Examination of Witnesses (Questions 282
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
HAIN MP, MR
282. Minister, welcome to the Committee. It
is good to have you here. Would you introduce your colleagues
before we start?
(Mr Hain) Thanks, Chairman. Nick Baird heads our European
Union Department, Internal, and Catherine Royle is the Head of
our European Convention Unit, which is a support team supporting
my work in the European Convention.
283. I understand this is your first appearance
before us in your role as Minister for Europe.
(Mr Hain) It is.
284. This evidence session is part of our inquiry
into the governance of Europe and we will ask you one or two questions
which will help us in preparing that report which we hope to do
in April. How likely is it that other heads of state and government
will agree to the call from Mr Blair and Mr Schröder for
the Council of Ministers to meet in public when legislating?
(Mr Hain) Can I say first of all, Chairman, that I
am grateful that you have invited me here to discuss this. I would
like to remain in close touch with you during the progress of
the Convention. Obviously you are free to ask me to give evidence
on any European matters at any time but I do see this as a very
important Convention and an opportunity for us to keep in touch
with the value from my point of view of getting your views. I
think there is a growing recognition that for the Council of Ministers
and the European Council itself, when legislating, to continue
to do so in secret is simply indefensible. It has been said that
the only other legislature in the world that meets in secret is
in North Korea and I do not think that is a particularly good
model for the European Union to follow. I think there is increasing
support for that. For example, I was in Stockholm yesterday talking
to the Swedish Foreign Minister and my opposite number, the Europe
Minister, and they were both enthusiastic about this idea, as
have many other people been.
285. How would you see it working in practice?
We took evidence in Brussels last week and there seemed to be
support for the idea that all the Council's business could not
be done necessarily in public. A lot of the negotiations and the
bilateral discussions would still go on both outside the Council
and in private, and it would just be the deciding on the legislation
that would be in public. Is that the view of the Government?
(Mr Hain) I would see a distinction being drawn between
the negotiating sessions when the hard work gets done on the one
handand there is no prospect of that being held in public
and I do not think anybody would reasonably expect it to be, and
if it were to be it would actually happen in the corridor outsideand
the legislative role that it plays, not just as it were passing
legislation but also recording votes that people were actually
voting (where there are votes) and declaring their country's national
positions. The great advantage of that would be that European
citizens would be able to see their ministers making decisions
on their behalf and therefore hold them accountable. That is the
democratic accountability that would come with transparency which
is a big advantage. Can I add one other advantage, that it has
always seemed to me to be a problem that there is no clear identity
for the European Union at the intergovernmental level in the way
that it operates. For instance, this is not the case with the
Security Council. At the United Nations Security Council the cameras
are there so that people have an idea what it is and they can
see countries declaring their positions, arguing and voting, especially
when they are making international law, and performing their legislative
role. That is not the case for the European Union. I think there
is a big deficit there which this proposal would remedy.
286. If much of the legislation continued to
be referred upwards to the European Council, meeting in private,
the impact of the Council meeting in public to legislate would
be much reduced. How could this be prevented?
(Mr Hain) The European Council itself would also meet
in public when performing that role and that would overcome the
problem. Clearly there is a lot of hard negotiating that goes
on in the European Council, as in Council of Ministers meetings.
Again, the negotiation would be in private but the rest of it
would be in public.
287. Is there any reason why Council documents
should not be available in unexpurgated form showing which countries
are taking which position?
(Mr Hain) All Council documents?
288. The minutes.
(Mr Hain) That is something I would happily look at
because very often what you find is that nobody will own up to
having opposed a decision or having supported a decision. There
is a lot of hiding behind other people.
289. It would also be helpful to us if we are
doing pre- and post-Council investigations if ministers would
come to tell us one thing is agreed. It would be nice to make
sure that they will have done the same thing in the Council.
(Mr Hain) I will certainly look at that carefully.
It is not something that I have particularly considered, but I
must say that it would be hard to continue to argue that we should
not do it.
290. Subsidiarity at the moment seems to mean
different things to different people. Therefore, I think there
is a view that subsidiarity clearly needs to be more precisely
defined. Has the Government come up with a more precise definition?
