Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. May I welcome, on behalf of the Committee, our two parliamentary colleagues, Ms Stuart and Mr Heathcoat-Amory. I think all parliamentarians should sit in the hot seat some time and realise what it is like to be on the other side. So far as I am aware, it is the first time that the Foreign Affairs Committee has had as a witness one of its own members. For the public record, I should say that we have not supplied any potential questions to either of our two witnesses. Basically let me begin this way in respect of the Convention: you have had almost four months' experience of the workings of that Convention, which some see as a great new chapter in history analogous to the Philadelphia Convention; others have a rather more lowly conception of what you are about. It would be very helpful to have your initial impressions. Clearly there are two conflicting trends within Europe: the recognition of the diversity of Europe, on the one hand; and the urge to centralise the communautaire or the intergovernmental approach, the integrationist or the recognition that, so far ahead as we can plan, the loyalty of the citizens of Europe will be essentially to return to a nation state. Can you both indicate your feeling, given those conflicting trends, of what is happening in the Convention; what, in fact, is the prevailing wind among these two trends at the moment?

  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I wish it was like the Philadelphia Convention, because that was all over in four months and we would all be home by now, having drawn up (in their case) a constitution that lasted for over 200 years. Although I must say, I wish we could import one thing from Philadelphia, which is that they had a Convention of ideas, at least to start with. They freely debated amongst themselves the nature of government, and whether suprastate government, in their case, was possible, and on what conditions. I regret that in the European Convention there has been an absence of that fundamental questioning about whether we can have a supranational democracy in a Europe as diverse as ours.

  2. Is that because there is a consensus in one direction?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think inevitably the members are drawn from perhaps the more integrationist sectors of their national parliaments and the European Parliament.

  3. You fit into that category yourself?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I am the nail that sticks out. Indeed, I regard it as part of my job to challenge the consensus and ask at every turn: are we tackling the democratic crisis in Europe, in which the public feel completely alienated from the political class that is running the European Union?

  4. Do you feel out-grouped personally?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I have found some allies, very few in my own EPP group—more, I have to say, across the political spectrum in other countries where there are members who put democracy first and realise, as I do, that unless we tackle the democratic problems then the Convention will fail. It is no good talking about a more efficient Europe, a wider Europe, or a stronger Europe until we re-engage the attention of the electors, who are sending us messages in referendums, or in not voting at all in the parliamentary elections, or in voting for nasty people in general elections, as we saw in the first round of the French presidential election.
  (Ms Stuart) What was quite interesting about the Convention, and where it is different from Philadelphia, is that we have got a combination of 15 countries represented who have a long history and experience of the Union, and 13 countries, almost half the representatives, who do not have any experience of the Union and wish to join it. There was a need to simply get to know each other, and also establish some common ground. Also where we are different is that we come to this with a 50-year history. We do not start with a blank sheet. Some of the people at the Convention are Brussels-based, and the national parliamentarians were the most diverse group in terms of experience; but also we were the ones who came to this new and had to spend some time finding out where to put our coats. Where I think I would probably slightly disagree with David—and I have to say that David is not quite as much of a nail that sticks out—I think the questions he asks are asked by many people; because the first thing to address is what should Europe do before we go into these institutional wranglings on who should do it.

  5. You agree that there is a gap—there are not the philosophers that Mr Heathcoat-Amory believes?
  (Ms Stuart) The central question which is beginning to emerge and is beginning to dawn on people is: where would a Government of Europe, whatever shape it takes, actually lie? Would it lie with some people arguing that we should have an elected Commission, Commissioners elected by the European Parliament, but essentially in 15-20 years' time a Government of Europe which arises out the European Parliament or the Commission; or should the political focus lie within the Council of Ministers?

  6. Where is the trend now?
  (Ms Stuart) This is the interesting thing. This is where people are beginning to start changing their minds, because they are starting to think through the logical consequences of their desires. It is an interesting period which people have to face up to: do I really mean this, and what would it mean in the long-term?

  7. Can you discern on which side the majority of your colleagues are falling?
  (Ms Stuart) What I have found over the last few weeks is that increasingly people are realising that the key should be at the Council of Ministers reform. That is equally as important; that is what everyone else thinks. That is where the change of opinion has happened.

