Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


European Communities (Amendment) Bill

3.18 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Whitty.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Resumed debate on Clause 1.

Lord Moynihan moved Amendment No. 23L:


Page 1, line 13, after ("2") insert ("(except paragraph 57)").

The noble Lord said: This amendment concerns Article 1, paragraph 9 (Article F.1 of the TEU, new Article 7 in the consolidated version) of the treaty, and Article 2, paragraph 57 (Article 236 of the TEC, new Article 309 in the consolidated version)--in other words, the human rights article about which I have some reservations.

These articles empower the Council of Ministers to suspend the voting rights or, indeed, any other rights from the member state country which it claims is guilty of "serious and persistent" violations of the Union principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and for the rule of law. Such a decision, that a member was in serious and persistent breach of the Union principle, would be taken by unanimity, minus the member state in question--for the accused country is not allowed to vote. The other member states are required to consult the European Parliament and obtain its assent. Once a member state is found guilty by the Council meeting in the composition of heads of state or government and acting by unanimity any subsequent decision to suspend the voting rights of that country will be decided by qualified majority vote. There is no provision for an independent arbiter. That country would have no right of appeal and there would be no role for the European Court of Justice in this procedure.

Once found guilty, rather than be expelled from the Union the member state concerned would have all its rights suspended including its voting rights. However, it would continue to be bound by all of the obligations inherent in the treaties of the Union and any further obligations that the Council might decide to impose, although the suspension of its voting rights would preclude it from having a say in such future obligations.

28 Apr 1998 : Column 155

I have a few reservations about the article. First, how are the rights are to be defined? It goes without saying that in a democracy such as ours every Member of this House supports the principles of human rights, individual freedom and the rule of law. We on these Benches will do all that we can to safeguard and advance basic human rights, the need to protect individual liberty, free speech and the right to demonstrate, to have parliamentary democracy and to be governed by the rule of law. There is no division on these Benches as to those rights. But in the article that we are now considering the rights in question are vaguely defined. Does it refer to human rights as they are traditionally understood and as I have outlined--the right to free speech, to free assembly and habeas corpus--to which we all subscribe unreservedly, or does it include a wider and more controversial interpretation of human rights, such as a basic human right to a minimum wage or to abortion on demand?

In this country with our tradition of common law we would interpret "rights" as having the former meaning in reference to individual freedoms and liberties. The Bill of Rights of 1689 meant the protection of the individual from intrusion by other persons, groups of persons, the state itself or even the king. If that were the meaning here it is unlikely that the United Kingdom would ever fall foul of this article, but in Europe it could be interpreted in the latter way based on a looser definition that places an obligation on the state or on others to provide the right for the individual: for example, the right to work, the right to welfare, or the right to a pension. Therefore, in seeking to clarify exactly what the clause means it is most important to seek from the Government the definition of "rights" which will be used by the Union in the context of this article.

My second reservation is about the lack of judicial involvement. Under the Treaty of Amsterdam these questions will be dealt with not by a judicial body but by politicians sitting in the Council of Ministers; nor will there be an independent arbiter or right of appeal. Can the Minister inform the Committee whether there is a precedent in diplomacy or in law for the signatory to a treaty losing its rights but not its obligations at the behest of fellow signatories?

Thirdly, what is the true intention of this article? It will not do to claim that Article F.1 is simply a precaution against the sudden collapse of democracy in a member state. If one of our fellow members were to fall into dictatorship surely the logical response would be to end its membership of the European Union. Yet Article F.1 provides no mechanism for doing that. Instead, it specifies that the state in question would remain bound by all of the treaty obligations while losing its rights. I do not believe that that is the right way to deal with an undemocratic regime.

If the real intention of this article is to provide a remedy for really serious breaches of human rights, surely the logical remedy is expulsion or temporary suspension from the European Union of the country concerned. What justification is there for requiring such a country to be bound by decisions taken in its absence? Why were procedures to provide for expulsion not included in the

28 Apr 1998 : Column 156

treaty? It would be perfectly possible for other member states to give measured warnings to the offending state and to make clear that unless it mended its ways expulsion would follow. Can the Minister clarify exactly how this article will operate? I understand that it was intended as a safeguard against the possibility of one of the future member states of central and eastern Europe reneging on the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

I do not dispute that as we enlarge into central and eastern Europe where these traditions are relatively recently established and not yet entrenched some protection will be required for the integrity of the Union. As the Union is enlarged it is legitimate to consider what happens if any member state acquires a government that falls short of those fundamental standards. That involves not only new members. One of the reasons put forward for admitting Greece to the Community was to reinforce the changes that had taken place there with a return to parliamentary democracy and a proper standard of human rights. Within the European Union we have no experience of what would happen if hypothetically the Greek colonels returned to power or a military regime took over in the Iberian peninsula. I accept that these are very remote possibilities, but should that happen in any country of the European Union, or should a new member state with a short tradition of democracy fall into dictatorship and start persecuting its natural minorities, arbitrarily confiscating private property or suspending the due process of law, what would the European Union do? In those circumstances, would the other member states want that state to remain within the Union?

