Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 181 - 191)




  181. Thank you very much and welcome to this evidence session of the European Scrutiny Committee. We are doing our investigation into better governance of Europe. Our evidence over yesterday and today is part of that inquiry. I would like to thank you very much for affording us the opportunity to have this discussion with you.

  (Mr Duff) It is a pleasure.

  182. Which matters covered by the Laeken Declaration do you regard as the most important for remedying disconnection between the citizens?
  (Mr Duff) I think the primary question that we have to ask ourselves inside the Convention is what are we going to do to improve the capacity of the European Union to act effectively. Flowing from that will be the answers to all those questions plus some more Laeken could have asked and, in my view, failed to do so. There are three supplementary questions which I would like to, as it were, prompt the Convention to ask itself. The first concerns the relevant Court of Justice, because if you fail to strengthen the role of the Court and to spread its purview across the full spectrum of policy and executive action of the European action something serious is missing. The second unasked question concerns the control of the European Council itself. I think that it should have been rather more self-critical than it was. It should have asked if there were anything that it could be doing to improve its own efficiency, effectiveness and transparency and adjust its place within the political system of the EU. The third concerns yourselves, national parliaments, I am still not entirely clear precisely what it is that the national parliaments wish to do within the European Union, and although I know this is a question that, perhaps, I am supposed to answer I would be grateful if you could throw some light on that question as far as the Commons is concerned.

Miss McIntosh

  183. Andrew, can I ask, first of all, you say in your written evidence the position of the Liberal Democrats talking about no reform of the European Union would be credible unless the European Council begins to work wholly within constitutional constraints. You then go on to say that national parliaments should do more to hold their prime minister to account for their performance—it is very difficult to keep the present Prime Minister in the country for long enough to hold him to account for anything. From the evidence we have taken from a number of witnesses so far during this session there seems to be a consensus—and I want to press you to see whether you agree with this consensus—that the meetings should be open where the Council is meeting as an executive to perform an administrative function and that it should meet in private otherwise, do you agree with that or part company with that?
  (Mr Duff) No, I agree with that. I think that the practice which is clearly sensible for the ordinary Council should also be translated up to the European Council at some level insofar as it seeks to sometimes legislate. I would say increasingly it will seek to legislate in the area that we now think of as the third pillar, it should conform to the disciplines of the ordinary Councils, including on transparency and openness and also on qualified majority, and so forth. If you would wish me to say what I think can be done to strengthen the role of the European Council—because I wish to strengthen the whole gamut of the institutions, not just the European Parliament and the Commission but also the Council and the European Council—I think that we could grant to the European Council the power to formulate the work programme of the EU, it would achieve that proposal for the Commission, which would have been obliged to have consulted us in the European Parliament and also yourselves in the national parliaments very much more thoroughly than it is doing at the moment so that you could assist to fashion, to formulate the activities and the strategy of the Union. If the European Council were to take this, extremely important function on itself. I think that the president of the European Parliament should be included in the European Union for that purpose, he would obviously be excluded when there were executive questions concerning security, and so on, that they wish to do in private, and that is fair enough because that would be a blurring of the separation of competence and powers if he were to be in on that. If insofar as the European Council acts in a legislative manner it has to conform to the treaty discipline and if it accepts a new function of fashioning the work programme of the EU then the European Parliament has to somehow be involved.

  184. When you say "constitutional constraints" you really mean that the existing treaty discipline envisages new constraints?
  (Mr Duff) As I said, for the European Council you would have to have reform of Article 46, the Treaty on the European Union, so that the competence of the Court would spread to embrace the European Council. The Court has discernibly to function more as a federal supreme court and therefore it has to embrace in its purview the European Council itself.

