Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)




  20. Is he engaged with parliaments?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) He has been to London early on, and then I think he is on his second round of consulting with the governments. I am told by some journalists that he refuses interviews. I think this is not the way to encourage and excite the public. He should not just be talking to the old faces at the top.

Mr Chidgey

  21. Does he meet parliaments?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I do not think he visited parliaments. Perhaps that is not his job, but I think I would like to feel, in visiting other countries, he ought to make himself more open to public views, and perhaps parliamentary scrutiny, either himself or he should encourage it amongst his staff with his two Vice Chairmen. It is still a rather top down attitude that he brings to the Convention; whereas I believe it should be ideas from the bottom in order to re-engage the attention and consent of the voters.

  22. Going back now to the candidate countries, how prominent a role is being played by their representatives? Are they bringing in fresh thinking and insights, or are they just taking a back seat and keeping quiet in the interests of not making problems for themselves?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) As Gisela mentioned, I think one problem is that they are being a little shy, because they believe (I hope wrongly) that they are negotiating to join when they are speaking in the Convention. For instance, they may not wish to be too rude about the role of the Commission when they are relying on the Commission to authorise the terms of their accession. So far I have not found any particularly creative diplomacy coming out of most of the applicant states. There are a few exceptions to that. In fact, I believe they could bring a lot, because they have escaped from one centralised block and they do not want to see the back of Moscow in order to sign up to a new centralised power from Brussels, even though of a rather different nature. I think their observations on the nature of democracy and self-government could be very welcome. I am still hoping rather than experiencing that.

  23. Do you agree with that?
  (Ms Stuart) Yes. The Commission has made it quite clear that the Convention and the Commission negotiations, which will become critical about December, have simply no connection at all. They have actually put that on record, which is welcome. One of the Slovak representatives in a contribution said, "My country used to be ruled by Vienna and then by Moscow and I do not want it now to be ruled by Brussels". That is one voice. At the same time there are also vociferous voices saying that "Europe should do this, that and the other". They have to make up their minds what they want to happen. The real difficulty is, the reforms which we want on the Council of Ministers are the kinds of things which, because it happens behind closed doors, you have to experience it to know what needs reforming. I hope that they will be encouraged more to join those voices but they have this lack of firsthand experience which makes it difficult for them. They are slightly handicapped because there is no ready membership of a political family. We did an analysis of one-third of the representatives of national parliaments and there is no happy home, where they are either in the socialist group, the EPP or the liberals, because the party political structures are not there yet for them to readily align themselves.

  24. Finally, the parallel Youth Convention, what is it intended to achieve? How were its UK members selected? I notice on your Order Paper today we have a planted question to ask the Secretary of State who will represent the United Kingdom on the Youth Convention on the future of Europe. I wonder if you might have an insight into the answer we will get this afternoon?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) There are six members—three of them have been selected by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Parties; the other three were selected through a newspaper competition. I disagreed with this. It was run by The Independent and they got very few replies. It was not prominently carried by The Independent. I wanted it run perhaps by one of the tabloid papers, giving it more prominence, to get in some radical new ideas, not from the safe political organisations, or people who read smart broadsheets.

  25. What do you believe that the Youth Convention is intended to achieve?
  (Ms Stuart) Not wishing to be indiscreet, we had a wonderful session in the Praesidium about what kind of young people we wanted to attend the Youth Convention. I suggested that we did not want the kind of people we used to be when we were their age. We made it open to each country to select their members, and how they chose to send them. What I am very pleased about is that at least there are far more women than men in the main Convention. What we hope to achieve is essentially have the views of that generation because, in a sense, we are sitting there trying to design the framework for the Europe they will have to live in. We want to hear: what is their vision; what is their view of how they see Europe. That is why the Youth Convention was set up. It should also be seen with the next session, which is on NGOs, trying to bring outside views into the Convention.

  26. Who will represent the UK on the Youth Convention.
  (Ms Stuart) It is already a matter of public record, I understand, because names have been submitted to the Praesidium and I think it is available on the website.

