Select Committee on European Union Forty-First Report



216. The Laeken Declaration states "the European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens". How far does the draft Treaty satisfy the Laeken mandate in particular by making the EU more accountable and comprehensible to the citizens? How will this significant and lengthy document be presented so that it can be digested by the media and the public?

217. We have considered in Chapter 2 how the provisions on subsidiarity strengthen national parliaments and thus contribute to a more democratic Union. We have considered in Chapter 3 how institutional changes could enhance transparency, democracy and accountability. This Chapter looks in turn at more general questions under these headings.


The Convention

218. The Convention was a remarkably open affair. A considerable amount of material was made available on the internet, although there were some concerns that the Praesdium operated in secret. We will in due course review the success of the Convention method.

219. Our own Government has continued in the open spirit of the Convention, publishing in July two Command Papers giving the background and the full text of the Treaty. A further document, containing much of general interest, was published in September and we have taken account of that in preparing this report.

220. Recent debates held in Parliament reflect the Government's willingness to engage in dialogue, as do ministerial commitments to appear before specialist committees and in public fora. The Government is also to be commended for launching a public debate on the internet and for making so much useful material about the Convention and the draft Treaty available to the public if they choose to read it. We in particular commend the handy "ten key points" from the Treaty that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made available on their website.

An open IGC?

221. The IGC, however, is by its very nature a body where diplomatic and political negotiations take place. That by definition imposes constraints on what information can be released. But it would be a great pity if the open spirit which has characterised discussions so far was allowed to become lost in the traditional secrecy of Intergovernmental negotiations.

222. The IGC process too remains unclear. Are negotiations to be conducted at a political level or in technical groups? And what about substantive negotiations on a detailed text?

223. As a contribution to ensuring that citizens feel that discussions about the future of Europe - their future - are being made openly and as far as possible in accordance with democratic accountability, we urge the Government to release more information about the IGC.

224. What is needed are the basics - factual details such as who is involved; what they are to discuss; and, most importantly, what are the outcomes. The Foreign Secretary has made a good start by promising to make draft agendas available but the key requirement is for records of deliberation and conclusions to be made quickly and freely available. We ourselves will continue to scrutinise the IGC openly and to make records of our own work freely and publicly available.

225. The relevant information needs to be communicated to Parliament and must be made public in order to counter suspicion that this Treaty is yet another imposition by a European elite on citizens who are not involved in the process. That suspicion is real and goes against the whole spirit of the Laeken declaration and the Convention itself.

226. More importantly, the Government has made clear that it does not expect formal records of the IGC deliberations to be kept or published[94]: this strengthens the case for direct reporting to Parliament. We regret the lack of any published records of the IGC. There should accordingly be regular reports back by Ministers to Parliament on substantive issues being deliberated on at the IGC.

227. To that end, we support the creation of a new joint forum in which the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and other ministers representing this country at the IGC can be held to account by members of both Houses. This may seem like a dry procedural matter but it goes to the heart of what will be a crucial element in the success or otherwise of the Convention's work: namely the question whether, when the decisions are finally taken by the IGC, parliamentarians, commentators and the public have faith that the decisions arrived at really are in their interests.

228. A separate question concerns the role of national parliaments at the IGC, where the European Parliament is to have observer status. M Haenel wanted national parliaments to be "regularly informed and associated" with the IGC work (Q 7). Our own Government has pressed for a greater engagement between the IGC and national parliamentarians. We await the outcome of the efforts of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to this end.

What do people make of the Treaty?

229. Is the draft Treaty in fact clear? There were some criticisms that the new titles of legal instruments would confuse practitioners not least because the old terminology would remain in force as well[95]. In France, M Haenel told us that there was a generally positive response to the Treaty but without people necessarily understanding it and there was a need to explain why the result was a good one (Q 6). General public interest in EU affairs in this country remains limited.[96] Nevertheless, the new provisions on subsidiarity have the potential to contribute to a greater public engagement, provided that the word itself is explained. Any objection by a national parliament would be seen as that parliament standing up for national interests.

