Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The Rt Hon Peter Hain MP, Minister for Europe at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

1.  What are the underlying reasons for the apparent "disconnection" between national electorates and the EU?

  There is no definitive answer to this question. But there is recent evidence of the problem: the result of the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Nice and the decreasing turnout in EP elections. In my view, there are a number of possible reasons:

    (i)  A general trend in many countries to non-participation in the orthodox political process: seen in the US as well as across Europe.

    (ii)  The language. Eurospeak can obscure the benefits of the EU for ordinary people. Member states are as guilty as the EU institutions. The Government is committed to cutting through the jargon. The Commission's recent White Paper on Governance is a welcome step in the right direction.

    (iii)  The disconnection from national parliaments. There is a need to involve national legislatures more closely in shaping and monitoring EU decisions (see below).

    (iv)  Institutional introspection. The way that the EU functions is vital. Its institutions need reform. But there is sometimes a tendency in European debate to focus too exclusively on institutional issues. Most voters do not appear to care much about these. What they do want is an EU that delivers practical benefits in their everyday lives. That is one reason why the Government attaches so much importance to the EU's practical agenda for boosting prosperity, creating jobs etc.

    (v)  Confusion over who does what. The Treaties are difficult to read. The balance of responsibility between the institutions is hard to understand. And the demarcation of powers between the EU and the member states is unclear. That is why the Government agreed at Nice that the next Intergovernmental Conference in 2004 should address Treaty simplification and the demarcation of competences between the EU and the member states.

    (vi)  Lack of consultation. The EU is improving the way it consults its citizens on issues of concern to them. The preparations for the next Intergovernmental Conference are a good example. With UK support, it was agreed at Nice that this will be preceded by an open and wide debate on the Future of Europe at national and European level. This is an opportunity for everyone to contribute to shaping the future EU.

    (vii)  Worries about excessive interference. Member States agree legislation; and are often behind ideas for new legislation. So this isn't exclusively the fault of the Brussels institutions. But there is a perception that the EU does too much, at too detailed a level.

2.  How can decision-making be made more open and governments more accountable for the decisions they make in the Council? Is it essential for a more open and accountable EU that the Council meet in public when legislating?

  The Government is keen to enhance accountability and openness in the way the EU does business.

  Governments are already accountable for decisions they make in the Council. British Ministers are accountable to Parliament: scrutiny, Parliamentary Questions, debates, and the work of the select committees all help ensure this. And in the UK any change to the EU treaties requires primary legislation.

  EU decision-making is already quite open. Council schedules, agendas, conclusions, minutes, documents going to the Councils and draft legislation are all available to the public. With the Government's support, the recent Regulation on Access to Documents has taken this a further step forward, providing a public right of access to almost all unpublished documents held by the EU institutions. The Council also holds public debates on issues before it at least once per Presidency.

  The Government believes the Council should meet in public when adopting legislation.

3.  WHAT SHOULD THE ROLE OF REFERENDUMS BE IN THE EU? HOW SHOULD THE EU RESPOND TO NATIONAL REFERENDUMS, AND COULD THERE BE A ROLE FOR EUROPE-WIDE REFERENDUMS?

  Referendums are matters for individual Member States. Amendments to the EU treaties, for example, require ratification by all member states. In most countries, such as the UK, that involves a Parliamentary process (in the UK it requires primary legislation). Some member states, such as Denmark, France and Ireland, have also held referendums as part of this process, depending on the content of the proposed Treaty change. Denmark, for example, held two referenda on the Maastricht Treaty but none on the Nice Treaty.

  As regards the latest Irish referendum on the Treaty of Nice, the position is clear: unless all member states, including Ireland, ratify the Treaty it will not enter into force. The UK and the other member states have stressed the importance of the Treaty for successful enlargement, and underlined their readiness to help the Irish government address the issues arising from the referendum.

4.  WOULD ELECTION OF THE COMMISSION OR THE PRESIDENT OF THE COMMISSION EITHER DIRECTLY OR BY THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT (A) BE APPROPRIATE OR (B) CONTRIBUTE TO RECONNECTING ELECTORATES WITH THE EU?

