The Future of Europe

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Roger Casale: I am utterly delighted that this Committee is taking place. It is unusual to have a Standing Committee at 7.30 pm, especially on a hot summer's evening when we are on a one-line Whip. However, we are making progress—that is the important thing—we are quorate and the Committee is able to perform its very important job: to hold our representatives on the Convention on the future of Europe to account.

I am delighted, as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee that worked hard to put forward the idea of such an innovative Standing Committee, to see that Committee taking shape and taking place. The European Scrutiny Committee believes that there are some very important matters in relation to Europe for which insufficient time was available for full debate in the House. That is to say insufficient time was available for Members of the House of Commons to debate not only the Convention but other matters, such as the Commission's work programme and the broad economic guidelines that require fuller debate. If this Committee proves to be a success—we have made a good start today—we might be able to examine applying it, with colleagues from the other place, in the consideration of other European matters of great importance that cannot be debated on the Floor of the House because of pressure of time.

I should place on record the specific reference in the European Scrutiny Committee's report to the need for a European Grand Committee. This Standing Committee, which is having its inaugural meeting this evening, could prove to be the precursor to such a Committee.

I shall repeat remarks that I made earlier this evening welcoming the commitment of our delegates to the success of the Convention. As has been said, there will be many different points of view. Different members of this Committee and different Members of the House of Commons will have different views, and it is right that we should hear the views of individual Members. One would not expect any Member to agree

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with everything that any other Member said, but I wish that the right hon. Member for Wells would perhaps spend a bit more time looking for positive things to say about the European Union and a little less time searching for negative points. Like everything and everybody, there is good and bad about the European Union.

On the plus side, it is important to put on record on an occasion such as this the fact that the European Union has delivered 50 years of peace in Europe. Through the single market it has delivered unparalleled prosperity for European citizens. It has given Europe a strong currency that surpassed the US dollar in value earlier this week. It is moving into areas of common foreign and security policy and offering not only prosperity and peace but security to the citizens of Europe in the future.

It is incumbent on our delegates to put forward not only their ideas and views but to do the best that they can—they will not fail us—to represent the mood and the views expressed in the House of Commons, not least in this Committee. The purpose of this Committee is to allow Members of Parliament to come along and express their views to our representatives who can take those views forward to the Convention. Of course, I know that our procedures in the House of Commons are not exactly the same as the procedures in the other place and everyone will have their view about what it means to be a representative, but I am encouraged by what we have heard this evening from our delegates to believe that the views expressed in the debate—we will hear more of this in the winding-up speeches—will as far as it is possible and reasonable be reflected in the contribution that they make in their individual ways to the Convention.

The Convention on the future of Europe is not the Philadelphia convention, but is an important moment for Europe—an important democratic moment too. I hope that future meetings of this Committee will attract contributions from Members of the House who may not have a particular view on or interest in Europe, but who are concerned and moved by the important democratic issues and challenges that we are facing up to in the Convention. All who care about the health of our democracy, all who care about the relationship between the governed and those who govern us, and all who take a serious interest in how our laws are made should be aware of, and where possible participate in and contribute their views to, the questions that are being raised by the future of Europe Convention.

I referred earlier to the European Scrutiny Committee's work. We have published two important and major reports on democracy and accountability in the European Union and European scrutiny in the House of Commons. I am pleased to say that there has been tremendous demand for those reports from Committees in national Parliaments throughout Europe. I wish that the high regard in which the European Scrutiny Committee is clearly held by other national Parliaments in the European Union also applied to some of the other Committees of the House. As we have the opportunity to work

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together, especially with other departmental Select Committees, and as we develop our scrutiny system in the Commons, perhaps that will take effect.

Our central concern on the European Scrutiny Committee has been to bring European decision making closer to the citizen. What does that mean in practice? It means that we want European decision making to be more open, transparent and accountable but, crucially, we wish to increase the role of national Parliaments in the European decision-making process. We want to do that not least because national Parliaments are the physical embodiment of the link between Ministers and decision makers, and the citizen. I am sure that Members who invite their constituents to visit the House of Commons are struck by the reverence and awe in which they hold not us the Members, but the institution and what it stands for. It is the physical link between the elected representative and the decision maker in government. That is why, if we are concerned about increasing the democratic accountability of the European Union, it is very important to strengthen the role of national Parliaments and give a greater role to national parliamentarians, as the crucial links between the citizen and the decision-making process.

