Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-92)



Tony Cunningham

  80. You talked about reconnecting the electorate to the European Union; would you not agree that the disconnection is not a European problem but is at local level, is at national level, is at transnational level, it affects all of those areas? But do you see the opportunity, with perhaps the forthcoming debate on the single currency and this huge issue of enlargement, actually being issues that you can use to try to reconnect the electorate with Europe?
  (Mr Leonard) I hope the debate, run properly, might go some way to destroying some of the myths about the European Union which frame a lot of the debate that we have here. And, actually, the fact that media and public attention is going to be focused on it is quite a rare thing. So, hopefully, that will have a positive impact. But I think the important thing to realise is that 99.9 per cent of what the European Union does is incredibly important, that is never going to be of any interest to ordinary citizens, and, therefore, we need to make sure that we create frameworks which allow us to debate the big, strategic issues and also to make sure that we have appropriate measures of scrutiny. But one of the problems with the debate is that people sometimes demand much higher standards of European institutions than they demand of national institutions. Very few people understand how the House of Commons works, and yet that is not seen as a problem, but we get very upset because people do not understand co-decision. I think that is one of the dangers that the debate brings. But I agree with you that those are two pretty big issues, which can, and could, cause the gap to be closed, so long as we debate in the right terms, because the problem is we very rarely get beyond arguing whether we want more Europe or less Europe, and the trouble with the single currency debate is, it is exactly one of those sorts of debates. And I think that if you look at the public opinion polls it shows that people have got a clear sense that they want Europe in some areas but not in other areas, and the interesting debate might be to have more competition about different visions on the environment, or different visions on a social Europe or on a European economy, where you have got real conflicts emerging, which people can understand and which do relate to their lives, rather than trying to get them excited about the detail of individual regulations or Directives, which, frankly, is a bit of a losing battle.

Mr Hendrick

  81. At the moment, obviously, in first pillar issues, it is a very integrationist agenda, things like the civil market, environment, etc., where it is clearly in the interests of the European Union to have legislation which is common across the European Union. Obviously, second and third pillar issues look at issues which are more relevant, I think, to the nation state, and therefore subsidiarity is important, and, in fact, I see the role for national parliaments as in those two particular areas. Now how we actually get some degree of co-ordination or co-operation across the EU in those particular two pillar areas; obviously, one suggestion you have made is another parliament made up of national parliamentarians, which logically I have no problem with, and it would seem quite obvious, in terms of the development. In terms of selling it to the general public when there is already a European Parliament, I think there would be some difficulty. And, obviously, in the run-up to the single currency debate, I think it would be obviously a very difficult thing to sell, as well. Do you see any other possible fora involving national parliaments that could actually discuss subsidiarity issues with the Council of Ministers, and how would you see perhaps a possible structure for that?
  (Mr Leonard) I feel there are two things which we need to look at. The first is why we are trying to do this, and I think the problem is subsidiarity has not worked, because everyone has had an interest in things moving up to other levels, and that is why we have had this big debate, and the debate so far has been about whether it should be a political or a legal decision, ultimately, whether we should have a strict division of competencies or not; and I favour a political route. But I think what is important is, if we go down a political route, we need to have very clear criteria on which to decide what level things should be decided on, and that is almost more important than—and, obviously, national parliaments could have a role either through increasing the role of COSAC or through doing it in a much more functional way, so that different committees could meet with committees of the European Parliament, or there is this Lionel Jospin idea of a European Congress. But one of the things which I think we need to pin down is what basis these decisions are going to be made on; and we have explored the idea of establishing the principle of earning the right to act, which is similar to the idea of earned autonomy within the Health Service, that you should set up a set of clear criteria which apply to all policy areas, maybe have an independent report on whether things are being delivered in those areas, maybe by the Court of Auditors, and you should then have a political process on the back of that report. And I do not think necessarily we have to sell a new body, because I do not think it has to be a sort of bureaucratic, formal, new body, I think what we are talking about is meetings of existing bodies in different formations. And I think one of the interesting models is what is happening with the European Parliament's Finance Committee, where they have invited representatives of national treasury committees together when they are questioning the European Central Bank, and that is a very good model for a functional role, where you can involve national parliaments along with the European Parliament.