Sir John Stanley

  27. All of us here are veterans of successive intergovernmental conferences taking places with ever-increasing frequency. We all recall that each of the IGCs have been preceded by a plethora of submissions from the European Parliament, from the Commission, from national governments and from a whole host of other bodies and institutions; but when the crunch has finally come and the ministers have met at the IGC, a large amount, the majority perhaps, of the recommendations in these various submissions have been set aside and basically ministers and national governments have cut their own deal into long nights, continuing nights, as we all remember at Amsterdam, Maastricht, Nice and so on. What I would like to ask you both is whether you have any grounds for thinking, when we finally come again to the crunch in the Berlin IGC, once again the work of the Convention will be largely set aside and will go much the same way as all the huge number of other submissions prior to IGCs? Or whether you have grounds for thinking that the recommendations of the Convention are going to be given a status and be treated more substantively than such similar representations to ministers prior to an IGC have been treated in the past?
  (Ms Stuart) National governments are taking the Convention extremely seriously. That is displayed by the fact that so many of them have sent their senior figures—Europe ministers. I think you have to recognise just what a tremendous time commitment it is for a minister to be on the Convention and serve on the working groups. They have sent senior representatives to the Convention. I am not critical of the fact that the President of the Convention does his rounds of national governments, and that he does them regularly and frequently; because unless national governments continuously buy into this process at the early stages, we will end up with having a very worthy piece of paper which, when it comes to Berlin, the Heads of State look at and say, "Yes, that's very interesting, thank you, but, no, thank you". My impression is that the governments are engaging at an early stage and keeping a very close eye on the direction of the Convention to ensure that they can accept what the Convention comes up with and so does the President. The signs at this stage are that it should not happen, that we end up in Berlin and they say, "Very interesting but we won't buy it".
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I agree. I think this is a danger that the Convention and the subsequent IGC is seen to be simply politicians talking to each other and parcelling out more powers. In other words, the solution to perceived problems is simply more Europe without any examination of the foundations. I do not think that will happen this time. At least I hope it will not, because the voters are trying to say something. We have mentioned the French election, and it was remarkable that an incumbent French President should receive less than one-fifth of the popular vote in the first round, and for the Left to have been annihilated because the voters did not think they were being offered a proper choice on issues like immigration, crime and so on. These are partly European matters. So there is a feeling of alienation, and I think that has sunk in. Sir John is right, finally this should be disposed of by Member States. I would prefer that, at least in some countries, there is a referendum on the outcome of the Convention, or perhaps on the proposals recommended by the next IGC; so that the voters can have the final say, rather than the politicians who are often perceived as being part of the problem.

  28. Could I just follow up Mr Heathcoat-Amory's last point. Have you got an indication that any Member State other than Ireland, which I believe is bound by its constitution into having a referendum, is going to require a referendum to endorse the conclusions of the Berlin IGC before they take legal effect?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) To my knowledge no State has declared that at this stage. Of course, if it will entail a change to their constitution, a number of States do require referendums. A number of referendums are almost certainly going to be held within the next year—the Irish, again, in this year on the Nice Treaty, and possibly Denmark and Sweden on their Euro opt-outs. We are in a time of referendums, but I know that it will be greeted with some alarm by the technocratic side of the European Union, because the last three referendums on Europe have all gone the wrong way. Switzerland voted not to join; the Danes voted not to join the euro; and the Irish voted against the Nice Treaty. Some cynicism has been generated by the tendency to go on having referendums until the electorate deliver the right answer. I hope that would not be done with the outcome of the Convention on the future of Europe.


  29. In the light of that track record on referenda, would not your suggestion of a referenda in all the 15 countries likely lead to a total immobilism and no progress on the consensus of the Convention?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) It is up to us to design some recommendations that do enjoy popular consent. I would rather proceed more cautiously than on the basis of the public separating off from this project because that is what has happened. We have had decades in which the political class in Europe thinks it has known what is best for everybody else, and I think that has run out of road. It is incumbent upon us to design a solution which will enjoy the consent of the governed. Otherwise I see very real problems ahead which will be worse after enlargement. If we think we have got a democratic deficit in Europe now, just wait until we have another 100 million East Europeans in with their rather creaky, fragile legal, economic and political systems to add to the problem.

  Chairman: It is a bold view that there will be a Convention among the people, and that extraneous issues will not enter referendum decisions.

Andrew Mackinlay

  30. What I am not clear about is, at what stage decisions will start be taken within the Convention because it seems, listening to you both, there have not even been discussions on heads of agreement, there have not been "closing chapters". It seems to me your work at the present time is chewing the cud rather. When and how do you see perhaps not final decisions but agreement about competences on the European Parliament or the Commission, or the role of the Council of Ministers? When and how do you see that being arrived at?
  (Ms Stuart) The Praesidium set up the first six working groups, which largely came out of the remit from Laeken. They are going to start reporting back in September/October. I would be extremely surprised if the chairs of those working groups (despite the fact that the remit is to come forward only with recommendations) will not be tempted, with their recommendations, to recommend some Treaty proposals with that. Then the second and third waves of working groups, which will look at European security, and again you have got the September/October wave. By the time the House returns, for example, we will have on the table some very early cuts of the kind of directions in which recommendations are going. I expect them to fall into two categories: one will be the kind of political disagreement; and the other one which will be more work because they are technically quite difficult. That will determine the next wave of the working group, whether they are specifically technical ones. Secondly, and I am not aware of what the Liberals are doing, but I know politically for the EPP and the Socialist Group there are conferences over the summer which will be their political input into the Convention. I am delighted to say that the European Socialists will meet in Birmingham for their deliberations.

