Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swayne.)
It is a great pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
The ageing process has some charming aspects, one of which is that a new idea arrives and I sit and think, “I think I have heard this somewhere before.” If someone hangs around long enough, they may even find that not only have they heard the idea before but that they have heard it before before. I had that feeling when I heard of the latest strengthening of national Parliaments within the European Union context. At that stage I decided to break one of my basic rules: over the years I have never taken part in an EU debate without saying something that I have not said before. I recommend that practice to others, but on this occasion I thought I would pull together some thoughts on national Parliaments and some of the problems over the past few years.
Yet again, the role of national Parliaments is essentially being used as a fig leaf to hide accountability for decision making at the European level. The fig leaf is being used by national Governments, and we should not fall for it. I had a feeling of déjà vu 10 years ago, when I went to the Convention on the Future of Europe. One of the five working groups was on the role of national Parliaments, and an old hand sidled up to me and said, “Remember the dud they sold John Major?” I said, “No, I don’t remember the dud they sold John Major.” And the old hand said, “Well, during Maastricht they introduced the concept of subsidiarity and proportionality, which was supposed to appease the national Governments. There was also then a review of competences across Whitehall.”
It was funny—I thought I had heard that before. The dud they sold Major was on the principle that national Parliaments should be given a role on policing subsidiarity and proportionality—the Convention on the Future of Europe was in 2002 or 2003—so I said, “When has the principle ever been invoked?” I was then told that it had been invoked only once, during the British presidency, when there was the bright idea that we wanted to standardise the water temperature for sea lions in zoos. That was a step too far even for Britain and was deemed to be out of order on the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality.
Subsidiarity and proportionality are being chucked at an interesting case that is currently going through—the representation of women on company boards. I find that quite extraordinary. The rights of women are now seen to be something at the behest of national Governments. I thought we had already reached equality. Please give me equality, but not because of subsidiarity.
I will give a bit of history. In 1994, after Maastricht, national Parliaments were supposed to come to the rescue; and in 2002-03, they were supposed to come to the rescue again with a card system of yellow cards, red cards, vetoes and all those kinds of things. Yet again, we hear that national Parliaments are supposed to be strengthened, but in this place we are talking less about Europe than ever before. Previously, a small, select group of people would gather on Wednesdays ahead of a European Council meeting, and occasionally we would tell each other something that we had not said before. We considered the programme of the European Council. There were afternoon debates, and Ministers had to tell the Commons what was about to happen. Regularly, on the following Monday, the Prime Minister would give a statement on the results. Some Members will remember that we used to have great fun at those pre-Council meetings, because the Danes would usually have published the Council conclusions on their website ahead of the Council meeting. We made fun of that, but at least we talked about it.
What happens now is that debates ahead of a Council meeting are deemed to be Back-Bench business. I spent three consecutive Thursdays complaining about that to the Leader of the House, and I kept getting the same answer—that it is part of the Wright recommendations. We have overturned other parts of the Wright recommendations, so why are they suddenly sacrosanct? On top of that, the Prime Minister did not give a Council statement back in June because he said it was so boring, and he has combined the subsequent Council statements with hefty, serious foreign policy statements on other issues. The last Council statement was combined with a statement on Afghanistan. Both issues would have deserved a statement in their own right. National Parliaments are supposed to be coming to the rescue, yet Parliament is speaking less about the matter.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that retrograde step is particularly regrettable given that other Parliaments have actually started to improve their scrutiny? She mentioned the Danish Parliament, but the German Parliament now scrutinises the German Government’s negotiating strategy more closely ahead of European Council meetings.
Indeed. Ten years ago, the British Parliament was seen as having some of the toughest and most extensive scrutiny functions. We were also the first Parliament to open an office in the European Parliament so that we had representation there. Ten years ago we were a model that other people looked towards, and now we have fallen behind. We are doing less than others.
I am sure the hon. Lady would not want to move on to another subject without noting that the European Scrutiny Committee has now set up an inquiry into European scrutiny, to which she has given some very good evidence. Furthermore, last night the European Scrutiny Committee and two other Committees worked together to ensure that we changed the Government’s approach to the whole business of opt-outs and opt-ins and that the Government accepted the amendment that had essentially been drafted by the European Scrutiny Committee.
I fear to tread on the subject of the European Scrutiny Committee in the hon. Gentleman’s presence, because I know I would get it wrong. I would also rather rely on his intervening to tell the Chamber about the Committee’s work. It is significant that last night it was agreed that the negotiating positions had to be brought back to Parliament, but we all know that we are still only talking to each other in Committee Rooms rather than on the Floor of the House.
What would really improve national Parliaments? I am caught between a rock and a hard place, because I do not want national Parliaments to become separate institutions within the architectural framework of the EU. The EU has the Commission and the Council, but national Parliaments provide the majorities to form the Governments that send Ministers to the Council. There is, however, a little-known organisation that is known only to those who have been to some of its meetings—COSAC, which is the conference of European scrutiny committees.
Ten years ago, I was trying to broker a deal in that working group between national Parliaments so that COSAC would be strengthened in the red and yellow card system, but for that the MEPs would have had to leave COSAC. It is difficult for COSAC to arrive at a decision, because there are, say, four representatives from each country, two from the Government and two from the Opposition. If there is a coalition Government, in our case the representatives could be a Tory, a Lib Dem and two Labour Members, so there are probably three views among the four representatives. Consensus then has to be reached across 27 or 28 countries within extremely tight time limits. What then happens is that MEPs are the only people who are sufficiently united in their view and who caucus—they are usually united in the view that the European Parliament is good and national Parliaments are bad. The card system will not work unless the national Parliaments that exercise the veto have a network to talk to each other. If that network has an in-built number of MEPs who can outvote the national parliamentarians, it simply will not work. I do not know whether it is possible to change the job that COSAC does in such a way, but we will see.
