Standing Committee on the Convention
Wednesday 23 October 2002
[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]
The Future of Europe
The Chairman: Colleagues, there was some disquiet after our last meeting. Right hon. and hon. Members and, indeed, noble Lords, had difficulty identifying participants during the debate and questions. Difficulties were encountered in identifying participants by constituency, there were a lot of Christian name and surname referrals and one or two others that were even more questionable. In order to adjust that, we insist, more firmly this time, that the protocols of the House should be followed. A list of the names of formal members of the Committee has been distributed. Several hon. Members are, of course, not mentioned on the list, so, to cater for that eventuality, extra copies of ''Dod'' have been put on both tables in the central aisle.
The Committee has up to one and a half hours to hear statements from parliamentary and alternate representatives and to put questions to them, after which will follow a debate on the motion.
I shall put the question on the motion when the Committee has sat for two and a half hours, if the debate has not concluded beforehand. In addition to Committee members, any hon. Member or noble Lord may ask questions and participate in the debate. I know that many hon. Members will wish to participate and I hope that questions and contributions to the debate will be brief to allow as many hon. Members as possible to get in on the act.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): On a point of order, Mr. Cook. In view of the fact that the Government have endorsed the principle of the European constitution, would it not have been appropriate for the Foreign Secretary at least to come to these sittings? The Government have committed themselves to the principle that we are about to discuss.
The Chairman: I am sure that, with all the experience that the hon. Gentleman has gleaned in the years since he left Stoneyhurst, he will know that that is not a point of order. That point should have been raised in the Chamber. We now come to the statements.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): Thank you, Mr. Cook, for calling the second meeting of the Committee, which allows the parliamentary representatives to report back to both Houses on the progress of the Convention. I shall limit my remarks to the areas that my colleagues cannot cover. We now have 10 working groups on the Convention. Since we last met, the first four have produced their recommendations.
It is important to appreciate how the decision-making process works. Working groups meet—some of them sit on 10 to 15 occasions—and take evidence
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from expert witnesses. The group that I chair, the working group on national Parliaments, takes evidence from other parliamentarians. Subsequently, a group submits its final report to the whole Convention.
I hope that the final report on the role of national Parliaments will be available in due course. That report was approved yesterday and it will go to the Convention on Monday. The plenary session of the Convention will debate that report for a whole day. At that stage, there would not be an attempt to arrive at a consensus that could be taken forward. The report will simply be taken into account for further discussions.
The Convention is, in a sense, a marathon. We have had a year, and now another nine months, so it would be wholly inappropriate for groups to take positions, which that they then feel that they must defend, before we even discuss issues such as institutional arrangements. That would defy the virtue of the Convention, which is a process by which all elements, including the Commission, European Parliament, national Governments and Parliaments, can learn from one another.
There are four reports already on the table from the working groups on legal personality, subsidiarity, the charter and national Parliaments. As my colleagues are and have been members of some of the groups, they may want to speak about them during the question period. Apart from the working group on national Parliaments, I am also a member of the defence group. Therefore, if Committee members want to question us further on the particulars of the working groups, that will be the best time to do so.
There has been a change in the dynamics of the group. The first months, which provided a listening phase when papers were not on the table, saw general discussions. We are now moving into a period in which not only do we have working papers on the table and the emergence of diverging views, but Governments by and large are starting to take the Convention far more seriously. It was clear in the early days that although the British Government took it seriously and provided a strong representation, several others did not. More specifically, the German Government have now decided that their Foreign Minister will represent them, and I await with some interest what the French Government will do. After the recent elections, their Government representative refused to go, so there was almost an ''opposition'' Government representative. I would expect some changes on the French side.
We are continuing to meet at different levels, so interchange continues between national parliamentarians and the political families. The political families are playing an important role. The European People's party and the Socialist group have each produced a paper on the subject, and if Committee members want to know more, I will be happy to answer their questions.
I should say a few words on the final report of the working group on national Parliaments, which has been available to read today. There are several main issues. One is an anchoring of European Union decision making in national Parliaments. The report
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endorsed the recommendations of the subsidiarity group, which suggested that any legislative proposals should be submitted to national Parliaments for a view on whether they breach subsidiarity or proportionality. If a substantial number of Parliaments believe that they do, the Commission will have to reconsider the proposals.
Another recommendation is for much closer, more systematic and structured co-operation between national Parliaments and the European Parliament. We recommend that the European Parliament should routinely invite national parliamentarians to some of their committees. We will also propose a European week, so that when the Commission puts its legislative proposals to the European Parliament, it does to national Parliaments too. Should they choose, national Parliaments across Europe can then debate, during a window of time, the European Union and where its legislative programme is going during the next 12 months. That is significant.
