Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002

SIR STEPHEN WALL KCMG, LVO, MR MICHAEL ROBERTS AND MR PHILIP BUDDEN

  400. You regret the publicity but not the sentiment.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I stand by the sentiment for the reason I gave. I said it, it is what I think and it would be foolish of me to come here now and say that I did not mean what I said because it would imply that I was not in control of my own mouth. I think that the role of a civil servant is to be in the background and to that extent I do regret it.

  Mr Connarty: I think you have made a very good attempt to try to explain it. It was a very good analogy but slightly misunderstood. I think I understood what you were trying to say when I read your words. I would not have taken it from the headlines in the press.

Angus Robertson

  401. All of the members of the Committee have read the joint letter from Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Schröder to Prime Minister Aznar with great interest and obviously we have a lot of queries about ideas for reforming the Council in particular. May I ask you about co-ordination between different councils and ensuring that council business makes progress between meetings and finding a way to make that possible post-enlargement when it will be much more difficult? Is there any sign of consensus among Member States on whether reform is needed and what form that should take?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) On the first point, that there is a need for reform, yes. On what form it should take, there is not at this juncture. The Foreign Secretary put forward some ideas in a speech in The Hague just before Barcelona which included a way of changing the six-monthly presidency, and I think there is a growing feeling among our partners that the six-monthly presidency does not really work. If you sat down with a blank sheet of paper you would not devise a system which changed the chair every six months. In addition to putting a very great burden on individual countries, it also means you get rather artificial peaks in the business. At the same time, most Member States attach a lot of importance to the commitment to the work of the European Union that having the presidency gives them, hence the ideas that the Foreign Secretary put forward which were based really on giving Member States a longer period in the chair in individual councils and then possibly setting up a group of the chairs of those individual councils to try to ensure that there was better co-ordination across the range of business. So if you get an issue like sustainable development, there can be discussions which would involve the chair of the Environment Council, the chair of the Agriculture Council and other relevant councils to make sure that the business is being done. One other thing we need to look at in that context is the role of the Council Secretariat because the extent to which it has been used or not used has been a matter of choice largely from individual presidencies. Some countries use the Secretariat more than others, but most people would agree that whatever the Council formation, there is greater scope for the provision of information to Ministers, so that when, take the General Affairs Council as an example because it is the one I know best, the General Affairs Council is, say, dealing with Macedonia in one month and Macedonia in the next month, it is quite useful for them to have shortly before the meeting a note from the Council Secretariat to say that "Last month you took X and Y decision. This is what has been done in the meantime to implement it. This is what we think you now need to focus on when you meet next week". To an extent that happens but it is a bit hit and miss at the moment and there is scope for what I would call introducing greater consistency and professionalism in the way we as Member States in the Council work with the Secretariat which services us to organise our business.

  402. You will be aware that one of the big ideas being floated is about the Council meeting in public and legislating. Has the Government thought through the practical implications of the Council meeting in public when legislating? How much of the discussion about legislation would be on the record in practice?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) We are starting to. We have not reached a view yet and we shall have to talk to our partners about it. The breakthrough is that even two years ago this was considered a pretty controversial idea and certainly when I was working in Brussels and we discussed it in the Committee of Permanent Representatives, there was a group, probably a majority of countries, including ourselves, who supported it, but quite a few countries which did not. I do not think there is a single country now which does not support it, so that in itself is a breakthrough. We already have a system of public debates at the start of a presidency, for example in the General Affairs Council and in other Councils. One possibility obviously is to have a second reading debate on each item of legislation which could be public. There clearly does need to be the ability for Ministers to negotiate privately as in any setup but then when it actually comes to the point of legislation, and I agree that what the point of legislation is is a slightly flexible concept, then there clearly should be a meeting in public with it clear to the public how Member States are voting. When people in Brussels come to look at the way they actually arrange meeting rooms in the building for enlargement, we ought to go for something which does not just depend on the debate being televised, but actually has a public gallery so people can be there and see what happens. The picture I have always had in my own mind is rather like the UN Security Council. Quite a lot of the negotiation on a difficult resolution goes on in the corridors, but there is nonetheless a substantive public debate. It is not just for form's sake and people see the voting. At the moment a lot of issues which have effectively been negotiated and do not need to be negotiated at ministerial level go through the so-called A points; they are simply listed at the start of the Council and effectively nodded through. Now we shall have to look again at that system because if you are going to have votes on legislation then clearly you have to have a system where things are not just nodded through without the public knowing what it is that is being voted on at any one time.

  403. Do you think this might give a push for governments of all Member States to be a little more open about the positions they took in Council meetings and perhaps be a little more open about the position they are trying to take before they go into Council meetings?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I guess that would be almost an inevitable consequence of it.

