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European Elections 2014

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

[Relevant document: First Report of the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 83-i, Chapter 3.]

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 7648/13, a Commission Communication on preparing for the 2014 European elections and enhancing their democratic and efficient conduct, and No. 7650/13, a Commission Recommendation on enhancing the democratic and efficient conduct of the elections to the European Parliament; notes that whilst European political parties are free to support candidates for Commission President, this does not limit the European Council’s selection of a candidate; agrees with the Government that the suggestion for a common voting day across the EU is unhelpful and would achieve the opposite of the stated intention of increasing voter turnout; and further notes that there is currently no indication that these documents are going to be followed up by formal legislative proposals.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss these European Commission recommendations in the House. It is now less than 12 months until the 2014 European parliamentary elections due to be held from Thursday 22 May to Sunday 25 May. This debate is therefore timely. [Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry Minister. Members who wish to have private conversations would be well advised to leave the Chamber. There are those who wish to debate the European recommendations, and it is not very courteous to the Minister either.

On 12 March, the European Commission published a set of recommendations and a communication concerning the 2014 European parliamentary elections whose contents also touched on other areas of European political life. The proposals do not carry legal weight; they are non-binding suggestions to member states and national and European political parties. The Government always welcome contributions to the ongoing debate about democracy in the EU, but I believe that these specific proposals mistakenly assume that there is a single European political identity—a single European demos—and ignore the fact that the fundamental source of democratic legitimacy within the EU is derived from national Parliaments accountable to their national electorates. I believe that we need to work to strengthen the links between national democracies, their Parliaments and EU institutions.

We consider it unlikely that these recommendations will become formal legislative proposals from the Commission, but if they were to take that form, they would need to be decided by unanimity. The relevant treaty articles are articles 22(2) and 223(1) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. As you will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, under the European Union Act 2011, any measure introduced by the Commission and agreed by the Council and Parliament under article 223(1) would also require an Act of Parliament for the United Kingdom to give it assent. The consequence of that is that the UK would have a veto over any such proposed change.

I want briefly to set out the recommendations in more detail, addressing those that concern the conduct of European elections, before turning to the Commission recommendation that European political parties make known their candidate for the post of Commission President. The first and second recommendations put forward by the Commission are intended to promote connections between European political parties and national political parties. The proposals suggest that national political parties should explain their connection with European political parties and make clear that connection in their electoral documents. Political parties in this country are perfectly free to advertise their European affiliation if they so choose. Ballot papers in the United Kingdom will continue to be produced in accordance with UK law, as will party political literature. If a United Kingdom party wishes prominently to display its European political affiliation, it is free to do so, but there should be no question of compulsion.

Recommendation 4—the suggestion that member states ought to agree a common voting day for elections to the European Parliament—has attracted some attention in the media. At the moment, elections to the European Parliament take place over a four-day period, which in 2014 is set to fall between 22 and 25 May, as I mentioned earlier. I fear that a number of right hon. and hon. Members might have read reports that the EU intends to force the UK to hold elections on a Sunday. It is my happy duty to inform the House that this is not the case. The UK will continue to hold elections on a Thursday, as is our tradition, and I am sure that other member states will rest equally assured that they will be able to continue to hold elections on their day of choice. To mandate that a member state change its election day would achieve the very opposite of the declared aim of the proposals—namely, an increase in voter turnout—and would be detrimental to electoral diversity across the EU.

I have much sympathy with what the Minister is saying, but he seems to be eliding two things: the choice of election day being a national matter, not a European Union matter, and whether it should be a Thursday or a Sunday, which is the other component. They are two different questions. Whatever day it is, does he agree that we should choose it? That is the important point.

Much as I think it would be quite wrong for anything to be mandated—the decision should be made locally—the so-called tradition of Thursday elections in the UK goes back only about 100 years. Perhaps it would be more sensible to consider a weekend election, for all the convenience factors that would come with that, but also because, in the case of these elections, it might allow us to hold elections on two weekend days some three or four weeks apart, rather than having to change our day for local elections, as we have, from the traditional first Thursday in May to 22 May, which is what is now envisaged for those elections and the European elections next year.

My hon. Friend is right that it used to be the case that general elections in this country took place over a number of days. Indeed, it was not completely uncommon for candidates to put themselves forward for election in more than one constituency. If the House were to consider a change of the sort that he and the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) suggest, it ought to be debated in the context not solely of European parliamentary elections, but of our electoral practice more generally, covering general and local elections, as well as European elections. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be interested to hear any proposals that Members wish to make.

What consideration have the Government and the Minister given to the opinion of faith groups in relation to holding elections on any day other than a Thursday, and certainly not on a Sunday?

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on one of the key problems with shifting away from our practice of voting on a Thursday—namely, that to pick any day over the weekend from Friday to Sunday would inevitably begin to trespass on the religious practices of faith groups in various parts of the United Kingdom. We would need to look at how the timing of a polling day might have an impact on people from such groups, and not just in respect of the voting day because a large number of constituencies and local authorities still count votes the day following polling day, so that has to be taken into consideration, too.

