Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100 - 119)



Jim Dobbin

  100. Commissioner, there is sometimes the concern that from time to time legislation is rushed through, it is going through just a little bit too fast and I think there is an opinion in some quarters certainly, and I have heard Commissioner Patten say this, the six-monthly presidency is not long enough. Do you see that as a difficulty? If you have a view on it do you have any solutions to the problem?
  (Commissioner Barnier) I certainly try my best to have develop a position on all of these key issues. My basic view on this matter is that it is a source of weakness and especially a source of weakness when it comes to the external image or representation of the European Union but also its internal workings. I think this highly, unstable and constantly changing system is certainly a source of weakness and we need to see how we can bring greater stability and durability into the system. One could, for example, envisage the possibility of having different Member States representing or chairing one of the different councils, that would have advantages, it would also have drawbacks and we need to make sure it does not undermine the political cohesiveness and the coherence of the European Union when it comes to the issue of stability and duration, particularly external policy. When I was negotiating on behalf of France in the run up to the Amsterdam Treaty we fought very hard to ensure there would be a Mr CFSP, who would be a political authority in his own right and who would have a term of office of five years, the same as that of the Commission.

Mr Tynan

  101. Recognising the 15 years and the 20 years you have spoken of, does the Commission monitor the application of the six-week provision in the Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments? How thoroughly, in your view, is that adhered to?
  (Commissioner Barnier) Do you feel that it is not long enough?

  102. Does the Commission monitor that? Is there a monitoring process?
  (Commissioner Barnier) What we do is send our proposals to the Member States and they are then responsible for passing those on to the national parliaments.

  103. Is there any monitoring process with regard to the Commission itself?
  (Commissioner Barnier) What I can do is pass that point on to the Secretary General and try to get you an answer before you leave tomorrow evening. I think is it rather rare for this to be pushed through in less than the six week period you mentioned.

Mr Cash

  104. Monsieur Barnier, the comment you made at the beginning, working with the citizen, you were speaking with great enthusiasm, and I know from your history you made a great thing about working at the grass roots to bring people into the European process. Of course Romano Prodi went over to see the Irish after the Irish no vote—where every single citizen had had a four page summary of the Nice Treaty—and he said this decision was undemocratic, which I must say I found slightly surprising, although I had played a small part in the Irish referendum myself. Mr Prodi said quite clearly, the outcome, the no vote, was an undemocratic decision. He made it quite clear, you may not agree but that is what he said. I just wanted to set that as a scene, because the position with regard to the meetings of the Council, when they meet it is all in private, it is in camera, do you not agree that they should meet in public, as indeed, if I may say, the British government is advocating, to a certain extent now, but if they were to meet in public what effect do you think this would have, for example, on people knowing the horse trading and the deals with regard to the voting arrangements? In other words, if people know how far their representatives in the Council of Ministers were making decisions or, indeed, the Commission, if we were dealing with regulations, why should the people, on your own argument about closeness to the citizen, not know how their own parliamentary representatives make decisions in the Council of Ministers? Why are they not in public? I argued for this in a pamphlet I wrote in 1989.
  (Commissioner Barnier) I know you can be very determined, Mr Cash!