  185. Can I ask you about the idea you put forward in your written memorandum of evidence on the Law Council, particularly how you would say that would operate. To be clear that would replace the General Affairs Council. I just see buried in the footnote you say, "The wish of European Liberal Democrats is to abolish co-operation procedure". Which member states might support this, I innocently ask?
  (Mr Duff) It was an issue which was argued respectably at Nice or at least before Nice, I do not think that anything very much was argued respectably at Nice and also at Amsterdam. The co-operation procedure survives in relatively few areas the first pillar, at present it is an anomaly. I think as we grow in self-assurance as a federal/political system it will be the co-decision procedure which naturally has precedence over everything else.

Mr Dobbin

  186. On the very important principle of subsidiarity, you say that the application should be achieved "by the detailed work of policy specialists in the Commission, Council and the European Parliament", do they not all have an interest in increasing what is done at EU level? What is your view of Alain Lamassoure's proposals for a clearer definition of subsidiarity and a constitutional court to enforce it?
  (Mr Duff) In answer to your first question we all have an interest in seeing that the Union performs effectively, of course. I think that it would be wrong to characterise us as power-mongers, as power-grabbers, we do not want to do things we cannot. We should not be trying to do some things centrally that we are at present trying to do. I insist on the point that it makes in the memorandum, that these things can only be properly analysed on a case by case basis, once you get under the skin of the policy sector, which is the point about generalists being unable to do it. Certainly I would not be able to say that the Union should divest itself of all competence in the field of education policy, for example. If I were to say that there would be a crowd of special pleaders from education establishments in Great Britain seeking to keep the Union playing a minor but, nevertheless, significant part in contributing to the quality of education in all of the member states. That is not to say that we have plans to redraft the national curriculum—perhaps that might be done by somebody somewhere one day—it is not to say we are seeking to impose a single education system on the member states insofar as we are able to with modest but strategically clever investment to support student exchanges, to support language learning, and so on. I think it is true that we play an important function, and one has to get into the education programme and you have to understand what the SOCRATES and Erasmus programmes are up to before you can answer these questions. That is possible for groups of national parliamentarians to do but it is a lot of work and it is a lot of, I would say, superfluous work if it has already been achieved in Brussels. You may say that we ought to do it better than we are doing it, I would agree with you. I still think of the case for a shift of responsibility to a Committee of Parliaments to police subsidiarity, that has not yet been made. On the subsidiarity question, of course I am a colleague of Alain Lamassoure on the Committee, not a party colleague, we are partners in this enterprise, if you like, and I think that the present wording of Article 5 on subsidiarity leaves an awful lot to be desired. I could go into that if you wish me to do so. I think it is an important principle that informs the way we are seen and see ourselves and I think subsidiarity should not be repeated like some mantra as if it will be the solution to all of the problems, it is not. I think it is not a substitute for setting it out more clearly than we do at present, where power lies in the Union and which authorities are exercising it.

Tony Cunningham

  187. In your memorandum you say, "We want the European Commission to become a stronger and more effective executive". You go on a little further in the memorandum to say, "As far as the appointment of the Commission is concerned the political partners should promote their candidates during election campaigns preceding the nominations." Are these two statements consistent, in your view? Secondly, would politicising the Commission necessarily be beneficial?
  (Mr Duff) It is an extremely political thing at present, the creature of Commissions, and Mr Cash will certainly agree, it is a political creature and always has been. The question is, to what extent should it become more party political. My answer to that is gradual. I would insist on that, because if we are to have the democracies strengthen the Union to connect more seriously the citizen and the supra-national institution here in the end we have to have transnational political parties. As a first step I would wish the burden of nominating the president of the Commission to shift from the Council to Parliament and it is then up to the Council to decide on the appointment of the president of the Commission. I am not trying to exclude any member, I am not trying to exclude member state from what is a crucial decision but the power should be more explicitly shared on a co-equal basis between the Parliament and the Council. The place to find your first class presidency of the Commission is through the political process that we all know and love through party political work, through campaign. That is not to say that nominees would necessarily need to be an MEP, not necessary at all, they could be supported by a party political group, more probably by an alliance of party political groups in the European Parliament, to personalise, in a sense, the European politics in the course of the election campaign but also to put a stop to what is, frankly, a rather sordid scrap between prime ministers, who ought to have more dignity amongst themselves, for these important nominations. We saw it over the nomination of Mr Duisenberg, we saw it over the nomination of Mr Prodi and we saw it in the nomination of Santer. This is rather sordid, I guess, and I do not think it is a decent reflection of the quality of politics that we can do here.

