Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)

TUESDAY 28 JANUARY 2003

MS GISELA STUART

Chairman

  1. Let me begin by thanking you very much indeed for giving us your valuable time. We know how extremely busy you are with the Convention—and a lot of other matters, too. We are delighted that you have agreed to come and talk to us a bit about the role of national parliaments in the European Union and, also, to talk a bit about the subsidiarity question. We would like to focus very much on those two particular areas but if time allows, we may stray into some adjacent areas. You are amongst many familiar faces here. We admire very much what you have been doing in the Convention and, also, in the joint committee of both Houses. I do not know which has been the more difficult task to perform, but, anyway, you have conveyed a lot of information to us in the joint committee and we have heard excellent things about the way in which you have handled the working group. Would you like to make an opening statement?

  (Ms Stuart) Yes, if I may. Just a very brief one to update you on how this whole work will be taken forward. The working groups have reported and the Convention Praesidium, I think quite wisely, following the working groups and the debate in the whole plenary session, then did not proceed to try to reconcile all the various opinions and produce a definitive report, which left avenues open, which I think is quite important. The Praesidium is now at the stage of drafting the treaty articles, and that by its very nature means that on the one hand you essentially have four inches of paper which are submissions to working group reports and, on the other, you have 15 lines of treaty articles. So a considerable amount of work that has been recommended in the national parliamentary working group I think we need to take forward on a practical level, but actually would not be subject to treaty articles. The process in the Praesidium now is looking at a protocol which would be attached to the treaty to outline the precise workings of the subsidiarity mechanism and much of the other recommendations of the working group I think you will find would not be specific treaty articles. However, I am working, for example, with the President of the European Parliament to take those forward on a practical level, given that the existence of the Convention provides us with a real opportunity to drive the co-operation between parliamentarians forward. So by mid-February I hope that the Praesidium will be able to present the first set of treaty articles and I hope that by the end of March the outline of the treaty will be able to be discussed by the Convention.

  2. Thank you very much indeed. The first question I would like to put to you—and your answer will be of particular interest to this Committee, given the publicity this is beginning to get in the informed side of the media—is it the case that the Convention has moved up a gear with the arrival there in the last month or two of figures such as Dominique deVillepini Joschka Fischer, Ana Palacio and others. It all looks as though the Convention is being transmogrified into the IGC itself. I believe that you have expressed some reservations or fears about what this means in terms of the Convention being a true reflection of many groups of people—parliaments, the public, etc. Can you tell us (a) whether you think that this is what is happening (it is becoming the IGC) and (b) expand a little bit on what your fears are about that happening?

  A. To cast your mind back to February when the Convention started, many governments actually felt that they could take a very relaxed attitude and that if the Convention came up with a problem we can always put it right in the IGC. That has changed considerably. To the credit of Her Majesty's Government here and, also, to the credit of this House, who were amongst the leaders in having taken the Convention extremely seriously in that sense, the arrival of Joschka Fischer in September and later on by Dominique deVillepin has certainly changed the atmosphere, but it is a challenge for the Convention now to say "We are very interested to know what Germany and France thinks, but they cannot tell us what to do." Giscard himself has always been very clear that he regards the Convention to have four components: one is the Commission, one is the European Parliament, one is national parliaments and the fourth national governments and all four components have to reach a consensus. The most obvious demonstration of that—whilst there is a danger that it might become an IGC (but I do not think the Convention will allow it to be)—was the last public session when I think the Convention itself reacted very badly to the presentations both by Germany and France. One of the speakers actually said "We resent being used as a postal box by foreign ministers for tomorrow's newspaper articles." I think the UK is extremely well-placed because Peter Hain's outstanding achievement has been that he is physically there; he sits through all the plenary sessions, he takes part in the working groups and influences people's thinking in a way which I think the Convention will respond to.