  105. Very diligent!
  (Commissioner Barnier) First and foremost, one does have to distinguish in the Council's activity between the executive and governmental aspects on the one hand and on the other hand the legislative aspects. I think the first point one has to make, as we should all recognise, is that this is not a very clear division of powers, it is a shared power system and that is the price that has to be paid, the pooling of powers, if we want to achieve a Europe which is united without being uniform. It is true that the Council has executive responsibilities just as the Commission has legislative responsibilities. We have semi-judicial powers after the European Court of Justice, and legislative authority is shared between the Council and the European Parliament. I think the letter that Mr Blair and Mr Schröder published jointly yesterday is a very useful opportunity to clarify the Council's powers. I can only say that it is very much in line with some of my own ideas, some of the ideas I put forward in a memorandum which I issued last year. As I said, this should be a very useful opportunity to clarify the legislative role of the Council. For example, one useful way of doing that would be to have a dedicated legislative council which would meet once every two weeks, there might be a European minister who would be based in Brussels which in this way will clarify the responsibilities, and will have a political dimension rather than a purely diplomatic one when it comes to the representation of the Member States in the Council. These legislative Council sessions could be in public, but of course the other dimensions, executive and others, would not be public. Just to share a personal idea with you, which might be of some interest to you, it seems to me this would be the way forward in terms of a legislative council, a way of creating a second chamber, it would confirm this role for a second chamber rather than trying to set up a third chamber and it would be a very important role for national parliaments—this is a legislative Council—for example, when environmental matters were being discussed the environmental minister could come along, agricultural ministers, transport ministers, as the case may be, accompanied by two national MPs. These MPs would attend the Council meeting, of course the Minister would be the head of the delegation, the minister would have the vote but they could make an extremely important input into process. When I was an environment minister negotiating on behalf of France, in some cases on very complex technical issues, I would very much have welcomed having in my delegation a right-wing member of the French Senate and a left-wing member of the National Assembly instead of a whole bevy of civil servants.

Mr David

  106. I was going to say how much I agreed with what the Commissioner said until he came to that last sentence. It is a very important point you just made and one of the things we are keen to see happening—
  (Commissioner Barnier) I hope you were quite happy with the rest of what I said?

  107. Yes. One of the things we are keen to see happening is national parliamentarians far more involved in the whole legislative process and going, if you like, beneath the level of the Council meetings. Have you given any thought to how the various working groups and the process of comitology might be opened up so that national parliamentarians can also be involved, to some extent, in those deliberations? That is the first question. The second question is a different one and it is with regard to the Commission's annual work programme. A number of people have stated that the Commission's work programme is not very specific and it leaves a lot to interpretation during the course of the year. As a commissioner would you like to see any way to make the work programme more specific and more prioritised?
  (Commissioner Barnier) Coming to your point about the Commission's work programme, there is room for improvement in terms of tidying it up. It is true that we have our own priorities to take on board and other interests from other organisations. I think if there was a greater degree of stability and durability when it comes to the presidency that might also help us. Mr Hall—who I forgot to introduce, and who is a Northern Irish citizen—has just reminded me that the general Commission Work Programme is also accompanied by specific Director General Programme. I presented the programme for my Director General to the European Parliament just last week. Coming to committee procedure, if you are referring to comitology and if you are refering in particular to the Council working groups the members sitting on those groups are representatives of the Member States who come directly from their respective countries. I suppose rather than having MPs tag along, as it were, with the officials, perhaps, the solution there is to ensure that those officials are aware in advance of MPs' views before they come to Brussels.

Miss McIntosh

  108. Commissioner, apparently from this year the Commission is going to prepare an annual report on the subsidiarity and proportionality aspects. Do you think it would be helpful to have a more defined definition of subsidiarity for this purpose?
  (Commissioner Barnier) This whole issue of subsidiarity, who does what and, indeed, who should do what and what the European Union should do and should no longer do, as the case may be, this will be at the very heart of the debate going on at the Convention. The Commission, of course, does have a role to play too in this respect, we are not concerned with how powers are shared out but rather the links between them, the way they are articulated. I think national parliaments, of course, have an important role to play when it comes to checking up on the actual implementation of subsidiarity. I think having MPs accompanying ministers of the ministerial council this is the right opportunity, this is the right time, this is the ideal opportunity to ensure that subsidiarity is actually respected in practice.

  109. I do not subscribe to this view, but there are some who see the Convention as being a written constitution. If there was to be a written constitution there would, presumably, have to be a written definition of subsidiarity—I just leave you with that thought. There are two small points, if the Commission's Annual Report on Better Law-making is going to be complete should it also include those decisions which the Commission and the European Union did not take because of subsidiarity?
  (Commissioner Barnier) As regards the Commission's Annual Report, which we have published since Amsterdam, this does say specifically what the Commission does not do. You mentioned constitution, I think this is rather a hazardous term which I would prefer to avoid because it means different things in different Member States, I prefer the term "constitutional treaty", and that is a text which could indeed define precisely this issue.

