Motion to Take Note
My Lords, this is not just a debate about a Select Committee report, or about internal parliamentary processes. It is also by extension a debate about the future of the European Union and the United Kingdom’s relationship with it, so I am delighted that so many noble Lords are here to debate this vital issue.
Today, Europe faces huge, almost existential problems, and the economic crisis has thrown the deficiencies of the Treaty of Lisbon into stark relief. Growing disenchantment and disillusionment with the EU is evident in the continuing fall in participation in elections to the European Parliament, the rise in extremist parties across Europe, and the lack of trust between elected officials and their electorate. The question of democratic legitimacy now needs serious public debate so that the people of Europe can contribute to finding an answer. This is not just a crisis of public confidence in the Union, it is also a crisis of public confidence in politics more generally. Not every vote for UKIP is in my view necessarily a vote to leave the European Union—often it may simply be a protest vote, a vote for “none of the above”. However, we will never succeed in overcoming the Europe-wide democratic deficit unless we also look at and address our own shortcomings. It is not “their” problem over in Brussels, it is also our problem here in Westminster.
Giving national parliaments a more positive and active role in European affairs is not a panacea, but it is a key component in addressing the European democratic deficit. That view is widely shared across Europe, and I pay particular tribute here to the work of our colleagues in the Dutch Tweede Kamer and the Danish Folketinget, which is highly consonant with our report. The European Commission and the United Kingdom Government have also given their support. The Commission has expressed enthusiasm for better engagement with national parliaments as a natural extension of the existing political dialogue. The new Commission First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, is particularly supportive, and his enhanced role within the new Commission overseeing relations with national parliaments and the issues of subsidiarity and proportionality, is very much to be welcomed.
The problem is in moving beyond easy generalities and warm words. Underlying the general agreement that national parliaments should have a greater role, there are many different political perspectives. Some in the European Commission may see strengthening national parliaments as a way to increase democratic control of the actions of national Governments in the Council of Ministers. In statements by Her Majesty’s Government, their emphasis on national parliaments sometimes acquires a tinge of slightly Eurosceptic flavour, while at the other end of the spectrum, some in the European Parliament fear that proposals to increase the role of national parliaments may simply undermine their own authority. There are also significant practical organisational problems in mobilising national parliaments to action. Against that backdrop, perhaps it is not surprising that whenever it comes to taking specific and concrete action, everything suddenly seems too difficult.
We on the European Union Committee of your Lordships’ House are acutely aware of these problems as we battle to make progress on several fronts at once. On the domestic front, we confront growing deficiencies in Her Majesty’s Government’s handling of parliamentary scrutiny. There is no point in the Government professing to support an enhanced role for national parliaments if they have neither the will nor the capacity to submit their own actions in Europe to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Last week, the committee took evidence from the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, and I listed a series of failures by various departments over recent months. I will not repeat myself now, but instead and I hope for the last time, I will touch briefly on parliamentary scrutiny of the United Kingdom’s justice and home affairs opt-out. I described this sorry saga at length during our last debate on 17 November. All that I will add tonight is that the Home Office, having consistently failed to abide by its obligations under the scrutiny process, capped it off last week by refusing our request for an oral Statement explaining the scrutiny overrides that took place on 1 December, and then failing even to publish a proper Written Statement. Instead, the department tried to sneak its explanation in under the radar as an annexe to a Statement on the unrelated Justice and Home Affairs Council on 4 December.
I trust that the Minister, as a former chairman of our Home Affairs Sub-Committee, will understand my concern over those events. Will he confirm in his reply that the first essential step towards strengthening the United Kingdom Parliament’s role in the EU is for the Government to do everything in their power to support effective domestic parliamentary scrutiny of European Union matters? I hope also that he will set out for the House some practical steps that the Cabinet Office, which he represents in this House, is taking to address its own shortcomings, and which have been the subject of further correspondence. Put simply, the Government must get their own house in order first of all.
However, this is not just a government problem. The onus is also on us as a national legislature to make a more effective contribution to developments in Europe. We need to elevate the debate on the European Union, speaking with equal honesty about its benefits and its shortcomings. If we fail to do that, the risks are clear. I suspect that the leaders of the two main parties in this country may now be regretting their refusal to engage in a proper debate about United Kingdom membership of the European Union in the run-up to the European parliamentary elections earlier this year, as by so doing they effectively gifted control of the political agenda to UKIP. I might mention at this point that Her Majesty’s Government still refuse to acknowledge in print the democratic mandate of the European Parliament, even though meetings with individual Ministers suggest that the views of the Government are more nuanced than they are willing to admit publicly.
So much for the political background to tonight’s debate. For the remainder of my time, I shall touch on the efforts we are making in the European Union Committee to make progress in a few specific, targeted areas. The first of these is the reasoned opinion procedure. This is the only formal role in scrutinising European legislation given to national parliaments by the treaties, and as such it has an important symbolic value, but it can work only if there is good will on all sides, particularly within the European Commission. Hitherto, frankly, that good will has been lacking, and the Commission’s recent hasty, legalistic dismissal of the yellow card issued in respect of the proposed European Public Prosecutor’s Office was frankly and simply unacceptable.
We suggest in our report various ways in which the reasoned opinion procedure could be improved, without, we believe, the need for treaty change. These could include, for example, extending the deadline or reducing the threshold necessary for a yellow card to be issued. The essential point is that a yellow card should have a real impact, and be seen to have that impact. If a quarter of national parliaments feel strongly enough about a proposal to lodge reasoned opinions, then the Commission must sit up and take notice. It must undertake, if not formally to withdraw the proposal, then at least to amend it substantially. More generally, the Commission needs to be more open to dialogue with national parliaments. It must be prepared to argue its case and, on occasion, change its mind. The new Commission has publicly undertaken to be more receptive to reasoned opinions, which is good news, but the real test, in practice, has yet to come.
A bigger challenge for national parliaments is to engage upstream, in the early stages of policy development, when there is the greatest potential to exercise influence. That is especially difficult in our system of parliamentary scrutiny as it is predicated on reviewing legislative proposals only after they have been formally adopted by the Commission. In effect, we are stuck in reverse, when what we really want is a forward gear.
The so-called green card, described in paragraphs 55 to 59 of our report, could offer us that forward gear. The idea is straightforward: a group of national parliaments should be able to come together to propose legislation to the Commission, and the Commission should undertake to consider and respond to such proposals.
I emphasise that a green card procedure would not necessarily mean more legislation, or yet more Euro-initiatives. It could mean the amendment or repeal of existing legislation. Indeed, my sense is that the current Commission would be much more likely to respond positively to proposals from national parliaments which supported, for example, its own REFIT programme to simplify European law and reduce regulatory burdens. That is also very much our Committee’s approach. The response to the green card idea has so far been positive. At the COSAC conference—that is, the conference of chairs of committees such as the one I represent in your Lordships’ House—in Rome earlier this month, there was widespread support for the concept.
