WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
Mr Jimmy Hood, in the Chair
Memorandum submitted by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Examination of Witnesses
THE RT HON PETER HAIN MP, Minister for Europe, MR NICK BAIRD, Head, European Union Department, and MS CATHERINE ROYLE, Convenor, European Convention Working Group, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, examined.
(Mr Hain) Thanks, Chairman. Nick Baird heads our European Union Department, Internal, and Catherine Royle is the Convenor of our European Convention Working Group, which is a support team supporting my work in the European Convention.
(Mr Hain) It is.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Hain) All Council documents?
(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.
(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 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 has 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.
(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.
(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 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 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 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.
(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?
(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 Hain) I think that is right.
(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.
(Mr Hain) To pick up some of the previous points, I do think, without repeating myself, that there is an issue here about subsidiarity which needs to be constantly scrutinised and ultimately there needs to be as it were a court of appeal. Whether that court of appeal is through national parliaments meeting in the form of a second chamber, as the Prime Minister suggested, an idea which has not won much support outside the Government, or whether it should be through court action is something for us to discuss and again I would be interested in the Committee's views, Chairman. As regards a constitution, we are opposed to the idea of a European constitution if it became a blueprint for some kind of federal superstate, so those who have that ambition - for instance, the Belgians might - we would flatly oppose. If on the other hand we were talking about simplifying into one really accessible document the tangled web of treaties that govern the European Union and which are not easily accessible, in fact are very impenetrable to the average citizen, if we were talking about assembling the existing treaties, not re-negotiating them but assembling them, in a straightforward and easily digestible form in which subsidiarity itself would be more clearly entrenched and addressed and therefore be more easily scrutinised, that is something we would be very interested in and open to, depending on what was in it and what the ultimate objective of the blueprint was.
(Mr Hain) You mean as far as Britain is concerned or as far as Europe is concerned?
(Mr Hain) It would, yes. It would be a re-working of the existing treaties and any amendments that were to be agreed at the IGC into a new treaty. Yes, indeed, it would.
(Mr Hain) I do not know that I had actually thought about European constitutional matters ten years ago unless you can dig out some paragraph in a book I wrote or whatever. I have always been pro-European. I voted, I think, along with you in the 1975 referendum to stay in the European Union. I think that is right, Bill.
(Mr Hain) So did I, but that is entirely another matter.
(Mr Hain) As between the different options of European scrutiny committees or a court of justice deciding these matters, I think we need to argue these through and we have not taken a final position as a Government on it. We want to hear the argument and we are very interested in any thoughts this Committee has. In respect of the specific issue of asylum, why the Foreign Secretary referred to that is because of our experience of the difficulties of dealing with asylum policy, especially the problem of asylum shopping. This is effectively people crossing the European Union's boundaries somewhere, let us say in southern Europe or eastern Europe, and making their way to St Gatt in order to get through the Channel Tunnel and come here for whatever reason, and thousands of them are attempting to do so. Our thinking is this, that if we had an ability to agree at a Community level an asylum policy that prevented asylum shopping by imposing on each Member State the same obligations of accepting people across their borders and then returning them if they were not genuine political refugees, and if they were to accept the same obligations in respect of social security entitlements and so on, then you would not have a situation where Britain effectively was a soft touch, which is the predicament that both the previous government and ourselves have constantly had to face and it is very difficult. It could well be in our national interest to have that issue decided on a Community basis. It is not something we would have considered a few years ago but it is a question of what is in our national interest. If it is better to deal with this problem of asylum shopping, that everybody makes their way here because we are a magnet for them, by enforcing the same procedures on everybody else, then there could be enormous benefits to us. This is an example of the practical approach that we want to adopt.
(Mr Hain) You have to look at each area on a case by case, practical basis. Certainly I did not say we were a soft touch. I said we were perceived, particularly by human traffickers, as a soft touch. It is organised criminal activity that is the problem. It has to be looked at in a practical fashion. There are certain fundamentals that I have referred to earlier on: taxation, income taxation, defence, especially committing our soldiers to areas of conflict, and social security matters and so on, that we would want to preserve as matters of national policy.
