Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 240 - 257)

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2002

RICHARD CORBETT

  240. What was that?
  (Mr Corbett) The tobacco advertising directive. Perhaps that might happen more often, but I would say that essentially it is up to the political processes to safeguard subsidiarity and it is after all political judgment in most cases whether you need to take action at the European level or not. The onus should be to prove that you do and the onus is built in by the fact that you need a qualified majority in the Council to take any action.

Mr David

  241. So you do not see any role for national parliamentarians in any possible new structure having an input on subsidiarity?
  (Mr Corbett) I think that the key role for national parliamentarians is scrutiny over their own ministers. Each parliament has set up its own system for this in accordance with its own traditions and constitutions. Some do it better than others. I think national parliaments could learn a lot from each other in that respect as well, through COSAC, which, as you know, has been a useful place to exchange these ideas. In Nordic countries, the ministers (to exaggerate slightly) go via the relevant parliamentary committee on their way to the airport when going to Brussels and on their way back from the airport when returning. I think that is good scrutiny and oversight. The suggestion that there should be another body, a new body of national parliamentarians as a sort of third chamber in the system, is one which is interesting (and it is good to see Britain coming up with constructive ideas, but I think that it poses a lot of problems as to how it would actually work in practice. The European Parliament pre-1979 was composed of delegates from the different national parliaments. It did not work very well. That is one reason we moved to having a full-time parliament. It was difficult for members to do two jobs at the same time. The majorities were haphazard: one day there would be no Brits present because of an important division in the House of Commons, the next day there would be no Germans because of an important debate in the Bundestag, so it was very haphazard as a body and it frankly did not work very well. Of course the ministers in the Council anyway reflect majorities in their national parliaments, so trying to get a national body to sort of second-guess their own ministers in a different forum at European level, whereas they should be thrashing that out in their own national parliament, I think poses a lot of problems.

Chairman

  242. This issue about a second chamber—you say third chamber, super-senate—other than our good friends the French and the UK, where is the support coming from for this?
  (Mr Corbett) Yes, you are right to say France. France has pushed it for years—at the time of Maastricht, when it did not get anywhere and it still has not. No other obvious source of support springs to mind. I think the Portuguese parliament is sympathetic to it, if I am not mistaken.

Mr Cash

  243. You are obviously right when you are talking about the balance between the juridical and the political implications of subsidiarity. Quite clearly, if it is a treaty, it is going to go to the court and nothing can be done to stop it. The question is whether what is being done is such that it would ever get to the point where it went to the court, so that the political input at that point is the question of judgment as to whether or not the people sitting round the table, who are about to legislate, decide that they are going to go down the route which, to put it in broad terms, perhaps would encroach more on national sovereignty. Because subsidiarity is a bit like that Alice in Wonderland thing, that a word ". . . means what I choose it to mean . . . The question is, which is to be master—that's all." The real question in there is: What is that judgment and how is it to be struck? Now when you were just asked the question, "Do you see the national parliaments being excluded from that process?"—bearing in mind the British context, where of course ministers are in fact accountable to Parliament and are in Parliament—clearly there must be a point, seen through our end of the telescope in the UK at any rate, where we would expect a degree of involvement. If there was a blatant disregard, and, shall we say, in the context of majority voting, when they were moving towards a situation—and this committee could be involved at that stage—where it was obvious that there was an infringement of treaty base/subsidiarity and we really got very concerned about it, we would not change the Treaty—although I would argue for renegotiation for ever—but the bottom line is, looked at at that point of time, that the only remedy we would have available would be to put intense pressure on the then government through the parliamentary process to say, "Sorry, chums, we are just not going to allow this to happen." At that point—and I do not know whether this would apply in other countries—some of us might argue—in fact I have already argued—that we should impose an effective parliamentary veto. I mentioned this to Vitorino yesterday at lunch and he said, "Well, if you want to get out, that's your problem." But the fact is that it is not a question of getting out; it is a much more subtle and much more important question because it goes to the heart of how subsidiarity works. If there is a blatant disregard, do you not agree, therefore, that national parliaments should have some mechanism or make a mechanism available to themselves, to say, "We are not going to go down this route" and vote accordingly? Do you know something? We may have this in the Extradition Bill quite soon because Bob Ainsworth has already said to us in respect of the question of guarantees of retrials in absentia that the British Government is simply not going to accept the idea that there would not be a retrial.
  (Mr Corbett) I think the national parliament's role—which is a vital one and no doubt could be improved—is discussion with its own country's representative in the Council, which is a minister from their own government, which is a government accountable to that national parliament, and that there should be adequate means of dialogue and influence through that. One could construct a hypothesis, as I think you were beginning to do, that maybe the Commission makes a proposal which, despite the Commission's own obligation to respect the principle of subsidiarity, violates it, goes beyond subsidiarity; that, despite that, it is still approved by the European Parliament; that, despite that, you have a qualified majority—which is a very large majority in the Council—or, in cases that need unanimity, unanimity in the Council, that also take the view that this proposal is all right, although in your view it still violates subsidiarity. It is possible, if that happens—and it has happened at least once—you could still then appeal to the court and the court has at least once struck down legislation on that ground. So there are several levels of safeguard in all of this. The court should be "If all else fails" and that is perhaps why it has actually happened so rarely, it is so unusual. We tend to forget that Member States are themselves centrally involved in the adoption of European legislation. It is not imposed from "Brussels" or the Commission, which is portrayed as some huge body with tentacles everywhere, whereas in fact it has fewer employees than Leeds City Council and is quite a tiny body. If all else fails, though, you can go to court. But that raises a point: Who can go to court? Clearly it is to safeguard minorities. As it stands, every single Member State can go to court to have a legislative measure overturned on grounds of subsidiarity or other grounds that I have mentioned in the committee. I think that is right. The European Parliament will be able to go to court. Somebody suggested that national parliaments and, indeed, regional parliaments should be given that right. Well, perhaps. There is a difficulty though, because, since the national government has the right anyway, why give that right to national parliaments? It would only work if the national parliament wants to do it when the government does not.

