Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. David and Gisela, welcome again. I think this is our first formal evidence session, on your work and deliberations on the Convention, and it is nice to see you here. And I am sure you are very busy, and it is good that we have got time to try to see how things are going, from our point of view of scrutiny. I wonder if I can ask the first question and invite you both to comment; could you briefly describe for us what progress has been made on the Convention so far, from both your perspectives?

  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Thank you. We have had three plenary sessions, and much of the first two was spent arguing about the rules, which have been now adopted and clarified. So I think we are only now beginning to get down to real business; and we go out this week to set up working groups, six of them are scheduled, at which I think the real, constructive and substantive work will be undertaken. So I cannot myself say that we have grappled with the issues at first hand, but what we have done is, I think, orientate the Convention in certain directions, and my own input has been very much to emphasise the absence of democracy in the European Union and the imperative of reconnecting the people of Europe with their rulers. And I have had, I think, a little success in generating that as an area of interest, but I wait to see whether we are really prepared to ask the difficult questions about the future of Europe to close the democratic deficit.
  (Ms Stuart) If I follow on from the working groups, I think that the titles of the six groups and the support which the secretariat will provide are already a matter of public record, they are on the website. I will be chairing the one on the role of national parliaments, and the precise framework of the first papers will be agreed in the Praesidium meeting tomorrow, to go to the next session on Thursday and Friday. So the working groups are starting, they will be reporting back October/November. Two sessions which may be of interest to you, which have been scheduled at the end of June, there will be a special session for NGOs to report back, and in July there will be a special session, where a youth parliament, people 18-25, who are sort of mirroring the Convention, will have a session, followed by the adult, ageing Convention, the rest of the week.

Mr Steen

  2. First of all, can I just say how very much you are welcome here, because you are sort of the anchor connecting the boat with the land, at the bottom, I am not quite sure if that is a correct picture, but it is how I feel that you are very important to us, and we need to hear what you have to say. We have had the Minister responsible for Europe here, he has given us very polished performances, but I want to know whether, using the navigational picture, are you rudderless, are the British interests actually being defended by the Foreign Office, are you being helped by the Foreign Office, are you being serviced by the Foreign Office, do the Foreign Office actually work with you in what you are doing?
  (Ms Stuart) I think we both faced a difficulty, potentially, at the beginning, about any support the Foreign Office would have very happily given to us, but the question was, and the question for the House at that point was, how much we wanted to be beholden to the executive. I think we felt that the Parliament's, the House of Commons' representatives, the House authorities have been extremely, and, I must say, I was really surprised by both their speed and their commitment to help us, support setting up our own offices, work with Brussels, because, again, the United Kingdom is only one of three of the 15 Member States who have got representatives over there on the parliamentary level. So I work with the Foreign Office, but it is a very clear relationship, that I think we see ourselves as House of Commons representatives, but also, collectively, I do think we regard ourselves as British representatives, irrespective of whether these are the MEPs or both sides of the House, or both Houses.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Can I add to that, that I, like Gisela, regard myself as primarily a national parliamentarian, but I do not want the Convention too quickly to become a process of institutional bargaining between the existing vested interests; however, I have noticed that other countries are very vigorously co-ordinating their national positions, and I have been a little surprised that the Foreign Office has not been more forthcoming about what it perceives to be British interests. Although I might not agree with our Foreign Office representative, nevertheless, I believe there is a British interest here, and I hope that that will become clearer fairly quickly.

Mr Cash

  3. Mr Heathcoat-Amory, if I could ask you whether you sense any sense of direction coming from the so-called "missions of Europe" debate, which indicated a serious appreciation from a national parliament's point of view that there is a necessity to reform the Treaties, in order to return powers to the national parliaments, not just on the principle of subsidiarity, which I regard as rather a con trick, but actually on some of the principles of constitutional government, which is that, without returning powers to the national parliaments, you will not achieve democracy and accountability in Europe?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) No. My main anxiety so far is that there has been an absence of fundamental and creative thinking about the nature of democratic legitimacy. There is a contrast between this Convention, therefore, and the famous Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which founded the American Constitution, where they started off asking very, very basic questions about whether democracy was possible on a federal basis. I am a little bit alarmed at the speed at which the other members have started to create visionary ambitions about the missions for the EU, without getting back to the fundamental problem, which is why people feel alienated from the European Union. And I believe the simplest solution staring us all in the face is to work primarily at Member State level, which is where people feel democratically represented, and then on a selective basis release powers upwards to the European Union, if that can be clearly achieved. So I constantly ask myself the question, will our discussions resonate with the public, who at the minute are disenchanted and alienated, as shown in the extraordinary referendum results recently and in some rather disturbing election results throughout the rest of Europe.