A treaty—I would be subject to advice—is, of course, concluded between member states and, although it is part of the constitution, it is not, by itself, part of the legislation. I think that if there were a widespread demand for a change in the treaty for good reason, that could certainly be taken forward as part of the political dialogue.
To return to COSAC, we met in Rome earlier this month and there was widespread support for a green card and a very positive attitude. More meetings are planned in the new year, at which we will explore in detail how a green card procedure might work in practice. We are also looking at other ways to encourage upstream dialogue between national parliaments and European policymakers. In particular, we need to focus more on scrutinising the Commission’s work programme. We know that President Juncker has promised a more politically responsive work programme, focusing on growth and jobs. We need to be engaged in developing and realising this. That means we need to be more agile, talking to the Commission, responding to consultations, building up alliances with colleagues in other national parliaments and the European Parliament, keeping in touch with our own Government, of course, and undertaking forward-looking inquiries.
Reconnecting the European Union with its citizens is not going to be easy. Nor is it going to be easy, over coming months, to defend the United Kingdom’s continuing role in the European Union. I believe passionately that finding practical ways to enhance the role of national parliaments—which are, by definition, close to their citizens—is an important component in our response to both these challenges. We need a new approach and a new way of working jointly with our partners. I and my colleagues on the European Union Committee will do our part, but I also look to Her Majesty’s Government to lead by example. They must show, by diligently respecting the scrutiny process as it affects the two Houses of this Parliament, that they genuinely embrace the involvement of Parliament in European Union law-making. This is now less a time for words and more a time for effective action. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity of speaking in this debate, both as a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the EU and as the chair of the EU sub-committee dealing with justice, institutions and consumer affairs. Having only recently become chair of the sub-committee, I begin by paying warm tribute to my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Corston. I know from my own experience and also from other members of the committee how much her wise, calm and friendly chairing of the committee was appreciated. Under her guidance the scrutiny work of the sub-committee was thorough and detailed. This was particularly true in the case of the role of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, referred to a minute ago by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, where the committee’s report leading to a reasoned opinion being approved by your Lordships’ House raised issues which are relevant to this report and to our debate this evening.
I very much welcome the report that we are discussing today and the way it has been presented to us by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. The conclusions of the report contain many worthwhile recommendations which I hope will be acted upon. Indeed, noble Lords will know that our reasoned opinion on the European Public Prosecutor’s Office was one of a number approved in national parliaments across the EU, leading to the yellow card threshold being reached. Yet, as the noble Lord said, when a yellow card is issued, in theory the European Commission should engage seriously in a discussion with national parliaments about it, but in this case it failed to do so.
We very much hope that the new Commission, the words of which have so far been very encouraging in terms of relations with national parliaments, will take much more seriously any yellow cards issued in future. Certainly, the appointment of Frans Timmermans as a senior vice-president with specific responsibility for relations with national parliaments is something we should build on in order to try to get a much more effective system than we have had up to now. I also endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said about the desirability of national parliaments being able to influence the process around a green card at a much earlier stage than is normally the case at present.
Some of our recommendations are, of course, directed to the Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that they will deal with the European Union Select Committee and the sub-committees in a timely and responsible way. On the whole, the Government engage with the work of the committees, but none the less, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, there have been a number of examples of where the Government have not replied to committees in good time. There certainly needs to be consistency across government and government departments. It would be good to hear in which ways the necessary co-ordination is going to be achieved in future.
In considering these issues, on a personal note, I am influenced not only by being a Member of your Lordships’ House but by having been a member of the scrutiny committee in the House of Commons in the early days of that committee, by having been Europe Minister and by the fact that I began my elected political life as a Member of the European Parliament in the first directly elected Parliament way back in 1979. Perhaps because of that, I am particularly keen to endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, who is on the record as saying that the relationship between national parliaments and the European Parliament should not be a zero-sum game.
Indeed, I somewhat bridled at part of the Government’s response to our report. While it said, quite rightly, that national parliaments seek to be, and in many cases are, close to their citizens, the subtext seemed to denigrate the European Parliament and its representative role, which would be unfortunate. While I yield to no one in my admiration for the thorough work this House does in scrutinising European legislation, it has to be said that we are not elected and we do not have constituencies or geographical areas to relate to or to represent in that formal way. Furthermore, given that Members of the European Parliament represent political parties, they do not campaign just in European elections but take part in general and local elections and presumably have plenty of contact with voters in doing so. I was an MEP in the days of Euro constituencies, which I have to say I rather approve of in comparison with the large regions that are represented today. In that role, I had regular contact with people affected by European rules, whether in the fishing industry, which was a very controversial issue at the time in terms of European legislation, or in the shipbuilding industry, which was big in my European constituency at the time, or in companies, local authorities, charities and others seeking to access European funds or simply requesting information about European single market rules which might affect them.
I am concerned not to promote competition between national parliaments and the European Parliament but to look at ways in which the joint working of the two can be improved. It seems to me sad and somewhat ironic that in these days when the European Parliament has much more power than it had when I was an MEP, contact in many ways seems less frequent and less productive than it was then. I therefore think it is an urgent matter for us and others to consider.
There are practical problems in that the timetables of MEPs, MPs and Members of your Lordships’ House mean that physical contact and joint meetings are challenging, at the very least. None the less, with modern technology that could be overcome, and at least some of the recommendations in the report in front of us today about how committees in both Houses of Parliament could link with rapporteurs and spokespeople in the European Parliament committees need to be acted on and would be a practical way forward to encourage the kind of joint working we would like.
I believe that a more effective role for national parliaments, as well as better co-operation between national parliaments and the European Parliament, can mean better scrutiny and much more accountability and transparency in the European decision-making process. This must improve democracy and help address the democratic deficit. That has to be in the interests of all the citizens whom we seek to serve.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said in his introduction, this report and debate are particularly important because they are about democratic accountability within the European Union—something that all of us, whether we are anti-Europe, pro-Europe or trying to reform Europe, are aware of, and something that needs to change.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, mentioned the 1979 election. I, too, was an MEP, but I did not enter the European Parliament until 1994. Before 1979, we had a European Assembly made up of national parliaments—and, basically, it did not work. That is why it needed to change at that time. I am glad to see that the report does not look back to that sort of model. It is good news that we are not trying to work back in that way.
It is useful to say how the system is supposed to work. National parliaments have a very specific role within the European architecture. They always have done. It is clearly to call national Governments to account. That is the fundamental element of European liberal democracies. Parliaments are there to control their Executives and their Ministers. It is Ministers who go to the Council of Ministers and make decisions. Whether before or after those decisions, national parliaments have a fundamental role in the way that Europe works through the Council of Ministers.