  The Council is already composed of representatives of democratically elected governments. The European Parliament is composed of democratically elected MEPs.

  The Commission needs to be independent and be seen to act in the interests of all. An elected Commission President could be seen as partisan and therefore have less authority to carry out the Commission's vital role as guardian of the Treaties. If, for example, the Commission President were elected by the dominant group in the EP how politically independent would s/he be?

5.  SHOULD THERE BE ANY NEW INSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS TO GIVE NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS A MORE IMPORTANT ROLE IN THE EU, SUCH AS THE SECOND CHAMBER PROPOSED BY THE PRIME MINISTER OR INVOLVEMENT OF NATIONAL PARLIAMENTARIANS IN THE COUNCIL? (THE COMMITTEE WILL TAKE ACCOUNT OF THE RESULTS OF THE LORDS COMMITTEE'S INQUIRY INTO THE SECOND CHAMBER PROPOSAL.)

  The Prime Minister's proposal for a Chamber of national parliamentarians is designed to strengthen the links between national parliaments and the EU. It has three main purposes. First, it could serve to re-connect national parliaments, and national parliamentarians, with decision making in Brussels. Secondly it could help provide a solution to defining where the EU should act and where action should be left to the individual member states. And third, the Chamber could provide oversight of areas of EU activity which go beyond the traditional work of the Community, such as European defence, and justice and home affairs.

6.  WHAT CHANGES ARE NEEDED TO THE EU'S LEGISLATIVE PROCESS TO FACILITATE DEMOCRATIC SCRUTINY BEFORE DECISIONS ARE MADE? FOR EXAMPLE, IS THERE ADEQUATE CONSULTATION AT EARLY ENOUGH STAGES; AND SHOULD THERE BE TOUGHER RULES ON ALLOWING TIME FOR SCRUTINY BY NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS?

  The Government is committed to ensuring that Westminster plays the fullest part possible in scrutinising European legislation. That is why the UK supported the Protocol on the role of National Parliaments annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty, which (among other things) stipulates that there should be a minimum period of six weeks between the tabling of a legislative proposal and decision in the Council, (to allow time for national scrutiny). It is also why the Government conducted an overhaul of domestic scrutiny processes, as outlined in the White Paper of November 1998.

  The effectiveness of scrutiny procedures varies enormously between the Member States: and to some extent this will always depend on parliamentary time-tables and how they mesh with EU business. But UK scrutiny arrangements are now generally acknowledged as among the most developed in the EU.

7.  COULD NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS PLAY A GREATER ROLE IN INFORMING THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE EU AND ITS ACTIVITIES, AND IN CHANNELLING THE PUBLIC'S VIEWS TO EU INSTITUTIONS?

  Yes. The British Parliament, its Members and its Committees already play a significant role in informing the public about EU issues. The Government already reflects, in its dealings with EU partners and the EU institutions, the views of the UK public and Parliament. But the Government would welcome greater direct contact between Westminster and the Commission, European Parliament and individual member states' governments.

8.  WHAT IS THE POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTION OF DELIMITATION OF COMPETENCES, SUBSIDIARITY AND VARIABLE-SPEED EUROPE TO REDUCING ANY "DISCONNECTION" BETWEEN ELECTORATES AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS? WOULD A CLEAR STATEMENT OF THE EU'S PURPOSE HELP? WHAT IMPACT WILL ENLARGEMENT HAVE?

  The Government believes that greater clarity over what the EU does and does not do would help reassure the public. The EU's agreed principles for this are good. Subsidiarity requires that the EU should act only if the member states cannot achieve the aim on their own. Proportionality requires that when the EU does act, it should do so as lightly as possible, leaving as much as possible to the member states themselves. But these principles have not always been fully respected in practice. Nor are they well understood by the general public.

  So as the Prime Minister suggested in his Warsaw speech it makes sense to clarify the principles by which it is decided whether and how the EU will act in a given area, and find mechanisms (including perhaps a chamber of national parliamentarians) to make those principles better respected in practice. Designing arrangements to do this will be one of the main tasks for the 2004 IGC.