  188. Can I ask the second part, do you think the European Parliament makes full use of its powers to actually scrutinise details of the work of the Commission?
  (Mr Duff) I would say that it is patchy in some areas, we do it better than others, but it is improving all round. I think that the fact that our Committees have combined the powers of your Scrutiny Committee and your standing committees and can do anything we want, we are going to summon commissioners in front of us, summon ministers, anyone we want we can call for procedure, that has greatly improved the institution of agreement on access to official documents. I think it is very good. Certainly in an area of constitutional affairs and foreign security policy it is effective. The partnership between the Commission and European Parliament is critical nowadays, each of us, both the Commission and the Parliament, understand that relationship, it has at the time informed and actively engaged on each side, it cannot be complacent.

Mr David

  189. May I congratulate you on this document you have given in. It is very comprehensive and I congratulate you on trying to answer all of the questions. I want to probe you on just one of the things—I do not agree with all of it, but it is good—one idea you put forward is there should be a new, large and powerful Committee called the Europe Committee in the British Parliament, joint between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. I want to concentrate on that "powerful" adjective. What powers do you think that Committee should have which this Committee does not have?
  (Mr Duff) You should be in a position to, let me give you an example, insist your Prime Minister, Mr Blair, appears before you, both before you and following meetings of the European Council. I think that the dramatisation of the importance of the European dimension to British politics would be of very considerable benefit to Westminster and to the British press—I will not say what I think about the British press—and the British people, who are genuinely struggling to catch-up with information and informed debate about the European Union. I think for us that division is slightly unclear, that division of responsibility between yourselves and the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons. I think it is also clear that you do not enjoy always the same pace and time to think that they have in the House of Lords. I have to say your recent report on the European arrest warrant was a very good example of what should be done, we need to see more of that. I know you all work very hard, I am not wishing to sound at all disrespectful, the size of the problem has grown out with the easy competence of a single Scrutiny Committee, you have to grow yourselves in resources and in size, including personnel. There are an awful lot of extremely informed peers who have had first hand experience of this place.

  190. I asked you to concentrate on the powers, not the joint aspect. The Prime Minister would say that he appears before the biggest British Committee of all, which is the whole House of Commons.
  (Mr Duff) Is he grilled with sufficient focus and sharpness before the House of Commons? I have not thought so myself, I must say, by reading the reports. I also think, and I am not sure if I said this in the memorandum, that if any peers were to be asked to come and play a part from time to time, not all of the time, but from time to time, that would also bring expertise. If you had a formal function, as I suggested earlier, and an increased power in dealing with fashioning the work programme of the EU then you would certainly benefit from the closer relationship with ourselves here.

  Mr David: Thank you, Chairman.


  191. Andrew, can I thank you very much, we have caught up with time again. As some of my colleagues have said, thank you very much for your very interesting paper and coming along and giving evidence to us, I am sure we will find it very useful in preparing our report. Whilst I was tempted to get into a debate—maybe I can do some other time—on your last issue I take the view that our strength, and we have considerable strength as a committee, we concentrate on scrutiny, we do not go down the road of the merits and the demerits, we scrutinise for Parliament, not necessarily the political scrutiny that is enjoyed by the House of Lords, and I argue that ours is more crucial and more important. That is a debate we may have at some other time. Thank you very much for coming along.
  (Mr Duff) It is a great pleasure to be here and I look forward to you following the work of the Convention with close scrutiny, and if we had a further exchange as we make progress I shall be very pleased.

  Chairman: I am delighted, thank you very much, indeed.

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