Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 223 - 239)

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2002

RICHARD CORBETT

Chairman

  223. Richard, thank you for coming along here this morning. It is always a pleasure to see you. We have had two days of taking evidence as part of our inquiry into the future governance of Europe. We would like to ask you a few questions and I am sure you will be able to assist us when we are preparing our report, which will be published in April. If I could just ask the first question, Richard. Which of the matters covered by the Laeken declaration do you regard as most important for remedying the disconnection between citizens and the European Union institutions?

  (Mr Corbett) I think there is a lot of potential in the Laeken declaration and the Convention; there is no guarantee as to the results and the outcome. I think several practical steps could be taken. The first is simplification and clarification. I think it would be useful to codify and simplify the Treaties into a single document, perhaps with the more fundamental part up front and the small print in the second part. There is a separate question, as to whether the second part should be amendable by a separate and easier procedure. There is an argument for; there is an argument against that. It is not necessarily linked. Secondly, I think that we could also look at not just the codification of the treaty as it stands in legal terms but changes of substance, also along the lines of simplification; for instance, the fact that our main procedures in the European Union all have so many exceptions and areas where they do not apply. Let us take for instance a co-decision of Parliament and Council. I think it is healthy that European legislation has to pass two tests, two hurdles, two quality controls to be adopted: acceptability to the Council and acceptability to the European Parliament under co-decision, yet co-decision does not apply to agriculture, for instance, and certain other areas. I think the rule of thumb should be that it should apply to all legislation, not the measures that are not legislative. Parliament should not have co-decision on everything, but legislative matters that go to the Council should pass the extra test of acceptability to the European Parliament.

Miss McIntosh

  224. Richard, it is nice to see you again, over here and not in Yorkshire. In your evidence you say that the Council should meet in public when legislating. We have had quite a body of evidence on that. You also say that they should meet in public when they discuss reports of other European institutions. You would still favour, presumably, that they meet in private when they meet in an executive and administrative capacity. Can you just confirm that?
  (Mr Corbett) Yes.

  225. In opening up meetings to the public, how much difference do you and your colleagues believe it would make in practice?
  (Mr Corbett) First, I confirm that I am referring to Council acting in a legislative capacity. When it is dealing with foreign and security policy, I do not think it should meet in public. Secondly, I think this is a matter of principle, that when binding legislation is being adopted in a democratic system the enactment of that legislation should take place in public. We have actually come a long way, let us not forget that. The Council is now under an obligation to publish the results of any votes on legislation. That used not to be the case. The legislative documents that it considers are now available, in principle, to the public. Good. But I think it would be useful to go that one step further, that when it is actually adopting the legislation it should vote and adopt it in public. That of course does not preclude some element of private discussion beforehand. That is normal as well in democratic systems, but the actual vote should be in public.

  226. The word "comitology" is a dreadful turn-off if you are trying to explain it to the British public. Do you believe that there is an argument for opening up the working groups and the committees to the public and to greater public scrutiny? Do you believe it is practical and would bring advantages to do so?
  (Mr Corbett) It is done in America, I understand, for a lot of equivalent type committees. The case is less evident than for the actual adoption of mainstream European Union legislation by the Council. We are talking here about implementing measures, many of them highly technical, and I dare say that many of these committees, if they were open to the public, would not have very crowded galleries, so we are perhaps being even more theoretical when we talk about opening comitology type committees. What I think is the more important issue with regard to comitology is that, when Council and Parliament delegate implementing powers to the Commission, working with a committee, there should be the possibility to call it back when they make a mess of things. I do not anticipate this happening all the time, but the right to call back implementing measures and to have another look at them should be part of the system. At the moment the Council in a way can call things back indirectly, via the comitology committee, if there is not the necessary majority in the committee to support what the Commission wishes to do. If it is called back, though, it only goes to the Council. I think both Parliament and the Council should have the right, as it were, to blow the whistle—maybe by a special majority if you are afraid that that would happen too frequently—and if the whistle is blown then the measure should return for consideration to both Council and Parliament. If havoc were caused by the measure being suspended while that was happening, OK, maybe the measure should be enacted and not be suspended but could be reviewed and modified by that procedure, but I think it is important to have a procedure like that there as a safeguard—not anticipating that it would be used every month because there are thousands of such decisions, but that it be available when necessary.