  110. I will just comment, that for me, having done constitutional law coming up to 28 years ago, that is a written constitution. My final question is, I think all of us are agreed that the principle of subsidiarity is very important, do you believe as a Commissioner and does the Commission believe that there there should be a mechanism, like a constitutional court, to implement this?
  (Commissioner Barnier) Speaking on my own behalf it seems to me that the Court of Justice does precisely that. I would say that is true of the European Court of Justice at the end of the process. Earlier on in the process with the help of national parliaments one can ensure that subsidiarity is indeed respected. By analogy with the environment, basically prevention is always better, and cheaper, than cure.

Mr Cash

  111. On subsidiarity, the definition, in general, means as far as the European establishment is concerned that which is done better should be dealt with at the higher level and it is really a concept. You said that the European Union should no longer do certain things, you were very emphatic about that, but would you not agree that the concept of subsidiarity is designed, it is a Jesuitical concept, the point about it is that you are advocating a policy of renegotiation when you say there are certain things that should not be done. Where do you draw the line between the higher level and the lower level?
  (Commissioner Barnier) We in the Commission are currently studying this very matter and that is something which we intend to do very carefully and in a very frank and honest way as to what competences and what powers can be decentralised. Perhaps we do too much detailed work in Brussels, we need to ask why that is the case, in many cases it is at the behest of Member States and sometimes supported by lobby groups and businesses, but it is something that we need to consider very carefully. I think we do need to ask ourselves why directives, which initially were supposed to be framework directives setting out the general game plan, now enter into such minute detail, to a certain extent this has not been at the behest of the Commission, the European Council or the European Parliament or all three together. If we take a specific example of the environment, business interests have called for greater and more minute detail precisely to avoid possible competitive distortions when it comes to environmental standards and pollution standards, and so on and so forth. At the same time we do need to leave a degree of openness in the system. When it comes to defining negative or positive powers and competences that is all very well, but we do not want to impose an excessively rigid system which will close the door on the development of future evolution to take account of a change in circumstances. Once again my motto is, as always, we are working for a united but not a uniform Europe. Of course when it comes to preserving national diversity, language, identity and cultural diversity there are some fields which will remain outside the agreement of the European Union, education, social welfare, taxation, in large parts, but not in all respects, but at the same time we do not want to close the door on future evolution and future development of the European Union to take account of developing needs and expectations of our citizens. Addressing this point to Mr Cash in particular, taking a specific example, that of public security, when these matters were up for debate in the run up to Amsterdam issues such as police, customs, law enforcement were very sensitive issues and when it comes to national sovereignty, but over the last five or six years views have changed enormously in the wake of immigration, mafia, terrorism, and so on and so forth. We are changing reality on the ground, and increasingly member states, including your own member state, recognise the need for action at a European level, not just at a national level.

  Mr Cash: There is a division between terrorism and the arrest warrant for the other nations, but let us not get into that.

Roger Casale

  112. Whatever decision is made about which matters should be reserved for national governments it seems to me that is going to be a debate that is going to continue for a very long time through the Convention and through the intergovernmental conference and beyond. Whatever position we arrive at in the end, and I do not believe we will ever arrive at a stable solution in relation to these matters, within the areas that are agreed to be areas that are legislated on at European level is there not going to be within those areas that everyone can agree on should be European and should be super national is there not going to be greater and greater pressure for legislation within those areas or more and more legislation within those areas without necessarily spreading out into the new areas? It seems to me, from what you are saying to us, that pressure is going to come a little bit from the legislators themselves as more and more ministers come to Council of Ministers meetings are they not going to want to put their stamp on Europe and want to come forward with new proposals for legislation? Our concern as a Committee, I think, is that there is not only a democratic deficit there is a very serious accountability deficit, if we cannot see documents on time how can we say whether we think this proposal is a good proposal or a bad proposal? The role of national parliaments can be very, very important. Your solution is an interesting one, that the answer is for ministers to bring parliamentarians with them to the meetings, perhaps that is one point of view, how else do you think that the Convention can help us as national parliamentarians to deal with what will become a greater and greater crisis of accountability in terms of European decision-making within those areas everybody agrees should be matters for super national control?
  (Commissioner Barnier) We certainly do not want to encourage further legislative inflation, certainly not any more than we already have. The Commission, assuming that it keeps the power of initiative, must be very careful not to add to the legislative burden in any way. Given the level of integration we are already achieved we have to ensure that national parliaments do play a bigger and more direct role, whether we follow the supra national or the intergovernmental method in particular fields, for example defence and foreign policy, certainly national parliaments must be taken on board to a greater extent. My colleague Chris Patten a few weeks ago raised another idea, which I find a very interesting one, that there be a congress of the specialised committees of the House of Commons and of the other national parliaments, this would not be setting up a new institution, a separate institution but bringing together the national parliaments along with the European Parliament which could help debate the great policy issues in respect of monetary matters, public security, defence security and foreign affairs.

