Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 209 - 219)

TUESDAY 26 FEBRUARY 2002

MR TIMOTHY KIRKHOPE

Chairman

  209. Timothy, welcome. It is nice to see you again. I am sure it is a judgment on you that you have been here before and you have been invited back. It must have been that you did well the last time you came here. Are you still enjoying Europe?
  (Mr Kirkhope) Very much, yes.

  210. I thought I would start off with the difficult questions!
  (Mr Kirkhope) Very much indeed. I was slightly puzzled about your arrangements, in a way, because obviously you started your investigations into issues, which I am very happy to talk about, obviously before we had the Convention about to go up and running. I do not know how you want to play it this afternoon but I was hoping perhaps to make a few remarks of my own and then answer all the questions you have, on a wide area or more specifically, as you wish.

  211. I will concede that to you, for old time's sake. You are welcome to make a brief contribution and then we will ask you a few questions.
  (Mr Kirkhope) Fine. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity, first of all, of coming and being with you. I do not need to go over my background. Very briefly, though, I am Timothy Kirkhope, Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and the Humber, with six others, since 1999. I was a Member of Parliament for Leeds North East from 1987 to 1997. Most of the time I was in that position, I was a whip in the then government whips' office. I was in the Home Office from 1995 until 1997 and currently I am spokesman for the Conservatives in Europe on justice and home affairs issues (mirroring, to some extent, what I did in the Home Office), and I am also now a full member of the new Future of Europe Convention. Chairman, I am very interested in the heads, as it were, that you are considering and have been considering for some time, particularly about the connections, trying to connect the citizens, as it were, with their elected representatives and others. If I may just go quickly over three or four points that I think are relevant here. First of all, I think we have to admit that there is a considerable difficulty, not just a difficulty in the United Kingdom but also throughout Europe, in trying to connect citizens with their elected representatives, and that is evidenced obviously by election turnouts and particularly the disappointing turnouts, for instance, for our own European Parliament elections in 1999. It is something of which we are all aware but it is not easy to find a solution to it and in that I think it also comes to the relationship between the various democratic and non-democratic bodies in Europe. That relationship seems to me in great need of redefining and I am hoping that the Future of Europe Convention is going to move in some way towards remedying that; for instance, the relationship between the Members of the European Parliament that I referred to; the fact that we have been voted on a PR system—and the goods and bads of the PR system are another debate, I am sure; our relationship in the European Parliament with the national parliament, which is not perhaps the easiest relationship at times; our own relationship within our regions; and, indeed, the identity or non-identity of regions in the UK and that is against a background of devolution which has of course been moving ahead. Then, as I say, there is the question between our own Parliament and the national parliament, and that is a matter of some difficulties on which I would be happy to elaborate in a moment. There are also the structures that are not democratic. Our own relationship as MEPs with a great number of structures that have been put in place by government is a difficult one. For instance, to give an example, the development agencies that have been set up. They obviously have a considerable amount of influence and power over the very large budgets that are made available for regional assistance and so on. There is no formal consultation process between the agencies and Members of the European Parliament. I like to point out that the seven of us in Yorkshire and the Humber, for instance, are the only democratically elected representatives of the region as opposed to any other bit of it, and I find that is something that is a considerable problem. There is a mismatch there. At the same time there is also a problem in trying to talk in terms of—as I am sure others coming before you will be talking in terms of—the situation of Europe and the regions. I believe that national parliament plays a vital role in this structure. The problem is, however, you either go to the extent of saying that it is Europe and the regions or you talk in terms of Europe and the national parliaments. We have to try to deal with all three of those concepts and try to bring them together in a democratic fashion. I wonder myself, Chairman, whether there is a future for the Committee of the Regions. I have very little evidence, having been here now since 1999 and previously in Westminster, that, even though its original aspirations may have been worthy ones, it actually is achieving very much at all, frankly. The same argument would go for ECOSOC. I find it very difficult, every time I look at the budgetary exercise here, to see why we are spending money on those two bodies and of what benefit that is to the democratic process or, indeed, understanding in Europe. The enlargement process, Chairman—very briefly on that. We could well see 28 states. There is a question in the Convention, which will be a very large question, of this whole aspect of integration against enlargement, and quite a number of leaders in Europe have made it perfectly clear that the enlargement process—which certainly I support and I think most British politicians support—cannot succeed if in fact it is accompanied by a success of those who would like to have much further and deeper integration in Europe. It really is almost impossible to envisage all those countries, regardless of the voting system, whether it is qualified majority or whether we are staying with the other system, whether it is possible to bring them together in any system on an integrated basis. The final point I would like to say in introduction is the whole question of scrutiny. One can compare the different national parliaments and the way they scrutinise European legislation. I personally feel that there is a great amount of deficiency in this. The Danes, for instance, are enormously strong on their scrutiny: they look very, very carefully at almost every piece of legislation. In the United Kingdom, dare I say, the House of Lords seems to me to have a broader approach to scrutiny than your own House. That of course is very easy to explain, because the House of Commons has limited legislative time in its very busy timetable and of course it tends to look very specifically at items of legislation that come before it; the House of Lords tends to take a rather broader approach which quite often can be very useful in the overall scrutiny process of what is going on here. Finally, Chairman, may I say that as far as we are concerned we would like to have a much better relationship than we have at present. We think the Convention is an enormously important opportunity. It is not just an opportunity to try to put together, as some people would like, the constitution—although I basically think that would probably not be a successful proposal—but it is a big opportunity for us to try to get the balance right between the democratic institutions and, indeed, thereby increase the confidence and respect which the citizens of Europe in all the nation states have for their own politicians as well as the politicians who serve them out here in Europe.

