The Future of Europe

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Standing Committee on the Convention

Tuesday 16 July 2002

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

The Future of Europe

7.30 pm

The Chairman: As this is the first sitting of the Standing Committee on the Convention, I shall explain the procedure that must be followed. The Committee has up to one and a half hours to hear statements from parliamentary representatives and the alternate representatives, and to put questions to them. There will then be a debate on the motion. If the sitting has not previously concluded, I shall put the Question on that motion when members of the Committee have sat for two and a half hours. In addition to members of the Committee, other Members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords may ask questions and/or participate in the debate. I know that many will wish to take part, and I hope that questions and contributions to the debate will be brief so that as many Members of both Houses as possible can participate.

7.31 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I thank the House authorities for making the sitting possible, so that parliamentary representatives can report back to both Houses of Parliament. I shall limit my statement and concentrate on the working group on the role of national Parliaments, which I chair. I thought that the Committee should have its first sitting before the recess, because my working group will report before the House returns in October and it is important that it receives input from both Houses of Parliament before then.

The working group on the role of national Parliaments was in the first wave of working groups to be set up: it was one of the first six. There was considerable opposition from some members of the Convention to a working group on national Parliaments. At the extreme end of the argument, it was said that national Parliaments are represented in the European Union architecture by national Governments. It became clear in our discussions that there are different perceptions about whether a Parliament, as an institution, has a right to be represented and defended, as distinct from Governments. Mechanisms in other member states for holding Governments to account within European Union institutions look persuasive and powerful on paper, but because they can be triggered only by the majority party—the Government—they do not give Parliament itself a role. It was even suggested to us that Governments use the scrutiny reserve for their own means.

The working group has 30 members, most of whom are national parliamentarians. A Commissioner is a member of the group as are some Members of the European Parliament. There is overlap between the

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working group on the role of national Parliaments and a specific working group that was set up under the chairmanship of Mr. Mendez de Vigo to consider only the narrow remit of subsidiarity. The working group on the role of national Parliaments has had its first two meetings. It will hold a meeting on Thursday, and there will be a joint meeting with the subsidiarity group on the Wednesday before we finish for the August break and return in September. At our first sitting, we considered our mandate. To my surprise, unlike almost all other working groups that spend the majority of their first sitting arguing about the framing of their mandates, ours was agreed within five minutes.

We then had a round-the-table discussion on the role of national Parliaments. There was an educational element to that discussion, because a curious aspect of the working of the Convention is that almost half its members have no first-hand experience of the workings of the European Union. It is slightly difficult for them to voice their opinion on the operation of the EU and how it could be improved when their experience is theoretical. The exchange of ideas in the first session was extremely useful and taught me, as chairman, that if one does not give too much warning of the choice of subject, people will not come with prepared statements and positions, and there may be a genuine exchange of ideas.

The second session was in two parts. In one we heard a presentation by a German academic called Maurer, who had done extensive research on various systems of parliamentary scrutiny. We used his document as evidence for the working group. He gave a similar presentation in the afternoon to the subsidiarity group, so that both groups had a similar knowledge base from which to work. We also submitted several questions to the Commission, because we wanted to get a sense of how it applies the principle of subsidiarity. Commissioner Barnier gave us a brief summary.

We asked the Commission—and are in the process of asking the European Council and European Parliament—specific questions about how it applies the principle of subsidiarity; to what extent subsidiarity is observed; whether the Amsterdam protocol has been sufficiently achieved; and to what extent it could be improved. We then drew a slightly premature conclusion—in the logical sequence of the working group—to the evidence taken on practice, because we needed to prepare a clear position for the subsidiarity meeting.

The next meeting will consider aspects of subsidiarity, such as the extent to which national Parliaments should have a role in deciding on subsidiarity. Some people argue that the problem is not so much subsidiarity as transposition and, at times, proportionality. There was certainly a push from the MEPs in the group that national Parliaments should have a role. Personally, I have my doubts about whether that would be the right way forward.

We also considered the mechanisms and whether we should have new institutions. Before we set up the working group, we had a full Convention session on the role of national Parliaments, and the preliminary and the evidence sessions have shown that we have

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considerable doubts as to whether a new institution is really the solution. Rather than creating such new institutions and making the decision-making process even more complicated, the present position requires strengthening and simplification.

