Examination of Witness (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2002
240. What was that?
(Mr Corbett) The tobacco advertising directive. Perhaps
that might happen more often, but I would say that essentially
it is up to the political processes to safeguard subsidiarity
and it is after all political judgment in most cases whether you
need to take action at the European level or not. The onus should
be to prove that you do and the onus is built in by the fact that
you need a qualified majority in the Council to take any action.
241. So you do not see any role for national
parliamentarians in any possible new structure having an input
(Mr Corbett) I think that the key role for national
parliamentarians is scrutiny over their own ministers. Each parliament
has set up its own system for this in accordance with its own
traditions and constitutions. Some do it better than others. I
think national parliaments could learn a lot from each other in
that respect as well, through COSAC, which, as you know, has been
a useful place to exchange these ideas. In Nordic countries, the
ministers (to exaggerate slightly) go via the relevant parliamentary
committee on their way to the airport when going to Brussels and
on their way back from the airport when returning. I think that
is good scrutiny and oversight. The suggestion that there should
be another body, a new body of national parliamentarians as a
sort of third chamber in the system, is one which is interesting
(and it is good to see Britain coming up with constructive ideas,
but I think that it poses a lot of problems as to how it would
actually work in practice. The European Parliament pre-1979 was
composed of delegates from the different national parliaments.
It did not work very well. That is one reason we moved to having
a full-time parliament. It was difficult for members to do two
jobs at the same time. The majorities were haphazard: one day
there would be no Brits present because of an important division
in the House of Commons, the next day there would be no Germans
because of an important debate in the Bundestag, so it was very
haphazard as a body and it frankly did not work very well. Of
course the ministers in the Council anyway reflect majorities
in their national parliaments, so trying to get a national body
to sort of second-guess their own ministers in a different forum
at European level, whereas they should be thrashing that out in
their own national parliament, I think poses a lot of problems.
242. This issue about a second chamberyou
say third chamber, super-senateother than our good friends
the French and the UK, where is the support coming from for this?
(Mr Corbett) Yes, you are right to say France. France
has pushed it for yearsat the time of Maastricht, when
it did not get anywhere and it still has not. No other obvious
source of support springs to mind. I think the Portuguese parliament
is sympathetic to it, if I am not mistaken.
243. You are obviously right when you are talking
about the balance between the juridical and the political implications
of subsidiarity. Quite clearly, if it is a treaty, it is going
to go to the court and nothing can be done to stop it. The question
is whether what is being done is such that it would ever get to
the point where it went to the court, so that the political input
at that point is the question of judgment as to whether or not
the people sitting round the table, who are about to legislate,
decide that they are going to go down the route which, to put
it in broad terms, perhaps would encroach more on national sovereignty.
Because subsidiarity is a bit like that Alice in Wonderland thing,
that a word ". . . means what I choose it to mean . . . The
question is, which is to be masterthat's all." The
real question in there is: What is that judgment and how is it
to be struck? Now when you were just asked the question, "Do
you see the national parliaments being excluded from that process?"bearing
in mind the British context, where of course ministers are in
fact accountable to Parliament and are in Parliamentclearly
there must be a point, seen through our end of the telescope in
the UK at any rate, where we would expect a degree of involvement.
If there was a blatant disregard, and, shall we say, in the context
of majority voting, when they were moving towards a situationand
this committee could be involved at that stagewhere it
was obvious that there was an infringement of treaty base/subsidiarity
and we really got very concerned about it, we would not change
the Treatyalthough I would argue for renegotiation for
everbut the bottom line is, looked at at that point of
time, that the only remedy we would have available would be to
put intense pressure on the then government through the parliamentary
process to say, "Sorry, chums, we are just not going to allow
this to happen." At that pointand I do not know whether
this would apply in other countriessome of us might arguein
fact I have already arguedthat we should impose an effective
parliamentary veto. I mentioned this to Vitorino yesterday at
lunch and he said, "Well, if you want to get out, that's
your problem." But the fact is that it is not a question
of getting out; it is a much more subtle and much more important
question because it goes to the heart of how subsidiarity works.
If there is a blatant disregard, do you not agree, therefore,
that national parliaments should have some mechanism or make a
mechanism available to themselves, to say, "We are not going
to go down this route" and vote accordingly? Do you know
something? We may have this in the Extradition Bill quite soon
because Bob Ainsworth has already said to us in respect of the
question of guarantees of retrials in absentia that the
British Government is simply not going to accept the idea that
there would not be a retrial.