I am reassured by what the Minister says. I can tell him that, whether it be held on a Sunday, a Thursday or any other day, the people of Brigg and Goole will be equally uninterested in the European parliamentary election. I agree with my right hon. Friend on what he says about maintaining our Thursday elections. Has he assessed how much the ridiculous situation of paying for security and the guarding of ballot boxes from Thursday to Sunday costs us? Plenty of other countries around the world, such as Canada, have results coming in for elections held on the same day, but the results from eastern Canada are known before the people in western Canada have finished voting. Why can we not just go back to counting on a Thursday and save the taxpayer some money?

That is an interesting view. I do not know whether the Cabinet Office has the figures for which my hon. Friend asks. I think that the agreement reached some years ago within the EU—that voting should take place over a number of days—was designed to accommodate both the fact that different countries had the habit of voting on different days of the week and the wish not to declare votes early in case the votes in one country affected how votes were cast in another country. I have to say that I rather agree with my hon. Friend, as the prospect of that happening is, in practice, pretty slim. I doubt whether he will be influenced in his campaigning by the outcome of elections in Greece or Malta. The arrangements we now have were incorporated into European law, and it is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

We are proposing the alternatives of Sunday and Thursday, but there is also the alternative of Saturday, which would be convenient for many industrial workers. Saturday is a day of rest for many, perhaps not all, but this day would avoid the religious complications that the Minister mentions.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the problem with Saturday is, first, that a number of Jewish communities would find it difficult and, further, that we would still be left with the problem of asking people to count votes and declare results on the Sunday, which would present a difficulty for a number of Christian denominations. This is not a straightforward issue, but as I say it goes beyond the scope of the European Commission recommendations and it is probably best addressed in the context of a wider debate about the timing of elections in the UK.

The four technical recommendations from the Commission—recommendations 5 to 8—are directed at improving the conduct of European elections through EU directive 93/109/EC on information exchange. These four recommendations are not new proposals, but rather suggestions to member states on how to enhance their implementation of the existing requirements of the directive.

The Government are committed to fulfilling their obligations under this directive and we currently implement the legal requirements in full. We do, however, remain concerned about the practical demands of this process and about the burden of implementation being much greater than the prevalence of the problem it is designed to address—namely, double voting. The Government have noted the Commission’s recommendations in this area and we will take them into account in our preparations for the 2014 European parliamentary elections.

I should add, to reassure the House, that any move that the Commission might hypothetically make in the future to incorporate those four recommendations in a revised version of the directive would require unanimity under article 22(2) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union.

The Commission’s third recommendation states that European and national political parties should make known their nominations for the post of President of the European Commission. Some European political parties are very likely to nominate particular individuals as their candidates for the post. They are free to do so if they wish, and I am sure that that will result in a lively debate among political parties. Indeed, I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) whether she and her party intend to campaign ardently in favour of Mr Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, who is currently the only declared candidate on behalf of the Party of European Socialists as the proposed successor to President Barroso.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would it be relevant to our business if my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East accepted the Minister’s invitation to discuss who might or might not be a candidate? Where does that feature on the Order Paper?

I think that the Minister is stretching a point, as he has done several times already. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. Perhaps we could return to the specifics of the debate, and any political jousting could take place outside the Chamber afterwards.

I am sure that, if the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) wishes to put himself forward as a rival to Mr Schulz, he will find some support on the Opposition Benches.

It is being suggested in some quarters, and was hinted at in the Commission’s communication, that only one of the candidates named by European political parties can become President of the European Commission. I have read—as, I am sure, have other Members—a fair bit of confused reporting on the process for selecting the next President, and it may help the House if I briefly explain the system as it is described in the treaties.

As is stated in article 17(7) of the treaty on European union, the European Council, acting by qualified majority,

“Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations… shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission.”

The candidate shall then be elected by a majority of the European Parliament’s Members. If the candidate cannot attain a majority, the European Council will propose a new candidate.

The House will note that there is no mention in the treaty of European political party candidates for the post of Commission President. In our opinion, such candidates were not envisaged by the requirement for the European Council to take account of the European Parliament elections. While there is nothing in the treaty to prevent European political parties from running candidates, there is also nothing to mandate the European Council to limit its selection of a Commission President to those in that particular pool, and any proposal to impose such a mandate would require amendment of the treaty.

This is mind-bogglingly irrelevant to the problems of my constituents. Would it not be better for the Minister to focus on abolishing six of the seven Presidents of the European Union?

I am speaking about this because it is very relevant to the communication which the European Scrutiny Committee has referred to the Floor of the House—indeed, it relates to one of the integral parts of that communication. While I am the first to argue that the European Union ought to slim down its bureaucracy, and I would probably agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are some European institutions whose absence we would not mourn because they do not contribute much to the well-being of European citizens, I believe that the arrangements for the election of a successor to President Barroso are quite important, because the holder of that office will be in a position to exercise a significant influence on policies that affect this country. It is therefore important that we are clear about the rules under which his successor will be selected. It is also important that the UK Government make it clear that we will resist any attempt to interpret the treaties as limiting the choice available to the European Council in a way that is not justified by the text of the treaties, but which some in other parts of Europe are keen to see.

