Examination of Witness (Questions 223
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2002
223. Richard, thank you for coming along here
this morning. It is always a pleasure to see you. We have had
two days of taking evidence as part of our inquiry into the future
governance of Europe. We would like to ask you a few questions
and I am sure you will be able to assist us when we are preparing
our report, which will be published in April. If I could just
ask the first question, Richard. Which of the matters covered
by the Laeken declaration do you regard as most important for
remedying the disconnection between citizens and the European
(Mr Corbett) I think there is a lot of
potential in the Laeken declaration and the Convention; there
is no guarantee as to the results and the outcome. I think several
practical steps could be taken. The first is simplification and
clarification. I think it would be useful to codify and simplify
the Treaties into a single document, perhaps with the more fundamental
part up front and the small print in the second part. There is
a separate question, as to whether the second part should be amendable
by a separate and easier procedure. There is an argument for;
there is an argument against that. It is not necessarily linked.
Secondly, I think that we could also look at not just the codification
of the treaty as it stands in legal terms but changes of substance,
also along the lines of simplification; for instance, the fact
that our main procedures in the European Union all have so many
exceptions and areas where they do not apply. Let us take for
instance a co-decision of Parliament and Council. I think it is
healthy that European legislation has to pass two tests, two hurdles,
two quality controls to be adopted: acceptability to the Council
and acceptability to the European Parliament under co-decision,
yet co-decision does not apply to agriculture, for instance, and
certain other areas. I think the rule of thumb should be that
it should apply to all legislation, not the measures that are
not legislative. Parliament should not have co-decision on everything,
but legislative matters that go to the Council should pass the
extra test of acceptability to the European Parliament.
224. Richard, it is nice to see you again, over
here and not in Yorkshire. In your evidence you say that the Council
should meet in public when legislating. We have had quite a body
of evidence on that. You also say that they should meet in public
when they discuss reports of other European institutions. You
would still favour, presumably, that they meet in private when
they meet in an executive and administrative capacity. Can you
just confirm that?
(Mr Corbett) Yes.
225. In opening up meetings to the public, how
much difference do you and your colleagues believe it would make
(Mr Corbett) First, I confirm that I am referring
to Council acting in a legislative capacity. When it is dealing
with foreign and security policy, I do not think it should meet
in public. Secondly, I think this is a matter of principle, that
when binding legislation is being adopted in a democratic system
the enactment of that legislation should take place in public.
We have actually come a long way, let us not forget that. The
Council is now under an obligation to publish the results of any
votes on legislation. That used not to be the case. The legislative
documents that it considers are now available, in principle, to
the public. Good. But I think it would be useful to go that one
step further, that when it is actually adopting the legislation
it should vote and adopt it in public. That of course does not
preclude some element of private discussion beforehand. That is
normal as well in democratic systems, but the actual vote should
be in public.
226. The word "comitology" is a dreadful
turn-off if you are trying to explain it to the British public.
Do you believe that there is an argument for opening up the working
groups and the committees to the public and to greater public
scrutiny? Do you believe it is practical and would bring advantages
to do so?
(Mr Corbett) It is done in America, I understand,
for a lot of equivalent type committees. The case is less evident
than for the actual adoption of mainstream European Union legislation
by the Council. We are talking here about implementing measures,
many of them highly technical, and I dare say that many of these
committees, if they were open to the public, would not have very
crowded galleries, so we are perhaps being even more theoretical
when we talk about opening comitology type committees. What I
think is the more important issue with regard to comitology is
that, when Council and Parliament delegate implementing powers
to the Commission, working with a committee, there should be the
possibility to call it back when they make a mess of things. I
do not anticipate this happening all the time, but the right
to call back implementing measures and to have another look at
them should be part of the system. At the moment the Council in
a way can call things back indirectly, via the comitology committee,
if there is not the necessary majority in the committee to support
what the Commission wishes to do. If it is called back, though,
it only goes to the Council. I think both Parliament and
the Council should have the right, as it were, to blow the whistlemaybe
by a special majority if you are afraid that that would happen
too frequentlyand if the whistle is blown then the measure
should return for consideration to both Council and Parliament.
