The Future of Europe

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Mr. David: May I begin by thanking all our representatives on the Convention? They have participated in a largely constructive and positive way so far, which is a step forward in itself. For too long, we have been seen as a nation on the sidelines of the EU, rather than in the mainstream of the real cut and thrust of political debate. That has fundamentally changed, which I welcome.

I welcome the fact that significant progress has been made because, fundamentally, the EU is a construct in which independent sovereign states come together and

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decide to pool their sovereignty from time to time in their individual best interests. That is the essential model behind the EU, and much of what we have heard tonight is complementary to that vision. However, much work still needs to be done. In particular, there needs to be greater emphasis on the work of the Council of Ministers in the next few months. Whatever modifications we might want to be made to EU institutions, if we believe that the European Union is essentially an association of sovereign states, the role of such a council of ministers is fundamental.

I would have reservations if the Convention were to suggest that there should be a single-pillar structure. There is much to be said for maintaining and developing intergovernmental co-operation, particularly as far as a common foreign and security policy is concerned. Justice and home affairs are a different matter; events in the past couple of years have shown the need for a more communautaire approach on many issues that have been regarded as matters of national interest. We have a collective identity; one has only to look at the problems we face to realise that. However, the role of national Parliaments is fundamental to the future development of the European Union because national Parliaments are the institutions closest to the electorate of our representative states. That is an objective fact.

I welcome many of the recommendations in the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. There is a need to emphasise the desirability of the Council to work with more openness and to ensure a greater dialogue and better communication with our institutions and national Parliaments. The Amsterdam treaty protocol should be implemented in its entirety. The body known as COSAC—I had the dubious privilege of representing this Parliament in COSAC last week—needs to be fundamentally reformed. It should be given a clear mandate to develop an inter-parliamentary consultative mechanism. At present, it is simply a talking shop, and that is to put it politely.

There needs to be fundamental emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity, which, essentially, is a political, rather than a judicial, term. The role of national Parliaments is crucial. I express my reservations too, as the mechanism proposed in the report does not go far enough. To quote briefly from paragraph 26, the report recommends that

    ''A mechanism should be set up to allow national parliaments to convey early on in the legislative process their views on the compliance of a legislative proposal with the principle of subsidiarity.''

That is all well and good. However, the next sentence states:

    ''Such a mechanism should be process-based and it should not hinder or delay the legislative process.''

Frankly, given that second sentence, what is the point of the first one? The point of national Parliaments scrutinising Commission proposals is that they may hinder, delay or change those legislative proposals. It is important, therefore, that a clear message should go

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out from this national Parliament to our representatives that that is what we want.

The debate has been extremely useful; the process is working, warts and all. I hope that the Convention's deliberations will be positive and, above all, in the national interests of this country.

6.19 pm

Lord Howell: As far as they go, some of the proposals from the working group are very useful. I particularly welcome the move to make the Commission transmit all consultative documents to national Parliaments and for Council working groups not to acknowledge preliminary agreements on proposals until the six-week period is up. I hope not to argue about provisional agreements, which the Government have rightly eschewed and decided not to use as a phrase, or that the Commission should present its annual legislative programme to national Parliaments. I agree with others that COSAC should be either replaced or beefed up and given teeth.

I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston will suggest to her group colleagues that it is not just a question of new legislative items. Hitherto, people have said that it is impossible to open up the acquis communautaire. From what Lord Tomlinson, Lord Maclennan, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells have said, I do not know whether I would be right in assuming that it is no longer untouchable and that we can begin to get a democratic surveyance of the huge powers, some of which are completely out of date and unnecessary, that it has accumulated. That should be an extension of the wrongly named subsidiarity process.

I am glad that there is a focus on scrutiny and scrutiny reserve. Is it possible for the Convention to examine the idea of entrenching that and making it a formal part of the legislative and decision-making processes in the European Union? Could it even be made mandatory? No one is saying that we can bully every member state into scrutiny reserve procedures, but there is nothing against binding ourselves in our own legislation and requiring that a scrutiny reserve is mandatory. Those are the issues on which some progress seems to have been made, but much more is needed if we are to return power to national Parliaments, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) has requested.

I have some general points, and I shall try to be brief as I know that time is running out. I remain deeply concerned about the obsession about the need for a single voice in Europe, which seems to come up in the legal affairs working group and elsewhere. I cannot understand why democrats do not want power to be dispersed in the EU, rather than concentrated more and more in a single voice. Even if formal power is not given to that single voice, the media and world of influence and information will give enormous power to it. It is much better for the Convention to concentrate on how to disperse power. That is the essence of the American constitution, which is continually referred to. I am horrified by the suggestion, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells, that the Convention may lead to the collapse of the three pillars into a single, out-of-date, hierarchical structure. He may be right, but we should fight against that with all our energies.

Co-decision has not been mentioned, and I wonder whether it has been raised at the Convention. It is an obscure and secretive process that is not working in the way that it should. It is called conciliation by some, which is a misnomer, and it should be opened up in the name of democracy when examining the reallocation of powers.

The constitutional treaty is mentioned again and again. It is difficult to understand how it will deal with shared and changing competences. Could we have an explanation, even if we do not agree with it thereafter? The essence of modern international relations is that the level at which issues are handled constantly changes. Agriculture and the environment are two examples. What was appropriate for central handling 20 years ago is not appropriate now. What is appropriate for one level 20 years ago must now be handled at regional, national and supranational levels as well. How will the constitutional treaty define competences if they are constantly changing? I am nervous that we will trap ourselves in a rigid pattern of constitutional law, which will be a paradise for lawyers and no one else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) mentioned the charter of fundamental rights. It seems that we have sold the pass on that—it is incorporated. Will our representatives remind their colleagues on the Convention that over-emphasis on positive rights is an intrusion on other people's liberties? One cannot go round demanding more and more rights without finding lobbies and groups demanding that certain things be prohibited, that people should have such rights and that other liberties should thereby be curtailed. That is dangerous and will lead to much bitterness.

It seems that the language is still wrong. There is too much condescending language in the reports about how national Parliaments should be brought into the EU process as an afterthought or add-on. It should in fact be the other way round: EU institutions must be bought into the democratic and national parliamentary processes. Until we begin using that language to express our aims, we shall continue to see things slide away from the democratic, representative and dispersed pattern of power for which we should be fighting.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. If contributions could be compressed somewhat, to something like three or four minutes, all those seeking my eye could well get in before the witching hour. I make that as an appeal—I cannot make it as a rule, sadly.

6.26 pm

Lord Stoddart: I will try to be brief. It is a privilege to be able to contribute to the debate, and to ask

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questions about representatives and deputy representatives on the Convention.

The Convention was ostensibly set up to deal with the problems of absorbing another 10 members. In my experience, which has been long in matters European, whenever the Community has been enlarged, it has been centralised. In order to make a success of absorbing another 10 members, however, it is not necessary to centralise—it is necessary to decentralise. I have read reports from our representatives and others, and it seems that the Convention is grinding on again towards centralism, rather than decentralisation.

What worries me and confirms my fears is the fact that many people want a single legal personality. There is no question about it: if that comes about, the competences of the centre will expand. They will expand further into foreign policy—we are already hearing about a secretary of state and a place on the United Nations. There is also the difficult question of defence. There is movement towards a centralised European defence force. Home affairs, policing and judicial matters are being increasingly encroached on.

That is the wrong way to go. If we are going to have a successful European community, it needs to be decentralised, and understood by and responsible to the people who are part of it. That means the national Parliaments, whose powers, far from being diminished, ought to be considerably increased.

6.29 pm

 
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Prepared 23 October 2002