In the autumn, under the working programme, we shall invite our Scandinavian colleagues to give a presentation on how their scrutiny system works. We will also ask some of our French colleagues to put forward their ideas, which revolve around a second Chamber. I have planned a visit to Finland on either 20 or 27 September to see first hand how the Finnish model works. I have also agreed to go to the Friday session of the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees.

Although we hope to bring our work to a conclusion in October, I think that it would be inappropriate to conclude our findings before COSAC has an opportunity to put forward its ideas. However, the group on subsidiarity will finish its meetings in September. As for the rest of the working groups, those dealing with subsidiarity and whether the EU should have a legal personality will report in September. The group that is considering whether the charter of human rights should be incorporated will report in September or early October. President Giscard d'Estaing announced at the last session that he hoped that by mid-October to be able to outline how the output of the Convention will be used. He encouraged us not to call it a skeleton, but to come up with something that sounded more dynamic.

The group on what is inelegantly called complementary competences, which considers the use of article 308 and examines whether the European Union can act when it does not have a specific treaty mandate, the group on economic governance and the group on the role of national Parliaments will report in October or early November.

The setting up of a second wave of working groups has been announced. They will start work in September, and we hope to agree on their remit at the praesidium meeting this Thursday. There will be groups on the EU and its external relations, defence, the simplification of the instruments of the EU and justice and home affairs for greater security. There have been requests for two more working groups that we have not been able to agree to at this stage—on the regional implications of the EU and on good governance, which does not only mean economic governance.

7.41 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): The Convention has been sitting for nearly five months. It is starting to grapple with matters of substance, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said. Working groups have been established, one of which I served on and to which I shall allude in a moment.

I hope that the Convention will start to make the necessary hard choices. To date, there has been a slight tendency to reel off generalised demands, usually for more powers for everyone. All the existing institutions and vested interests have made eloquent cases for more

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powers for themselves. The European Commission wants more powers in the field of foreign policy, security, economic co-ordination and even taxation. The European Parliament wants more powers. Most member states want to retain a degree of intergovernmental decision-making. Therefore, the Council of Ministers must retain or extend its status. There is also a general agreement that the Parliaments of member states must be brought more into decision-making. That cannot all happen at once. Something must give and choices are necessary.

I arrived at the Convention concerned about the democratic deficit. After five months I am truly alarmed, partly because I do not think that the matter is being addressed seriously enough. There are certain basic requirements for any system of government. Decisions should be taken by people who are visibly accountable. It is also important that the people affected by those decisions—the public—should know what is going on and should be able to influence the outcome by making representations. Indeed, in extreme cases when enough people disagree, they must be able to change the direction of policy and remove the people responsible.

In a more general sense, the public should feel a sense of ownership of the system—a sense of belonging or allegiance. In other words, a demos must exist. All that is absent in the European Union. The more I delve into it, the more I find the system almost comically undemocratic, which is extremely dangerous. I offer one small example, because it can often illustrate a greater truth. I investigated the genesis and course of the physical agents vibration directive. That is a matter of concern in my constituency because it would limit the exposure of employees to vibrating machinery. That includes all-body exposure, such as sitting on tractors, so it is colloquially known as the tractor directive. It was negotiated and passed by an opaque procedure and by negotiation between a specialist committee of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. The Scrutiny Committee examined it in 2000 and deemed that it was politically important. However, it was not debated. It is now a directive and will be enforceable, presumably with the force of criminal law, on those whom we represent.

I cited the directive at a recent public meeting in Denmark as an example of over-regulation. A Danish Member of the European Parliament said that I was spreading baseless rumours and that the directive does not apply to agriculture. I accepted that at the time, but I checked with the House of Commons Library on my return and found that it will apply to agriculture after a transitional period. I exchanged e-mails with the MEP and she conceded that it would apply. She was the rapporteur of the relevant committee. How can the public understand what is happening if the rapporteur on the relevant committee does not? I call that a complete denial of the principle of self-government.

The system needs radical reform and the Convention is the last chance. The solution is quite simple: we should recognise that the nation state remains the focus of people's democratic allegiance.

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National Parliaments must stop being passive receptacles of directives and regulations. We stand under the waterfall of the measures that come before us. Instead, we must insert national Parliaments of all member states into the decision-making process at the start.

 
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Prepared 16 July 2002