I beg to move,
That this House pays tribute to the work of the European Security and Defence Assembly and the members of the UK Delegation; notes the continuing need for coordinated scrutiny by national parliaments of intergovernmental activities under the EU’s foreign, defence and security policies; welcomes the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Future inter-parliamentary scrutiny of EU foreign, defence and security policy, HC 697; and approves its approach to delivering that scrutiny.
Having just listened to the passionate speech by my good friend the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), I feel a bit of a spoilsport in bringing on such a dry subject, but that is democracy. Anyway, I congratulate her on her speech.
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report that we are debating today puts forward a proposal for intergovernmental scrutiny of the EU common foreign and security policy, including the common security and defence policy, following the demise of the Western European Union, including its parliamentary assembly, in mid-2011. Along with other national Parliaments, this House finds itself having to have this debate today because it was left somewhat in the lurch by the decision of national Governments to dissolve the Western European Union. The WEU has carried out active and serious international parliamentary oversight of the EU’s common security and defence policy for many years. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the assembly and the UK delegation to it. In particular, I would mention my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), as the president of the assembly and leader of the UK delegation.
Following the decision to dissolve the WEU, member state Governments, including in the UK, have encouraged national Parliaments to come up with successor arrangements to the WEU assembly, to provide continuing inter-parliamentary scrutiny. In response, an ad hoc committee was formed comprising me, as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, and Lords Roper and Teverson, as Chairs of the House of Lords Select Committee on European Union and its Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Policy. We met and decided to refer the matter to the Speaker and invite him to make an appointment to chair an ad hoc committee to address the issue.
Somewhat to our surprise, the Speaker declined to get involved in this debate. As a result, the ad hoc committee met again and considered what proposals to put forward. A proposal, which subsequently became the basis of the report that we are debating today, was agreed by the Members present and endorsed by their Committees. Unfortunately, due to an administrative cock-up, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset was not present, but his evidence was taken into account as, fortunately, he had given us written evidence. We decided that the best way to proceed would be for the two Houses to adopt a formal public position on the arrangements for the WEU Assembly’s successor, and for a relevant proposal to be presented to each House in the form of a Select Committee report.
The House is today being asked to endorse an approach to this issue which is not the Foreign Affairs Committee’s alone; our deliberations form the basis of the report, but it has been endorsed by three Select Committees: the FAC, the European Scrutiny Committee and the Defence Committee. I am grateful to those Committees, their Chairmen and their members for their co-operation. The House should also be made aware that the proposal being put forward in the FAC report has also been put forward by the House of Lords European Union Committee in a report of its own. That Committee will ask the full House of Lords to endorse its report, but it is waiting for the Commons to reach a decision and to act.
I have been looking at the formal minutes of 12 January of the decisions to which my hon. Friend has referred. Can he explain why an amendment proposing that this matter should be decided on a free vote was turned down by the Committee on his casting vote? Surely, if ever anything was free vote business, it is the question of whether Parliament supports the line being taken by the Select Committee.
I just took the view that a free vote was not appropriate. It was a simple subjective judgment; it was as straightforward as that.
The key objective of the report and of the motion before the House today is to ensure that the WEU Assembly has a successor. We want scrutiny of intergovernmental activity to continue with national Parliaments in the lead. I say to the House, however, that if national Parliaments do not get their act together, there is a risk that inter-parliamentary scrutiny will wither and that the European Parliament will, by default, take over the main role in this field. There is therefore a responsibility on national Parliaments in this respect.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he agree that, like it or not, there is going to be much more to scrutinise, owing to the provisions of the treaty of Lisbon, the advent of the European External Action Service and the new clause in the Lisbon treaty that provides for additional measures in the field of common European defence?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall allude obliquely to the point that he has made. While he was making his intervention, I had the opportunity to consider further the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I can inform him that I decided that the report should remain silent, rather than making any recommendation on whipping.
The point that I was about to make is that we want co-operation with the European Parliament, and, in our proposals, it would be a full member of the proposed conference. Like it or not, the Lisbon treaty has made the European Parliament a more powerful actor in certain areas of EU external relations. Whatever our views on the European Parliament, it would be in everyone’s interests for national Parliaments and the European Parliament to work together in this context, but—and it is an important “but”—decision making in the common foreign and security policy remains intergovernmental, and inter-parliamentary scrutiny of that decision making must reflect that. That is the basis of the proposal put forward in the report. National Parliaments would remain clearly in the lead, with the Parliaments of the rotating EU Council presidency countries chairing the proposed conference and taking organisational responsibilities.
It is all very well having scrutiny, but if it does not lead to action, it is fairly pointless. Will my hon. Friend note that, on 19 February 2009, the European Parliament decided, by resolution, to have something called Synchronised Armed Forces Europe, which would introduce something that looks remarkably like a military covenant that has been codified? This links into the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison). As we debate these subjects in the House, and as we do so even more in the future, our debates could be eclipsed by what is going on in Europe, yet the House has not, to my knowledge, debated the decision of 19 February 2009.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I might be able to help him. Early in 2009, the European Parliament passed a resolution, paragraph 74 of which
“Recalls that the European Parliament is the only supranational institution with a legitimate claim to exercise democratic supervision over the EU’s security and defence policy”.
The European Parliament is free to pass all the motions it likes. The truth of the matter is that the Lisbon treaty invites national Parliaments to exercise a scrutiny function over European foreign, defence and security policy. What we are doing is putting forward a proposal. If we cannot agree on it, we cannot influence the debate—going on in Belgium, not in Brussels—and we will not have a seat at the table. What I hope will happen today is that the UK Parliament will come up with a proposal to lead the charge in providing a counterweight to the European Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that these discussions have gone on for quite a long time. In fact, they pre-date the re-establishment of the Foreign Affairs Committee after the last election. I was involved in discussions in late 2009 and early 2010. I would like to stress that this is a very important statement of intent by our national Parliament to say to certain people in the European Parliament who have certain aspirations, “Get your tanks off our lawn; national Parliaments are in the lead on this matter, and we are going to remain in the lead on it. We are working with you, but you are not going to get away with the claim that the European Parliament is the sole democratic institution.”