Mr Steen

  404. We do not meet in public, except when you are here. So if we are talking about governments meeting in public, even the Select Committee does not meet in public, so we are going to have to look at that as well.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) Yes; sure.

  405. Some people call me a euro-sceptic, but it is not true: I am a euro-realist. As a euro-realist, may I ask you about the Commission, because that seems to me to be part of the bogeyman of Europe? It is seen as a collection of faceless bureaucrats who initiate laws which are out of control of politicians and they have their own agenda. They are scheming in Brussels and ruining our way of life in Britain. That is the concept of the real euro-sceptic. It is the difference between the idea that politicians here in theory set the ball going, but in Brussels and Europe it is the officials who set the ball going and all the politicians do in Europe is to halt the ball, whereas in Britain we do not even start the ball moving if the politicians do not want it. I think the reform of the Commission is critical in terms of getting more people on side, certainly in this country. Could you say something about that and what the British Government's position is? Could you also say something that an awful lot of things would have had to have happened in Britain with regard to changing laws if the Commission did not exist because they cover an awful lot of things we have to do anyway. I am just wondering what your view is about repatriation of those powers back to Britain, other than the bits which are beneficial to Britain and all the other countries involved?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) We are not seeking to change the basis on which the treaties were written, including the Commission's right of initiative and the Commission's role as guardian of the treaties and ensuring that the treaties are enforced. Obviously there is a balance to be struck but the reason the treaties were devised in that way was to avoid what those who wrote the treaties feared would otherwise be the lowest common denominator of inter-governmental agreement. We believe that even if you keep, as you should, that basic institutional balance, there are better ways of running things. The role of the European Council, the role of the heads of government in actually setting the strategic agenda of the European Union has grown over the years and by and large it is within that framework that the Commission brings forward its proposals. We think you can strengthen that by having more of what I would call a Queen's Speech approach, so that it would be absolutely clear what the agenda of the European Union was going to be and you would not as individual citizen or a government be taken by surprise by what the Commission brings forward. Interestingly, at the European Council last week, the new President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, suggested a new approach in which he would like the European Parliament, which has very considerable powers of co-decision, to be much more engaged on what he saw as a common agenda with the Council, so that there is much more of a sense that without undermining the role of Parliament vis-a"-vis the Commission or the Council, there is a much greater sense of the strategic direction of the European Union so that we know what we are trying to do over a two-year period and get on and do it. One of the things we think should also happen as part of the reform, and the Nice Treaty foresees it, is that we should get back to a rather smaller Commission than the one we have now. We think that would be more effective in terms of doing what the Commission has to do and get away from what otherwise is a risk, in a sense in the opposite direction from the one you mentioned, but a risk that if you have a situation where 27 countries each have their Commissioner, the danger of the Commission being another forum for the pursuit of national interests rather than the Commission being able to do its job as set down by the treaties is there. We hope over time that we can get back to the idea of a smaller Commission. One of the things the Convention gives us an opportunity to do is to argue this through but the position I have described is basically where the Government is coming from.

  406. You have not dealt with the question of whether the Commission should change its role and whether the Government would like to see them being the sole group that initiates legislation? Is the thinking of the Government that in an enlargement the Commission should cease to be the initiator but should be part of the process?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) No. Our view is that the Commission would still be the initiator and one reason I argue that is that apart from our own view that is a view very strongly held by a majority of our partners and in particular those Member States who are not large Member States who do see the Commission as a vital safeguard of their interests, because otherwise they would see a European Union de facto dominated by the large Member States. If you have a situation in which the Commission is bringing forward their proposals within a policy framework set by the European Council, then in our perspective that would meet the kind of aim we have of knowing clearly what the political agenda is and therefore not being taken by surprise by initiatives for legislation outside that framework.

Mr David

  407. What you are describing sounds very much like an increasing emphasis on inter-governmental co-operation.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) Part of it may be. If you look at the Barcelona summit and the so-called economic reform process, it is a mixture. Some of what we are doing, if you take the financial services agenda, translates into European law in the traditional form. Equally energy liberalisation. We have now secured agreement that the non-domestic sector will be opened up by 2004 but the means of delivering that will be through two directives which hopefully will be adopted this year by a qualified majority vote. We are not saying that should change. At the same time, there is an awful lot which can be done in terms of improving our economic performance which is inter-governmental in the sense that it is a matter of consultation, co-ordination, peer pressure, benchmarking, all these things. The same is true of the social agenda. We have some aspects which are part of Community law; there are others now, as you know better than I, which are a matter of negotiation between management and unions and do not take the form of formal legislation. One of the things which is happening anyway and enlargement will bring more of, is that kind of flexibility. The essential thing for us is to try to have that flexibility while maintaining the kind of equality of rights and obligations which are at the heart of the European Union which I think have made it a success.

