Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 52-59)

TONY BUNYAN, STEVE PEERS AND PROFESSOR DEIRDRE CURTIN

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001

Chairman

  52. Mr Bunyan and Professor Curtin, welcome to the European Scrutiny Committee, and thanks very much for your paper, on which we now wish to hold a discussion with you. I wonder if I could just kick off, by saying that your paper places a great deal of emphasis on increasing the powers and role of the European Parliament. Without Europe-wide political parties and with electorates which are swayed by European issues, can this lead to greater democratic legitimacy?

  (Mr Bunyan) Deirdre may wish to respond to this as well. I think it is a bit chicken and egg. I think, until you get a European Parliament which has the full powers of a real Parliament, and that is on the agenda, over a period of years, that in three years' time we will get a European Parliament with the full powers of a Parliament, that is in the classical model, then I think that itself might lead to European parties and a European agenda. So I think it is a bit chicken and egg, is my answer to the question.
  (Professor Curtin) I think I would say that we do not think there is a sort of magic solution to the whole question of democratic legitimacy and increasing accountability of the various actors; we think that looking at the situation with regard to the European Parliament is one aspect of a much larger problem. But we certainly would not see it, improving that situation, as the exclusive answer at that level, we think there needs to be much more, that there is a much wider role for national parliaments, and in terms of information availability, role of civil society, so there is a much broader panorama.

Mr Cash

  53. I am very interested in that reply, because, as you know, there has been a great deal of discussion about increasing the powers of the national parliaments, and that has been reinforced to a degree by Amsterdam and by a lot of other analysis. But the real problem is that, if you have two parliaments dealing with competing governmental functions, by which I mean scrutinising the constitutional arrangements for matters like tax, foreign policy, the leaders of government, in effect, it really is impossible, in any kind of constitutional model, to have two parliaments actually dealing with the same functions. One of the problems, surely, is this, that what is happening is that you have got one body, which is the European Parliament, which has an absolutely clear agenda, which is that they want effectively to be the Parliament on all the major issues, without going into the details, that is what they want, because they say they can then represent the people of Europe; but, actually, in practice, it is not working like that at all. So my question to you is, irrespective of the question of the way in which the elections are organised, what would your advice be to the national parliaments to increase their systems of accountability, and not just in the United Kingdom but throughout the whole of Europe, what is the advice you would give, and how would you recommend they go about it?
  (Professor Curtin) There are different aspects to your question. I think we have to remember that we are dealing with governance, and at the level of the European Union and trying to inject more democracy into an already operating system, it is not a matter of just looking at what we have in the nation state and trying to transpose that, but of adapting our ideas to what we find at the European level. I personally do not believe that the European Parliament can ever be the complete solution, that you can have just one Parliament which will represent, and that the people will feel that they are represented, and that it is sufficiently active in the scrutiny sense. I think there is a tremendous need for national parliaments, who are democratically legitimate and are much closer to their citizens, to be more actively involved in the scrutiny process vis-a"-vis the various actors at the EU level, and to be part of the process of holding these actors accountable. My advice to the national parliaments, because that is what you asked, is, essentially, that they must be more assertive themselves vis-a"-vis their own governments, that is one line that needs to be developed, but, in order to be more assertive, they must have the information on time and in an appropriate fashion and they must have time to consider and respond vis-a"-vis their own governments; that is one line I see. And the other line is that the national parliaments themselves, I think, must be more involved with other national parliaments, there must be more of a horizontal network of national parliaments working together, just as there are horizontal networks of all kinds of other actors in Europe, be they competition authorities, or police officers, or whatever, I think the national parliaments need to organise themselves in that respect.

Chairman

  54. I think that your last answer would be shared by a good few in this Committee; in fact, you may have been getting some of your ideas out of some of the reports that we have written in the past, so you will not get much disagreement with that. But would greater powers to the European Parliament result in such things as more citizen involvement in the electoral process; and you know that we do have serious problems with engagement now?
  (Mr Bunyan) I think what you have to talk about, when you talk about a democratic process, to me, a democratic process is not just about the power of parliaments and how they use that power, it is about the whole of civil society, including national parliaments. Now you could argue that the national parliaments are at the pinnacle of civil society, in one sense, they represent civil society amongst the corridors of power. So I see a situation where you have to have an informed civil society, as well as an informed parliament, and you have to have a timetable, so that civil society has actually got time to put in its views to be heard, and that parliamentary committees like this one, or the one in the House of Lords, or the one in the European Parliament, actually have the time to see what civil society is saying. Now they can dismiss their views or accept their views, but at least they are on record, at least there is a sense of participation. So I do not think you can view, again, a kind of democratic deficit just by the powers of either the national parliament or the European Parliament, we have to have a much more diverse and healthy and discussing and debating and radical civil society, is what we need.

  55. How do you address that by having a debate on which powers of which parliament? Because it seems to me that it is the political classes having this conversation themselves of how best they can represent the people, as opposed to seeking to include the people in the democratic process?
  (Mr Bunyan) I know that you begin to do it, certainly the House of Lords does this. I have been campaigning with others that the European Parliament should do it, that when every new measure comes up there should be a deadline, the rapporteur is appointed, there is the first date of the first committee meeting, but there then should be a date set for civil society to submit its views, so that is clear, civil society knows what the day is, they can be there and their views on the table. But there is another answer to this, I suppose, and we do quite a bit of work on this, actually our Internet work, we will often put out information well in advance and inform civil society right across Europe about new measures that are being proposed, so that there is a role, if you like, unconnected with parliament, that civil society can play in raising issues, and we have done it recently over both the definition of terrorism within the EU, which was adopted last Thursday, and over the plan to create a single information database on protestors. It is possible for civil society to play a role without necessarily going through parliament, but there must be an avenue through parliament as well; that is the kind of diversity I am talking about, without civil society, of course, being able to tell parliamentarians or governments exactly what they have got to do.