(Mr Corbett) I think the national parliament's rolewhich
is a vital one and no doubt could be improvedis discussion
with its own country's representative in the Council, which is
a minister from their own government, which is a government accountable
to that national parliament, and that there should be adequate
means of dialogue and influence through that. One could construct
a hypothesis, as I think you were beginning to do, that maybe
the Commission makes a proposal which, despite the Commission's
own obligation to respect the principle of subsidiarity, violates
it, goes beyond subsidiarity; that, despite that, it is still
approved by the European Parliament; that, despite that, you have
a qualified majoritywhich is a very large majority in the
Councilor, in cases that need unanimity, unanimity in the
Council, that also take the view that this proposal is all right,
although in your view it still violates subsidiarity. It is possible,
if that happensand it has happened at least onceyou
could still then appeal to the court and the court has at least
once struck down legislation on that ground. So there are several
levels of safeguard in all of this. The court should be "If
all else fails" and that is perhaps why it has actually happened
so rarely, it is so unusual. We tend to forget that Member States
are themselves centrally involved in the adoption of European
legislation. It is not imposed from "Brussels" or the
Commission, which is portrayed as some huge body with tentacles
everywhere, whereas in fact it has fewer employees than Leeds
City Council and is quite a tiny body. If all else fails, though,
you can go to court. But that raises a point: Who can go to court?
Clearly it is to safeguard minorities. As it stands, every single
Member State can go to court to have a legislative measure overturned
on grounds of subsidiarity or other grounds that I have mentioned
in the committee. I think that is right. The European Parliament
will be able to go to court. Somebody suggested that national
parliaments and, indeed, regional parliaments should be given
that right. Well, perhaps. There is a difficulty though, because,
since the national government has the right anyway, why give that
right to national parliaments? It would only work if the national
parliament wants to do it when the government does not.
244. That is the whipping system.
(Mr Corbett) In other words, you are expecting national
parliaments to take a different position on such a very important
question, from their own government. In that sense, are you not
saying that the European court, of all places, will settle the
difference of view between the national parliament and its own
government? Surely that sort of battle is best settled in the
national context rather than in the European court one.
245. This touches on the point that you have
just made. I want to ask you about your view on the proposals
for "Partners of the Union" for sub-state legislatures,
regions, stateless nations, and for legislative powers. That follows
on quite nicely to the point that you were just making with regard
to the European Court of Justice because, of course, sub-state
legislatures have no legal personality, so, despite the fact that
they may be legislating in areas, to take your example, the tobacco
directive, or the issue of lander rights in Germany, that may
be the case, say, for example, in Scotland and whisky.
(Mr Corbett) Or fishing.
246. Or fishing.
(Mr Corbett) In the draft Lamassoure report he has
come up with this, I think, rather elegant idea, frankly, of saying,
"Let each Member State decide for itself whether it wishes
to submit a list of its own regions, regional authorities, sub-national
legislatures, which would be given this partner status."
I think that is the right way to do it if you are going to go
down this road, because if you start to have a definition at EU
level as to what constitutes a region with the appropriate level
of powers, and that is an EU decision which might in the end be
litigated in the European court, I think that would be wrong.
Everyone accepts it is up to each Member State to decide how to
organise itself internally, whether it wishes to devolve or not,
what it wishes to devolve and how it wants to structure its internal
bodies. So I am quite attracted by the Lamassoure proposal. Whether
that should include giving every sub-national parliament the right
to litigate in the courts is perhaps a more difficult question.
I have no further thought on that particular aspect of it. But
the idea that these partner regions or partner authorities should
be given some rights at least to information and consultation
and partnership and dialogue I think is sensible.
247. First of all, congratulations on the paper.
I think it is a very good paper you have produced. In the first
part of it you talk about the underlying reasons for their apparent
disconnection and you go through the whole process as regards
how you see it and what can be done. At the end of the day you
accept the fact that the European Parliament is far away and,
under those circumstances, there is a disconnection, but you say
that is not a fault of the European Parliament but more a fault
of the national electorate. On that basis, how would you see the
European Parliament being made more relevant to the electorate?
