Select Committee on European Scrutiny Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 3

Memorandum submitted by the Liberal Democrats

INTRODUCTION

  The Liberal Democrats have argued for the institutions of the European Union to be more open, democratic, and accountable.

  We start from the belief that political structures should be built from the bottom up, not the top down, and that sovereignty should rest with the people. We recognise that conformity can quickly become the enemy of diversity, and that the imposition of social blueprints leads to authoritarian, centralised government.

  Our approach may be summed up with this simple statement: local where possible, national where necessary, European where appropriate.

  The EU must have the resources and powers to act in areas where problems cannot be solved at a national level. But it should stay clear when European action is not necessary. Power should be exercised at the lowest practical level. We are as anxious to see any unnecessary powers devolved from Brussels, as we are to see decentralisation from Westminster to the nations and regions of the UK.

  Liberal Democrats have argued that in order to achieve the goal of a successful and legitimate Europe—a stable and wider Europe—the Union must be based on a constitutional system that creates a decentralised, democratic and responsive Europe. That means that structures must be clear and open, with powers more clearly delineated, and exercised as close to the people as possible.

  It is also important to remember that the EU's Member States are Nation States, with individual identities and diverse experiences. All powers that the EU holds have been passed up by national governments, in accordance with national constitutional arrangements. Until such a time as a greater European-wide identity exists in both the social and political spheres, with citizens possessing identities that go beyond their nation states, European statehood cannot be a reality as it will appear to have been imposed.

EUROPE AND THE PEOPLE

  The Irish rejection of Nice is a measure of the crisis that exists between the EU institutions, the nation states and ordinary people. The connection between the Union and its citizens is clearly malfunctioning. Many people do not trust the EU, as they do not know what powers it really has and they have no clear conception of where it is heading to.

  This is not exclusively a problem created by a perceived distant and technocratic elite in Brussels, but also by the paucity of the national debate on all issues European.

  A recent Eurobarometer poll showed that only 17 per cent of British citizens have any trust in EU institutions. British citizens came bottom of the class in virtually every single category of knowledge about the EU. Almost a third of us said we know "nothing" or "almost nothing" about EU policies and institutions. 73 per cent of Britons feel they have received no information about the single currency at all. This is a dreadful situation.

  EU Member States have recognised that the piecemeal process of reforming the European Union has raised legitimate concerns among the people of Europe about the method and objectives of integration. The Nice Summit agreement that an intergovernmental conference will be called in 2004 to discuss proposals emanating from the "Future of Europe Debate" is an important step forward.

  Only by being clear and open about its structures and ambitions can the EU hope to retain the support of the people of Europe. Only then will people be comfortable with institutions designed to represent them.

  Liberal Democrats have proposed a "Constitution for Europe" to provide a stable and legitimate framework in order to reinforce democracy and restore public confidence in the EU.

  We believe that a Constitutional Convention should be established, composed of representatives from Member State governments, national parliaments, the European Commission and European Parliament. It should be charged with drawing up a "Constitution of the European Union".

  A Constitution for Europe would:

    —  Define and limit the powers of EU institutions ensuring that decisions are made at the most appropriate level;

    —  Set out the roles, responsibilities and powers of EU Institutions in relation to Member States;

    —  Set out the rights of individual citizens, with the Charter of Fundamental Rights at its heart;

    —  Enhance transparency by clarifying and simplifying European treaties; and

    —  Provide a stable and legitimate framework for the democratic development of European politics at all levels.

THE EUROPEAN INSTITUTIONS

  Since the inception of the EU, an ever-greater burden of tasks, competencies and budgets has been placed on its institutions, most notably the European Commission, by the EU's member governments.

  Almost unnoticed, the Commission has been transformed from its primary role as a policy innovator into an administration bogged down by executive responsibility for overseeing the spending of the European Union's pooled budgets. The European Commission—with only 23,000 staff, half the size of Birmingham City Council—is increasingly overstretched, leading to inefficiency and mismanagement in areas such as overseas development and humanitarian assistance.

  In many cases, it often seems that the British Government is determined to create interpretations of EU directives which serve to add costs and complexity. The Pratt Report commissioned by the Meat and Livestock Commission showed that other EU states are less stringent in their application of meat hygiene directives than the UK leading to a lack of competitiveness for British meat. This is an example of the UK "gold plating" regulations with rules enforced more rigidly and at a greater cost to UK farmers. "Gold Plating" must end.

