Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-35)



Lord Williams of Elvel

  20. This was precisely what was put forward by the Belgian parliament. Lord Jopling and I went to a couple of conferences about the idea of parliaments getting together in some form and possibly creating a new assembly of some form. I think both Lord Jopling and I, coming from rather different points on the political spectrum, took the identical view that this really was not in the interests of either national parliaments or the European Union.
  (Lord MacLennan of Rogart) I have heard some discussion about the possibility that it is only in the second and third pillars but in the first pillar there might be advice adopted, which will enable national parliaments to consider legislation without any national veto being imported by that right, but recognising that if a substantial number of national parliaments expressed the view, within the given period, then there might have to be a process for thinking again. There are a lot of ideas of this kind circulating, which is what I think makes it so unreal, in a way, to imagine that our excellent scrutiny method in the two Houses could be applied across the board to all the issues that are coming before the Convention and that are going to be decided. It may be that after the working groups have been set up and their terms of reference defined, it would be a sensible idea for those scrutiny committees to consider whether there are issues, items on the agenda, to which they would want to give fairly speedy consideration, though it has to be said I think it might be sanguine to imagine that there would be easy answers which will necessarily commend themselves to everybody in the committee.
  (Ms Stuart) If you look at the workings of the Council of Ministers, at the moment that is in private. Parliament cannot even scrutinise what their ministers have done here because we do not know what they have done. Simple mechanisms like that will open up the possibly of accountability, which to some may seem just a PR exercise but I do not think it is. I just make that point.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

  21. I wonder if I could ask a question which I think lies in three items: the relationships or the competencies between institutions; democratic deficit; and even the eventual written constitution? Is there on the agenda any suggestion that the Commission's dominant power, perhaps even quasi-monopoly, to propose legislation and to negotiate foreign trade agreements should be removed or diluted? Secondly, more generally, along those lines, I did not quite understand something that Ms Stuart said about subsidiarity and the acquis. Is it understood and generally agreed that the acquis will be able to flow backward to national parliaments, or is that really off the agenda? Is the acquis still sacrosanct?
  (Ms Stuart) Giscard d'Estaing addressed the European Parliament a few weeks ago, and he said quite clearly that, as far as he was concerned, within the framework of the work of the Convention there should be no area of the acquis which is untouchable. I think that is quite an important statement. Coming back to the first question on the Commission, this was one of the four rights which I was trying to highlight at an earlier stage, that some people will have to wake up to that tension between the Council of Ministers and the Commission. I think it will come up at some stage.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think one problem about removing the Commission's monopoly on initiative is that it will then open the floodgates for other institutions to propose legislation. If there is one thing that Europe does not lack, it is legislation. I think there should be precautions about simply addressing the status of the Commission along those terms. But I do think there is a more fundamental question about what is the Commission for. Is it simply the executive or is it a quasi-government? There are proposals in the Convention already to elect the President of the Commission in some way. If that is done, you are obviously raising its status and will make it into at least an embryonic government. Again, I think we must ask the more fundamental question about what we expect from the Commission. On the acquis, the Laeken Declaration seemed to suggest that this was in some way sacrosanct. I think that is itself an undemocratic attitude. As Ms Stuart has said , we must find a return valve or, in the metaphor I often use, the European car must find a reverse gear to match its five forward gears because the public like to know that things can be repealed as much as added. The acquis now runs to 85,000 pages of accumulated legislation and regulations. It substantially breached subsidiarity principle in a number of respects and it is a fantastic burden on the applicant states, all of whom are trying to absorb into their administrative systems this vast body of legislation in order to qualify for membership. So again I think we do need to examine the burden of the past and repatriate some of that, if necessary, in addition to looking for mechanisms in the future.