  4. May I address the question, Chairman, to Gisela Stuart, in relation to the same subject, which is the fact that we are producing, as you know, a major report from this Committee, both on European scrutiny, which we have completed, and, secondly, during the course of this week, on democracy and accountability and the national parliaments. That will, of course, be a very important report from our Parliament, as our representative, as it were, on that very subject. The question I would like to put to you is, are you, yourself, going to take on the role, in the chairmanship of that committee, to ensure the sorts of recommendations that we will be coming forward with, to enhance the power of the national parliaments, will actually be the kind of position that you will adopt, as chairman of that committee; in other words, will that be your starting-point, to enhance the role of the national parliaments?
  (Ms Stuart) I think, when you will look at the paper which we will put to the Convention on Thursday, I hope you will find, the starting-point, that it will be very much in agreement with the work your Committee has done, but, also, a number of other committees in national parliaments across Europe have done, and then I was just looking at the Belgium one before I came here, some work was done recently in Germany. I think there are three principles in the work. One is actually to look at the scrutiny mechanisms themselves, but I think the working group would fail if we only compiled best practice, because that would not go deep enough; look at the aspects of legislative procedure, and, more to the point, the kind of strategic timetables, the way Europe makes decisions and the way national parliaments make decisions, and how that can dovetail for proper scrutiny. And, thirdly, evaluate the different mechanisms as to what is the most effective. So we will certainly take on board what national parliaments do, and, of course, I will take considerable notice of what the British Parliament produces.

Mr Davis

  5. Can I go back to the question which Mr Steen raised, about working together; it is quite clear that we have different opinions about the degree of, or the closeness of, the relationship with the Foreign Office. But really I want to pursue a slightly different angle: are the four representatives of the British Parliament working together, and, if so, how?
  (Ms Stuart) I think, at this stage, we are still very much going there and acting within our own frameworks, in some sense; because one of the groups which have a dynamic in their play, which we have not mentioned yet, are political families. So, certainly, the PES group works quite closely together, Lord Maclennan will work with the Liberals, and I understand that David attends to the EPP groups. But if you were to ask, do the four of us meet and hunt as a pack, no, we do not.

  6. Why not? You have expressed concerns, or you have drawn attention to the fact that in some other countries they are, to use your expression, hunting as a pack, led by their Foreign Office. But you should not have to wait for a lead, should you, you are the four parliamentarians? I understand the point that was made about how you see yourselves as parliamentarians rather than representing the Government, quite right, I am pleased about that, but four individuals representing the Parliament in power then?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think, at this stage, the Convention needs to be a convention of ideas, and not a place that the existing institutions and interests are represented; otherwise, at the end of it, everyone will go away with something but the public will be completely bemused and will regard it as just another example of politicians talking to each other. So I hope that, at this stage, we can be rather creative, perhaps a little bit anarchic, in our thinking; but, nevertheless, I would agree with you that, where there is a clear British interest, I would like it to be better explained at this stage. For instance, the enhancement of the powers of national parliaments, I think it would be a British interest because we have an old and established democracy, and we are badly represented in Europe. We do not know each other horizontally, whereas the European Parliament representatives are part of a single body, and, indeed, we meet in Brussels where they are located; so we are at a structural disadvantage, which I think can only be overcome by creating links amongst ourselves. Now, I think that, certainly, between Gisela Stuart and myself, there is an emerging commonality of views on some issues.