  8. You both are representatives of a national parliament alongside other colleagues from the other Parliaments of the Union. You are faced with a substantial block of colleagues from the European Parliament who, presumably, know each other; they caucus; they are, after all, playing on their home ground; they know their way around the corridors. Do you feel that you are being in difficulties compared with the integrationist view of a caucus block from the European Parliament?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Yes, I do. I think there is a real danger that this Convention degenerates into a form of institutional bargaining. The Community method in the past has been to solve problems by making everybody happy; everybody will get some additional powers. So the European Parliament, as you suggest, has got its own solution for the democratic deficit, which is to give them more power; but, of course, it had more powers in the last two treaties but fewer and fewer people vote for them. The Commission three weeks ago put in a paper which was a bid, effectively, for more powers in the field of foreign affairs and in economics. The national parliamentarians, as you quite rightly say, are much less well organised. We have no collegiate view, and yet this is where the problem lies. We know that the public are primarily engaged democratically at national levels. The solution, in my view, is to put the national parliaments back in the driving seat, or at least in an earlier stage in the decision-making chain; whereas at the minute we simply comply with legislation which is developed and passed often in secret, and certainly through an opaque process of which the public feel no part.

  9. In terms of the organisation of the Convention, Ms Stuart, are we seeing the fragmentation of national parliamentarians, as against a coherent, cohesive group of people from the European Parliament? Is it possible to have a degree of caucusing on behalf of national parliamentarians?
  (Ms Stuart) It would appear at first, and we certainly were struck by the fact, that European parliamentarians came to the Convention with agreed positions. As I say, national parliamentarians had to get to know each other. The fact that one of the early working groups is on the function of national parliaments—

  10. Which you chair?
  (Ms Stuart) Which I chair.—allows national parliaments to find their mind in many ways. What we are coming up against is, for example, with this House itself with its strong parliamentary tradition we needed some changes to our Standing Orders to even allow us to give evidence so that the House can arrive at a view—because we have no tradition of doing that. It is our adversarial politics in this case. It is one of those processes where it is a change and national parliaments are making their voice heard much more clearly. I very much hope that the working groups will be part of that process. The other thing which we must not forget is that we also operate in political families. When the Convention meets there are some pre-meetings which tend to be where the political families meet, then the national parliamentarians meet, then the UK delegation meets and then we have the Convention meeting. The opinion-forming goes on at various levels. You should also remember that numerically the national parliamentarians are by far the largest group. It may be more difficult to find a voice, but once it has found its voice it is probably one of the loudest.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  11. Do you feel yourself more in common with each other, or with your political families, as it were?
  (Ms Stuart) I think that varies tremendously on what the question is. This is one of the exciting things of the Convention, that the alliances are struck at various levels. One of the things which I found most challenging is that, if you come from a British context, we actually feel that Parliament as an institution needs to be defended; and it should not equate Parliament with Government. There were, for example, some voices when the working group was set up saying, "Why do national parliaments need to be represented in the EU architecture; they are already represented by their governments?" In some countries that is the prevailing view.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I regard myself as a member of a number of circles which overlap. I am perhaps primarily a national parliamentarian, so I need to defend the interests of this House and national parliaments generally; but also I am of the EPP; I am a rather uncomfortable, perhaps rather heretical member of that group, but they have tolerated me so far. Then more generally I am British, and I see things perhaps from a much more Anglo Saxon perspective—although that again is not a very popular term in the Convention. All these things come together. My only criticism has I think so far been that the British Government has not been particularly energetic in trying to coordinate a British position. That is changing, and I have got some very effective support for my membership of a core working group. Up until now I think the Foreign Office has not regarded us as a member of a single delegation. Primarily, I think we bring our judgment and our ideas to this Convention, so I try not to be too trapped into a block mentality too early.

  12. We have recently had a tremendous change in France. I understand that at least one member of the French Convention has lost his seat. How do you assess the French contribution? I do not want to talk about the President, because my colleague will do that. How do you assess the French contribution from the national parliamentarians, and the French members of the European Parliament; and how do you think the recent tremendous change in the complexion of French politics will change that, or will it not change it at all?
  (Ms Stuart) If I first tackle the question of composition. It depends on the country's choice as to who they send to the Convention, and if they lose their seat during the election it is for the country to decide. In the case of Mr Moscovici it will be up to the French Government whether they wish him to continue to serve. This will happen with quite a number of people. What I have found striking is that the two full national parliamentarian members, both of them chose to be on the working group of the national parliaments. They have made very strong contributions—also the MEPs—very much in line with the French thinking of creating a kind of senate of where national parliamentarians meet. I think it would be wrong to think of people as national blocks. I was quite struck when colleagues suggested that they saw the British group as one of the most organised and coherent groups of all of them. For example, there was one country where three of their members signed up for the same working group and it became quite clear they had not even talked to each other to the extent of working out that you should have national representation on the various working groups. I think it would be dangerous if we started to hunt as national blocks. One of the nice things of the Convention is that we sit in alphabetical name order in the hemicycle; so just by looking you cannot tell whether someone is a government representative or a national representative.

  13. So you do not sit together?
  (Ms Stuart) No, we sit at opposite ends, but that is a function of the alphabet rather than anything else.