There are low turnouts for local government elections. It is not particularly a fault of the European Union. There is alienation from politics throughout the political system, but the peculiarity of European Union institutions is that they are remote. That is why it is so important that there is some intermediate link or bridge between the European Union and the state.

Mr. Cash: Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to confirm that it would be better if other national Parliaments in Europe paid more attention to their procedures to ensure that the aims of democracy and accountability are fulfilled?

Roger Casale: I do think that that would be a good idea but, with respect, the hon. Gentleman has had a taste of his own medicine. The point about national Parliaments is that they are sovereign. Who are we, as another national Parliament, or the Convention to dictate to national Parliaments in Europe how they are to conduct their business? My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston kindly referred to my paper on national Parliaments. The Committee will be pleased to hear that I do not have time now to elaborate on my recommendations. However, one suggestion that I made is that we try to get national Parliaments to sign up to a charter and freely commit themselves to improving their procedures and to performing better the role as a link between the European citizen and the decision-making processes.

The second reason why we need to involve national Parliaments more in European decision making is that it is becoming clear that national Parliaments and Governments are losing some of the powers that they once had to control the destiny of their citizens. That is not because of some conspiracy to hand powers over but because of the nature of the world that we live in: a global economy, in which decisions that are taken by investment bankers in Japan affect the jobs of people in our constituencies. We must recognise that we live

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in a much more international world in terms of economics, and that our politics must become more international, too. As powers move from a national to an international system but also through devolution to a regional system, we must improve and increase the scrutiny role of national Parliaments and parliamentarians.

The Convention on the future of Europe is an opportunity for us in this Parliament to enhance and increase our scrutiny role in European decision making. We have made a good start this evening. I thank representatives for their contribution and look forward to further progress through the Committee. We must make progress, because the cost of failure will be to abandon the field to those who wish, ultimately, to undermine the European project. We must succeed above all on behalf of those whom we represent in this place whose prosperity and peace in the future depends as much on the success of the European Union as it has done in the past.

9.44 pm

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: May I begin by expressing my gratitude to the authorities of the House of Commons for organising the Committee to conduct these discussions, which are of inestimable value? I link that general gratitude to my particular gratitude to those who have chosen to participate in our debate. It has been informative and significant in emphasising the importance that the House of Commons—of which I am no longer a Member, alas—attaches to aspects of our discussion.

It is very easy to become bogged down in the detail. Lord Howell said that we must grapple with a great deal of detail, but we must not and will not lose sight of the context in which these examinations take place. It is true, as Mr. Casale said, that the countries of the European Union have enjoyed 50 years of peace. It is also true that the liberation of eastern Europe and the reunification of the continent of Europe present new opportunities for the concerting of policies to enable Europe to speak in the dangerous world in which we live with greater coherence and effectiveness. It is also true that that cannot be looked for as a product of the institutions of the European Union if they do not enjoy the support of the citizens of Europe. It is a major challenge.

Neither I nor my party entered these discussions with a clear view of the end point. However, it has been described as federalist. All I can say is that the European Union seems to me not to resemble a federation—at least, it is a federation with a difference. I would not want to construct on the European continent a classical federation, and I hope that seeking ways of balancing effectiveness, democracy and transparency will not be dismissed as the effort of someone with a pre-ordained view of what the desirable outcome should be. The decisions to be taken are extremely difficult and creative and follow no pre-ordained pattern.

It is perhaps appropriate to emphasise the impression made on me by our discussion of the role of national Parliaments. I do not doubt their legitimacy or the acceptance of their legitimacy. It

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should be possible to involve those Parliaments in a way that helps the Union and takes forward some of the best practices followed in other member countries to enhance acceptability of what is being attempted on behalf of the citizens of Europe and to make it more immediately accountable and understandable throughout the United Kingdom.

9.49 pm

 
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Prepared 16 July 2002