Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
HAIN MP, MR
340. I think one of the efforts made by the
Foreign Secretary in the speech that I keep referring to in The
Hague on 21 February 2002 was to ask fundamental and key questions.
How can we make the EU better understood is one of his first questions.
How can we make it more democratically accountable and how can
we make it more effective? The question that comes to my mind
is how can we make it in any way connect with people who are not,
if I can put it this way, what you would call obsessed with matters
to do with legislative processes or government, at any level of
government. There is a civil society out therethe people
we claim to be speaking for every time we get up and speak in
Parliament. Every time we justify our existence it is on behalf,
hopefully, of the people who send us here. How can civil society
in the United Kingdom be involved in the Convention's work? Some
submissions we heard particularly strongly when we have taken
evidence argued that is what the Convention should be about, not
just about governments already having their legislative agenda
or executive agenda or politicians already having a preference
for or against any result. How do you think we can do this? We
have got four representatives from our Parliament, two from the
Upper House and two from this House and yourself on behalf of
the Government. How do we make anything that happens there of
any real relevance to the people on whose behalf we would say
we are doing this?
(Mr Hain) This is a real issue and it is one we have
to try and tackle successfully. One of the Vice Presidents of
the Convention Jean-Luc Dehaene explained to me last week how
he was setting up a "virtual" civic forum through establishing
a web site, with people able to have a dialogue through that,
and that the civil forum that has been attached to the Convention
would be an opportunity for NGOs and otherssocial partners,
business and trade unionsto feed their ideas through, and
I am particularly anxious on behalf of the British Government
that the Convention should have an open door attitude to input
from civil society. I think that is absolutely crucial.
Mr Cash: Is it not, Minister
341. Can I come back on that. One of the words
I was looking for was "anoraks". If you have a Euro
anorak combined with an Internet anorak what a combination that
must be. That must be one of the saddest societies in the world.
Would the Minister see any role, for himself or maybe this European
Scrutiny Committee to somehow try and get out there among the
public to link our work and his work with some kind of roving
forum where people could come and give their views. Not just the
people who are already justifying their existence by having another
role in civic society but generally trying to get below that?
Have you thought about having a roving forum? Do you think we
might go in partnership? I know you expressed some trepidation
at the idea of Members of Parliament accompanying you to the Council
of Ministers but I am sure the Chairman would be happy to have
the Minister accompany us on a roving set of fora around the country
on the future of Europe.
(Mr Hain) I will see what invitation comes, if any,
to do that. We are planning to establish our own web site on the
Convention and that is being designed at the present time. I am
open to ideas. I am making a practice of touring the different
regions of England and the different nations of the United Kingdom
to engage in a dialogue with the citizens. In fact, I was in Northern
Ireland this week and I am in Yorkshire later this week. That
is part of my process of dialogue.
342. Are you getting a big audience?
(Mr Hain) It depends. Usually a couple of hundred
on each occasion, which is not bad. I try to talk in plain language
rather than in Euro-speak. The dangerbefore Bill comes
in and interrupts me, which I am always glad to have happenis
that as a European Minister after a few months in the job you
can become a Euro anorak as well so it is something I try to guard
Mr Cash: Just quickly
Chairman: There are others who want to come
in as well. Mr Robertson?
343. Something we discussed at length with all
of the people we took evidence from in Brussels last week was
how can we as democratically elected politicians with responsibility
for a constituency and constituents to be part of the on-going
debate to try and funnel more than the European anoraks or the
Internet fans, to try and reach out more? I was very interested
that Sir John Kerr said he would be very interested in coming
to Elgin and I would be delighted to invite the Minister to come
to Elgin as well if he is roving around various parts of the UK.
What I am interested inand this is a genuine question which
I have asked from people in Brussels, I am now asking you and
I will ask anybody elsewhat resources are going to be provided
to help foster a real debate with real people? I welcome the internet
initiative, I think it is important, but much more needs to be
done to connect with people on the ground. I am happy to play
a role in it and I know that certainly all of the members of this
Committee would be interested in doing so, but without resources
and materials (and not simply a web site) that is going to be
extremely hard to do. Does the UK Government see it has any role
in trying to help support such an initiative?
(Mr Hain) As I have explained, part of my work is
to go around the country doing exactly that. I do not want to
be negative about what is a good set of ideas that have been put
forward, but we have got to be very hard-headed about who would
turn up on a wet night to discuss the future of Europe in Neath
or any of our constituencies. We have to be hard-headed about
this. I do not want to put a downer on it and I will have a look
at any good ideas because I genuinely do think there is a job
to be done about taking the debate on.
344. Can I bring this evidence session to a
close by asking the last question. We also had the pleasure of
taking evidence from Jean-Luc Dehaene last week in Brussels and
I personally, and I am sure my colleagues were impressed with
the approach he is taking as Vice President particularly in relation
to one issue. It is a fear that a lot of us have expressed about
the Convention itselfie, is it going to be the chattering
classes talking to the chattering classes about the chattering
classes? Are the people who are being sent there being sent there
just to represent their executives and although we go through
a process nothing much will be done? If the Convention is going
to succeed in anything then we have to say to those who are taking
on this very, very important role as being members of that Convention
to get rid of any perceived ideas that they have and have a genuine
debate with people coming from all the diverse parts of the European
Union. It is only if we have that genuine debate will the Convention
in any way have the chance of being successful. These are the
views of Jean-Luc Dehaene. How do you see your role as a Minister?
Nobody can disagree with the ambitions of that but how do you
see your role as Minister, setting by example, clearing your mind
of any preconceived ideas or prejudices (that we all have) to
take part in that Convention?
(Mr Hain) We have already through the Foreign Secretary's
speech and the things I have said signalled that we are open-minded
about this and we want to test the ideas out. For example, we
had this discussion about the constitution earlier on. It is not
something, frankly, that has been touched with a barge pole previously.
But we have got some red lines
Mr Cash: Do they include the acquis communautaire?
345. Order, order.
(Mr Hain) We have lots of red lines which have to
do with our national interests and with our vision of the European
Union. On good suggestions that are practical we will enter the
debate with an open mind. I think it is important we do that.
I think it is also important that we find a way of engaging our
Parliament in this. Subjecting myself as a Government Minister
to this kind of debate would be good to do from time to time.
I do not know what the Foreign Affairs Committee wants to do about
it or whether there could be consideration given to ways in which
it could be done jointly. It is not really a matter for me. I
want to be as open and helpful as I can. Then of course the Parliament's
own representatives, both in the Commons and in Lords, and how
they report backthese matters have still to be decided.
346. Minister, thank you very much. You will
know that the Committee has already decided that we will take
a very close interest in what is happening in the Convention.
(Mr Hain) I welcome that.
Chairman: We will be calling Ministers and those
representatives who are on the Convention to have some discussion
on it. Thank you very much. You have been very interesting and
I am sure we will find some other interesting issues to talk about
as the Convention proceeds. Thank you.