If havoc were caused by the measure being suspended while that
was happening, OK, maybe the measure should be enacted and not
be suspended but could be reviewed and modified by that procedure,
but I think it is important to have a procedure like that there
as a safeguardnot anticipating that it would be used every
month because there are thousands of such decisions, but that
it be available when necessary.
227. The conciliation process seems to be shrouded
in mystery. Obviously I did participate in one of those processes
when I was an MEP, but even as a committee we find it difficult
to follow. Do you believe it is possible to make the conciliation
process more open to the public without making the negotiations
therein more protracted?
(Mr Corbett) I do not think it should be too mysterious;
after all, all it is saying is that if after two readings each
Council and Parliament have not approved the same text, you have
a committee to try to negotiate a compromise. But that compromise
still has to be approved by both sides, which in Parliament's
case involves debate and a vote in public on the floor of the
House, and on Council's side perhaps in future will involve a
vote in public. So I do not think it is too mysterious in terms
of grasping the essentials but it of course remains a negotiation.
Just as I said earlier that the preparatory phase of the Council's
legislative work may well be in private but the actual enactment
should be in public, I think perhaps that principle should apply
to the Conciliation Committee as well.
228. Hello, Richard. This question is about
the accountability of the Commission and it is in three parts.
First of all, as far as the accountability of the Commission and
individual Commissioners, do you think that accountability should
be increased? The second question is: In your submission you appear
to be cautious about the election of the Commission President,
can you talk a bit about that and the wider consequences that
you might be thinking about. Thirdly, do you think the European
Parliament makes full use of its powers to scrutinise the detail
of the work of the Commission?
(Mr Corbett) The first question, which I think is
probably linked to the third question in many ways, is often interpreted
as being the question: Should the Parliament have the right to
censure individual members of the Commission? There is a fear
that that would undermine the collegiality of the Commission and
what we have achieved over the last couple of years is in fact
a reasonable compromise. There is anyway nothing to stop Parliament
adopting a resolution criticising an individual commissioner and
calling on him or her to resign. The President of the Commission
now has the power to dismiss individual members of the Commission.
I think that is probably a better way to do it rather than give
Parliament the right to pick off individual members of the Commission
with no come back, and dismiss them in one go, so I think that
is a reasonable compromise. Crucially, that was lacking at the
time of the Santer Commission. Jacques Santer, even had he wished
to do so, could not have dismissed one or more of the individual
members of the Commission. That is now being achieved de facto
when Prodi constituted his Commission, and de jure if and
when Nice is ratified. I think that is a reasonable compromise.
On the question of whether the President of
the Commission should be elected, I certainly do not think the
President should be directly elected in sort of European-wide
presidential elections. All our countries are parliamentary democracies;
only France elects an executive president in direct elections.
I think that the issue of whether the Parliament should
elect the President of the Commission though is a more interesting
one. I think my written evidence said there are arguments for
and against. The argument for is the democratic argument
that it is a more democratic way, but I think we need to go a
bit beyond that and think of the dynamics of the system as a whole.
I would like to approach it from a different angle. If you think
about European elections every five years and compare them to
national elections, they are different for a number of reasons,
but one of the reasons is this: In national elections, although
we are voting as citizens for a national parliament, most of us
I think, certainly in this room, are really thinking about the
government: "Do we want to keep this government or change
it? Throw them out and give the other lot a chance, or give this
lot another chance?" It is the government that people are
thinking about, although they are voting for a parliament. Suddenly,
every five years people are called upon to vote in European elections,
where the only thing that is at stake is the exact balance among
the political groups in what will anyway be a hung parliament.
There is no visible effect. People cannot see heads rolling or
staying as a result of their vote. There is no consequence at
executive level of any sort. Some people say, "Let's have
the Commission emerge from a majority in the Parliament"presumably
a majority coalition in the Parliament. That is perhaps going
a little bit too far to say the whole Commission should do that.
