Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Mr Hain, may I begin by thanking you very much for taking the time to come and talk with us. I am delighted to see Mr Nick Baird with you. Would you like to make an opening statement?
  (Peter Hain) I do not feel I need to, Chairman. I am happy to take questions straight away.

  2. That is very helpful to us, given the time constraints. If I may begin, Secretary of State, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and other key members are calling for more time to fine-tune the draft Constitution or Constitutional Treaty, whichever you prefer to call it, and to digest the lessons of Iraq, but EU leaders, such as Prime Minister Simitis, seem to be insisting that the Convention complete its work according to the original Laeken timetable, that is to say, June 30. Do you think that this gives enough time for a sensible consideration of tricky issues such as the Common Foreign and Security Policy and institutional power sharing? If the Laeken timetable prevails one must assume that the important decisions will then be taken in the IGC itself and on the basis of options produced by the Convention which was originally envisaged by Laeken. Could you tell us whether you think that the decisions taken in the IGC will be taken transparently, if that is where they are going to be taken, compared with what is going on in the Convention, and how are we going to use the time between Thessalonika and the IGC to get the whole thing sorted out?
  (Peter Hain) First, thank you for inviting me again, which I see as part of my mandate, to report back and be questioned about the work of the Convention. We are working on the basis that the original timetable is adhered to. There are proposals for a special European Council on June 30 at which President Giscard will present his conclusions from the Convention. For myself it is not just a question of being liberated from the Convention, much as I am enjoying it; it is also the old Parkinson's Law syndrome, that I think you could expand the time for us to discuss these difficult issues for ever and it needs to come to a conclusion and I think the original timetable should be adhered to. We will then go into the IGC after a period, I guess, for national parliaments to reflect on the outcome and for governments to consider where they stand and then for negotiations to proceed. As to how transparent that could be, well, I do not imagine the IGC will be over very quickly. It will be a period of months and that will enable greater scrutiny and accountability for the direction that the final negotiations are taking.

  3. Do you have the impression, Secretary of State, that the Praesidium is riding roughshod over too many of the recommendations coming out of the work of the Plenary, for example, on the role of the national parliaments?
  (Peter Hain) As far as the Praesidium is concerned, the first draft articles which appeared a few months ago, as I commented at the time, did not seem to bear much resemblance in many cases to the consensus arrived at in working groups that we had slaved long and hard over, and at the subsequent plenaries, which endorsed those conclusions by and large, in some cases you felt you were in a different Convention from the one that the Praesidium seemed to recognise. However, that was early days and I think the Praesidium was quite struck by the force of criticism not just from me but from a range of governments plus parliamentarians of various sorts on the floor of the Convention making precisely that point.

Lord Williamson of Horton

  4. I have been given the easy question because I am going to ask a couple of questions about possible changes at the top. To tell you the truth, I think that in an enlarged Community it is more important to have changes in the working practices of the Council and the Commission and the changes at the top are perhaps not so important as all that. Can I ask you first about the President of the Council and the new proposal that he should remain in office for perhaps four years as suggested in your paper, and five years in the French and German paper? Could you recapitulate how you think that proposal is going? Do you think it is going to come through the mill at the end? The second point is about the President of the Commission. I do not think, that there is much change there from the current situation because at present we have a long tradition that he is chosen by the common accord of the Member States and in fact endorsed by the European Parliament. It is not such a big change but perhaps you could comment on that point also, where the choice of the President of the Commission stands in the Convention.
  (Peter Hain) On the President of the Council we have been particularly keen to see this become a full time job. The six-monthly rotation for presidencies does not allow for strategic direction, does not allow for continuity, and if Europe is to be taken seriously in the world, as I hope it can be, much more seriously than it is at the moment, including on issues such as Iraq ideally, then it has to have continuity of leadership on behalf of governments. Who does President Bush form a relationship with on the Council's behalf? The post changes every six months. The same goes for presidents of key countries with whom the European Union has annual summits, India, China and so on. There is that key objective for somebody to make the Council better organised and more serious rather than every time a new presidency comes in it veering off in a different direction according to the pet subjects of the Member State. I think it is very significant that the Danish Prime Minister changed his mind in the course of his six months' holding of the Presidency at the back end of last year. He started off pretty sceptical and hostile about the idea and ended up, having done his two tours of capitals preceding each Council, thinking that, for serving Prime Ministers, this was a bit arduous and that to do it with 25, or maybe 27 and more, countries is frankly impossible to the point where it becomes a joke. I think there is now quite a head of steam behind that idea. We have got not just the UK supporting it but Spain, Sweden, Denmark, probably Poland and the fact that the Germans subscribe to it in the context of the Franco-German agreement is I think very significant. I feel that it will probably only fly with some arrangement for a team Presidency underneath which I am happy to go into more detail about and not just fly but I think that is where it should be. As far as the President of the Commission is concerned, we are not enthusiastic about changing the system of ratification or election, call it as you will, but if it is part of the final agreement, and provided that if the President of the Commission is to be elected by the European Parliament (especially for those who go for Congress to be an alternative electoral college) then the threshold should be sufficiently high to ensure that the President of the Commission is not hostage to one particular party. This for us is the real bottom line because if we want a strong Commission, as we do, and if we want a strong President, as we do, which has not been the case since Jacques Delors, then you need somebody who is genuinely independent, strong and accountable but not changing according to the whims of the majority party.

