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I want to represent the Committee’s position, much of which has been quoted selectively. The Committee
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doubted that the communication provided a new vision for the future of the EU—which future would be of great importance to everyone in the UK. It doubted that the proposed agenda, which was not new, would be effective in bridging the gap between the EU and the public and found that the Government were generally unwilling to give more than, at best, a sketchy view on the proposals in any of the important communications. We found that the Government’s position seemed to be to shelter behind the obvious absence of any consensus in the EU on the future of Europe. Instead, they preferred to say, in their explanatory memorandums and in the ESC Sub-Committee debate on “Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate”, that there was no consensus on the future of Europe and that they would inform the House when one emerged.

The Committee thought that it was right to recommend the communication, along with the documents tagged to it, for debate on the Floor of the House, to give Ministers an opportunity to set out their views on it and the outcome of the discussion in the European Council. As the Minister noted, in paragraph 8 of our 38th report of 18 October, we invited him to discuss the issues in today’s debate.

When we look at the huge scope of the communications—on Europe in the world, neighbourhood policy, trade and competitiveness, development, strategic relations, political dialogue, common foreign and security policy, disaster response, crisis management and European security and defence policy—we find that there is a huge range of agendas. A question on our agenda was asked by House of Lords Sub-Committee C. We repeated it in our 38th report, but it remained unanswered. It was about

Having listened to the Minister today, I am not convinced that Members serving on the European Scrutiny Committee and other hon. Members have a clearer notion of the Government’s view. I am not convinced that any of us know whether the Government take the Foreign Secretary’s view or the Minister’s view, as they seem to diverge on the double-hatting of EU officials in defence security policy. The question has not been answered, but we hoped that it would be answered before today’s debate.

We should welcome substantial elements of the European transparency initiative document, including what it says about consultation, the disciplining and registration of the lobbying process in Europe, and transparency. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) would welcome the document, because it will introduce a binding EU-level framework on member states that will ensure a consistent approach to access and transparency with regard to all beneficiaries of EU funds. From the Committee’s point of view, when anyone asks the Commission for the facts, it either says that it does not have them to hand, or it says that it cannot give them to anyone because it must first obtain the permission of the member state that spent, or mis-spent, those EU funds. The document will be a great step forward, if it is introduced across the EU.

I thank the Minister for his considered view, which appears in the addendum to our 38th report of
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18 October. It is an excellent document, and it represents progress. I would have liked him to explain further what he said in that addendum, because it gave us some heart that we would be able to engage in serious dialogue. Although it has not yet been deposited by the Government, the Commission’s 2007 legislative work programme has been introduced, and I look forward to a dialogue with the Minister, as well as the opportunity to work with our colleagues in the other place, on the programme’s details. I should be grateful if we secured a debate on the subject.

We received a disappointing result to a perfectly courteous request from the Committee for a detailed explanation of the Government’s position on the items in the document, although the items themselves are to be welcomed. I welcome the Minister’s statement that the EU is seeking no new competences; that is what everyone wanted to hear. People want a position of stability, so that we can have a genuine debate in this period of reflection, as it is called, after the constitution failed to be adopted in some countries.

Mr. Cash: May I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I, too, am a member. We may have slight differences on policy questions from time to time, but I think he will bring an enormous amount to bear on the working of the Committee, and we are very pleased to have him as our Chairman. However, may I point out to him that, in addition to what he said, we also said in our report that, on the future of Europe,

Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to elaborate a little on the very important comment that we made at that point?

Michael Connarty: I think that we hoped that the Minister would be involved in the dialogue and would report back to us on the Government’s view and the position taken. If there has been dialogue and the Government have not transmitted that to the House, that is disappointing. If there has not been dialogue, that is probably even more disappointing. I have always had a view of the Commission. I would say that I was a friend of the European project, but one who wishes to be critical of the process. There have been many advances in the process, but it has left the citizen behind. The citizen does not understand those advances.

If there is a dialogue, I hope that the Minister will tell us what meetings have taken place, what the conversations have been and what the Government’s position has been in those conversations. We can then assess things from our point of view as members of the Committee. Sometimes people feel that the Committee is full of Euro-anoraks, but we are just people who take the process seriously. May I put a marker down? I hope that the House will take the process of European
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scrutiny and European dialogue as seriously as the people who sit on our Committee, because sometimes it does not.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): We must welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. We believe that he will do an excellent job, following on from his predecessor. We look forward to working with him over the coming years.