(Mr Hain) I know this is a point that has exercised your Committee, Chairman, and I sympathise with you. If I were a member of the Committee I would feel exactly the same way. Since the Amsterdam Treaty where protocol was agreed imposing a six-week minimum for scrutiny on the European Union institutions, we have made some progress. The problem arises at both ends. We have had a spate of recent initiatives on common foreign and security policy, and I know there have been problems with that which you have written to me about, Chairman, and I think our officials are going to meet on 18 April to seek a way forward, and we genuinely want to find a way forward. It is not in my interests as a Minister to have your Committee dissatisfied on this point. We want to be open and accessible to you, and I hope we can agree that. When things have come up quickly and something has had to be done quickly, as we have seen in a number of Third Pillar areas recently following September 11 on anti-terrorist action, that has created the most enormous difficulty for you but that has been in exceptional circumstances. It should not become the norm and as far as we are concerned will not do so. However, yesterday and the day before I visited Denmark and Sweden and they have very interesting scrutiny arrangements. They sit on Fridays, which is not going to be possible - well, certainly not desirable - for members of this House, and I guess not practical. They choose to do that. That puts them in pole position as far as scrutiny is concerned because they can have pre-scrutiny on that basis. Their scrutiny hold over the Swedish Government was explained to me in graphic terms and I am not sure that either of us would want to go down this road. My opposite number, Mr Lars Danielsen(?), explained to me how in the middle of the Nice Treaty negotiations he had an eight-hour telephone conference call in the middle of the night (although not entirely in the middle of the night because eight hours probably would have gone into dawn) with his Scrutiny Committee agreeing the approach that the Government of Sweden was taking. I am not sure that this is a road that either of us would want to go down but it does show how some countries, especially with coalition governments, where it is perhaps more difficult, deal with the matter. There are problems at both ends and we will just have to make it work as best we can.
(Mr Hain) I am a little unsighted on that suggestion. I do not know whether Nick can help me on this.
(Mr Baird) It is certainly quite difficult in practice. If you took the terrorism agenda post-September 11, for example, where you have deadlines set by the European Council for agreement very swiftly on legislation, you were in that case having a number of things coming through where the discussion in COREPER and the discussion in Council were necessarily very close together simply to keep up with that deadline. It would be very difficult to set a hard and fast rule in that way without actually making it quite difficult for the UK in negotiating terms at a crucial stage.
(Mr Hain) But before we all get on our high horses on this, this difficulty has arisen in circumstances where quick decisions are needed. It is not ideal.
(Mr Hain) Could I just finish? In the case, for example, of the anti-terrorist measures, we had to act quickly. It is not something -----
(Mr Hain) It is not something that we want to set a norm on, but where it is absolutely imperative that the European Union acts in our own security interests and our own national interests, I would have thought we could have adopted a practical approach to this. It is not desirable; it is not something we want as a common practice and I do not think that you were suggesting that.
(Mr Hain) I respect that, and I listen to it and will seek to do what I can about it. I am glad you mentioned other government departments as well because of course the Cabinet Office has got responsibility for Community policy. We have responsibility for foreign security policy and the Home Office has responsibility for justice and home affairs, so we all have to do it as well as we can.
(Mr Hain) I hear it very loudly and clearly.
(Mr Hain) I think that wherever possible this should not happen. This is a very undesirable practice.
(Mr Hain) Safeguards in?
(Mr Hain) In this House's rules or do you mean in terms of the European Union's procedural rules?
(Mr Hain) I know that this is a matter that my Home Office ministerial colleague had a discussion with you on in October, about provisional agreements and political agreements. I think there is something that concerned the Committee. My view is that those should be the absolute exceptions and there should be as few exceptions as possible.
(Mr Hain) I would like to know what safeguards actually meant in principle. I think safeguards are a good thing. I would like to know exactly what proposal you have.
(Mr Hain) I do not think we ever go ahead in a cavalier fashion. Can I have a look at that? I am not trying to dodge the issue. I would just like to consider the practicalities of it. If I can help I will.