(Mr Hain) No, we have not. The principle that decisions
should be made as close to the people as possible is in the European
Union treaties. We are very keen advocates of that and indeed
got agreement at the Laeken European Summit in December, for the
first time, to consider in the context of this European Convention
and the following Intergovernmental Conference the repatriation
of powers back to national parliaments and national governments.
Before the traffic had all been in the other direction. I think
that subsidiarity should definitely be at the heart of the European
Union and perhaps when we look in the context of the Convention
and the subsequent IGC at the way the treaties have been brought
together in this very cumbersome fashion, a fashion that is almost
unintelligible to the average person, possibly even to the average
Member of Parliament and possibly even to the average Europe Minister,
that there could be an advantage in simplifying it and in the
course of simplification defining subsidiarity in perhaps a clearer
291. Is the enforcement of subsidiarity a political
matter or a judicial matter? In addition to that, what implications
does this have for any enforcement mechanism?
(Mr Hain) If you set out more detailed requirements
as to how subsidiarity should be applied then that would strengthen
the ability of the European Court of Justice to overturn EU legislation
which failed the test. There are a number of ideas here which
I think we are going to explore with an open mind. One is that
you could have national parliamentarians meeting in a second chamber,
which was the Prime Minister's proposal in Warsaw a couple of
years ago, having as their main remit the application of subsidiarity,
not a standing second chamber but one which would meet when appropriate.
That would be as it were the political mechanism for enforcing
subsidiarity. The alternative is that you do it legally through
the European Court. I have an open mind on that and would welcome
the Committee's views on that.
292. Minister, I was delighted to hear you say
in response to an earlier question that Britain and Germany would
lead on promoting Council meetings in public because more evidence
of transparency is the way to have more accountability. It is
also important to have accountability by giving European citizens
much more purchase on European decision making than they have
at the moment, and of course this is one of the points that are
being made about subsidiarity as well. I wonder to what extent
at the same time as the British Government moves to press for
more openness and transparencyyou have mentioned the point
about a second chamber but there are other ways involving national
parliaments as wellyou would look to involve national parliamentarians
more closely in decision making directly in the Council. We know
from our own evidence that Commissioner Barnier has suggested
that ministers perhaps have parliamentarians with them sitting
at their side at Council meetings so that they can have an input
not just from their civil service advisers but also from elected
representatives. It is not something I particularly favour but
it is something that is being raised. I wonder what your comments
are about that. Secondly, and again you have made a point about
subsidiarity, we have heard from Jean-Luc Dehaene and others when
taking evidence that European institutions are simply too remote
from the European citizen. Not only do national parliaments have
a main line of accountability with governments, but we are also
much closer to the citizen. There must be ways in which we in
our own national parliaments in the work that we already do on
European scrutiny can provide that very important link of accountability
with European citizens, that is to say, the European citizens
in this country, the British citizens, making a relevant link
between them and European citizens in decision-making through
our own parliament.
(Mr Hain) I certainly have not heard the suggestion
for having members of national parliaments sitting alongside ministers.
It is a novel idea and I would like to reflect upon that. If you
can give me any advice or wisdom that would be welcome.
293. I would love to sit next to you.
(Mr Hain) We would make a great team, Bill. Your point
about the remoteness of the European citizen from the institutions
is a key one which has really been disturbing me as I have come
into the job. There are several things that can be done here.
First of all, some good work has already been done. For example,
there is a right of public access to documents which came into
force in December 2001 and that builds on the work that we did
in our Presidency to secure a Council register of documents. Many
of these are now available to the public and are on line. The
Council does hold at least two public debates per year on the
work programmes of the General Affairs Council and the Economic
and Financial Affairs Councils. I am not sure that they would
make riveting watching for ordinary citizens but that is an advantage.
One of the reasons the European Union institutions are seen as
a bit remote is that the language used is very impenetrable with
a kind of Euro-speak that passes over most people's heads except
those involved in the tiny world of Brussels and the expertise
provided through committees such as yours. I had a discussion
with Jean-Luc Dehaene last week, I think it was, about the way
in which the European Convention, on which I represent the Government,
can link into civil society. He is establishing a web site through
which people will be able to e-mail in their views on the future
of Europe and how they think it should be re-designed and that
will then be fed into the work of the Convention. That is an open
invitation to the citizens of Europe to take part through that
process in the future debate of Europe and I think that may help
bring it closer. I hope that what might come out of this Convention
and the subsequent IGC is a commitment to use simple language.