Mr Connarty

  82. Can I just step back a bit to the broad sweep of your approach, because I was quite minded to quote your "Rethinking Europe" paper; you say, on page 19: "We need to stop thinking of the EU in terms of an eventual national-style democracy and conceptualise it as an entirely different sort of political space." That is very broad and it seems very radical. And then you go on, on the next page, to say, you must do this, and I quote: "without imposing illegitimate political bodies which emasculate our national political systems." Now that is probably one of the most conservative statements I have heard about Europe, because it is "salute the old Union Jack" again, when, in fact, Europe is clearly a grand scheme. And then you keep coming back to the privacy of national parliaments. You talk about things that have been discredited by other people really, the concept of using the meetings of European parliamentarians at COSAC which everyone else thinks is a waste of time, with more power is somehow a way of renewing Europe. I just wonder if you are not constraining your thoughts for this new vision by the worry that our democratic system within the UK would somehow be diminished by giving more power to the European Parliament. Why are you so opposed to that, to looking at the European centre as getting more power? Why are you so thirled to the idea that we must not somehow rock the foundations of our democratic system? Surely, change must look at all aspects of change?
  (Mr Leonard) I agree with your point that we should look at everything. What I am simply starting from is an observation that the European Parliament, for all the grand hopes that were placed in it at the beginning, has not legitimated the European Union, has not even legitimated itself, there is a grey gap between the citizens and the Members of the European Parliament; and every time it gets more power, as Mark pointed out earlier on, turnout drops. So I think we need to recognise that most people participate politically, if they do, either at a national level, through national elections, and even when they are voting for the European Parliament they do it for national reasons and for national parties, and we have to respect that and not see the European Union as something which is going to destroy that. But we also need to make sure that we can have these debates which cut across borders, which are not simply about more or less Europe or about the British interest, which are these broader questions about values and socioeconomic priorities; that is why we are trying to think of new channels for that. And one way is of trying to use the Council as a more political body, because you have got people, who are both national leaders and the leaders of political parties, who should really be playing a much more strategic role and having these big debates about what kind of Europe we are trying to create. But also we look at the idea of supplementing that with forms of direct democracy, which would actually allow people to have those sorts of arguments at a European level, through citizens' initiatives, either to place a new issue on the agenda, to act as a safety valve or an emergency brake if they want to oppose a particular initiative. Or even, one of the ideas that we suggested is maybe even to link into the Lisbon agenda of open co-ordination and to suggest a target for the European Union, such as doubling the amount of recycling we do by a certain year, which could then give people a direct sense of... But I think our feeling is that it is at that sort of level, of big, strategic moves, or of things which people feel very strongly are going wrong, that people will want to be involved, and the national system is one way that they are going to be involved, quite rightly, because the Council is always going to be the most important and the most authoritative body, and it is the only body which people recognise in the European system. Nobody knows who their Member of the European Parliament is, but they all know who is the head of state, or head of government.

  Mr Connarty: I think you supported the idea of proportional representation, which destroyed people's idea that there was any point in voting.

  Chairman: I find we are going to have problems, if answers are so long, and if other questions are added on at the end of comments. I am going to move on now to Mr Robertson.

Angus Robertson

  83. I will try to keep it short. You make a specific proposal about the European Parliament bringing in parliamentarians from both a Member State and a sub-Member State level; what advantages do you think that would have over the Prime Minister's proposal? So that is the first point of my question. And just a brief hang-on from your previous point about politicising, in the sense of taking the argument away from national confrontation to more left/right political debate across Europe, does that not have the associated potential problem at a European level that you may see the practice of proporz divvying up jobs politically, within the European institutions, replacing the divvying up the jobs by nationality?
  (Mr Arbuthnott) I think, to the second point, again, we are seeing a classic process of divvying up jobs by nationality at the moment, we are seeing Mr Giscard d'Estaing being pushed along with Jean-Claude Trichet and the European Central Bank and Mr Ahtisaari, who might be President of the Convention if the European Food Authority does not go to Helsinki, and so on, which is a pretty ugly process. So I do not think there is a great deal to defend about the current process of divvying up by nationality. On the other hand, at least if you are having some kind of policy platform there, in terms of doing it in some kind of political left/right sense, you have got some kind of value judgement attaching to that choice, rather than simply whether it happens to be convenient within the current package deal. Then that, at least, presents a route within which the process might become more legitimate. I do not think we got your first question.

  84. In "Rethinking Europe", you outlined a proposal that you would like to see the involvement of Member States and sub-Member State parliamentarians being involved at a trans-European level, the second chamber idea. I know you have touched on it briefly; can you perhaps go into that in a little bit more detail?
  (Mr Leonard) Yes. What we are trying to do is think of these things in two ways. One specific idea which we looked at, as well as the subsidiarity idea, was whether national parliamentarians could play a role in electing the President of the Commission. And there is an idea, which we are working on with Simon Hix, at the LSE, looking at whether one could create an electoral college of national parliamentarians to elect the President of the Commission, which would have a real merit both of giving national parliamentarians a very direct stake in the future of the European Union, creating a national political debate about who the President of the Commission should be, and also of making sure that there was a section of the public and a section of the élite in every Member State who had a stake in the selection of the President of the Commission.