In support of the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), I note that Guido Westerwelle said at the Munich security conference in February last year:
“The long-term goal is the establishment of a European army under full parliamentary control.”
I share the dismay that today’s Chamber is not full with Members concerned about such remarks being made by very senior politicians in Europe, and particularly in Germany.
My hon. Friend makes his point well and I rather share the sentiments behind it. For the benefit of those who bring up illustrations of the weight that the European Parliament places on these issues, however, may I draw attention to some of the details of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report?
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from consideration of the European Parliament I must say that I take the points that a number of Members have raised about it. I find the recommendation before us somewhat surprising in its suggestion that the European Parliament should be involved in the new body, which should be for national Parliaments primarily. Would it not be better simply to acknowledge that the European Parliament has its own distinct mode, but that national Parliaments have theirs as well?
It was felt that the European Parliament has some expertise in this area, but the hon. Gentleman leads me neatly on to the details of our proposals that I was about to set out. The European Parliament would have the same sized delegation to the proposed conference as all other Parliaments, which is six members. With the 20-plus members of the EU each having six members, and only six from the European Parliament, it is clear that the European Parliament will not be in a dominant position. I will come back to the rival proposal in a few moments.
What is proposed is that, as set out in the Lisbon treaty, we establish an EU inter-parliamentary conference on foreign affairs, defence and security, to be known as COFADS, which would meet twice a year. Its members would be the EU national Parliaments and the European Parliament; the Parliaments of the EU candidate countries—Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro and Turkey—would be invited to attend as observers. The conference would be able, but not obliged, to adopt conclusions by consensus, which would not be binding on participants or their Parliaments. It would replace the current informal conferences of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairs and Defence Committee Chairs, known respectively as COFACC and CODCC.
The urgency of today’s debate is connected with the fact that the Assembly of the Western European Union has already held its last regular plenary session and will hold an extraordinary final session in May. The forum that is trying to establish agreement on a future inter-parliamentary scrutiny committee is the EU Speakers’ conference, which will meet on 4 and 5 April. It will consider a proposal presented by the Belgian presidency, on which comments are invited. They must be submitted by 14 March, hence the need for the debate to be held today.
The Speakers’ conference is already aware of the Foreign Affairs Committee report and the parallel report from the House of Lords. If the House of Commons approves the Foreign Affairs Committee report today, we will of course make that known to the conference, and the Speaker or his representative at the conference will be able to refer to the motion. Given the United Kingdom’s importance in relation to European foreign, defence and security issues, the express view of the Westminster Parliament could be expected to carry considerable weight.
The Belgian presidency proposal—the rival proposal—would put the European Parliament in a stronger position than the proposal in the FAC report. Under the Belgian proposal, the European Parliament would be able to send up to a third of the participants in the new conference. It would co-chair the rotating presidency country Parliament, and it would provide the secretariat. In my judgment, that is not the kind of national Parliament-led forum that we want. It is not in keeping with the intergovernmental nature of the common foreign and security policy. Today’s debate, and the motion, constitute a key part of the effort to get that message across to the Speakers’ conference.
The FAC report has been widely circulated, and efforts are under way to seek support actively. I am able to report, with pleasure, that either through the passage of resolutions or through correspondence, the French, Swedish, Czech and Portuguese Parliaments, or committees thereof, have already indicated their support for the model proposed in the FAC report rather than the proposal from the Belgian presidency. It would therefore be a matter of some international difficulty, not to mention embarrassment, if the House were to decline to endorse the approach that we have taken.
Is not the problem with the approach being taken by my hon. Friend and his Committee that it excludes parliamentarians from non-EU European NATO countries, whose inclusion was a specific requirement laid down by the Minister for Europe when he first responded to this process?
My hon. Friend is quite right. There is also the question of Albania, which is to be resolved but which is one of the issues that the Speakers’ conference will have to address.
I leave it to the Minister to set out the Government’s position, but I will say that the Minister for Europe participated in several of the meetings that I have held with my colleagues on this issue. I thank him for his co-operation, and thank his officials for their help.
When national Governments disbanded the WEU, they also effectively withdrew their funding and left Parliaments responsible for finding the resources that would enable them to continue their inter-parliamentary scrutiny. In formulating our proposals for a successor, we have had our eye very much on the international budgetary situation, and the need to have scrutiny while setting that against considerations of cost and the risk of being seen to be establishing a new EU talking shop. Keeping costs to a minimum has been a guiding principle of our proposals, and that underpins our wish to see as much as possible done through existing institutions, the national Parliaments and the COSAC secretariat.
That is the approach that the Foreign Affairs Committee considers appropriate, and I urge the House to support the motion.
This really is a pretty shoddy second-rate shambles. We are going to betray the Norwegians, our closest allies and friends, we are reducing the Turks, the biggest single military contributor to NATO in terms of personnel, to observer status—I suppose they can bring in the coffee—and we have not got support from one major EU country. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee rattled off a few—
France has only just rejoined NATO. It does not have quite the same weight in NATO councils as ourselves, Germany and Italy. We have a real problem.