Government's duty to inform the UK public

230. We clearly see it as the duty of the Government to inform the public both fully and clearly of the import of the draft Treaty. As recently as June this year, Ministers told this House that "we are at a very early stage…[the Treaty] will... be discussed at great length…by the IGC later this year and into next year"[97]. The IGC has, however, begun earlier than anticipated; and there is considerable pressure to conclude negotiations during this year. The more truncated the timetable of the IGC, the less time there will be to inform national parliaments and the citizen of what is being negotiated and agreed.

231. Public understanding of the issues raised by the draft Treaty is low and we question how far a document with the significance of a Treaty will ever be wholly understood by every citizen. It is the duty of the government in a democracy not only to convey the Treaty's key themes to the public (as our Government has done) but also to set out fully and clearly what the Treaty means. This must include its effects on Parliament, on the Government, on the role of the Courts and on citizens' rights. Whatever the timetable of the IGC, there is clearly a need for a significant enhancement in public presentation by the Government.

232. The EU is a complex subject to grasp fully. It is in the Government's interest that the UK public understands the basics of the European Union better and is therefore better able to evaluate the arguments being put forward. The Government therefore has a duty to inform the public in a fair and simple way what the implications are of the decisions reached at the 2004 IGC. The European Strategy Committee recently set up by the Prime Minister and charged with coordinating the pro-European effort across Whitehall should not only concentrate on the question of British membership of the Euro, but should take a wider remit in informing the public about the EU in general[98].

233. We accordingly welcome the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's on-line consultation on the draft Treaty and Peter Hain's commitment to scrutiny and debate; and we are pleased that the Minister for Europe in particular will be engaging directly with the public on the issues raised by the draft Treaty (QQ19-20). Given the lack of balanced reporting of European issues by some sections of the media, the Government's direct engagement with the public is welcome. In particular, we urge the Government to direct further resources to discussion and debate in schools and universities, in addition to the material being disseminated by the European Union.

234. The Government should also do more actively to heighten the profile of British MEPs and explain the pivotal role they will have in a Union where increasingly decisions are taken by co-decision between the European Parliament and the Council. Only by making the UK public understand better the role of MEPs as the direct link between the supranational level of decision-making in the EU and the local interest of a British region can the general belief in the lack of EU democratic accountability be tackled.

Democracy and accountability

Role of National Parliaments

235. In an EU composed of sovereign Member States where many decisions are taken by elected and accountable national Ministers (or their representatives) it is a duty of all national parliaments to subject their ministers to rigorous scrutiny and to hold them to account. The revised Protocols on Subsidiarity and on National Parliaments in the draft Treaty provide a clear and welcome increase in the role of national parliaments in the EU decision-making process (see Chapter 2 above).

236. The Protocol on National Parliaments obliges the Commission to send all documents directly to national parliaments and stipulates a minimum period from publication before a legislative proposal is placed on a Council meeting agenda. All Commission consultation documents shall be forwarded directly by the Commission to Member States' national parliaments on publication. National Parliaments shall also receive the Commission's annual legislative programme as well as any other instrument of legislative planning or policy strategy. All legislative proposals shall also be sent to national parliaments at the same time as to the EU institutions. The Court of Auditors must also send its annual report to Member States' national parliaments.

237. The Protocol also makes provision for the Conference of European Affairs Committees (known as COSAC). The protocol refers to involvement in COSAC by "special committees". The text should be amended to make it clear that COSAC is a body for national parliamentary committees specialising in European scrutiny to co-operate (along with the European Parliament) and not a body for so-called sectoral committees specialising in individual policy areas.

238. Under the draft Treaty, six weeks must elapse between a legislative proposal being made available and the date when it is placed on an agenda for the Council of Ministers for adoption of a position. In situations of great urgency this rule will not apply, but the Council will have to provide reasons for this in the position it takes. Ten days must elapse between the placing of a proposal on the agenda for a Council meeting and the adoption of a position by the Council of Ministers. Stipulating such minimum timescales before decisions can be reached on legislation in the Council will, if the timescales are observed, allow national parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation to be more effective.

239. A particular question of detail, however, is what status, if any, should the Treaty give to national parliamentary scrutiny reserves? As Peter Hain made clear (Q43), the draft Treaty does not do this, relying instead on improved provisions for the transmission of documents, and the subsidiarity yellow card.