Angus Robertson

  113. There has been a lot of discussion about national parliaments and most people round this table will take that to mean the House of Commons—I take a slightly different view, I come from Scotland, my national parliament is the Scottish Parliament. There is also a Welsh National Assembly. Regardless of our different views of the constitutional future of our various nations there is an issue of how we engage with Europe and I would like to ask you directly how the Commission views the concept of "Partners of the Union", which has been proposed for some state authorities with legislative power. What is the Commission's view on privileged access to the Commission? What contact has there already been directly between the Commission and such sub-state authorities, say, for example, the Scottish government?
  (Commissioner Barnier) I, myself, had the opportunity to visit the Scottish Parliament to see for myself the progress that had been made in constituting this new national devolution within the United Kingdom. Of course it is not a matter for us in Brussels to decide how the Member States should run their internal division of powers between the constituent parts of those Member States, we have to respect the fundamental principle of institutional autonomy in this respect. In any case, if I were to say the opposite I would immediately be accused of preaching in favour of a European superstate, and far be it for me to do that. While respecting the principle of institutional autonomy we do need to see ways in which we can take account of the developing legislative role of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, such as Scotland, and we see the same phenomenon in Spain. In our White Paper on Governance one of the ideas we have put forward, which has not yet been accepted by the Member States, and by the United Kingdom particularly, is the proposal for a tripartite agreement, between the EU, the National Government and the region which would include not just Brussels and London but also Edinburgh.

  114. Can I just follow up and ask you, what is the Commission's view specifically on the proposal of Partners of the Union, which includes sub-state legislators?
  (Commissioner Barnier) This issue is not one which we have yet discussed officially in the Commission. There is, of course, a key problem which seems pretty unavoidable, which is, how does one distinguish between those regions that do have legislative powers and those that do not. Mr Lamassoure of the European Parliament has put forward some interesting ideas on this matter, this is the one key issue that one keeps running into, how do you give access to the Commission and powers of referral to the Court of Justice to those regions which do have legislative powers without also giving these powers to the other regions without legislative powers, that is something which will also quite possibly lead to problems with Member States. Of course that is a compromise that we will try to reach in our proposals, how can we recognise the role of regions without undermining the position of the Member States.

Mr David

  115. It is a difficulty because I come from Wales and we have an elected assembly which does not have legislative powers.
  (Commissioner Barnier) You cannot blame Brussels for that, of course.

  116. I am not blaming anybody for that, I think it is the correct settlement, in fact, but nevertheless the Welsh Assembly would want to play a role at the European level, so it is a difficulty. The point I wanted to ask about, however, is about the Committee of the Regions. I was a member of the European Parliament some years ago and the creation of the Committee of the Regions was trumpeted as a great breakthrough for local and regional government to be involved in Europe. Most people see it as a disappointment, do you think there is any worth in keeping it? It would save lot of money to get rid of it!
  (Commissioner Barnier) Of course one thing you would not save on is controversy. We already have over 200 regions within the existing Member States, there will soon be another 40 in the wake of enlargement, these are regions of real power which form a democratic expression and which have a very legitimate role to play in institutional life, and some have actual legislative powers. The European Union is not just a collection of states it is also a collection of people and it is very important that their regional assemblies are represented. Now that the Committee of the Regions has a new President, Mr Bore, who is leader of the Council in Birmingham, I have no doubt that he will make some very useful additions and improvements to the Committee of the Regions regionally. I must say as Commissioner responsible for regional matters we must work together with the Committee of the Regions, which does play an important democratic role, provided, of course, that we manage to hang on to our regional policy in the wake of 2007.