Baroness Maddock

  22. I think Ms Stuart has already touched on reporting back to parliaments here in Britain. Of course, we have your first progress report. How do you feel as representatives of both Houses of Parliament that you can best report back to the two Houses of Parliament? Would you, for example, and I know there has been some discussion about this, favour an occasional meeting that was open to members of both Houses, allowing questions to be put to you, but with very simple procedures? Do you see a role for this Committee and our sister committee in the Commons for example holding regular sessions like this on the record and making the reports for information of the House?
  (Ms Stuart) I think we have had some discussions, and our feeling was that there were three requirements, in a sense. The first is that we should find a way where we can report to both Houses jointly. Secondly, that there would be a ready-made structure which would lend itself to that, i.e. certain select committees. It would be a bit like the European standing committees where, should there ever be a vote, and of course in this context there never is a vote, you have core members, but any member in essence who wishes to be there, should be there. Thirdly, it should be as informal as possible, but I also think it should be on the public record. As to the frequency of the meetings, I think we could look at the programmes and the kinds of meetings and as and when both Houses feel there is an agenda item they wish to discuss, and the working groups have timetables, you will find that all of us will go out of our way to make ourselves available because we do feel that reporting back to both Houses is extremely important.

  23. Could I press you perhaps on the role of this Committee and the sister committee? Do you see that as a supplement to this?
  (Ms Stuart) I always feel it is up to the committees themselves whether they wish to question us on their own or collectively. Again, I think I speak for all of us probably, that we are here available and willing.
  (Lord Tomlinson) I think that is important because for anything that is done through committee, particularly if it is done formally in the committee, there will be a record that is available to all Members. I equally think that the House needs to be slightly proactive as well. I very much favour the idea of, say on a monthly basis or some other appropriate period of time, getting together a bundle of the documents, putting them into a single document and making that available in the Printed Paper Office. I was very impressed by the very wise words that Lord Bowness gave us at any early stage about the amount of time you can spend taking paper off the internet. I determined quite clearly that Mr Burton was much better qualified to do that for me than I was qualified to do it for myself. I justify it in the interests of transparency so that I get nothing that he does not see. If he, having seen it, does not make you see it, make the Committee have the opportunity of seeing it, make the House have the opportunity of seeing it, then it is not my selfishness in keeping it all to myself that has been responsible; there is something wrong with the internal distribution. I think we have got to get that paper flowing in bundles, say on a monthly basis, so that people who have the desire to read it and comment upon it have every opportunity and every facility to so do.

Lord Jopling.

  24. Following Lady Maddock's question about reporting back to parliaments, Lord Tomlinson has, I think twice, referred to the existence of the party groups. I wonder if we could just hear a little about how powerful is the influence of party groups; what back-up they have or what financial assistance they have; and whether there are arrangements for party groups or the officers of party groups to go round the European Union consulting their own party groups in individual parliaments?
  (Lord Tomlinson) I can only speak for the work that has been done in the party of European Socialists. Without going into the political detail, clearly the party of European Socialists is co-ordinating the activities of those who are within that Party of European Socialists family and who wish to engage in the process of co-ordination. That does not mean to say that they have a whip or a binding line but they do consider and discuss together matters of mutual interest arising from the Convention. Of course the initiative is taken by the members in the European Parliament, who are already used to the process of working in trans-national political groups. I assume that similar things happen in other political families. I find it extremely useful. It is the only time I have the opportunity to speak to government ministers, a member of the Commission, members of the European Parliament and members of national parliaments at the same time without any inhibition about being an Alternate. We can have full and open discussions. I know that some of the political groups are already talking about having a system of working parties. Without yet knowing what the structure of working parties arising in the Convention itself is going to be, political groups are going to be having their own look at issues that they have already deemed to be politically important for them in the context of the Convention.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I belong to the EPP group, which is the largest, and therefore rather diffuse and its politics, I have to say, only intermittently connect with the European policies of the Conservative party. Nevertheless, it is a right of centre grouping in which I feel reasonably comfortable. They have been very generous in their tolerance of some of my other views, so far. But they have the great advantage of being a European Parliament-based organisation, with all the research, European money, offices, electronic equipment and press officers, whereas as a parliamentarian in this country I have been awarded a researcher by my House, which is very welcome, but I am a little bit in that respect comparatively lonely. That emphasises the importance, if I may say so, of refreshing my ideas from committees like this because I have found myself belonging to a number of overlapping groups. I am a British delegate but I am a British parliamentarian specifically, as well as being a Conservative. All these things come together in a sort of mosaic of loyalty and aims. I think perhaps almost the most important one is the desire to raise the status and influence of national decision-making, which is expressed through our Parliament. That does echo the point made earlier about how seriously I will take the ideas arising from you and your sister committee down the corridor.