I think most Member States will want the Commission to be, as
it is now, a sort of mixture, with a President but with members
who are chosen with the agreement of the different Member State
governments, reflecting the political reality in the different
Member States. But the President, who does not rotate around the
Member Statesthe President is always chosen by a specific
separate decisionwhy not let that President be elected
by the Parliament? What would inevitably follow is that, in the
preceding European election campaign, people would of course say,
"Who is your candidate?" so party groupings, party families
would have to come up with candidates. The party of European Socialists
might say, "Robin Cook is our candidate" for instance.
The EPP might say, "Jacques Santer is our candidate! He was
wonderful, bring him back"but I expect they might
find another candidate. It would add something to the election
campaign. There would be a visible effect on the executive, there
would be faces. That is the argument for. I am well aware that
there are difficulties with it as well: Are there enough
politicians who are well enough known in all Member States for
that to work? Would the governments be comfortable working with
a President of the Commission whom they have not formally had
a role in choosing? - though of course informally, via party structures,
I am sure they would be playing an important role in choosing
the candidates. But I certainly think it is an issue that the
Convention is going to look at because there are enough people
who support the idea and it would be wise to think further in
Britain on this as well.
229. You say there are some people who support
it. We have not taken evidence from anybody who supports it. Where
is the support? How would you identify the support?
(Mr Corbett) I noticed that in the campaign in January
for the election of the President of the European Parliament,
both main candidates, Pat Cox and David Martin, supported this
Mr Hendrick: Klaus Hänsch did, Chairman.
Klaus Hänsch supported it when he came here yesterday.
230. A direct election.
(Mr Corbett) No, not direct election. Election by
231. I am sorry, I was referring to direct election.
(Mr Corbett) I think direct election has little support.
232. Commissioner Barnier supported direct elections.
(Mr Corbett) He is French. People do tend to look
at their own national models, even European commissioners.
233. Could I ask a slightly different question.
You have said a lot of very interesting things and I am interested
to know your personal view. How do you see this position of political
relationships, political parties, philosophies, in Europe? As
soon as you start talking about, "Oh, this person will be
elected from within the parliamentary process. We have got the
Rainbows, we have got the different parties and their party lists,
we do not have a whip system, so the fact is people can be taken
off the party list by the leaders, etc," it all seems very
dubious to me. But, anyway, the fact is that the bottom line for
those of my persuasion politically is that, obviously, the degree
to which the movement in political thought or political attitudes
within electorates, once it is consolidated inside the European
Parliament with that degree of legislative power to which it aspires
and with the constitution to come, means that effectivelyand
this, I suspect, is what the real hierarchy have been thinking
aboutis you can change the whole nature of the political
climate and attitude of the Continent as a whole in political
terms and permanently have a certain kind of philosophy at work.
What is your judgment about the direction in which that will go?
Do you see it as an almost permanently Social Democratic Europe
or do you think there are some cracks that are beginning to appear
at the moment, with Stoiber and Schroder, etc? What is your
feeling about that? Because it does have a very direct bearing,
as you say, changing reality, on the question of whether or not
other people would be interested in going down any kind of reform
route at all.
(Mr Corbett) What you are saying is: Will we have
a permanent Social Democratic consensus in Europe? Much as I might
like the idea, the fact is that at the moment, for instance, it
is the Christian Democrat group that are the largest one in the
European Parliament, not the Socialist Democrats.
Mr Cash: You can define your Christian Democrats
according to whatever criteria, but, quite honestly, I do not
see any difference between most Christian Democrats and Social
Democrats. Anyway, that is another story. Anne is looking in disbelief,
Miss McIntosh: You and the CSU would get on
very well, Bill.
234. No, the CSU are fine. If you look at the
whole question of social agendas, the Christian Democrats go along
with it. That is really what I am talking aboutnot the
immigration stuff, I do not agree with that, but ...
(Mr Corbett) I will tell this to my Christian Democrat
colleagues in the Parliament. I am sure they will be delighted.
235. The EPP problem we have in the Conservative
party is reflecting what I am saying and that is really the thought
that is at the back of my mindI mean, if the groupings
gravitate around a certain attitude. In other words, I do not
agree with you that, for the most part, the kind of attitudes
that reflect the centre right are necessarily reflected by the
CDU. But let's jump that. What is your general view?