On that point, how does my right hon. Friend interpret the start of article 17(7) of the treaty on European union:

“Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations”?

Surely the only way to take into account the elections to the European Parliament is to consider the results by political party. If the Commission brought forward specific proposals in this regard, what legal response would the Government have, or how might the European Court of Justice interpret it?

Order. Minister, you are stretching the debate very widely, as the document is not legally binding and therefore that is not to do with why this matter has been referred to the Floor of the House. This is not a blue-sky thinking exercise. Of course refer to the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which lays out the process, but please stick to what is on the Order Paper and what is before us now, not in future.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, I am speaking to the Minister, not you. I was not ruling what you said out of order.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The motion specifically refers to the proposals from the Commission, which include matters relevant to the nomination of candidates for the post of President. The article quoted by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is therefore directly relevant. Are we free to discuss it in that respect at least?

With respect, Mr Horwood, if you had listened to what I said, you would have heard me say article 17(7) is relevant. I was just suggesting to the Minister that, given that the whole document is not legally binding, while it is important that he explains the current arrangements, I hope he will not continue to stretch the debate rather wider than the document in question provides for. So you can of course discuss article 17(7).

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), let me explain our view on article 17(7). The European Council retains complete freedom to nominate whom it wishes. It is required to take into account the elections to the European Parliament, but there is nothing in article 17(7) or elsewhere in the treaty on European union that suggests the European Council is in any way mandated to limit its election to a particular pool of candidates. Indeed, it may be that no one political family commands a majority in the European Parliament, or it may be that different combinations of European political parties within the European Parliament prefer one candidate rather than another, and it may not be possible, simply by looking at which of the larger European groupings ends up in the lead after the elections next year, to determine what the preference even of the Parliament itself might be as to the preferred candidate.

On page 14 of the package before us of the Commission’s communications, it specifically quotes article 17(7) in support of its point about political parties and the European presidency. I therefore wonder if it is reading more into article 17(7) than the Minister believes is there.

I believe it is, and I think it is fair to say that there are plenty of people in and around the European Commission, and indeed the European Parliament, who believe—perfectly honourably—that the way forward is to move towards a system in which it is the European Parliament, rather than the Heads of Government assembled in the European Council, that has the key role in nominating the President of the Commission and thereafter holding the Commission to account. These are people who believe that it is right and possible to create a European demos, and see that step as a way so to do. What I am saying to my hon. Friend is that I see, and the Government see, nothing in the treaty that requires the European Council to limit its freedom of action in the way that some are suggesting.

This point is not on article 17(7) per se. The motion uses the words

“notes that whilst European political parties are free to support candidates”.

The Minister will know that European political parties have huge amounts of money, which they are not allowed to spend on political campaigning in the course of elections. Surely this document has the potential to ride a coach and horses through that law, internal though it may be to the Parliament, because there are political parties across Europe, including some in the United Kingdom, that do use European political party funding to fund their whole party hierarchy.

It is important to distinguish a couple of points. First, nothing in these Commission documents is a legally binding proposal. I repeat: these have the status of recommendations, nothing more. The recommendation we are now debating is addressed to European political parties and national political parties, and it deals with how the Commission thinks they might better arrange their affairs. It is entirely up to both the European and the national political parties to decide whether they pay any attention to the Commission’s recommendations or not.

Secondly, there are provisions in the treaty on the functioning of the European Union to govern the conduct of European parliamentary elections. Those are embodied in a statute based on the relevant articles of the TFEU. For that statute to be amended, or for other changes to be brought forward, unanimity would be required under article 223, as I said earlier. The question of party political spending, including by candidates within the United Kingdom, is governed by the relevant United Kingdom statutes, including, most obviously, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. At the moment, there is a clear legal distinction between certain measures that are set at European level and require the unanimous agreement of every member state, and the rules on party fundraising, party financing and election expenditure, which remain a matter for member states and are not touched in any way, even by these Commission recommendations.

I wish to conclude on the following point. I said at the start of my remarks that the Government believed there is a genuine problem of lack of democratic legitimacy within the European Union, but that these proposals suggested by the Commission do not provide the answer to that crisis. The Government’s preference would be to see a greater role for national Parliaments in holding European decisions to account. Although I will not expatiate on the detail, the ideas that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have proposed in recent weeks on the greater use of the yellow card mechanism or creating a red card mechanism, giving national Parliaments the right to block legislation that need not be agreed at European level, are intended as a contribution to a vigorous debate, which we have now launched, within Europe, not just within the UK. The absence of democratic legitimacy and adequate democratic accountability within the EU is a major political question that needs serious debate and consideration right across the European Union, but it is not answered by the proposals before us this evening.