Lord Howell of Guildford

  25. I wanted to ask briefly a second question. How does Mr Hain fit in to your team? He is part of your team and yet of course he is the executive and therefore, in a sense, on the other side from you. When he speaks, presumably he speaks government policy. How is all that going to work? How is it working now? How is he going to be able to present himself and call himself to account, as it were, before this House, and indeed this Committee?
  (Lord Tomlinson) At the first couple of meetings we had had a meeting of all Brits, and that was originally an initiative taken by Peter Hain to make sure that all the Brits from the European Parliament and from the two Houses' national parliaments and himself and his staff got together. He decided that it was better that he should not necessarily take the responsibility for convening it. At future meetings, having consulted with others, I will be convening the meeting of Brits. But we do need the presence of Peter Hain to say to us anything that is important from a government point of view, and it is also particularly important that we have Gisela Stuart along so that we can hear from the Praesidium as well when we are talking. Peter Hain is fitting in in that way and he is very visibly present at all meetings and it is hard to avoid him in the tearoom, not that one would want to!

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

  26. I would like to continue on the same theme, finding how the public at large and we in Parliament input our views through this process. Now, 54 questions have been posed to start off the Convention running. Do you know the answers to those questions in your heads? If so, how do we get into your heads and know what you are thinking? Do you want to know what our views are on the 54 questions? Are the views of the government on the 54 questions different to yours or is there a meeting of minds? How do we start to bring these pieces together?
  (Ms Stuart) Shall I kick off by saying that it is very interesting you say there are 54 questions. Some think there are 58, others think there are 62 and others think there are just six.

  27. I am reading your report.
  (Ms Stuart) That is almost the nature of the problem. I was trying to say earlier on that there is actually a danger that we provide too many answers because that then allows such a variety of plurality of voices that those who finally draft the paper can just draft whatever they wish. I do not know how others members would respond, but my view is that there are some areas where I feel there is something for which I, or the UK, or Parliament can add something on which there are no other speakers within that framework. I think it is on that basis and in terms of "do we already have the answers?". I suggest that if we did, we would be raising them because I think all of us have committed the next 12 to 15 months of our political life to something which we regard as extremely important. I do not think anybody here has the answers. This is part of the challenge of it. If you get it wrong, it will have very serious consequences. We do need to talk to each other, not just to hear each other but actually listen to each other. It is in that sense that candidate countries are going to be the most interesting because their delegates will have spent the last few years largely preparing their countries for membership and they have thought about democracy at the European level, they have thought about what that means to them at home; and they still have a sense of really cherishing this. I think we would be making a big mistake if we did not listen to them very carefully.

Lord Howell of Guildford

  28. To go back to my options, because I did not put it clearly, there are some radically different views about how the EU should be organised, alternative models and alternatives to the Community method, which many people feel are completely out of date now. Are these going to see the light of day? If there is just going to be one conclusion, it seems almost certain they will be lost. There has to be evidence of a positive input, which means alternatives. Is that going to be lost?
  (Ms Stuart) Can I explain what goes on? People wondered to begin with if we were going to take votes. There was a sense that voting was the big democratic way. It just does not work that way. It is quite interesting that in the last Convention session which we had, much to my surprise, two things suddenly emerged which you cannot ignore now. One was that a lot of people were mentioning a catalogue of competences as one issue, which at one stage was very seriously on the table. Universally, speaker after speaker was saying that it sounded like a very good idea at the time but, once you start thinking through it, it actually will not work. The next things were the European security and defence policies, the core four in which we need to engage. Whilst there is a desire to have a single document, I think there is a strong argument for saying that if we do not end up with a single document, we will have lost some authority to go to the IGC. However, if there is a plurality of voices to the contrary coming from the floor, the Convention will not be able to ignore it.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I am sure it is Giscard's aim to have a single recommendation by consensus, which will be presented to Member States and will be so overwhelming that it will be accepted in the 2004 IGC. I think it would be a great mistake if that is achieved by generous helpings of Euro fudge, by which I mean that consensus is achieved by giving everybody something; everybody goes away happy with a little more power and influence, leaving the public outside this process completely bemused. They will again see that politicians are giving themselves more committees, more institutions and more power when, frankly, that is not what is lacking at present. I also believe that it would be appropriate in at least some Member States to put this result to a referendum. I think it is always better at a referendum to have choices and alternatives, rather than take it or leave it. Therefore, I think it would be entirely in line with the Laeken Declaration, which leaves the question open, to produce a number of different options for the people and the IGC to choose eventually. I think that would be a better outcome than a manufactured consensus which strains reality.