We, for instance, have initiated a process of translating directives
into plain language, not giving them the status of legal documents
in the process but just simplifying them into plain language.
We have boiled down in a Foreign Office leaflet all the treaties
of the European Unionit has run into hundreds of pages
and millions of wordsinto 300 words which gives people
an idea of what their rights are and what the European Union is
294. As you know, the Conservative Party is
a pro-European party but has certain sceptical anxieties about
various aspects of various matters. I do call myself one of those
who have serious reservations about various aspects of the future
of the way Europe is going. One of those is the subsidiarity area.
If that could be clarified and each European country knew, and
the people knew, that particular areas were the domain of the
national parliaments, and certainly that seems to be the view
of the Spanish politicians we were speaking to and some others,
there would be less scepticism about the future of Europe. I think
there is a lot of confusion about this whole idea of subsidiarity.
We interpret it as we wish. Some of us think it does not exist
and others think it is not defined enough. I am sure that is one
of the keys to the future of Europe and going forward with a much
greater optimism and constructive approach. That is on the one
hand. On the other hand we have now been in Europe for over 25
years and I have always marvelled at the fact that life has not
changed that much and that it is still peculiarly British and
we still drive on the wrong side as far as the Europeans think.
Things really work roughly as they did, as far as I can remember,
a quarter of a century ago. I am just therefore wondering what
your view is about the extent to which subsidiarity will change
things and how far you feel the national parliaments are going
to give up more or whether Europe is going to define the very
small amount it is going to deal with. It is this question of
how big a share of the European Parliament it is going to deal
with and how small a share of the national parliaments or vice
versa. I have listened to what you have to say, not only here
but at very many other places, and I am wondering whether you
have clarified your own thinking or the Government's thinking
on that area of how far the national parliaments are going to
take control of the destiny of their own countries and how far
that is going to make a greater clarification for the future of
(Mr Hain) I will not accept your invitation to debate
whether the Conservative Party is a pro-European party or not.
I will take your assertion as lying on the table. I do agree with
the basic points you are making. I think we need a clearer definition
of subsidiarity. My own view is that the decisions should only
be made at a European Union level where it is necessary to make
them, and where it is not necessary to make them they should be
made at the national parliamentary level. On the other hand we
have seen developments recently, since September 11, where many
issues have had to be dealt with on anti-terrorist measures at
an EU level, which I am sure everybody would support because it
defends our common security. We cannot as it were be stuck in
one position on this. We have to take a practical approach. I
am neither a fanatical European nor a sceptical European; I am
a practical European, and I think that should govern our approach
to things. I think it is worth everybody understanding your point,
that we have been in the European Union for 25 years and we are
still as British as we always were. The Germans are still as German
as they always were, and the French are particularly still as
French as they always were. That is what makes Europe such a great
place: our diversity enriches us and enriches the whole of Europe.
I think that this process of playing around with the European
Convention and your participation in it will give greater clarity
to it. Specifically on whether the European Parliament should
have more powers than the national parliaments, of course the
European Parliament does have quite a lot of power already under
the Community policies, under the Pillar I areas. There I am using
Euro jargon. It has got quite a lot of power and yet we still
retain our overall power. The things that have always got to be
matters for this Parliament are issues of defence, committing
British soldiers to war, for example, taxation, social security
and so on. Those are the key issues, along with foreign policy.
We have got to have a common foreign policy but ultimately those
big decisions are made at the national parliamentary level.
295. In respect of subsidiarity, you said that
it should only operate on the basis that that which was most important
or necessary should be dealt with at the European level, but of
course that begs the question, does it not? The fact is that it
is quite clear, and I have argued this for a long time, as you
know, that subsidiarity is a con trick. The big stuff is dealt
with at the upper level and that is the intention, and the progress
towards greater integration, deeper integration, means that more
government will take place at the upper level and that is the
intention. If, however, the national parliaments, who seem to
be losing power inexorably under this process, were to pass, for
example, standing orders which saidand in particular of
course I am thinking of the United Kingdom Parliamentthat
where they decided that, irrespective of what the Government was
doing, they wished to exercise a veto over the decisions that
were being taken at the upper level, would you understand that
that was something that they ought to do? Would you resist it?
