Debate Europe and Communicating Europe in Partnership

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Mr. Francois: I note that under the so-called plan D—for democracy—element of communication in Europe, projects were interlinked with the European year of intercultural dialogue. As British taxpayers’ money has gone to pay for that, could the Minister name some of the projects undertaken in the UK in conjunction with it, and tell us how they went?
Caroline Flint: I am happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with information on some of the projects. I do not have it to hand at the moment, and I would not want to try to discuss projects without having information on them. However, I am sure that he will be reassured by the fact that the document clearly deals with the criteria for such projects. The organisations that apply for funding have to show that they are responsible, that they are financially correct, and that there is no question about their capacity to do the project. There is a rigorous process in place, but I would be happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with more information on the projects and share it with the rest of the Committee.
Mr. Francois: In that case, may I try another question? The European fund for the integration of third-country nationals was another programme with which plan D was integrated. Can the Minister tell us about schemes in the UK related to that programme, how much they cost and what happened to them?
Caroline Flint: Again, I am happy to provide such information. There are many projects, and, as the Minister for Europe, I know that many of the issues that they deal with, whether climate change, multiracial communities, or education and skills, are often taken up by domestic Departments as well and supported through some of their programmes. Today’s debate is about how the principles in the documents operate and what they provide for, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and give him particular details about the many different projects. I am afraid that I do not have the information to hand today.
Mr. Francois: I humbly suggest that part of the purpose of today’s debate is to examine the spending of €88 million of European taxpayers’ money, bearing in mind that the UK is one of the largest net contributors to the EU. Therefore, may I try the Minister on this question? At the end of the plan D projects, people from across the EU were brought together to discuss the conclusions. They made a series of recommendations to EU leaders, and annexe 2 on page 37 states:
“They call upon the EU Heads of State and Government, both in their capacity as European but also as national leaders, to heed those recommendations”—
which the annexe outlines—
“and thereby encourage the development of active European citizenship, without which there cannot be a truly political Union.”
Do Her Majesty’s Government support that?
Caroline Flint: We support the role of the European Union to contribute to better information to enable our citizens to make informed choices about how they can benefit from the EU, and to enter that debate, and for those at EU level also to be able to hear that debate. That does not take away from what national Governments do, and is clearly also a role. We support information as appropriate, and that is what the documents attempt to provide.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The Minister is being a great deal more trusting than her predecessor on the Commission’s expenditure, because page 15 of the document states that he believes that
“discussions...highlighted the need for a more systematic consultation of Member States on the EU’s Annual Communication priorities, prior to their adoption”
and that that was to ensure that they were
“the agreed priorities of the European Union, and not just those of a single EU institution.”
The European Scrutiny Committee also expressed concern about whether it is right that the European Commission, with its acknowledged mission to create a unified Europe and so on, should be able to spend money without reference to member states. I ask particularly about the devolved expenditure to the Commission’s representative in the United Kingdom, who has £150,000 to spend this year. Will the Minister provide a full list of those projects, in the light of her predecessor’s stated concern about whether the representative’s priorities are the same as ours? Her predecessor wanted to ensure that they were, so will she do the same?
Caroline Flint: Of course we want to ensure that the money provided is spent well and meets our objectives, particularly in the areas of work in which we are engaged with the EU—climate change is one—of an open and informed debate by those in the UK with many different views. During the weeks ahead, I hope to discuss with the Commission in London its role. I have already looked into some of the areas, such as the grants provided for 2007-08, and the evaluation of how funding might be provided in 2009-10. I am happy to take those matters forward when I have discussions with representatives here in London.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Will the Minister send us a list?
Caroline Flint: I am happy to send a list, if I can.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of Commission documents 13829/07 and Addenda 1 to 3 (Communicating Europe in Partnership) and 8163/08 (Debate Europe); recognises the importance of communicating effectively with European citizens; and welcomes the measures taken to further improve the co-ordination of the European Union’s work on communicating with the public. —[Caroline Flint.]
5.28 pm
Mr. Francois: I shall come to the two documents, but I want first to press the Minister on the point about timeliness. I accept that she is new to her post, but there has been a long-running debate about the time it takes for papers to get to these Committees when they have been referred for debate by the European Scrutiny Committee. The matter has been raised on the Floor of the House, and I see an ex-Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), on the Government Front Bench, who will be familiar with the matter.
If we are to improve the transparency and scrutiny of European documents, it is not acceptable to receive the papers so late in the day. Now that the Minister has responsibilities for these matters, may I make a plea—I have asked for this before—that she ensures that if anything is referred to a European Committee for debate, all the members of that Committee receive the papers a working week in advance? I think that that request is reasonable, and it is ironic that we are debating “Communicating Europe” when it took so terribly long for the Foreign Office to communicate with us 50 yd across the road at the House of Commons. Perhaps she will take that on board, examine the matter and see whether she could do better in future. Otherwise, there will be even greater cynicism about our ability to scrutinise the massive amount of paper that comes from Europe. I hope that she accepts that that is a reasonable request.
Document 13829/07, “Communicating Europe in Partnership”, of October 2007, followed the European Council of that June, which agreed the draft mandate for the intergovernmental conference that eventually produced what is now known as the treaty of Lisbon. It states, at page 21 of our bundle:
“These events opened a new phase, with ratification of the new treaty to be followed by the European elections in June 2009. The European Council underlined the crucial importance of communicating more and better”.
Right from the beginning, the fate of the document was linked to the fate of the Lisbon treaty and the European Commission’s obvious desire to help ratification. Lisbon crops up several times as we go through it, but I shall return to that matter.