(Mr Corbett) The point I was making is
that the EU institutions as a whole, not just the Parliament,
are inevitably more distant from citizens than national and local
institutions. Serving half a continenta whole continent
in the futurethey are bound to be further away, they are
bound to be more remote, and, using less familiar procedures,
a multiplicity of languages, they are more complex. That is a
fact of life that we will never completely overcome. That is one
reason not to act at European level unless there is a real need
to do so. You should decentralise wherever possible and only centralise
where necessary, but, to the extent that you are acting
at European level, it is incumbent upon us to make the system
as understandable to the public as possible and as open and as
accountable and as democratic as possible. As I have said, I think
that means having extra safeguards rather than fewer safeguards:
the legislation has to pass two tests, not just acceptability
to ministers meeting in the Council, but also the directly elected
How to make the Parliament more relevant? We
touched on one way earlier, when we talked about whether electing
the President of the Commission would be a visible way of showing
that Parliament has a key choice to make in terms of individuals.
But I also think that a key thing was achieved with the Treaty
of Amsterdam, when that came into force, which meant that the
bulk of EU legislation has to be approved by Parliament as well
as Council. After all, that is what people expect of a parliament
in many ways. If draft legislation is rejected by a parliament,
it will not take effect, it will not become law. If it is accepted,
then, yes, it can become law. We have only had that for three
years. It is relatively new. Even in political circles it is only
beginning to sink in. It has yet to percolate to the wider public,
but I think it is gradually doing so, we are gradually losing
this reputation that the European Parliament is just a talking
shop. People are beginning to realise it has decisive influence
249. You said earlier you wanted to see co-decision
extended. Some people have suggested that the European Parliament
has difficulty actually coping with the co-decision powers at
the moment. Is that the case?
(Mr Corbett) No, I do not think that is the case.
The procedures have sometimes been lengthy, but the lengthiest
part of the procedure is usually the Council's first reading,
the time it takes to achieve a qualified majority in the Council
in its first reading. Second readings and third readings are anyway
250. Conciliations sometimes last well into
the early hours of the night. I have been sat in one for about
eight hours before.
(Mr Corbett) Particular conciliation meetings can
sometimes last long, but the conciliation phase is limited to
six weeks, so in terms of a legislative procedure
251. The phase is six weeks, accepted, but the
amount of time and effort that has to go into some conciliations
(Mr Corbett) That happens in any negotiation, that
some meetings sometimes are lengthy. Remember that most co-decision
legislative procedures do not go to conciliation. In most cases,
the first and second readings in each institution are enough to
reach agreement. It is a minority of cases that go to conciliation.
It is a minority of those in which the Conciliation Committee
needs more than one meeting.
252. We have had three years, we are going to
have elections in 2004, do you believe that that will improve
the turnout at that time? Do you believe that is an ongoing process?
Do you believe the convention will be useful in making sure people
are aware of the European Parliament and the institutions and
(Mr Corbett) I think potentially, yes. I think potentially,
but there is no guarantee. Turnout of course is declining in all
kinds of elections at the moment. We have just had the lowest
turnout for a national election, and lowest for local elections.
And this is not just Britain: several member States have faced
falling turnouts in all kinds of elections. The European Parliament
turnout Europe-wide averaged 49.5/50 per cent, falling as low
as 24/25 per cent in Britian.
253. It got down to 9 per cent in one place.
(Mr Corbett) The US Congressional elections three
years ago it was 48 per cent, falling as low as 17 per cent in
254. It was down to 9 per cent in Liverpool.
(Mr Corbett) Well, no doubt you could find a particular
ward in Nevada where it was 3 per cent! At least the European
Parliament is doing better than the United States Congress, but,
so what? It is not good figures, nor is it for national parliaments
in recent elections and it is a challenge for democracy at all
255. Thank you very much for coming along. The
time has caught up with us again. I just have one question to
ask and that is a straightforward, one-sentence question: What
role should the European Parliament have in COSAC?
(Mr Corbett) I think the role it plays now. It participates
in COSAC. I think that is useful. It has the same sized delegation
as all the national parliaments. I think we also provide a lot
of technical assistance. I think it is often European parliamentary
interpreters who enable COSAC to meet. In that COSAC's greatest
asset, in my view, is enabling the national parliamentarians who
are centrally involved in European issues to meet regularly, to
get to know each other, to network and so on, it is equally useful
to network with the European Parliament as well as with each national
parliament. I think the role that the European Parliament plays
should continue. I have not, by the way, heard any suggestions
that the European Parliament should be excluded from COSAC. Or
did you mean its delegation should be increased?
256. You were not at the Helsinki COSAC
(Mr Corbett) No, I missed that.
257. Well, Richard, thank you very much for
coming along. It has been very interesting.
(Mr Corbett) Thank you.