Mr Hendrick

  85. Would the MEPs have a stake in that?
  (Mr Leonard) Another idea might be to create an electoral college with MEPs as well. I think the advantage of doing it through national parliaments, over the advantage of doing it over the Delors idea of MEPs electing the Commission President, is both because MEPs do not have the sort of level of political legitimacy that they need to do that, because the elections are not about European issues, and the turnout is not high enough, people do not recognise them enough; and secondly because you would miss out on this important opportunity to involve national parliaments, which would change the relationship between the Council and the President as well.
  (Mr Arbuthnott) And it goes beyond that, because, if you see your electoral college, in a sense, as being within national parliaments, or as hosts for the debate being the national parliaments, and you have candidates who are coming to hustings, essentially, within national parliaments, or presenting their policy platforms within the parliamentary arena in each Member State, then you have a conduit to create genuine political competition, competition between policy platforms, within the kind of national sphere, which the media understand, the people understand, it is a way of integrating the debate.

  86. I am not bothered about the electoral college itself, in1974-79 you had a European Parliament made up of appointed national parliamentarians; in order to give it democratic legitimacy, you have directly-elected MEPs with constituencies. This seems to be a throw-back to 1974-79, to some extent. College, okay, spreading the mandate across different interested groups, fine, but the exclusion of the only group that is directly elected to Europe surely does not give it legitimacy?
  (Mr Leonard) As I say, another model would be to have an electoral college which was half made up of national parliamentarians and half made up of European parliamentarians. I think the key thing is that you have a space for a national debate about who should be the President of the Commission, that you have got a clear competition between different visions of the EU, so that you move away from this question of whether we want more or less Europe, that you are actually arguing about what kind of Europe you want. But also it is very nationally rooted, because, to go back to Michael's point, I do think we have got this perpetual dilemma of wanting to have debate, wanting to make sure that you have visions for the future of the EU, but also making sure that minorities do not feel completely excluded from the European system. And it is a problem which you, as a Scot, no doubt will be aware of, given the fact that, in election after election, Scots voted for a different party from the one in Government, and it put enormous pressure on the United Kingdom. And, within an EU context, that problem will be even worse if a particular country always feels that it is in a minority and that its views are not taken into account.

Miss McIntosh

  87. I am going to ask you one question; but can I just congratulate the British Council on the brochure `The Next Generation Democracy' by our two authors. In your evidence, in `Network Europe', you do actually say that you are against the European Parliament giving more legislative power. I would like to challenge this, and, in particular, would you not agree that, like any parliament, an individual MEP should have the power to initiate legislation, not just consider legislation that comes from other parts? As individual backbenchers, we have the right to table a Private Member's Bill; it does not go anywhere, because normally the administration opposes it, but should not an individual Member of Parliament, or collectively, be enabled to initiate legislation themselves?
  (Mr Arbuthnott) Can they not, at the moment, through the "own initiative" reports?

  88. No; it is not legislation.
  (Mr Arbuthnott) They can suggest to the Commission that it comes up.
  (Mr Leonard) I do not think the European Parliament is a parliament. I think the big problem with this whole debate is that there are all sorts of category mistakes. What the European Parliament is, it is an extremely successful scrutiny committee, in terms of its impact on legislation, it has got more power than most national parliaments have, and that is very good; but I do not see its role as an agenda-setting role, because I do not think it has the legitimacy to do it. And, I think, if we are trying to create this system of a network of countries, of peoples, of regions, which are interdependent, which work together towards specified goals, the channels for setting that agenda should be through national parliaments and national governments, because they are the bodies which have the most legitimacy, which are most recognised. And then we need to create a superstructure, to make sure that we have got proper levels of accountability and other ways of participating. But, frankly, I would be deeply uncomfortable about seeing the European Parliament's role as agenda-setting, I think what its role is is what academics call "critical democracy" rather than affirmative democracy, so that is scrutinising both the institutions, like the Commission, and also the quality of legislation.

  89. Chairman, the point is that if the MEPs, or the European Parliament, as an institution, find a gap in European legislation, they are uniquely placed to plug that gap; the House of Commons, or any national parliament, could not do that.
  (Mr Leonard) That is why I think it is important they should be allowed to suggest to the Commission that they place proposals in front of the Council and the Council of Ministers.

  90. But they are only doing that by having their power, instead of just an "own initiative" report, actually to have a draft piece of legislation that they could draft for consideration by the Council; at the moment, they do not have the power to do that.
  (Mr Leonard) I think 80 per cent of "own initiative" reports are taken up by the Commission, at least. I think that system is working quite well. I think that if you go down your route you just create further confusion, because the problem is, because we do not have an alternative way of thinking about European democracy, people are constantly forced down a route of coming out with slightly mangled, half-baked, federal solutions, because you have got some people who can see a national agenda who are trying to impose that, and then other people who are opposed to doing that but do not have an alternative vision. And I think your suggestion about the European Parliament falls very much into that trap, of taking a national solution and putting it up to a European level, rather than thinking about what we need to make Europe work and trying to come up with a different set of procedures and a different way of thinking about that.