Chairman: That is very interesting. We saw Peter Hain last night, incidentally, when the Clerk and I were coming back on the Eurostar from Brussels. He had had a very, very long day on the social chapter. He does work very hard.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

  3. While acknowledging the force of what you have said and underlining the reactions that you have drawn attention to, are there not also some who welcome the fact that they know what governmental cases they may have to answer and feel that, in a sense, this is a way of keeping in touch with the realities of the post-Convention/IGC, and there is some value in that?

  A. You are absolutely right, because if the Convention arrived at conclusions which governments then did not accept, our work might be extremely worthy but have no effect. I remember in the early days the president was criticised, as part of his Convention work, for doing the rounds of heads of government. I think that criticism was wrong. He is absolutely right to know where governments stand but, at the same time, I really would not wish to lose the tremendous change in treaty preparations which we see this time; it is for the very, very first time that parliamentarians are part of the treaty drafting. This was one of the reasons why I made sure that I had taken a legal expert with me into the Praesidium's voluntary drafting. I was not accompanied by a Foreign Office lawyer but was accompanied by the Speaker's Counsel.

Lord Williamson of Horton

  4. Hello again. I make it a general practice to ask a different question on a different subject every time I meet you, but I am running out of subjects! I did want to follow up your statement. It is not a very difficult question, it is to do with two points: the first is where there are likely to be points of importance agreed by the Convention in due course but which do not go into a treaty. How do you envisage that will be handled practically? Would there be conclusions of the Convention quite specifically which would, in turn, be submitted to the Intergovernmental Conference, even though there would be no treaty change. That is my first point. The second one is: it is obviously very important—and I am glad you emphasised it—that we are now coming to the drafting of the treaty. That is a really vital point. When the treaty draft comes forward, as it begins to do now, how is it going to come forward? In blocks, like a bit on the charter, a bit on the competences, a bit on this and that? Is that the way it is going to come forward, do you think?

  A. If I may answer in reverse order, I think by the very nature of the time constraint under which we work—a constraint which I think is actually very helpful—it will come forward in blocks and it will be extremely important that we draw on our legal advice to make sure that the various parts are coherent. There is currently a discussion within the Praesidium on whether we should not also draw on the legal services of the three institutions to help us draw up some of the more legal parts of what is known as part two of the treaty. The noble Lord Tomlinson, very helpfully, made submissions saying that we ought to fall back and draw on parliamentary legal services, and that is something that I very much support. So I think it will come in blocks because it is almost the only way it can work. In terms of taking forward outcomes of the Convention which would not be a treaty basis, if I just use one example, I would like to work on a kind of inter-institutional agreement between national parliaments and the European Parliament. Whether it will become a formal agreement or whether we simply work on better practices of co-ordination, we shall have to see, but that will be done within the institutions. There will be some real practical problems. For example, one of the biggest difficulties that we encountered in this House when we wanted to give better access to MEPs here, was that, as I understand it, the House authorities were extremely worried that the dining rooms would be overflowing with MEPs wishing to make bookings. So we really do move from the sublime to the ridiculous. At this stage, all I can say is that we put it into action and I am a firm believer that if an idea is a good idea and has a life of its own, it will continue to proceed beyond the Convention.

Chairman: We looked into this question of the MEPs' relationship with our national Parliament here in our scrutiny report which is published, and it is certainly worthy of further discussion. You have touched directly upon the issue of national parliaments. I am going to ask Lady Harris to follow up on this.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

  5. Thank you, my Lord Chairman. We very much enjoyed reading the report of your working group and thank you very much for that. I think it would be helpful, for the record, if you could outline (as briefly as possible because there are a lot of conclusions and thoughts in there) what the conclusions of your working group were on the role of national parliaments.

