Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 76 - 79)

TUESDAY 3 JULY 2001

LORD RUSSELL-JOHNSTON MP

Chairman

  76. Thank you very much indeed for coming to speak to us this afternoon on our enquiry into the possibility of a Second Chamber. I know you have a very long service record in this field, having been a Member of the United Kingdom delegation of the European Parliament for quite a number of years in the 1970s when, indeed, of course it was set up in a way which could be perhaps a model for a Second Chamber. Also you have been a representative on the Council of Europe from 1984, I believe, and President of the Parliamentary Assembly for the last couple of years or so. We are also very grateful to you for producing your memorandum. I wonder whether you would like to start off by saying anything and we will then go into questions and answers, if that is all right.

  (Lord Russell-Johnston) Thank you very much indeed, Lord Chairman. I do not want to say very much. Really, I want, first of all, to thank you for the opportunity. Secondly, really to apologise for the paper, which is not as coherent and ordered as I would wish; I wish it was better. However, it does not, as I am sure you appreciate, make a case. The object of coming here is not to make a case. I heard that this enquiry had been instituted and I felt, therefore, that it was important to have some input from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe so that if you did end up arguing for the Second Chamber for the European Union—and you will note that I did not advocate that in the paper—you would at least consider the experience of the Council of Europe and the Assembly which, sadly, I find going around, and I have now visited 41 of the 43 countries, vast ignorance—I am not suggesting that this is shared by your Lordships—of the Council of Europe in even the most unexpected places. That was why I asked if I could have your permission to present a paper to you. It is not official either in the sense that we do not have an official view, the Assembly, although obviously I am aware of the various currents and the Political Committee of the Assembly is currently in the process of producing a report on the same ground that you are traversing but I do not think that will be completed until after you complete your report and consequently cannot be taken into account. Again, I would thank you very much for this opportunity.

  77. Thank you very much indeed. Perhaps I might kick off with a question. You say in your memorandum that the European Parliament and its election by direct universal suffrage contribute to its "alienation" from the people of Europe. Could the European Parliament be reformed, short of creating a Second Chamber, in a way that might solve that particular problem of alienation? I find that quite difficult to envisage because, after all, it is election by universal suffrage and I am not quite sure how you could get closer to the people perhaps. Maybe you would like to expand on that a bit?

  A. If I may start my evidence with a stunning statement: I must say I do not know, I do not know. I doubt if the European Parliament can be reformed. I do not actually think it requires to be reformed. I think in the form that it exists—and you referred to the fact that I was there in the happy days when you did not have to be elected to it, so I remember about it, I remember how it functioned—I do not really see that any change in the structure would make any difference. The alienation—perhaps that is even too strong a word—the growth of disinterest is for other reasons. Well, not the structure but the function. The fact that many people think it is so far away, it is not relevant. There is practically no reporting of the European Parliament in the media at all. There is no way in which people can find out about it, however good or bad. If it does anything stupid it certainly attracts attention but normal reporting, as you know in the print media, this Parliament gets very little real straightforward coverage now compared with what it did in the past, certainly the European Parliament does not. I find it very difficult to decide about why this is happening. The classical argument is that, as I have just said, the European Parliament does not seem to be relevant to people where they live and consequently it is not important. Then you look at some of the local government turnout results and you find that very often they are calamitous. They are the people who are closest to the electorate so that does not seem to answer it either. Unfortunately in the United Kingdom I gather that the last election was the lowest turnout since 1885 so that is not very good for us either.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Lord Williamson.

Lord Williamson of Horton

  78. Could I just follow up this point, Lord Russell-Johnston. It seems to me that the European Parliament obviously has democratic legitimacy, it has the same democratic legitimacy as the House of Commons. It is universally elected and we cannot query that but I do agree with you that there is an element of disinterest. You used the phrase and I agree with that. Do you really think that by creating another chamber which is, as it were, slightly less democratically legitimate because it is not universally elected but by an indirect means, you would actually achieve anything to reduce the disinterest? I am grateful for your comments, I think they are very good about how things might be arranged but do you really think another chamber is going to arouse any more interest?

  A. Would a second chamber arouse more interest?

  79. Yes?

  A. That is a very difficult question to answer. Again, I am tempted to say I do not know but that becomes boring after a while.



 
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