Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 346)



Mr Connarty

  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 there—the 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 others—social partners, business and trade unions—to 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—

Mr Connarty

  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 danger—before Bill comes in and interrupts me, which I am always glad to have happen—is 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 against.

  Mr Cash: Just quickly —

  Chairman: There are others who want to come in as well. Mr Robertson?

Angus 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 in—and this is a genuine question which I have asked from people in Brussels, I am now asking you and I will ask anybody else—what 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 itself—ie, 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 back—these 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.

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