(Mr Corbett) I think the Parliament reflects a very
broad variety of views, because of course every Member State uses
proportional representation, so we range from the far right to
the former Communists, via the Greens, the Liberals and so on.
There is a very wide range of views in the European Parliament.
What is remarkable is the style of its day-to-day operation, which
is less adversarial than Westminster and more consensual in style.
You work by processes of explanation, persuasion and negotiation
to achieve a result in the European Parliament, rather than just
adversarial debating with, in the end, whatever the executive
has proposed being adopted anyway. It is a different style of
May I also take issue with some of what I think
you were hinting at in your premise. List systems, you say, where
the party leaders just put people on or take them off. I think
that depends on the internal democratic systems of political parties
and how they choose their lists. There are few parties in Europe
that just allow their leaders to compose lists, if any, and not
any major parties actually, if you were to look through the different
parties. As to whipping, you said there is no whipping in the
European Parliament. There is whipping. Most groups vote cohesively
most of the time. It is less strict than in some national parliamentsand
some people would say that is a good thingbut there is
whipping, in that, once the group reaches a position by its internal
process of explanation, persuasion and negotiation, most people
stick to the group line most of the time.
236. Article 2 says that there must not be any
(Mr Corbett) No, article 2 says that, as in almost
every parliament, members may not receive binding, legally binding,
instructions from outside.
237. Is that not the same thing.
(Mr Corbett) But voluntarily accepting the whipping
systemjust as you do in Westminsteryou are always
free to resign the whip if you wish to.
238. There is a sort of loose use of the adjective
(Mr Corbett) Members are free to resign the whip if
they wish to. You speak of the legislative powers that the Parliament
aspires to. The Parliament has largely achieved the level of legislative
power that it wishes, in that we have said that if a matter is
legislative, going to Council, it should also require approval
from the European Parliament. That is now true for most significant
European legislation. There are some gaps in it. It is a different
matter to argue what should be dealt with at European level and
what should be dealt with at national level, but if something
is being dealt with at European level, if the EU is legislating,
then it should also require European Parliamentary scrutiny as
well, which is complementary to the scrutiny that is done by national
parliaments: national parliaments each over their own member of
the Council; us dealing with Council as an institution collectively.
The two are complementary. But, in terms of your hint that there
is a general consensus in Europe of which Britain perhaps is not
a part, no, I think you will find as much pluralism and diversity
across Europe as we do in our own countrybut a different
style of operation.
239. On subsidiarity, Richard, do you see a
need for any changes at all in respect of subsidiarity and the
delimitation of competences? On a second point, this report from
Mr Lamassoure, could you comment on that? What exactly is your
personal view of his proposal for a constitutional court through
which the principle of subsidiarity could be enforced?
(Mr Corbett) Subsidiarity is a very important principle
which everybody subscribes to; the devil is in the detail of applying
it in practice. I am not convinced that adding extra sentences
to the Treaty is really the answer. We have had the Edinburgh
declaration; we have had the article put in the Treaty in Maastricht;
we have had the protocol added to the Treaty of Amsterdam. I think
subsidiarity in the treaty sense has been done to death. But if
the fear is that the EU is over-centralising( nooks and crannies
and so on), then I think really it must be up to politicians to
do their job properly and not rely on the phrases in the Treaty.
Let us not forget that any European legislation of any significance
whatsoever requires the approval of the Council. Who sits on the
Council? National ministers, members of national governments accountable
to national parliaments; not people who are inherently pre-disposed
to centralise everything in Brussels. Indeed, we need to convince
at least a qualified majority of them; that is nearly three-quarters
of the weighted votes in the Council. That should be the safeguard
against over-centralisation. On top of that you have scrutiny
from the Parliament and so on. If all else fails, you can now
already go to the court on the grounds of subsidiarity or that
the EU has acted ultra vires. Mr Lamassoure's draft report,
in the latest version, the version we will be voting on in the
constitutional committee, now points out that the court that we
have, the Court of Justice, to an extent does, but certainly can
perhaps more, fulfil that constitutional role. The Court of Justice
did strike down legislation quite recently on the ground that
the Union had gone beyond what was