  The European Parliament's primary purpose is to operate as a co-legislator with the Council of Ministers. It also serves to scrutinise the work of the other EU institutions ensuring that legislation is enacted and budgets spent in the interests of all citizens of the Union. The Commission's "Work Programme for 2000" consisted of 12 pages of prose summarising action in each policy area followed by a 23 page annex which listed, in almost unreadable fine print, the precise measures proposed. The annex provided no explanation or justification for each of the measures proposed. It merely provided the title and target date for each new initiative. It included 257 new legislative measures and 246 new non-legislative measures (including "autonomous" measures adopted by the Commission itself).

  To improve scrutiny by the European Parliament, Liberal Democrats believe that in future, each measure should be more fully described and justified, not least in terms of subsidiarity and proportionality. The ability of the European Parliament to ensure that measures proposed by the Commission meet subsidiarity and proportionality criteria needs to be enhanced. We believe that better co-ordination between the European Parliament and National Parliaments is essential if we are to ensure the greatest level of parliamentary scrutiny possible to European legislation. Greater co-operation between "select committees" at European and national level should be investigated.

  With administrative overload in the Commission, the Council of Ministers is increasingly taking over from the Commission as the driving force of EU policy making. But, the Council's working methods remain opaque and result in unaccountable political trade-offs, poor legislation and diminished transparency.

  At the general Election, the Liberal Democrats made the following proposals on the reform of EU institutions that may be relevant to the European Scrutiny Committee's inquiry:

    —  Establish a Constitution for the European Union to define and limit the powers of the EU ensuring that decisions are made at the most appropriate level. It would set out the roles, responsibilities and powers of EU institutions in relation to members states. It would provide a stable and legitimate framework to reinforce democracy and restore public confidence in the EU. The Charter of Fundamental Rights should be at the heart of a Constitution for Europe.

    —  Focus the scope of European Union action. We need to improve the quality of EU governance. The EU should focus its policy-making only on those areas for which EU-wide action is indispensable. This means ensuring that the principle of subsidiarity is fully respected. Each new EU legislative proposal should include a justification of why EU action is necessary. A standing scrutiny committee in the European Parliament should be established to ensure that EU proposals meet the criteria of subsidiarity and proportionality.

    —  Make the European Commission more democratically accountable. The Commission President's "State of the Union" speech should be accompanied by a detailed list of proposals, individually justified and explained. The committees of the European Parliament should be able to cross-examine individual commissioners on the proposals under their responsibility. The Commission's annual work programme should be put to a vote by the European Parliament in plenary session. The European Parliament should have the power to vet and veto the appointment of each and every commissioner and, if necessary, sack individual Commissioners.

    —  Make sure that European Union bodies are more open. All EU institutions should conform to the principles of freedom of information. The Council of Ministers should meet in public whenever it discusses legislation and publish a record of its proceedings. The political leader of the country holding the Presidency of the European Council should appear before the plenary session of the European Parliament both before and after all meetings of the European Council.

    —  Maintain the veto in areas of vital interest to the UK. We favour the application of majority voting in the Council where necessary to ensure that the EU functions effectively. But, we will maintain a veto on the constitution, defence, own resources, budgetary and tax matters and regulations on pay and social security.

    —  Improve Westminster's scrutiny of European legislation and of the activities of UK ministers attending the Council of Ministers. There should be no substantial initiatives for European legislation in the Council of Ministers which have not been scrutinised by the UK Parliament. Ministers, including the Prime Minister should give evidence before a European Union Affairs Committee in Westminster prior to European Council meetings and any significant meeting of ministers.

    —  Increase the transparency of the European Central Bank. The Board of the Bank should publish its minutes and votes, following the practice of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.

    —  Remove unnecessary regulations and reduce administrative costs. We support moves to streamline the role of the EU Commission and to strengthen measures against fraud. We will push for obligatory regulatory impact assessments on all new EU proposals with a direct bearing on businesses. We will also stop the practice of "gold plating" EU regulations, whereby the UK government unnecessarily adds requirements to minimum EU standards.

    —  All European countries should comply fully with EU environmental standards. The Commission should receive the resources to ensure compliance. We will support the initiative started at the Cardiff summit to integrate environmental objectives into all EU activities.

2 October 2001




 
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