I am following the hon. Lady’s remarks carefully. She refers to scrutiny as a key issue, but in Strangford, which has an agricultural and fishing base, it is not scrutiny that we want but changes in legislation to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. Does she feel that we can change things through the scrutiny that she refers to? If we cannot change things, scrutiny is no good.
The hon. Gentleman has gone to the nub of the matter. We need to decide what we think the role of national Parliaments is. Is it only to scrutinise? If so, we need to widen the base so that more Members take part more regularly. Or is it to get Governments to change their decisions at times? I think that it needs to be the latter, but a number of things have to happen to allow that. Early information is key.
We also need information about how people actually act in the Council of Ministers. I have sat in the Council of Ministers, and I know that there is rarely a vote. If there is, it is seen as a failure by the civil servants that they have allowed the situation to arise. They do a head count to see whether they have a qualified majority, and if they do not think they will get the decision they want, they give in gracefully.
That takes me to what really needs to change. We need a proper Europe Minister. That is not to cast any aspersions on the current Europe Minister, but the position is a fallacy. Why are matters involving the European Union, which deals essentially with domestic legislation, placed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Numerous Governments have tried at times to get the Europe function out of the Foreign Office. From what I gather, the trade union of Foreign Office Ministers usually gets together and it does not happen, but there is a question to be addressed there.
If the Europe Minister is in the Foreign Office and makes decisions and strikes bargains regularly, they might say, “There’s an idea here that affects agriculture on which we want some compromise”, or it might be on cigarette advertising, the working hours of junior doctors or any number of issues on which we can get a deal. Such deals are struck across various Departments. At that level of political bargaining, the House has no ability to scrutinise, take a role or even know what happens. We are simply given the end results. A Europe Minister should have accountability for our permanent representative in Brussels, UKRep, which does all those dealings, and be answerable to the House of Commons for the bargains struck. There was a stage when a previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, seriously envisaged such a role, but for whatever reason it did not happen.
I can hear the outcry: “You can’t politicise UKRep!” I am not saying that I would do it the way that the Finns do it, for example—they call their civil servant before them every Friday morning—but Select Committees can call civil servants. There could be a regular slot for UKRep representatives when they come on a Friday to brief Whitehall Departments about what they have done. They could stay until the Monday morning or come on the Thursday afternoon to give evidence. If we do not want to do it at the civil service level—actually, I would rather do it at the political level—there should be a Minister who is answerable to the House across Whitehall Departments for negotiations, compromises and deals struck in Brussels. It would be such a far-reaching brief that the Minister would almost function as a Deputy Prime Minister.
I am extremely interested in what the hon. Lady is saying, and I have often thought along similar lines. However, does she acknowledge that due to the critical mass of the European Union’s relationship with the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister and Downing street ultimately want to control all those matters? I suppose that that is understandable from their point of view. During the constitutional treaty discussions and the run-up to Lisbon, it was thought that the Foreign Secretary was out of the loop, because Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) were in discussions but the Foreign Secretary was scarcely involved at all.
That is not my recollection. The biggest thing that happened during the convention was the Iraq war, which meant that people’s attention was rightly drawn to other things. However, as I was representing national Parliaments and not the British Government, I had access to the Departments across Whitehall in a way that even a Cabinet Minister probably never has. I had a snapshot of what was happening in various Departments at any given time, and then I saw how people negotiated and traded things.
There is nothing wrong with that, but if we do not know what deals are being struck, we can neither approve nor disapprove. What happens is not uniquely British: every Government comes back with a success that they regard as an ultimate success for their own negotiating position, and think that they have shown all the others how they have failed. Anything that they do not like, they blame on the European Union. We will never be at ease with the decision-making process unless we actually know what is going on. We take notice only of the things that we do not like; there is no cognizance of the things that we do like.
This is about the Europe Minister and the accountability of UKRep. This place needs to get its head around how we can break open that decision-making process and make it accountable here. I think that I am right in saying that we still do not even know whether one of our Ministers was at the Council meeting or whether he or she was represented by a civil servant. Is that information available?
Parliament is usually told in advance by a Minister from the appropriate Department who will be in the UK chair for a meeting of the Council. Certainly, for the Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council, I routinely table a written ministerial statement to Parliament that says whether the Foreign Secretary or I will be in the chair. In the subsequent report to Parliament about what happened at Council meetings, we have sometimes said that for a certain item on the agenda, the permanent representative was in the chair.
That is helpful. I hope that it applies not just to the Foreign Affairs Council but to all meetings that are open, so that we can know afterwards whether the Minister or a civil servant was there.
To give one example, I was on a committee considering defence procurement across Europe. Countries have a veto and can say that it is in their national interest for a particular piece of defence procurement not to come within the single market rules. There was a reference to how often the UK had used that veto, and I wanted to find out through written answers how often that veto was used by other countries, because without comparison with other countries a single figure is utterly meaningless; one cannot tell whether it is excessive or very low.
I think that the UK used its veto about nine times. If France had used its veto 315 times, there would have been something wrong. If France had never used it, I would want to ask a few more questions about why we had. The answer came back that the information was not available. The Foreign Office felt that it was not its job to answer for the European Union, but as an MP, I had no means at that stage to go further and find that information. Similarly, the Dutch had not fully signed up to that agreement. When I tried to find out why, I was told that that was an issue for the Dutch Government. That is a legitimate answer, but it does not allow us to understand how we are represented and how other countries are working on that.
Even if the Prime Minister does not wish to create a new role for a Europe Minister with responsibility across Whitehall—I can see why he might not want to do so, because it takes power away—let us consider the notion of the red card, yellow card or whatever colour it is. The card is meant to be a mechanism by which national Parliaments can say to the Commission, “Thus far, and no further. Step back again.”
When the red card system was first mooted, the Commission was up in arms, because it felt that it was insulting to suggest that it would ever bring anything forward that would breach the principles and could be objected to by two thirds of national Parliaments, or whatever. It subsequently got off its high horse and accepted the principle—but no more than the principle, that we can wave a card, because there is no duty on the Commission to withdraw its proposals or to come back with better proposals. Following the speech of the Foreign Secretary in Berlin, I gather that we now have ideas for an improved version of the red and yellow cards, and I look forward to hearing more about that.