  31. Presumably you are happy with that!
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I am sure there is going to be a constitutional text at the end of this process. I am also sure that there will be a proposal to incorporate the Charter of Fundamental Rights against the stated position of the British Government. I think the EU will be endowed with legal personality. I believe the second and third pillars of the EU will probably be incorporated into the first pillar, the European Community pillar. Those are the outlines that I can identify at this stage. There are not firm proposals, and no text has been tabled. I would expect us to get down to that sort of work in the plenary session after the summer break.

  32. We will perhaps meet in November/December to have a mutually beneficial session. Listening to Mr Heathcoat-Amory, and I suspect that he and I are probably at different ends of the pole on Europe, yet I find some common purpose. It seems to me, those of us who would crudely describe ourselves as "pro-European" nevertheless have a vested interest in taking the electors of Europe with us. Certainly some people have not been able to digest some of the integration. Also subsidiarity and competences should not be unopposed to centralisation. What consideration has there been given to competences? Is there really scope to repatriate some things to national governments? I am not talking about what ideally you want, but politically practical. Has there been any discussion of that? Should some things go up and some things down? Have there been any chats about it?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Chairman, I think it is absolutely essential that some matters are repatriated to national decision making. There is no reason whatsoever to have matters like health, education, sport, culture or industrial policy decided at EU level. It simply means that decisions are made in Eurospace beyond any democratic recall. The decisions come out of a machine and we have to implement them. That is a slight caricature, but there is no feeling of engagement, as we know, when we have to make sense of all these regulations on these matters. Even ministers get confused about where they have come from, and the public then have to comply with them. That makes a mockery of self-government, as I understand it. Subsidiarity is not really working in practice. No-one seems to have an interest in enforcing it strictly, so there is this moving staircase where more and more powers are being exerted centrally. We need to put that into reverse. Secondly, we need to define very precisely what has to be decided internationally at EU level, spell them out in detail in a text and then improve the decision making on those issues. In my view, that too will mean a bigger role, and an earlier role for national parliaments so we can debate these matters here before we have to comply with them.
  (Ms Stuart) I think if the Convention were to try to reach agreement on what should be repatriated it would never reach agreement. What I think is essential is that we allow for a-two-way balance, because at the moment it all travels in one direction. Once it becomes an EU competence it remains that. We have to have mechanisms for sometimes doing something at EU level but then saying, "This was for a limited period. It goes back to national parliaments". I think David touched on something very significant and that is: who should be making decisions on questions of subsidiarity? The extreme views are that either it is a question for the courts or it is a political question. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle—that sometimes it will be the courts. For example, it is interesting with the German constitution that the courts have consistently refused to give rulings on subsidiarity and said, "This is a political question". If it is a political question, at what level should it be decided? I think that is where national parliaments should play a very, very significant role on those decisions; and then they refer to the Council of Ministers and say,"This is what politicians decide" and make it accountable. Subsidiarity is discussed at that level. I think it is a mechanism which the Convention will come up with rather than specifics.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  33. How, in the United Kingdom, can you begin to engage public interest, sympathy and enthusiasm if you persist in talking about complementary competence, pillars and repatriation of competences and all of this jargon which turns the average Brit off in a very big way, and turns me off in a dramatic way even though I call myself pro-European?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I completely agree with Patrick. It is difficult enough to hold people's attention at a national level on matters of democracy and government. At least there is a British electorate, what the Greeks would call demos; so we can have a functional democracy of people elected. They reject people; they change things; they know us; and they identify with us. That is where we need more decision making back to that level, and only send up to Europe those matters that have to be decided internationally and they should be defined. The entire language is opaque—and not just the language but the structure. I have discovered that there are scores of working committees reporting either to the Council of Ministers or to the Commission. I have only discovered recently the full number, and I was a Europe Minister for over a year and I was more or less unaware of this submerged part of the iceberg. There are 496 of these working committees in the European Union. They are only accountable democratically in the most technical and indirect sense, so we really have to slim down this organisation if we are going to obtain that popular consent on which the entire future of Europe depends.

