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2 Dec 2002 : Column 678continued
Peter Hain: I think that they do care about the way in which it is delivered, but my hon. Friend's essential point is correct. People want to see outcomes, practical benefits and clarity in the way that the European Union works and the accountability of its institutions to citizens.
For the EU of 25 and more to function effectively and efficiently in the future, we need more than a constitution that sets out the status quo. We need reform, and some of it needs to be radical. We want to maintain the institutional balance and strength in the European Union by making all of its institutions more effective. We have to begin with the Council of Ministers, because although democratic legitimacy should reside in many different parts of the EU's structures, democratic accountability lies first and foremost with the Council.
The EU's strategic direction should come from heads of Government in the European Council. The institution should also provide stronger political leadership. People expect their head of Government and Ministers to represent their interests and will hold them to account in their national Parliaments, media and elections, but how can a Council of 25 or more Governments drive the EU's strategic agenda?
The Council as it is today is not operating coherently or efficiently. The rotating presidency, for example, was originally devised for a community of six member states. When there are 25, each member state will hold the presidency once every twelve and a half years, or eight times a century. The presidency system has enormous attractions. It gives every member state, large or small, an equal stake in running the union. However, if a much larger EU is to be effective and cohesive, the six-monthly musical chairs presidency needs replacing with a much longer period to establish and deliver strategic objectives.
Ann Winterton (Congleton): Surely the whole point of the EU is that the Commission is the driving force. The Council of Ministers cannot override the Commission, as we shall shortly see in respect of fisheries. Is the Minister suggesting that in future the acquis communautaire will not be binding on every member state?
One way of improving coherence might be to have four countries each chairing two of the eight Councils of Ministers for perhaps a year or longer. That would enable greater continuity and more systematic consultation between the Council, the Commission and
The chairmen of the individual Councils should work together as a steering groupa team presidencyto ensure that the strategic direction given by the European Council was implemented. The work of the team presidency steering group would need effective co-ordination by an elected President of the European Council, as we and other member states have suggested, serving for five years to match the life of the Commission.
Mr. Bryant: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. A significant benefit of having an elected President of the Council for five years would be to put an end to the stop-start nature of much of the present process in the EU. What would it do to change the relationship between the President of the Council and the President of the Commission?
Peter Hain: The President of the Council would be a much more authoritative figure than at present, but that is not to diminish the role of the President of the Commission. They will need to work together, as already happens under the six-monthly rotating presidency system. Under these proposals, we will have a much more effective, full-time President of the Council, able to provide the coherence and strategic direction that heads of Government need.
Reforming and strengthening the Council does not mean downgrading the other EU institutions, as some of our opponents make outquite the contrary. I want to see a stronger Commission, enforcing the general interest at the centre of Europe's institutional architecture. Only a strong Commission will be able to retain its vital independence, acting in the interests of the EU as a whole, and not subject to political interference or vested national interests. Without a strong Commission driving through change, none of the Council's decisions would come to anything. [Interruption.] Conservative Members want a weak Europe, one that cannot help defend us against terrorism, fight international pollution and deal with the need to generate jobs and greater growth throughout the European Union, with which we have 60 per cent. of our trade. It is in Britain's interest to have a strong Commission when it comes to asylum policy, agricultural reform, energy liberalisation and enforcing the lifting of the beef ban.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): In the discussions on the convention and the concerns about giving the European Parliament a more prominent role, has there been any discussion among members about the most effective way of involving citizens in future elections to the European Parliament?
Peter Hain: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. Apart from being an outstanding Member of this House, he was also a Member of the European Parliament, and his expertise is particularly appropriate. His suggestion is part of the convention's agenda. [Hon. Members: X Get on with it."] I will, but I am open to taking interventions, including many from Conservative Members.
Peter Hain: My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) admirably chaired the convention's working group on the role of national Parliaments, securing consensus in the group and the wider plenary for national Parliaments to play a greater role at the EU level and to increase contacts between Members of this House and Members of the European Parliament.
Equally, however, we have always made it clear that the charter proclaimed at Nice was not suitable for incorporation in the treaty. Issues of legal certainty would need to be resolved before we could consider that. We cannot support a form of treaty incorporation that would enlarge EU competence over national legislation. New legal rights cannot be given by such means, especially in areas such as industrial law, which are matters for domestic, not European, law.
By engaging positively in the discussions in the charter working group, my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Scotland has been able to make colleagues aware of our views and of our difficulties. Some of our colleagues appreciatedperhaps for the first timethat they, too, would have problems with full incorporation of the charter in their countries. We have achieved a number of changes to tie rights back to existing treaty articles and to distinguish more clearly between aspirational principles and directly effective rights. Our key objective has been to insert strong horizontal articles that block the charter from being invoked to change nationally determined domestic law.
We have agreed to nothing yet, except to consider what is on the table. Given that what is on the table has moved very much in Britain's direction, we are obviously interested in it. The convention has agreed to set up a new working groupbringing the total to 11on social Europe. The group needs to target social
I hope that members of the convention who take part in the group will not fall into the trap of simply rehashing tired old schemes for more rigid European-wide regulation of labour relations. Instead of protectionism for existing jobs, the agenda should be creating new jobs underpinned by decent minimum standards. We support the concept of a Xsocial Europe" but it must be economically competitive and efficient; it must generate full employment, not entrench unemployment. It must give everybody the opportunity to work, and not protect only those who are in work.