Instead of the card system, however, perhaps the British Government will consider discussing with the Commission the idea of a delete button for legislative proposals. When we have a general election and the Government go, so do their manifesto commitments and legislative proposals; the slate is wiped clean. At the European level, there is no such delete button. Proposals that are not agreed in one parliamentary session, simply refuse to die. A classic example of that is the hallmarking directive, which comes up again every so often, because some countries have a particular interest. We can either negotiate something to death, so that it is almost meaningless, or we end up introducing something that, 10 years ago, when first introduced, was a good idea, but now no longer is.
One example was the effect of the working time directive on junior doctors. Negotiations on the working time directive started in the ’90s, with legitimate concerns about lorry drivers driving for too long, and so on. It was not until 1999 that I ended up trying to negotiate on opt-out for junior doctors, because we could tell that the working hours requirements would mean that the increase in doctors, which the Labour Government was bringing in, would be totally consumed in the first few years. We wanted the directive to be phased, but we then had court judgments that extended it even further. The political impact of that decision did not become apparent until almost 20 years after the original directive.
If democratic accountability means getting rid of decision makers when we think that they have made bad decisions, by the time a European Union decision on some things kicks in, it really is the Schleswig-Holstein question and only three people know the answer: one is mad, another is forgotten and the third is dead. If we had a process of completion that gave us some parliamentary input, we would know where the start and end points were, so we would know where we could use our influence and get the Government to take a stance.
I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the red card, but I also hope that he will say more about whether he envisages Parliament having a role in affecting the decisions of the Government before they go into negotiations. Unless we know beforehand, not only in the European Scrutiny Committee but through a mechanism by which what is about to happen is discussed on the Floor of the House, we cannot influence it. By the time the Minister goes to Brussels, the deals have been struck. Any Ministers who have attended European Council meetings know that they go on the plane, they read their papers, they arrive in Brussels and UKRep gives them a brief with the lines to take. Anyone who tries to unravel anything is told, “That’s the deal; that’s it.” At that stage, anyone short of the Prime Minister cannot unravel the deal.
I want to leave the Minister with a final, incredibly radical thought—a radical retrograde step to some perhaps. At the recent Königswinter conference, I chaired one of the groups and, by way of introduction, I asked everyone to say, going around the table, one thing that they really loved about the European Union and one that they would get rid of tomorrow if we could. The group was half Germans and half Brits, and to my absolute astonishment there was a consensus around the table that the one thing that we should get rid of was the European Parliament. Then I realised the real difference between the Germans and the Brits. We talked about the connection never being made and how a double mandate was the way to link things, but for the Germans the double mandate was to use some MEPs as national MPs, while for the Brits it was to use some nationally elected parliamentarians at the Brussels level.
We must look at the workings of the European Parliament. It will simply not do that our contact with it is getting less and less. With the closed list system, fewer and fewer people know who their MEPs are. The relationship is not only fractured, but virtually non-existent. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say even about some basic things. He may want to correct me, but we do not automatically issue passes for the House of Commons to Members of the European Parliament, so they have to queue up with everyone else. If we want a proper a dialogue, they ought to be here. I remember that we would not let MEPs have dining rights or book a room, because we thought that they would invade this place in order to enjoy the cuisine. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer).
I was not going to intervene, but my hon. Friend generously gave way before I asked.
I have two points to make on scrutiny and accountability. The European Parliament does not see itself as being accountable to national Parliaments; in reality, it is in competition, which is why many national parliamentarians around Europe are not in favour of the European Parliament, because it sees its future as taking over our role. Secondly, the rights of MEPs in this House were taken away some time ago.
The reason why I asked for the debate was to bring in some historical perspective, because since I have been in the House this is the third time that national Parliaments have been resurrected as the panacea for dealing with unaccountability. In the Scrutiny Committee, we have improved our function, but we have not extended that to the whole House. In fact, we have reduced the accountability of Ministers, and of the Prime Minister in particular, through debate in the House, in order for us to know what the Government are doing at the European level. Unless we have some structure or another to do that, we will simply never be at peace or feel that we know what decisions are being made on our behalf, whether we want to influence the decision or to scrutinise it.
Seventeen years! I am only getting close to 30 years. It is extremely refreshing to hear such cogent and well thought out concern about the whole European issue, which has dogged our political debates for the 30 years or so that I have been in the House—whether there is any connection, I cannot say. Today, the one thing that saddens me slightly and, I dare say, her, too, is that so few people are participating in a debate about what is at the heart of our democratic system. I regard this matter as being not “about Europe” but about Britain, and about democracy, which is not peculiar to any one country.
Our democratic systems have, in real terms, emerged since the 19th century, because of John Bright and others. I mention his name because the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston represents part of his old constituency, before it was Birmingham Central. His fight for the working-class vote was in essence the beginnings of our democratic system. The Conservative party, under Disraeli, gave in to the pressures. There is no need to go into the detail, but it was incredibly important and was based on the assumption that when people went into the polling booth and cast their vote secretly in a ballot box—that was the system that was devised in the late 19th century to ensure that the people had their say—we had a democracy. Other countries have run parallel with that, so the issue is not exclusively British but applies elsewhere in the whole of the European continent and the rest of the world.
I fear that with the movement towards bigger regional systems, even those who claim that they want world government ignore national identity, traditions and democratic systems, and therefore in essence national Parliaments, at their peril. The European Union, which I voted for as the European Community in 1975—I said yes—has since moved inexorably along a trajectory towards more and more centralisation and less and less national involvement.
