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EU: Active Citizenship

Volume 689: debated on Monday 19 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is the justification for using Article 308 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community as the legal base for the European Union’s decision to promote active EU citizenship when that article permits the EU to act only “in the course of the operation of the common market”.

My Lords, the Europe for Citizens programme promoting active EU citizenship uses a joint legal base, Article 151 and Article 308. The Government’s position is that Article 308 does not require that every proposal using it as its legal base should relate in a narrow and restrictive sense to the operation of the Common Market. The civic participation aspects of this programme go towards meeting various Community objectives.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which refers to a new €235 million propaganda campaign. Is it true that the Government overrode the Commons’ scrutiny reserve on this initiative, making 181 overrides between both Houses in the past three years? If it is true, what is the point of the scrutiny reserve and, indeed, of the scrutiny committee? Secondly, are the Government really now saying, as the Minister appears to have just said, that Article 308 and other clauses in the existing treaties can be used to pass pretty well any integrating proposal in the Council, thus allowing the failed constitution to be put in place piecemeal and illegally, to the point where the proposed referendum in this country becomes superfluous?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, the Government take the role of the scrutiny committee seriously. The noble Lord will recognise that the Minister in the other place took steps to assure the scrutiny committee that what had happened in this case ought not to have happened and will not happen again. On the noble Lord’s second point, he extrapolates too far. We are talking about a general programme of citizenship and shared values. To suggest that because Article 308 has been used in this context such an initiative has created a basis on which the whole European constitution can be revisited, via Article 308, is a step too far.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why, like others, he is obviously puzzled that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is so obsessed by Article 308, a relatively innocuous article which was included in the original Treaty of Rome? We accepted that article when the United Kingdom carried out its very prolonged entry negotiations. It has been used occasionally for slightly wider but very innocuous purposes. Why is the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, concentrating on that instead of on the UKIP campaign to leave the Community, which is more important to the public? Was not the Minister also shocked that in the previous exchanges we had on this subject on 17 January, the Tory anti-EU spokesman objected to the Government not blocking the EU tsunami rescue scheme for third countries?

My Lords, I have many responsibilities but responsibility for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is not one of them. I want to emphasise that we do not regard Article 308 as the Trojan horse of the European constitution. It is being used in this context in a very limited way. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is right to refer to the previous circumstance in which it was used, with regard to tsunami relief, one which also commanded wide assent. Let us just reflect on the fact that it can be used only with the Council’s unanimous consent. Therefore, the idea that it would be used easily, readily and flippantly, or against significant opinion within the European Community, is quite wrong.

My Lords, does the noble Lord appreciate that it is not a question of whether anyone is obsessed with Article 308 but whether it is being used properly? Does he agree that it is plain wrong—and indeed unlawful—to use Article 308 to advance measures which are not in furtherance of the Common Market, and that that use cannot be made right when it is plainly wrong in law just because all the member states want to use Article 308 in a particular case?

My Lords, matters are a little more complex than the noble Lord has indicated. It is the case that with the Council’s unanimous consent, and I might say with Parliament’s approval, Article 308 can be used in association with Article 151 to give effect to this programme. Therefore, the legal basis is not Article 308 but Articles 308 and 151 combined. That is how the Government reached the decision that the basis was a proper and legal one for action and that has been supported across the Community.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on answering 75 per cent of the current cycle of Oral Questions. However, is this not carrying the concept of active citizenship a little far?

My Lords, given that this is a complex matter, as the Minister has said, and that there is concern about how a treaty provision may be used in future, will he consider outlining in writing to the House, and putting in the Library, the criteria by which the Government believe that Article 308 should be used so that both they and the House can refer to that in the future?

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that that is exactly what my right honourable friend Mr Hoon did with regard to the Commons position on this issue. He identified why the action had been taken in these terms and the basis for it.

My Lords, what concerns me very much is the Government’s use or misuse of the scrutiny reserve. In 1990, it was made perfectly clear by Parliament, and by the House of Commons in particular, that nothing should be agreed until full debate had taken place in both Houses. However, the Government have used the scrutiny reserve 108 times, a misuse of the power that Parliament gave them. I wish they would get back to accepting Parliament’s rule that matters should not be agreed until Parliament has had proper scrutiny of them.

My Lords, as I indicated to the House earlier, an apology was given to the scrutiny committee in the other place because a mistake was made which pre-empted the position. It is not intended that such a thing should happen again in that way.