I welcome the opportunity that the European Scrutiny Committee has given the House to scrutinise these documents from the European Commission, one a communication and the other a recommendation, which make suggestions about the conduct and organisation of European elections by member states. The stated objective of the European Commission is to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU and boost turnout in European elections. Fortunately, European communications and recommendations, as their names suggest, do not have legal force and, as the Minister stressed, the documents are not binding on member states. That is the only good thing about them.

The Opposition are pragmatically pro-European, but we do not agree with every directive, proposal or suggestion that comes out of European institutions. In this case, in particular, we disagree with the suggestions made by the European Commission and hope that our Government, when they are in Brussels negotiating on these and other documents, will put forward their opposition. I agree with the words in the motion.

On the question of democratic legitimacy, does the hon. Lady agree that one problem is that European elections are held according to the strange d’Hondt form of proportional representation? The vast majority of British electors have no idea how it operates, which might well be part of the reason why turnout is so low in this country.

Turnout is low for many reasons, and I agree that that is one of them. I would have preferred us to keep the system we had before 1999, under which we had constituencies that were bigger than the Westminster constituencies, as we have fewer MEPs than we have MPs but they retained the link with their constituency and their local party—the constituency Labour party for us, or the Conservative association for Conservative MEPs. I am not quite sure what the Liberal Democrats call their local parties—

They might not be sure.

The MEP would not only have a home constituency to look after but would have a political home to which they could refer, which was manageable and of a manageable size.

I must say that I am delighted by what my hon. Friend has just said about first past the post as opposed to list system PR. Does she think that our party might possibly make a commitment at the next election to restore first past the post for European elections in Britain?

Order. Much as the hon. Lady might be tempted by that question, can we stick specifically to the European document before us? Manifestos can be written elsewhere.

My overall objective in this House is obviously to make my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) happy, but I will defer to your instructions, Madam Deputy Speaker, and will not go down that line of argument.

In this case, and in others, the European Commission seems to have disregarded a very important principle that applies to European co-operation—that is, the subsidiarity principle. It is clear and obvious to me and Members across the House that it should be the decision of democratic political parties in the UK to decide how to approach European elections and how to campaign for them, and that it is up to Ministers in our Government and to this Parliament to decide on which day we should hold those elections. One of the most concerning elements of the proposals is the one to hold the European elections on the same day across the European Union. The Commission argues that member states should agree on

“a common day for elections to the European Parliament, with polling stations closing at the same time.”

That argument is problematic in two different ways. First, as has already been stated, we have a tradition in the UK of voting on a Thursday that, I understand, goes back to the 1930s. It is now fixed in law that local and general elections must take place on a Thursday. The date of European elections is not fixed in law but, according to section 4 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, European elections should be held on a date fixed by the Secretary of State for Justice. Nevertheless, here as well, the convention is that European elections take place on a Thursday, in line with other elections, as I described.

There are different traditions in different member states of the European Union. We, the Danes and the Dutch usually vote on a Thursday, the Irish vote on a Friday, and some other member states tend to vote on a Saturday or a Sunday. I strongly believe that it should continue to be a decision made by member states’ Governments as to which day of the week elections should be held. Here in the UK it is essential that there is uniformity across the different sets of elections, so general, local and European elections should all take place on a Thursday.

There is already a problem with low turnout in European elections. I would like to see a higher turnout in those elections. The Commission states that it wants to boost turnout and increase democratic legitimacy. I fear that its proposal to hold elections on the same day throughout the EU would do exactly the opposite of the stated objective. It might further decrease voter turnout and would therefore do nothing to improve democratic legitimacy.

Secondly, the idea that polling stations should close at the same time is also problematic because of the differences in time zones across the EU. Polls that close at 10 pm in the UK would close earlier in Greece, for example. As early as 1960, the European Parliament adopted proposals for a “uniform procedure” for its member states’ elections, to be used by all member states, but in reality, five decades later, there is no uniformity in virtually any aspect of European elections. In most member states, including the UK, voters choose from a party list, whereas in other member states the single transferable vote is used. Voting ages vary as well, so there is no uniformity in these aspects of European elections. Artificially imposing the same election day would be problematic and, as I said, counter-productive.

The Commission also proposes that national political parties make clear their affiliation to pan-European political parties. Again, the European Commission has disregarded the principle of subsidiarity. It is none of the Commission’s business how my party—the Labour party—or the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats or others want to campaign in the European parliamentary elections. It is up to the respective national parties to decide how best to campaign in those elections. We strongly believe that it should be for national parties also to determine the content of their party broadcasts, without suggestions from the European Commission.

There are some questions that I would like to put to the Minister. Have the Government informed the Commission of their concerns about the Commission’s suggestions, as set out in the motion? What is the Government’s view on how the Commission is likely to follow up these two documents? What is the view of the other European institutions—the European Parliament and the rest of the Council of Ministers?