  A. I think the conclusions fall into three broad categories. On page 8 of the report we come forward with a number of conclusions which deal with how scrutiny could be improved, and the purpose of those recommendations was two-fold. One was to assist the process, particularly for the candidate countries who came to the Convention without having any mechanisms in place at all, to try and share with them what our common conclusion was on what is the best way forward, because I do not think any one system is "the best"; it is horses for courses. The second group was a very practical information flow, enabling processes for the time limits of information and the distribution of it. The third group was much more in terms of how can we build on subsidiarity mechanisms and strengthen them, what can we do in terms of a constitutional treaty enshrined within the Convention method (and by that I mean a method of parliamentary involvement in the drafting), and we also touched on the rather difficult issue of the future of COSAC, so it was more of an outside relationship. What I was always extremely mindful of is that we have to respect the value of nationhood—if I may call it thus—and, also, we have to be ourselves servants of the principles of subsidiarity. Thus, for national parliaments to have a role must be an enabling role, but I do not think you can usurp the European Union's role and duty to impose, for example, a duty on national parliaments to scrutinise; you must enable them. Then they can deal with it as they wish. That is sometimes a difficult balancing act.

  6. You made remarks earlier in answer to the Lord Chairman's question about what is going to happen now. Do they go along with what progress you have been making within your working group as well? So when you talked about taking forward on a practical level some of the considerations that you have been talking about, you would say that all these things are in the same vein as the remarks you made to the Lord Chairman?

  A. Yes, broadly, but I would like to highlight just one issue—and I am in the process of trying to take the process much further—and that is in relation to the mechanism of early warning in relation to subsidiarity. The mechanism as it is in the subsidiarity group and as it is here was simply the consensus we could reach at that point. My view at this stage is that it does not go far enough. Two things have happened. I have tried to create an atmosphere where national parliamentarians are beginning to find a common voice—not an easy task in itself. The second is that I hope by next week to actually table a very precise proposal to the Convention which will suggest a practical outline of what that mechanism, in my view, should look like. It should have a yellow card triggered by a third of national parliaments, which would require the Commission to reconsider, or just to simply review its process. Then, by a logical conclusion, there should also be a red card or a red light, triggered by two-thirds of national parliaments, which would actually require the Commission to withdraw and resubmit. There is then a practical problem that some countries have unicameral systems and others are bicameral. The compromise conclusion, which, I think, is not only a compromise but also a useful one in terms of protecting the interests of smaller countries, is to give each country two votes. So Finland is unicameral, it has two votes, if the United Kingdom is bicameral we have two votes and if we are tactically wise then we ensure that both Houses arrive at the same conclusion. If, however, there is a deep disagreement then we end up cancelling each other out, but we have two votes. It also overcomes the problem of the difference between large countries and smaller countries—there is an equality, and that equality, I think, is symbolically very important. So that is a very practical and most important way in which to take the working group's findings further and hope to see whether we can enshrine them in a treaty. I would be unrealistic if I did not say that I expect to meet a considerable amount of opposition, but I feel that I can forgive myself failure but I could not forgive myself not trying.

Chairman: We have got into an area of great interest to Lord Howell. First of all, however, I was interested in what you said about giving two votes to each country, whether they were unicameral or bicameral, because I pushed that very hard in COSAC. Somebody commented that they thought this was too "theatrical" or something like that, but it seemed the obvious thing to do in order to give everybody a level playing field.

Lord Howell of Guildford

  7. I am very interested in your ambitious thought that there might be, beyond a yellow card, a red card which would actually stop the whole process. I think some of us did feel that the suggestions in the subsidiarity working group that this should all go back to the Commission and they should somehow re-examine those bits was not enough. You clearly think that as well. Can I just ask, before putting a more detailed question, a more general question about the concept of subsidiarity. Do you think that is a substantial enough concept to provide the leverage and the role for national parliaments that is being sought? It always seems to me a little condescending in that it implies some higher body's dishing out privileges to a lower body, whereas I suppose the reverse view would be that this is actually children talking to their parents and they should not talk in quite such condescending terms. Is there a worry about that, or do you think subsidiarity is established as a concept and we can build on that?