Mr Illsley

  34. That was the whole idea of the Convention—to make it more acceptable and more amenable to the people of Europe and to find its new direction to have a working group on the jargon and language. Is the timetable realistic for the Convention so far, bearing in mind the workload imposed upon delegates, the timetable of meetings and the working groups?
  (Ms Stuart) I am a firm believer that a deadline concentrates the mind no end. To work for late spring/early summer 2003, I think we have to work towards that. We are all politicians, if you give us another year we will talk for another year.

  35. Do think you there will be constitutional text available around that time?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Yes, I think the outline plan is for us to start being specific with our ideas this autumn and then to have some real proposals by the spring of next year. I personally would hope it is not a single recommendation. I think the public probably get more interested, to revert to Sir Patrick's question, if they are given alternatives. If there is a real clash of ideas, if there are proposals which are even mutually contradictory, then I think you get a feel there perhaps is another Europe that is trying to make itself heard, a Europe of democracies, a Europe which would make it easier for these other countries from the East to join instead of having to take on this vast superstructure of the European Union. I certainly reject it myself, a single constitutional text on a take-it or leave-it basis.

  36. That then would suggest it would give it a text for an alternative Europe, or an alternative European Union. What you are suggesting is to give people of the Member States a choice between carrying on with the way the European Union is now, or looking at an alternative system?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) That would create a genuinely popular debate and might raise the turnout.

  37. Would it achieve anything in a referendum?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I do not mind a certain amount of confusion at that point if the outcome gives people a choice. At the minute they have no choice. If they give the wrong answer in a referendum they are told to have another referendum until they deliver the right answer. It is not surprising that the turnout in our last European parliamentary election in this country was below a quarter. It is not surprising that when the European electorate are allowed anywhere near a ballot box on the referendum they deliver a snub to the whole system. I mentioned the last three which blew up in the face of the proposers.
  (Ms Stuart) One of the Italian comments of the last Convention was the very interesting phrase that when you refer to the role of national parliaments and also European parliaments on a European level the national parliaments were the face with no power, and the European parliaments were the power but without the face. The problem of the electorate engaging with these various significant institutions at that level was that there was not a face to put with the power. I very much hope that one of the things that will come out of the Convention is not just the much earlier involvement of national parliaments in the decision-making process, but I see no reason why the Commission should not have a duty imposed on them to come to national parliaments to explain the legislative programme—rather than a pilgrimage to Brussels, which is possible but rarely done. Also, much closer working with the European Parliament and the national parliaments, so that when people go to vote in European elections that face they vote for actually has some real meaning. I think it is a duty incumbent on us to actually make that link. We have the means of making that link; they do know us; but we have to make that connection. If I may make a brief reference back to what Sir Patrick said, he is absolutely right—try and explain to anyone what comitology is, other than saying it needs reforming; but it is that kind of technical matter which at some stage we have to engage in. What we have to come up with is a simple way in which we can tell people who is responsible for this decision; so we need to know who makes it; who they are accountable to. Also, if we do not like it, how do we get rid of them? The real lesson of the recent referenda is a sense of powerlessness amongst the electorate. I always say that in the Irish referendum the electorate said (putting it very crudely), "Up yours". We were not quite sure who "they" were, but they did not like what they were doing.

  38. The only thing I disagree with is the whole of the power is in the Commission. Could I just come back to the timetable question. Are you still in the listening phase before the analysis phase, as suggested by the President? Is there still a working convention, or has the whole thing just taken on a life of its own?
  (Ms Stuart) With the working groups that was the end of the listening phase, and now working very specifically towards that. The real political crunch, which is where the real political tension and fault line is—and David and I are probably agreed 95 per cent on this—is whether something is an end in itself or means to an end. For example, the internal market. For a lot of people in Europe it is seen as a means of deeper and further integration; whereas the Anglo Saxon view is that the internal market is something extremely worthwhile having in its own right and we feel unhappy with only 60 per cent of provision implemented. I want the Commission to focus much more thoroughly on this and say, "Implement it completely". The reason why lots of others are relaxed about this is because they do not see the aim in itself but a means of further integration. That is where the political fault line is.

  39. The Convention does have a huge number of members and working groups. Is the working timetable for individual members adequate, or do you find you are bogged down with work in the Convention; is it likely to hold things up the more we progress; or do you think the working arrangements are adequate?
  (Ms Stuart) It is almost a full-time job and you just do it. That is my view.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Yes. There are plenary sessions at least once a month, and there are now, in addition, working group sessions on separate days at least every month. I came back from one yesterday. It is almost full-time, but I think it is very important that we do not get sucked into the Brussels machine ourselves, and that we refresh our ideas in our own parliament, and also in talking to our own electors; so that we bring in from the outside ideas, rather than trying to sell the product back at home.

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