We could have been a lot more robust about preserving the Western European Union. The idea was put to me when I was a Minister, but it was one of those topics that just get put back in the box in the hope that it dies. The last Labour Government and their Foreign and Commonwealth Office team should not be awfully proud of that. The WEU was not the greatest organisation in the world, but it did bring together serious, real-life parliamentarians from countries that were directly involved in military activities. Instead, we have now got an absolute disaster of a sequence of proposals, of which I worry most about the proposal from the presidency of the EU, which is currently held by Belgium. I do not know where that proposal comes from because Belgium does not have a Government to put a proposal forward.
We heard some interesting comments in this week’s debate on the EU referendum Bill from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. He started animadverting on something called a non-paper and treated the concept with immense scorn, but a non-paper or aide memoire is quite a common bit of diplomatic terminology. However, this is the first time that the current House of Commons has had to deal with a very major proposal relegating its importance, and coming from a non-Government.
I hope we can be robust on this issue, because let us be quite clear: the Belgian presidency proposal sets up a new committee of which six members will come from the Westminster Parliament—both Houses—and 54 from the European Parliament, so it will have nine times more representatives on the committee. Having spent some time in the couloirs of European Union decision making, let me assure Members that a proposal put forward by the country holding the EU presidency carries a lot more weight than a resolution of any particular committee of any particular national Parliament, much as we all respect, love and admire our own Foreign Affairs Committee.
There we are. I never get to eat as many Belgian chocolates as I would wish, and the amount is going down minute by minute. I thought the figure was six, but now it is four, which amounts to 13 or 14 times less representation than that of the European Parliament.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report is what the French would call a nombriliste discussion, which is to say a lot of navel gazing. It is a discussion about different bits of the axis between your Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the Woolsack. There is some reference to the Speaker not appointing a Chair. I am very interested in what the constitutional and parliamentary reasons for, or implications of, that are, but this is about what we say to each other in three Select Committees in this House and two in the other place. What is not on the record is what we should have been doing. We are utterly incapable of doing this, although we actually did start debating the matter a bit on Tuesday. I am talking about working out how we connect this House to other national Parliaments and parliamentarians in order to discuss EU business.
It is no use just sitting on endless piles of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph in London or telling each other across the Chamber about these wretched things called the European Union and the European Parliament, which some hon. Members do not like. We need to reorganise how we link up with many like-minded members of national Parliaments to put in place a more effective national parliamentary network to look at how the affairs of the European Union can better mesh and integrate with the work of national Parliaments. That is because, in essence, a huge transfer of authority is taking place away from the now defunct WEU to the European Union and the European Parliament. We do, however, have the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which is a very worthwhile outfit, to which many of the member states that will now be excluded can come and others can come by invitation.
We are seeing that Europe is completely unable to respond to the Libyan crisis in the southern Mediterranean with a degree of muscular soft power or slightly less than full military hard power. In our debates, we find that the new structure being proposed is expected to provide the European parliamentary supervision of exactly the decisions that are or are not being taken on Libya and the other north African countries in revolt. A Heads of Government meeting will take place tomorrow, and I wish the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and his team well in coming up with a policy that can connect, but it will have to have some parliamentary oversight. We are already being told no to war. We are being told that NATO must not intervene. We can sense a protest building out there, whereby if this country were to be involved in some kind of decision, with or without UN sanctions, that might produce a public opinion backlash. Again, we have given up adequate parliamentary supervision and discussion of these issues. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), who valiantly tried to keep the WEU alive, made all sorts of concessions and worked with colleagues, but was steamrollered by Whitehall.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. This relates to the point about responding to a crisis such as the one in Libya. Let us suppose that we were to follow the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recommendation, to which I shall refer in a moment, if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. If that Committee had met three weeks ago, it would be another six months before it could express any opinion on our collective response to the Libyan crisis.
I accept that fully and it is true of all inter-parliamentary oversight committees. We are, willy-nilly, increasingly having to discuss how, collectively, at European level, we express our common foreign policy goals when we decide what they are. Yesterday, the Prime Minister slapped down the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) when he called for an in/out EU referendum. The Prime Minister said, “We are staying in the EU and that is it.” I am glad that he said that after five years of encouraging the hopes of Eurosceptics, but if it is the case, this House has to work out how best to take part in debates and decisions on what Europe is going to do—we cannot wish it away.
I am not criticising the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee or the officials who have worked on this report, because it is probably the best they could manage of a bad job, but it is exactly a reflection of our House’s inability to network and create alternative sources of democratic parliamentary legitimacy and oversight for what is done at European level.
Until such time as we elect a Government—coalition or majority—who decide to withdraw from the European Union, I have to say yes. That is what the Prime Minister said yesterday: we are in the EU, we have to make it work and that is the end of the matter. We are in NATO, the World Trade Organisation, the convention on the law of the sea and lots of different treaty organisations that take decisions that impact on us and we have to make them work.
I am worried. One cannot call the WEU back into being but I am extremely worried that we are sending a signal to our friends, particularly in Turkey, about the reduction of their status on European defence matters, all the more so as the Mediterranean boils up, if I may use that metaphor. I resent deeply the message we are sending to Norway. Frankly, Albania needs to sort out its own parliamentary incoherence and misbehaviours before I am willing to pat it on the back, fond as I am of the Albanian people in that country and in Kosovo.
Twice in one week, with a small number attending—a worrying point—we have seen the absolutely wrong and incoherent way that this House of Commons deals with the European question. Until we have a proper debate and rethink our structures, we will always be running after the event and will have to try to persuade a non-Government not to push forward with a new structure that will reduce the Commons to bag-carriers for a much greater number of colleagues in the European Parliament.
May I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for the work that they have done on this subject? As hon. Members will gather in a moment, I do not entirely agree with their conclusions, which are very similar to the work of Lord Roper and his Select Committee on the European Union in the House of Lords. May I also express a slight concern that a number of my colleagues who are members of the WEU Assembly, representing this Parliament, might have been here had it not been for the fact that we had only 48 hours’ notice? I and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) were involved in other meetings and have had to return to take part in this debate. Let us move on, however.
