The Future of Europe

[back to previous text]

Mr. Redwood: Is it not the case that the possible subsidiarity ''lock on the door'' will apply only to future transfers of competence from member states to the EU, and not to things that have already gone?

Ms Stuart: Yes, that is absolutely right.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee has considered the Third Report (24th July) and the Fourth Report (15th October) from the United Kingdom Representatives to the Convention on the Future of Europe.—[The Chairman.]

The Chairman: I should make it clear that I intend to call the alternative representative and the parliamentary representatives to respond to the debate no later than 6.40 pm.

5.58 pm

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): I hope to stick to your earlier guidelines and rulings, and shall keep to the procedure this time, Mr. Cook. I shall be brief to allow as many hon. Members to contribute as possible.

I want to concentrate on matters covered by the report of the Convention's working group on national Parliaments. What I say will not surprise my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. Many noble, right hon. and hon. Members may have seen the Select Committee on European Scrutiny's press release of last Wednesday, which said that we were disappointed by the draft report. I emphasise that our criticism is certainly not directed at the chairman of the working group, my hon. Friend. We know that she has had to work on the basis of consensus and that powerful vested interests are represented in her working group.

We were disappointed, partly because there seemed to be consensus that increasing national Parliaments' role in the European Union was a way of helping to bridge the gap between citizens and EU institutions. The treaty of Nice listed the role of national Parliaments as one of four subjects to be discussed at the next intergovernmental conference. The Laeken declaration asked questions about increasing the role of national Parliaments, and the United Kingdom Government said that developing the role of national Parliaments in the EU was one of their priorities for the Convention. Even the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs accepted:

    ''the solidity of national democratic frameworks and their closeness to the citizens are an essential asset which can in no way be ignored in pursuing the parliamentarisation of the Union.''

In view of all that, it was not unreasonable to expect that the Convention would bring forward proposals that would make a significant difference to national Parliaments' ability to exert influence in the EU, but without creating a new institution, such as a second

Column Number: 025

chamber, and without giving a formal role in the legislative process to national Parliaments. The Select Committee on European Scrutiny, of which I am Chairman, put forward its own ideas in its report entitled ''Democracy and Accountability in the EU and the Role of National Parliaments.''

Most of the discussion about a new role addressed enforcement of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, and my Committee made a proposal. However, we are less worried about the specific mechanism used than about ensuring that objections made by national Parliaments on grounds of subsidiarity have an impact rather than being brushed aside. That is where much of our disappointment arises.

The working group's report, in line with that of the working group on subsidiarity, provides for national Parliaments to object at an early stage. However, there would be no requirement for anyone to take the slightest notice of that objection or to respond to it. The emphasis in the report is entirely on ensuring that the new procedure does not cause any delay in the legislative process. The working group on subsidiarity is right to emphasise that it would be the first time that national Parliaments would be involved in the EU's legislative process, but it seems that such involvement would be without influence. If there is no possibility of delay, the involvement of national Parliaments can be no more than a formality. As I said in a press release:

    ''a real watchdog does not just convey views; it barks, and occasionally bites.''

The second disappointment relates to matters that affect the scrutiny that we may carry out in Westminster and other national Parliaments. I am pleased that the draft report recognises that the way in which the EU operates can affect national Parliaments' ability to hold their Governments to account.

The Chairman: Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I should draw the attention of all members of the Committee to the fact that there is a Division in the Lords.

Mr. Hood: I am also pleased that the draft report stresses the need for greater openness in the Council. However, it ignores such important issues as the need for time for scrutiny before a radically revised text is put to the Council for agreement. It says nothing about the conciliation process, which, with its secrecy and back-room deals, is as much an affront to democratic principles as the Council of Ministers meeting in private. I cite an example of that: the European Parliament agreed not to breach financial ceilings in return for getting an early retirement scheme for the temporary staff of its political groups. Our two alternate members are on the working group on simplifying legal instruments, and I hope that they will oppose any extension of the co-decision and conciliation process, unless it is made much more transparent.

The report adopts our suggestion that parliamentary scrutiny reserves should be given formal status in the Council's rules of procedure, but when the decision is by qualified majority voting, it

Column Number: 026

explicitly encourages the Council to go ahead without waiting. Apparently, pressing on regardless is more important than allowing the small amount of time needed for scrutiny.

There are some good things in the report, such as encouraging the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees to draw up minimum standards of parliamentary scrutiny, and exploring the possibility of introducing new ways of bringing MPs and MEPs together for discussion. However, it is not clear to me whether anything in the report will significantly increase the role and influence of national Parliaments.

I wish the working group well. I also wish its chairman—my hon. Friend—well, and I hope that she, through her membership of the praesidium, and the other UK parliamentary representatives on the Convention will take the role of national Parliaments much more seriously, and put forward proposals that will make a real difference.

6.6 pm

Mr. Maples: I had hoped that the Convention would facilitate genuine debate between the integrationists and the intergovernmentalists—if I may describe the two sides of the argument in that way. That argument is taking place in public life, in the media and in this Parliament, and I had hoped that the Convention would take both of those sets of views into account to see whether there was some way of fitting them together—to the extent that that is possible.