  227. The conciliation process seems to be shrouded in mystery. Obviously I did participate in one of those processes when I was an MEP, but even as a committee we find it difficult to follow. Do you believe it is possible to make the conciliation process more open to the public without making the negotiations therein more protracted?
  (Mr Corbett) I do not think it should be too mysterious; after all, all it is saying is that if after two readings each Council and Parliament have not approved the same text, you have a committee to try to negotiate a compromise. But that compromise still has to be approved by both sides, which in Parliament's case involves debate and a vote in public on the floor of the House, and on Council's side perhaps in future will involve a vote in public. So I do not think it is too mysterious in terms of grasping the essentials but it of course remains a negotiation. Just as I said earlier that the preparatory phase of the Council's legislative work may well be in private but the actual enactment should be in public, I think perhaps that principle should apply to the Conciliation Committee as well.

Jim Dobbin

  228. Hello, Richard. This question is about the accountability of the Commission and it is in three parts. First of all, as far as the accountability of the Commission and individual Commissioners, do you think that accountability should be increased? The second question is: In your submission you appear to be cautious about the election of the Commission President, can you talk a bit about that and the wider consequences that you might be thinking about. Thirdly, do you think the European Parliament makes full use of its powers to scrutinise the detail of the work of the Commission?
  (Mr Corbett) The first question, which I think is probably linked to the third question in many ways, is often interpreted as being the question: Should the Parliament have the right to censure individual members of the Commission? There is a fear that that would undermine the collegiality of the Commission and what we have achieved over the last couple of years is in fact a reasonable compromise. There is anyway nothing to stop Parliament adopting a resolution criticising an individual commissioner and calling on him or her to resign. The President of the Commission now has the power to dismiss individual members of the Commission. I think that is probably a better way to do it rather than give Parliament the right to pick off individual members of the Commission with no come back, and dismiss them in one go, so I think that is a reasonable compromise. Crucially, that was lacking at the time of the Santer Commission. Jacques Santer, even had he wished to do so, could not have dismissed one or more of the individual members of the Commission. That is now being achieved de facto when Prodi constituted his Commission, and de jure if and when Nice is ratified. I think that is a reasonable compromise.

  On the question of whether the President of the Commission should be elected, I certainly do not think the President should be directly elected in sort of European-wide presidential elections. All our countries are parliamentary democracies; only France elects an executive president in direct elections. I think that the issue of whether the Parliament should elect the President of the Commission though is a more interesting one. I think my written evidence said there are arguments for and against. The argument for is the democratic argument that it is a more democratic way, but I think we need to go a bit beyond that and think of the dynamics of the system as a whole. I would like to approach it from a different angle. If you think about European elections every five years and compare them to national elections, they are different for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons is this: In national elections, although we are voting as citizens for a national parliament, most of us I think, certainly in this room, are really thinking about the government: "Do we want to keep this government or change it? Throw them out and give the other lot a chance, or give this lot another chance?" It is the government that people are thinking about, although they are voting for a parliament. Suddenly, every five years people are called upon to vote in European elections, where the only thing that is at stake is the exact balance among the political groups in what will anyway be a hung parliament. There is no visible effect. People cannot see heads rolling or staying as a result of their vote. There is no consequence at executive level of any sort. Some people say, "Let's have the Commission emerge from a majority in the Parliament"—presumably a majority coalition in the Parliament. That is perhaps going a little bit too far to say the whole Commission should do that. I think most Member States will want the Commission to be, as it is now, a sort of mixture, with a President but with members who are chosen with the agreement of the different Member State governments, reflecting the political reality in the different Member States. But the President, who does not rotate around the Member States—the President is always chosen by a specific separate decision—why not let that President be elected by the Parliament? What would inevitably follow is that, in the preceding European election campaign, people would of course say, "Who is your candidate?" so party groupings, party families would have to come up with candidates. The party of European Socialists might say, "Robin Cook is our candidate" for instance. The EPP might say, "Jacques Santer is our candidate! He was wonderful, bring him back"—but I expect they might find another candidate. It would add something to the election campaign. There would be a visible effect on the executive, there would be faces. That is the argument for. I am well aware that there are difficulties with it as well: Are there enough politicians who are well enough known in all Member States for that to work? Would the governments be comfortable working with a President of the Commission whom they have not formally had a role in choosing? - though of course informally, via party structures, I am sure they would be playing an important role in choosing the candidates. But I certainly think it is an issue that the Convention is going to look at because there are enough people who support the idea and it would be wise to think further in Britain on this as well.