I shall briefly give the background. In December 2009, I was telephoned by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the then Minister for Europe, who told me that he wanted to save €2.3 million, which was the United Kingdom’s contribution to the WEU—to the whole organisation, not just the Assembly. The Assembly’s cost to the United Kingdom was considerably less than that. The UK was therefore seeking to renounce the Brussels treaty.
Cost is a very important factor and we all need to consider carefully the costs of what we do. Has my hon. Friend seen the reports that the European External Action Service and the High Representative are taking on additional public relations consultants at a cost of €10 billion? Has my hon. Friend done any maths to see whether the cost to which he has just referred might be much less than the cost of some additional spin doctors for the EEAS?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the entire global cost of the WEU organisation—the body located in Brussels as well as the Assembly in Paris—was considerably less than the figure he mentions for PR staff for the EEAS. In fact, the total bill to the United Kingdom Parliament for the Parliamentary Assembly was about €1 million.
The WEU’s history goes back to 1948 and the Brussels treaty. The treaty was amended in 1954, which is when the Assembly came into effect. One very good thing about the treaty is its article 5—a common defence pact that, as it is not in any way replicated in the Lisbon treaty, we will lose as a result of the WEU and Brussels treaty ending in June. The Assembly, which was part of the treaty, has evolved over the years and has been known as the European Security and Defence Assembly for some time. It has brought together parliamentarians from all 27 European Union member states as well as non-EU NATO members in Europe, which have had associate status within the body. As such, they have been able to speak and vote but have not contributed to the budget. Eventually, as a result of the discussions I have mentioned, on 30 March 2010—the very last day before the general election on which business could be introduced in the House—a written ministerial statement from the then Foreign Secretary indicated that the United Kingdom intended to withdraw from the Brussels treaty. I think the other signatories to the treaty must have had some notice of that because the following day all 10 of them indicated that they too would cease operations before the end of June 2011.
Those statements and a statement that the EU Foreign Affairs Council made a month later all paid tribute to the Assembly and said that its work should be continued by another inter-parliamentary body and that it should involve the non-EU NATO members in that parliamentary scrutiny. We all believed that was a way forward but, sadly, not much has happened since then. It has been a considerable frustration to me and my colleagues from all Parliaments across Europe that nobody has given any guidance on what we should do next. The EU Speakers Conference decided to take an initiative and ask its Belgian presidency to report on what the way forward should be. It was to report next month but, as we are all aware, Belgium had an election just after our election and although it took us five days to form a coalition, the Belgians are still working on it. As a result, there has been little action in Belgium on this matter.
However, our Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has produced a report, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, and has—quite rightly, because it needs democratic legitimacy—put it before the House. In the report, my hon. Friend repeats an error to which I have just referred. Paragraph 3, on termination of the WEU, points out that
“the then Government announced that it intended to withdraw…from the WEU”
“commented that the WEU was ‘no longer relevant to today’s European security architecture’”.
It is an absolute quote and I am not sure that I agree with it. Although it is factually correct, I am not sure that the WEU was no longer relevant to today’s European security architecture. We have just entered a number of agreements with France on defence, which are a form of what the Lisbon treaty calls “structured co-operation”. But that is another matter.
The report notes that
“the role being played by the Assembly did not justify its cost to the UK of over €2 million per year.”
As I pointed out just now, the Assembly costs were not €2 million a year; they were barely €1 million to the UK.
May I inform the House about the costs as I understand them? Annual membership of the Western European Union costs the British taxpayer €2.3 million, so after withdrawal the United Kingdom will no longer have to pay the full €2.3 million subscription, although it will continue to be liable for a share of the cost of WEU staff pensions. We will recoup some money from the sale of the WEU building in Paris, which the UK part-owns with other member states.
I am grateful to the Minister for making those points. My point was that the €2.3 million is the cost of the WEU organisation, not the cost of the Parliamentary Assembly of the WEU, which is half that. I am delighted by the Minister’s assumption that the United Kingdom will gain from the sale of the building in Paris, because there had been rumours that it was to be gifted to the French Government. As holder of the presidency of the Assembly, we took the precaution of having an independent valuation of the building; it is worth at least €50 million, so the UK should benefit somewhat from its sale.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has been diligent in looking at the structures. Paragraph 5 of the European Union Committee report refers to some of the existing structures:
“We backed a ‘conference of committees’-type institution to replace the WEU Assembly, comprising a combined and enlarged version of the current informal Conference of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairpersons (COFACC) and Conference of Defence Committee Chairpersons (CODCC).”
The only problem with that is that, to my knowledge, the Conference of Defence Committee Chairpersons has not met for at least the past two years, so we are not actually replacing an effective body.
It was interesting to hear that list of terminology. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the only way forward for dealing with the European Union is to put the matter to the British people in a referendum, so that we can have a debate in this country and decide whether we want to stay in that hugely bureaucratic organisation, or leave it and become an independent country again?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, although I think it goes a little beyond the scope of the motion. However, we and the Assembly of which I have the honour to be president are dealing with what are almost entirely intergovernmental structures consisting of European Union member states and other states in Europe such as Turkey, which has been mentioned several times, Norway or Iceland. We come together as willing partners in collective defence and security operations. Community institutions are not in any way relevant to our debate today; we are debating intergovernmental functions that are entered into freely.
My final point on the Foreign Affairs Committee report relates to the reference to the EU Speakers’ Conference, which will take place in April. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has already referred to the Belgian text—Belgium holds the EU presidency—which proposes an inter-parliamentary conference for common foreign and security policy and common security and defence policy, composed of delegations of the national Parliaments of EU member states. Paragraph 2 of that text suggests:
“Each national parliamentary delegation shall consist of four members.”