  7. Would it be a good idea for the four of you to explore being anarchists when you have views in common? I get the impression you have not done that, the four of you have not met together in order to see whether you do have common ideas, where there is a common view, and you have drawn attention to the fact that, other countries, the parliaments are working more together than we are; it sounds to me like, if there are any British interests, or even a British view, a common view, we are going to lose out, are we not?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) For my part, I do not yet have, from the Foreign Office, very much detail about what they perceive the British position to be.

  8. Why do you want to wait for the Foreign Office, Mr Heathcoat-Amory, why cannot the four representatives of the British Parliament work together, that was my question, not waiting for the Foreign Office, not taking a line from the Foreign Office, but four national parliamentarians? I put it to you, I think you have been rather remiss?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I am certainly willing to explore that, but it should not be a contrived unity, when the idea of the Convention is to explore other solutions. But my own position, as I stake out, is the "democracy first" position, and I am sure the other members will have nuances around that, but I am not going to compromise my own position, which is that, rather than creating an efficient Europe, we must first create a democratic one; and I am in rather a minority position in the Conference as a whole, even if not amongst my close colleagues nationally.
  (Ms Stuart) May I just add, just not to let you get away with the impression that we do not act in some ways together? We made sure that all the working groups, the convention working groups and the other (political family) working groups, had a British representative in each one of the groups. We co-coordinated this in consultation with each of the members. This was not necessarily done formally, in a meeting in a room, but we had lengthy discussions, where we explored areas of common concern. We do meet as a UK delegation as well before the convention meetings.


  9. There seems to be some irritation, notably in the European Parliament, about the role and power of the Praesidium. Is it fair criticism, that the Praesidium is assuming a very directing role?
  (Ms Stuart) I do not, but then you could accuse me of, "I would, wouldn't I?" It is always a difficult balance to strike between directing and being seen as being too directing. If I give just one example of the Praesidium's ways of responding to things. When there was a call that candidate countries should be represented at the Praesidium, even though Laeken clearly did not provide for it, a way was found to create an extra place, without breaching Laeken; there was a call for working groups, a very strong call, and they are being set up in response to that. Whenever any new organisation is created, I always think that on the agenda you ought to have a special item which says "And now we have a row," and it is at that point when everyone feels they express their frustrations and they move forward. I think, if you look at what the Praesidium has done, it has always responded to what have been the calls from the Convention.

  10. What is the balance of power within the Praesidium?
  (Ms Stuart) It is a very curious one, because, essentially, you have got the President and two Vice-Presidents, you have got two Commission members, who are the total representation of the Commission, you have got three troika representatives with the government, representing the 15 national governments, three parliamentary representatives, who represent, essentially, 28 national parliaments, and two MEPs, who represent the European Parliament. It would be a mistake to assume that, because, numerically, in the Convention, national parliaments are the largest number, they are any more than a quarter of the four groups which are feeding into it. And, at the moment, David Heathcoat-Amory is quite right, the one group which finds it most difficult to find its opinion are those 28 national parliamentarians, because we are the only ones who have neither a permanent home in Brussels nor do we have a means of having known each other before we got there.