Baroness Stern

  29. Has the outcome of the first round of the French elections had any impact on the Convention and, if it is too soon for you to answer that, I am quite prepared for you to say, "Of course it is". How is the Convention dealing with the link between the far right view and anti-Europe views?
  (Lord MacLennan of Rogart) I would be very surprised if it did not have an overhang on the discussion of how the Union deals with asylum and immigration, justice and home affairs questions split between the Community method for asylum and immigration and much of the rest being dealt with in the third pillar: is it sufficiently open; is it sufficiently proactive; is the programme which has already been agreed been agreed in the right way? All these questions will undoubtedly come up. There is going to be a working party on many of these issues. May I come back to the question that you, My Lord Chairman, were asking about how to relate? There are some questions that I think it would be most helpful if, the scrutiny committees were to decide for themselves, namely what are the priority issues on which they would like to focus and then to proceed in a manner in which these scrutiny committees always proceed, which is by deliberation and taking evidence, because candidly that is what gives the work of the scrutiny committee its authority. If it were simply an attempt to try to take the voices without that kind of evidence-based discussion, I do not think it would either carry great weight or that it would assist us to take a common view.

Lord Scott of Foscote

  30. I wanted to ask about what is going to happen when the Convention Chairman, as I understand he intends to do, makes progress reports to the successive European Council meetings. I think the next one is going to be in Seville in June. Progress reports might themselves be consensual, following broad agreement as to what has been achieved and what is being done, or they might be more individualistic on his part in seeking to give a direction or to raise some expectations. Are you expecting any particular line to be taken in these progress reports?
  (Ms Stuart) If you look at the working methods which were agreed, the President does not even have to tell the Praesidium what shape his discussion at Seville will take. I assume it will be a single voice on our behalf.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) I think it is far too early for anyone to try and manufacture a sort of progress report on consensus out of what has happened so far. The working groups report by September or October. I think then we will start to get a clear idea. Could I just refer to Lady Stern's point because I do think this is rather important. I think the real lesson about this upset in the first round French Presidential election is that there is a frustration in the European electorate which bubbles up in rather unpleasant ways, and, if not unpleasant, often unexpected. The Danish referendum on the euro has had an unexpected result. The Irish referendum on Nice showed an unexpected "no" vote in the most European-enthusiastic nation. Here the French electors I think are trying to say something. I do not think that decent French men and women are really wanting to vote for someone like Le Pen but I think they are expressing something about the closed choice, or lack of choices, available to them. On immigration, I do not think they want a violently xenophobic immigration policy but they do want a feeling that they control it in some way, or at least that the people making these decisions are accountable to a body that they know and with which they are familiar. If it is all decided up in some supranational superstructure beyond that, then I think people will vote in these ways. If I may add one other thing to that, before President Chirac's doubtless temporary hiccup with the French electorate, he was slightly prone to issuing rather general edicts. He has said he wishes for a federation of nation states. If you analyse that phrase, it is contradictory. If you have a federation, the states in it cease to be nation states as most of the public understand that term. I think you must be clear and speak the truth to the public. Then I think we can re-engage their attention. I think that is partly what has gone wrong in France.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

  31. You have partly answered my question. If we are going to be attempting to contribute measured evidence-taking, perhaps we need to know also what the basis of the Convention will be. Working parties or working groups will report back in September when the British Parliament will not be sitting. How do you see the next three to six months panning out and what is the point at which it would be useful and possible for us to plug back in to the discussions before these discussions have gone by?
  (Ms Stuart) As I say, at the end of the day we will have the titles of the working groups. There will be a timetable for the early ones when they come back in September/October, some of them later. New ones will be set up. I think it is almost as important, if I may be so bold as to suggest to the Committee, to have a look at the topics which will have to come up by our remit to Laeken to have a sense about what will be important to the Committee and where it will have a voice which is distinct, and almost then start working on those, and then see when that is most appropriately fed back. I keep coming back to saying "keep your foot on the carpet".

