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16 Jun 2009 : Column 239
7.53 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I do not propose to say much about the European Union, although I want to talk about European affairs. However, I cannot help reflecting on the statistics just cited by the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), and by the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) earlier, about some of the votes in the European parliamentary elections. The hon. Member for Ilford, South told us that the Greens did well in France; in my constituency they got two and a half times the vote of the Labour party.

The Labour party, unfortunately—or fortunately—has been completely routed in the south-west, and has no Member of the European Parliament there. I hope that that bodes well for the forthcoming general election. There are now no Labour county councillors in my county of Dorset, despite the fact that Labour still holds a parliamentary seat in South Dorset.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): And so we shall in future.

Mr. Walter: I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s view on that.

Today I want to deal with a question of democracy in Europe: the denial by Governments of well-established principles of democracy in the Council of Europe. Her Majesty’s Government are not only complicit in that denial, but are a leading advocate of it. I should give a little background. Mr. Terry Davis, a former Member of this House, has been the secretary-general of the Council of Europe for some time. Before that he was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; in fact, he was the leader of the socialist group there.

We are in the process of seeking a replacement for Mr. Davis. The person replacing him will be elected by Parliamentary Assembly members, who are Members of Parliament from the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. In the same way, judges at the European Court of Human Rights are democratically elected by parliamentarians from across Europe.

Some would say that as the secretary-general for the past five years has been a socialist, it is now time for someone from the centre right to have a go at the job. However, I do not want to portray the issue in a party political manner, because the election, which is due next Tuesday in Strasbourg, will involve a vote on the nomination by the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies, who are the ambassadors. The committee has given the Assembly a list of two to choose from, and I shall come back to those two in a moment.

What is at stake next week is the very position and credibility of the Parliamentary Assembly, and that debate has nothing to do with individual candidates for the post. In a strictly legal sense, the regulations for the election were drawn up in 1956. As long as they are not formally changed by agreement between the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies and the Parliamentary Assembly, only those regulations are valid. Until today, the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies had not proposed to review the criteria applicable to candidates for the post of secretary-general. The long-standing practice, in force for more
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than 50 years, has involved co-operation, consensus and consultation between those two important pillars of the Council of Europe.

However, on this occasion the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies did not respect the existing procedure and rules as it had in all previous elections for the post of secretary-general. In all the previous elections, all the candidates nominated to the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies were forwarded to the Assembly for it to deliberate and vote on. Our diplomats—for they are the people who normally sit on the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies—have created a problem by coming up with a draft opinion on a shortlist of two candidates, instead of the four who were nominated. They did so because they believed that they were solving a problem, created by their Governments and by the Assembly, which endorsed the so-called Juncker report in 2005.

I stress that the Juncker report, drawn up by the long-serving Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, with its 15 proposals, is an excellent document—but it is not the law. Among much else, the report contained the wish that the next secretary-general should be a high-ranking figure in European political life. The diplomats therefore advised their Ministers to present a list of two candidates to the Assembly next week, because, in the opinion of the ambassadors, those candidates meet the so-called Juncker criteria. The ambassadors would have preferred more candidates under those criteria, but unfortunately Mr. Blair became special envoy to the middle east, Mr. Rasmussen went to NATO, Mr. Putin became Prime Minister of Russia, and Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Berlusconi were unavailable. Our own Prime Minister might become available, but probably not before September.

The ambassadors’ list therefore became a very short shortlist. They then created a huge problem by not accepting the candidacy of two other applicants, both of whom happen to be members of the Parliamentary Assembly, as well as the leaders of two of the larger political groups in the Assembly: the European People’s party—the Christian democrats—and the Liberal group. Incidentally, they both meet the Juncker criteria, as they have been Ministers and are certainly notable figures. The ambassadors also forgot that the rules are clear that the Parliamentary Assembly has to be consulted before a decision is made on a list of candidates. In April, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) produced a report for the Parliamentary Assembly that provides complete clarity on the issue; I congratulate him on that. However, the Ministers cannot pick and choose from the Juncker proposals; they must respect the rules and procedures.