On transparency, do we not sometimes get the feeling that Ministers would prefer to continue to negotiate in smoke-filled rooms, rather than in the open? Some of that negotiation in smoke-filled rooms led to some poor decisions in the past: for instance, Cyprus being permitted to join the Union before any resolution between the north and south, and Bulgaria and Romania being able to join with only a one-year deferment, rather than being held until such a point as they complied with the necessary EU regulation.

Michael Connarty: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me. It was a great pleasure to be nominated by all the groups on the European Scrutiny Committee. That may mean that people expect me to face three or four ways on every issue at the same time, but I am not a Minister and I do not intend to do that. I also recognise the divergent thinking that symbolises the way in which the hon. Gentleman approaches his duties. In the European Scrutiny Committee, he always tries to get off the subject and on to another, equally important, subject, but not necessarily one on the agenda.

There is a list of things that are going to happen: the 50th anniversary declaration, the Leiden summit and so on. They are all virtuous, but they are not new. They would not be seen as new by the citizen. This process of reflection and these three communications—the one that we discussed before on dialogue and the present two—are about connecting with the citizen. The game is given away by one of the Commission’s statements:

That is the fundamental flaw. In the Commission’s logic, if something is over the heads of the people or out of the sight of the people, that does not matter as long as the institutions advance.

We could do much better. I will offer some personal thoughts. The question should be, “Can we make things the best that they could be and can we prevent them from being the worst case that they could be?” I believe that the secret of success is the process, rather than the target solution. If the process is not secretive or directive—centralisation for the EU is obviously natural for the Commission—and if it is genuinely consultative, it will be progressive and something that we can welcome.

May I make one last suggestion to the Minister? He could campaign for not just simple language, but the end of the use of acronyms. What is the OHR in the BiH duties of the EUSR? What is the CFSP? I know what it means, but most people do not. I still do not know what the ESDP is—and I just read it out on to
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the record. The latest document refers to CARS 21. I always worry when the word “cars” is connected to the EU because there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who want the EU to become a car crash. I want it to be a success. I hope that the Minister will give us an indication that he has been thinking about these things and that the Government are putting forward a view in the dialogue.

3.20 pm

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): I wish to start by making a brief comment on yesterday’s announcement by the Home Secretary on the limitations on migration from Bulgaria and Romania, given that it has a link with the debate. Liberal Democrat Members were disappointed that such an important announcement was made by way of written statement, rather than oral statement, because it meant that Opposition Members did not have the opportunity to raise questions and concerns about the practicality of the proposals.

The enforcement of the scheme will ask an awful lot of the immigration and nationality directorate, which the Home Secretary has already described as “not fit for purpose”. Those of us who represent constituencies in which there are many asylum seekers will know that the IND struggles enough as it is without having an additional burden placed on it. However, it is right to have transitional arrangements, given the especially high number of immigrants who came here from Poland and the other accession countries. We have real worries about the implications for the black economy and gangmasters, so it was disappointing that we were not able to raise them in the House yesterday.

“A Citizens’ Agenda” aims to answer questions on the future of Europe. Although there is significant disagreement between Members on both sides of the House—and in the parties represented on both sides of the House—the document raises interesting ideas, although there could be some question about whether it reaches a conclusion. Part of the answer about the future of Europe is an examination of how Europe can become more effective at delivering the priorities of the citizens of Europe, such as prosperity, solidarity and peace. If the EU is to be genuinely connected with the people living in it, it needs to work on the issues that are at the top of those people’s agenda.

Too many people, including many hon. Members, regard EU institutions as remote and completely unconnected to daily life. The institutions sometimes do not help themselves because even when they are working on matters of prime importance, they are not necessarily good at getting that message across, linking with people and consulting.

Several elements of the constitutional treaty were designed to solve that problem. Many of them, especially those dealing with openness, transparency and accountability, were entirely sensible and could have made a difference. They could have improved people’s perceptions of the EU and their trust in its institutions. However, the resounding defeats in France and the Netherlands showed that we still need to connect with people so that they understand and feel part of the structure that is being created.

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Mr. Davidson: May I seek clarification on whether the Liberal Democrats are united on this matter? Do the Liberal Democrat Members in the Chamber agree with the statement made by the Liberal Democrat MEP and leader of the group in the European Parliament, Andrew Duff, in which he proposed:

Is that the Liberal Democrats’ position?