Paragraph 3 requests that
“The total number of delegates from the European Parliament shall not exceed one third of the members of the Conference.”
Therefore, if there are 108 members from national Parliaments, there will be 54 from the European Parliament.
On a reasonably rough approximation the UK and France together contribute around 60% of Europe’s defence budget, and we will have eight votes between us. However, the European Parliament, which makes absolutely no contribution to Europe’s defence budget, has no troops at its disposal, does not buy any aircraft carriers or other warships, aircraft or fighters, and has no troops deployed anywhere in the world, will have 54 votes. Is that the right proportion in terms of democratic accountability? I hasten to suggest that it is probably an imbalance. I am not averse to the European Parliament having some role and that its voice should be heard, but the presumption that its voice should somehow be considerably greater than that of the United Kingdom, France and others that contribute to Europe’s defence is nonsense.
The Belgian text goes on to suggest:
“The Conference shall have its seat in the European Parliament in Brussels. Meetings shall be organized twice a year in Brussels or in the country holding the rotating Council Presidency…The meetings shall jointly be presided over by the national Parliament of the Member State holding the rotating Council Presidency and the European Parliament.”
That means that responsibility is now to be divided 50:50. Paragraph 9 proposes:
“The secretariat of the Conference shall be provided by the European Parliament.”
The agenda will be set by the European Parliament, the conference will meet in the European Parliament and one third of the conference’s members will be Members of the European Parliament. My view is that that body will simply be an extraordinary meeting of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee: twice a year, it will invite Members of national Parliaments to come along to Brussels to hear what it has been doing. It will not be exercising genuine parliamentary scrutiny.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Does he accept that what is proposed is inconsistent with article 10 of protocol 1 of the treaty on the European Union, which mentions a conference of parliamentary committees submitting contributions for the attention of the European Parliament? That is completely different from what is being proposed by the Belgian presidency.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to become too legalistic, but I will refer to a number of principles that I and colleagues have laid down that suggest we should have a much stronger inter-parliamentary standing conference. The principles on which we based that suggestion are all entirely consistent with the Lisbon treaty, which I know my hon. Friend and others were not enthusiasts for; none the less it is where we are.
Article 12 of the Lisbon treaty states:
“National Parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union.”
Article 10 of protocol states:
which my hon. Friend has just referred to—
“of Parliamentary Committees for Union affairs may…organise interparliamentary conferences on specific topics, in particular to debate matters of common foreign and security policy, including common security and defence policy.”
The most important words in the treaty are in declaration 14, which states:
“The Conference also notes that the provisions covering the Common Foreign and Security Policy do not…increase the role of the European Parliament.”
In fact, the European Parliament has therefore no new competence as a result of the Lisbon treaty, but if we read the Parliament’s documents we find that it assumes that it does have that new role. Even if it does not, it is jolly well going to grab it and take it, because national Parliaments are doing nothing about it. That is why we need a strong functioning body. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you do not propose to call my amendment, but the spirit of my proposal was that we should have a much stronger body than that which the Foreign Affairs Committee proposes.
We propose a standing conference of inter-parliamentary representatives, which would carry on the work of the European Security and Defence Assembly, the Assembly of the Western European Union, enabling us to have effective inter-parliamentary scrutiny that would embrace at least the ground that it covered and include the five non-EU European NATO members, who provide considerable support to the work of the European Union and, collectively, to European defence.
We believe that that inter-parliamentary standing conference could be based in Brussels. It could have been based in Paris, but the Minister tells us that we are going to sell the building, so it cannot. The conference’s prime role would be to engage on European foreign affairs and defence issues with the Council of the European Union, its supporting and executive agencies, member Governments and Parliaments as appropriate. Recommendations and opinions would be made, but they would not necessarily bind national Parliaments.
The Council of the European Union, and especially the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, would make regular reports to that standing conference.
My hon. Friend has made some very powerful points throughout his speech, and the last two have been the most powerful of all. Is there not a danger that, if there is no such body as he describes, there will be a gap into which the European Parliament will be unable to resist the temptation to move?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because the alternative, which is before us today, is a body that would meet for one-and-a-half days every six months. The security and defence sub-committee of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee meets approximately every fortnight, and it has a large secretariat and research staff working for it. It will easily work its way in to provide such scrutiny and, because it is located in Brussels, summon the High Representative or the director-general of the EU military staff, who until recently was a British general and who has now been, I am pleased to say, promoted to the office of Black Rod in the other place. That alternative would be an absolute negation of what we believe to be parliamentary scrutiny, in that the European Parliament would take on that role.
Before I sit down, I want to deal with the question of funding, because that is the one argument against our having such a standing conference, which would have a small secretariat and perhaps two committees as opposed to the existing Assembly’s six. Staff at the existing Assembly have worked out the following figure in detail, however, and the feeling is that we could run an entire inter-parliamentary body, based in Brussels with a small specialist secretariat, for about €1.5 million. That would mean, spread out among the 27 member states, that the contribution of the United Kingdom would probably be about €100,000 at the most. Let me tell the House that in the 2011 Budget, this Parliament’s contribution to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—of which I have no criticism—was €465,845, and that was just towards its administration. The contribution to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe for this current year is €267,035. The contribution towards our proposed standing conference—a body to scrutinise areas of activity where our armed forces are putting their lives at risk—would have been barely €100,000, or considerably less than £100,000. I therefore do not believe that cost should be the determining factor in this.