  A. I remember being a law lecturer at the time when subsidiarity was introduced, which was in the 1990s, and I remember that there were 23 definitions of subsidiarity as well as the Pope's. My view of subsidiarity has been two-fold: one is quite simple, what is the lowest appropriate level to make that decision? So the thinking, in my view, ought to be "Can this satisfaction be done at national or regional level?" If the answer to that is yes, what is the added value of taking it up? I have also always felt that it is subsidiarity and proportionality which go hand-in-hand. There has been a problem for some of my parliamentary colleagues who feel that whilst parliaments have a role to speak about subsidiarity it is a governmental role to decide on proportionality. I am still not entirely sure whether they are right, but I think if we are realistic it is the most important decision that national parliaments should be given a view as to whether it should be done at a European level or at a lower level. That is probably as far as we can take it.

  8. Am I right in seeing your red card idea—which you have quite obviously pushed but are not totally confident about achieving—as actually transferring real power to the national parliaments in a way that the present proposals do not really do, because in the end the Commission decides? Is that a right interpretation? Do you think there is any chance of making headway with it?

  A. The main opposition to the existence of a red light comes from those who feel that we would then undermine the Commission's right of initiative. I think that is over-stating the case, but I do think a mechanism where the Commission knows that a substantial number can tell the Commission "We simply will not accept this" will actually be very useful as a reminder to the Commission and it will check things in advance before the red card is used. I think it will have the greatest effect in terms of changing the Commission's way of looking at things, but I do not see it as a way to delay the process. That is why we are very careful about the time limits. I also do not wish to take away from the Commission the right of initiative, but I do wish to give national parliaments the right to say sometimes "No".

  9. Just one more question, if I may, my Lord Chairman? Subsidiarity, as I remember, is all about present and future proposals. There is a school of thought that the old acquis built up over history as full of proposals in the past which might not be suitable for central administration today. Has that been discussed in your group—going back and thinking about some return of powers that have been, for other reasons now out of date, held at the centre?

  A. It has certainly been thought about a great deal by me. One of the things which I would wish to see as a matter of logic is a treaty which, as it has clauses which allow the creation of shared competences and exclusive competences to move up, I think there must be, by logic, a mechanism which allows them to move down. My critics would say that this is quite unnecessary because we can only use it by the mechanism of treaty changes, but I think the furthest the Convention and the current treaty can go in the time-scale is to create a mechanism for it to move down and then it would be a question of the political will to allow that to happen within that framework.

Lord Howell of Guildford: Thank you.

Chairman

  10. There is one further issue related to national parliaments we want to go back to, but before that am I right in thinking that the country which is probably the most defensive of the rights of the initiative of the Commission in relation to this is Germany?

  A. Yes. It is one of the very strong defenders of this. However, you also have to accept that, amongst the candidate countries, a lot of them see the Commission as the protectors of the smallest. Therefore, they instinctively will turn to the Commission and feel that that is something that will protect them from the biggest. Some of the Scandinavian countries are somewhat torn between wishing for a very strong Commission but also having extremely strong traditions of parliamentary sovereignty. So the really more sophisticated debate goes on between those who accept that governments have traditionally been prepared to trade parliamentary sovereignty for the national interest, and to what extent they would want to maintain that rather than a debate on the Commission's right of initiative. I think in the United Kingdom there is no question the Commission has a right of initiative—I do not think anybody seriously questions that.

Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I just want to come back to the method by which you have been examining the whole question of the role of national parliaments. I would like Lady Maddock to put a question to you.

Baroness Maddock

  11. In reaching your conclusions on the working group on national parliaments, you talked to various Member States and you talked to expert individual witnesses. I wonder if you could give us a brief outline of those discussions.