  408. Interestingly enough, you just made reference to the European Parliament and Pat Cox's suggestions. Would you like to see the powers of the European Parliament further enhanced? For example, co-decision is an important facet of European decision making now. Do you think there is a case for extending co-decision and/or do you see the European Parliament having a greater scrutiny role over the European Commission?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) On the first point, this is a subject for debate in the Convention and subsequently the inter-governmental conference and by and large, where majority voting has been introduced, co-decision has tended to follow. The Government has not taken a view on possible extensions of co-decision, but it is an issue on which the Government has an open mind and we shall discuss it in the Convention. The European Parliament's scrutiny of the Commission is increasing and that must be right. In so far as the Commission is the bureaucracy of the European Union it is right that it should be subject to close parliamentary scrutiny at the same time. It is important that the Commission feels able to assert its own independence in the areas where it is required by the Treaty to exercise it. The implementation of competition policy is one example where we strongly support the role the Commission has. It is also important that the Commission should be under scrutiny but not feel itself intimidated either by the Council on the one hand or by the Parliament on the other. It is quite a difficult balance to strike.

  409. Do you think that the new electoral arrangements which have been adopted for the European parliamentary elections actually help the credibility of the European Parliament and its members?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) That is probably beyond my competence as a civil servant.

  Mr Connarty: It would appear that no-one wants to take the blame for that one. It has certainly disconnected the public from the European Union in one fell swoop. I do note that in fact some flexibility is being discussed in the methodology for electing people to the Parliament. As a politician, I feel that democratic deficit needs to be re-addressed, but it is perhaps not for this particular inquiry.

Miss McIntosh

  410. May I welcome Sir Stephen to the Committee and say it is nice to see Michael again? Michael may not recall but he helped me out of a tight situation when I had forgotten my passport and I was being interrogated, along with a British Labour colleague and an Austrian researcher, at a meeting without coffee two floors below the Gare du Midi, so I am very grateful.
  (Mr Roberts) One of the joys of being a Member of the European Parliament.

  411. Indeed. It is nice to see you this morning. May I briefly refer to the Prime Minister's letter to the Spanish Prime Minister? I know you touched on this earlier very briefly. The Prime Ministers asked that serious consideration be given to ending the tour de table tradition. Is there any realistic prospect that that will be ended in time for the next enlargement?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) At one of the summits under the French Presidency—I think the one at Biarritz—President Chirac limited all interventions to a maximum of two minutes. He did not quite do what they do in the European Parliament and cut off the microphone at that point but he did actually manage to enforce the discipline. At that level it does depend upon people's goodwill in doing it, but when we are 25 and 27 and if the European Council is still going to meet, as now, for only a day and a half, it becomes absolutely vital to have some kind of discipline.

  412. We took evidence when we were in Brussels on the attitude of the Council towards scrutiny reserves. Would you like to comment on that and whether you would agree that the main problem is that there is sometimes a genuine urgency to agree a measure or that many Member States attach little importance to them? How do you see the use of the scrutiny reserve by other countries?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I know that there has been a particular issue which you have raised and that Ministers are looking at. One of the things we take very seriously is your concern about the way some agreements have been reached on a provisional basis. We have already been talking to people in the Council Secretariat in Brussels about that and there are certainly ways in which we could tighten up the way we in the Council operate so that we do not have that kind of rather loose terminology and therefore the appearance that agreement has been reached before scrutiny has been completed. I am not sure myself, looking at this, whether we have yet got the arrangements in a form which is wholly satisfactory, given the development of co-decision and the importance of co-decision. It strikes me that the six-week rule which was introduced at Amsterdam is helpful but is in a way largely irrelevant because when a proposal comes forward it is very rarely adopted within six weeks. The first six weeks are in one sense the least important part of the legislative timetable and what happens between that initial period and the final outcome of conciliation, which may be years, certainly months later is more important. I am not sure we have the procedures entirely working in a way which is satisfactory and I know that Ministers with whom I have discussed this and ourselves as those who are responsible for actually making the system work on a day-to-day basis are very open to trying to get improvements. It may be that the Convention and the subsequent inter-governmental conference will give us an opportunity for that. It is true to say that we and a few other Member States have the strictest scrutiny, but my sense is that this is an area which is of growing importance to all Member States and I suspect that when they come in it will be for new Member States as well. I do think there is some scope there.

  413. I should like to record that we do find it immensely difficult to get the documents with the deadline pressing enabling us to look at them. Do you think it makes much difference that some national parliaments give closer scrutiny and some do virtually no scrutiny whatsoever?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) Yes, I think it does. On the question of the speed, I agree, it is unsatisfactory and there are still delays as between the Commission and the Secretariat. I do not think they have yet cracked the question of electronic transmission between the two of them. I certainly think that electronic transmission between the Secretariat and us in Whitehall would also help speed things up. If there were a kind of equal perception of the importance of parliamentary scrutiny across the European Union that would help. If you are in a situation where the UK, Denmark, one or two others, are the ones who most often have scrutiny reserves, it is frankly easier for a presidency, whose interest is clearly getting the business done, to put the pressure on you, than if 14 Member States were saying, sorry, they cannot agree because they have not completed the parliamentary scrutiny.

