The Review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU - European Union Committee Contents


    "The review will be a valuable exercise for deepening understanding in Britain of the nature of our relationship with the European Union and how it has evolved over time, and will provide a constructive and serious British contribution to the public debate across Europe about how the EU can be reformed, modernised and improved."[46]

48.  So said the Rt Hon William Hague MP, Foreign Secretary, in July 2012 on the floor of the House of Commons. The investment in the Review can only be justified if it does indeed deliver the benefits Mr Hague described. The Review needs to inform policy and public debate, and it needs to be discussed with other Member States.

An overall assessment

49.  The Command Paper in July 2012 repeatedly stated that "a final decision will be taken closer to the time on how best to draw together the analysis produced during the review".[47] The natural meaning of this statement is that an attempt would definitely be made to draw together the major themes of the 32 reports, but that the precise form this would take was still to be decided.

50.  The Minister for Europe, looking back on the Review, said that "we took the view at the end of the day that the 32 reports all stood on their own merits."[48] This was a reversal of the position taken in 2012, and we remain unclear as to when the decision not to draw the analysis together was taken, and why it was not properly communicated to Parliament.

51.  This change of tack caused concern among our witnesses. Professor Dougan said that the "most important issue that we [the Liverpool European Law Unit] have identified as a gap in the coverage is an overall assessment."[49] He added "that it is very difficult to make the Review comprehensible to the broader public and politically engaged actors" without such an assessment.[50] At the same time, Professor Dougan acknowledged the risk that such an assessment could be used by policymakers "to prejudge their own preferences and policy conclusions."[51]

52.  On the other hand, Dr Horsley warned that "it is often not easy to simplify [the reports] and distil them into a presentable package."[52] The Minister for Europe made a similar point: "The risk in trying to distil all this into a single concluding summary volume is that you would inevitably have to leave out important aspects of what came up in evidence in particular reports, and that would have added to the risk of particular points in that summary volume being taken out of context."[53] The Minister stated that "every report has an executive summary, and those summaries provide a more readable account than ploughing through the whole report. So those are available to people."[54]

53.  We acknowledge that the executive summaries are accessible accounts of the content of each report—but the Government's belief that 32 entirely separate, subject-specific summaries, can provide the necessary overview is wishful thinking at best. There is no reason why these executive summaries could not, at the very least, be drawn together to form the basis of an overall assessment. This could help to kick-start a genuinely informed debate on the UK's relationship with the European Union. In contrast, the Government's failure to provide an overall assessment, a failure compounded by the lack of any expenditure on publicising the reports, gives the appearance of burying the Review's excellent output.

54.  We are disappointed by the Government's failure to take effective steps to publicise either individual reports or the Review as a whole.

55.  We are also disappointed by the Government's decision to go back on its earlier commitment to draw together the analysis contained in the 32 reports. The value of the Review in informing public or political debate is undermined by the lack of an overarching assessment.

Informing the debate

56.  The Command Paper stated that the Review would both inform policy and the public debate surrounding the UK's place in Europe.[55] Since then, events have of course moved on. The Prime Minister's speeches in Bloomberg in January 2013, and in Staffordshire in November 2014,[56] changed the tone of current Government policy towards the EU before the Review was able to publish all of its reports. We are under no illusions that the political climate has made it difficult or impossible for the Government to wait until completion of the Review before making its views clear on Europe. However, it is now time, both for this Government and its successor, to take full account of the Review in making policy decisions.

57.  Ministers have repeatedly informed us, and both Houses of Parliament, that the purpose of the Review is to ground the public debate on the EU on a strong evidence base. This seems an unrealistic aim, as long as the public are unaware of the Review's existence. We have already noted the Minster for Europe's comments on publicity: but the groups he mentions as being targeted via social media ("Commissioners, senior Commission officials, Ministers and officials in other Governments, and business organisations in other European countries") are both well-informed already, and are not based in the UK.[57] What is missing is any attempt to inform the debate taking place in the UK media, which could involve the general public and those who are not policy professionals. The Minister expressed "hope that some of it eventually percolates through a better understanding of what some of the balances and tensions in the European debate are about".[58] This seems to be another example of wishful thinking, particularly if the Government makes no concerted effort to make the Review more readily accessible.