  Chairman: Thank you. You have covered the headings of some of the issues on which we would like to question you in a wee bit more detail.

Miss McIntosh

  212. May I welcome you, Tim, to our meeting and say how nice it is to see you again. I appreciate the role reversal very much as I was a whip in the European Parliament for the Conservatives at one time. I wonder how much difference you think it would make to the European Parliament and, indeed, other parliaments if the Council were to meet in public when legislating. We have had a substantial body of evidence from witnesses saying that, in so far as it is playing its legislative role, the Council should meet in public—not when it is playing its executive role. How would you react to that question?
  (Mr Kirkhope) It is one of those things that it is very difficult to argue against if you are trying to see more transparency, openness and so on, but in practice, and having had experience of this a little myself in government, I would say to you that, although it is a fine aspiration, I wonder from a practical point of view whether it is really achievable, looking at the way in which Council operates. So much of the work is done sort of in the margins, in ways which I think it is very difficult to open out to public observation, as it were. It is spoken of by a lot of people as being a major ingredient in improving the democratic situation in Europe. My own view is that it is not the priority. My own view is that the priority probably in practical terms lies elsewhere, in what I think are the totally undemocratic parts of Europe—some of the organisations in Europe, the bureaucracy, the Commission. These are the areas where I believe we need to be looking for much greater . . . The word "democracy" is difficult, because of course you then move straight to the question of electing either the Commission or the presidents of the Commission and so on and I think that is also a very difficult area. I think it is the right thing to say, Anne, but I actually do not feel myself that in practice it would be very easy to achieve. There are loads of vested interests against it, of course, within the system, but I still think it would be very difficult to achieve.

  213. When you mentioned some of these other bodies that perhaps are less democratic, comitology comes to mind, and anyone coming from the UK has enormous problems trying to explain to the electors what comitology is. Do you believe it is important to open up comitology and other working groups to public scrutiny and how can that be achieved?
  (Mr Kirkhope) I think it is certainly possible for us to do that to some extent. But I do not think it is easy to achieve it—again, for the same reasons I have just given a moment ago. I think that certainly as far as public scrutiny is concerned you then have to start to decide what you mean by public scrutiny. At the very lowest level it is simply public observation of what is going on. At a different level it is actually an organisational thing, in which a representative body or people who are already representative are able to see what is going on here and presumably communicate that to the wider electorate or citizens or whatever it may be. I think that in a way again is fine, as long as you have something in place which actually can achieve those ends, and I think that is quite difficult in itself.

  214. You will be pleased to know that we take our scrutiny responsibilities very seriously. We are meeting with the Leader of the House in the near future to examine ways to see how we can improve on that. One of the most difficult areas we find is the conciliation process, even as members of the national party Scrutiny Committee, trying to find out at what stage a particular item of legislation is. Do you believe the conciliation process could be made more public? Or would that jeopardise the negotiations and make them even more protracted?
  (Mr Kirkhope) I think there is a possibility that that could be a more public forum. Certainly the conciliation process, in my view, is quite important and it is something which has been extremely useful for a number of respects. Of course then you have to, I suppose, turn your mind to one other point, and that is that the consensuality of Europe is somewhat different from the usual sort of national parliaments' attitudes, particularly the UK one. That was the biggest difference, Chairman, that I found when I came here: there was no question of dividing us swords' lengths and so on, but in fact it was very much in the round, everything, and everybody strives enormously hard to try to get a solution to everything which is agreeable to everybody. My own fear for that is that sometimes that results in things coming out at the other end which are unacceptable to everybody or just about unacceptable to everybody. The conciliation process, though, is very important, and certainly we have had some great successes with that recently. Answering Anne's question directly, though, as to whether that could be opened out more: it depends whether that would affect the result of it, whether in fact the outcome of it would then be, if you like, something which was even less acceptable than is possible under the present rules.