Increasing participation in European elections and improving the democratic legitimacy of the European Union are objectives that we share, but the proposals that we are debating today will not achieve that aim. They are counter-productive and ignore the fact that according to the principle of subsidiarity, member states and not the European Commission should have responsibility for administering elections within their borders. We agree, as the Minister set out, that national Parliaments should have a greater role and we congratulate the Foreign Secretary on adopting the proposal of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), for a red card system, which my right hon. Friend proposed in January this year. It took the Foreign Secretary a few months to come round to the idea, but we are glad that he is there. Such proposals should increase the democratic legitimacy of European Union decision making.

We are therefore content to support the Government’s motion on the European Commission documents, and urge the Government to make the strongest possible representations to the Commission that these proposals should be taken no further.

Being asked to support a motion that takes note of a non-binding set of documents means that this is possibly the least controversial European debate that we have ever had in the House, and I am entirely happy to support the motion. I agree with quite a lot of what has been said by Members on both sides of the House. If the Commission’s proposals are trying to encourage engagement and involvement in European politics, they are missing the mark. That will never be transformed by prescribing the minutiae of voting days or even by talking about precisely how and when who suggests what candidate for posts in the Commission. We have a responsibility as politicians to address these issues, and perhaps to stop discussing endlessly the minutiae of treaties and referendums and such matters—banging on about Europe, as the Prime Minister once memorably put it—and to focus on jobs, crime, the environment and all the important things that Europe has an impact on in our constituents’ lives, but that are rarely talked about in that context.

The media also have some responsibility to report European politics and debate on such issues instead of constantly reporting Europe as if the only debates were about referendums and treaties. It is frustrating that in other European countries news programmes report debates on issues of substance in the European Parliament, which never seems to happen in this country.

With regard to the specifics of the suggestions in the documents, on the voting day I agree with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and others that there are huge practical problems with having a single voting day, and even more with having single voting times. We should be looking for more flexibility in voting as a possible contribution to higher turnouts, not lower, which these proposals seem to suggest. People lead busy lives, voting often is not their No. 1 priority on a particular day; that might be getting to and from work, getting the children to school or doing a million other things. I am sure we have all been in the situation of trying to persuade that one last voter to go out and vote, but finding that it is not quite as important to them as it is to us. Of course it is very important, and we are right to try to persuade people to turn out, but we need to make it easier, not more difficult.

That might mean, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who is no longer in his place, suggested, looking at weekend voting, and, as used to happen, at elections taking place over several days. That was the tradition for hundreds of years in elections to the Westminster Parliament. It might mean encouraging more postal voting, making it generally more flexible and open, and not being quite so hung up about having an election on a particular day at a particular time. We might end up testing out having elections on a Saturday or Sunday, or both.

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. If we had elections over two days at weekends, Jews could vote on Sunday and Christians could vote on Saturday, and solve the problem.

Absolutely. And Muslims could vote on both, and the election could start on Friday. We could be very flexible. Cultural traditions might also be relevant. The Commission’s proposal fails the basic subsidiarity test. This does not need to be mandated, therefore it should not be, and there seems to be wide agreement across the House on that.

The proposals for the candidates for the presidency of the Commission are rather curious. I am proud to be a member of Cheltenham Liberal Democrats, of the Liberal Democrat party in the United Kingdom and of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, and intensely proud to be a member of Liberal International, where Liberals are fighting for things that we take for granted at risk to their own lives in many parts of the world. I know that other parties have slightly more hang-ups about being members of European political parties and have had some difficulties in that regard, but the proposals as far as they go seem to be fairly unexceptional.

The Commission’s proposals effectively talk about encouraging European political parties to nominate candidates, but actually they can already do that. A report by my colleague Andrew Duff, which the European Parliament will vote on at the start of July, goes rather further. It states that

“the candidate for Commission President who was put forward by the European political party that wins the most seats in the Parliament will be the first to be considered”

with a view to

“ascertaining his/her ability to secure the support of the necessary absolute majority in Parliament”.

That might be a legitimate and interesting way of interpreting article 17.7 of the treaty, but so long as they must only have regard to the candidate, the Councils of the European Union will not actually be obliged to choose that candidate or even to consider them in preference over others.

We need to create a situation that encourages more involvement, openness and accountability, and in that respect I think that it would be good to have greater democratic involvement in the process of promoting and choosing candidates, so long as it does not mandate it, because I think that a slight constitutional issue would start to emerge if we drifted into the mandation of candidates by political parties. That would start to blur the line between who are the Governments and politicians and who are the civil servants, which is a line that we draw very carefully in this country. In a sense, the Commission is the equivalent of the civil service and the permanent secretaries. In many respects, it should be the impartial servant of the political will of the Parliament and of the people and Governments of Europe in the Councils. We can decide at some future stage—this is certainly not something I support now—whether to have a European Government, but we do not have one at the moment and that is not something we should start doing in an accidental, piecemeal way.