  A positive first step is the proposal in the Commission's White Paper on European Governance. This proposes giving greater priority, from 2002, to the Annual Subsidiarity Report on how the principle is applied by the Union in pursuing its main goals.

  The Government also believes that a more flexible EU will help sustain popular support. And a more flexible EU will be necessary after enlargement. That is why the Government supported new arrangements in the Treaty of Nice for "enhanced cooperation"—allowing groups of member states to move ahead in certain areas covered by the EU treaties without a requirement for all member states to participate. The Government does not believe, however, that such cooperation should be allowed to undermine eg the Single Market, or create a two-tier Europe: the Treaty of Nice makes this clear.

  The EU treaties (eg Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union) already set out the EU's objectives. But there may be a case for a clearer statement of the EU's core tasks. The Government also sees a strong case, as the Prime Minister proposed in Warsaw, for an annual EU agenda set by the European Council. This would allow all Europe's citizens to see what was being done in their name.

9.  WHAT CONTRIBUTION CAN BE MADE BY REGIONAL AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND DEVOLVED INSTITUTIONS IN THE UK AND ELSEWHERE, AND SHOULD THE EU HAVE ANY NEW INSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS IN THIS RESPECT?

  The relationship between member states' central governments and their devolved, regional or local authorities is a matter for member states, not the EU.

  But the Government agrees that regional and local interests have a voice in Europe. The 1998 devolution arrangements give certain responsibilities in EU matters to the Devolved Administrations, and provide for consultation between the Devolved Administrations and the UK Government on the range of EU issues. And the Government supports an active Committee of the Regions (COR), which plays a consultative role on a number of areas of EC legislation.

  The Government also welcomes improved consultation between EU institutions and the devolved, regional and local authorities. The Commission's White Paper on Governance proposes a Code of Conduct on consultation intended to give a greater sense of participation by regions etc, in eg framing legislation.

10.  WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT IN PROMOTING A MORE DEMOCRATIC EU? IS THERE SCOPE FOR MORE CO-OPERATION BETWEEN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS?

  Of all the EU institutions, it is the EP which has changed most significantly since the Treaty of Rome was signed. It is now directly-elected and has wide-ranging legislative powers: over 80 per cent of EU legislation is co-decided by the Council and the EP. It is also, with the Council, the joint budgetary authority of the Community. The EP can require the resignation of the Commission and can vote on the appointment of a new Commission. The EP's assent is required for the conclusion of major international treaties between the Community and third countries and for the accession of new member states.

  So the EP clearly and rightly plays an important role in promoting a democratic and accountable EU. So too, of course, do national parliaments. The Government therefore supports greater co-operation between national Parliaments and the EP. This is one of the reasons underpinning the Prime Minister's Second Chamber proposal.

11.  HOW SHOULD THE DEBATE ON THE FUTURE OF EUROPE BE CONDUCTED, EG SHOULD THERE BE A CONVENTION, AND IF SO, HOW COULD IT BE MADE REPRESENTATIVE AND HOW SHOULD IT OPERATE?

  It was agreed at Nice that the 2004 Intergovernmental Conference should be preceded by a wide and deep debate, involving all stakeholders. The Government believes that there should be two strands to this: national debates, which are already taking place in member states in accordance with their own traditions and circumstances; and debate at European level, involving elected representatives from national parliaments.

  For this second strand, the Government would like to see a Convention involving national parliamentarians, MEPs, and representatives of member states and the applicant countries, augmented by a process, or a structure, to allow business, unions, civil society and NGOs to make their contribution.

  The composition and working methods of the Convention and associated structures are still under discussion, and are likely to be agreed at the Laeken European Council in December. The Convention will feed its ideas, in the form of options, into the Intergovernmental Conference. But decisions on treaty change will remain for member states themselves in the IGC. This is right: treaty changes are choices of national governments about what powers they wish to share at EU level and the governments are in turn accountable to their electorates and parliaments for their choices.

30 September 2001


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 21 June 2002