We should have a strong inter-parliamentary conference that involves Members of national Parliaments who have an interest in defence matters, drawn from our national foreign affairs and defence committees, among others. None of the members of the current Assembly, bar two or three, are members of their national committees, but that does not mean that they do not have expertise in these areas. The acknowledged need for continued inter-parliamentary scrutiny of common security and defence policy involving the 27 member states, plus the five non-EU members, is beyond question. As the Foreign Affairs Committee has indicated, there are different ways of approaching this question, but we need a much stronger framework within which to work.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), who obviously feels passionately about the organisation that he has been chairing, which is about to go out of existence. I can understand his frustration. I appreciate many of the points that he made, particularly his attack on those in the European Parliament whose view of their organisation is that it is somehow superior to national Parliaments and should be the body that scrutinises defence, security and foreign policy matters to the minimisation, or potential exclusion, of national Parliaments. That is something that we have to confront.
This debate is really about how we put into practice the Lisbon treaty requirement that there be a mechanism within the European Union based on national parliamentary committees coming together and co-operating to deal with matters that are dealt with on a national co-operative basis, not a communautaire basis. There is a deep philosophical difference in the views of those Members of the European Parliament. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and I were in discussion with them when we visited Brussels in September. Some of them have a view, and a model, that goes even further than the paper produced by the Belgian Council presidency—a federalist view that says that the European Parliament is the supreme democratic body on all matters to do with the European Union.
We need to be very clear about this. There will be a negotiation, and the position that our Parliament and other national Parliaments put forward will probably not be its final outcome. It is therefore important that we lay down some principles about where we are starting from. The work that the Foreign Affairs Committee has done in this Parliament began in the previous Parliament when I was discussing this with the then Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), just before the general election. We had been presented with this situation, and we were trying to find a way to secure some accountability and a mechanism, knowing that Parliament was going to be dissolved and that it would be some months before new Committees were established. We were trying at that point to get some initiatives based on the successful work over several years of the Conference of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairpersons, or COFACC, and the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union, or COSAC, which are the two bodies that bring together the representatives of Foreign Affairs Committees and European Scrutiny Committees periodically to discuss common concerns. That is not a perfect model and it probably needs some beefing up and development.
We must be aware of the danger that there are people in the European Parliament who want a permanent, well-funded secretariat based in the European Parliament, serviced by people who serve its Committee on Foreign Affairs. Those people have an ideological dispensation towards a certain approach to foreign, security and defence policy matters. We need to find a mechanism that takes account of the clear point in the Lisbon treaty that the body should be based not on the European Parliament, but on bringing together the national Parliaments. After it is established, the national Parliaments might decide to co-opt or bring in representatives who attended the meetings of the assembly of the Western European Union. They might also decide, in time, to establish a secretariat of their own to assist the rotating troika model that we have put forward in the report. Basing the mechanism on the rotation may well not be perfect. From time to time, there is a presidency country that has more resources and a greater ability to host such meetings.
From my experience of attending COFACC meetings over five years, that is a very good model. We did not have interminable discussions over the entrails of commas and full stops in meaningless resolutions that would never go anywhere, but had a real exchange of views. People such as Mr Solana, Cathy Ashton, and the Foreign Minister or Prime Minister of the country that had the Council presidency came before us, answered questions and were accountable to the spectrum of opinion from the 27 member states.
Today, we frankly either have to agree to this report or have no position. If we have no position, we are effectively undermining our friends in like-minded countries. I had discussions with the Speaker of the Portuguese Parliament in January last year when the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Lisbon and when this idea was first developed. Concerns have been expressed in like-minded European Union countries about the aggrandisement, or even quasi-megalomania, of some in the European Parliament in relation to how these matters should go forward post the Lisbon treaty. If we have no position, we will undermine the work of our partner countries that are on the same wavelength as us, to which the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee referred. I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who is not present at the moment, to point out that France is not an insignificant country in the European Union. We have friends in a diverse group of countries, including Finland and Portugal, who hold similar views about how defence, security and foreign policy should be scrutinised and how accountability should be dealt with.
We have not reached the final position, because there will have to be negotiation and there will probably be an almighty row. People in the European Parliament who do not like the suggested model will clearly resist it. Some countries, such as Belgium, will do so—I could make a joke about chocolate soldiers, but I will not, because it is an old joke from a previous decade. The Belgians are not alone—there are people in Germany, Italy and other European countries who have a similar attitude to the European Parliament and its aspirations. We need to come to a view today that helps the debate and clarifies it for the future.
We do not need to come to a view today in adopting the Committee’s report. At the beginning of April, Mr Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), will represent Mr Speaker at the conference. I am sure that he will faithfully reflect the balance of opinion in today’s debate when he represents this Parliament at that conference. It will not be suggested that we are not doing anything, because we are achieving a lot through today’s debate.
I would rather we had a clear position to guide our representatives when they take part in those negotiations. Of course, a negotiation ultimately leads to some movement and compromise. From the thrust of the remarks of the hon. Member for North Dorset, I believe that although he is not entirely happy with the report, he is more happy with it than the approach that came from the Belgian Council presidency.
We have a choice today. I have to declare an interest as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee who was involved in the discussions on the matter in the early days, before the report was agreed. Nevertheless, I am very pleased that the Committee’s members from three parties have reached a consensus view, which also reflects the view expressed by the Committee in the last Parliament.
We have had experience of attending seminars organised by the European Parliament from time to time. National parliamentarians are sat at the end of the row, then some man who has been elected with about 3% of the popular vote in his country proceeds to denounce the views of a whole delegation of national parliamentarians, who collectively might represent 95% of the popular vote in their country. That is the nature of the debates in the European Parliament on these matters.