The European Parliament has its direct democratic role in terms of representing citizens, however well that does or does not work, and what you have, although few people outside this architecture understand it, is effectively a bicameral European Parliament. You have a house that represents citizens, which is the European Parliament at the moment, and you have a house that represents nation states and Governments, which is the Council of Ministers. Between them, they make decisions.
They do not initiate legislation under normal circumstances, but of course in the UK the Houses of Parliament do not on the whole initiate legislation, either; it is done by the Executive. Successful Private Members’ Bills are few and far between. That is how the system should work: national parliaments tie down their Ministers and their Governments in terms of accountability, and you have a European Parliament that should be fully respected by its citizens and represents direct democratic accountability.
Of course, that does not work perfectly. In fact, it does not necessarily work very well at all, because for that system to work there needs to be full confidence in the European Parliament and parliaments have to call Ministers to account effectively. It needs national Members of Parliament to understand how European institutions actually work, and that is a huge challenge. Certainly, when I was an MEP, I was quite astounded by how national parliamentarians had no clue about how the European Union worked. That is key, and I find it quite strange.
It also needs subsidiarity to work. Subsidiarity means that the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers do only things that are appropriate to the legislation they are undertaking, but that requires a common understanding of what levels of subsidiarity might be, and there is quite a north/south divide on that.
The first route in terms of getting institutions to work to more democratically is to get that system to work. Certainly, in terms of European Union reform and the European Parliament, that requires getting rid of the double seat of Strasbourg and Brussels, the European Parliament stopping its penchant for turf wars with the other institutions, and better representation. I entirely agree that regional representation is much better because of proportional representation, but it is more difficult in terms of single-Member accountability. Ironically, I was the Liberal Democrat who suffered from proportional representation in 1999. In certain nations, such as France, there is the national responsibility of deputies. I do not think that is a very good system, but clearly national Governments should be able to decide. The size of the European Parliament should perhaps be controlled, but who are we, as the House of Lords, to preach on that matter?
When it comes to national Parliaments, I think that the most important thing, in terms of national architecture, is that we do not start setting up further institutions that do not have the power to do anything. The Economic and Social Committee—and I would even say the Committee of Regions—are bodies that were set up at particular times. They are there for consultation, they can give their opinion, but, other than that, they have no ability to influence what goes on. I think that that is a major lesson. In my view, they should be abolished because of that.
I think the yellow card system is a good one, but we have seen, perhaps because it is in its infancy, the difficulty of getting it to work. The green card system that the committee has described is very positive and could be set up, I am sure, without a treaty change in terms of having an institutional agreement, which happens a lot within European institutions. Certainly my experience when I had the honour to chair the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, when I went to one of the newly established Defence and Security Conferences that happen every six months in the capital of the presidency at that time, was very mixed. It was to a degree a talking shop. Some of the nations felt that it should be able to give recommendations and vote, which it could do on certain issues. Others felt that we should keep well away from that area. It was very limited in what it was able to do.
As far as the commission is concerned—we have, of course, 28 commissioners from 28 member states—I wonder whether each commissioner should be allocated not their own nationality but a country, an EU member state with which they particularly liaise. That may be a way in which accountability to national Parliaments could work. It is particularly important in the second-pillar areas, justice and home affairs and foreign affairs, where there is not exclusive European Union competency.
For instance, the High Representative issued an annual report on the External Affairs Committee’s success or otherwise during the year. That would have been something that we wanted to talk to the external affairs service about, and I am sure that other national Parliaments would have wanted to as well. Clearly the external affairs High Representative is not someone who can go around to 28 member states, but there are other ways of doing that. I think also—and I do not think the report gets fully into this—that with regard to the President of the Council, Donald Tusk, there is a need for direct parliamentary accountability to a degree.
Here in Westminster I agree entirely that there should be pre-Council scrutiny. I think our own sub-committees should scrutinise legislation openly. We have closed sessions at the moment; I do not understand that. They should be open. We should show the transparency in this House that we are asking for elsewhere. There should be greater liaison between House of Commons committees and the House of Lords. The EU Committee has tried to bring together MEPs, MPs and Members of this House in a triumvirate of discussions. That has been of limited success, but I think it should work hard on that.
I think that the biggest gap, though—and the report emphasises this—is in the area of economic and monetary affairs. That does not affect the United Kingdom quite as much as others, but there is definitely a deficit there. In other reports that I have read, there has been almost an opt-out by national parliamentarians to get involved with those issues at a European level—except for the Republic of Ireland. That is quite strange, because it is an area that clearly needs to be filled in terms of democratic accountability. I was interested in Graham Bishop’s evidence in the report that it was only the ECON committee that had any chance of calling the ECB to account. I think that that is absolutely correct.
I very much welcome this report. I am very pleased that the Minister replying, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has a long history in European issues. I look forward to his reply to the many questions that there will be. Certainly, democratic accountability is wanting. The European Parliament is an excellent institution that needs to improve itself. This is an area that we need to make work as it is supposed to by making the improvements suggested by this report.
My Lords, I count myself very much a new boy on the European Union Committee of your Lordships’ House, although I have served on sub-committees, which do such valuable work in monitoring what goes on. It was particularly instructive for me to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on this particular report on the relationship with the European Parliament.
We are all very familiar—much too familiar, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said—with the general disenchantment in this country with political institutions. It is true that the disenchantment with European Union institutions goes even deeper than that. It is striking to compare that with the atmosphere in Scotland during the referendum earlier this year. There was enormous enthusiasm, voter turnout of 85% and deep, long discussions for weeks before the referendum took place. This was completely different from the attitude towards the overall national institutions and, indeed, towards Europe.
It may be that absence makes the heart grows fonder, but in political terms we see no evidence that political distance from the institution to which you belong makes the heart grow any fonder at all—rather, the contrary. That is why, surely, the role of national parliaments in the European Union is so important and why the recommendations of this report can be so useful in dealing with the problem.
National parliaments, after all, if seen to be taking an active role in European Union affairs and not just holding our own Ministers to account—which I think we do very well—can make people feel that their own views and their own interests are being properly brought to bear on European institutions. It does not solve the whole problem of mistrust of European institutions, but it can and it should help. I am sure that other noble Lords are much more capable and experienced than I am to deal with the detailed recommendations of the report. I should like to touch in general terms on two aspects. One of them is the relationship with the Commission; the other is the relationship with the European Parliament.
