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Council Of Ministers

Volume 894: debated on Tuesday 24 June 1975

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Q3.

asked the Prime Minister what proposals he intends to put to other EEC Heads of Government about democratising the Council of Ministers.

I see no need to make such proposals. The Council consists of Ministers of the Governments of the member States, each of whom is accountable to a democratically-elected Parliament, each of whom is concerned with his own principal national interests; and the same—I can tell the House from my own experience—is certainly true of the now regular Heads of Government meetings.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the present system is totally unsatisfactory to a very large number of people? Because so many different interests have to be resolved, the horse trading that goes on means that certain important interests for the British people may well be undermined. This Parliament can only ask questions of Ministers when they return from Brussels. The decisions made in Brussels stand, and we cannot undo them. Does my right hon. Friend think that there should be a change? Will he look again at this matter?

As I have made clear at the Council of Ministers, this is happening increasingly, and it is also the case that at meetings of Heads of Government national interests are strongly pressed by individuals. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in Brussels today for meetings of the Council of Ministers. He may not be a horse trader, but he is a successful cattle trader. I have every confidence that he will be fighting today as he has always fought, and as the country acknowledged in its recent vote—for British interests. The only criticism I have heard put forward by the German Federal Chancellor is that he feels that the Council of Ministers should be more centralised in the hands of one Minister, the Foreign Minister. He feels that sometimes Agriculture Miniters tend to represent European bloc farm policies rather than the policies of their Governments.

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that there are two functions in the Council of Ministers? In addition to the function which the hon. Lady has, with characteristic elegance of idiom, characterised as horse trading, there is also the important legislative function which paradoxically the Community vests in the Council of Ministers and not in the legislature. Cannot that function be exercised in public? Will Her Majesty's Government so recommend?

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Council of Ministers is a policy-making body. It is not engaged only in negotiations. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about law-making functions?"] Yes, it is also to some extent a lawmaking body. It has been an increasing development in the last few months that when the Heads of Government meet the Commission leaders are present, and when the Heads of Government take a decision the Commission representatives go away and try to work out how best it can be carried out.

As for meetings in public, whether of the Council of Ministers or of Heads of Government, I can see certain advantages for the entertainment media. I have a feeling that the fight put up there for national interests would cause those meetings to go much further into the night and, indeed, to take more days than they do at present.

Does not the Prime Minister think that the Council of Ministers would be more democratised if his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland were to attend it regularly in view of his known anti-Market views and considerable responsibilities for many aspects of decision-making in respect of 5 million Scottish citizens?

I assure the hon. Lady that if there were any meetings at which the interests of Britain, of this House or of Scotland would be best served by my right hon. Friend attending, he would certainly go.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is just as important, if not more so, to democratise the European Assembly and to make the Ministers accountable to that body as well as to respective national legislatures? Will he say when he will be in a position to make a statement on the possibility of a firm Government view on direct elections to that Assembly?

Not yet, Sir. But my hon. Friend will be aware that, within a few hours of the result of the referendum being known, I said in public that the Government would be making a recommendation to the Parliamentary Labour Party that we should now take up the scats available to us in that Assembly. My hon. Friend will be aware of the decisions taken by my Labour colleagues which should lead to the selection of Members later this week to attend the Assembly. This is now taking place.

Changes in the powers of the Assembly require deep consideration. My hon. Friend will know that these matters have been continually discussed in Strasbourg and also that the Belgian Prime Minister, who is coming to this country in the very near future, has been charged by his fellow Heads of Government to make proposals about future political developments within the Community.

From a United Kingdom point of view, would not the best way of making the Council of Ministers more democratic be to allow this House better opportunities to discuss EEC matters with the Ministers concerned instead of our having perfunctory debates in the middle of the night, which is all the Lord President has so far allowed us?

This is a difficult problem. Nobody is satisfied with the present position. We now have available to us the report of the Select Committee which has made certain suggestions. I should point out that the Labour Government have allowed considerably more time—I appreciate that it is not to everybody's satisfaction, and admittedly the debates take place late at night—than was allowed by the Conservative Government in debating subordinate European legislative proposals.

Since the Paris statement issued last December by the Heads of Common Market States indicated that it was unanimously agreed that the veto was likely to be undermined in future, and secondly that the permanent representatives were to get greater powers, will my right hon. Friend say whether there will be resistance by the British Government to both these suggestions?

No, Sir. I think I have already answered that question. Following my statement after the Paris summit last December, the reference in the communiqué to the veto was simply a declaration that so far as possible we would not use the veto unnecessarily. That was what it was really about. There had been occasions in meetings of specialised bodies where the veto had been used rather frequently and where, after consideration and reference back, the matter had not been pursued. But nobody said anything at the summit—I did not do so and the communiqué did not record any such decision—to imply that the unanimity rule was breached in any way or that the right of what my hon. Friend calls the "veto" had disappeared. The situation is exactly as it was in that respect. But it was felt that the veto had been used a little too much, particularly in specialist gatherings.