The Minister for Europe is here. He and I have engaged in debates and discussions on the matter since at least 1988 or 1989, when I was first elected chairman of the backbench committee on European affairs in hostile circumstances. It was interesting that the national parliamentarians who then represented the Conservative party elected me in a secret ballot because I had put out a note explaining why I was standing, which was all about national Parliaments. I had written a pamphlet for the Bow Group called “A Democratic Way to European Unity: Arguments against Federalism” and I followed that up the following year with another called “Against a Federal Europe—The Battle for Britain”. I think I can fairly say—I do so without presumption—that what I set out in those two documents has remained the central problem.
The difference is that the evidence now demonstrates the analysis of where we were going wrong, which was further and further integration, and that was in the 1988 to 1991 period. Since then, we have had Amsterdam, Nice and Maastricht, and we have had the constitutional and Lisbon treaties. Irrespective of the evidence, both economic and political, there is increasing distrust not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the whole of Europe. I need not give all the Eurobarometer’s figures, but 72% of those in countries such as Spain and Italy have now decided that they do not trust the European Union. I presume to say that riots, unemployment and the rise of the far right are all things that I said would happen when I wrote those pamphlets back in 1988-91 and since.
Despite all that, as well as the Bloomberg speech and the movement towards a referendum—I believe that there will be a money resolution this afternoon on the European Union (Referendum) Bill—if I am being completely objective, nothing has changed except public opinion. The facts demonstrate that those of us who have argued this case consistently over a long period have been proved right. I am not saying, “I told you so.” The matter is far too serious for that because, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, it is about our democratic system.
National parliamentarians are elected by virtue of manifestos in general elections. We ultimately control taxation and spending. That is what determines the nature of our economy, and it also determines public services. If circumstances arise in which the economic and political situation in this country, let alone other countries, becomes dysfunctional and as a result we cannot deliver the prosperity that people want, not only will they become completely alienated from laws that are generated to exclude them from participation in a prosperous business and social environment, but the entire fabric of the European system will disintegrate.
The real problem is the treaties. The issue is no longer just a call for reform. I was anxious for reform, and I have called for renegotiation for as long as I can remember, because I thought the treaties would go wrong. Now that they have gone so wrong, there is no prospect of their improving the situation and, as I will explain, there is absolutely no sign that any Government in any European country are seriously grappling with the intrinsic problem at the heart of the treaties. Governments talk about renegotiation, but we are past that. The reality is that we must leave the existing treaties—I make this point in the context of our national Parliament and our own country—because unless other countries are prepared to face up to the fact that there has been a cataclysmic failure of the system, they will not be impelled to make the changes that are needed to achieve what I still believe in: co-operation on the European continent and in trade.
I need not go into the arguments about trading, because we are talking about national Parliaments, but one reason why the British Chambers of Commerce and others have become so deeply disillusioned by the European Union in business terms is precisely the legislation that has come about as a result of being passed under the aegis of the treaties. Those treaties, because of the concrete framework of the acquis communautaire, cannot be changed without unanimity among all member states, and there is absolutely no intention whatever to make fundamental changes to the treaties.
The hon. Gentleman is making a profound point about the inflexibility of the European Union structure. Does he agree that the reason why European Union countries, with the possible exception of Sweden, are unlikely to withdraw support from the current treaties is that they have a history of fascism, communism or of being defeated in wars and controlled by other nations? They do not have the same confidence in their national democracies that we have in this country.
That is absolutely correct, and is not disrespectful or a criticism of those countries. In the past month I have been to Lithuania twice, and I have great affection for that country. One has only to look at the way in which it has been brutalised for 150 years by successive dictatorships—the Nazis, Russians and Soviet Union—to realise why it would want the security of working within the framework of something bigger. The same applies to Estonia, Latvia and many other countries in central and eastern Europe, so there is an understandable reason for their wanting to play safe, as it were. However, it is not playing safe that is the problem, because the price that people will pay for allowing that democratic system to be so much at risk will be another collapse of those countries if the democratic freedom that they fought for disintegrates as a result of the European Union’s failures.
The fact is that tinkering with the treaties is not the only thing required. It is about the very foundations of the EU, which brings me on to the question of ever-closer union. Certainly that was embedded in the early treaties, including in the treaty of Rome. However, it was not capable of being implemented, unless and until the genie was gradually eased out of the bottle as a result of successive treaty changes. People are cynical about the 1975 referendum, and I understand why. There is plenty of reason to believe that, in fact, it was done with some cynicism by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. However, the reality is that people such as Tony Benn and others, who were involved in arguments on the other side, challenged whether it would ultimately lead to political union.
Although I freely state that I voted yes in 1975, it was because, as far as I was aware, it was going to be a common market. It was not only that, however. It could only become more of an integrated, ever-closer union as a result of further treaties, which is why I most emphatically put my foot down on the Maastricht treaty—I tabled about 200 amendments, or whatever it was—and fought the arguments right the way through from beginning to end, because that was about the creation of European government. There is no disputing that, and I am very glad that the present Prime Minister stated in the House the other day that he thought that there should have been a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. He was right.
We do not need to go into the past too much, but the Maastricht treaty remains at the epicentre of the Lisbon treaty, because the Lisbon treaty is simply a consolidation of all the others. Anyone who cares to get those treaties out can see that, although I have to say that there are not many people who would. Sometimes even I have a great disinclination to get out the consolidated treaties and plough through them, although I notice that the Minister has them on his desk, with lots of little yellow flashes so that he can immediately leap to one article or another. However, I do not think this is about individual articles, nor is it about the intricacies of bits and pieces. It is about the fundamental structure.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the Lisbon treaty to a point, but does he agree that there is a fundamental difference between the Lisbon treaty and all the treaties that went before it, inasmuch as the passerelle clauses provide the right to change treaties without going back to the sovereign Governments and Parliaments?
One of the most offensive kinds of provision that appear in our domestic legislation is the Henry VIII clause, as we call it. The passerelle clause has all the same characteristics; it is a capacity to make changes without having to go back to the source of authority. However, we have to pin our main concerns to the source of authority, which is the European Communities Act 1972 itself. I allude to the White Paper, which was brought out, preceding that treaty, in 1971, and upon which, as a result of a huge amount of discussion in Parliament but not so much outside, the United Kingdom Parliament decided to pass the Act on an apparently—I say “apparently”—free vote. It happened, however, because certain Labour Members at that time decided that they would back Edward Heath’s proposals for what was to be enacted in the 1972 Act.