Mr Davis

  117. I come from Birmingham, and Sir Albert Bore is not the mayor! Some people have suggested that the president of the European Commission should be elected by the European Parliament. Others have suggested that the President of the European Commission should be elected by the people of Europe. What do you think about these two propositions?
  (Commissioner Barnier) To answer on my own behalf, and not on behalf of the Commission as a whole, to me the key issue to maintain the Commission's independence and its collegial nature will be all the more important after enlargement. From the very outset when there were only six Member States we saw that as playing a very important role in the structure of Europe. I can say this as a Gaullist myself, as you may be aware in the enlarged Union this body, this independent and autonomous body will play an increasingly important role, representing general interests more than the sum of the individual nations' interests, that is a key value we must hold on to at all costs. There are always advantages and drawbacks to everything. The case for directly electing the President of the Commission, the main case, is that it would personify Brussels, give a personal form, the disadvantage is it would inevitably politicise the function. Weighing up the relative disadvantages and advantages I think I would say on balance it would have more advantages. Of course, let us not forget the President of the Commission is a politician, one chosen by the European Council, depending on the particular political centre of gravity in the European Council at the time. My own preference would be that the election should not be by the European Parliament, it could take place in parallel, at the same time, as the European Parliament elections. One idea that I can envisage is of the 700 or so MEPs, 60 could be elected on a transnational cross-border electoral list and the top candidate of those could become the President of the Commission. Of course one does need to bear in mind not just the democratic aspect but also how one can best preserve the independence of the European Commission. One of the key advantages when it comes to a directly elected president, if that were to happen, is this would be a very useful way of combating this anti-Brussels sentiment which is so widespread, there is a tendency to use Brussels as a scapegoat.

Mr Hendrick

  118. In 1994 I was elected to the European Parliament with a turnout of 42 per cent, in 1999 I lost my seat, with a turnout of just over 20 per cent, the argument for a national direct European representation by the people is consistently given lower turnouts and less legitimacy for the people who are elected, the first part of the question is, why would the direct election of a President of the European Commission be any more successful by going from an appointed to a directly directed MEP who has seen turnout and respect for the institution fall and why would the direct election of the President of European Commission improve things? Secondly, the problem that we have at the moment with the election of the President of the Commission is that the person who was elected was selected by the lowest common denominator, the person most acceptable to most people, but not necessarily the best person because of the way Member States could operate a veto. By switching to the Parliament or to the people of Europe, who are less in touch with what happens in the Commission that anybody, I think that is a bad move. Would the Commissioner not agree that the best thing would be to let the Council select the President within the endorsement of Parliament, as it does now, and not give any member state the veto, by moving the decision either to the Parliament or to the people of Europe. All that happens then is the bigger countries will have more of a say about who the President is rather than givinging equal weighting in the Council of Ministers.
  (Commissioner Barnier) I do not want to comment on the particular circumstances under which you were elected and unelected. Did the electoral system in the United Kingdom not change during that period?

  119. It was not the system, it was the turnout, apart from the turnout I was directly elected by the people, okay I was elected by the people. Now we are saying we need national parliamentarians involved and not as much directly elected by the people, yet you are saying that the President should be directly elected by the people, one minute we are moving away from directly European representatives and now we are moving to them.
  (Commissioner Barnier) I too, like you, am quite disappointed in the low turnout for the European Parliament election, the question is, what can we do about it? It is not just a matter for Brussels, it is a matter for the member states. We must recognise increasingly that when it comes to this idea of direct election of the President of the Commission this is something that seems to me which could reinforce democracy, particularly by putting a face on one of the key players in the European Union. The later point you made about the election of the President, appointment of the Commission President by the Member States, in that respect unanimity is no longer required, as changed during the Nice negotiations. I would also say that this issue of the election of the Commission President is not really the key issue, it is, to a certain extent, a side issue, there are far more important institutional issues which are up for grabs.

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