When the committee visited Brussels to hold talks, I was struck by how responsive and how willing to discuss matters some commissioners and some of the very well informed officials there were. That was not true of all commissioners, or of all officials, but it was quite marked how much it helped to go and talk to the people there. The use of the reasoned opinion—the so-called yellow card procedure—has already been dealt with in detail by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, but one cannot help but be struck by this institution’s being a very good way of involving national parliaments. Very seldom is it possible for the national parliaments to get together and produce enough votes to convince the Commission that it needs to think again. On that one recent occasion to which the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, referred, what did that particular bit of the Commission do but simply, brusquely brush it aside and pay no attention whatever to what was said? That cannot be right and one hopes that it will never be repeated.
Fortunately, it seems that the new Commission is more conscious of the need to be responsive to the views of national parliaments. Let us hope that the new Commission will also be more flexible in the ways that could broaden the grounds for objection by national parliaments; for instance, the idea of a test of proportionality—the sledgehammer-to-nut type problem. Although that is not covered by the treaties, it should surely be possible, with the right will, to find informal ways in which that, too, could be taken into account by the Commission. Of course, attempting reforms on small matters such as this would not possibly justify treaty change, but if there is the will, then on a number of these things one gets the impression that it should be possible to find informal ways in which they could be carried forward.
It is right that we should press for a greater role for national parliaments, but it is right, too, that we should not just talk about the greater legitimacy that it would give to European institutions if our national Parliaments were involved, but also recognise the legitimacy of the European Parliament and take account of that, particularly since the Lisbon treaty.
I shall just make one point on the question of having greater contact with our own MEPs. This falls by the wayside all too often, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said, often because of timetabling issues, with MEPs rushing back to their enormous constituencies when there is no time for them to stop here in Westminster. It would be helpful if we could have greater contact with our own MEPs, here in Westminster if possible, but otherwise with us going to Brussels, or to Strasbourg if the Strasbourg institution is still operating. That would be a great advantage.
In all these things, we need to somehow get through the problem that the European institutions look like some huge and impenetrable bureaucratic machine, and the further away we are from it the more impenetrable it seems. If we can enhance the amount of personal contact that we have with our MEPs, commissioners and people who work in the Commission, I am sure that this would help. In many ways, it could be much more effective than reams of official papers.
It is encouraging that the Government took a generally positive attitude towards the recommendations of the committee, and encouraging that the new Commission seems responsive to the idea of greater involvement by national parliaments. However, much needs to be done to increase the role played by national parliaments, and we will need all these favourable winds to see the necessary and practical recommendations in the committee’s report put into practice.
My Lords, I am delighted to have been a member of the committee that produced this report. I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on the way in which he chaired the committee and brought it to a successful conclusion. The report deals with two subjects crucial to the future of the European Union. One is its insufficient democratic roots and the other is the lack of an EU-wide demos. Just as we on our committee have drawn from ideas and practices of other parliaments—the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, rightly paid tribute to the Dutch and the Danes—so I hope that other parliaments will look at the ideas that we have put forward and draw on them.
My reference to insufficient democratic roots and the lack of an EU-wide demos does not mean that I fail to recognise the enormous progress made by the European Parliament in recent years. I will not pretend that I am happy with all that it does or has done, but that its power and influence in European Union affairs and over both the Council and the Commission has increased very considerably cannot be denied. The recent initiative of Spitzenkandidaten is an example of that. None the less, the European Parliament’s debates, decisions and personalities still fail to resonate within the member states. We see that in terms of electoral turnout and media coverage. For the vast majority of people throughout the European Union, the fulcrum of political debate and decision remains their national parliaments. Therefore, if we are to strengthen the European Union’s democratic accountability and framework and create an EU-wide demos, national parliaments must be more closely involved in European Union affairs.
The European Parliament and national parliaments must not be seen as opposing or even as rival forces; rather, they should be seen as complementary forms of democratic legitimacy, each with its own role in the European Union framework. In large, decentralised and democratic countries such as the United States and Germany, one of the two Houses in their bicameral legislatures represents the component states. This is the principle, suitably adapted for a vast Union of 28 sovereign states, with more than 500 million inhabitants, that I wish to see carried forward in the European Union. The specific proposals in this report go some way towards doing that and I fully support them. However, in addition, I should like to make three additional points of my own.
My first point is directed to the Commission. I recognise the practical problems of responding to the demands of 28 parliaments, many of which have two Chambers. I welcome the responsibility for inter-institutional relations accorded to Mr Frans Timmermans in his role as first vice-president, but he is a very busy man and he has a great many responsibilities. This particular responsibility does not feature very high on the list. I noticed that when I looked at the website. Therefore, more is needed.
Many years ago, in the late 1970s, when I was a member of the Jenkins Commission, Mr Jenkins signalled a change in the relationship between the Commission and the European Parliament and the enhanced role of the latter by appointing a commissioner for European affairs, the senior commissioner at that time, Lorenzo Natali, an Italian vice-president. These days, there are not enough proper jobs to go around for 28 commissioners. In those days, some of us had three or four directorates-general, while some people now have less than one directorate-general. So I do not hesitate to suggest setting up a new body in the Commission to provide work for a commissioner. I think that the Commission should consider setting up a department for parliamentary affairs with a commissioner responsible for dealing with both national parliaments and the European Parliament as his main responsibility. By dealing with both the national parliaments and the European Parliament, it would emphasise the fact that these are two complementary forms of democratic legitimacy and not rival forms. Were there to be such a body within the European Commission, it would facilitate the Commission’s dealings with the national parliaments and make it less difficult for national parliaments to make their voice and opinion heard in Brussels. That is my first suggestion.
My second suggestion is to Her Majesty's Government, or at least to the Conservative element in it—the element that I support. I am delighted that the Government have explicitly welcomed the committee’s suggestion for greater co-operation between national parliaments and the European Union Parliament and also welcomed a greater engagement between the national parliaments. However, I wonder whether the Government—or the Conservative element in it—have fully thought through the likely consequences of such a development. As we all know, parliaments work through political parties, so this closer co-operation and engagement will be conducted by and through political parties, which in turn is likely to enhance the existing links between parties in the European Parliament and parties in the national parliaments and to foster new combinations of parties. That in turn will strengthen the influence of the big political families, left, right and centre. This will, I am afraid, leave those parties, such as the Conservative Party, which are not part of a big political family, at a very considerable disadvantage. I strongly recommend to the Conservative element in the Government that it should seek to end this self-imposed isolation. In doing so, it would be able significantly to increase its influence and, perhaps, avoid débâcles of the sort that occurred not so long ago over the appointment of the Commission President.
In this respect, I would draw a parallel with what happened over enlargement. As noble Lords will recall, the United Kingdom, under Conservative as well as Labour Governments, was one of the strongest advocates of bringing into the European Union the countries of central and eastern Europe. Somehow, it did not seem to foresee what this would mean in terms of free movement of labour, and it is now faced with the consequences. I would not like a similar lack of foresight to lead to a disadvantage for my party in terms of the European Parliament and the greater engagement of national parliaments.