That White Paper is the foundation of our national parliamentary commitment to the whole panoply, the tens of thousands of lines—millions, I suspect; I have never counted them, thank God—the fabric, the labyrinth and the inexplicable and completely impossible complexities of the legislation, as was clearly demonstrated in yesterday’s debate on the opt-out. The fact is that all that ultimately turns on one piece of legislation, which we entered into voluntarily in Parliament—no doubt some, or perhaps most, did so for the best of motives. What it said was that we will accept all the decisions that are ultimately taken in the Council of Ministers as the legislation of the United Kingdom.
At the same time, we set up a scrutiny process, which I shall come on to in a moment. However, the fundamental issue is that the White Paper stated unequivocally—I do not have the quotation to hand, but I am sure that I will in no way fail to express it clearly—that we must retain the veto in our own national interest and to do otherwise would not only undermine our national interest, but endanger the very fabric of the European Community itself. That was a very wise remark, because as Members will note from what I said at the beginning, the whole of Europe is in convulsion. It is faced not only with a democratic deficit, but with a democratic crisis, and there is not only a eurozone crisis, but a European crisis. It affects the whole of Europe, which is being contaminated by a complete refusal to look at the essential ingredients of the treaties.
Those fundamental questions are now being completely ignored. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston referred to COSAC, which, as she rightly said, is not a well-known body. It is the meeting—periodically, but much more frequently these days—of the national chairmen of each of the European scrutiny committees in each of the member states. Believe it or not, its proceedings are recorded. They are even webcast—not, I suspect, that anyone knows that, but it is a fact.
In Dublin, only a month ago, I was invited by the EU presidency—then the Irish Government—to respond officially as the main respondent for the national Parliaments on the question of democratic legitimacy. Viviane Reding, who was meant to turn up, did not bother to. She sent a video, and I can assure Members that the Dublin parliamentarians were not at all amused. That is the manner in which we are being treated—that is all the member states. She said, unequivocally—I paraphrase her remarks—that we need a federation of nation states. It was completely and totally without any attempt to enter a dialogue or a debate. That was the line that she wanted to take; it had already been written. Viviane Reding is the vice-president of the European Commission and is responsible for justice and home affairs—the very matters on which we scored that notable result last night in upholding national scrutiny. However, they are not listening.
In Vilnius, the following month—only last week— Mr Sefcovic, the Commissioner responsible for relations with the national Parliaments and the European Parliament, made his position clear. I arrived in Vilnius at 1 o’clock in the morning, and I was back in London by 7 o’clock that evening. People said, “What on earth did you think you were doing going all the way to Vilnius for four hours?” I explained very simply that, as the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee—one of 28 national Chairmen—I had the right to be there and that, when I saw that the meeting was about the next steps towards political and economic union, I knew, in the light of what I know from other sources, that the EU has not the slightest interest in renegotiation; all it wants to do is to press on with the process of integration.
Leaving aside the scrutiny process, it was interesting that an increasing number of member state Parliaments are conscious of the impact that these issues are having on their populations, on which they rely for re-election, and of the fact that they must respond. A silent revolution is in the making. I am not going to exaggerate these things, but there is an issue when the Belgian representative gets up and starts talking about Belgium’s problems with democratic legitimacy. I cannot think of one of the 28 member states that does not, in the relevant chamber or outside, in the margins, over coffee, lunch or dinner, refer to the problem of democratic legitimacy.
The issue is terribly simple: if we do not get rid of the existing treaties and deal with the fundamental structure, there is no answer to the question of democratic legitimacy. We do our best in the European Scrutiny Committee. When I was first elected Chairman, at the end of 2010, the first thing I did was to set up an inquiry into the European Union and the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament, which is basically what we are discussing. I wanted to get expert evidence, and we did. Our report came out, and we made it clear that national Parliaments actually have the last say. We voluntarily introduced the 1972 Act; that is what the principle involved in the Factortame case is all about. It is not, as some people believe, that we are locked into a completely irreversible situation. Although the treaties say, as the Maastricht treaty did, that the euro, once entered into, is irrevocable, individual member states must voluntarily decide to accept that system.
At the moment, there is no recognition whatever that things are going wrong. There is not the slightest intention to change the foundations of the treaties, which is absolutely what is needed if we are to preserve democracy in each member state, including in the United Kingdom. Whether we are in the euro is by the bye; the fact is that all the other legislation that affects our economy every day must be subject not merely to a competence review, but to a clear decision. I look to the Minister, because the issue is his responsibility, although he will, quite understandably, take his instructions from No. 10.
I admired the fourth principle of the Bloomberg speech, which said that the fundamental principles of our national democracy depend on our national Parliaments. The Prime Minister was right; the question is whether we do anything about that. We are promising a referendum in 2017, but that is far too late. The fact is that it should be held before the general election, because we have profound reasons for getting on with it. In Dublin, when I had finished making my rather strong remarks about the state of the European Union and the role of national Parliaments, the chairman of the Bundestag’s European affairs committee said, “We must have a referendum in the United Kingdom as soon as possible, because people do not like the uncertainty,” and that is right.
We now have two Governments and two Parliaments, both dealing with the same subject matter. That inherent contradiction is completely unworkable. There are attempts at assimilation, but they just create a more complicated labyrinth, as a result of which the whole situation becomes increasingly dysfunctional. What is more, the creation of a two-tier, two-Government, two-Parliament Europe with no real connection to anything is happening before our very eyes, without any treaty changes. That is why a referendum is required.
