Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 46)




  40. Has your working group been set up, as yet?
  (Ms Stuart) No.

  41. Do we know who is on it, as yet?
  (Ms Stuart) No. That is all part of the session on Thursday and Friday.

Mr Connarty

  42. I do not know if it is too early for us to do this, to ask you, and particularly in the light of the suspicions that someone is carrying the conclusions in their back pocket, I wonder if I could ask you, Gisela, whether you could tell us what you hope to achieve through your working group on the role of national parliaments?
  (Ms Stuart) There is a kind of minimum outcome, and the minimum outcome is that, in each of the national parliaments, the Convention members go back and engage their own parliaments, I would hope that we have got more debate on COSAC, and have more feed-in on that. I think the major thing which we can achieve, and that is without prejudging the outcome, is a recognition that national parliaments cannot interact within the architecture of the European Union decision-making process, unless the whole timetable and the whole sequence changes. And you, as a Committee, are far more aware of this than I am, but I remember Statutory Instruments, and Ministers, sending a very grovelling letter, "Dear Chairman, I am about to breach the 21-day rule, and I hope you don't come too heavy on me." It is a recognition that certain things in the architecture have to be changed, to allow national parliaments to play a constructive role, because in some countries they are simply disengaged because they feel, you know, what is the point of doing all this work after it had all happened.

Roger Casale

  43. I think, one thing we can perhaps all agree on is that there is a democratic deficit in the European Union, and I do not believe that we need to abandon the European project because of that, but, unless we really address the democratic deficit, it will open the door to those who seek to undermine the European project. And, can I first of all just say, in asking you an earlier question, I said to you, if we increased the role of national governments in EU decision-making, do you believe that there should be a corresponding increase in the role of national parliaments, because, otherwise, the democratic deficit will increase, and I understood your answer to be "yes"; is that right?
  (Ms Stuart) Yes.

  44. Okay. So you are the chair of the working group on national parliaments, this is something we have discussed on many occasions, what are the kinds of practical ideas that you think might be coming forward, in order to strengthen the role of national parliaments? You know, for example, that I am in favour of a charter for national parliaments, which would actually provide a kind of overall strategic framework. You cannot lay down the law to national parliaments because national parliaments are sovereign, but you can perhaps get a set of guidelines and objectives and principles for national parliaments to sign up to, such that they will do their best to engage their own citizens, to make European decision-making more transparent, and so on. And, secondly, the one very positive thing about this Convention is the fact that national parliaments are there on an equal footing with the other European institutions, and do you not think that, once the Convention is over, we should continue to try to give equal status to national parliaments in EU decision-making, alongside the Commission, the European Parliament and national governments? And, to that end, should not the role of national parliaments be incorporated formally in the Treaties? My comments really are addressed to Ms Stuart.
  (Ms Stuart) No, you start with David, and I will gather my mind.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think that compulsory powers over citizens should only be taken after the matters have been fully and publicly debated, in a forum in which they feel represented and where their choices can be exerted, ultimately, by dismissing the people making decisions with which they disagree. That is a shorthand way of describing a national parliament. This mechanism simply does not exist at European Union level. The European Parliament claims to be democratic, but fewer and fewer people vote for it, even though it has had more and more powers; and, quite simply, there is no European electorate, there is no European public opinion, there is no European press scrutiny, there are no European political parties, there is no European demos, and it may arise one day, but it cannot be created out of the air by politicians, or by laws, or by waving a European Union flag. Therefore, in my view, the conditions for a quasi-federal democracy are absent in our continent, and we therefore have to reinvigorate our democracy by bringing decision-making back to Member State level. However, there are obviously matters that must be decided collectively, and I mentioned some of them earlier, and I think that we need some new ideas. And one that I am examining is whether we can have an inter-parliamentary pillar, in the European Union, so that there can be horizontal links created between the national parliaments of Europe, and perhaps with the European Parliament, so that matters, laws, regulations, are properly and fully debated at Member State level before they come together to create a European Union-wide set of laws, in any particular instance. At the minute, it is all the wrong way round; the initiative lies up in the Commission, they then are passed and negotiated in secret, and debated, supposedly, in the European Parliament, in which no-one feels any sense of ownership, and then they are put on all our desks. And the public are completely disillusioned, they feel no sense of belonging or ownership over that process; that is profoundly undemocratic, and it is very, very dangerous, and it has got to change. And the best way of doing it, as I said, is to increase the law-making powers of national parliaments, but not doing it in a way that completely paralyses the decision-making over those issues that must be decided collectively.
  (Ms Stuart) Can I address your question in a slightly roundabout way, and also allay Mr Davis' concern that we do not work together. This is why I think the working groups have to work together and co-ordinate their actions. Just one example is an idea that is being floated at present, which are the proposed reforms to the Council of Ministers. I am not putting this forward as a firm proposal, but just as one scenario. One of the problems has been the many sectoral meetings of the Council of Ministers, which do not even interact with themselves, the Health Ministers do not necessarily know what the Environment Ministers do, and does it all add up. Should you radically reform the Council of Ministers and split them up and have a level at which the Council of Ministers meet as a legislative body, open to the public, televised, you know what is going on; and at that stage you could, for example, say that the Minister who appears there takes two national parliamentarians with him, who, in the English model, could be taken from a select committee, who are actually there and who represent the House. So these are kind of new ways of just looking how you interlock those various institutions. What I think would be wrong would be to look at each one of them in isolation and say, "And how can I make myself stronger," because the strength is actually in the way they interact, with always coming back, in my view, to being accountable to your national electorate. And I also very strongly feel there ought to be a presumption, much more firmly enshrined, that the presumption is that whatever is not given to the EU is the business of national parliaments. So it is that kind of interlocking, rather than, I think, of broad guidelines, which will give us the accountability.