Chairman

  229. You say there are some people who support it. We have not taken evidence from anybody who supports it. Where is the support? How would you identify the support?
  (Mr Corbett) I noticed that in the campaign in January for the election of the President of the European Parliament, both main candidates, Pat Cox and David Martin, supported this idea.

  Mr Hendrick: Klaus Hänsch did, Chairman. Klaus Hänsch supported it when he came here yesterday.

Chairman

  230. A direct election.
  (Mr Corbett) No, not direct election. Election by Parliament.

  231. I am sorry, I was referring to direct election.
  (Mr Corbett) I think direct election has little support.

Mr Hendrick

  232. Commissioner Barnier supported direct elections.
  (Mr Corbett) He is French. People do tend to look at their own national models, even European commissioners.

Mr Cash

  233. Could I ask a slightly different question. You have said a lot of very interesting things and I am interested to know your personal view. How do you see this position of political relationships, political parties, philosophies, in Europe? As soon as you start talking about, "Oh, this person will be elected from within the parliamentary process. We have got the Rainbows, we have got the different parties and their party lists, we do not have a whip system, so the fact is people can be taken off the party list by the leaders, etc," it all seems very dubious to me. But, anyway, the fact is that the bottom line for those of my persuasion politically is that, obviously, the degree to which the movement in political thought or political attitudes within electorates, once it is consolidated inside the European Parliament with that degree of legislative power to which it aspires and with the constitution to come, means that effectively—and this, I suspect, is what the real hierarchy have been thinking about—is you can change the whole nature of the political climate and attitude of the Continent as a whole in political terms and permanently have a certain kind of philosophy at work. What is your judgment about the direction in which that will go? Do you see it as an almost permanently Social Democratic Europe or do you think there are some cracks that are beginning to appear at the moment, with Stoiber and Schro­der, etc? What is your feeling about that? Because it does have a very direct bearing, as you say, changing reality, on the question of whether or not other people would be interested in going down any kind of reform route at all.
  (Mr Corbett) What you are saying is: Will we have a permanent Social Democratic consensus in Europe? Much as I might like the idea, the fact is that at the moment, for instance, it is the Christian Democrat group that are the largest one in the European Parliament, not the Socialist Democrats.

  Mr Cash: You can define your Christian Democrats according to whatever criteria, but, quite honestly, I do not see any difference between most Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Anyway, that is another story. Anne is looking in disbelief, but—

  Miss McIntosh: You and the CSU would get on very well, Bill.

Mr Cash

  234. No, the CSU are fine. If you look at the whole question of social agendas, the Christian Democrats go along with it. That is really what I am talking about—not the immigration stuff, I do not agree with that, but ...
  (Mr Corbett) I will tell this to my Christian Democrat colleagues in the Parliament. I am sure they will be delighted.