At their meeting in October 2008 the Ministers’ deputies—that is, the ambassadors—decided that candidates should comply with the criteria set out by the Ministers in 2007. The key point of the criteria is that candidates should have previously served as a Head of State or Government, or have held senior ministerial office or similar status relevant to the post. On that basis, candidates applied and were invited for interviews, and the four candidates apparently fulfilled the criteria. After the closing date for the receipt of nominations, and following a series of votes, the Ministers’ deputies changed the procedure and the criteria to a more restrictive interpretation. For ambassadors involved in what is essentially a democratic procedure, that is unprecedented.
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The Foreign Ministers of member states apparently made a decision, and their deputies decided that they would accept as candidates only former Heads of State or Government. The Ministers’ deputies decided to establish different criteria after the closing date for the receipt of nominations.

It must also be emphasised, with great regret, that the Ministers’ deputies never considered it appropriate to consult the Assembly before making their decisions. In the past, all regulations relating to the appointment of the secretary-general were adopted by the Committee of Ministers, with the agreement of the Assembly, yet the Committee of Ministers now took a decision prior to any consultation with the Assembly. The Ministers’ deputies—the fonctionnaires, or civil servants—moved the goalposts while the game was under way. If they want to apply other criteria and another procedure, that must be done in co-operation with the Assembly, and prior to the opening of the election procedure. They failed to do that.

In effect, this is an institutional coup d’état and an unacceptable limitation of the prerogatives and competences of the Assembly and its parliamentary representatives, all of whom have been democratically elected. This is a test case and a precedent for the Assembly—the parliamentary guardians of democracy and human rights in Europe—regarding one of its most important prerogatives: the election of the highest officials of the Council of Europe. Members of Parliament from across Europe are now unified on this principle, yet the weight of all future elections, including the election of judges, could, if we are not vigilant, shift to the officials, to the Committee of Ministers and to the Executive.

This debate is about the principle of parliamentary democracy. It is about the balance of power between Executives and Parliaments. In many countries across Europe, that battle goes back over several hundred years; in some younger democracies, it is as recent as 20 years ago. It is about the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament: in this case, between the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly. We must remind the Foreign Secretary and his representative on the Committee of Ministers that they represent national Governments: they are ambassadors, functionaries, advisers. They advise the very same Governments whom we collectively, as parliamentarians across Europe, authorise and oversee in our daily work.

The democratic legitimacy of the Council of Europe Assembly is beyond question, but I question the procedure in this process. First, it is normal practice for the Committee of Ministers to look at all candidates and forward the list to the Parliamentary Assembly. In this situation, therefore, had the Committee of Ministers followed custom and practice, the names of all four candidates would have been submitted to the Parliamentary Assembly.

Secondly, the Committee of Ministers normally acts by consensus. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions on which it has taken a vote in the last five years—so why on this occasion, unless it was looking for confrontation, did it decide to use the voting procedure? Why not use the normal consensual procedure to arrive at an opinion which could have been forwarded to the Assembly, and which we would have respected?

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Thirdly, I believe that this is a cynical attempt by the Committee of Ministers to prejudge the decision of Members of Parliament. It has submitted two candidates. One is clearly its favourite; the other, although he meets the Juncker criteria, is probably unacceptable to the Assembly. It has therefore decided already and ensured that we in the Assembly have no decision to take on the election. I believe that the rejection of two candidates from the Parliamentary Assembly is a blatant attempt by the Committee of Ministers to shift the balance of power from elected parliamentarians to appointed ambassadors. Custom and practice say that they should have sent us all four candidates. We may well eventually choose their preferred candidate—he is the Speaker of the Norwegian Parliament and a former Prime Minister—but that is up to us to decide. We in the Assembly are the guardians of democracy in Europe.

The Government should take note of this: in April the Assembly voted by 158 votes to one to reject the procedure adopted by the Committee of Ministers. If that had been a vote in this House—and therefore a resounding rejection of a Government position—Ministers would have had to think again, but the functionaries and the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies battle on with their established position. I hope that the Minister will tell the House that he will now endorse the proposal that the Committee of Ministers, when it meets the Parliamentary Assembly on Thursday, should present the Assembly with a list of all four candidates on which the Committee can indicate its preference, as foreseen in the rules. Anything else will be a negation of the very principles of democracy on which the Council of Europe is built.