  244. That is the whipping system.
  (Mr Corbett) In other words, you are expecting national parliaments to take a different position on such a very important question, from their own government. In that sense, are you not saying that the European court, of all places, will settle the difference of view between the national parliament and its own government? Surely that sort of battle is best settled in the national context rather than in the European court one.

Angus Robertson

  245. This touches on the point that you have just made. I want to ask you about your view on the proposals for "Partners of the Union" for sub-state legislatures, regions, stateless nations, and for legislative powers. That follows on quite nicely to the point that you were just making with regard to the European Court of Justice because, of course, sub-state legislatures have no legal personality, so, despite the fact that they may be legislating in areas, to take your example, the tobacco directive, or the issue of lander rights in Germany, that may be the case, say, for example, in Scotland and whisky.
  (Mr Corbett) Or fishing.

  246. Or fishing.
  (Mr Corbett) In the draft Lamassoure report he has come up with this, I think, rather elegant idea, frankly, of saying, "Let each Member State decide for itself whether it wishes to submit a list of its own regions, regional authorities, sub-national legislatures, which would be given this partner status." I think that is the right way to do it if you are going to go down this road, because if you start to have a definition at EU level as to what constitutes a region with the appropriate level of powers, and that is an EU decision which might in the end be litigated in the European court, I think that would be wrong. Everyone accepts it is up to each Member State to decide how to organise itself internally, whether it wishes to devolve or not, what it wishes to devolve and how it wants to structure its internal bodies. So I am quite attracted by the Lamassoure proposal. Whether that should include giving every sub-national parliament the right to litigate in the courts is perhaps a more difficult question. I have no further thought on that particular aspect of it. But the idea that these partner regions or partner authorities should be given some rights at least to information and consultation and partnership and dialogue I think is sensible.

Mr Tynan

  247. First of all, congratulations on the paper. I think it is a very good paper you have produced. In the first part of it you talk about the underlying reasons for their apparent disconnection and you go through the whole process as regards how you see it and what can be done. At the end of the day you accept the fact that the European Parliament is far away and, under those circumstances, there is a disconnection, but you say that is not a fault of the European Parliament but more a fault of the national electorate. On that basis, how would you see the European Parliament being made more relevant to the electorate?

  (Mr Corbett) The point I was making is that the EU institutions as a whole, not just the Parliament, are inevitably more distant from citizens than national and local institutions. Serving half a continent—a whole continent in the future—they are bound to be further away, they are bound to be more remote, and, using less familiar procedures, a multiplicity of languages, they are more complex. That is a fact of life that we will never completely overcome. That is one reason not to act at European level unless there is a real need to do so. You should decentralise wherever possible and only centralise where necessary, but, to the extent that you are acting at European level, it is incumbent upon us to make the system as understandable to the public as possible and as open and as accountable and as democratic as possible. As I have said, I think that means having extra safeguards rather than fewer safeguards: the legislation has to pass two tests, not just acceptability to ministers meeting in the Council, but also the directly elected Parliament.