The fundamental reason for holding a referendum is that a fundamental change is taking place now in the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. We are not talking about change in 2017; indeed, there may not be another treaty—I cannot say, although the Minister probably knows. However, whether or not there is another treaty, and whether or not there is renegotiation and some nibbling here and there—some of it may sound attractive to some people—that will not change the basic structure. That is what is wrong, and that is why national Parliaments must reassert themselves. They have the power to deal with their respective parties, particularly from the Back Benches, including by persuasion. I was extremely glad that the Government listened yesterday. It was partly a numbers question; we live in a civilised world, and we appreciate that there are times when Ministers recognise that they do not have the support that they need. Three Select Committee Chairmen got together—other members of the Liaison Committee were also involved—and that created a bit of a problem for the Government. None the less, we are grateful for what happened.
The hon. Lady mentioned consensus and the fact that there are rarely votes. I simply recommend that people read VoteWatch, which is produced by Simon Hix of the London School of Economics. It has demonstrated that where there could be different outcomes, all countries end up agreeing on 90% of the legislation, and I believe that the figure has increased since Simon Hix looked at that. Part of the problem is the qualified majority voting system and part of the problem is the co-decision system, but I shall park those issues. However, that is how the system overcomes the issue of what national Parliaments could decide for themselves if they regained the power that they should regain for themselves. I also recommend that people read Professor Damian Chalmers’s paper on democratic self-government, which will prove to be a seminal contribution to this debate. He will give evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee quite soon.
What worries me about the red card system is that it is a further indication of a refusal to grapple with the essential question—that we should end up as an association of nation states that have a veto where necessary, but that co-operate where possible. We should also be able to trade and to work in political co-operation with our neighbours, without being governed by them. The red card system is liable to increase federal arrangements. I do not see why, when this Parliament, as a national Parliament, says that it does not want a measure, we should then be obliged to say yes to it, just because we do not reach a certain threshold when other member states, for completely different reasons, say they want the measure or are not prepared to stand up and say that they do not want it.
That goes back to the fundamental question on which I will end. It is about the ballot box, freedom of choice and those questions that people fought and died for, and that should determine our attitude towards not merely nibbling at, revising or reforming the European Union, but dealing with the real problem: the foundations of the treaties themselves. It may be a big ask to expect the Minister to agree, but if we do not deal with that, just as those of us who found that what we said in the 1990s has not exactly been proved wrong, we will be in a similar place in 10 or 15 years’ time, and, regrettably, by then I fear it will be too late.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, in a debate that is of great interest to you. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate and on a characteristically thorough and forensic speech, which drew on not only 17 years in the House, but many weeks and months—I do not know how many—on the Convention on the Future of Europe. She is a real expert and it was a great pleasure to hear her this morning.
I agree in particular with my hon. Friend’s overall argument that national Parliaments need to play a much greater role in holding to account not only the European Union, but our own Government’s decisions on Europe and the formulation of European legislation and policy. She and many other right hon. and hon. Friends, some of whom are here this morning, want parliamentary scrutiny of the EU and what our Government do in Europe to be enhanced and improved. That objective unites pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics, and hon. Members from different parties alike.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s specific point that it is regrettable that one of the first actions of the Government when they came into power in 2010 was to do away with pre-European Council debates. It is unsurprising that she, and others present and beyond our debate today, complained repeatedly about the decision, but unfortunately it was to no avail. While other member states are improving their scrutiny of their Governments’ decision-making and negotiating strategy ahead of European Councils, our Government have taken a retrograde step and have in effect decreased scrutiny. The Government have not simply done away with the pre-Council debates, but the post-Council debates are now combined with major issues of concern—whether Afghanistan or the horrific murder in Woolwich. Such subjects and the post-European Council report need to be separate. They are too important to be combined. Notwithstanding the scrutiny of the European Scrutiny Committee, it is vital that scrutiny also takes place on the Floor of the House, as she set out, so that all right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity to scrutinise how the Government represent the UK in the EU.
The starting point from which I approach the debate is perhaps different from that of some hon. Members who have spoken. I am a passionate believer in our membership of the EU. I am both pro-European and passionately in favour of reform. Just because I believe in our membership, that does not mean that I think the EU is perfect—far from it. I spent six years of my life working and living in Brussels; I have seen at first hand the many imperfections of the EU. A vital part of EU reform lies in the issue that we are focusing on today: strengthening the accountability that national Parliaments have over European decision-making.
The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), in a speech in January this year, set out proposals for a red card system. It took the Government five months to come to the same conclusion, but we were encouraged—better late than never. As hon. Members are acutely aware, the current yellow card system was introduced by the Lisbon treaty, which the Labour Government negotiated. It gives national Parliaments the ability to force the European Commission to reconsider its proposals if they believe that a proposal violates the subsidiarity principle.
I do not think that anyone could honestly say that the yellow card system has been a stunning success, given the number of occasions we have reached the threshold. That is also a problem with respect to any possibility of a red card system, leaving aside the federalisation they both imply.
I do not claim that the yellow card system has been a stunning success. As the hon. Gentleman set out, it has been used successfully on only one occasion —the so-called Monti II proposals, which were then withdrawn by the European Commission. Just because the yellow card system is not a success at the moment, that does not mean that it could not be made to work better. I will move on to that and better co-ordination of national parliamentarians in a moment.
The Labour party is committed to pushing for a red card system when in government. It would, in effect, turn the yellow card into a red card, by stating clearly that a third of national Parliaments being against a proposal is a veto. It would not force the European Commission to reconsider, but would say, “No. Stop. Stop that proposal. One-third of national Parliaments have great concerns, therefore withdraw it.”
Even within the current treaties, the yellow card system could be made to work better, which brings me to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform—a think-tank that is well reputed and thorough on such matters—has suggested creating a national parliamentary forum in Brussels of MPs from different member states. I would be interested to know whether the Minister for Europe has considered that proposal. I regret to hear that European Commissioner Viviane Reding did not turn up to the meeting when the hon. Gentleman was in Dublin. Perhaps a new forum, made up of MPs—not necessarily including Chairs of Scrutiny Committees—meeting in Brussels could better hold to account European Governments, who have permanent representations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston suggested, there should be better political oversight of such representations.
