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Roger Casale: I am sorry that I missed the earlier part of my hon. Friend's speech, but I am delighted that she is speaking in the debate, that she is the chair of the working group on national Parliaments and that she is championing their cause in the convention. I welcome her remarks about national Parliaments and I am pleased that she has received a paper from me about their role. I look forward to her comments on it.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, let me take her back to her point about the scrutiny of European legislation here. The European Scrutiny Committee has published its report, to which she may have referred. Does she agree that we need an additional mechanism apart from the Select Committee system and Standing Committees for EU scrutiny? The European Scrutiny Committee's report proposes a European Grand Committee, which would
Ms Stuart: Thank you for that protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I read my hon. Friend's paper on the role of national Parliaments with great interest. We agree on many ideas. However, I should be reluctant to propose the establishment of yet another institution. We need to consider existing institutions much more closely and I am tempted to suggest that we should have fewer, more strategic and co-ordinated bodies. The key to achieving that is making the Council of Ministers move away from changing its priorities every six months towards taking a longer-term, more strategic view. That will have consequences for its organisation, but I believe that it may be crucial.
The first 50 years of the European Union have been a tremendous success, which we have consequently forgotten to express. We simply focus on its failures. The convention must try to ensure that we leave our children a structure that allows the success to continue. The current honest debates highlight various shortcomings. That should not be interpreted as showing that the EU is not a success. However, the shortcomings exist and we have a huge responsibility to make the EU continue for our children and serve them as well as it has served us.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), my co-member on the convention on the future of Europe. We have eaten several lunches for our country as we jointly tour the embassies and working groups here and abroad, trying to generate interest in the convention and pick up ideas so that we can better discharge our function. The difference between us is probably one of emphasis, because I agree with many of the hon. Lady's comments about the enormous task that faces the convention. My diagnosis is perhaps more radical. I believe that the European Union faces a democratic crisisand I shall try to justify that phrase.
The European Union is essentially technocratic. It was built up over more than 40 years on a French model, which is statist and centralised. When challenged, it justifies itself by reference to the past, especially the second world war. However, that ended nearly 60 years ago, and the European Union is now curiously old-fashioned in many ways. It retains a bloc mentality and is not fitted for the reality of modern markets, or, more importantly, the principle of self-government. It operates on a top-down principle.
The Commission retains a monopoly on initiation. That is slightly paradoxical, because it opposes other people's monopolies and tries to prevent others' monopolistic activity, but jealously guards its monopoly on initiating legislation. Three weeks ago, it published a paper for the convention in which it advanced the case for radically new policy powers on foreign affairs, securityincluding defenceand the economy, including budgets and
Further down the chain, the legislation is decided in Europe by an opaque and often secretive bargaining process between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. National Parliaments have no genuine input into that process. We have scrutiny rights, and Committees struggle heroically with the torrent of legislation, directives and regulations from the European Union. By and large, we simply have to accept what Brussels produces and implement it in law.
I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston that we are at the end of the EU food chain. We are the plankton of the European system. That is unsatisfactory, and I hope that the forthcoming report from the European Scrutiny Committee deals with that and tries to put Parliament back in the driving seat earlier in the process. Nobody, including Ministers, currently has any idea about what is happening.
Let us consider the example of the fridges directive, which attempts to deal with harmful gases from old fridges. The Minister for the Environment got into a dispute with the Commission and said that it had let him down badly, and did not keep him informed. Consequently, we have a fridge mountain. I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman on 28 March to sort the matter out, or at least obtain some clarity about the position. I still await his reply. The Minister for the Environment has hundreds of civil servants to advise him, but if he does not know what is happening, what are the public to make of it all? What do the small traders, the officials in local government and the people whom we represent make of the blizzard of obscure and technical regulations?
We should have debated such matters here so that we could examine the costs, the necessary trade-offs, the feasibility and the obligations for the public, business and local authorities. We should have done that before the European process started.
The Foreign Secretary, in opening this debate, said that the problem could be solved at least in part by more transparency, and by having television cameras in the meetings of the Council of Ministers. That is essentially a gimmick. In fact, the alert and informed viewer might want to know what the Council was doing, right at the start of its proceedings, when it passed all the A-points without debate or comment. Those are the points that have been decided not by the Council but by COREPER, the Committee of Permanent Representatives, without any input from Ministers or from this House.
If we went further down into the belly of the whale, the viewer might also want to know about the working committees of the European system. These are the advisory committees, implementing committees and managing committees that take many decisions; by some estimates, they take the majority of decisions. At risk of spraining my wrist, I have examined the latest volumevolume 45of the budget this year, which lists these working committees. There are 496 of them, they produce no agenda or minutes, and they sit in secret. This is the
Angus Robertson: In a similar vein to the comments of Labour Members about engagement with the democratically elected Parliament and Government of Scotland, which deals with the overwhelming majority of issues relating to shared sovereignty with the European Union that affect Scotland, I would like to point out that only 2 per cent. of working groups have been attended by Scottish Executive officials, although the vast majority of issues are devolved. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is too much, too little or about right?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I have offered, as has the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, to visit Edinburgh and Cardiff to hear more about how we can repatriate some of this decision making back to the United Kingdomand, possibly, under a form of devolution, back to the other parts of our kingdom. Indeed, we are going to Northern Ireland later this week, and I hope that we shall be able to give the hon. Gentleman a further and fuller answer after we have done that.
I am glad that the Minister for Europe has picked up on the point about the comitology processa phrase that does not mean much to our constituentsinvolved in implementing decisions. He has said that he finds the process opaque and cumbersome, and that it needs review and reform. I have to say that it needs much more radical surgery than is apparently being contemplated by the Government.
I agree with the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) that the Government have not yet produced any real proposals either for the convention or for the subsequent intergovernmental conference, to inform and stimulate a national debate. The Prime Minister relies far too heavily on his new-found friends Mr. Berlusconi, Mr. Aznar and Mr. Chirac, possibly to be joined by Mr. Stoiber. This emerging conservative alliance in Europe may be important, but it cannot be a substitute for a real attempt by the British Government to address the democratic deficit.
I am sure that at the end of this process, we shall be offered a simplification of the treaty provisions. We shall also be offered a constitutional text and, probably, some sort of pruning of the legal instruments, which number more than 20. That will not do the trick, however, because slimming down and simplifying an organisation does not, of itself, make that organisation democratic. Nor does it deal with the burden of the past. Here I must mention the acquis communautaire, which comprises the accumulated laws and regulations of the European Union that have built up over the past decades. A modest estimate is that it now runs to 85,000 pages.
The Opposition leader in Malta told me recently that his country had been sent 1.5 million pages of laws, regulations and explanatory texts, which it must introduce into its domestic legislation to qualify for membership. I have suggested that there should be a working party on the acquis communautaire to try to slim it down, but that is an heretical thought. It is seen as advocating a retreat for Europe, but frankly, we have to find a reverse gear as well as a forward one. Otherwise, we shall be not only