58.  The Bar Council concluded that "the key findings of the review should be widely disseminated in the coming months, presented in an accessible and user-friendly manner, and making full use of multimedia resources."[59] We agree. A concerted effort needs to take place to engage with UK and European media in order to inform the public as well as policymakers about the Review.

59.  We acknowledge the Minister for Europe's observation that "no one is making too many plans until we know the outcome of the election".[60] At the same time, we strongly agree with his suggestion that "whoever is the next Government will have this source available and will certainly want to make plans as to how we develop both our thinking and our communications on the basis of what is there".[61]

International interest

60.  The Review has implications for all other Member States. No exercise as comprehensive as this has been conducted by any other Member State—the closest comparable exercise was the Dutch Government's 'Subsidiarity Review', published in July 2013.[62] This review considered the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, and was, as Professor Dougan said, "a much more limited exercise" than the Review of the Balance of Competences.[63] In the context of reform in the European Union, Professor Dougan concluded that the Review meant that "if the UK wants to, it has the opportunity to show real intellectual leadership in these debates".[64] The General Bar Council of England and Wales agreed "that the data collected is widely seen as valuable, and that it is being relied on in discussions in Brussels and beyond".[65]

61.  Dr Currie drew our attention to work in Germany, and at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, which has just published a book on the Review.[66] The Minister for Europe stated:

    "The United Kingdom's paper on the digital single market, which we released in January this year—and which, without boasting too much, has had a very good reception in Brussels and in national capitals—drew very heavily on the basis of evidence from the review, particularly when it came to an assessment of the impact on consumers of greater integration of the digital sector at EU level."[67]

This is a welcome sign that the Government is seeking to promote the work and knowledge embodied in the Review. This could be applied to all relevant dossiers under consideration in Brussels, for as long as the Review remains salient.

62.  We were informed that "many of the issues that have been flagged up in the individual reports are of interest to every member state."[68] Professor Dougan warned us that "if the UK decides that this Review does not actually have much value and will be left on the shelf … that could do some damage to the UK's credibility".[69] The Minister for Europe said that "the French have told us that they are using the transport report as a point of reference in their own transport policymaking".[70] We welcome the interest shown by other Member States and encourage the Government to continue to engage all Member States in discussion of the content of the reports. We also agree with Professor Dougan that if the Review is not used to inform public policy and discussions with other Member States, the UK's reputation will be damaged. The Commission could make explicit use of the work, particularly in line with its current REFIT agenda. The Government should continue to share the reports with other Member States and encourage them to take advantage of the work completed under the Review.

63.  Although the reports represent a significant and worthwhile body of work, the Review as a whole is diminished by the Government's failure to deliver its undertaking in 2012 to draw together the analysis contained in the Review.

64.  As a result, this major project, despite the good quality of its outputs, has yet to deliver an outcome, in the form of measurable benefits. It has so far made no impact on the public debate on the UK-EU relationship.

65.  We therefore recommend that the incoming Government produce an overall analysis of the results of the Review at the earliest opportunity.

66.  We also recommend that, in future correspondence with parliamentary scrutiny committees, and in explanatory memoranda on EU documents, ministers should include references to the relevant sections of the Review.

67.  Finally, we urge the Commission to make explicit use of the work, particularly in line with its current REFIT agenda. We also urge the Government to continue to share the reports with other Member States and encourage those Member States to take advantage of the work completed under the Review.

46   HC Deb, 12 July 2012, col 468 Back

47   Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union (July 2012) Back

48    Q11 Back

49    Q4 Back

50    Q4 Back

51    Q4 Back

52    Q8 Back

53    Q11 Back

54    Q12 Back

55   Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union (July 2012)  Back

56   The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, EU speech at Bloomberg, 23 January 2013: [11 March 2015] and JCB Speech Staffordshire, 28 November 2014: [11 March 2015] Back

57     Q14 Back

58    Q18 Back

59   Written evidence from the General Bar Council of England and Wales (RBC0003) Back

60    Q18 Back

61    Q18' Back

62   Government of the Netherlands, 'Testing European legislation for subsidiarity and proportionality: Dutch list of points for action' (June 2013): [accessed 11 March 2015] Back

63    Q9 Back

64    Q9 Back

65   Written evidence from the General Bar Council of England and Wales (RBC0003) Back

66    Q8 Back

67    Q13 Back

68     Q8 Back

69    Q8 Back

70     Q15 Back

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