240. We will be working with our colleagues in the Commons and with the Government to try to secure the most effective parliamentary scrutiny. But there will be a number of matters where we will be pressing the "Usual Channels" and the House itself to take forward some ideas where we wish to go further than the Government itself would wish. These include finding a means to strengthen the effect of the House's scrutiny reserve resolution. Appropriate additional resources will be required.

Democratic life of the Union

241. Title VI of the draft Treaty is entitled the Democratic Life of the Union. This section of the Treaty contains a key provision relating to the openness and transparency of the Union's institutions. There are also some broad and important statements of the principles of democratic equality and of representative and participatory democracy (Articles I-44, 45 and 46).

242. Article 46 provides that one million citizens of the EU "coming from a significant number of Member States" may invite the Commission to bring forward a legislative proposal. This is a novel provision, the details of which will be set out in an EU law. How far the procedure will allow the individual citizen, as opposed to lobbyists, groups and organisations, to have an impact on the Commission remains to be seen. It is therefore too early to judge whether the new petition procedure will provide an effective supplement to the present ability of any individual (albeit not enshrined in the Treaty) to raise a matter directly with the Commission.

243. The provision concerning representative democracy has been added since our earlier Report. It describes how citizens are represented directly and indirectly:

"Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament. Member States are represented in the European Council and in the Council of Ministers by their governments, themselves accountable to national parliaments, elected by their citizens".

244. Given the comparative remoteness of the European Parliament and MEPs, Article I-45 underscores the need for national parliaments and individual parliamentarians to be aware and react, both through the formal process of Parliamentary scrutiny and in other ways, to developments in the Union.

245. As we indicated in our earlier Report it will be in the translation of the principles of democratic equality and of representative and participatory democracy into rights for the individual and into ensuring reformed conduct on the part of the institutions that the real benefit of such provision will be judged. So of potentially greater practical significance for the individual are those provisions in Title VI dealing with the European Ombudsman, the transparency of the proceedings of Union institutions, access to documents and the protection of personal data (Articles I-48, 49 and 50 respectively).

246. Some important changes have been made. One such is the requirement that the Council of Ministers shall meet in public when examining and adopting a legislative proposal (Article I-49(2)). This is welcome, though precisely what change it will make beyond what was agreed at the Seville European Council has yet to be seen.

247. It is unclear whether the "and" in the phrase "examining and adopting" in Article I-49(2) is conjunctive or disjunctive. If the latter (which we hope is the correct interpretation) we pose the following questions:

·  how far will "examining" extend?

·  Will it be the case that as soon as a proposal has been adopted by the Commission and submitted to the Council all discussions in the Council (presumably at Ministerial level but not in Working Groups or in COREPER) will be in public?

·  How will those matters now dealt with as "A points" (i.e. without substantive debate) be dealt with?

·  Will Council agendas be made available publicly and in good time before meetings?

248. As we have already argued (see paragraphs 160—173 above) it is unclear whether the examination of legislation will be the monopoly of the Legislative Council (one of whose functions it would be to "consider" and "enact" legislation - Article I-23(1)) and/or how far other Council formations will be able to discuss legislative proposals. The Government acknowledges that it is not always easy to separate executive and legislative functions[99]. The Government must, however, ensure that answers to these questions are provided during the course of the IGC.

249. Overall, it will not be easy to persuade the individual citizen that this Title of the draft Treaty brings them any new or substantially improved rights, or provides any detail on how their participation in the democratic life of the Union can be enhanced. The Government will need to explain more clearly why this is so.

250. The right of access to documents is widened (to include Union bodies and agencies) but still do not go far enough (the applicant must still show that he or she is a Union citizen or is resident in a Member States). The opportunity to extend that right to all persons in the Union has been missed. The Government has said that the right may exist in subordinate access regulations but we continue to believe that it should be in the Treaty. As a contribution to transparency, we therefore urge the Government to revisit during the IGC the right of access to documents.

94   HL Deb 9 September 2003 col 272. Back

95   See pages 13-14 of the evidence below. Back

96   A eurobarometer poll reported in the European Report on 26 July showed that fewer than 30% of Britons had heard of the Convention - 81% of Greeks by contrast had heard of it! Back

97   HL Deb 2 June 2003, col 1048.  Back

98 Back

99   Explanatory Memorandum 24 June 2003. Back

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