Or would you give it consideration? This entire process that we
are going through in this Committee is about democracy and accountability,
and if you look at it properly surely you would come to the conclusion
that the question of how people vote in a ballot box has to be
translated through general elections into decisions that are taken
by those people, and if there is no power in the national parliaments
to say, "We are not going to allow these decisions to be
taken at the upper level", then surely it follows that there
ought to be a power of veto for the national parliaments to decide
exactly what they want. Why should they not do that?
(Mr Hain) Can I first of all say that I think there
is a presumption in some quarters that there is a kind of integrationist
plot in Europe that is dragging us in with our eyes closed and
is going to hoodwink us all and we are falling over and have lost
our Britishness, which, it has been pointed out, has not happened
in the last 25 years and is not going to happen. I do not take
that view of Europe. I take a very practical view. I see it as
sharing sovereignty, giving up some of our sovereignty and sharing
it in order to gain greater strength. If I give particular examples,
over security matters we have already gained greater strength
through being in the European Union. The nations within Europe
have fought each other in very warlike terms over the last couple
of centuries, more than in any other part of the world. That has
not happened since the European Union and its predecessors have
been in existence. I think we have gained greater strength; we
have gained greater strength for our economy through the increased
trade that the single market brings and the jobs and prosperity
that result. We have gained greater strength over our environmental
standards because pollution knows no national boundaries or frontiers.
Sharing sovereignty then gains us greater strength. I think we
ought to look at it that way, not that we are losing our ability
to be a nation state any more than by participating in NATO we
are losing our ability as a nation state to defend ourselves.
We are strengthening our ability to defend ourselves. Specifically
on the question of the veto, this really would depend on whether
we were seeking to veto something that was part of our treaty
obligations. If we had agreed to a treaty which had been ratified,
as they all have so far been, including the Nice Treaty only a
few days ago, ratified by our national parliament, that is part
of our treaty obligations. You could not veto that through this
House's standing orders or in any other form because you would
be in immediate breach of your treaty obligations which would
land you presumably either in court or ultimately I wonder whether
you would have to face expulsion.
296. What I am asking about is the question
of breaches of subsidiarity. For example, why should not the Government
be more effective in preventing breaches of subsidiarity in the
Council and, if they are not because they do a deal, which you
admitted just now frequently takes place in corridors, the result
could be (and often is) that decisions are taken which do breach
the subsidiarity rule. Then there is the question of whether it
should be dealt with by the court or whether it should be dealt
with in the Council. I am simply suggesting that the national
parliaments, where there is a breach of subsidiarity, and it is
often a matter of interpretation, would then say, "So far
and no further. We have decided that we did not want this to be
done", and then they would say, "In that case we will
pass the appropriate resolution in the House of Commons and we
will overturn the decision that has been taken in its applicability
to the United Kingdom." I cannot see why we should not do
(Mr Hain) You are asking a question in the abstract
and I suppose I need to reply in the abstract rather than giving
a concrete example. What if another country followed your lead
through its own national parliament and decided to veto something
that had been agreed by everybody else and was palpably in our
interests and self-evidently in the interests of Europe?
297. This happens in qualified majority voting
the whole time.
(Mr Hain) No, it does not. In qualified majority voting
there is a democratic decision. There are many instances of qualified
majority voting, on environmental standards, on the application
of the single market, where it is in our interests not to have
a veto, because if we have everybody vetoing everything that did
not protect their own vested interests we would never make any
progress and the whole thing would grind to a halt.
298. Can I ask one further point on that qualified
majority voting? I learned recently, and tell me if I have got
this wrong because you have got all the figures and information,
that qualified voting in theory is a concept but in practice it
hardly ever happens. Is that correct?
(Mr Hain) I think that is right.
299. Ninety-nine per cent of the decisions of
the ministers are by agreement.
(Mr Hain) They are. Something else that you may be
interested in is that if you look at the number of times that
we have been outvoted in the last few years, and I will happily
provide the Committee with the exact facts which are not at my
disposal now, France and Germany, for example, have been outvoted
far more times than we have. We have been outvoted on only a handful
of occasions, but France and Germany over the last few years have
been outvoted more times. That is one of the facts of Europe as
opposed to one of the myths.