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European Developments

Volume 400: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Dan Norris.]

7.32 pm

On 1 May next year, 10 countries will join the European Union. Anticipating this enlargement, the Laeken Declaration established the EU convention to come forward with proposals for reform. It would also recommend a wider agenda for the intergovernmental conference to agree in a revised treaty. It is this wider agenda on the future of Europe that has prompted this debate.

The debate is timely, because the convention has just published a draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe which would give legal effect to a set of rights as defined in the EU charter of fundamental rights. This confirms fears that the outcome of the IGC will threaten the primacy of Europe's largest and oldest intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary institution, the Council of Europe, and in particular one of its principal assets: the European convention on human rights and the Court in Strasbourg.

To defend all that the Council of Europe continues to achieve and to ensure that the enlarging European Union will not threaten or undermine its future is the purpose of this debate. I initiate it as a member of the British delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly for the past 23 years, as the current leader of the Conservative delegation, and as chairman of the European Democratic Group, the Conservative centre-right group in the Assembly.

I am encouraged that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), who is the leader of the Socialist Group in the Assembly, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who is the leader of the British delegation, and the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who leads the Liberal delegation, also hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is a sad fact of life that, owing to the lack of resources provided for it, the Council of Europe is comparatively unrecognised by the public and is frequently confused with the European Parliament. Let it be recalled that it was established in 1949 by people of vision and courage committed to a Europe of justice and equality, freedom and peace, based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is the forum within which our continent's disputes are resolved through dialogue and debate. In his Zurich speech of 1946, Winston Churchill foresaw it as
"a European group which could give a … common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this turbulent and mighty continent".

None of us who were present in Strasbourg in July 1989 will forget the historic moment when Mikhail Gorbachev described the Council of Europe as "the Common European Home" that Russia would one day join. Since then, 20 countries of the former Soviet empire in Europe have joined—a process that I had the privilege to preside over for four years as chairman of the committee responsible for non-member states, in addition to being the first rapporteur for the accession of Russia.

When European Union officials and members of the European Parliament say that the forthcoming enlargement of the Union will reunite Europe, they are wrong. Europe has already been reunited in the Council of Europe, which today comprises 44 member states. The principal message that I want to convey to the House is that the forthcoming intergovernmental conference must avoid the creation of a second common home at the expense of ours. It should avoid the EU charter of fundamental rights competing with the European convention on human rights, and the Luxembourg Court clashing with the Strasbourg Court. It should prevent the broad legal framework that already exists for Europe, based on our 185 conventions, from competing with double standards imposed by the European Union. It should recognise the unique work by practical politicians—ourselves—in monitoring commitments entered into by member states upon accession as invaluable in establishing the acquis upon which these countries are judged by the European Union. It should respect the work of the Venice Commission, of the European Youth Centre Budapest, of the North-South Centre in Lisbon, and of all the instruments established under the European cultural convention, which effectively replaces 1,000 bilateral treaties. It should also avoid duplicating the outstanding work of our Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in promoting local democracy and transfrontier co-operation. It should, in short, avoid decisions that will threaten the primacy of the work of the Council of Europe and undermine the assets that we have been developing for more than half a century.

During the past year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has been seeking to address these concerns by introducing well prepared recommendations, resolutions and orders to ensure that our organisation becomes a natural partner to the expanding European Union, and not its rival: to ensure that it co-operates with it, rather than competes with it. The organisation's secretary-general, Walter Schwimmer, has submitted a memorandum to the EU convention along similar lines. Common to our representations has been urging the European Union to accede to the European convention on human rights, which would eliminate risk of the divergence in case law for the protection of human rights in Europe that we fear. In addition, we urge that a third Council of Europe summit of heads of state and Governments take place before commencement of the intergovernmental conference, so that it can take account of what the EU convention proposes, thereby avoiding decisions being taken that might introduce new divides.

Recently, my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), the noble Baronesses Knight and Hooper and I submitted our own representations to the EU Convention. We appreciated the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who is also a member. In our paper, we point out that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is the only inter-parliamentary Assembly exclusive to Europe, and that it will soon be representative of every European national Parliament. Thus our Assembly is the true democratic dimension of Europe. It can make up the so-called "democratic deficit" that, it is suggested, exists because national Parliaments are not represented in the European Union.That we represent non-EU member states should be considered an asset rather than an impediment when it comes to promoting a continental ideal.