  A. It was very curious; it was a very different working group, the way we worked, because in a sense we were the experts ourselves. I was very keen that the exchange of our own experience was part of that working group. That is why, for example, we asked for the French representatives to tell us how they, for example, conducted scrutiny in France and the Scandinavians did the same. We had one witness, Professor Maurer, who had done a study of the various mechanisms, but what I was really concerned about was that the working group would accept the political realities, because we all know that you can create perfectly wonderful mechanisms on paper which then may or may not work in reality. We need to explore the conflict between holding the executive to account and not tying the hands of the ministers. If, for example, parliament mandates its own ministers and they are going to negotiate with an unmovable position, then we all know, in terms of European negotiations, that the ministers are not talked to because they know that is their position and they cannot move. So we took outside evidence also from the Commission, for example, on how they applied some of the protocols, and how they exercise article 308—ie, that the Commission dealt with competences from outside. I was very surprised that the Members of the European Parliament did not table the Napolitano as evidence to the group. That was their choice. So clearly the common position of the European Parliament was not quite as defined as we thought it was. I confess that the debates were very often dominated by the MEPs who felt there was a threat from us, but there was one session towards the end where after about four hours, I think, we all left the room having learnt something. There was something we had been unaware of. So I think that paper in the end showed a very true and informed consensus amongst those who had been in the European Parliament.

Baroness Maddock: Ms Stuart, some of what you have said reflects some of the discussions we have had here about how we do scrutiny, I think.

Chairman: Can we move on and broach the issues concerning the relationship of the Council of Ministers to national parliaments, because you have raised some issues in your report? I would like Baroness Stern to speak to this.

Baroness Stern

  12. Thank you for your excellent report. You would probably agree, I think, that the European bodies are little known, barely understood and that very few people understand who actually makes the decisions—it is probably someone called Brussels, but nobody really knows who that is. You recommend, I think rather sensibly, that the Council should act in public in all the cases where it exercises its legislative functions. We in this Committee support that recommendation, as does the House of Commons European Committee. Could you give us any indication whether you think the Council would agree to that? Do you think, in particular, the UK Government is going to agree with what is actually quite a radical change in the way things have been done?

  A. I think it was the Seville Council where moves were already made to meeting in public as much as possible. The fundamental mistake, I think, governments sometimes make is that they think that the intergovernmental method is inherently more democratic than any other method. If the intergovernmental method is ministers meeting behind closed doors and you cannot hold individuals to account, it is just as undemocratic as civil servants meeting behind closed doors. So there is a willingness to open the Council of Ministers, but I also am sufficiently a realist to know that deals will be struck and if they are not struck behind closed doors they will be struck in corridors and in other places. In terms of opening it up, there is a very broad consensus. What is less of a broad consensus, because the idea is as yet not fully thought through, is the suggestion of a separate legislative council. If the idea is seen as going the way of making the Council of Ministers like a second chamber in the German system, where they represent the regions, I would have some severe misgivings.

  13. Why?

  A. The reason is because in Germany the Bundesrat, which represents the La­nder, is the secondary body to the Bundestag as the first body, and I would not wish to see a reduction of the role of the Council of Ministers.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

  14. Is not the difficulty with following and accepting the Seville proposals as being adequate that the judge of what is legislative activity and what is executive activity is the Council itself, and that the proposal that there should be a legislative council is designed to differentiate functionally to preclude the possibility of the Union slipping into accepting that opening statements by members of the Council and concluding statements would be anything like adequate to allow proper oversight and scrutiny?

  A. You are right to point out that tension, except that you do not have to resolve it within the treaty provisions of the Convention. The Council can open its doors and question the way it opens its doors now, without the existence of the Convention. What would worry me is if we created a legislative council in a different building and with a different staff, and separated from the other functions, because I think it could logically lead to an ultimate weakening of the way it operates. It is then also the question of who is the representative on that council, which then takes you into some ideas which were floated in some countries that you should take European matters out of the foreign office where they tend to be, and if you were to take that to its logical conclusion in the UK context, you would have a Cabinet minister virtually permanently based in Europe to come back to represent what we have done at the European level in the Cabinet. I just see practical difficulties at this stage, but it is one of those issues which I think will be debated over the next few months, and we do not know yet.