My third point is addressed to the House of Commons. At present, EU matters are largely seen as the preserve of the admirable European Scrutiny Committee, under its very energetic chairman. However, just as national parliaments can reinforce the European Parliament in promoting democratic accountability and strengthening the democratic framework of the European Union, so other Commons committees could reinforce the role of the European Scrutiny Committee. I should like to see the subject-specific committees in the House of Commons become more engaged in considering the impact of existing EU legislation, and possible changes to it, whether by addition, amendment, or the return of powers to the member states. I should also like to see the subject-specific committees in the House of Commons do much more to hold British Ministers to account for what they do and say and advocate in the various Councils of Ministers. I should like to see this done both before Ministers go to Brussels and when they return. In that way, a very considerable strengthening in democratic accountability would occur.
I strongly support the proposals in the report, but I should also like consideration to be given to the three that I have added.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has already made the important point that bringing national parliaments closer to the institutions of the EU, and particularly to the Commission, so as to improve familiarity of national parliaments with the issues and to enhance the influence of national parliaments on decisions being taken in Brussels is a cause that unites all three major parties in our democracy. It unites Eurosceptics and Europhiles. All those categories are well represented here this evening. Not surprisingly, UKIP is not represented here. Their representatives do not turn up much when they get elected to the European Parliament: they have the worst record for attendance there, a quite disgraceful one. They have not turned up tonight and they have demonstrated once again that they belong to a party that is very interested in demagogy, but not in doing an honest day’s work or even an honest evening’s work on European policy.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on this report, which he has produced with his colleagues. I also commend him on the great energy and engagement that he has brought to his considerable responsibilities and the robustness with which he is prepared to talk—we had an example of that earlier this evening—both to our own Government here and to the European Commission, or to anybody else who might be relevant when that is required, in order to make clear the strong, serious position of this House and its committees on European-related subjects.
I agree with an enormous amount of what has been said this evening. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, on the latter part of his remarks, about the desirability of involving the departmental Select Committees in the scrutiny work much more systematically than happens now. I take this opportunity to add to the proposals made in this very interesting document with tuppenny-ha’penny-worth of my own suggestions, and I will make three proposals.
We are really confronting three broad issues this evening. One is how to bring national parliaments closer to the Commission and to have more influence with the Commission. There I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, to whom I always listen not just with great respect but with great interest. He suggested that it would be a good idea to appoint a Commissioner responsible for relations with national parliaments and with the European Parliament. That would have unfortunate and counterproductive consequences: such a Commissioner would act as an insulating barrier between the two. It would be rather like dealing with the director of public affairs of a company instead of the chief executive. If you want to influence anything that a company does, that is not a sensible way forward. It is important to have much greater direct contact. I also disagree with the committee’s report in one respect—desirable as it would be—which is the proposal in paragraph 54:
“The Commission which will be appointed in 2014 should make a commitment that its Commissioners and senior officials will be willing to meet committees of national parliaments as a core part of their duties”.
That is very desirable, but idealistic and unrealistic as well. If a Commissioner spent half a day of his time with each of 28 different national parliaments or their representatives or their scrutiny committees, then he would be spending 14 working days—something like two and half weeks of his time—on that subject. That is not likely to happen. We have situations when we are able, in Select Committees of the House of Commons and in European sub-committees here, to meet Commissioners or senior officials of the Commission; I have been a beneficiary of that myself in various roles over time. However, sadly, I do not think it is realistic to expect that there should be some kind of statutory—or if not statutory, at least formal—commitment of the kind suggested in this document.
A much more promising proposal is that it should be a general rule that—and this can be agreed with the courts without any kind of constitutional change; it could be a rule decided by the Commission itself—once or possibly twice a year, every Commissioner would invite to a seminar in Brussels the departmental or specialised committees covering his particular responsibilities. They are called Select Committees in the House of Commons, but a lot of continental parliaments call them commissions. That would be an opportunity for the Commissioner to make a direct presentation to them of his agenda, and have perhaps some working groups getting into the detail of these proposals or other proposals that the national parliaments might want to advance, and to have some serious discussions from both sides, bringing the two bodies directly together without any kind of intermediary organisation or individual. I would be grateful if that proposal could be considered by our own committee. I myself sit on the Economic and Financial Affairs Sub-Committee of the European Union Committee.
The second thing that needs to be done is to bring national parliaments more closely together in the context of European scrutiny. Quite clearly, no national parliament is going to have much effect if it is isolated. If we want a yellow card—or not necessarily a yellow card, but some influence—it is necessary to combine with others, as is a normal rule in any sensible and functioning democracy. There is not much opportunity for that. The COSAC works well, but it brings together just the chairmen of scrutiny committees: that is a very narrow group of people. There should be an occasion once a year for, let us say, a two-day conference, bringing together those responsible for scrutiny in the national parliaments from all 28 member states. At the conference, it should be possible to have some detailed working sessions on particularly important or controversial issues, or on matters where there is a question of a yellow-card procedure being initiated—or having been initiated—by one or more parliaments. That would be an opportunity for anybody wanting a yellow card to make a case for that, and attempt to get other national parliaments to second that initiative. Human contact is absolutely indispensible; I have never believed in any context—in ordinary commercial marketing, advocacy or anything else—that electronics or digital communications can replace human contact. It is very important to be able to look at people in the face, hear the emphasis they put in their communications with you and make an assessment as to how reliable or serious they are and how much they have gone into the question that they are talking about. It is therefore central that there should be more human contact between the parliamentarians involved. That is the spirit in which I make these two proposals.
My third proposal relates to an area that has already been mentioned several times in this debate, and we are very conscious of it. We are not very good at scrutiny. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, the fundamental role of national parliaments as far as the EU is concerned is to make sure that we properly control our Ministers when they go to the Council of Ministers, because they go there as our delegates. In actual fact, with the exception of Denmark, no member state has really succeeded in making a reality of this theory, that democratic legitimacy stems directly from the national parliaments, because the Council of Ministers—one of the two legislative bodies in the European Union—is directly responsible to national parliaments. If we are going to make a reality of that, we need to change immediately the way we do business here. In my view, we need to make sure that we talk to Ministers before they go to the Council of Ministers. We should not take a decision to lift the scrutiny reserve merely on the basis of an Explanatory Memorandum and then, perhaps a month or two later, have an opportunity to talk to the Minister in retrospect about why he or she did or did not do whatever it was that is of concern to us. It is essential that Ministers appear before the relevant scrutiny committee or better still—here I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat—the relevant departmental Select Committee before they go to the Council of Ministers meeting, so that they are forced to disclose their brief and agenda, hear the comments of parliamentarians, take them into account, and, if they wish to disagree with them, to do so openly and to try to persuade them or not, as the case may be. It is up to Parliament to decide whether or not to lift the scrutiny reserve when it has heard what the Minister has to say.