In that context, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who also represents us on the EU Convention. She took a personal interest in the assembly of the Western European Union in Paris. In her address to the last part-session in December, she recognised the need to maintain and develop mechanisms for inter-parliamentary scrutiny of the EU.

All of us were encouraged by the address from the Minister for Europe at last month's Strasbourg part-session, especially when he said that the Council of Europe would continue to play a vital role a common European forum, and that the place of the European Court of Human Rights in the European human rights architecture must not be undermined. However, we recall that his predecessor, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), told the House that the EU charter of fundamental rights would be of no more legal significance than a copy of theBeano. In fact, that charter has now emerged as article 6 of the draft of the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe.

We fear that, in the casino of consensus and compromise that EU summits inevitably become, the forthcoming intergovernmental conference will decide that the Council of Europe is expendable, and that it will be allowed to wither on the vine as the EU, with all its considerable resources, takes on ever more of what we do best. I therefore urge the Minister to assure the House that the role and the work of the Council of Europe will remain pre-eminent throughout the continent until the nations of Europe can agree to the single, confederal institution that Winston Churchill saw would be a "United States of Europe", to which all of us should, eventually, belong.

7.42 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) on taking the initiative to arrange this debate. I also want to thank him for his work as leader of the Conservative group in the Council of Europe Assembly. On behalf of the Socialist group in the Assembly—Labour members from this country and the nearly 200 socialist representatives from the 44 member countries in the Council of Europe—I should like to emphasise to my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that socialist group members would agree completely with everything that the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks.

It would be a tragedy if the development of the EU were allowed to damage what has been achieved in Europe by the Council of Europe and the Assembly over the past 50 years. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for attending the January part-session, when he attended a meeting of the socialist group. He understands the robust discussion going on in that group, but all our members agree that it would be a great mistake to allow the Council of Europe to be damaged. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to take on board the very serious point that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East made about avoiding rivalry, competition and conflict to emerge between two courts.

It would be terrible if establishing a legally binding charter of fundamental human rights in the EU were to lead to any conflict in the decisions reached by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. We all look to the Government to ensure that that does not happen.

7.43 pm

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for bringing this matter to the House. Those hon. Members who are members of the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe have already debated the issues, but it is important to put on record in the House of Commons the importance of getting the development right. We support EU enlargement, and its consequences, including the development of a European constitution, are desirable and welcome.

I am a spokesman for a party that is strongly pro-Europe. It may appear surprising, therefore, that I welcome the fact that constitutions both define and limit powers. It is appropriate that the process of defining the EU's powers should also limit them. There will be more than 20 countries—once one or two more have acceded to the Council of Europe—that will not join the EU, so it is extremely important that the positive work done by the Council continues.

The Minister has heard me say before that the ECHR—of which members of the Council of Europe have every reason to be inordinately proud, given what it has done for more than 50 years and continues to achieve—is the basis of human rights law in Europe. A competitive court would undermine and devalue that, and it is not necessary.

The specific point that I make to the Minister is that the suggestion that the EU should accede to the ECHR, which has been resisted in some quarters, has a lot to commend it for the very simple reason that it would put EU institutions on exactly the same basis as national institutions in relation to human rights.

It is odd that, as things stand now, citizens in the Council of Europe states—indeed, in the United Kingdom—may take Government or public institutions to court for human rights abuses under the ECHR, but they have no such redress if those abuses are carried out by EU agencies. That anomaly cannot be tolerated, and adopting the charter of fundamental rights into the constitution does not solve that.

Indeed, as has been said already, that anomaly creates an unnecessary and undesirable complication, so I urge the Minister to take that point seriously; he has heard it made in many quarters, and I honestly believe that that would be the way to ensure that EU enlargement and the work of the Council of Europe continue together in a constructive, rather than conflicting, mode.

7.46 pm

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who is our hon. Friend in this context because, in the spirit of the relationship between the members of the British delegation, he has invited all three parties represented in the Chamber tonight to take part in this short debate.