Earl of Selborne

  15. I want to ask about the six-monthly cycle of presidencies. You may remember that we and others have taken the view that life would be more orderly if this could be reformed—perhaps into something rather longer. Is this a concept which is finding any support in the Convention?

  A. I think the most powerful statement to support the idea of an end to the six-month period of presidency was what the Danish Prime Minister, Rasmussen, said immediately after the end of his six-monthly presidency, when he just said that within a large union of 25 you simply cannot do it. I think it needs to come to an end because if we want the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council to have a balance of power then you must accept that the Commission runs for five years solid and that the European Parliament is a five-year term with solid membership. The third element is inherently weakened by every six months changing the chairmanship, changing its priorities and changing its membership because of elections. This instability is even worse when you go to sectoral councils. On the other hand, you have that very real argument that it is for the European Union extremely important that individual countries can show their part in Europe. Where the arguments now lie is how do you combine those conflicting interests. One of the ideas which is gaining ground is that you have a hosting presidency every six months, so you can still have a country being your base, but you have a more permanent leadership of the Council, which could be for two-and-a-half years or five years, but also look at who chairs the sectoral councils and each country could, in rotation, say, chair those for a five-year period or a two-and-a-half year period to, on the one hand, give more stability to the whole proceedings but, on the other hand, ensure that each country, irrespective of its size, at some stage can take centre stage.

Lord Howell of Guildford

  16. Just following Lord Selborne's question, the real opponents of the longer-term three or five-year presidencies are of course (a) the Commission and (b) the other small countries, as you rightly said. The word on the corridor here is that Britain has rather taken the side of the big boys, the larger countries, and not taken the side of the smaller countries in trying to devise a middle way, which is what you have indicated. Is that a fair interpretation? Is that not rather a pity, that we really are going to support the cause of the small countries and not look like a triangle of power?

  A. No, you are not right, but I know why you think that. When the proposals were first put on the table, the Praesidium called it the "ABC plan", which was the Aznar Blair Chirac plan and the question really was that these were the potential retirement plans for three prime ministers. That rather over-shadowed our proposals and it has actually been the UK Government which has very much pushed that idea of a shared Presidency, shared Council meetings. I think it is one of those issues where once it had been put on the table, it suddenly took on a life of its own and I think we genuinely agreed they did not, but they seem to be.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

  17. Your report recommends that the records of the Council's proceedings should be sent within ten day from the European Parliament to the national parliaments. How do you think that this system will work and do you think that the national parliaments will be geared up to make use of it?

  A. I think it is quite a challenge for the national parliaments to respond to this and some of our thinking behind establishing a direct line of communication was actually not to make parliaments simply receivers of information which the governments wish to hand on. As I understand it, this has never been a problem in the United Kingdom, but I do know that there have been some countries who felt that their governments were not quite as good at passing on information. It was more an ensuring of a free flow of information which could not be hindered and in those countries where it was not a problem and in some others where it was, you could avoid that problem. Some felt it was appropriate that it should go direct to them.

Chairman

  18. We always have one question on COSAC and to a certain extent it is my responsibility in this Committee, so I just wanted to put one question to you. In light of the fact that we are making big efforts with some other Member States' parliaments to have COSAC focus primarily on the spread of best practice, to have that exchange of information and experience and not to get into long and tedious debates on policy issues which frankly it is not the business of COSAC to do and in light of the fact that we are not sure that we are going to succeed in getting COSAC really focused on this, would you regard the failure to get that focus correct as a kind of disaster which might prompt you to think, as some of us think, that maybe there is an alternative, that maybe a group of like-minded parliaments might care to get together and see if they cannot set up a system independently? I know it sounds rather like enhanced cooperation at the national parliamentary level, but our frustration is such, given the divisions in COSAC as to what we should be talking about, that maybe we have to think of an alternative. Could you make a comment on that?