We, as national parliamentarians, have to take the political heat on the doorstep when matters of life and death are involved. We have to debate issues such as Afghanistan, whether we should establish no-fly zones, humanitarian interventions and the responsibility to protect people in north Africa. The people who have to be held democratically accountable for those matters are not the Members of the European Parliament but the members of the national Parliaments.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham has rejoined us. One thing I agree with him about—he will be able to read what I said earlier about where I disagree with him—is that we in this House do not scrutinise European matters adequately. We need to get our act together rapidly, because those issues become more and more important. The report is at least an attempt, with co-ordination between different Select Committees and our colleagues in the other place, to get a common British view to put into the important international process. I therefore hope that the House will endorse the report today.
I begin on a lighter note. Earlier today I was talking to my good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), and he told me that Lord Tomlinson, when he was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister in 1978, had the pleasure of speaking to the WEU Assembly. There was a point of disagreement, and he shouted out that it should be wound up. The chant came, “Never, never, never!” Some 33 years later, Lord Tomlinson has apparently had his wish.
I am a big advocate for, and supporter of, parliamentary scrutiny of international, and particularly European, affairs. The European Scrutiny Committee does excellent work, which we saw very clearly on Third Reading of the European Union Bill, and the Foreign Affairs Committee does an excellent job. I was a member of the ESC for a number of years, so I can vouch for its excellent work.
As a member of the ESC, I was also a member of COSAC. The role of national Parliaments was enhanced by the Lisbon treaty, and it is important to stress that there are opportunities for Parliament to increase its role and effectiveness in European affairs. Parliament has a lot still to do—it needs to get its act together—but a step forward has been taken. However, although scrutiny of European legislation in national Parliaments is important, it is not enough. We need to co-ordinate and co-operate with the Parliaments of other member states. I am pleased that that is beginning to happen through COSAC, which has become more effective over the past few years.
With the end of the WEU and its parliamentary Assembly, it is important that the good work that COSAC has established is built on and extended. That is why the Opposition warmly support the proposal for the EU inter-parliamentary conference on foreign affairs, defence and security to meet twice a year and to work closely with COSAC.
The Opposition also agree entirely with the three fundamental points set out in the report: that the role of national Parliaments should be explicitly recognised and that they should have meaningful oversight of EU foreign, defence and security policies; that value should be added to the individual work of national Parliaments; and that the arrangements should be inter-parliamentary. The last of those points recognises, as hon. Members have said, that common foreign and security policy, and common security and defence policy, essentially involve intergovernmental co-operation at European level. It therefore makes sense for national Parliaments to take the lead role in scrutiny and oversight.
I have a couple of points in response to the debate, and perhaps the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) will respond to them when he concludes. First, as a former Member of the European Parliament, I am not against its involvement, but I take on board the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). Unfortunately, there is a tendency inside the European Parliament to push for more influence all the time, irrespective of the subject area. That is certainly true of defence and foreign affairs. I am not saying that the European Parliament should be unable to express an opinion and through its Members exert influence, but questioning whether it is appropriate for the Parliament to send its Members to COFADS.
The justification for that could be that the Parliament is involved in COSAC, but we are talking about intergovernmental co-operation. Therefore, the emphasis in COFADS should be entirely on national Parliaments coming together. Will the hon. Member for Croydon South comment on that when he concludes, because it is important to bear that in mind?
The Opposition entirely agree that observers from national Parliaments should attend COFADS when it meets twice a year. I also welcome the fact that applicant member states of the European Union should send observers. However, I point out that although countries such as Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro and Turkey have the facility to send observers, for some strange reason Norway and Albania will be formally excluded from sending representatives. It is unfair and unreasonable not to have a bit more flexibility, because they are, after all, European members of NATO. I ask for that to be looked at once again.
In conclusion, by and large we are strongly in favour of the proposals put forward. I certainly take the point that what we have before us is far better than the suggestion from the Belgian presidency, which I view with concern. We believe that the administrative proposals set out are sensible and appropriate, and that the costs are being kept to a minimum. That is appropriate and correct. Equally, it is important to recognise the good work done by COSAC, and we want to ensure that the proposal from the House seeks to build on that.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to respond to today’s important debate. I notice on the Order Paper that this afternoon the House had the opportunity to consider the question, “What do Ministers do?” The House might find it helpful, therefore, to know that the Minister for Europe, at this very moment, is meeting the Danish State Secretary and other parliamentarians in Copenhagen to discuss the Danish presidency of the European Union in 2012, and other EU and NATO issues. That is why, despite not having specific departmental responsibilities for Europe, I have the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Foreign Office this afternoon.
I thank and pay tribute, in particular, to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), for all his work, and to other Members who have contributed this afternoon, including the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) and the former Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). I am grateful to them all for their insights into the future workings of, and arrangements for, scrutiny of defence matters across Europe, and their experiences of how it has functioned in the past.
In getting to this point, I welcome the positive dialogue that the Government have enjoyed over the past year with interested MPs and peers on this issue. I know that the Minister for Europe is grateful for the close engagement and leadership of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Chairman of the European Union Select Committee in the other place. Since its formation after the second world war, the Western European Union Assembly has served to promote consultation and co-operation on defence and security matters in western Europe. I pay tribute to the efforts of Members here and in the other place, both past and present, who have played an important role in pursuing United Kingdom and European interests through the Assembly.
The closure of the WEU and its Assembly does not mean that member states do not recognise the value and importance of parliamentarians taking part in debate with their peers on European defence. The Government attach importance to parliamentary scrutiny of the EU’s common security and defence policy, and want to ensure that the cross-European parliamentary debate on European defence issues currently performed by the WEU Assembly continues. Inter-parliamentary discussion serves to enhance and enlighten the national scrutiny work of Parliaments and complements the breadth of knowledge that already exists in the House. That is a good thing, so we wish this overall endeavour well.