Of course the issues raised are fundamentally important. The point has been made already, but it is well worth reiterating, that Europe beyond any boundary that the EU is likely to have for the foreseeable future still contains a considerable landmass and population. Those people are represented in the Council of Europe, so it has a primacy not only in its longevity, but in its extent. It is important to remember that, because the Council of Europe plays the role of guarantor of democratic standards and human rights.

That role may be taken for granted in a country such as ours, but it has been fundamentally important in the reconstruction of constitutional Governments in parts of Europe that, until relatively recently, did not have that opportunity. So I certainly pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and, indeed, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) for their role in precisely that integration process.

We have a friend and supporter in the Minister. Perhaps to my shame, he did something that I did not do when I was a Minister: he took the trouble to visit the Parliamentary Assembly recently. His visit was very well received, not only by the British delegation, but by members throughout the Assembly. However, we look to him to take on board those reasonable requests. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber would want to support all the points that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East made.

Again, I emphasise that there need be no conflict between the Strasbourg and Luxembourg courts, but it is vital that institutional furniture is rearranged to ensure that no such conflict is built in, because the argument used against the incorporation of the EU into convention territory was that it would automatically force a conflict between the Luxembourg and Strasbourg courts. We need the convention to sort that out and to make sure that that possibility does not arise.

Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East for his efforts tonight.

7.49 pm

What a pleasure to have four contributions in a short Adjournment debate, as well as some time for me to reply. I, too, pay tribute to the sterling quality—indeed, the euro quality—of the members of the British parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe.

We have heard the speech of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), and a short and pointed contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), whom I saw presiding over the most heterogeneous group of parliamentarians debating Iraqi issues. I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that even the finest training in your Chair might not prepare you for the majesty with which he brought all of those different points of view together.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East referred to the EU as a casino of consensus and compromise. I am not a great expert on casinos, and I did not know that they were the location of consensus and compromise, but it is not the worst thing in Europe that we find ways of coming together, as the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) pointed out. There is a British esprit de corps in the delegation, and it was a pleasure to attend and speak to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and to read out part of the speech of my opposite number, the Minister for European affairs of the Republic of France. In these interesting times, it is not the worst thing in the world that I can speak for France—reading her speech word for word—and it does not seem to cause great upset or outrage.

Hon. Members have rightly made the point that the Council of Europe is our oldest European parliamentary association or assembly. I keep insisting, as I have done all my life, as a strong supporter of the European Union, that there is much more to Europe than the EU. Perhaps because two of my children were born in Switzerland, I am conscious that Europe's oldest confederal state may have a part to play. The Council of Europe, with its 44 members, representing 850 million European citizens, remains an important part of the architecture of European institutions. It is not well known enough and its work does not get the publicity that it deserves. If I may, I commend to all hon. Members Lord Judd's excellent article inThe House magazine on Chechnya. His involvement stems from his membership of the Council of Europe—I am not commenting on the Chechnyan issue, but his article is well worth reading and reflecting on.

That is exactly the role of the Council of Europe: it allows parliamentarians from all its 44 member countries to winnow their way into the most difficult and complex situations in a fashion that the European Union, which is a consensual and compromise-based institution, and national Governments, which must have distinct bilateral relationships with different countries, cannot do. I therefore regard its work as having the highest importance. As long as I am the Minister responsible for it, it is assured of my strongest ministerial backing. It is certainly no penance, as Minister for Europe, to make the occasional foray into that great European capital of Strasbourg.

The two organisations, the EU and the Council of Europe, have distinct roles, but they are mutually reinforcing on human rights and other issues. Undoubtedly, the Council of Europe's institution-building programmes have assisted former communist countries to prepare for EU membership. We should note the remarkable achievement, in barely more than a decade, whereby countries in which democracy, freedom of expression and respect for minorities were hardly known under their dictatorship systems are now being welcomed into membership of the European Parliament.

Will the Minister also acknowledge, as it has certainly struck me, that we have something to learn from the new democracies, which sometimes find new and better ways of doing things than the old democracies? It is a two-way process.

One of the great pleasures that I have found since joining the Government is that we always have something to learn. I believe that our country has as much to learn from Europe, as we have to contribute occasionally to the process of European construction.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned some examples, but let us also note that the European Union and the Council of Europe can co-operate, for instance, in joint financing of key programmes for countries such as Russia, Albania, and Ukraine. We now face the discussion in the Convention on the Future of Europe, which will touch on aspects of the role and work of the Council of Europe. The Convention is important. It will allow us to come to some agreement on how to make the European Union better able to cope with its new members.