  A. I think COSAC is probably the one institution which troubles me most, not least because I am still struggling in trying to find a way forward. I think there is a place for European parliamentarians and national parliamentarians to work together. I think there is a place, particularly when we talk about a proper mechanism on subsidiarity, to have a network for an exchange of ideas and an exchange of how decisions are arrived at. However, if that mechanism of subsidiarity has as part of its membership MEPs, I do not think that would be appropriate. My original hope was that we could achieve with COSAC something like the metamorphosis which happened every time the Dr Who actor changed because I am inherently against creating new institutions. I hope that we would have here a framework of institutions which could reform itself in a way which would make it more meaningful. I was struck by the fact that how in public speaker after speaker praised the worthiness of COSAC and then in private almost said the opposite, so there was a clear recognition that COSAC needed reforming. I have not as yet seen the report of the COSAC meeting yesterday, but from what I gather it is not taking us any further either. It is almost my plea to you by saying, "How can we take forward the national parliaments to really work together on subsidiarity and how can we work with MEPs?" This of course is where the Congress of the People raises its ugly head, but I am not entirely sure what the legal basis of COSAC is if COSAC is not reforming itself and it clearly appears not to be able to do that. Can anybody actually do it from outside? I am still struggling with COSAC. I want it to reform itself to be a meaningful body, but I fear I am increasingly reaching the point where my hope is in vain.

Chairman: Thank you very much. I do not want to get into a debate about COSAC here, although I was at the meeting yesterday in Brussels and a little bit of progress was made, but painfully slowly and on some of the major issues there is still not real agreement as to what COSAC is meant to be doing. There are still those who would like to see it issue grand statements of policy, which is frankly not its business to do, but that is for another day and we will discuss that later. You will see the report anyway and draw your own conclusions from it. Can we move on to the scrutiny of documents.

Lord Brennan

  19. Scrutiny is a very important factor as between national parliaments and Brussels. It plays its part in maintaining a democratic balance. In your report you recommended that the Commission should send consultative documents direct to national parliaments as well as governments, an excellent recommendation, but reading between the lines there seems to be a very great concern on the part of the Working Group about the present adequacy and effectiveness of scrutiny by some national parliaments. Could you enlarge upon your concerns? How can we better ensure cooperation between those national parliaments so as to produce a best practice of scrutiny arrangements?

  A. You are quite right that there are some countries who choose not to scrutinise, but I think we have to accept that. There was also a real dichotomy of views as to what scrutiny really is all about. Particularly some of the smaller countries saw scrutiny as a kind of compensatory sovereignty. They felt that simply knowing what was going on was the best they could achieve rather than influencing the outcome, whereas to me scrutiny is a process by which at times you can challenge the outcome and change decisions. I think there is a reflection in the Working Group in the recommendations that we were country-neutral. We did not challenge those countries which do not scrutinise and regard it as a national prerogative not to. However, we felt very strongly that all the means should be made available to have a scrutiny mechanism which was effective, but also allowed challenges to the decisions, hence our recommendation to respect the six-week period and not to acknowledge preliminary agreements. I think in years to come this will be a real challenge for national parliaments. If we give them new powers under the subsidiarity mechanism and an ability to scrutinise, they will actually do it and quite a number of them, I think, will find it very difficult. I think your Lordships are more aware than I am of just how difficult it is to deal with the mass of information that comes and really to engage with it in a politically-strategic way, hence the recommendation that national parliaments should also be made aware of the annual programme. Again it was your Lordships' Committee report which recommended greater engagement in that, so that as you scrutinise, you also have more of a vision of what is coming your way, so you can focus on those areas which are politically more sensitive. I think that is why you will find some of the recommendations of that Group rather open because we tried to make the mechanisms there.


 
previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003