Mr Hendrick

  215. Can I ask you what steps you think are needed in order to make subsidiarity apply consistently across the European Union.
  (Mr Kirkhope) This is one of those terms. It is almost like the old term "federalism" which means different things in different people's minds. Subsidiarity seems to mean different things in different people's minds as well, but I am pretty confident I think I know what you mean by it and what I think I mean by it as well, and that is certainly something which the Convention is going to be looking at, in the sense that a lot of people do protest their belief in subsidiarity but the realities here are often quite different. It is important that the things that can be done at levels which are different to our levels should be done there. In particular the national parliaments and the role of the national parliaments needs to be enhanced by making it extremely clear what precisely it is that we would expect them to be looking at. This may sound an obvious remark Chairman, perhaps it is, but it does seem to me—and it is quite surprising to say this—that it is not at all clear, not at all clear, in the minds of many people here as to what is the province of our national parliaments. It is true to say also that some national parliaments do not have the same attitude as the British one, inasmuch as they are extremely happy not to have matters ceded to them, as opposed to the British Parliament view which is: "We would like to make sure that we have what we can deal with best in our hands." Some people on the Convention are looking at the whole idea straight away of drafting a constitution. That is probably one of the reasons why there are so many—in my view, too many—Members of the Constitutional Affairs Committee from the European Parliament on this Convention or associated with it. I have no doubt that a number of people you may be seeing will be very proud about their background on the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I am proud of mine on the justice and home affairs side, and I think that is actually more important in many ways, looking at the future of Europe, than theirs. However, not getting into a tiff over that, the Constitution issue is going to be with us all the way through this process. I do not know: we have had differences from the British Government, we have had different explanations of what they mean by a constitution or a set of articles or whatever you like to call it. There is, in my view, an important question, and that is that, in terms of supporting the national parliaments in the whole democratic process, we must at least make it clear what are the principles which we would use in deciding what should be the national parliaments' competence rather than the European Parliament's competence. For instance, it is extremely unclear and if we can get clarity through the work of the Convention, without going down the road of a constitution as such, then I for one would be very pleased and I think it is necessary.

  Tony Cunningham: One or two things have already been asked, but if I could just pick up on one or two points. Certainly the one thing I would wholeheartedly agree with you on is the Committee of the Regions. I am not even sure what it does. Having spent five years in the European Parliament and then the House of Commons, I have no idea who is on it, what they do or anything else, so the sooner they get rid of that the better.

  Angus Robertson: Speak your mind, Tony, come on.

Chairman

  216. A very searching question!
  (Mr Kirkhope) It would be nice to take something away from this, Chairman.

  Mr Hendrick: Why don't you sock it to ECOSOC as well.