I accept that there is a particular problem for the Conservatives on this issue. They belong to the fifth largest group in the Parliament—it feels rather good to say that—and the Liberal and Socialist groups are rather larger. I think it is a problem for the Conservatives that they are not represented in the mainstream conservative grouping, or Christian Democrat grouping, in the Parliament. I think that it was a regrettable decision by the British Conservatives not to take part in that, because I think it has reduced British political influence within the European political forum.

I can assure my hon. Friend that not a single constituent of mine has ever expressed to me any dissatisfaction whatever with the position of the Conservatives in the European Parliament.

Order. We are not actually discussing the position of the Conservative party anywhere in Europe; we are discussing the documents before us today. You can talk about article 17(7), Mr Horwood, but let us not venture any further.

Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The second point is that there is an expression of what I used to call the Thatcher doctrine, which is to complain about the lack of democracy in the European Union but oppose all practical steps to increase democratic accountability because that would be seen as giving more legitimacy to the European tier of government. I think that is a regrettable approach.

With regard to the motion, which mentions European political parties and their freedom to support candidates for Commission President, does the hon. Gentleman stand by the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement that the group the Conservatives joined in the European Parliament was made up of “nutters, anti-Semites and homophobes”?

I think that we are trying to raise the tone of the debate and not to refer to things that were said in the heat of the moment. I think that the Thatcherite idea that we should not give more democratic legitimacy is quite a destructive way to approach the European level of government. I am in favour of more democracy, more openness and more accountability.

It is always too tempting to fail to intervene on my hon. Friend’s speeches, but the point that Margaret Thatcher was making was that there was no demos and that therefore there could be no democratic legitimacy. The first principle of democratic legitimacy is to have a people who care about each other.

Yes, and I think the European people do actually care about each other. When I take part in the councils of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe—I am looking forward to this over the next few months as we move towards our London congress, which I am proud to have taking place in this very city—I care about the welfare of people outside the United Kingdom, and I think that other Europeans care about the welfare of this country as well.

No, I will not; I really must draw my remarks to a conclusion.

I believe that there is a European demos. It is expressed in the European elections, perhaps in a quite fragmented way, but it is none the less an expression of European political views by the people of Europe in perfectly democratic elections. It is right that a European Parliament elected in that way should play an increasing role in determining how the European Union functions. In increasing democracy, openness and accountability, these are reasonably uncontroversial proposals.

I shall just make the point that I was going to put to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) in an intervention. This idea about all Europeans caring about one another is fine—I love all my continental colleagues very much—but my identity is as a part of the British demos, not of a European demos, which I do not think exists. I think that was the point that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) was making.

I am pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), who spoke extremely well. I agree with everything she said, even though there might be a smidgen of difference between our views on the European Union generally. Even more happily, we both seem to be in agreement with the Minister and the Government. That makes this a rare event, but a happy occasion.

We must absolutely not have parties at European Union level. Even at national level, party elites are sometimes too far removed from their activists and their voters. Having party groupings at international level acting as parties would make the gap between the voters at the grass roots and those who govern us even greater. That would be completely unacceptable.

Another problem involves finding political parties to bond with. The Conservatives have understandably had problems finding a home. If I were in their position, I would be happy to stand separately, but I know that that would create a problem of securing positions on committees and so on. So far as Labour is concerned, we could be linked with Pasok in Greece, yet Pasok is now cemented together with New Democracy and inflicting appalling austerity on the working people of that country. I do not want to be seen to be supporting Pasok in what it is now doing. It should be standing up for working people and against austerity. Indeed, that is what we should all be doing. We can have links and, occasionally, loose friendships with other parties when seeking convenient political groupings, but forming single political parties across Europe would be another step on the way to creating a state of Europe—which some people clearly want—with the Commission and perhaps the European Parliament forming the European Government. That would be a giant step in the wrong direction.

Another giant step in that direction was the introduction of a system of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East also mentioned this point. I have opposed such proposals before, and called in this Chamber for a return to first past the post and single Member constituencies. I hold to that position today. People would take the view that Europe was much more democratic if Members of the European Parliament represented a genuine constituency rather than an enormous region or even, in the case of Scotland and Wales, a country.

I oppose PR. I have opposed PR proposals for our own elections in Britain and for those in the European Parliament. Sadly, it has been used as a means of getting rid of the Eurosceptic left from the European parliamentary Labour party. Some 50% of the party’s 60 members were wiped out simply by being placed lower down the list, when the list system came out. They disappeared en masse. That certainly damaged our party, and it was very disappointing for the wing of the party that I belong to.

Another problem with the idea of having political parties at European level is that in many European countries there are two or three parties occupying the area that one party occupies in Britain. I recently visited Holland with the European Scrutiny Committee. It has a Socialist party and a Labour party whose Members sit next to each other, but in Britain they would easily be accommodated in our Labour party. If I were in Holland, it is conceivable that I would be in the Socialist party, but I would have to talk to them carefully about that.

