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Chris Bryant: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would merely say that the hon. Lady used that phrase against me a few months ago when you were in the Chair. In all humility, Madam Deputy Speaker, I apologise for using such language. [Interruption.] I urge the hon. Lady to restrain herself for a few more moments, as I am still trying to answer the question that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) asked about federalism.
It is dangerous to use the word "federalism" in debates about Europe without being precise about its meaning. Different European countries have different federal structures. France is a federal country and Spain has asymmetric devolution. For some people, federalism means subsidiarity and taking decisions at a level as close as possible to the people affected. For others, it means trying to bind everyone together into a single unity. It is therefore important that we use the word "federalism" with care.
The hon. Lady has just revealed a gross discourtesy to the House if that was known by Conservative Members on Monday, but not revealed to the House in time to appear on the Order Paper yesterday morning. I hope that you can investigate, Madam Deputy Speaker.
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Philip Davies: I shall stick to the subject of the debate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned subsidiarity, which appears in the Government amendment. I understand that that means that decisions should be made at the most local level. Does he therefore agree that the best way to ensure that decisions are so made is for all decisions to be made in the House, not in Brussels?
Chris Bryant: The most important thing is that decisions should be made at the most local level that is appropriate. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It is an important point. Historically, the Conservative party has not supported devolution in this country, but many of us argued the case for it, because we believe that decisions on, for example, the health service or education should be taken at the most local level possible. The people with the best understanding of those services are those who use them locally. That is what we should try to achieve in the European Union. We should not adopt a federalising tendency if it means creating a uniform Europe, but it is pragmatic to try to enable different European countries to co-operate systematically and not on an occasional basis when that can create added value.
Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend is making a point about voting at national and local levels and each European country having its own democratic system. If those democratic structures do not have any power over the local economies, is that democracy not meaningless?
Chris Bryant: It would be quite meaningless. In a changing world environment where countries such as India and China have entered the market much more forcefully, we must consider how we can both protect the economies of individual EU countries and make sure that their Governments have the powers that they need to tackle economic problems and create high employment and low unemployment. At the same time, we must try to ensure that we create a sustainable and competitive market that is large enough to build prosperity for the whole of Europe. I am 43, and I have lived in Spain, Belgium and, briefly, France. The economic changes in those countries have occurred of necessity and have been helped, not hindered, by the European Union. I also point out to my hon. Friend that the treaty made it clear that, on nearly every economic measure, a vast array of powers would remain with the member state. The British Government tried to ensure that that was in the treaty from the very beginning. Our fundamental choice is between taking a pragmatic attitude to Europe and taking an ideological one. In my view, we must try to develop a new consensus within the 25 countries in Europe.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin asked when the draft treaty will be declared dead. As I have said, it is on life support, but one tends to try to bring the whole
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family together before one switches off the life support mechanism, which is what will happen over the coming weeks, rather than leaving one person, the doctor, to make the decision.
We should develop a new consensus. Nobody in France or Holland, or for that matter in Spainthe Spanish feel bruised, because many people have ignored their resounding yes votevoted for the status quo in Europe. That is not to say, as some, including the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), have argued, that they voted for Europe to be rolled back, but they did not vote for Europe to be preserved in aspic.
The Council, which is probably the least transparent supposedly democratic body in the world, is one of many problems. This afternoon, the Minister said that the Council could legislate with greater transparency without treaty change. In my view, we should go a step further and ensure that transparency exists not only when the Council is legislating, but when it is deliberating, because many of the negotiations and processes are as important as the final decisions.
Similarly, many countries feel that the role played by member states in the decision-making process is not sufficiently substantial. Who can tell whether the treaty was worded correctly on that point? However, national member states' Parliaments should maintain their role, even if the treaty falls by the wayside.
Mr. Walter: A treaty may not be necessary to address the transparency of the Council, on which I intervened on the Minister, and the role of member states' Parliaments, because such decisions could be taken in the Council. Perhaps the Government will adopt my proposal, because the UK will have the presidency in just a few weeks' time.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in part, like the curate's egg. The transparency of the Council is entirely up to the Council, which could decide that it wants to operate on the basis of transparency without a treaty. However, if the Council were to implement a provision for member states' Parliaments to play a role, when the first problem arose, one of the member states would go to court, which is why a new treaty would be necessary. The difficulty is that many of the changes that all hon. Members want cannot be implemented without a new treaty. It may be a case of, "The treaty is dead. Long live the treaty."
The hon. Gentleman and I might also be able to agree on the ability of member states to leave the EU. As he knows, there is no current provision for any member state to leave the EU. If a member state held a general election and decided to leave the EU, it would probably just do it and pick up the pieces afterwards. It would, of course, be more sensible to introduce a process of negotiation, which the treaty provides for, whereby a member state could leave the EU, if it chose to do so. That process should probably take place under QMV rather than a process of unanimity, which is currently the probable system. It is another area in which treaty change would be necessary to proceed with something that nearly everybody in the British body politic agrees is a good idea.
Most people probably agree that the European Commission's powers should be more clearly delineated. I used to work for the BBC in Brussels,
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which is Conservative Members' two major bogeys in one. When I worked in Brussels, although the Commission had no direct power to determine whether the BBC licence fee was state aid, it chose to interfere fairly regularly because that was the thrust of the treaties. The European Commission's role should be more clearly delineated, which would be in the Commission's interest and our interest. It would also help to address the democratic deficit and some people's lack of understanding of how Europe works. Again, treaty change is necessary to achieve that goal.
Poland and Spain liked the voting system in the Nice treaty. Some people wondered whether the new system of double majority voting would be accepted in Spain, because it put Poland and Spain in a less advantageous position and the UK in a stronger position. That system must be changed, but, again, it is written into the Nice treaty, so, again, treaty change is necessary.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the number of commissioners. The EU Commission was unwieldy when there were 15 commissioners, but we must be inventing jobs for people now that there are 25. If any further increases occur, it will be practically impossible for the Commission to maintain any sense of corporate responsibility. We must move to a position in which the commissioner works for the whole of the European Commission rather than for the individual member state that put them there. I know that that is the basic principle on which commissioners are theoretically appointed, but sometimes it does not feel like that.
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