Those are three suggestions. They are not modest suggestions because they are quite far reaching, but I hope that they will make a modest contribution to the debate.
My Lords, I welcome this very constructive and instructive report from your Lordships’ EU Select Committee, and particularly the comments of my noble friend Lord Tugendhat and of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, opposite. We will probably have cross-party agreement on many of the recommendations and the additional comments that have been made.
I do not propose to make any additional recommendations but have one or two interests to declare: a formal one that ought to be noted and a slightly less formal one. My formal interest is that for three years I was the principal investigator for an ESRC-funded project on national parliaments and the European Union. My department in Cambridge received money to study very similar topics to those that your Lordships’ Select Committee looked at. The slightly more trivial interest is that, on the basis of that, I was asked to give oral evidence to the Select Committee and sent in written evidence, so I appear as a small footnote in the report. However, I am one of the very few people speaking this evening who is not a member of the Select Committee or one of its sub-committees. Not being part of the committee process here in many ways puts me very much on the back foot but also raises the issue of who becomes involved in decision-making and scrutiny. One of the recommendations is very much about mainstreaming European policy. I and my colleagues from the OPAL project told the Select Committee and the scrutiny committee in the other place that mainstreaming is important. The Dutch Parliament has done it and it has worked very effectively. The report suggests that that is important here—to get more people involved.
We see that the usual suspects are here to talk about Europe, but it is worse in the other place. The Members who are willing to talk about, or engage with, Europe are usually sceptic. They have a particular interest in Europe, but not one that is necessarily informed or engaged. They think that if they stand up and opine about Europe in a way that grabs the headlines, that will be effective with my electorate. That rather misses the point. If you simply make grandiose statements which do not relate to the detail of Europe, you do your constituents a disservice. There is a real problem with the way that some chambers of national parliaments engage with the European Union. It is a particular problem in the other place in the United Kingdom, but it reflects a wider problem among national parliamentarians.
Noble Lords have the luxury of being very unusual. By dint of not having constituents and not having to go home every weekend to talk to constituents and focus on detailed constituency casework, there is the opportunity to take more time to scrutinise legislation. There is also the opportunity to do many of the things that have been mentioned this evening and which were recommended in the Select Committee report—to engage with colleagues in other parliaments. If you are expected to be here during the week and back in your constituency at the weekend, when do you go to Brussels, Berlin or Paris to talk to your opposite numbers? That is extremely difficult. We at this end of the building have the opportunity to talk to our colleagues, but we definitely need to find ways to engage more with other parliaments. Interparliamentary co-operation is vital.
One thing that is worth bearing in mind, but which very few national parliamentarians have been willing to bear in mind, is that for decades national parliaments have lost power under the European integration process. There has been a degree of deparliamentarisation. In most elected chambers, nobody wanted to talk about it. Who is willing to say, “Actually, we are less important than we used to be. The European Parliament has gained powers and has oversight but is also a democratic body representing the citizens of Europe”? That is not a terribly popular thing to say. If you are out trying to get votes in a domestic election, reminding people of the role of the European Parliament and of your own denuded role might not be the best way. Therefore, for many reasons, national parliaments have not been willing to talk about shifts in powers or the increased role of the European Parliament. In any case, the role of the European Parliament and giving it more powers does not in itself deal with some of the questions of deparliamentarisation. It does not bring Europe closer to citizens. The Lisbon treaty was supposed to do that by re-empowering national parliaments.
Here again, we have a slight difficulty of language. Many members of national parliaments would ask, “What do you mean by saying that the Lisbon treaty has given us new powers or given us powers back”? They are very reluctant to accept that powers have shifted and, in some cases, suggest that the Lisbon treaty and the yellow card was little more than a sop. There are questions about whether national parliaments feel that they have powers and are willing and able to use them. That issue is hugely important. We do not necessarily need treaty change; we need national parliaments to use the powers that they have. That was made very clear in the appendix to the report, where other members of COSAC said that they needed not more powers but for national parliaments to step up to the plate and say, “There are things we can do. We can, and should, hold Ministers to account, but we are not very good at doing it”.
It is not just about Westminster. Indeed, your Lordships’ House is one of the Chambers that is deemed to be a paragon in many ways and which scrutinises European legislation very well, but holding Ministers to account is something which nobody but the Danish Folketing does particularly well. However, this is not about giving more powers but using the powers that we have in more imaginative ways and using them collaboratively and collectively.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, suggested, the roles of the European Parliament and of national parliaments are not part of a zero-sum game, they are about working together and ensuring that legislation at the European level is dealt with effectively. Each has different roles but we work through those roles most effectively if we co-operate, co-ordinate, exchange information, share ideas and stop the sort of turf wars that we saw at the start of the interparliamentary co-operation on common, foreign and security policy and prior to the deliberations of the Article 13 committee. It is important that parliaments co-operate vertically—national parliaments with the European Parliament—and horizontally with other national parliaments. As noble Lords have suggested, we need to do that on the basis of personal co-operation, interparty co-operation and within our parties in the other place and your Lordships’ House and our party families in the European Parliament, but also through working across parties at transnational level.
I can only say that I warmly endorse the recommendation of my noble friend Lord Tugendhat. I am not sure it is appropriate that I do so, but if the Conservative Party was part of the European People’s Party it would be able to engage more effectively in the work of the European Parliament and that would only be of benefit to the United Kingdom. Co-operation, co-ordination and exchange of information among personnel, parties and parliaments is one way in which national parliaments can become much more effective. Many of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report would ensure that those things come about.
My Lords, it is customary in these debates to applaud their timeliness. I am afraid, unfortunately, that this debate is not timely. It is behind time by quite a long way. It should not have taken the Government three months, as opposed to the regulation two months, to reply to the report, although clearly the imminence of a parliamentary recess has acted as a magnetic pull. It should not have taken this House nine months to organise a debate on a report that can legitimately be described as one of the most significant and potentially consequential to be issued in recent years. It owed much to the skill and persuasiveness of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, whose admirable introduction to the debate we have just heard and whose leadership I particularly appreciated when I served on the committee as this report was being prepared.
The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, set out some of the main recommendations of our report, which represent a wide-ranging menu of reforms to the role of national parliaments in holding their Governments to account and in shaping EU legislation. Those are the two broad thrusts of the role of national parliaments and there is no need to repeat what he said. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, suggested that asking the new Commission to take it as part of its duty to deal with national parliaments was nugatory and impossible to fulfil. In fact, with video conferencing and other such techniques, it is possible to do that with reasonable economy of time.