I do not particularly care whether the outcome is called a constitution—although constitutions tend to go with nation states—and I can see the sense of separating the institutional rules from the decisions that are made by those institutions. However, regardless of what it is called, I would like it to reflect what I want the European Union to continue as: an organisation primarily of intergovernmental arrangements.

On some matters, I could have made a better argument for the Commission to have the right to initiate legislation than that put by Lord Tomlinson: if the Commission had not had that right, very little would have been done under the single market chapter. However, its right to initiate should be confined to that. If the Commission is going to start invading the second and third pillars of this treaty, and if those pillars are going to collapse, that is pretty fundamental. Indeed, I am surprised that we are talking about the collapse of those pillars before the working groups on justice and home affairs, on foreign policy and on defence have reported. None of our Governments' duties are more fundamentally important than the defence of our countries, and of us as their citizens. Those matters must remain intergovernmental, as must the administration of justice.

There are of course cross-border dimensions to these matters: there must be co-operation on foreign policy and defence, and on trans-national crime—of which there is far too much. However, that does not mean that the final say over them should be removed

Column Number: 027

from national Governments, who have vetoes with regard to those pillars.

I fear that the intergovernmentalists have already lost the battle. They certainly seem to have lost it in the Convention, and I suspect that they are going to lose it in the intergovernmental conference that follows. However, I wish to make a plea to our representatives. On this matter, I regard all four of them as my representatives, and I want them to ensure that the case that I have put is reflected in the discussions—and, I hope, in the conclusions—even if it merely appears somewhere at the bottom of the à la carte menu.

I shall be looking carefully at four things. If the pillars are collapsed—especially those on foreign policy and defence, but to some extent those on justice and home affairs too—and if the Commission is given a role in those matters, that will be a fundamental erosion of intergovernmentalism, and it will show that there is no end to the ambitions of the European Union and the Commission in particular.

I am concerned that the proposals for strengthening subsidiarity do not go nearly far enough. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston says that the matter would be initially political and latterly legal. However, that is not how our law would deal with it. Our courts decide whether statutory bodies that derive their powers from Acts of Parliament have acted ultra vires. Such bodies—indeed, the Government—should have a view in advance about whether they would be acting ultra vires if they were asked do so something. At the end of the day, such decisions are political, but the final jurisdiction is a legal one: has that body exceeded the powers that were delegated to it?

The problem in the European Union is that every bit of the juggernaut is moving in the same direction. The European Court has demonstrated a marked reluctance to limit the powers of the European Union, especially those of the Commission. It should be explicitly stated in the treaty that the powers must be cast in a restrictive light and not left open to interpretation—that just because member states want something or because everybody voted for it, it is the right thing to do. We are delegating powers—or at least, that is what we are told—to the European Union and to the Commission. Therefore, those powers must be interpreted in a restrictive not constructivist manner. If that is not written into the treaty and we do not strengthen the powers on subsidiarity in what used to be article 3b of the Maastricht treaty, we will not halt the juggernaut.

If the charter of fundamental rights is incorporated into the treaties, the war as well as the battle will be lost. It is not a charter of fundamental rights. It is a charter of political aspirations. I am all for it—I completely agree with most of the rights, but interpretation of them should be left to national Parliaments. For example, the charter says:

    ''Everyone has the right to education and to have access to vocational and continuing training.''

Column Number: 028

As a political aspiration, I agree with that. However, it should be a matter for our Parliament. I do not think that every European country must have vocational training, but if such a right is incorporated into the treaty, the Commission will get active, the Court will become active and, before we know what is happening, every aspect of the right will have been invaded by the Commission.

Let us consider another example:

    ''The Union recognises and respects the right to social and housing assistance''

to ensure a decent existence. I recognise that too, but it is not a fundamental right in a legal sense. It is not the same as the right to free speech or to a fair trial, which I would be happy to see dealt with in a European Court. We have the European Court of Human Rights to judge on those matters. However, if such political aspirations are the subject of legal construction and legal action by the Community, frankly, we have lost the war.

In addition to my concerns about what may be in the Convention, I am concerned about one absence from it. If the Community is to involve member states in a more integrationist way—which is the conclusion that I reluctantly draw from what I have heard today and read and experienced in 20-odd years in this game—we need greater flexibility in the treaty. There is a series of provisions that allows groups of member states to proceed with enhanced co-operation, if that is what they want. If the treaty is to be amended to allow the integrationist agenda to proceed, member states must have the right, for example, to different types of membership, or not to have to subscribe to every measure that is introduced. There must be flexibility.

In the final analysis, perhaps there should be an explicit right to leave the Community at the will of one's own nation state rather than requiring, as some of the proposals have, the consent of other member states. We need a stage before that—another side to the coin of the enhanced flexibility provisions—to allow member states not to subscribe to new legislation, except in the core area of the single market and free trade.

If all of my concerns are not met, I fear that we shall be rearranging the driving shifts on the juggernaut, but not discussing its direction, what is on the juggernaut or how long it will take to reach its destination. That will turn the juggernaut into a Titanic. If all of the things that I have mentioned are in the treaty, we will have a massive democratic deficit.

6.14 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 23 October 2002