The Convention is a unique creature. Its membership allows for broader discussion and consultation than has ever been possible in the European Union before. Its task is difficult: to pave the way for the EU of the future.

Unlike other hon. Members present, I am not an expert on the Council of Europe. I am more interested in the Convention, which is exceptionally important. The Minister mentioned the huge amount of discussions, but according to the Government, those discussions have been ignored by the praesidium in the drafting of articles. When will there be an opportunity to debate this issue more fully on the Floor of the House?

There will be a lengthy Westminster Hall debate on the issue next Wednesday, and I invite the hon. Member to take part. We have had a debate on the Convention on the Future of Europe in the past couple of weeks, and I am open for any private meetings that hon. Members want. We should note that 1,000 amendments have now been tabled to the draft that the praesidium presented, so there is plenty of work to be done. If the EU is a casino of compromise and consensus, my goodness, I do not envy the Convention's work. It will be the biggest compositing meeting of any political institution in history.

We have to get things right. Europe cannot continue with uncertainty over how to bring in 10 new members. None of us wants a European Union in which—topick countries out of the air—Malta, Estonia or Luxembourg can exercise a veto on future development. We need to get the relationships right in dealing with human rights and other issues dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights.

Is the real problem the prospect of having two sets of laws—one for the rich countries and another for the poorer countries? Once the poorer countries are in that situation, all the problems of abuses of human rights will appear again because they do not have the bolster of what is already present and accepted in the major countries.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The European Court of Human Rights is a beacon. All countries in Europe—those in the EU, those coming into the EU and those who will be outside the EU for some time—will have to consider their legal systems in order to bring them up to the common standards that we all want to see in democracies.

I shall take no more interventions in the brief time remaining—although it has been a pleasure in an Adjournment debate to have a real debate and to answer questions, especially those posed by hon. Members who spoke earlier.

The Government support the values and principles set out in the charter, as a political declaration. However, as we have said for some time, we would have serious legal and practical problems if the declaration were incorporated into a constitutional treaty without appropriate clarifications and safeguards. Such points have been well made by British delegates to the Convention. Other countries will have similar problems in working out whether their constitutional rules in a number of areas will be subordinate to any charter of fundamental rights that was incorporated into a constitutional treaty. I do not want to pre-empt that process; the discussion will continue. It could, indeed, continue at the third Council of Europe summit, to which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East referred. The idea will be discussed at the Council of Europe ministerial meeting in May, and I am not against it.

Since I have been a Minister, the principal request that I have from countries all over the world and from other institutions is for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to attend this or that event. At times, I feel that 1 have to defend him, so that he can spend a little time in the House of Commons and occasionally get on with the domestic business of running the United Kingdom. Therefore, I am not entirely sure that I am able from the Dispatch Box to commit my right hon. Friend to attending a Heads of Government summit. However, the request will be considered.

There is also the issue of whether the European Union should accede to the European convention on human rights. There is a good case for that but, as I explained at the Parliamentary Assembly in January when I quoted directly from the French Government, both the British and French Governments and other European Governments are concerned about the impact that such accession would have on the competencies of the Union and on the position of individual member states in relation to protocols, reservations and the ability to derogate. Those of us who are aware of the issue of asylum seekers know that it is a live one—not just in the press and public life, but in our constituency advice bureaux and surgeries. It is another issue that we need to examine.

We also need to consider how we can accelerate and make more effective the huge logjam of cases before the European Court of Human Rights. Justice delayed is justice denied. I have had very good talks with the president and the British judge on the court in Strasbourg. However, we must get the matter right, and do not need the simple and intellectually and politically attractive demand of EU accession to the European convention on human rights to result in a nightmare of legal confusion. These difficult and complex questions will have to be worked out in the EU Convention. I assure hon. Members of my continued interest and involvement in them.

The Council of Europe plays an important role. I respected it before and I have respected the work of the hon. Members and colleagues who serve on it. I am happy to support its future work as long as I hold this—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes past Eight o'clock.