Tony Cunningham

  217. Having said that, moving on to one or two questions. We have talked about the European Parliament being seen as irrelevant as far as the electors are concerned. You have made that point and the turnout of the European elections in 1999, where we had figures of less than 10 per cent in some areas, which was appalling. In what ways are you going to be going to the Convention? What ideas have you got to increase the relevance? Finally, on the Napolitano Report, what is your view on the emergence of a constituent power, exercised jointly by national parliaments, the Commission, the European Parliament and governments?
  (Mr Kirkhope) On the first point, this is a $64,000 question, is it not? I feel myself there are a number of problems which exist in the UK which do not exist in any other European country. First of all, in the UK we are blessed (if that is the right word—and I think it is probably the wrong word) with a media which simply does not want to know anything at all about what is going on in Europe, unless it is in some respects even slightly sensational. Of course those who have strong views about Europe—and I have known about this, as some in this room know—Europe at one stage in my political career was coming out of my ears night after night, as a whip—if you have a very polarised view about Europe, you are a total fanatic who wants to integrate absolutely everything—suddenly you are no longer going to be a Brummy, you are no longer going to be a Geordie, you are going to be a European citizen—and then of course you can get in the press if you say it enough. If, on the other hand, you want to pull us out of Europe and tell them all to go to blazes, and we are going to do our own thing on our own, do a Switzerland or whatever it may be, then of course you can get publicity in the media. But if you want to make positive constructive comments or even criticisms of the European situation . . . I can tell you now that the MEPs—and I am not going to be party political—from all parties who represent the UK here, in the vast majority of cases do an extremely good job. They work terribly hard. Those who have been in your department know that. They contribute a lot. Their work is of enormous significance from a British point of view as well as a European point of view, but to have that problem straight away .... And you have it in a slightly different way in London but it is not so bad. You have got a very, very strong lobby, you do get quite a lot of coverage of your goings on. The BBC for instance, Today in Parliament (although I know it has been reduced in time and all that sort of thing) and if you take a look at the Parliament Channel on Satellite. We see no reason why some of our debates—and I agree they look a little sparser even than yours, although yours are looking sparser every week, but, never mind, they should be on television ... There should be an interest in this somewhere and it just does not happen. That is one of the things. Secondly, we have been given an electoral system for the European Parliament from 1999 onwards which makes it extremely difficult, even in individual cases—not undesirable, but unnecessary—for Members of the European Parliament to connect with ordinary citizens. Under a PR system with a list, what is the point? The only people you need to connect with—let us be quite blunt about this—are members of your party. I, as a politician, just do not like that kind of thing and I ignore it to some extent. It is not that I do not like the members of my party—Anne, I think you are all wonderful people—but you cannot be a really true politician unless you actually are connecting with ordinary people and doing the work all over the patch that you represent. It is very, very difficult for us: massive regions, five million people, hundreds of square miles to cover. It is not easy to do that. The structural thing makes it difficult for us, the media makes it difficult for us, the British thing makes it difficult for us. Britain is of course part of Europe. We win more than we lose in terms of the arguments we have, actually. Maybe, in reality, some of you would disagree with me of what has actually happened with treaties and so on, but certainly in the parliament we win more arguments. We do very well from a British perspective and I think that is what we should continue to do, frankly. I am certainly not a Europhile—as I think quite a lot of people will know. I believe in a positive engagement. As far as this matter is concerned, there is this great scheme of things which says that we want to sort of bring this great coalition of positive forces together. I actually am not, myself, very keen on this unless and until we can restate precisely the functions of the constituent parts. We have problems in that. That is, I hope, one of the things that this Convention is going to do. It is unusual. I was on the Charter of Fundamental Rights—a very difficult experience, I have to say. I went on there with high hopes of reforming things, of getting the Ombudsman more powers, the Court of Auditors more powers, and taking power away from the Commission for the benefit of everybody. Of course I failed. My voice was one of only a few. My name was on all the posters as having been an architect of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. That is not something about which I am particularly pleased. I think, nevertheless, that it had a convention style: that everybody got together in different components. It did not quite work with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but I suspect that on this occasion, as long as we do not straightjacket ourselves too much, if we allow a lot of lateral thinking and fresh thoughts, we might just conceivably do some good out of this Convention, on that sort of grouping of all the national parliaments and other interests brought together. That is a good way, but I think other than that we have to be very, very cautious indeed.

Angus Robertson

  218. In your opening statement you made a bit of an exclusive statement about the debate being about "Europe and the regions" or about "national parliaments and regions". I come from what is described in some places as a region, but it is actually a nation which now has subsidiarity, has legislative powers, which has elected politicians who are responsible for a whole wide range of issues where their Westminster counterparts are not, and there is a concern that there is not a connection between their democratic responsibilities and what is going on at the European Union level. One of the proposals that has been made to try to counter this democratic deficit is that sub-state authorities with legislative powers should be designated "Partners of the Union" with certain specified rights. What is your view on that?
  (Mr Kirkhope) It is a very interesting thing about Scotland. I did not mention this but the Chairman knows this, I was, for four of my five years in the House of Commons Whips' Office, grandly titled the "Scottish Whip". I think the only success I can claim is that I . . . Oh, it is not a success. I am sorry, I will rephrase that entirely. I was going to say, "The only thing that really I could claim is that over my tenancy of that important job the number of Scottish Conservative MPs seemed to go down year by year," so, I suppose, maybe . . .

Chairman

  219. Congratulations.
  (Mr Kirkhope) I do not think it was much that I did. I am sure you would say that. But you cannot be everything, of course. It is entirely up to Scotland, under its devolution status, as to what it does on a whole range of issues now—and you have those set quite clearly, I think. You say you are a nation. You presumably claim that you are a nation for a lot of reasons—and I do not want to get into a discussion about that really. It is a bit like, I suppose, one of the German lender, Baden-Wu­rttemberg or Bavaria. I suppose they would claim a not dissimilar sort of status, after all, they do have some legislative powers within the federal structure of Germany. Those things are very clearly laid down as well. Their relationship with the European Union is a mixture of a regional connection, of course, and also a connection through their own national federal parliaments. You have heard from Professor McCormick, of course. He will have put the case, I think, very strongly that there should be a greater recognition. Although he is only an alternate, I am very pleased that he is making contributions, certainly from the European Parliament point of view, to the Convention and its work. I, myself, raised concerns about Scotland and about Wales in terms of any interests they might have in relation to the Convention, how those could be properly listened to. I do not intend, if you do not mind, to go any further down the argument of nation state for Scotland. I think at the present time you cannot better the fact that you are a region and accepted very much as a region in the same way as the northern part of England is a region which more and more feels at a disadvantage to the neighbouring region over the border.


 
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