8.7 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): One of the issues that will be high up the agenda for the meeting at the end of this week will be climate change. All the parties represented in the Chamber recognise the importance of tackling climate change. The evidence is mounting that even previous projections for the rate at which global warming was taking place have been on the low side. Much depends on the possibility of the world’s agreeing a comprehensive climate change treaty at Copenhagen later this year. It is fair to say that if that agreement is not reached, we are almost certainly beyond many of the famous tipping points after which damage from climate change will be irreversible.

We all know that reaching a climate change agreement at Copenhagen will be extremely difficult. Notwithstanding the commitment of the Obama Administration, there are signs that there will be difficulties in getting a comprehensive agreement through the US Congress. Other major industrialised states have not yet come forward with an indication that they are prepared to sign up to a comprehensive agreement. For example, the position of the Japanese Government, which was revealed only a week or so ago, is extremely disappointing; and other Governments still have a long way to go.

The role of the European Union in getting a global climate change agreement is extremely important: first, because the EU has to agree to its own domestic policies on climate change in order to show that it is serious about tackling emissions; and secondly, because the EU has a crucial role to play in developing a global agreement on providing finance for climate change mitigation and
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adaptation in developing countries. Those are the two essential characteristics of any EU position.

If the EU does not agree ambitious climate change targets, other countries are less likely to follow our lead. Similarly, it is widely recognised that if we are to get developing countries to agree to a comprehensive agreement on climate change, they will expect financial compensation and assistance to allow them to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects. They rightly say that they are not prepared to make commitments on emissions limits if countries such as our own, which have benefited from a period with no limits, are allowed to get away with not providing anything towards the costs of helping countries that have not previously enjoyed economic growth.

Those are the essential building blocks of any international agreement on climate change. It is therefore essential that the EU agrees a clear and comprehensive position and takes it forward to the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, the signs are that so far there have been difficulties, to put it mildly, in getting a European agreement on the type and scale of finance that is required for climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. For example, Finance Ministers were unable to reach agreement on a number of occasions and have effectively kicked the decision into touch for the Council of Ministers to discuss this weekend.

There are now suggestions that an agreement will not be reached this weekend but will be left for the Swedish presidency to deal with at a later stage. It is widely recognised, of course, that for all sorts of reasons the Czech presidency was unable to take forward the negotiations necessary to reach an agreement on a European position. I strongly urge the Government not to allow this weekend’s discussions to finish without an agreement on finance for developing countries for adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change. It would not be right to leave the matter to negotiations in the next few months under the Swedish presidency, as that would send a bad signal to the rest of the world about the EU’s willingness and ability to enter into a widespread and comprehensive agreement on climate change later this year.

Jo Swinson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not just a question of sending a bad signal to other countries? Actually, time is running out. Although the Copenhagen conference does not take place until December, many pre-negotiations will take place in the months leading up to it. If Europe does not agree this coming weekend a firm, good, robust negotiating position that will work for developing countries, there will not be time in those pre-negotiations to get the deal that we so badly need at Copenhagen.

Mark Lazarowicz: I agree that there is a real risk of that situation developing. That is why it is essential that we get an agreement this weekend, and I hope that the British Government will make that one of the themes of the discussions. I hope that the summit will not be allowed to conclude until an agreement has been reached, even if it means going through from Thursday to Sunday or Monday next week. The summit will not be regarded as a success in the run-up to the climate change negotiations
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if anything other than the most minor details of an agreement are left to future discussions and meetings. It is essential that that point be made in the run-up to the Council.

I wish to refer briefly to two other matters of European policy on climate change that came up earlier in the debate. The first is the common fisheries policy. We have heard repeated in today’s debate—by some of those who, although they do not like being called Eurosceptics, tend to fall into that category—the view that the policy is basically a bad thing because it prevents member states from fishing as much as they want to. When it comes to climate change, however, there is evidence that over-fishing is one factor that leads to acidification of the ocean. There have been announcements and scientific findings about that in the past couple of weeks. We must recognise that we have to control fishing and prevent over-fishing. That is one of the many factors that have to be addressed if we are to deal with climate change.