In the previous Commission, there were still commissioners who would openly say, in a quite aggressive way, that they had no responsibility at all to national parliaments: their sole responsibility was towards the European Parliament. That is not a correct interpretation of the Lisbon treaty, which gives them a distinct role. People who held those views would say: “National parliaments, you look after your own Governments; you do not have any control or influence over the Commission”. We have to break down those barriers. The recommendation, which was contained in the report and which I suspect the new Commission, with Vice-President Timmermans, is going to honour very considerably, was worth making.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am sure that he will recall that I said that if you can get this particular proposal, which was made in the report, so much the better. I personally thought that it was slightly unrealistic. However, my proposal of a rule that each commissioner should meet on a regular basis, at least once a year, with the members of the departmental select committees or commissions in the national parliaments on his subject of responsibility, would directly address the point just made by the noble Lord. It is important that commissioners should formally recognise a role for national parliaments and make sure that they take them seriously.
If I may say so, that is an addition to but not a substitute for the recommendation we made. It is important, when one of the sub-committees of your Lordships’ House is preparing a report on a particular issue, that it takes evidence from the commissioner responsible at that time, not just once a year. It is normally possible to do this and co-operation is pretty good, on the whole. However, there have been occasions when it has not been and we suggested that it should never be that way again.
Suffice it to say that we did not need to go back to first principles when we started to write this report, because the Lisbon treaty settled once and for all that national parliaments have a role to play in shaping European legislation. They have a collective role to play through such procedures as the yellow card. We did not really have to argue that case: we just took it from there.
However, the evidence we took established that that role—which has existed since the Lisbon treaty came into force in 2009—was not being exercised very effectively, so far, and that reforms were needed if it was to be so exercised. That is not some British Eurosceptic fad; it is the view of many other national parliaments which we consulted when we were compiling our report. In the years to come, strengthening the role of national Parliaments needs to be one part of any positive reform agenda worthy of the name. I notice that both the Government, in their response to our report, and the European Council itself, in the strategic agenda for the next five years, refer to the need for that role to be developed.
I do not intend to dwell long on the Government's response to our report, which was broadly very satisfactory and supportive. However, one point requires comment. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, referred to it and I shall do likewise, but in slightly less polite terms. In their response to paragraph 15 of our report, the Government stated flatly that national parliaments were,
“the main source of democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU”.
That is a pretty odd remark to make, 35 years after the European Parliament became directly elected and when it has wide-ranging powers of co-decision with the Council on EU legislation. Tactically, it was aberrant to say this, since nothing is more likely to frustrate any effort to reform the role of national parliaments than it becoming a food fight between them and the European Parliament. Yes, “a main source”—national parliaments are that—but not “the main source”, which is surely getting it a bit wrong. There is no good argument that cannot be spoiled by exaggeration.
The Commission’s response to our report is a good deal less satisfactory than that of the Government and falls far short of what is needed. Fortunately, that response was made by the outgoing Barroso Commission and not the Commission that is now in office. We can therefore hope that the first Vice-President of the new Commission—Frans Timmermans, whose name has been mentioned several times in the debate and who is responsible for relationships with national parliaments—will take a more enlightened and flexible view as matters move forward.
It simply is not good enough to say, flatly, as the Commission did, that it would require treaty change to allow national parliaments more than eight weeks to submit reasoned opinions under the yellow card procedure. It is not good enough to say that to allow those reasoned opinions to contain consideration of the proportionality of the Commission's proposals is not possible without treaty change. The Commission could perfectly well take political decisions to accommodate both those reforms. Let us hope that it can be persuaded to do so.
Nor is it good enough for the Commission to duck—as it did in its response—our recommendation that it should commit itself to withdrawing or substantially amending any proposal that actually triggered a yellow card. The outgoing Commission’s response to the yellow card triggered by its proposal for a European public prosecutor’s office has been referred to already in this debate. It was, frankly, scandalously inept, amounting simply to saying that 14 national parliaments had got it wrong and the Commission, as usual, had got it right. That sort of approach simply will not do.
When the Minister replies to this debate, I hope that he will concentrate not so much on the Government’s response to our report—after all, if we have taken the trouble to read Command 8913, we know what that is—but rather on what the Government are going to do about the many ideas in the report with which they say they are in agreement. What contacts have the Government had so far with other member states about the need for these reforms? What progress have they made towards building coalitions to carry them forward? What dealings have they had with the incoming Commission to persuade it to take a more flexible approach than that of its predecessors?
Anyone reading the recent speeches by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary could be forgiven for thinking that this part of the reform—the issue of powers for national parliaments—was as evanescent as the smile on the Cheshire Cat. If so, that would be a major error. If we are to make progress, we surely need a broad-based, positive reform agenda that takes account of the views of all member states—not one that is tailor-made to the pressures from the UK Independence Party, which, in any case, is not the slightest bit interested in anything that leaves the UK as a member of a reformed European Union—and a reformed EU is, after all, the Government’s proclaimed objective. I hope that the Minister can give us a feel for the answers to those questions.
My Lords, I join those who have paid a real tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for the leadership that he provides to the work of the committee and its sub-committees—and to the House as a whole for considering these matters. This report is profound and interesting; it raises major issues and deserves the close attention it is receiving in this debate.
There is a paradox, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, made reference to it. We are all concerned about the accountability of the Commission but it should not become a ritual for us in this House to have an exchange with the Government about our frustrations about the too-many occasions when papers do not arrive in time for proper consideration and analysis. This is a major fault in the way in which we operate. I am getting rather tired of Ministers appearing opposite and saying how sorry they are, and how determined they are to work with officials in ensuring that the delays can be overcome. It never happens. It goes on and, in many ways, gets worse. There is a sort of arrogance in the machinery of government here that must be overcome, because the committee work can be only as good as the information on which it is operating—and this means excellent communication between departments and the committees.
In relation to that, if there is to be a future for the European Union—and I suspect that everyone in this Chamber on this occasion believes that the EU is indispensable and must have a future—it will be a healthy future only if there is a real sense that the member countries and their Governments belong to, are part of, and engage in that community. If too many countries and Governments—and I am afraid that the United Kingdom is a prime culprit in this context—are sort of on sufferance in the community and all the time wanting to tell their electorates and public how they are battling for the interests of their own people against this menacing and octopus-like operation in Brussels, we are not going to have a strong future. We have to belong. In the context of belonging, we must have the accountability about which we are speaking in this debate. Accountability’s muscle depends in the end on being aware of a widely based public opinion in member countries that this whole business is relevant to them—that they have an interest in it and want to ensure that those who claim to represent them are therefore playing the dynamic part that they should be playing.
Very often, the scrutiny that takes place goes on in spite of any feeling of public engagement. The public have come to see the European affair—the institutions of Europe; if they see them at all—as an elitist, closed community of those who are playing the European game. I am not sure that the public are totally wrong about that. Those institutions have become elitist, and those of us who have been involved in Europe in one way or another have become part of that reality. We have to re-engage with the public as a whole.