  14. How do you see all of this, Mr Heathcoat-Amory?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) As regards the French, they are tremendously energetic, and they do try and hunt as a pack. France generally believes that it can enhance national power and prestige through the European Union. So they work very hard, particularly at their relations with the Germans. This does not always work. I have noticed tension between members of the French delegation, particularly in my working group yesterday. Gisela and I do have a good working relationship, and we come to things obviously politically rather differently but we do keep in touch with each other. I hope that if the Foreign Office believes there are essential British interests to defend it would at least tell me about them. I may not always be able to agree, but I would never seek to embarrass the British Government in a forum in Europe. That has not been terribly visible so far, but I think that will develop.

  15. Really neither of you envisage any dramatic change as a result of what has been a very dramatic change in France?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think Western Europe is generally swinging to the right. In very general terms, the applicant states have swung to the left, although it is more complicated than that. This must affect the Convention indirectly, but in ways that are not yet clear. I would emphasise that we are really still only on the foothills. We have only really just got down to work in these groups. The early debates were either arguing about the rules, or were very general orientation debates. It is not at all clear in which direction the Convention is going; although I do detect this undercurrent towards an integrationist solution, which I am very suspicious of.

  16. You are not going to see it all over within a year?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) No.

Mr Chidgey

  17. I had the good fortune to have the interesting experience of sitting on the first Convention, the Convention of Human Rights. I was struck by a number of things and I would like to ask you whether they still apply to this new Convention. In particular, it was very clear to me that there was a collection of the same old faces representing the same old vested interests. In that particular regard I can recall very clearly that we were subject in the Convention to the trotting out of archaic and obsolete political theory which belonged to the time of the Marxist/Leninist brigade, for example—equally far right but which was trotted out and took up a great deal of time in the early stages of the Convention. We had the same old vested interests being represented. The Praesidium sailed gently on and ignored most of this background noise, but it just took up a lot of time. Do we still have that going on now in this Convention; or are you getting new people coming forward with new ideas and a fresh approach? What is your impression?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think there is a very real danger that this becomes a Convention of the committed. Giscard, although he is a very prestigious and Olympian figure, nevertheless is the architect of the present European Union, which is essentially a French construction; so he cannot be expected to disown it or to attack it too radically. Heterodox ideas advanced by myself and others are not welcome. I think we ought to be welcoming very fundamental questioning of the nature of European Government, because that is what the public wants. They do not understand the present system; they do not identify with it; and very often they do not consent to it. I think it is a very big worry. Even the language we use tends to be opaque. I am on a working group on complementary competences. The public have no idea what that phrase means.

  Sir Patrick Cormack: Do you know?

Mr Chidgey

  18. We must not stray too far! Gisela Stuart, could I have your thoughts on that?
  (Ms Stuart) I know those who have served on the Charter and some are at this Convention and find it quite different. Yes, there is an element where you sometimes go into the room and think, "Good grief, is he still alive!" I deliberately use the word "he" because one of the real imbalances which is quite outrageous is the under-representation of women, but there we are. At least Britain has sent two women. Yes, there is a danger of the same interests, but I think the Convention has to reach a stage where we have sufficient trust that we can have disagreements. If people are not prepared to have disagreements then it means they do not trust each other. Particularly for the candidate countries, it is a very difficult position because there may be some things they do not like in the current structure but feel inhibited from saying so because, after all, this is a club they wish to join. Certainly in the working groups, it is one of the big responsibilities on the chairs—and I am very conscious of this—of allowing a climate of positive, constructive criticism where they say, "Look, we want the Union to work"; but this will not happen, particularly after enlargement, unless you radically change some of the structures.

  19. You inferred earlier that the Chairman of the Convention has his particular route which is traditionally followed. You will remember, of course, that the choice of the President of the Convention was somewhat controversial. Has the Chairman of the Convention lived up to or down to expectations?
  (Ms Stuart) He certainly has more physical and intellectual stamina than many younger people. He sits through these sessions of five hours presiding over them and listens to the contributions. From the viewpoint of serving on the Praesidium, he is very often accused of not listening, but I find in practice that, whenever points are raised which require changes, he has really bent over backwards to ensure that some of the rules can be changed. For example, Laeken did not provide for candidate countries to be at the Praesidium. We found a way of inviting a permanent representative there. The way he has dealt with languages so that candidate countries can speak in their native language; he wants this to work and has the kind of political background to find ways of making things work. The accusation that he does not listen is not one I subscribe to.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) One reason Giscard likes to refer to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 is that Benjamin Franklin was 81 so Giscard says that age brings wisdom! He is an energetic and effective man, but I am afraid he is, I think, already looking to the end game; he wants this to be his legacy to Europe. It is noticeable than when he visits national capitals to discuss this with heads of government he does not engage with the public.

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