There is a democratic deficit and, much as I deplore much of what Mrs Thatcher did, I think she was right to say that if we give too much democratic legitimacy to the European Union, democracy will start to leach away from our own national Parliaments, which would not be good. I want to see the democratic deficit addressed by restoring powers to national Parliaments, particularly the British Parliament. I want to see the restoration of effective power to the grass roots, including within parties. I am sure that all parties want that, but I want to see it in my party in particular.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that holding elections at different levels leaches democracy away from other levels, does he think that democracy leaches away from the national level as a result of local elections or elections in London, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland?

I think that power ranges over different levels. Over recent years we have seen power leached away from local government towards central Government. Local government is far less powerful than it was when I was a councillor 40 years ago. We had an enormous degree of independence that is no longer given to local government. If we allow too much of what we govern to go to the EU, democracy will leach away from our national Parliament. This is about powers. I want to see effective powers restored to national Parliaments, including—I discussed these in the Chamber earlier—those of the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy.

I also want first past the post, single Member constituencies and inner-party democracy in order to make sure that party activists, electors and ordinary people have real democratic power and feel that they have a stake in politics. If they do not feel that they have a stake, they might go elsewhere, which could be very dangerous and worrying for us all. When people feel that they can actually make a difference by being involved in politics and voting, that makes democracy meaningful. I would like to think that what we are suggesting today will help keep politics and democracy meaningful in Britain.

I am usually very nervous when there is an outbreak of complete consensus across the House. It is usually a sign that we are all getting things wrong together, but I think that this occasion is the exception that proves the rule. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Minister, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and, amazingly enough, the Lord High Almoner of pro-Europeanism, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood).

The hon. Gentleman may like to know that when I was a candidate in the Cities of London and Westminster I was once described as the Eurosceptic wing of the Liberal Democrats. I think the implication was that it was not very big.

I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend has been led down the path of temptation towards pro-Europeanism since he stood in the two cities.

We have heard a remarkable outbreak of consensus, which is important and is why the European Scrutiny Committee wanted the document debated. One of the things we learn from the processes of the European Union, particularly those of the Commission, is that things start at an early stage with a little document that has no legal force and is there for a general, genteel discussion. Nobody says very much about it, so the Commission assumes that there cannot be very much opposition to what is being proposed and that it is perfectly reasonable and achieving consensus. Then the document gets hardened up into a proposal and then into a directive or a regulation, and before we know where we are we are opposing a fully fledged, fully formed idea, which is, of course, much harder to do than when things are at an early stage, when the Commission can back down without significant loss of face and there has been no momentum in favour of the proposals.

I would caution us, none the less, against being too complacent about what the Commission may do next, because it has a treaty base—it is set out in the ESC report—for some of its proposals. The Minister has covered this, but article 10(4) of the treaty on European union says:

“Political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens”.

The importance of a treaty base is that it gives the Commission the ability to bring forward proposals. Once it has the treaty base, although it may appear not to apply on a simple first reading, it can be used, it is justiciable before the European Court of Justice and it fits into the general European approach of centralising powers.

As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am particularly concerned about article 17(7) of the treaty on European Union, which speaks of

“Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament”.

What the European Commission is trying to do—its own paper sets this out more clearly—is to establish the European Parliament as that which gives democratic legitimacy to the European Union. I contest that fundamentally. What gives democratic legitimacy to British involvement in the European Union is the European Communities Act 1972 and the sovereign will of this Parliament—a sovereign will that can be changed. I am therefore strongly opposed to the developing European theory that it is the European Parliament that is the basis of democratic legitimacy.

I would suggest that democratic legitimacy within Europe as it is currently constructed, based on the 1972 Act, lies with the Council of Ministers, because those Ministers are responsible to their sovereign Parliaments and have to report to them on what they have done. The paper from the Commission does not take that into account. Indeed, it tries to establish a new basis for the democratic legitimacy of the European Union.

If that view won widespread acceptance across member states, the question would arise as to whether our initial acceptance of powers for the European Union through the 1972 Act was still the basis of our membership or whether it had devolved to the new democratic structure set up by the European Commission and to the European Parliament. The Commission’s paper points strongly in that direction. Page 11 of the documents that we are discussing states:

“The role of the European Parliament as the representative democratic assembly of the Union has been underscored by the Lisbon Treaty.”

The same page speaks of

“the new definition of members of the European Parliament as ‘representatives of the Union’s citizens’ and not simply as ‘representatives of the peoples of the States brought together in the Community’.”

Even a straight reading of that shows the ambition of the Commission to build political validity through the European Parliament, which of course requires single European parties.

I am strongly opposed to single European parties, partly because if I put myself up in North East Somerset as representing the Conservative and Unionist party, plus a random collection of European parties, it would not help me, but also because it discriminates against parties that are very focused on their national interest. I was thinking about UKIP and what acronyms we might get if it coalesced with other parties across the continent. There would be FIP in France, DIP in Germany, HIP in Holland and GIP in Greece—GIP might be particularly appropriate in Greece. There would be a discrimination against parties that are particularly focused on the interests of their nation if we went down the route of what the European Commission proposes.