Mr Tynan

  91. Can I change the subject onto referendum. You made the point as regards a European-wide referendum, a very, very interesting concept and quite unique. The situation at the present time, I accept the fact you are saying regarding different visions and how we would involve, I think we would involve people, if we had that type of dialogue and you had some conflict and some emotion, then I think we would connect with people, and I think that is a way to go. But if you could expand on how you see the referendum, what kinds of issues there would be? Also, if you would expand on how you would see, in a referendum, if it is done on a European basis, protection for the smaller-populated countries? You do talk about double majority; how would you reach a decision on the basis of double majority in those circumstances?
  (Mr Arbuthnott) To your first point. I think there are a lot of issues with a Europe-wide referendum, it is a really fascinating idea, a really interesting idea, but, clearly, and as your second point notes, there are issues, if you can suss out some kind of binding legislation at European level, it is really exciting, if it works, to create a debate which is genuinely transnational, that genuinely creates a discussion between policy platforms, and we will be looking at that over the course of the next (general ?) project with the British Council. The one idea we had, and given the Lisbon process, which is about having the European Council setting objectives which then national governments, European Commission, European Parliament, the European institutions, working together, all try to achieve those objectives, one very good way that the public might be able to set priorities for the European Union is in establishing those kinds of objectives. So having a Europe-wide referendum which works across the 15 Member States, which is seeded perhaps by a certain number of signatures, or a proportion of people in a certain proportion of Member States, which then sets a binding political objective that national governments, European institutions, and so on, had to work towards. So, for example, I think Mark mentioned the idea of maybe increasing the amount of recycling by a certain amount, by 20 per cent within five years, or something perhaps rather more far-reaching than that. And one rather strange idea we are playing with, which I do not think is formed particularly at the moment, is if you do that you can almost see some kind of Kyoto-style, carbon credit-style objectives idea developing, so that if a certain Member State, or a certain institution, fails to achieve, it might be able to swap credits with other countries. But that is not worked up at all.
  (Mr Leonard) To answer the second one, I think there is a danger of people putting inappropriate ideas down; so I think one needs to create a very clear process for delineating what is an appropriate area, because, clearly, it will be used by some people to try to block abortion, or to change on a lot of values issues. I think what one has to do is make sure, first of all, that there is a clear sense that it is an appropriate issue for European action, and that is why some of these cross-cutting issues, like the environment, like, for instance, if one wants to speed up the process towards having a European Rapid Reaction Force in place, or some of those sorts of decisions, might be appropriate decisions, but we have to have a clear sense that it is in tune with the idea of subsidiarity, rather than trying to change the Health Service, or do things which clearly are not appropriate for European action. The idea of a double majority I think provides a fairly good check against—because if you set a high enough standard for the number of signatures and you insist that it is in two-thirds or three-quarters of Member States, I think it is quite a high standard, particularly if it is coupled with this subsidiarity provision, which is the most difficult thing to pin down. But there are examples of—I think it has to be tied in with the idea of a statement of principles for the EU, or a constitution, or whatever arrangements are put in place for deciding where EU action is appropriate. And, again, it might be something which national parliamentarians might be involved in, deciding whether this is an area which is appropriate for a referendum.

Mr Hendrick

  92. Just very, very quickly on that. I have no problem with the mechanics that you are suggesting, in terms of coming to possible decisions on subsidiarity issues, but where currently you have got legislation, for example, in the area of environment, which you mentioned, and let us say we had legislation on targets for carbon, etc., that could be done under the present structure, with the current model. Special initiatives I could see perhaps on that, but surely this is the sort of thing you would apply to second and third pillar issues, not currently first pillar issues, that are dealt with fairly well under the current arrangements?
  (Mr Leonard) I would be reluctant to restrict it to second and third pillar issues, because what I see this as is a way of supplementing representative politics within the European Union, in giving people an opportunity to put issues on the agenda, to be directly involved in European decision-making. And a lot of the first pillar issues are issues which people will be interested in, and which obviously are relevant for EU action, if not, they would not be in the first pillar. So I think we should have an open mind. Obviously, the devil is in the detail, I think this system could be disastrous if the issues of subsidiarity are not thought through properly and if one does not have a very clear set of criteria for what sorts of question are relevant and not relevant.

  Chairman: Mr Arbuthnott and Mr Leonard, thank you very much. I am drawing the meeting to a close now. I hope you have found it a useful experience, coming before this Committee, and thank you.

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