(Mr Hain) I would like to hear the Committee's ideas on this because there is clearly a problem here. I am very keen to bridge the gap between the citizens of Europe and the institutions of Europe and between this Parliament and the decision-making bodies of Europe, whether that is the Council or where they are acting in an executive role that is the Commission or indeed the European Parliament. I think if that is not done then the whole legitimacy of the European Union is in peril. I am with you in spirit on many of those ideas and if we think that we can better secure national parliamentary rights through changing Council procedures or through putting things in any new treaty, I would happily look at that.
(Mr Hain) Yes, I will.
(Mr Hain) I understand that and I respect that as well.
Mr Steen: I would like to turn the question round. I have been one of the spokes who has been saying that there is no point in this Committee existing, there is no point turning up, although we enjoy having Jimmy as Chairman and having the gathering and all the services we get and the papers we get, but if the scrutiny reserve does not actually work we are just whistling in the wind and really we should disband. I think there is a much bigger problem than has been very kindly suggested. I think that if you are running a department, just as the Home Office, you have got an executive job to do and we are just sitting round here being helpful and making comments, but you have got to do a job. You are running a business, the Government business, and we get in the way. I think you are being very charitable in saying, "We will do better and look at this", but I am wondering whether this Committee does get in the way and whether the scrutiny reserve should go and whether the Committee should be disbanded and you just get on with the job.
Chairman: This is where you need diplomacy.
(Mr Hain) Or even all of it. I have got enough on my plate at the present time, Chairman, without considering any ideas to abolish the European Scrutiny Committee. Seriously, I do think the job you do is important. I am not just saying this because I am being grilled by you. I genuinely do think it is important. Where I think we might need to be a bit more creative is finding ways in which important developments in Europe can be better discussed by Parliament as a whole, because there are big issues that of course we have parliamentary debates and there are statements, people ask questions, but, to be frank, I would guess that the ordinary Member of Parliament is not that engaged in European business and is not following it very closely. I think that is worrying because it is such an important part of our lives and will remain so. If there are any innovative ideas for improving the scrutiny process, which I am genuinely up for; I do not think it is a question of getting in our way, I think it is a question of ensuring that we are an obstacle to Parliament and I think it is really important that we are an obstacle to Parliament and that other Member States have the same attitude and policies, but if there is a way of getting the big debates on Europe, such as the matter that was raised on asylum policy, and just discussing it in a practical fashion, I think it would be better for us all.
Mr Cash: I think you have raised an incredibly important point and we have debated these matters every number of years, but the question whether or not debates are taken on the floor of the House is an important part of the scrutiny process and I would just like quickly to say that under not only this Government but previous governments there have been difficulties. When this Committee has recommended that there should be a debate on the floor of the House, which is certainly consistent with the line you have just taken, and that we should have a proper, wide-ranging discussion, whether it is on fisheries or matters of very important questions of foreign policy, etc, the Leader of the House has consistently ruled that the matter should be referred to Standing Committee although this Committee has said that it should be on the floor of the House. Could you look at that please because that is a very serious breach of the principle that you have quite rightly enunciated?
(Mr Hain) I am not sure it is, Chairman.
Chairman: You are not the Leader of the House.
(Mr Hain) I am not sure that it is, Chairman, and I am grateful for your assistance in this matter.
(Mr Hain) No, I do not need protection from you, Bill. I was not necessarily saying that it was debates on the floor of the House because, as we both know, through you, Chairman, when we have debates on the floor of the House, with respect to everybody, the same group of people turn up on the Conservative benches and the same group of people turn up on the Labour benches and they are a fairly small group that take an informed interest in Parliament, and I am not sure that that advances clarity to any great extent in dealing with the problem that we are discussing. We just have a problem of ensuring that the average Member of Parliament is aware of what is going on in Europe, how crucial it is, and that therefore their constituents could be aware of what is going on in Europe. That is at the heart of the gap that is opening up between the voters of Europe and the institutions of Europe, I feel, right across the European Union.
