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European Union (Approvals) Bill [HL]

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 30 July 2013

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, the sole purpose of the Bill is to enable Ministers to support two draft decisions of the Council of the European Union. The European Union Act 2011 provides that Ministers may not support certain decisions in the European Council unless they are approved by an Act of Parliament. Neither decision can be adopted by the Council of the European Union without the unanimous support of all member states.

The Bill provides Parliament with the right, given to it by the European Union Act 2011, to consider the proposed use of the Article 352 treaty basis. This article is used in those cases where further action is necessary to achieve one of the objectives set out in the treaties, but where there are no specific provisions to give the EU institutions a specific power to take that action.

The two measures for which approval is sought are proposed Council regulations brought forward under Article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. The first draft decision establishes a legal obligation on the European institutions to deposit their paper historical records at the European University Institute in Florence. Previously, European institutions have voluntarily deposited their archives at the European University Institute, and the proposed move to an obligation seeks to provide long-term certainty that the archives will be preserved in accordance with recognised international standards at a single accessible location.

A 1983 Council regulation already obliges the European institutions to preserve and provide access to their historical papers once those records are 30 years old, when they would no longer be in business use. The European Council, Parliament, Commission, Court of Auditors, Economic and Social Committee and Investment Bank currently meet that obligation by depositing their paper archives within the EUI on a contractual basis. The proposed legal obligation reflects these existing arrangements, and will not change the point in time at which the public can access historical records, or the place at which they can be accessed.

Making this practice a legal obligation will help to ensure transparency and scrutiny of the European institutions’ work, and fits alongside the Government’s drive for greater transparency. A measure which allows for greater accountability around EU decision-making is one that the UK should surely welcome.

As the EU moves towards digital record-keeping, the measure also provides that the European institutions should, where possible, make their records available to the public in digital form. In addition, the EUI is to be given permanent access to each institution’s digital archives to fulfil its obligation to make historical records accessible to the public from a single location once they are 30 years old.

The Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Central Bank will be exempt from the obligations under the proposed regulation, but will be able to deposit their records on a voluntary basis. I would like to explain why this is the case. For the Court of Justice, this is because of the volume of records, most of which are case files often containing sensitive personal data, which need to be quickly accessed to support the court’s functions. For the European Central Bank, the exemption is due to the bank’s organisational autonomy and because its historical records are subject to a separate 2004 regulation.

This measure will be financed by contributions from the depositing European institutions from their existing budgets, and will have no financial impact on the UK. The Italian Government have made suitable premises permanently and freely available to the European University Institute to ensure that the deposited archives of the European institutions are preserved and protected in accordance with recognised international standards.

The Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection Sub-Committee of your Lordships’ European Union Committee had the opportunity to consider this measure. Your Lordships sought clarification on the reasoning for allowing the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Central Bank to deposit their records voluntarily, and on the digital provisions of the proposals, both of which I have just outlined. The committee cleared the measure from scrutiny after the Government provided satisfactory clarification on these points.

The Council has published the final agreed text of this measure and it has received consent from the European Parliament. It is therefore ready for adoption, subject to UK agreement.

The second draft decision provides for the establishment of the Europe for Citizens programme for the period January 2014 to December 2020. This builds on an existing programme of the same name covering 2007-13, but will adopt a simpler and more effective approach. The programme is concerned with improving the way citizens can participate in and contribute to EU matters: first, by strengthening remembrance and common values; and, secondly, by encouraging broader engagement and debate.

Commemoration and participation are the core elements of the programme. Around 20% of the overall budget will provide funding to commemorate both world wars and the victims of totalitarian regimes. It also seeks to raise awareness of the fundamental aim of the European Union to promote peace, values and the well-being of its citizens.

The second and more substantial pillar of the programme, which will receive around 60% of the overall budget, is designed to encourage democratic and civic participation of citizens at European Union level by developing their understanding of the policy-making process in the Brussels institutions and promoting opportunities to empower communities and encourage social action, including volunteering.

At a time when we hear so much about the democratic deficit of the European institutions, and the perception that they are remote from the people they were set up to serve, these are worthwhile and important objectives. Europe for Citizens is a funding programme that will support a range of organisations with a general European interest, with a view to stimulating citizens’ interactions on EU matters, together with organisations that promote debate and activities concerning European values and history.

Like its predecessor, the programme will be implemented through grants based on open calls for proposals and through service contracts based on calls for tender. It will provide for the analysis and dissemination of the results of its activities, supported by regular external and independent evaluation. An interim evaluation report on the implementation of the programme will be drawn up by the European Commission no later than the end of 2017, and a final evaluation report no later than 2023.

