Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 282 - 299)




  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 hand—and 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 outside—and 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.

Mr Hendrick

  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 fashion.

  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.

Roger Casale

  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 transparency—you have mentioned the point about a second chamber but there are other ways involving national parliaments as well—you 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.

Mr Cash

  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 Union—it has run into hundreds of pages and millions of words—into 300 words which gives people an idea of what their rights are and what the European Union is all about.

Mr Steen

  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 Europe.
  (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.

Mr Cash

  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 said—and in particular of course I am thinking of the United Kingdom Parliament—that 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 that.
  (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.

Mr Steen

  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.

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