I am arguing that there is a fundamental flaw in the European Commission’s paper. That flaw is the idea that the European Parliament can be or is the body of democratic legitimacy for the European Union. By pushing that view, the Commission delegitimises national Parliaments and tries to accrete powers to itself, for example through the proposal on political parties, to promote its own view. It is therefore a matter for rejoicing, once again, on Waterloo day that there is such unanimity across the parties in this House. I hope that in two years’ time, when we have a full celebration of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, funded by the Treasury, we will be safe and clear from aggressive Commission documents that try to steal powers from the British subject.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I do not want to detain the House long, so I will try to reply briefly to the various questions raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) asked how funding from European political parties and other EU sources might influence domestic election campaigns in the United Kingdom. I want to place on the record that participation in elections in this country, including European elections, is regulated by UK electoral law, and that includes the use of funding in campaigns. United Kingdom law prohibits the use of funding from sources outside the UK, including European political party funding. A prohibition on the use of EU funding by national political parties is included in the draft new European political party proposals—those are other EU documents that the House considered in Committee a few days ago.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) asked whether the Commission is aware of the Government’s concerns about its communication, and the answer is a definite yes. Our—I was going to say reservation, but I think it is rather stronger than that— belief that the initiatives are simply misplaced and will not contribute to resolving the acknowledged democratic deficit of the European Union is well known, and United Kingdom officials and Ministers will continue to express their views on that in any future debates.

The hon. Lady asked about the position of the European Parliament, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, the AFCO committee of the European Parliament has produced a report that covers much the same area of policy as that addressed by the Commission’s communication and recommendations. Like the Commission documents, that report points towards a greater role for European political parties and the European Parliament in determining the successor to President Barroso in the Commission. The plenary Session of the European Parliament is due to debate and vote on the report next month, and I cannot predict how it will vote on that occasion.

The hon. Lady’s final question concerned what future Commission initiatives we expect to follow up the proposals. At the moment, there is no sign that the Commission plans to go further than its published recommendations, and the Government’s view is that the longer that remains the case, the better. We do not think that the recommendations add anything to the democratic problems that Europe faces.

I can give some reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) about articles 10(4) and 17(7) of the treaty on the European union. The full text of those articles contains a number of statements about how the European Union should organise its business, but there is no provision for the Commission to bring forward legislation and put it to the Council or Parliament. I would contrast that with the provisions in article 223(1) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, to which I referred earlier. That provides for changes to the law to be initiated by the Commission, and to be subject to the unanimous agreement of all member states. The enabling power for new legislation is not included in the text of articles 10 and 17, and that is why I said that the only way it would be possible to impose a mandate on the European Council to limit its nominations for President of the European Commission to lead candidates nominated by European political parties, or even to the lead candidate of the leading party after a European election, would be through the mechanism of treaty change. As my hon. Friend probably knows as well as anyone else in the House, that would require a process and certainly the unanimous agreement of every member state, and have national ratifications.

My question might be too hypothetical, but if the Council puts forward somebody who has never been associated with a political party, would that be challengeable in the European Court of Justice?

In theory, anything is challengeable, in the same way that almost any Executive decision in this country is challengeable under judicial review. Our view is that the duty on the European Council is no more and no less than that provided in article 17(7), which is to have regard to the outcome of the European Parliament elections and engage in the appropriate consultations. If the intention of the authors of the TEU had been a mandate, it would be spelled out in the wording of the treaty. My hon. Friend is right that there is an ambition on the part of a number of people in the Commission and the European Parliament not to seek treaty change—not at the moment, at least—but to bring about a working assumption that national Governments assembled in the European Council should limit themselves in the way they wish. As I have said, we strongly resist that assumption.

I conclude on this point. We have a set of recommendations that are not legally binding, and there is currently no suggestion of legislative proposals from the Commission to give effect to its recommendations. Any such legislative proposals would need the unanimous agreement of every member state, under whichever treaty article they are brought forward. I believe—this was the view on both sides of the House—that the recommendations are fundamentally misplaced. There is a serious problem across the EU, with public disaffection with the EU and how its decisions are taken rising to record levels. We have seen that reflected in part in the rise of populist parties—some democratic, some undemocratic and neo-fascist—in many different EU countries. For that real problem to be addressed, the EU needs to show in its priorities that it is focused on those things that really matter to the prosperity and security of the peoples of Europe. The arrangements by which the EU takes decisions needs to be reformed in a way that gives greater influence and authority to national Parliaments, to which Heads of Government and Ministers in the Council are ultimately accountable.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 7648/13, a Commission Communication on preparing for the 2014 European elections and enhancing their democratic and efficient conduct, and No. 7650/13, a Commission Recommendation on enhancing the democratic and efficient conduct of the elections to the European Parliament; notes that whilst European political parties are free to support candidates for Commission President, this does not limit the European Council’s selection of a candidate; agrees with the Government that the suggestion for a common voting day across the EU is unhelpful and would achieve the opposite of the stated intention of increasing voter turnout; and further notes that there is currently no indication that these documents are going to be followed up by formal legislative proposals.