The programme has no new impact on UK domestic policy, and these types of activity have been supported for some time. It reflects the Government’s aim of localising action to encourage communities at grass-roots level. The continuation of the Europe for Citizens programme will ensure that a source of funding at European level will continue to be available to UK civil society organisations, and I would certainly encourage them to submit project proposals so that they may benefit from it.

Looking to the future, I am especially pleased that my officials have obtained confirmation from the European Commission that funding from the Europe for Citizens programme will be eligible to support projects commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 2014, with numerous events in both France and the UK being planned for this important anniversary. We anticipate the final version of the text to be adopted in the autumn, once the Commission has confirmed the final budget. It will then be submitted to the European Parliament for consent and subsequently be ready for adoption, pending UK agreement.

The Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection Sub-Committee of your Lordships’ European Union Committee had the opportunity to consider this measure. The committee considered the measure to play a useful role, and noted its relatively small budget. Following clarification by the Government of the need for a parliamentary debate prior to consent, it subsequently cleared the measure from scrutiny.

It is important that the Europe for Citizens programme is agreed in time for projects to be funded from the time it starts. Our aim is for the Bill to receive Royal Assent before the end of 2013. This would enable the Council regulation to be approved in advance of the period during which it would be active. The Bill extends to the whole of the United Kingdom, and its subject matter does not give rise to any devolution issues. There will be no financial effects or any impact on public service manpower as a result of the Bill. The provisions contained within it do not require an impact assessment. For Europe for Citizens, the EU Commission had originally proposed a budget of €229 million, representing an increase of around 7% on the budget for the existing programme of €215 million. Following the negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework earlier in the spring, it is hoped that that figure will be significantly reduced. This would be a realistic response to the constrained financial conditions which we all have to take into account, but not so severe as to jeopardise the integrity of the programme as a whole.

I confirm that I do not consider that any of the Bill’s provisions engage European Convention Rights and so no issues arise as to the compatibility of the Bill with these rights. It is also the intention for the Bill to come into force on the day of Royal Assent. For the reasons that I have outlined, I commend this Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, for so comprehensively introducing what is, ultimately, a very small measure. I do not intend to detain the House very long; I know that the next debate, on the work of the European Union Committee, will engage your Lordships much more than this Bill will.

We welcome both clauses, particularly on the depositing of historical archives. It will be very useful for researchers to be able to access information from one source—the European University Institute in Florence. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, will be aware of how important transparency is to the EU’s citizens and commercial enterprises. He will also be aware of the debate that the board of the European Central Bank has been having on the lack of transparency of that bank’s minutes on interest-setting decisions. Given how relevant this is to London as a financial centre, although we are not directly engaged with the European Central Bank, will Her Majesty’s Government enthusiastically support those of its members who are seeking greater transparency? This is the only major central bank that does not publish its minutes at the moment.

We broadly welcome Clause 1(2)(b) on the Europe for Citizens programme, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, pointed out, seeks to enhance understanding and to take action to build capacity for civil participation. Among the programme’s priorities, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, mentioned remembrance and European citizenship, which are profoundly important as we lead up to the centenary of the start of the First World War. He also mentioned democratic engagement and civic participation.

That is the area on which I would like to press Her Majesty’s Government. I declare an interest as the parent of a 16 year-old. Having seen the national curriculum’s GCSE programme and the entire content of the secondary school education programme, there is very little mention of the European Union. There is certainly greater emphasis in history, religious studies and so forth on historical events that have affected the European Union as we see it today, but the actual processes, procedures, decision-making, structure and organisation of European Union institutions are not touched on in any depth of knowledge at all. There are no courses at A-level that prepare candidates for European Union decision-making studies or employment in the EU. While this lies in the purview of national Governments, this Government have been profoundly aware for many years of the lack of United Kingdom participation in the EU Civil Service and the institutions of the EU, and the extremely low numbers of civil servants that find themselves working at EU level. Will my noble friend tell us how we expect to boost our influence within EU institutions when we do not prepare our young people in any meaningful sense to be able to understand what the European Union is about in terms of day-to-day life?

