any event, if the Convention is to be independent and credible, and not a tool of national governments, we consider it essential that it elects its own President rather than having one imposed from outside. (At the start of the first meeting the chair could be taken temporarily by the oldest member.) We recommend that the Convention have the right to choose its own President.

13. Similar considerations apply to the Praesidium. The Convention on the Charter proceeded by consensus, apparently with no provision for votes, and this gave considerable influence to those in charge of the drafting.[14] For the forthcoming Convention, the GAC has proposed a Praesidium composed of at least (our emphasis) one member of each of the component parts of the Convention[15] (i.e. governments, national parliamentarians, members of the European Parliament and the European Commission). However, it is expected that the troika of past, present and future Presidencies of the Union will be represented on the Praesidium,[16] four of whose seven members would then be representatives of governments.[17] Given the influence the Praesidium is likely to have this would be unacceptable. We recommend that the members of the Praesidium be elected by the Convention itself or by its constituent parts separately, and that it be not dominated numerically by Member State governments.

14. We would expect the Convention generally to work by consensus, as that on the Charter did. Frequent votes would weaken its influence. However, we believe the absence of any provision for votes would give too much power to its Praesidium, as well as enabling even a small minority to prevent progress, and accordingly we recommend that there be provision for votes in the Convention.

15. The GAC decided on 8 October that the Convention's secretariat should be 'based in the Council Secretariat'.[18] We do not object to it being based there, but believe that it should be drawn from all the types of institution represented in the Convention rather than being simply a branch of the Council Secretariat, whose first duty is to the Council. We recommend that the Convention's secretariat be drawn from all the types of institution represented in the Convention.

Conclusion

16. The planned Convention offers a valuable opportunity to widen the range of those contributing towards the preparation of the next IGC, and to improve the transparency of that process by means of a body debating the issues in public. This would not be achieved if Member State governments sought to exert undue influence over the Convention. In fact there would be little point in them doing so, since it is accepted that the final decisions will be made in the IGC in 2004 by the heads of state and government, whose legitimacy as democratically-elected governments is inevitably greater than that of an appointed Convention, and the Convention therefore cannot bind the IGC. We call on Member State governments, and the UK Government in particular, to ensure that the Convention is able to fulfil a genuinely independent role with governments contributing but not dominating.


1  Treaty of Nice, Declaration (No. 23) on the future of the Union. Back

2  Ibid. Back

3  Bulletin Quotidien Europe, 10 & 11 September 2001, p.6. Back

4  Letter of 16 October from the Minister for Europe to the Chairman of the Committee concerning the 8-9 October General Affairs Council, HC 152-ii (2001-02), pp. cli-clv (hereafter: letter of 16 October 2001). Back

5  Report of the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs on the Future of the Union, agreed by the Committee on 22 October 2001; resolution agreed by the Bundestag's Committee for European Affairs on 4 July 2001. Back

6  e.g. by the Belgian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on 4 and 11 July (information from the National Parliament Office). See also the report of the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs of 22 October 2001. Back

7  The conference of European affairs committees of the EU Parliaments. Back

8  Letter of 16 October 2001, p. cliii. Back

9  Ibid., pp. clii-cliii. Back

10  For the Government's intention to consult on the appointment of the Lords Member and arrangements for reporting back, see Official Report (House of Lords), 18 October 2001, c.702. Back

11  Letter of 16 October 2001, p. cliii ('no participation in decisions'); report of the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs of 22 October 2001. Back

12  Letter of 16 October 2001, p. cliii. Back

13  Bulletin Quotidien Europe, 10 & 11 September 2001, p.6; ibid., 15 and 16 October 2001, p.3; information obtained during the Committee's visit to Brussels, 22-24 October 2001. Back

14  Information from the National Parliament Office. Back

15  Letter of 16 October 2001, p. cliii. Back

16  Bulletin Quotidien Europe, 8 & 9 October 2001, p.6; ibid., 12 October 2001, p.5; ibid., 15 & 16 October 2001, p.3. Back

17  Including a government-appointed President. Back

18  Letter of 16 October 2001, p. cliii. Back


 
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Prepared 12 November 2001