When one comes across serious and persistent abuses of human rights, as tragically one does in the former Yugoslavia, the response is not to invite the perpetrators of those abuses to join the European Union but without voting rights, but to apply a series of sanctions and to make clear that such behaviour is incompatible with an ambition to join the European Union. When the Commission delivered its opinions on the various pending applications for membership of the European Union a proven track record of respect for human rights was rightly one of the prerequisites. In that case, how will Article F.1 be of the slightest use? We are forced to the conclusion that Article F.1 could conceivably be used to disarm the national veto of any country that held up a measure that the other member states wanted. Can the Minister guarantee absolutely that this article will never be used or abused to deprive difficult countries of their vote on spurious human rights grounds? Further, can the Minister guarantee that the human rights clause will be invoked only if there were a massive change in one of the new or existing member states who posed a real threat to democracy? Is it not the case that the procedure can be used and abused to take away the voting rights of a recalcitrant government or member state who may have a perfectly satisfactory record on human rights but be responsible for some peculiar social provision that perhaps may be described as a breach of human rights depending on how "rights" is defined?

28 Apr 1998 : Column 157

The Minister may say that this is a very remote example, but if the Committee is to carry out its responsibilities in relation to the scrutiny of this treaty it is incumbent on Members to identify scenarios that may not be very likely but which may be turned to the disadvantage of this country. It is also our duty to point out the dangers. So will the Minister confirm that there is nothing in the treaty to allow that danger to be dismissed as legally impossible? Anything can happen in international relations. Even though the provisions of the treaty envisage the clause being invoked only by the unanimous vote of all the member states except the one whose conduct is under examination, ratified by two-thirds of the Members of the European Parliament, it is still not unprecedented for provisions in European treaties, to which we have signed up, to be used in a way that was never intended at the time.

I shall give one obvious example. It is the way in which QMV procedures in respect of health and safety were used to introduce the 48-hour working week. No one in the previous government who agreed to QMV for health and safety measures at the time of the Single European Act ever contemplated their use to introduce a maximum length of working week. As Opposition, it is our duty to examine the provisions of treaties such as this and to ensure that there is no scope for abuse or for their use in ways never intended at the time or which might be to the disadvantage of this country.

It is difficult to say with certainty whether those procedures will ever be invoked, because every relevant situation that arises would be a political crisis and would have to be responded to according to the facts of the case. In practice, if some military regime were to seize power and to start to abuse human rights, Article F.1 would, in my opinion, not be the end of the story. The EU could not tolerate the situation indefinitely.

Nevertheless, Article F.1 flies in the face of precedent and of our constitutional tradition. It is for those reasons that I have put the questions to the Minister in the context of the amendment, which I hope will lead to her providing clarification for the Committee as to the purpose and the definition of this important part of the treaty. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 37. I do not share all the views that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, put forward. This is consolidation of a number of declarations previously made in the European Community. Indeed, it was originally a British proposal in the Copenhagen Declaration of 1978 by that great European Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that we should include in a formal declaration of the European Council a number of provisions in case new members--we were then talking about Spain, Greece and Portugal--should move backwards from democracy. It was something to which the British Government attached a good deal of importance at the time as a backstop.

We have all seen the European Community as part of the process of consolidating democracy in Europe. It was, in the 1950s, part of the process of consolidating

28 Apr 1998 : Column 158

democracy in the western part of the continent. In the 1980s it became part of the process of consolidating democracy in a number of Mediterranean countries; and part of the process of enlargement to central and eastern Europe has the same function. It was felt by the then British Government, and by others, that a backstop was useful--now consolidated into the treaty--in case of,


    "the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of principles mentioned in Article F(1)".

That is a useful backstop against that eventuality in a larger Community of countries which have not been consistently democratic over the past generation or more. We all hope that it will never be necessary but it is appropriate in a Community committed to the principles of democracy, political and civil liberties that the provision should be included.

We hope that on Report the Government will be able to give this place some assurance about the levels of information and reporting which they will give Parliament about purposes in the EU. Amendment No. 37 is one of a number of amendments which call upon the Government to report back to this place under certain circumstances. We on these Benches are concerned that the level of reporting and information provided to national parliaments should be as full as possible.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page