I have another point on democratic engagement and civic participation. As I was reading the programme’s lofty ideals, all of which I completely agree with, I looked at the terminology and the methods by which it is intended to appeal to civil society. It becomes evident that a group of bureaucrats of a certain age has dreamt up the programme, because it has no relevance to the way in which social media work and young people think, or to the communication means by which they engage with each other, irrespective of the remit of institutions. I shall give an example from page 6 of the programme. The Minister mentioned “Remembrance and European citizenship” and “Democratic engagement and civic participation”; he did not mention the third highlighted point, which is “Valorisation”. With the indulgence of the House, I shall explain what this means. It is described as,

“a horizontal dimension of the programme … It will focus on the analysis, dissemination, communication and valorisation of the project results from the above-mentioned strands”.

I was so impressed by this attempt at defining “valorisation” that I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as

“to give or ascribe value or validity to … by artificial means”.

That is profoundly important. All these programmes are top-down rather than bottom-up. They are guided rather than being spontaneous in any sense; anyone who has worked with civil society will know that bottom-up approaches are far more important. They do not speak to citizens in terms that enthuse them about the value of the European Union. While one commends the programme for what it is, if we in the United Kingdom are to challenge the anti-European bias in our media and public discourse, we will have to do better than this.

My Lords, I listened with great interest to what my noble friend Lord Gardiner had to say in taking us through the Bill. I am particularly interested in it because I played some part in the previous Bill on this subject so it is good to be talking about it again.

I have no objection to the first part of the European Union (Approvals) Bill—if it is appropriate to deposit papers and historical records at the European University Institute in Florence, so be it—but I find the second and major part rather difficult. I am surprised by the draft decision in relation to the Europe for Citizens programme.

I have managed to get hold of the Council of the European Union’s document on the programme, which came out on 4 July. Pages 9 and 10 talk about its specific objectives being to,

“raise awareness of remembrance, common history and values and the Union’s aim that is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples by stimulating debate, reflection and development of networks”,

and then to,

“encourage democratic and civic participation of citizens at Union level”.

It continues:

“In order to achieve its objectives, the programme shall finance inter alia the following types of actions … Mutual learning and cooperation activities such as … Citizens’ meetings, town-twinning, networks of twinned towns … remembrance projects with a … European dimension”.

I do not see how all that fits in with the present programmes and ideas of some of the most serious people in the Conservative Party. Here we are: we are just removing ourselves from the justice provisions of the European Union. It is ironic, for example, that we are planning a referendum on whether we stay in the EU and at the same time taking hold of this Bill with plentiful support. These situations may not seem not to contradict one another, but I think that they do. For that reason I should like to hear more from my noble friend on this subject. It is not a problem for me personally. I have always been in favour of our active membership of the European Union and convinced that it is only through that active membership that Britain will grow. I should like to think that the Bill goes some way towards supporting that view, but it comes at a slightly odd time.

My Lords, on these Benches we support the principle that the Bill should come before this House and we support its detailed content. I hope that it will not detain the House for very long in its further stages. We support the principle, because we believe that it is right that Parliament should approve this type of decision, and we support that aspect of the EU Act 2011.

As regards the specific content of this approvals Bill, we support the clarification of the need for the EU to keep a proper archive. As the noble Lord said, this is important for transparency. We also support the Europe for Citizens programme. I should like to ask a couple questions on the first matter and make some comments on the second, particularly in the light of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

On the matter of the archive, I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer these questions today, but it would be interesting if he could write to me. I wonder whether that archive will contain the material of real substance that will enable historians to analyse how decisions were taken in the European Union. In my experience, you do not get much of that flavour from the official documents or from the official conclusions of ministerial meetings. A historian would need access to things such as the notes that the secretary of the Commission meeting took about who said what, the correspondence between commissioners and the records of the chef de cabinet meetings. In this way it could be seen how decisions were prepared. Access would also be needed to the verbatim reports that are made of the European Council meetings, rather than simply the conclusions. I would throw in the proceedings of COREPER. Although it is not an official European institution, it played a crucial role over the years.

Will those documents be part of the archive? This is an important point. We have seen in the 60-year development of the European Union that we are moving step by step from a world of secretive diplomacy, where suspicious nation states came together to take the first bold steps towards union, to a much more open democracy. Analysing that process will be very important for the future.

It is on that theme that we support the Europe for Citizens programme. It is right that, as Europeans, we should commemorate things such as the 100th anniversary of the First World War. It is, of course, one of the main reasons why the idea of Europe is still so vital. I always remember reading Mitterrand’s final speech to the European Parliament. My French is appalling, but he reminded everyone that:

“Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre”.

That is one of the fundamentals of Europe. Therefore, we should be commemorating those events.