Miss McIntosh

  56. You mention the democratic deficit, requiring the European Parliament be given full powers of a proper parliament; would you not accept that the national parliament is closer to the electorate than the European Parliament? And I have had the good fortune to serve in both, and in my day we had Euro-constituencies; now, obviously, it is a big region, and there seems to be less accountability than previously. When you refer to the scrutiny by the national parliaments having minimum requirements, could you elaborate on that, and would you like to see, for example, in a parliament like this Parliament, our home Parliament, more scrutiny not just by a European standing committee but actually by a select committee, so the people who are perhaps more expert in a particular field, whether it is energy, transport, telecommunications, should actually have the scrutiny powers?
  (Professor Curtin) I think I would like to stress that in our submission we did not mean to suggest that we think that the European Parliament, although that seems to be coming out a little bit, is the answer to all the problems of injecting more democracy into the EU; by no means. We think it is a part, and perhaps even a small part, of a much wider solution. We think precisely that the role of national parliaments is a vital one, and that it is essential for national parliaments, in a sense, to organise themselves vis-a"-vis the government ministers, so that they are in a position to get the information they require and to comment on that information in time. Perhaps I could refer to the experience of the Dutch Parliament, which is by no means perfect, but they have institutionalised the procedure whereby in those areas where the European Parliament does not enjoy co-decision the national government is under an obligation to consult with the Dutch Parliament before it goes to Council meetings to take decisions on various issues. And it was part of the ratification process of Maastricht and then subsequently Amsterdam, and also the Nice Treaty, in certain policy areas, of ensuring that government ministers were under a binding obligation to provide information to, as it happens, in practice, a committee of the Parliament, 15 days in advance of a Council meeting, and the government is obliged to produce, for example, in Justice and Home Affairs, an annotated agenda of the Council meeting with various documents, with document numbers, and all the rest. Now that sounds wonderful, in theory; in practice, of course, there are many problems. But, recently, when the European Search Warrant Framework decision was going through, to see where the most information was available, in fact, it was via the Dutch Parliament, the Dutch Parliament did not actually have the very last text, but they had a later text than, for example, the House of Lords had got, or even the European Parliament.

  Miss McIntosh: Can I just ask, how do they know what is on the Council agenda two weeks in advance?

  Tony Cunningham: When the Council does not know?

Mr Hendrick

  57. The Council does not know two weeks in advance either?
  (Professor Curtin) In the case of the European Search Warrant Draft you could access it digitally, or in any other way, but the Dutch Parliament was provided with an annotated agenda of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee on 19 November for the meeting that was held on 6 December; now that had to be supplemented by another agenda on 29 November. I did some work on this which is why I know these dates. So there is quite a lot of information available. Now they had to come back to the Parliament and say, "Look, we don't have the very last draft on the search warrants," but the numbers are there and you could actually go from the numbers, and they were available via, mind you, you had to read Dutch, but if you went to the Dutch Parliament website you could actually download that agenda. And I had tried all the other sources to get that agenda, via the Council website and all the rest, and it is supposed to be available, they claim that it is available, but in fact it is not, and the only way of getting access to it was via the Dutch Parliament.
  (Mr Bunyan) I am surprised you said that agendas are not available, because we have, over the years, got copies which have been sent to Parliament of annotated agendas, it will give you the title, the document number, the expected channels it is going to go through, the British Government's view whether it is likely to get through, and I am most surprised that the Home Office cannot supply you with this as a matter of course.

  Mr Hendrick: Nobody is saying that.

  Chairman: I think we should make clear that we do get agendas, but all too often it is not the up-to-date agenda; the agenda is slightly fluid until the meeting.

Mr Hendrick

  58. The issue about giving more power to the European Parliament. I was elected to the European Parliament in 1994 on a turnout of 40 per cent, and I lost my seat in 1999 on a turnout of 20 per cent; and in-between the European Parliament gained far more power. So, the issue of giving more power to the Parliament and its relevance to the general public, the two are not necessarily connected. Which powers in particular do you feel would make the Parliament feel more connected? And, secondly, is not the issue not how much power the Parliament has, but whether or not power resides at the appropriate level, whether it is in Europe, whether it is in national government, whether it is in regional government, or whether it is in local government, because, clearly, there are issues where power needs to reside at the European level, for example, in Single Market issues, and power needs to reside, for example, in more local issues with more local authorities and regional government? Is the issue not power being in the correct place, not just accumulating power for the sake of it?
  (Professor Curtin) I think I would start by saying that I would perceive that the added value, if you like, of the European Parliament as being in a position at the European level to hold the various actors, the Commission and various agencies and organs, accountable at the European level. I think the power of co-decision, in theory, opens up the process and makes more information available and, in a sense, slows down the procedure, but perhaps in a way that is desirable, from the point of view of national parliaments and of civil society being able to have more input.

  59. I have sat in meetings with the Council and with the Commission, as a Member of the European Parliament, these things go on for hours; but how does that make it more relevant to the man in the street, or the woman in the street?
  (Mr Bunyan) I think that is a broader question. I will give you one example. In the area that we work, which, effectively, is freedoms of the civil liberties and the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, you have a situation, under Title VI, where both this Parliament can try to put down a scrutiny reservation, but, quite frankly, governments will override it at will, in most cases, and where the European Parliament is only consulted. And we have got that situation also in governing immigration and asylum, for the first five years. So you have a situation where the fundamental issues which might be effective, apart from general issues of democracy, in those cases, the Council, it is a mere formality consulting the European Parliament, the whole process is a mere formality.


 
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