  45. And specifically on the points that I raised about the charter and incorporation in the Treaty; you said you do not want to comment on specific proposals, if I understood your answer correctly, but can I take it that, if I were to send you something in writing, that is something that you would be happy to raise with your colleagues on the working group?
  (Ms Stuart) Certainly, yes.

  Mr Cash: Would the two representatives be good enough to give me an idea as to what they think about the question of shared sovereignty, by which I mean the European Parliament, particularly with the role of co-decision, has powers which are equivalent to those of Member States, yet national parliaments have claimed sovereignty in their own right; which is to prevail? You cannot have shared sovereignty between two constituent bodies competing for the same functions, particularly in the area of government. It strikes me that, rather like the essay by Edmund Burke, on the Abbé Sieyes, and the absurd description of constitutions which the Abbé Sieyes came up with, in the 18th century, what is really happening in this Convention is that people within the Acquis, which they are really not prepared to examine, are looking around for different ways of describing aspirations, but are not actually grappling with the real question, which is, who is to be accountable to whom, and how are decisions to be arrived at; a fundamental question. So do you agree with me that it is impossible, in these circumstances, to arrive at a decision at the result of this Convention, unless the question of deciding who ultimately governs is the crucial question?


  46. We usually get a "yes" or "no", after that.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I do not know if it is an answer, but I think we must strive primarily for clarity and honesty. Clarity over who takes the decisions and to whom are they accountable, are they elected and can they be removed, are there genuine choices for the people we represent, and how can they be exerted, and is this possible on a continental scale as diverse as Europe. Honesty about our language and intention; and, again, I am alarmed at the loose phrases and descriptions already being bandied about. I heard the President of France, the other day, saying that his aim was a federation of nation states. That is a contradiction. In a federation, the constituent states give up significant powers to the central authority, and that central authority can exert powers directly on the citizens of the constituent states; therefore, those states are not nation states as most people understand that term. So we must start to talk in language that people identify with and can understand, and level with them, honestly; otherwise, again, the Convention will fail and create disillusionment and deceit.
  (Ms Stuart) My answer is, no; if you wish me to elaborate I shall, but, basically, no, I do not agree with this assertion, and I would almost invite everyone to—I once remember my teenage son saying to me, "Just because I can hear, I'm not listening," and I sometimes have a sense with what is coming out of the Convention that people can hear but they are not listening. Giscard d'Estaing has made it quite clear that there should be no aspect of the Acquis which is untouchable. There is absolute common agreement that the institutions need serious reforming, and, what is more, that we need to know who makes what decision, where, and who is accountable for what. Now if, in a year's time, members wish to arrive at that conclusion then I will stand here and be answerable, but I find it very difficult to be continuously accused in advance that no-one will listen, no-one will take any notice and no-one will look at the Acquis.

  Mr Cash: Let us wait and see, shall we?

  Chairman: As someone might say, it goes with the territory, those sorts of accusation. Minister, Ms Stuart, I was getting confused by an earlier comment you made about sending grovelling letters to us when you were a Minister. My recollection is that we never, ever received a grovelling letter from you, Ms Stuart, and I double-checked it with the Clerk, who assured me that we did not receive a grovelling letter. So what you might have thought was a grovelling letter certainly did not seem a grovelling letter from our point of view. But what I am delighted with is that we have our UK representative chairing this very important working group on the role of the national parliaments. And I was particularly pleased to hear that you are going to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the discussions with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. One of the things that is concerning us, as well as looking at how we can defend the rights of national parliaments within the European Union, is how we defend the rights of sub-regions and the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament within our own Member State, and their rights to be consulted properly by the Commission and what is happening with the Council of Ministers as well. So it is a domestic issue for us but it is very much an important issue for the Convention to discuss how we have relationships with subsidiarity, proportionality, and how we look at passing decision-making down in the European Union, and I hope that that will be a particularly important part of what you seek to do in the Convention. Thank you very much for coming along. This is our first meeting. We intend to have you along at stages, as we process through your Convention. Thank you very much for responding to our questions, because we are very keen on what is happening, as you are keen as well, and we wish you well, and your efforts. We are delighted to hear what you are doing so far, and we look forward to the next evidence session, where we will hopefully get more progress from what is happening within the Convention. Ms Stuart and Mr Heathcoat-Amory, thank you very much.

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