  How to make the Parliament more relevant? We touched on one way earlier, when we talked about whether electing the President of the Commission would be a visible way of showing that Parliament has a key choice to make in terms of individuals. But I also think that a key thing was achieved with the Treaty of Amsterdam, when that came into force, which meant that the bulk of EU legislation has to be approved by Parliament as well as Council. After all, that is what people expect of a parliament in many ways. If draft legislation is rejected by a parliament, it will not take effect, it will not become law. If it is accepted, then, yes, it can become law. We have only had that for three years. It is relatively new. Even in political circles it is only beginning to sink in. It has yet to percolate to the wider public, but I think it is gradually doing so, we are gradually losing this reputation that the European Parliament is just a talking shop. People are beginning to realise it has decisive influence on legislation.

Mr David

  249. You said earlier you wanted to see co-decision extended. Some people have suggested that the European Parliament has difficulty actually coping with the co-decision powers at the moment. Is that the case?
  (Mr Corbett) No, I do not think that is the case. The procedures have sometimes been lengthy, but the lengthiest part of the procedure is usually the Council's first reading, the time it takes to achieve a qualified majority in the Council in its first reading. Second readings and third readings are anyway time limited.

Mr Hendrick

  250. Conciliations sometimes last well into the early hours of the night. I have been sat in one for about eight hours before.
  (Mr Corbett) Particular conciliation meetings can sometimes last long, but the conciliation phase is limited to six weeks, so in terms of a legislative procedure—

  251. The phase is six weeks, accepted, but the amount of time and effort that has to go into some conciliations is phenomenal.
  (Mr Corbett) That happens in any negotiation, that some meetings sometimes are lengthy. Remember that most co-decision legislative procedures do not go to conciliation. In most cases, the first and second readings in each institution are enough to reach agreement. It is a minority of cases that go to conciliation. It is a minority of those in which the Conciliation Committee needs more than one meeting.

Mr Tynan

  252. We have had three years, we are going to have elections in 2004, do you believe that that will improve the turnout at that time? Do you believe that is an ongoing process? Do you believe the convention will be useful in making sure people are aware of the European Parliament and the institutions and the benefits?
  (Mr Corbett) I think potentially, yes. I think potentially, but there is no guarantee. Turnout of course is declining in all kinds of elections at the moment. We have just had the lowest turnout for a national election, and lowest for local elections. And this is not just Britain: several member States have faced falling turnouts in all kinds of elections. The European Parliament turnout Europe-wide averaged 49.5/50 per cent, falling as low as 24/25 per cent in Britian.

Mr Cash

  253. It got down to 9 per cent in one place.
  (Mr Corbett) The US Congressional elections three years ago it was 48 per cent, falling as low as 17 per cent in Nevada.

  254. It was down to 9 per cent in Liverpool.
  (Mr Corbett) Well, no doubt you could find a particular ward in Nevada where it was 3 per cent! At least the European Parliament is doing better than the United States Congress, but, so what? It is not good figures, nor is it for national parliaments in recent elections and it is a challenge for democracy at all levels.

Chairman

  255. Thank you very much for coming along. The time has caught up with us again. I just have one question to ask and that is a straightforward, one-sentence question: What role should the European Parliament have in COSAC?
  (Mr Corbett) I think the role it plays now. It participates in COSAC. I think that is useful. It has the same sized delegation as all the national parliaments. I think we also provide a lot of technical assistance. I think it is often European parliamentary interpreters who enable COSAC to meet. In that COSAC's greatest asset, in my view, is enabling the national parliamentarians who are centrally involved in European issues to meet regularly, to get to know each other, to network and so on, it is equally useful to network with the European Parliament as well as with each national parliament. I think the role that the European Parliament plays should continue. I have not, by the way, heard any suggestions that the European Parliament should be excluded from COSAC. Or did you mean its delegation should be increased?

  256. You were not at the Helsinki COSAC—
  (Mr Corbett) No, I missed that.

  257. Well, Richard, thank you very much for coming along. It has been very interesting.
  (Mr Corbett) Thank you.


 
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