The document proposed a number of measures intended to amplify the European Commission’s communications and further co-ordinate them with those of the member states. Those measures included suggestions for the further use of Eurobarometer opinion polls, so-called management partnerships with member states and an inter-institutional agreement linking the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. Unfortunately for those who came up with the idea, the IIA was found by the EU Council’s legal service to require a new legal basis. However, as the former Europe Minister’s letter of September 2008 explained, a way was found to write the proposal into an existing body and submit it to the Council for approval. That was done in April 2008 and followed up with detailed guidelines in October.
Given that history, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm again that the agreed guidelines on page 198 of the bundle are a purely political agreement.
Caroline Flint: Yes.
Mr. Francois: And that the Commission understands them to be political, and will not attempt to give them legal force by a mechanism sometimes called “Commission creep”. The Minister says yes, but would be grateful if she made that absolutely clear when she replies.
The second document, 8163/08, “Debate Europe”, was produced in April 2008. It was intended to build on existing plan D for democracy projects such as those run by the European Movement and Notre Europe involving deliberative polls, as well as projects in the UK such as those run by the Bevan Foundation, the Community Development Foundation and Forward Ladies Ltd. The document states that the existing approach
“will continue with certain adaptations in 2008 and 2009, during the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty and with due regard to the next European elections.”
To that end, it includes a number of proposals such as internet debates, the creation of a European public space in London, and building on other projects such as the European political foundations and the European fund for the integration of third-country nationals.
One of the most potentially significant proposals in these documents is on page 190 of the bundle. That is the increased use of Eurobarometer opinion polls in a new “strategic manner”. The EU has used opinion polls to inform its policy making for some time, and that is not necessarily a bad thing in principle. However, the methodology used is not often explained. The chosen method is called deliberative polling and was devised by James Fishkin of Stanford university in the United States. Under that system of polling—as politicians, we are all interested in polling—the individuals questioned are first provided with briefing materials and then, over the course of a weekend, discuss the issues in a controlled environment. They are polled at the end of the process. It is argued that that academic methodology creates better-informed decisions.
However, many questions remain about how the European Commission uses the polls, and in particular their results. Those questions will increase if the Commission now intends to use them in a so-called “strategic manner”. An article in The Economist of 21 February 2008, entitled “Ask a Silly Question”, is mentioned in one of the European Scrutiny Committee’s reports. It cast doubts on the methodology behind Eurobarometer polls. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East is not accusing The Economist of being a rabidly Eurosceptic publication.
Mr. Purchase: I only say this to the hon. Gentleman: I read The Economist religiously every week and it sends me to sleep in the same way that what is happening now is sending me to sleep. My enthusiasm is waning further with every second that he remains on his feet.
Mr. Francois: I am terribly sorry if I am not entertaining the hon. Gentleman; I am just here to scrutinise the spending of millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money. If he cannot bear to listen to the fact that some of it has been wasted, I am afraid that that does not cut much ice with me.
The Economist said this about Eurobarometer polling:
“In an infamous incident last year, the commission trumpeted a poll showing 80 per cent. support for the European satellite navigation system, Galileo, and 63 per cent. support for spending billions on it, though only 40 per cent. of respondents had heard of Galileo before they were telephoned for the survey.”
That is a good example of the weaknesses in the system that the Commission relies on and that we, the taxpayers, have in effect been paying for.
There are many questions about how those polls could be used under the scheme. Therefore, I ask the Minister to explain further her understanding of how they are used in practice. She gave us a sort of commitment that she would try to find out whether any polling results would be released in the run-up to the 2009 European elections. I think that she undertook to write to the Committee on that point. I wonder whether she could confirm that that was her answer and that we can all expect something in writing from her on this issue.
Another concern is the inclusion in the presidency conclusion of a reference to schools to help to communicate the idea of Europe. In its report of 15 October, the European Scrutiny Committee stated:
“Neither the Commission, nor in this instance the Minister, has satisfied us that the Commission is genuinely open-minded”.
Therefore, it is difficult to see how communication from the Commission could be used in our schools in a balanced and even-handed way, if other people, who have perhaps a different vision of the development of Europe to that of the Commission, are not allowed to have a say in that matter too.
I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what she thinks this proposal to use schools will mean in practice. Furthermore, could she also reassure us that any use of our schools to help the European Commission to communicate its idea of Europe will allow for equal weight to be given to other points of view, or, as the documents put it, to “other visions” of the European Union.
We are discussing the European Commission’s communication strategies. However, communication is a two-way process. The European Commission needs to improve its communication with the people of Europe, but it also needs to listen to the clear voices of those people when they have been allowed to express themselves. The people of France, the Netherlands and Ireland did exactly that—expressed themselves—when they were asked in referendums whether they approved of the European constitution or, as it has now been renamed, the Lisbon treaty, and they said “no” by large majorities. Unfortunately, however, they do not appear to have been listened to.
We have heard much about plan D. As both of the documents refer on numerous occasions to Lisbon, I would quite like to hear from the Government about plan R for the referendum that they promised the British people in the first place. Was not the real objective for plan D to help to build support for the ratification of the Lisbon treaty? I say that because if one looks at the conclusions of “Communicating Europe in Partnership”, they say that the plan was to:
“launch a follow-up communication Plan D, as well as a new set of Plan D civil society projects, with the overall objective of supporting the ratification process for the Reform Treaty and increasing participation in the 2009 European Parliament elections.”
We have no objection to there being good participation in the European Parliament elections; all of us would like to see a high turnout. However, the Conservatives are very opposed to the Lisbon treaty and therefore we are also very opposed to the spending of taxpayers’ money, including British taxpayers’ money, to try to support its ratification.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am listening most carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he know how the €88 million that has been allocated to plan D has been divided out among the various countries? Does he have any evidence of Ireland and France receiving a disproportionate amount, bearing in mind the votes on the two treaties that he has mentioned?
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