Holding a gathering of MPs to talk about issues is not the same as holding people to account. Holding people to account means that there is a vote, within a constitutional structure that requires people to answer questions, and if the people who have the numbers on their side do not like a proposal, the Government’s position changes, as happened last night. The hon. Lady is suggesting a Parliament of fools.
The hon. Gentleman has not even allowed me to finish my point. If he considers the proposals from the Centre for European Reform, he will see that they are not about a talking shop. With great respect, I know that he sits on COSAC, which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned, and that committee needs to be vastly improved from its current formulation and in its make-up. Mr Grant says that it does not give MPs a big enough stake, is only consultative and is often treated “disdainfully” by MEPs—his word, not mine.
There is clearly a great—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) at least give me the courtesy of listening to my response to his intervention? There is clearly a great problem with the current set-up, and having a presence in Brussels of national parliamentarians who could have a vote and scrutinise more closely the decisions taken by our and other Governments deserves closer consideration, rather than just saying that it would be a gathering of fools—a statement with which I profoundly disagree.
I recently met the Speaker of the Dutch House of Representatives, and she has an appetite, as do colleagues in other member states with whom I have discussed the matter, for Parliaments to work more closely together. The Government could give greater consideration to the successes in the Dutch, Danish and German Parliaments. For example, in the Netherlands, the standing committees—akin, I think, to our Select Committees—choose proposals from within the Commission work programme that they see as priorities and about which they might have concerns, and they refer them to their European affairs committee.
Our departmental Select Committees are not involved enough in proposals at an early stage, or even at later stages, and I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about what the Government could do to drive greater consideration and scrutiny on a policy-by-policy basis, given that, as has been said, a lot of European policy is not foreign policy—as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, it is an anomaly that it is often treated as such. Our departmental Select Committees could learn from the experience of the Netherlands.
My hon. Friend reminds me of another idea, which at some stage was discussed. What does she think of the suggestion that, rather than us going to Brussels, the Commissioners come here at the beginning of the work programme? They could give evidence to a Select Committee, or be here in Westminster Hall and answer MPs’ questions about the forward programme.
I welcome that suggestion, and the idea should be considered. European Commissioners do come to our Parliament, but not systematically.
In Denmark, before European Council meetings the Prime Minister has to go before the European committee to discuss her negotiating strategy, and in the German system, the Bundestag now has much greater power to scrutinise the Government’s negotiating strategy for those meetings. Our Prime Minister, when he had just been elected as party leader, told the party to “stop banging on” about Europe, and there are rumours in today’s press that the first report on the balance of competences, which we all await with bated breath, has been put off until after the summer, apparently because Ministers are fearful of their own Back Benchers. I would be interested to hear why a dispassionate, objective assessment of the balance of competences should be put off in that way. The Government again seem to be putting the party interest before the national one. We are worried that they feel compelled to delay the initial report, and we are greatly interested in what the Minister has to say about that.
This debate comes at a particularly important time, because the eurozone member states are likely to pursue further integration among the eurozone 17. Their Parliaments, and those in non-eurozone member states such as ours—there are 10 others, including Croatia—will need to scrutinise better what happens and what the dynamic is between non-eurozone and eurozone member states.
In conclusion, it deserves to be repeated that it is regrettable that the Government have abolished the pre-Council debates. I would like to see them reintroduced. Scrutiny in Committees, such as the one chaired by the hon. Member for Stone, is all well and good but nothing substitutes scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The Government should learn from the Dutch, Danish and German examples, drive better and closer co-ordination between national Parliaments from across the 28 member states, make the yellow card system work better and consider introducing a red card system.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate, and on the presentation of her arguments. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) that I have never had any intention of seeking to appear before his Committee via a video link. I have always much preferred that he and I look each other straight in the eye, person to person.
Well, that is something best avoided in any meeting with parliamentarians, if humanly possibly.
I will try to respond to the various points that were made, in particular by the hon. Lady. She posed a number of questions and challenges, some of which focused on how we do European business here in Westminster, and others that centred on what might be done in the broader European Union context, and how national Parliaments should fit into the legislative process and decisions taken at European level.
I shall start with the hon. Lady’s points about how we deal with European business here at Westminster. Her most important point was that it was vital to find a way to engage and involve a rather larger number of Members in European business. I have to confess that when I go in to the Chamber for a debate on Europe, or in to a Committee, I feel at times like a cut-price version of Henry V before Agincourt. It is a matter of:
“We few, we happy few”
that are gathered together, and it is very familiar faces, from both sides of the House, that tend to feature. It is, however, not a Government matter, but a problem for Parliament. Parliament must take more seriously its collective responsibility as an institution to see, rightly or wrongly—individual hon. Members will have their own views on this—that we live in a world in which European Union business should be treated as mainstream political business, and not as something that can be quietly shoved off to some annexe next door and left to specialists to get on with in peace and quiet. The decisions that British Ministers of any party take in the Council of Ministers have an impact on the lives of the constituents of every Member of this House and I agree, therefore, with the thrust of what the hon. Lady said.
I disagree with the hon. Lady, however, in that I feel that the focus should not be just on the Chamber. The Chamber is clearly important, but we need to consider the role of Committees, including departmental Select Committees. In various evidence sessions with the European Scrutiny Committee over the past couple of years, I have tried to emphasise my growing belief that part of the answer lies in persuading the departmental Select Committees to give greater priority to that aspect of their work that covers European Union business. That is a matter for Select Committees, and it would be wrong for the Government to get into the business of seeking to give them instructions—the powers are already there within the terms of resolutions. It is primarily for those Committees to take ownership of those agendas and drive them forward. They can by all means invite European Commissioners to give evidence and by all means go to Brussels every now and then to take evidence and meet informally with people in the European institutions who are involved in legislation.