Mr Davis

  414. On this question of delay, are you familiar with this draft Council decision authorising the Commission to negotiate a convention with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) No, I am not, I am afraid.
  (Mr Roberts) No.

  415. This document originated on 13 February. It was forwarded to the Council on 14 February and was not deposited in Parliament until 7 March, a Thursday. It was then discussed in Council last Monday. We have received a letter from the Secretary of State for International Development blaming it on a bureaucratic error. I appreciate that you are not familiar with it, but could you look into that specific example and then write to the Committee and tell us where this bureaucratic error occurred? It may have occurred in the Department for International Development, or it may have occurred somewhere else. Just to say "a bureaucratic error" is not really a very full explanation.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) No; I absolutely accept that. We in the Secretariat do try to track the progress of documents very carefully through our electronic database and through constant telephone contact with the departments to ensure that things like this do not happen. If it has happened because of a failing of someone somewhere in our system, I apologise for that, but I do not know the facts and I shall look into them.

  416. The way to find out is to look at specific examples, is it not? Do you ever get to know about such examples other than by coming before a Committee and someone asking you?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) Certainly when I was in Brussels there were some particular problems which were at that stage failures at the London end, if I recall rightly, and I got very much involved. Since I have been back in the European Secretariat I have not personally been involved in more than one or two, but Michael Roberts and Les Saunders who works under him supervising the work of Ellen Lawrence in our Secretariat, whose full-time job this is, get involved on a pretty regular basis in terms of sorting out bottlenecks, quite often having to sort out between departments who is responsible, if it is not absolutely clear who is responsible, for writing the explanatory memorandum, things of that kind. On the whole the system works pretty well, given that we are receiving something like 10,000 documents a year, but I should be the last to claim that it is foolproof. I think we have the systems in place.

Mr Connarty

  417. May I pursue you on that point? You did make reference earlier to the fact that Ministers clearly are talking about scrutiny. It might be Anthony Steen's view that this Committee is now becoming annoying to them because we keep rapping their knuckles for a practice which we find could be judged, it may not be their attitude, to be holding this Committee's scrutiny reserves in contempt and that is the process of reaching provisional agreements and political agreements long before the scrutiny reserve has been lifted which means that the reserve is in a sense just seen as some kind of formality that they brush aside later on. Is it possible to define some sort of common understanding or agreed approach within the Council that would make it clear that any outstanding issues raised by national parliaments would have to be dealt with before political agreement was reached? You know that in fact a view has been put forward that the scrutiny reserves should be put into legislation and therefore it could not be broken by anyone going to a Council meeting. We are not necessarily looking for that level of inflexibility but you will be aware that we are becoming increasingly annoyed by departments who do deals and basically say with a nod and a wink that this is all right, they will get the scrutiny reserves lifted some time later, just go ahead with the directive or the proposal. That is not treating the parliamentary scrutiny reserves in a proper manner.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) The responsibility for decisions on a particular issue is the responsibility of the department and the Minister concerned.

  418. Surely not. Surely there is a government attitude to the scrutiny this Parliament has custody of?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) You take the words out of my mouth. I was about to say that as far as we are concerned, government as a whole, certainly the European Secretariat in our role in the process do take it very seriously and try to carry out our obligations as efficiently as we can. The point I was making was that on any particular issue at any one time it is the decision of the Minister concerned. In the light of the concerns you have already expressed, Ministers are looking at this and in particular the issue of provisional agreement, which I know has caused you particular concern. I am not in a position to say very much more about it than that at the moment. I do know that Ministers would welcome the chance to work out with you a system which on the one hand allows for the fact that there will be occasions when legislation is needed urgently and on the other, the fact that the scrutiny requirements have to be respected. That will be a matter for discussion with your Committee. If that basic framework of agreement is reached, then there are other things we can improve on in terms of the process and in particular helping the Committee through its clerks to track the progress of legislation. There are already some mechanisms in place but my sense is that they could be improved and self-evidently I am keen to help improve them.

Mr Davis

  419. Would it not be a good idea to have somebody in your department to whom all failures should be reported, so that at least you know whether it is one or two or three departments or the whole government? We suspect it is one or two departments which frequently fail. Sometimes an investigation could be made to see why there was a failure, but at the moment I get the impression that it is just left to departments and although you, with great respect, tut-tut about it, as does everybody, that does not actually find out what is going wrong in particular cases and where to stop it happening in future.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) We do track.


 
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