Another issue that was mentioned earlier was the economic rescue and recovery programme. I welcome what is being done at European level on that, too. One disappointment for me in considering the recovery programme so far has been that the elements of what are generally described as green jobs or green employment have not been as strong as they ought to be. I hope that in the European summit that is coming up, the UK Government will strongly emphasise that a high proportion of the funding set aside for the European recovery programme must be devoted to economic activity and employment-creation schemes that recognise the importance of renewable energy and renewable technology, not just in creating employment but in meeting a wider climate change agenda.

I turn briefly to another matter that has been mentioned in the debate and is of concern to me and, I know, to many colleagues: policy on the middle east and the EU’s policy towards Israel and Palestine. I welcome, as I suspect do most colleagues, the support and the high profile given by the Obama Administration to getting some type of settlement agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Administration’s approach to the dispute seems to underline clearly the fact that only by putting pressure on the Israeli Government can we get a real change in their position. It is surely no accident that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that he would be prepared to accept a two-state solution, even if in a very qualified way, came after the clear message from the United States Administration that they would not be prepared to accept anything less from the Israeli Government.

Similarly, the EU must take a strong position towards the current Israeli Government. There should certainly be no question of any upgrade in Israel’s current relationships with the EU until there is genuine movement towards a settlement in the middle east that is acceptable to both Israel and the Palestinians.

The final subject that I should like to deal with briefly is one that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary dealt with towards the end of his opening speech: the question of how those of us who are enthusiastic about the EU and about greater co-operation between the nations of Europe can get our argument over. We have patently not been very successful at doing that, certainly in the recent elections and perhaps over a longer period.

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It seems to me that the most important and significant thing that those of us who support the EU and greater European co-operation can do is ensure that it results in not just positive words but positive actions. We can refer to what has been achieved and what we have gained from European Union membership for our own country over many years. The economic advantages of membership of a trading bloc are clear, and we can point to the fact that for the 53 years of the EU we have seen peace between all the member states. One of the objectives of the EU was to prevent European wars from happening again. Whereas in the previous 53 years not only two but six major conflicts in Europe affected states that are now members of the European Union, in the past 53 years there has been no military conflict between members of the European Union. That was a major reason for its establishment; it is certainly one of its major achievements.

However, we must speak not only about the past but about the deeds that can now be undertaken to create greater support for Europe, the European Union and closer and greater European co-operation. Three things need to be done. First, we must end the institutional argument—that is why I welcome the recognition on the Government and Opposition Benches that, if the Irish agree the Lisbon treaty, it will end the institutional argument for some time to come.

Mr. Davidson: Is my hon. Friend suggesting that if a Conservative Government were returned at the next election and if, by then, the Irish had ratified the Lisbon treaty, the Conservatives would not hold a referendum? Surely that cannot be the case.

Mark Lazarowicz: In the unlikely event of a Conservative Government being returned at the next election, not holding a referendum would indeed appear to be their policy.

Mr. Davidson: Surely not.

Mark Lazarowicz: It surprises my hon. Friend as much as it surprises me.

Secondly, we need to tackle reform of the European Union institutions. We have had problems, to put it mildly, about the way in which we have operated as Members of Parliament and about our expenses and allowances. We all recognise that there are also problems at a European level, which cannot be left untouched for much longer.

Above all, our Governments must ensure that the European Union devises solutions and programmes for the important issues of the day. I have mentioned climate change, the middle east, economic recovery, international development and global security. If the European Union can get back on track, tackle such issues and get results, we will witness a major change in the British public’s opinion of it.

The British Government have the opportunity to bring about those genuine policy changes and advances at European level. A Government and a party that have links with political parties throughout the European Union have a much greater chance of securing benefits for this country and genuine change and progressive policies in Europe than the Conservative party, which is apparently choosing a road of isolation in Europe through its decision about whom it wants as friends and whom it wants as enemies in European Union matters.

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