Roger Casale

  11. If I could just ask Mr Heathcoat-Amory, just to probe a little bit what you said at the start of our session today, about an absence of democracy, because I do not believe that we are building some kind of grand European state, and I believe also that the references to the Philadelphia Convention are a false analogy. But I am interested in what you have to say about the absence of democracy, and I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about what you actually meant by that. Do you mean, for example, that decisions are being taken by civil servants, rather than politicians, which is a frequently-made charge? Do you mean that decisions are being made by politicians, but politicians are not properly accountable? Or are you referring specifically to this disengagement between citizens and EU decision-making institutions; and, if that is the case, who is to blame, is it national parliamentarians, or is it the EU institutions themselves?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think it is even worse than decisions being made by civil servants, it is that no-one knows who takes the decisions, or who they are accountable to; weird Directives come tumbling out of the institutions, and your Committee struggles heroically to scrutinise and make sense of them. Even Mr Meacher, our Environment Minister, started to express exasperation with the "harmful gases from fridges" Directive, he started to blame the Commission for not keeping him informed; he is a professional politician with hundreds, or thousands, of civil servants to advise him, so it is not surprising that the ordinary public are completely bemused as to who makes these decisions, where they come from and whether they can influence them. And it is that lack of choice that creates frustration, and causes people either not to vote at all, and I do not need to remind this Committee that the turnout in EP elections in this country is now below 25 per cent, or, in other countries, they vote, very unpredictably, for extremes, or they certainly deliver a snub to the European Union—the Irish voted "no" to Nice, the Danes voted "no" to the Euro, against all the expectations. So the electorate, I think, are trying to send a message that they do not feel democratically represented in the European Union. Now I only mentioned the Philadelphia Convention because they asked themselves the question, is it possible to have a federation, and they did create a democratic one, but then they all spoke the same language and they came to this with common ideas. Many commentators have said that those preconditions, for a federalist or quasi-federalist structure, simply do not exist in a continent as diverse as Europe; and I was simply suggesting that we ought to be asking questions like that, rather than launching ourselves on a supposition that what we really need is a constitution for Europe, I think that starts at the wrong end. And my own view is that we need to transfer more decisions back to the level where people do feel democratically represented, which is the Member State, and be very selective about what we send upwards to the European Union.

  12. But do you know the answer to the question, where are the decisions made?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) No, I must confess. I was asked by a farmer in my constituency last month where the "Physical Agents (Vibration) Directive" came from, which is apparently going to stop him sitting on a tractor for more than a few hours a day, and I must confess that I had not even heard of it; so he quite rightly said, "But I pay you, Mr Amory, to represent me, so can you go and find out." I have made certain inquiries, and, yes, it is a real Directive; and my only other observation on that is that we may eventually comply with it in this country, but it certainly is not going to go down very well in Poland, which has the oldest tractors in the world, and where, I am reliably informed, any inspector who tries to tell a farmer what to do gets a pretty blunt answer. So there is question of enforceability as well as scrutiny.

  Chairman: It is not my view, as I have been reminded, to suggest to Members how they should ask their questions, but it is the purpose of this session to find out more about how the Convention is working, not necessarily ask the opinions of the witnesses how Europe should be running. I must just give that clarification.

  Mr Steen: But on a Point of Order, Chairman.

  Chairman: A Point of Order here.

  Mr Steen: You will excuse me, but, bearing in mind the volume and complexity of the legislation which comes through this Committee, has this Directive, which Mr Heathcoat-Amory has mentioned, actually been through this Committee?

  Chairman: That is not a Point of Order, and it is something you can raise in another place.

  Mr Steen: I am not sure what place.

Roger Casale

  13. Can I ask Gisela Stuart, we have talked a little bit about the national parliamentary groups, but, of course, the members of the Convention will also organise themselves perhaps according to political parties, and political families have been mentioned, and, of course, indeed, also, the type of institution, whether it is the Commission or the Council, either Member States or the national governments, or, indeed, the European Parliament. I know it is early days, but, in your experience, which are the best organised of the groups, is it by nationality, or by institution, or by political family, I guess there are cross-cutting groupings as well, but which seem to have gelled together most quickly, at this stage?
  (Ms Stuart) Two observations. One is, the Convention is very much trying to break down any kind of grouping; we sit in alphabetical surname order, in the hemicycle, and just by looking you cannot tell whether someone is a representative of the Commission or a national parliamentarian, because we do not think it would be very positive for people to break up into groups. But what is quite clear, of all the bodies, the one body that knows and has experience in having a common position is the European Parliament. So once we met as the Convention, the EP was the one institution, which already had common position on almost all aspects, which came up for discussion. And they also say that it was the European Parliament which was most unhappy about the setting up of a working group, as early as this, which only dealt with one institution, ie the national parliaments, because I think there may be a perceived sense of competition, which I think would be unfortunate, if that were seen as such, it is a question of how we work best together. But they would be the best organised, at this stage.