  5. Can I just say on the President of the Commission that I much prefer your phrase which is "approved by the European Parliament" to the phrase in the Franco-German document "elected" which seems to me rather ridiculous because they voted on Mr Prodi and they voted on Santer, so this is not an election; it is simply a decision. It is an approval or not an approval.
  (Peter Hain) I think that is a fair point. The other point that I have assiduously put, without serious rebuttal, to supporters of this proposal is that you cannot have a President of the Commission who does not enjoy the confidence of the Council. Otherwise the institutions just do not work well together. Going back to the President of the Council, we have suggested a team presidency, the particular model of the four countries sharing in the team presidency for two years and each within that rotating through each of the eight sectoral Councils of Ministers and holding the Presidency of each one every six months.

Lord Jopling

  6. You said that in electing or creating a President of the Commission the European Parliament should have a role of some sort and you also said that it should not be in the hands of one political party. Is the implication of that that a person of that sort, however elected, would have to have broad support across all the political parties?
  (Peter Hain) Yes. I might say that I am not, and nor are we as a government, enthusiastic about this proposal but if it has to be on the table it has got to be in the context of being a consensus candidate with the Council tied in in some way, either maybe nominating the candidate or candidates or approving them, whichever way round it was determined.

Baroness Maddock

  7. What do you think are the key drivers for reform of the institutional structures and do you think there is a general recognition that the Union needs much more highly developed planning and strategic thought across the institutions?
  (Peter Hain) Yes, I do. That in fact was recognised in the Laeken Declaration. Whether it is economic reform, whether it is foreign and security policy, the European Union took a decision a couple of years ago to activate ESDP but it is only now that we are getting into a position where we can put a European peacekeeping force into Macedonia, possibly. Economic reform is proceeding but at too slow a pace and on action to secure Europe's borders and a common asylum policy and so on against terrorism progress is good but far too slow. This is a question of strategic direction from the member governments and from the Commission as well.

  8. Do you think it is more about the balance between political leadership and administrative efficiency?
  (Peter Hain) Both are needed. We want to see clear political leadership given on behalf of the governments but also the Commission being much stronger, better organised itself, and itself carrying the agenda forward and, in partnership with the Council, agreeing a common strategic direction over a number of years which is then followed through with benchmarks according to progress or otherwise.

  9. How much do you think that the other European states have the same view as you?
  (Peter Hain) I think there is widespread support for that. That is very much the conclusion of the Seville Council. I know a number of Member States are just as exercised about it as we are, especially in the context of enlargement where the whole structure becomes much more unwieldy.

Lord Howell of Guildford

  10. On this question of key drivers for reform, Secretary of State, you and others have said many times that one of the drivers is to entrench the position of nation states and bring the processes of the Union closer to the citizen. On the other hand the draft Treaty is full of proposals for the institutions involving themselves in shared competencies in new areas of health, security, economic policy, energy, environment, and indeed in a sense with the idea of a Minister of Foreign Affairs in foreign policy as well. I wondered how you squared this up. It seems there are two very strong forces working in opposite directions.
  (Peter Hain) That could be seen to be the case. I do not think so. It really depends how it comes out. For example, re-connecting Europe with its citizens is a key objective of the Laeken Declaration which set up this whole process. If you have much more accountable decision making by member governments through the Council with a full time President and with greater transparency of the Council decision making, either at European Council level or at sectoral council level, especially when legislating or declaring national positions, then I think Europe can start to mean something more for its citizens than it does at the present time. I think the whole issue can be addressed through Council reform and through giving national parliaments a much greater say over subsidiarity and proportionality on any new proposal coming forward.


  11. Since you mentioned subsidiarity and proportionality, Secretary of State, could you just elaborate a little on where you stand now in the Convention on the issue of the red card? We read that you and Gisela Stuart are now at one on this, which is somewhat prescribed by members of the Convention. Where do you stand on that?
  (Peter Hain) We want to see a subsidiarity mechanism with teeth. There is one argument to say that if, as is pretty well the consensus at the moment, a third of national parliaments declare their opposition, the Commission in the current state of play is obliged to reconsider and possibly withdraw its proposal. I think in practice, if a third of national parliaments, probably reflecting their national governments more or less, said no to a proposal on the grounds of subsidiarity or proportionality, it would be very difficult to see how the Council could carry it through. I think the Commission effectively is in red card territory there even if it is not forced to swallow that explicitly. I think it would be totally unacceptable to discredit the whole European Union if a substantial number of national parliaments said, "No, this infringes the principle of subsidiarity or proportionality" and the Commission took absolutely no notice at all. That is a balance between not wanting to infringe on or transgress the Commission's right of initiative and the important role of players in bringing forward proposals in Europe's general interest and stopping by these vetoes from national parliaments the things they just did not like as opposed to their possibly being in Europe's interest, and possibly in Britain's interest, and at the same time saying that if a substantial number of objections give you good reasons for doing so there is not any way that this could just be steamrollered through.