Viscount Bledisloe

  32. Do you think it is necessary or at least highly desirable that during the period the government should make available time in both Houses for debates on progress where they can report where things have got to and hear views on what has happened and what should happen?
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) Yes, I strongly believe we should, partly because we might then hear what Peter Hain's view is about these matters, which so far remains a little bit Delphic. The other point is that I think, if we are trying to get the public interested, one of the ways is for the Houses of Parliament to become interested. If they see things debated and argued out on the floor of the house, that at least has some effect on stimulating interest in electors. So we can try and engage directly with the public but I think it would help if we ourselves take the issues seriously.

  33. I have to say that if we are going to engage the interest of the public, the debate will have to be in the other place and not in this House. Very little of what happens in this House ever gets into the public domain.
  (Mr Heathcoat-Amory) You are too modest, sir.

Chairman: But I think Lord Bledisloe is absolutely right. It is extremely useful and very kind of you to come and talk to us an give your views to this Committee, but as well as that we also need a debate on the floor of the House, led by the government, of the government's view on everything as well. I think we as a committee will be pressing, if nobody else does, for that to happen. We will get, not in this House obviously Mr Hain personally, but his equivalent here to give us the government's view and give the House as a whole the opportunity to make their views.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

  34. As a final point, if I may, my Lord Chairman, I have tried to have a look 20 or 30 years ahead to see what I think the EU might look like and what kind of EU I might want and then to log down my priorities. These tended to be the usual ones: peace and prosperity, health and environment. I think an interesting one I put down, which surprised myself, and I heard it come though quite a lot today, is the issue of choice, that politics in recent years has opened up more choices for people and people demand more choice. I wonder whether there is any real focus being put on this within the Convention because it is an important political development which is not going away and Europe needs to address it.
  (Lord Tomlinson) My Lord Chairman, I have always been sufficiently unambitious never to try to use a crystal ball for more than about ten minutes in advance, certainly not 20 or 30 years in advance.

  35. That is your job.
  (Lord Tomlinson) I really think, on the very long-term issues that you are looking at, that the Convention itself has not yet begun to focus on them. This is the reality. It is an extremely boring part, but necessary part, of its activity, of everybody making—160, was it—interventions. At the last convention it was three minutes a piece with a few people waving a blue card for a one minute intervention in between. What that process of long, boring sessions of sitting down and listening to a lot of repetition has done is to narrow some of the parameters; some of the extremes of the discussion have been knocked off, the parameters are a little bit closer and you can have a slightly tidier agenda for the future, but that is really all it has done. I think the real work of the Convention is yet to begin and it is very difficult yet to forecast the exact direction in which it is going. I think we will need to have the working parties in progress before you will see that.
  (Ms Stuart) I do not look at a crystal ball but what I do, given that Turkey is there as the 28th Member State, is sometimes ask myself: would any of this work if Turkey were in it? That actually raises some very interesting questions.
  (Lord MacLennan of Rogart) I think there is an awareness already that most members of the Convention want it to be as strong an institution as necessary to make it effective in areas of general concern where there is no national body that is capable of being effective. Secondly, and at least as important, continental Europe is a diverse society and the pluralism of that society has to be provided for, giving choices to the citizens of Europe in matters when it is not necessary for the issues to be decided on a continental basis.

Chairman: Thank you very much indeed to all of you for coming. I know we have probably a year stretching in front of us on this Convention and I hope that you will come again before too long. I think everybody would agree that it has been a most useful session this afternoon. I know it is very early days. Certainly you have given us a lot to think about. Next time we will have a few more details, no doubt. I wish you all, on behalf of this Committee, success over the months ahead. Thank you very much indeed for coming this afternoon.

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