(Mr Hain) I have not studied the proposal but I guess this is one of the things that the European Convention will look at the practicalities of. Our own position is very clear. European policy is a reserved matter for this Parliament and for the UK Government. Within that context, as you know, devolved administration ministers have led for the UK one education and health councils even where British Government ministers were not present at these councils and this has been the case for two separate Scottish ministers, in fact.
(Mr Hain) And devolved administration ministers have spoken, where there is a minister present, but they have not led delegations and Scottish Executive officials have attended council working groups and so on. I think the best way to approach this, and I was in Northern Ireland last week discussing this with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Deputy First Minister, is to work on the basis of partnership. Yes, the concordats set out the exact relationship constitutionally and that is the law and we will abide by that, but we can nevertheless work on the basis of partnership which I sought to do when I gave evidence to the Scottish European committee to which you kindly referred, and thereby overcome perhaps some of the irritations or sensitivities that there could otherwise be on both sides.
(Mr Hain) No, I do not, because I think the business of government can only really be conducted on the basis of privacy until there is an obligation, a necessity and a duty to report to the relevant legislature. In the case of the Scottish Executive they would report to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish European Committee when appropriate, as indeed we do. We are committed as a government to providing devolved administrations with full and comprehensive information as soon as possible on all business within the framework of the European Union which appears to be of likely interest to them. I think that is the way it works; that is the way it is laid down in the concordat and you would have to change that - and I am not sure whether you would manage to assemble a parliamentary majority for doing so - if you were to go down that road.
(Mr Hain) I am just making the point that this is for our national Parliament to decide.
(Mr Hain) I will certainly look at that matter of a reply. The Prime Minister changed my mind. He is quite persuasive at doing this from time to time. When I gave evidence, which I think, and you will correct me if I am wrong, was in October, we were still at the stage when the Convention had not been established. Frankly we were still in the position where we would have preferred that it had not been established and that there was just an IGC, although it looked like being established, and we thought then, and I think that is what I argued, that it would be very difficult for a minister to do it. It is very difficult because I have had to double my workload, which was heavy enough, and re-allocate some responsibilities. Since the Convention has assumed the importance that it has at the Laeken Summit and it became very evident that not only other governments, including the French, were putting their Europe Minister on it, that the Prime Minister took the view that we had to treat it with the utmost seriousness as a Government. Of course we would treat it seriously, but it was that we had to be right at the heart of the decision making and agenda setting for the Convention because otherwise there would be a danger that our argument about the European Union resting on the firm foundation of independent nation states rather than being some kind of federal superstate ambition, could have been challenged and one of my objectives in being there is to make sure that the federal superstate idea remains very deeply in the sand somewhere.
(Mr Hain) I think that it calls into question the whole way the Council has been operating and indeed its relationship with the other European Union institutions. Effectively it was designed at a time when the European Union was six Member States. Now it is 15 and soon within a couple of years, if things go as expected, it will be 25, and I think you are right to ask whether it is workable in its present form. It is right to ask that because we doubt that even now the Council is operating as effectively as it should be in providing the necessary strategic leadership and agenda setting for the work of the European Union and driving the policy forward. We do not think it is doing its job effectively now but the Foreign Secretary put forward a series of ideas and last week the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schröder put a common letter to the Spanish Presidency putting this very clearly on the agenda. Essentially what we think is necessary is that the Council should be better led, that a Presidency system on a six monthly basis, a rotation basis, is not a sensible way to run a European Union of 15, let alone 25. We ought to look at a longer team Presidency approach going over a couple of years. It could be two and a half years so you have two for each length of term. I think that idea is meeting with wide support across the European Union. The essential principle is that governments should remain in the driving seat of policy direction and elected ministers and accountable ministers should be doing that whether at European Council level or at the different Councils of Ministers level.