  12. The Praesidium appears to be saying that what they want to have is parliamentary access to the European Court on these issues to come through the national government concerned. Do you agree with that? That is not what the Working Group is saying.
  (Peter Hain) No. I am very suspicious about the Court of Justice being hauled in to determine subsidiarity. It has, as it were, a longstop role at the end of the process where any national government can go to the ECJ for a determination if it is not happy. I think this is a political matter, not a legal matter, and to have constant recourse to the Court during the process I do not think would make Europe operate very effectively or would be at all desirable.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

  13. Do you see any possibility for having a role for something like a constitutional court which would not be a European Court of Justice? What strikes me about the national parliaments and the red card system is that all too often the countries whose parliaments are opposed to the Commission's proposals say that it offends against the law of subsidiarity and the countries that are in favour of it say it does not. It strikes me that you may risk replicating a division in the Council and therefore somewhat undermining the objectivity of the discussion on subsidiarity. I would agree with what you say about the European Court of Justice not being the ideal body to appeal to but several Member States do have constitutional courts that do play a role like this and it has occurred to me in recent years that the European Union might need to consider that role.
  (Peter Hain) There has not been an argument advanced that I can see where the case you are putting comes from. There has not been a serious argument advanced recently in the Convention on that. I think a kind of European Supreme Court, which is effectively what that proposal would envisage, is not something that I am frankly very keen on. I think that these issues are best handled at a European level. After all, we are not talking about a super state; we are talking about freely co-operating sovereign states and I think we should be pretty reluctant to create new institutions.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

  14. I see that the Convention has broadly supported the proposal on subsidiarity but with the proviso that the Committee of the Regions be given a role with the right to refer the matter to the Court of Justice. Would you feel that that is going to complicate matters quite a lot?
  (Peter Hain) Yes.

  15. We are discussing regional assemblies now.
  (Peter Hain) We put forward a paper which I dare say has been circulated to the Committee—if it has not I can certainly arrange for that to be done—on proposing that the Committee of the Regions be given more influence because frankly it is a bit of a talking shop at the moment, and that the regions, including our nations, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, be given the right to be consulted over issues which they are required to implement.

  16. Nationally or by the Commission?
  (Peter Hain) By the Commission going via Member States. By the way, the same applies on subsidiarity but national parliaments would automatically be copied out on the e-mail as it comes through the new legislative proposal to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and any English regions in future. It is not a question of saying that the regions should not have more influence. Europe is not just a Europe of nation states. It is a Europe of the regions within those nation states. I am not keen on another recourse to the Court of Justice.

Baroness Stern

  17. My question follows on from Lord Howell's question about connecting the EU and its citizens. You have said a little about how you think these reforms might work to connect the citizens and the EU. Can you say a little bit more about that and whether you believe that it will be effective and whether perhaps other measures are needed as well, more information, more education (quite a lot more), in order to sell the whole effort of getting involved to people outside the charmed circle of people who understand the language and the way it all works?
  (Peter Hain) In my period as Europe Minister I came face to face with how difficult it is to get an understanding of Europe. One in 15 British citizens thinks the United States of America is in the European Union, according to a Foreign Office survey. It is indicative of the gap of information that there is. A combination of a much enhanced subsidiarity role for the national parliaments would have a valuable effect, not least involving Members of Parliament and Members of your House more actively in European debates. I am really struck by the relatively small number of colleagues in the House of Commons who really understand and follow European debates. I am not sure whether that was the case in Lord Howell's day and Lord MacLennan's day or Lord Jopling's day, but certainly I feel that. Binding national parliaments more closely into this instead of just seeing it as an area of expertise and scrutiny, however valuable that is, I think will be a big step forward in involving the public.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

  18. The open method of co-ordination seems to be gaining general agreement and indeed in the paper that you submitted jointly to the Convention we see you support the creation of a Treaty base. Indeed, you say that the open method of co-ordination should also be included in the Treaty whilst observing its flexibility. Do you think that national parliaments will be able to undertake their scrutiny responsibilities effectively using this procedure?
  (Peter Hain) I understand the concern there but I do not see why not in principle. In essence what this is saying is that the reflex response of Brussels, which is to go for legislation on virtually everything, is not necessarily the best approach, and peer group pressure, target setting and so on, on policy development is often just as effective in areas like economic policy and social policy, as we saw from the economic reform programme that was decided at Lisbon in 2000. The Lisbon Council was the first to use this phrase, I think. We would like to see Europe operating much more on that basis in tackling common problems. If legislation is sensible, legislate, but do not just impose legal obligations on Member States as the only route to achieving desired objectives.

  19. And that is how you hope to achieve a balance, by doing it in that way?
  (Peter Hain) Yes. It should be flexible. I do not see any reason why it should not be accountable because the decisions in the end can be accountable and, given the difficulties of holding in practice as opposed to in theory European decision-making on two accounts, at a citizen level and a national parliament level, I do not see that the open method of co-ordination will make that either better or worse.

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