We also examined the potential for reforming the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees and discussed the idea of a congress. There was some resistance in the working group to considering a congress, not least because we felt that if our job was to simplify the European Union, the creation of a new institution would not be a logical way forward. However, it was accepted that there was a need for a meeting forum for national Parliaments and where MEPs and national parliamentarians could meet. We have not progressed much further on that, but the idea will be discussed during the next month.
For the record, I notice that in this week's The House Magazine Lord Brabazon of Tara said that he was unhappy about some of the methods of the scrutiny reserve being exercised. I hope that he will be pleased by some of the report's recommendations, which include no longer taking a preliminary position, but respecting the six-week period and making the process more transparent.
We also support all the proposals to reform the Council so that its decisions are in the open and people know what Ministers have done on their behalf.
As the Government are asserting themselves more, we still have some way to go before parliamentarians find a collective voice. Members of the Convention still do not see national parliamentarians standing up and saying, ''I speak for Parliament.'' I hope that we in the various political families will be able to make some progress on that.
Finally, the one institution that appears to feel the most threatened at the moment is the European Parliament. It arrived at the Convention with a position, which national parliamentarians perceived to be a threat: we were a diverse group and there was that block with a position. Of course, things have moved on, and it is difficult to change that position. Some of the tensions relate to the fear of being undermined. The national parliamentarians group did not want to set up a competition between the European Parliament and national Parliaments. We wanted the role of parliamentarians to be recognised, and for some to operate on a national level , and
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others on a European level. However, we will not succeed in earning the confidence of the public or the member states in the decision-making process in the European Union unless we start to work together much more constructively.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): The Convention has reached a critical stage. On Monday, as we heard, the President, Valéry Giscard D'Estaing, will unveil a draft constitution for Europe that follows the conclusions of several working groups, and the interim conclusions from other groups.
I must say at the outset that I am disturbed by the direction of events, as they overturn several of what I believed were established British cross-party views. It is now certain that the European Union will have a single legal personality, as part of which the intergovernmental pillars will be collapsed into a single institutional structure. The working group further recommends that the European Union, with its new-found legal clothing, assumes responsibility for negotiating agreements in the intergovernmental areas of justice, home affairs, foreign policy and security, and that the current requirement that agreements in those areas should be ratified by the Parliaments of member states should go. That is alluded to in the documents before the Committee. If followed, that would certainly be a diminution in the powers of this Parliament.
It has also been agreed in principle that the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union should become legally binding, and that the European Union should, as a body, accede to the separate European convention on human rights. What is surprising is that the Government recently resisted all those developments. They resisted a written constitution, strongly supported the intergovernmental pillars, and opposed the European Union's having a legal personality. They also promised us that the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union would not be made legally binding. It was only on that basis that we signed up to it when the treaty was last changed. We all remember the former Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), saying that the charter was no more legally significant than the Beano. I am sure that that statement was made in good faith, but it has not long survived.
The significance for this House is that these proposals will take decisions further into a single legal and institutional structure—more remote and less democratic. We are offered the compensation that national Parliaments will have an early opportunity to comment on matters of subsidiarity and I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on advancing that proposition in her own working group. It opens up a new possibility that national Parliaments will be allowed to have an early input into the legislative process. I share the disquiet of the European Scrutiny Committee in its recent press release when it said that that was an inadequate response to the democratic deficit. It does not begin to offset the
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moves in the opposite direction, to which I have alluded.
I am a member of the working group on competences—who does what and at what level powers are exercised—which is shortly to report. For my part, I want it established that all powers reside at member state level, unless they are exercised at European Union level, in which case, whether exclusive or shared, they must be precisely and clearly spelled out. Provision should also be made for the return of competences of powers to member states. Above all, the certainty and clarity in treaty law must not be undermined, as it has in the past, by the use of other general treaty articles, such as single market powers, or by the activism of the Court, which can override the apparent clarity of negotiated treaties.
Lastly, I am also a member of a working party on justice, freedom and security. I can speak only a word or two on the subject because the working party has only just started meeting and has conducted just two evidence sessions. I understand that persistent calls have been made for the European Union to do more in the sensitive area of crime, policing and justice. If those matters are removed to a higher tier of government in the European Union, the democratic deficit and the sense of alienation and remoteness, which led to the setting up of the Convention, might well get substantially worse.