I look forward to the forthcoming report from the European Scrutiny Committee on the scrutiny process. I am sure that many of the matters that have been touched on this morning, such as whether we should move towards a mandate model of scrutiny along the lines of what the Scandinavian countries have, will be addressed in that report, and I obviously do not want to pre-empt the Government’s response to it. I say to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) that one of the characteristics of that mandate system—she rightly drew attention to some of its virtues—is that the sessions between the Minister and the committee to discuss a negotiating mandate take place in closed session. The public and press are not admitted and the report is not public, at least until after the negotiations are concluded.
Each of these systems has advantages and disadvantages, but could the Minister address where he would assume the collective memory of Parliament on these debates resides? The decision-making process in Brussels is so long, even with one term. Where would he focus that collective memory?
That is a very good point. To my mind, it means that one needs to focus the collective memory of elected Members through the members of the Liaison Committee, which is composed of relatively senior Members of Parliament, and through the system of the Committee Clerks. If we look at our Parliament’s representation in Brussels, we have some very talented people representing the two Houses, but that amounts to three staff. The Bundestag and the Bundesrat have 18 or 19 people between them, and that is on top of the German federal representation and the representative offices from each of the German Länder that are present in Brussels. Again, Parliament should consider the question of whether our level of representation and the number of people we have on the ground in Brussels are sufficient, but the Government cannot, or should not, issue instructions on that.
The hon. Lady asked whether COSAC could be improved, and my answer is definitely yes. It is an imperfect organisation, and it could be strengthened through reforms to the secretariat or through a formal power to summon commissioners, rather than expecting commissioners by convention to come and give evidence. It is not just about the formal meetings of COSAC, because if any system of red or yellow cards is to be effective, there has to be a culture of talking and working together that means that different parliamentary representatives, and in particular the chairs of the relevant committees, are used to having contact with each other in networking and co-ordinating an approach to a particular Commission draft measure.
The hon. Lady asked about the role of the Europe Minister, and she was very fair in how she put it. There is a perfectly legitimate debate to be had in this country about where that office sits. Some argue that it should sit in the Foreign Office. Others argue that it should sit in the Cabinet Office and so be directly accountable to the Prime Minister. Some argue that it should be a self-standing Department or be located in Brussels, in effect performing the political office of the permanent representative. In France, Germany, Poland and Spain my counterparts sit in their respective Foreign Ministries. In Sweden, however, the Europe Minister sits in the Prime Minister’s office and reports directly to the Prime Minister, although she represents a different political party from the Prime Minister in the current coalition.
The key thing is not where the Europe Minister sits, but how the right level of co-ordination and accountability is achieved across Government. The Europe Minister could be put in the Cabinet Office, but that raises the question of how the work at Brussels, which is certainly cross-departmental in Whitehall terms, is co-ordinated with the bilateral diplomatic work that has to be done with 27 other member states, because European business cannot be done in Brussels alone. I would be worried about a gap opening between a Minister dealing with Brussels business and a Minister dealing with our diplomatic efforts on, for example, Germany. We try to co-ordinate our conversations with German Ministers across all relevant political dossiers. When I see German counterparts, I do not talk strictly about Foreign Office business; I talk about financial services, the European budget and whichever European issues are high on the agenda at that moment.
The key is to have effective co-ordination through a Cabinet system, which we do through the European Affairs Committee of the Cabinet. I repeat the point I have made elsewhere: the permanent representative, who is a professional civil servant, follows the mandate set by the Cabinet. If he wishes to move from the mandate he has already been granted, he has to go back to Ministers and seek their agreement and authority to go beyond it.
On the question of yellow and red cards, under the current system national Parliaments or chambers of national Parliaments can submit a reasoned opinion that a draft directive or regulation fails to comply with the principle of subsidiarity. They have to submit that within eight weeks of the formal communication from the Commission about a draft measure. One third of the voting weight of national Parliaments needs to be signed up for the Commission to be compelled to carry out a formal review, and the reasoned opinion may only be submitted on the grounds of subsidiarity. We could make more use of reasoned opinions than we do. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is meticulous in looking at the legal grounds of a directive and whether it meets the subsidiarity test.
The Westminster Parliament has so far submitted fewer reasoned opinions than some Parliaments in other member states, but we could look to reform the system. Is eight weeks long enough? Should we not give national Parliaments longer to consider their response? There is an obvious problem with recesses. Should we reduce the threshold below a third? Should we widen the grounds for challenge? If we have subsidiarity, why not have proportionality as well? Why not have some sort of test on excessive burdens on business, or on whether there is evidence that a draft measure would have a harmful impact on European growth? Why not make provision for the yellow card to become a red card under certain circumstances, with an outright veto that national Parliaments could impose? Could we give national Parliaments the power to impose an emergency brake in certain circumstances?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have very little time left. Could we give national Parliaments an emergency brake to throw an issue to consideration by the European Council? Should we provide powers for a yellow or red card retrospectively, so that national Parliaments could, as a group, insist that the institutions consider repealing or amending a directive that was part of the acquis? Should we give national Parliaments the power to bring forward an own-initiative report? In the hands of the European Parliament, that instrument has been significant in helping to shape policy development.
I liked the idea from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston of some act of oblivion at the end of a Commission’s term. Under that idea, a measure that had not completed all stages would be deemed automatically to fall and would be reconsidered in the next Commission and the next European Parliament.
Ideas about a conference of national parliamentarians or a second chamber for the European Parliament are part of the discussion, although there are some serious practical issues to be considered. How would such an institution fit into the legislative process? How could it be made to work in practice, given the other parliamentary and constituency duties that Members of this House have to carry out?
I am conscious of the fact that giving a stronger voice to national Parliaments is only one aspect, though a significant one, of the reform that is necessary to make the European Union more accountable and more democratic than it is currently. It is in all our interests that a way is found to overcome the profound public disaffection that we see throughout the continent on European decisions. There is no European demos, and strengthening the voice of national Parliaments is the right way forward to restore greater democratic accountability to the EU.