Select Committee on European Scrutiny Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Liberal Democrat European Group


  1.  This submission to the Committee is from the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG). LDEG is an Associated Organisation of the Liberal Democrats. It is unashamedly a pro-European organisation, but shares its party's view that the British relationship with Europe must be founded on the commitment of citizens rather than merely the convenience of politicians.

  2.  LDEG claims no special right to influence the UK's attitude to Europe. However, its members are drawn from Britain's third largest political party and all have a profound commitment to spreading a positive message about Britain's membership within the European Union. If the national debate on Europe cannot involve and inspire the members of LDEG (and, equally, people with the same degree of commitment but different and opposite views), then it will surely fail.

  3.  The authors of this paper have read all the questions posed by the Committee but will frame their submission as an answer only to the last: "How should the debate on the future of Europe be conducted, eg should there be a convention, and if so, how could it be made representative and how should it operate?"


  4.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of British membership of the European Union, the British people are not informed enough about it. The edition of Eurobarometer published in spring 2001 reports that the British consider themselves to be the least well-informed about the European Union.

  5.  In this respect, at least, the House of Commons represents the nation. Research by Chris Davies MEP showed that of some 40,000 questions asked in the House of Commons in the 1999-2000 session, only 79 were about business in the Council MPs have a particular opportunity to obtain information and exert influence: they have yet to take it.

  6.  The UK cannot expect to play its full role in Europe—whatever that role might be—in the absence of information. Our first conclusion therefore is that the government has a serious responsibility to provide information about the EU to the public. In the current year, the Inland Revenue is spending £5.5 million to promote the on-line self-assessment of income tax. The question of the UK's relationship with Europe is surely at least as important as this.

  7.  Promotion of this issue should use both traditional means of advertising and mass communication as well as working through NGOs and organisations of civil society. The objective of this exercise is not only to communicate the facts about British membership of the EU but also to accumulate the opinions of citizens on what should be done next. The future of the EU rests not only on amendments to the treaties but also on the support and understanding of the people.


  8.  The decision-making processes of the EU are obscure to many of the so-called experts, and far removed from the consciousness of most electors in the UK. Not only should the Council meet in public, but the mechanism should exist to overcome the tendency of politicians of all member states to avoid their own responsibility in the decision-making process, claiming credit for any decision which could be interpreted as favourable to their narrow national interest, and avoiding their participation in decisions which might be seen to be politically disadvantageous in the short-term. The latter are all too often portrayed as having been imposed by "Brussels", when in reality they are part of the normal operations of the Council.

  9.  To address the question of a convention, the answer of LDEG is an unequivocal yes. The experience of the convention that led to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms was wholly positive. Andrew Duff MEP, a member of the convention, observed that "The Convention witnessed a genuine refinement of point of view among the many participants, and a clarification of the purpose of the Charter. A new, wide consensus was born concerning the role of fundamental rights in the process of European integration."

  10.  Within the 15 member states of the EU (and among the thirteen applicant states) there are many different opinions regarding the future of Europe. A convention provides an opportunity for them to be expressed rather than suppressed.

  11.  The convention would naturally include representatives from every member state but it should also incorporate representatives from the applicant states. It is their Union, too, that the convention will be discussing.

  12.  Participants should be drawn from elected national governments and parliaments, as well as from the European Parliament and from regional and local government. There should also be some means of consulting with the spectrum of civil society. There is more to politics than party politics.

  13.  A convention will allow the opportunity for a debate of higher quality. Summits are no longer, if they ever were, the best way to take the most important decisions about the future of Europe. Haggling late at night when everyone is too tired to think straight is hardly the best way to do business. The prime minister conceded at the conclusion of the Nice summit that the working methods had to change. The Hague summit on climate change broke down in precisely such circumstances. The EU's Amsterdam treaty was ratified with errors that sleep-deprived officials didn't spot.

  14.  Lastly, the European convention should be matched by an equivalent exercise within the UK. The government should provide support for debates held regionally and locally throughout the country, perhaps to be held under the auspices of local authorities. The Scottish Parliament is to consult regular on European matters with the wider civil society, with the working title of the Scottish European Forum.

  15.  An exercise of this sort is underway in Slovakia at the moment. The National Convention on the European Future of Slovakia brings together figures from politics, business and civil society. This is an imaginative initiative which will help spread awareness of the realities of the European Union and lead to a more informed public debate. There is no reason why the Slovaks can discuss Europe in a way that the British cannot.

  16.  If the government really wants to change the nature of the debate about Europe in Britain, it could blaze a new trail in public debate on the European Union. Despite the best efforts of Mr Keith Vaz, when he was Minister for Europe, his bus tours did not yet amount to this.


  17.  The 2004 process provides an opportunity to revitalise the debate about Britain's relationship with Europe. It has to be taken out of London SW1 and out of the hands of the political class. Any relationship between the UK and its European neighbours can only survive if it is based on the support and understanding of the British people. A European convention on the future of the EU should be matched by equivalent activities at regional and local level. This debate is important, and LDEG stands ready to play its part.

3 October 2001

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