(Mr Hain) Some nation states - a minority happily - really want the essential decision-making made by the Commission and by the European Parliament. That is not our view. In our view, the Council of Ministers is the representative of sovereign nation states, accountable to their Parliaments, which should be in the driving seat of the European Union, with of course a strong Commission enforcing the rules impartially and taking initiatives where necessary, and of course a European Parliament that is as lively and influential as it is now. We are not suggesting that there should not be any changes on the margin there but the Council of Ministers has got to assume a much more powerful role than it has now. We have put forward a whole agenda for that which I will happily go into.
(Mr Hain) It depends what is meant by that. There is one idea coming forward which I have very severe doubts about and I want to see it tested and explored which is that you have effectively a permanent Council of European Ministers there so that presumably me, or whoever is doing my job at the time, would be based in Brussels, not a prospect I find attractive and not something that I think would be easy for Ministers who are accountable to this Parliament to do. That goes for other European Ministers in my position. Some governments in the European Union have effectively senior officials described as European Ministers, so it would be easy for them to go and live in Brussels, but I am accountable to this Parliament and I have my own constituency to look after as well. I do not know that that would work in that bald form. An alternative formulation put to me recently by one government was that the General Affairs Council should be re-organised, that the Foreign Ministers should have a Foreign Ministers Council and there should be a General Affairs Council dealing with the cross-cutting business of the European Union and effectively preparing for each European Council, and that could well be inhabited by Prime Ministers' representatives who clearly were acting with the authority of the Prime Minister - it could be Europe Ministers or some other species - because that would enable the day-to-day running of the European Union to be given much more clear political and democratically accountable direction. It is not envisaged that that would be permanently sitting. It may be sitting two or three times a month as opposed to the General Affairs Council which sits about once a month at the present time.
(Mr Hain) It is interesting to note when discussing this idea with those who are in favour of it, as I have done networking around in preparation for the European Convention, that neither camp agrees with each other the camp that favours the European Parliament doing this is bitterly opposed to the idea of the populous of Europe doing it. I am opposed to both because I think that if you had the Commission President elected, it gives that person an authority that could rival the authority of the Council of Ministers, first and foremost. Secondly, I think it misrepresents the role of the Commission. The role of the Commission should primarily be as an executive body, not as a politically constituted body, ensuring that the rules of the European Union and its policies develop in the interests of the whole of the European Union, not in the interests of the particular political formation that will in the case of the European Parliament have propelled that individual into power were the Parliament to elect that person. That is the argument against the European Parliament doing it. The argument against every voter in Europe doing it is again it is a wrong job to consider doing that, any more than Sir Richard Wilson should be elected by the voters of Europe. It is also a question of in a Europe of 25, let's be practical about this, the turn out for European elections was 24 per cent last time in the UK and in many other European countries pretty bad as well. I cannot imagine the residents of Latvia and Cyprus and Portugal and Scotland having collectively the faintest clue who a set of European presidential candidates might be. I therefore think the legitimacy of the whole thing, besides it being the wrong idea in principle and the wrong job to do to be elected, would collapse.
(Mr Hain) Clearly there are Commissioners there representing governments ---
(Mr Hain) I will happily discuss Commission reform separately if the Chairman wants me to. We are looking to the future of Europe and I think we should be designing the future of Europe in which the Commission's role is clearly defined as having a strong role but being a role of the executive body of Europe, not the political driver of Europe.
(Mr Hain) Not necessarily.
(Mr Hain) Before we get on to that let's just discuss what we think the Commission should be doing as opposed to what a Council of Ministers should be doing in a Europe of 25 rather than a Europe of six. That leads us down the road of defining their roles rather differently. I am not going to put a ban on somebody attending a political meeting or not attending a political meeting. In terms of being patrician, we are trying to look at the political architecture of Europe for the foreseeable future and I do not think that electing Presidents of the Commission is where we should be at. Where we should be at is delivering the policies and benefits of the European Union membership more effectively to the citizens of Europe. I honestly do not think that electing a Commission President has anything at all to do with that.
Chairman: We have loads of questions we would love to have had the time to ask you. There are some issues we may want to write to you for answers on. There is one, the Convention, which we would obviously want to cover for a short period before we bring this evidence session to a close. Mr Connarty?
(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 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.
(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?
(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.
(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?
(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.
(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.