  235. The EPP problem we have in the Conservative party is reflecting what I am saying and that is really the thought that is at the back of my mind—I mean, if the groupings gravitate around a certain attitude. In other words, I do not agree with you that, for the most part, the kind of attitudes that reflect the centre right are necessarily reflected by the CDU. But let's jump that. What is your general view?
  (Mr Corbett) I think the Parliament reflects a very broad variety of views, because of course every Member State uses proportional representation, so we range from the far right to the former Communists, via the Greens, the Liberals and so on. There is a very wide range of views in the European Parliament. What is remarkable is the style of its day-to-day operation, which is less adversarial than Westminster and more consensual in style. You work by processes of explanation, persuasion and negotiation to achieve a result in the European Parliament, rather than just adversarial debating with, in the end, whatever the executive has proposed being adopted anyway. It is a different style of parliament.

  May I also take issue with some of what I think you were hinting at in your premise. List systems, you say, where the party leaders just put people on or take them off. I think that depends on the internal democratic systems of political parties and how they choose their lists. There are few parties in Europe that just allow their leaders to compose lists, if any, and not any major parties actually, if you were to look through the different parties. As to whipping, you said there is no whipping in the European Parliament. There is whipping. Most groups vote cohesively most of the time. It is less strict than in some national parliaments—and some people would say that is a good thing—but there is whipping, in that, once the group reaches a position by its internal process of explanation, persuasion and negotiation, most people stick to the group line most of the time.

  236. Article 2 says that there must not be any of that.
  (Mr Corbett) No, article 2 says that, as in almost every parliament, members may not receive binding, legally binding, instructions from outside.

  237. Is that not the same thing.
  (Mr Corbett) But voluntarily accepting the whipping system—just as you do in Westminster—you are always free to resign the whip if you wish to.

Chairman

  238. There is a sort of loose use of the adjective "voluntarily" here.
  (Mr Corbett) Members are free to resign the whip if they wish to. You speak of the legislative powers that the Parliament aspires to. The Parliament has largely achieved the level of legislative power that it wishes, in that we have said that if a matter is legislative, going to Council, it should also require approval from the European Parliament. That is now true for most significant European legislation. There are some gaps in it. It is a different matter to argue what should be dealt with at European level and what should be dealt with at national level, but if something is being dealt with at European level, if the EU is legislating, then it should also require European Parliamentary scrutiny as well, which is complementary to the scrutiny that is done by national parliaments: national parliaments each over their own member of the Council; us dealing with Council as an institution collectively. The two are complementary. But, in terms of your hint that there is a general consensus in Europe of which Britain perhaps is not a part, no, I think you will find as much pluralism and diversity across Europe as we do in our own country—but a different style of operation.

Tony Cunningham

  239. On subsidiarity, Richard, do you see a need for any changes at all in respect of subsidiarity and the delimitation of competences? On a second point, this report from Mr Lamassoure, could you comment on that? What exactly is your personal view of his proposal for a constitutional court through which the principle of subsidiarity could be enforced?
  (Mr Corbett) Subsidiarity is a very important principle which everybody subscribes to; the devil is in the detail of applying it in practice. I am not convinced that adding extra sentences to the Treaty is really the answer. We have had the Edinburgh declaration; we have had the article put in the Treaty in Maastricht; we have had the protocol added to the Treaty of Amsterdam. I think subsidiarity in the treaty sense has been done to death. But if the fear is that the EU is over-centralising( nooks and crannies and so on), then I think really it must be up to politicians to do their job properly and not rely on the phrases in the Treaty. Let us not forget that any European legislation of any significance whatsoever requires the approval of the Council. Who sits on the Council? National ministers, members of national governments accountable to national parliaments; not people who are inherently pre-disposed to centralise everything in Brussels. Indeed, we need to convince at least a qualified majority of them; that is nearly three-quarters of the weighted votes in the Council. That should be the safeguard against over-centralisation. On top of that you have scrutiny from the Parliament and so on. If all else fails, you can now already go to the court on the grounds of subsidiarity or that the EU has acted ultra vires. Mr Lamassoure's draft report, in the latest version, the version we will be voting on in the constitutional committee, now points out that the court that we have, the Court of Justice, to an extent does, but certainly can perhaps more, fulfil that constitutional role. The Court of Justice did strike down legislation quite recently on the ground that the Union had gone beyond what was—


 
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