Even in the United Kingdom, there is a sense that we need to have a cross-border, cross-national debate about the future of the European Union and that we need to engage citizens in it. We, together in the European Union, are part of what political scientists call a community of fate. In other words, what happens in all those countries really matters to us; and what happens in the European Union really matters to us. A classic example is that the British economy has not avoided the consequences of the euro crisis simply because we are outside the euro.

The present Government are coming to terms with the need for debate. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, mentioned the justice opt-outs. More interesting is the decision to opt back in to most of the most important parts of the JHA agenda. That is because the Ministers dealing with this point recognise that we are part of a community of fate—we have to take these decisions together. We can see the same in the single market, where the Government are increasingly emphasising the importance of the single market to our economy.

I do not want to be too sociological about it, but there is a European demos in the making, and the euro crisis has brought it to the fore. We should be looking at this as an opportunity to promote debate between citizens about how they see Europe and the future of the Union.

If the Prime Minister’s plans go ahead—of course, I do not think that he will win the next general election, but were he to do so—and there is a renegotiation in 2016 and a referendum in 2017, I hope that that will be played out against a background of much commemoration of Winston Churchill’s great speeches calling for Europe to unite.

My Lords, I am most grateful for all the contributions that have been made. We have had a short but most interesting debate—indeed, a prelude to further consideration of the European adventure. These two EU measures, both of which provide for more citizen engagement in the EU, are of great benefit.

First, we discussed a measure to secure the long-term future of the EU institutions’ archives which takes account of the advances in record-keeping in an increasingly digital age. I was of course intrigued by the point of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, about the substance of archives. For someone such as me, who is interested in history but extremely amateur, the point of the history book is when it hits on something that goes beyond the ordinary notes and into the most intriguing parts. Although I cannot answer the noble Lord precisely, I very much hope that he is right that this will be an archive that historians will find of great value, not just for the agenda and minutes of the meetings but for the discussions and how they came to the decisions that they made. I will consider that and obviously come back to the noble Lord if I have anything of greater value to add, but I am with him on that.

The measure also reflects the flexibility required in introducing digital archiving and accordingly avoids prescribing technical solutions, which would not allow for rapidly evolving technologies. Approving this measure would contribute to ensuring the transparency and scrutiny of the EU. I was particularly taken by the point that my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine made about transparency because the Government definitely support the general principle of transparency, both domestically and within the European Union. I wish that I was able to comment more fully or specifically on the minutes of the European Central Bank but I very much hope that it will continue to make as much of its archive available as possible because that, again, plays into what the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, was saying about the importance of archives.

This also reflects our own Government’s priority in using digital platforms as a means of facilitating contact between citizens and public institutions. Again, my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine mentioned the engagement of young people and I endorse very much the concern that she raised. However, we need to remember that there are young people coming forward who need to know more. One of the great advances with digital platforms is that I very much hope that they will be a medium that young people will find more user-friendly. It is this digital technology which provides the means for bringing people of all generations more closely together, an aspect of today’s world that is very much to be welcomed. I saw this for myself in a recent visit to the outstanding National Archives at Kew, which certainly opened my eyes to the scope and opportunities that these advances provide.

Perhaps I may turn to the Europe for Citizens programme, which should be seen in the same context. I hesitated at what my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry said about the contradiction because this programme will run from next year to 2020 for all of Europe, and I see this as a positive. Whatever decisions the British electorate may or may not make about the position of this country in Europe, I believe that from 2014 to 2020 there is a great citizens’ programme across all the nation states, which is of value to this country and to the citizens of all the countries. I do not see it as a contradiction in that way. This is a positive, whatever happens.

It is particularly poignant at this moment to commemorate those in the two world wars and their lives, and many of your Lordships have been much involved in that. There are certainly many communities up and down the land involved in town twinning. I know that they come from all generations and all countries. Again, this is a very positive part of where taxpayers’ money is going. It is going, through the European institutions, towards this being a rewarding exercise.

This is a real opportunity for civil society organisations. To pick up on something that my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine said, we encourage a much more positive engagement at institutional and local level for citizens of all ages. I particularly go back to young people who have ideals. Having many ideals about the common values that are shared is an important part of the European adventure, so I very much hope that this programme will be seen as an opportunity. I very much agree with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, made about the opportunities. I also hope that this Bill will not take too much time because, in the end, this is a measure that we need to get through to enable the important work to begin for 2014.

If there are any points that I have not answered, I will come back to noble Lords but I believe that these two measures will definitely benefit citizens across the European Union. I commend the Bill to your Lordships and ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.