Let me be clear about the Government’s role in the process. In March last year, Governments across Europe decided to close the WEU, the bulk of its functions having already been transferred to the European Union. In doing so, we recognise the value of continuing inter-parliamentary debate on European defence and security policy. To ensure that a future forum could be established to facilitate that, we have worked to help discussions with interested parliamentarians on how this might be taken forward. During those discussions we set out the Government’s preferences. Ultimately, however, it is for national European parliamentarians to decide what form that future inter-parliamentary scrutiny arrangement should take. It is not for Governments to dictate to parliamentarians how they should scrutinise the functions of those Governments.
The UK Government have clear priorities. We believe in the primacy of national parliamentary scrutiny of the EU’s common foreign and security policy—a point that was raised on many occasions in this debate. That reflects the intergovernmental nature of the policy, and within it the common security and defence policy. Given the role played by national Parliaments, there is no need for any new arrangements involving an expansion of the European Parliament’s competences to scrutinise the CFSP. The European Parliament has a role—as acknowledged and recognised in the report—but an inter-parliamentary body better reflects the intergovernmental nature of the CFSP. The question was asked whether the European Parliament would take over the WEU’s role. The answer is no, that is not the case. European defence is an intergovernmental issue, and national parliamentarians must remain at the heart of scrutinising it, as proposed in the report that we are considering this afternoon. The Lisbon treaty provides for the European Parliament to be consulted on the CFSP, and therefore it will have a role in the new body, but operational EU security and defence decisions will remain for sovereign Governments only, as at present.
We wish to ensure that there is a suitable body that can scrutinise co-operation between individual member states. That should be done by the Parliaments of member states, working in concert with the European Union in a way that is appropriate. That is the balance that we are trying to achieve and which we believe the report also tries to achieve. We also believe that any new arrangements should be better suited to supporting and informing the national scrutiny process. They should capitalise on the expertise of relevant parliamentarians in this policy area and allow for a free and open exchange of information among European states.
The new arrangements also need to demonstrate value for money for the taxpayer. Given the current financial pressures facing Europe, we support the proposal in the Foreign Affairs Committee report that any future mechanism for inter-parliamentary dialogue on the common security and defence policy should operate with the minimum of cost and bureaucracy. The UK’s current annual subscription payment to the WEU is €2.3 million. Although the WEU Assembly played a useful role in engaging views from across Europe, we and other WEU Council members believe this inter-parliamentary debating function can be delivered much more efficiently outside WEU structures. The new body will operate at a fraction of the current cost, as envisaged in the Foreign Affairs Committee report, and, more appropriately, be paid for by national Parliaments rather than Governments. Any move to create another standing body to manage future arrangements—as envisaged in the amendment, which was not selected for debate this afternoon—is contrary to UK and WEU members’ goals. One of the prime drivers behind the decision by the UK and WEU member states to wind up the WEU was its poor cost-effectiveness.
Finally, the Government believe that the new arrangement should include third states outside the 27 members of the EU. One of the major strengths of the CSDP is its ability to draw on support from outside the EU. The report acknowledges this and we welcome the extension of a standing invitation to EU candidate countries, but we remain convinced that non-EU European NATO members such as Norway should receive a standing invitation. European defence policy and NATO share common political and security interests. Norway in particular has provided valuable contributions to EU operations and is currently an associate member of the WEU. We see no reason why its inclusion in future arrangements should be anything other than permanent.
To sum up, in this policy area, the Government see real value in inter-parliamentary collective debate that informs the national scrutiny process of EU member states. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee report represents an important step towards developing practical, low-cost, inclusive arrangements that will benefit parliamentarians across Europe, and I urge hon. Members to give the report their support this afternoon.
I want to make a short contribution to the debate. As a new Member of Parliament, I almost feel like an intruder, talking about the Western European Union. I want to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and for North Dorset (Mr Walter) for setting the context of the debate and providing the necessary factual information.
My contribution is about the role of parliamentary scrutiny. I feel strongly that, whatever changes are made, it is vital that the sovereignty of the House should be preserved in relation to defence, foreign and security policy. I urge those involved in the decision-making process to take into account the fact that our electorate, the British public, feel aggrieved that there is not enough debate in the House on those policy areas. The public never had a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and they now look to us to raise those issues here, and to preserve their democratic rights in regard to parliamentary sovereignty and the scrutiny of all those matters. Whatever the successor body does, the inter-parliamentary scrutiny that relates to the British people should feed back primarily to this Parliament and, of course, defend British interests.
I have served as a member of the WEU Parliamentary Assembly for several years, and I was recently given the honour of serving as leader of the Federated Group, which comprises like-minded parliamentary representatives from a whole range of countries, including non-EU countries that have the opportunity to participate in the Assembly.
I am very concerned that, in our debate today, there has been a conflict between the point of view put forward so ably by the president of the parliamentary assembly, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) and others who have direct experience of serving on the Assembly, and those led by the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), who have had no such experience.
I hope that when Mr Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), goes to the Speakers’ conference in April, he will reflect on the fact that great credence should be given to the points of view of those who have been serving in the WEU parliamentary assembly. Parliament will be assisted by the fact that he has served with distinction as a member of the Assembly, and as chairman of one of its technical committees dealing with aerospace and defence—
Mr Ottaway claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Main Question accordingly put and agreed to.
That this House pays tribute to the work of the European Security and Defence Assembly and the members of the UK Delegation; notes the continuing need for co-ordinated scrutiny by national parliaments of intergovernmental activities under the EU’s foreign, defence and security policies; welcomes the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Future inter-parliamentary scrutiny of EU foreign, defence and security policy, HC 697; and approves its approach to delivering that scrutiny.