  14. I am delighted that there is a group on national parliaments, because I think that is a very neglected area and I am glad that the Convention is focused in on it. But to what extent are the members of the Convention who come from national parliaments meeting to try to develop a common view about how the role of national parliaments can be enhanced in the future? Because, if you cannot get that common view between the national parliamentarians within the Convention, what chance is there of getting agreement from national parliaments across the European Union about how their role can be enhanced?
  (Ms Stuart) The way agreement is found, you really have to imagine there are kind of interlocking webs of meetings; we go there, meet as a Praesidium, meet as a national group, meet as national parliamentarians, meet as socialists. So it meets at various levels. I think, if the national parliamentarians, as a whole, would attempt to find a common position, we would still be arguing well beyond the 2004 IGC; that is why I think, within the national parliamentarians, the political families are going to be quite significant, and there will be various views coming forward. And we have got to focus on mechanisms and structures of scrutiny, rather than value judgements.

Mr Tynan

  15. Could I also give my welcome to both of you. You will notice, from the Committee this afternoon, that we could have some very interesting discussions and debates when we were taking evidence; but the Convention did hold the debate in April, and it was on the missions of the European Union. Do you see any kind of consensus emerging from that debate, or was it simply a rehearsing of established principles that took place; what are your views on that?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) No, there is no consensus that has emerged, except perhaps a general feeling that Europe must do more in the field of security, immigration and perhaps defence and foreign affairs. And, if I could just speculate, I think there will be pressure to bring those inter-governmental pillars within the First Pillar, which is the European Community pillar; that, I think, would not be a welcome development for the British Government. But I am critical of attempts to define the European Union in terms of "missions", because I think that can end up justifying anything; once you say that organised crime should be a responsibility of the European Union, you open the way for just about any judicial intervention or police action to be decided at European Union level. I want a much more precise delineation of powers and responsibilities, both to limit the European Union and to give confidence to the ordinary people of Europe that this moving staircase, ever upwards, has got a limit, and for that to be done we need to be very precise and very literal, and give real teeth also to the subsidiarity principle, which at the minute, in my view, is largely ignored.

  16. I understand there were only two speakers in favour of referring some competences back to the national parliament; were you one of the speakers?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) This is a heresy; but, although I am in a minority, I am not alone, there are others, including some Germans, particularly those representing the Länder, also even the Commission has advanced the proposition, although they balance it with more powers elsewhere for the European Union, so it is not an entirely isolated position. But I am afraid that most of the existing interests in this Convention regard the solution to all these problems as more Europe, whereas I want to examine the possibility of less Europe.

  17. Chairman, was it a fair summary of the debate, or was there more support for a suggested re-examination of the Acquis communautaire?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I strongly feel that the Acquis communautaire must be examined and must not be a sacred cow. It runs now, I understand, to over 85,000 pages, it is largely incomprehensible, it is the accumulated burden of over 30 years of law-making, and it is also a most unfair burden for the applicant countries, all of which have to pass it into their law as a condition of membership; so Malta and Estonia, in their different ways, are going to have to implement this entire body of regulation and legislation into their creaky administrative structures. I believe that is most unwise, and, in practice, will probably be ignored, and enforcement will be very patchy. So I want to look again at the Acquis, but this is regarded as a retreat, almost a defeat, for the European ideal; but any democratic organisation must repeal as much as it moves forward, or must be prepared to do so. And so, again, I think we must re-examine the principles on which we are advancing, and one of them is to apply House of Commons principles, that you can go backward as easily as you can go forward, and bad laws, inadequate laws, out-of-date laws must be removed from the statute book.

  18. Within that debate, would you regard the position you have just given as a minority position?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) It is a minority position, but that does not make it wrong.

  19. I did not suggest that it did. Was there any significant support for replacing the existing three Pillars with the one institutional structure?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) There is talk of a single institutional structure, and that was why I mentioned the move, in some quarters, to collapse the inter-governmental pillars into the main First Pillar. And I have also no doubt that there will be moves to simplify the structure, with the aim of making it more transparent and more understandable; and that is a laudable aim, but, to me, that must not avoid the even more fundamental question about where do people feel democratically represented. And we will be wasting our time if we simply try to democratise institutions which are inherently too far removed from people's daily lives; that will not, in my view, create a more democratic structure, but will fail.

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