The Future of Europe

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Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The subsidiarity principle has been in treaty law since Maastricht and was reinforced at Amsterdam. In truth, however, it has never really worked because no institution has had a serious interest in enforcing it. There is now a proposal that a proportion of national Parliaments should request the Commission to look again at a proposal to see if it abides by the subsidiarity principle but the Commission can still ignore that, so in its present form the proposal is not sufficiently strong.

Subsidiarity, even if observed, would not cure the democratic deficit. There would still be a blizzard of regulations, often connected in some way with the single market, which engulfed national Parliaments and the people we represent. Therefore, we must get national Parliaments in right at the start of the legislative chain, and the right of initiative must be removed from the Commission. It is scary that 20 unelected people in Europe have the sole right to initiate legislation in Europe. Until that changes, the cynicism and despair felt about democracy in the European Union will persist.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): It is the formal position of our Government that we support the continuation of the European Union as an association of independent states. That is a position that I support. However, does my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston not agree that we seem to be in a process of inexorable and incremental change, which, over time, will end in fundamental changes? Will it not lead to the abandonment of independent states and the creation of a centralised European state?

Ms Stuart: My hon. Friend expresses a legitimate fear, but I urge him to take on board two things. First, the central building block of the nation state is unquestioned in the process that we are discussing. I find it surprising that the right hon. Member for Wells should propose that we take the right of initiative away from the Commission. That would question whether nation states should be represented by their Governments, and we do not question that, because it is a necessary building block.

Secondly, as Lord Tomlinson said, there is a recognition that this permanent revolution, which is going further and further, must end. It must have a much clearer definition. The Dutch Government representative expressed opposition to the idea of the congress to emerge from the working group. He said, ''You have created an institution that every time it meets, by the very fact of its existence, wishes to produce something that it can be proud of.'' In that context, he could not see that there could be anything other than further integration. It is hugely important that that comes out of the Convention. It is not what people wish to see.

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Lord Howell of Guildford: I welcome the idea of a reasoned opinion in each national Parliament on new legislative items. However, was there any suggestion in the working group of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston that the same brake should be applied to existing competences in the acquis? Given that over time all sorts of powers have accumulated that may be inappropriate for central handling, were any ideas proposed about filtering and sifting through the acquis, through national Parliaments, so that a better balance of competences can be achieved? That is also a question for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and his working group.

I am referring to a larger question than that of subsidiarity. However, we might challenge the word itself, as it is completely inappropriate, because no one is ''sub'' anyone else. It is time for a change of wording.

Ms Stuart: I read Lord Howell's letter in the Financial Times today, which raised some interesting issues.

I draw attention to the fact that the final report of the working group on national Parliaments is available on the table. The working group touched on the definition of subsidiarity, but we ended up saying that we needed to work with the definition in the treaty of Amsterdam.

I am keen on the following idea, although we have not reached a stage in the Convention when it would be appropriate to raise it. Creating a mechanism to revise the acquis would be a mammoth task and would not achieve much. In whatever treaty proposals we table, there will have to be an established mechanism not just for shared competence, which already exists in current treaties, but for national competence. The creation of a two-way valve is important. The issue is not that it has not yet been discussed in the Convention as an idea that should not be put on the table, but that we have another nine or 10 months to work on it, and it will be looked at when we consider the institutional arrangements in the new year.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Very briefly, my concern about my working group is that at present there is a one-way escalator from member states to the EU on legislative competence and it is easy to see how that has arisen. On health, a treaty article, which was negotiated by member states, lays down clearly that public health—the organisation and funding of health care—should be a member state competence. However, under general single market articles, it is treated as a service and services are traded, so it is a single market matter. The treatment of EU citizens in various member states is now governed not by the original health article negotiated at Maastricht or Amsterdam, but by the so-called rubber article governing the single market, as interpreted by the European Court of Justice, which is itself an EU institution and, therefore, tends to centralise powers. Until we make it clear beyond doubt who does what in treaty law, unalterable by the court or the use of rubber articles, no citizen of the EU will have the faintest idea who does what.

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Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): I note that in the second wave of working groups set up in September, there is a working group on defence, chaired by Commissioner Barnier, who will have all the resources of the Commission to assist him in that task. That working group is special because defence has always been considered to be very much within the province of national Governments. I should be grateful to know from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, who is, I believe, a member of that working group, a little more about the timetable, the working methods and the expertise that will be available to question Mr. Barnier.

Ms Stuart: I am a member of the defence group, which is interesting for several reasons, including the separation of defence and external relations. It is intrinsically a separate group on that; we just look at defence. It is emerging clearly that what is wrong at the moment is lack of capacity on the ground. We have heard evidence from Mr. Solana, military manufacturers and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, so we have listened to experts. There is capability on paper, but real capability does not exist in many ways: for example, in relation to co-ordination.

Politically it is interesting in that, for the first time in the life of the Convention, candidate countries have stood up and said, ''This is a red line for us. If you do anything that interferes with NATO, we shall say no.'' There is a huge commitment to that.

We are examining two areas. The first is whether it would be sensible to change the current procurement arrangements for military equipment throughout Europe and to have more co-ordination.

The second idea that has been floated, to which the candidate countries have again said no, is whether the potential of an equivalent of article 5 should be considered in the EU context. I would find that extremely difficult to accept because that is not the nature of current EU defence policy, which is peacekeeping and conflict prevention. It is not a defensive organisation. I would want a strengthening of the way in which it works with NATO and a build-up of capacity without undermining NATO in any way.

Angus Robertson (Moray): The members of the United Kingdom parliamentary team will be aware that in the run up to the selection of parliamentary representatives there was a vigorous debate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on whether the fact that there is now more than one parliamentary assembly should be reflected in the delegation. That leads me to the involvement of United Kingdom parliamentary delegation members and whether they have raised issues relating to subsidiarity. There seems to be a curious notion that subsidiarity stops with member states when most people understand subsidiarity to mean decisions being made at the level closest to citizens. May I ask the full members of the UK parliamentary team whether they argued in favour of enhanced scrutiny powers at sub-member state level during their deliberations and whether they argued for assemblies such as the Scottish Executive to have power of direct access to the European Court of Justice?

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Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and I have been to Northern Ireland and Edinburgh to discuss those matters. I strongly agree that they are right at the end of the food chain. We in this House sometimes feel that we merely rubber-stamp proposals and turn them into law without any real input or even knowledge of how the proposals were conceived, and the situation is much worse when the proposals reach Belfast or Edinburgh. Although the arrangement of powers within a member state is not a matter for the European Union, it would be the prime beneficiary if we could return some of the powers or competences to member state level. We could then redistribute them within our own countries. More specifically, in reply to one of the hon. Gentleman's questions, if there is to be a system of giving member state Parliaments an objection on grounds of subsidiarity, which is welcome although inadequate, that should be extended to give other assemblies and sub-national Parliaments the same powers.

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Prepared 23 October 2002