Jenny Willott: As we have discovered from several interventions in the debate, there are differing views in all the parties. However, the Liberal Democrats are more united than it appears the other two parties might be.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The gentleman who was quoted is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, not some Back Bencher, so his views are important. May I ask the hon. Lady about Liberal Democrat policy in the House? Do the Liberal Democrats still support the European constitutional treaty? I thought they did.

Jenny Willott: It has been made clear that the constitutional treaty in its present form is dead in the water. The Liberal Democrats support reform of the European Union. I shall explain some of the issues that have arisen from that debate.

The Liberal Democrats are a pro-European party but we are not entirely uncritical. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, there are fundamental problems with aspects of the EU and there is a need for reform. The document speaks of increasing the openness and accountability of European institutions and minimising bureaucracy, both of which are key. The starting point could be examining the transparency of the Council of Ministers, because there is a lack of transparency and openness about the decisions made in that institution.

“A Citizens’ Agenda” calls for the greater involvement of national Parliaments in decision making and policy development in the EU, which we welcome. Any extra democracy and openness can only be a good thing. We would also like to see national Parliaments more involved in decisions about subsidiarity, another topic covered in the document. We need to ensure that decisions are made at the most appropriate level, rather than power being sucked up to the European Commission or the EU institutions. If we are to reconnect European citizens with the institutions in Brussels, they need much more clarity about where decision making lies, and they must be certain that that is the most sensible and appropriate place for a decision to be taken.

Mr. Brady: I am delighted that the hon. Lady and her party are committed to subsidiarity. Can she give me her party’s first priority for a power that should be brought back from the EU to domestic control?

Jenny Willott: That is part of a much larger debate that needs to take place. Each area of policy needs to be considered individually, so I would not prioritise any particular one. Policy should be taken as a whole so
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that the entire system makes sense and so that people can understand where power lies and where decisions will be made.

Mr. Bone: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jenny Willott: No. We have had enough debate on the matter.

“A Citizens’ Agenda” speaks of deeper economic integration and the building of the single market, to which other hon. Members have referred. The main tool for that is the stimulation of growth through the single market and competition policy. There are clearly issues of concern in this area, but removing the final barriers to trade, work and travel is critical to the future of Europe. That ties in with enlargement.

We would welcome an informed debate on enlargement. There are many anecdotes going around that are not necessarily true, and there are issues that are not being discussed but need to be discussed, so that people understand what they are letting themselves in for and what sort of Europe we shall have. We therefore welcome the Commission’s report on the EU’s enlargement strategy, which is due later this year, and hope it will be a key part of that process.

The EU could do more to concentrate on the areas where it could achieve most. We welcome the idea that every EU citizen should enjoy full access to their fundamental rights, but I am less convinced about the idea of an entitlement card. It needs to be explored, but it has the hallmark of a meaningless gimmick, though the principles behind it are to be welcomed.

We would like to see a more effective common European asylum system and greater police and judicial co-operation. With a common threat of terrorism against all western European countries, co-operation and co-ordination across borders becomes more essential every day. With that goes the need for the EU to safeguard the rights of individuals affected by cross-border law enforcement. I am sure I am not the only Member present who has constituents who have become mired in the morass of international legal co-operation. Trying to help them has given me a new understanding—or, rather, a new appreciation of my lack of understanding—of the present system. Further work is needed to clarify that.

In preparing for enlargement, the EU must move ahead with plans for closer co-operation to guard the external borders of Europe—both to share costs more fairly and to ensure uniformly high standards—because if it does not that could be a weakness for European countries in the future.

That links in with the need for a strong European neighbourhood policy. The first steps that have been taken have been a good attempt, and they have made progress in stabilising neighbouring countries, but we must go beyond what is currently being done. There are also doubts about the commitment of some member states to that. It needs to be tackled by all member states together.

We welcome the sentiments in “A Citizens’ Agenda”. However, alongside the European Scrutiny Committee’s concerns, which have been eloquently explained, we worry that it might just be another set of vague, high-falutin’ platitudes about Europe’s values
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and ambitions, and that it will not do anything in the long run to re-engage with the public and help change people’s perceptions of the EU.

We believe that what is needed to achieve real change are concrete reforms to make the EU more efficient, more democratic, more transparent and more accountable. They would include increasing oversight of the unelected Commission, a charter of fundamental rights to protect people against EU laws that infringe their basic rights, strengthening the powers of the elected European Parliament compared with the secretive Council of Ministers, and more open and democratic decision making. Therefore, although, overall, positive messages come out of this, real reform is needed and we wait to see what concrete proposals come out of the process.

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