In that respect, I have a suggestion to make about our work in our sub-committees. We do not give the priority that we should give to ensuring that we get a social cross-section of witnesses coming to us when we are taking evidence. I have looked through the reports of one committee after another, and too often we are talking to members of our own political and social elite in Britain, with their views. It is important to talk to people who are in the front line of the reality of how society is or is not functioning, and about what the frustrations are. That means that a great deal more hard thinking has to go into considering: is this bunch of witnesses that we have assembled really representative of Britain and the people who are dealing with the consequences of the policies agreed in Europe? There is a real need for us to tackle that; and I cannot emphasise that too strongly.
I was particularly interested by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, which was refreshing and challenging. It raised certain issues, of course. Would it not be nice if we were not starting from where we are? Historians may well find it interesting to consider why we went for a directly elected European Parliament. When I was Minister of State at the Foreign Office, we were in the period of transition. I was uneasy about what was happening then because it seemed to me that among our own parliamentary body in Britain we were going to lose a degree of direct engagement in the affairs of the European Union. As happened then, people went from our Parliament to the European assembly and reported back to our Parliament. It was a broader basis of engagement. Parliament, through that process, was enabled and encouraged to see the relevance of what was going on in Europe to Parliament’s immediate affairs. Similarly, there are parliamentarians in the directly-elected European Parliament who are not as close to the reality of politics and frustrations of public policy, its implementation and contradictions as the people within the political system, whether British, French, German or whatever. That is an unfortunate divide. I do not see the clock being put back but we have to face up to it.
That takes us into another, much more profound, issue. As I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, she provoked me into thinking about it again, and it is not the first time that I reflected upon it. Perhaps we would have had a stronger Europe if we had gone for a more confederal Europe, as distinct from a federal Europe. The reality that we are coming up to is one in which we want a Europe of nation states that co-operate; that is the implication of everything that we are discussing; we want agreement between nation states. That is a sensible reality. Unfortunately, institutions that were established were much more in the context of a federal Europe. We have to face that and debate that. Furthermore, we have to ensure that our Governments, of whatever persuasion, are taking that ongoing reality seriously, because we need perhaps to get back to the confederal approach. I say that as a passionate pro-European.
It has been a very interesting debate so far. What I am more convinced about than ever is that we have to work at accountability. It is not just a matter of finding arrangements for better communication; it is a matter of politicians in different countries being able to work together, seeing much more of each other and developing a common demand of Ministers and the rest. It is also a matter of making sure that British society—a cross-section of British society at all levels—is drawn into our own work and feels that our work is relevant and that they can have a say in what we are doing.
My Lords, I also begin by felicitating the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on his powerful speech. He has presided over the work of the Europe Union Committee with great distinction and great force. What he had to say at the beginning is, in principle, what the Minister has to reply to.
The public are largely unaware of the detail of what the European Union is doing. It seems to me that the Government have some responsibility for this and that we, as Members in Parliament, should engage more directly in giving indications of what is happening. If it were clear what was happening, I believe that the public would be much more supportive of the European Union than they are at present.
I was very proud to be a member of the committee that drafted the report. We have received a government response to it which is broadly sympathetic to the recommendations of the committee. However, I regret that the Government said, in their answer to the question about the scrutiny of what would happen at Council meetings:
“In practice a pre-European Council session would be of limited value given that the Minister would be unable to disclose the details of UK negotiating aims publicly and that the agendas, and certainly the details, of such meetings are often finalised at the last minute”.
If the Government respect the role of the national parliament in the European Union, it should—and it does now—disclose broadly what is to be discussed at the European Council meetings. It would provide an opportunity for Parliament to express its views, which the Government could take into account in their negotiations. I wholly accept that diplomacy may lead to bargaining or to changes of agenda at the last minute, but broadly it is known what European Councils are about to discuss, and it would be helpful if the advisers included the parliament itself.
However, the involvement of national parliaments in the business of the European Union is quite strongly supported by the Government. I particularly want to refer to the green card process. That seems to be an innovative suggestion, which could lead to a greater recognition of the national interests, particularly if it is backed by the requisite number of other national parliaments and Governments. It is preferable having to table reasoned opinions, which may lead to yellow cards, a process that has not so far been effective, as was mentioned earlier in the debate. It is vital that the national parliaments, reflecting the needs and opinions of the public, are engaged at a very early stage in the legislative process; I think that is really beyond dispute, certainly in this House. It is encouraging that the new Commission has indicated that it would be responsive to national parliamentary opinion.
What is most lacking at present is the procedure for bringing forward the recommendations of this committee. The Government have indicated that they approve, broadly, of what we have said. So far, however, they have not given us any indication of how they might render those innovations effective. That is something that cannot be left entirely to the national parliaments themselves, although we have the power to open up discussions with other national parliaments, and no doubt we will do that. But the Government have influence, through Council meetings, on this sort of development, and I would very much like to hear how the Government propose to exercise that influence. It is a complex business for a parliament to negotiate with 27 other parliaments and with the Commission. We do not have an institutional arrangement that can facilitate these matters, but, as has been said already, modern technology enables us to get our views across and to engage with individuals. I totally agree with the proposal that we should get much closer to individual serving Members of the European Parliament, the Commission and even other Governments.
It might be possible to invite COSAC to consider these proposals in a special session. The agenda would need proper predetermination, and I think that it would be responded to positively. The present agendas of COSAC, referred to in the report, are unsatisfactory in that too often Governments talk de haut en bas, and the Commission talks de haut en bas to the members, and they do not allow time for adequate consideration to be given to the reactions of national parliaments.
The issue of this Parliament’s resources has been raised in the report and there has been some uncertainty about the Government’s response. I do not think we have made a sufficiently strong declaration about how we can be informed about what is happening in the European Union, or on how to convey our opinions on what is happening to the other members. We have a very effective Member speaking for our national Parliament in Brussels; she is an extraordinarily capable person and helps very considerably. However, because there are so many functions in that job, it might be reasonable to have more than one person: to have someone who engages with other member countries and other Members of the European Parliament on what the Commission is doing, and who keeps in very close touch with those whom our representative seeks to assist.
One of the basic problems of our membership of the European Union is the lack of interest of our electors. I do not mean this Chamber’s electors, but the electors in this country. That is, in part, the fault of a defective press and an inadequate media response to what is going on. Too often the reports are negative; too often the positives are not even ventilated. I hope that the BBC might engage to a greater extent with Members of the European Parliament, with members of the committee and generally with the issues, so that voting does not generally decline.
I conclude by reporting that the Government have stated, in their response, that they are,
“keen to work with Parliament to strengthen the system further”.
I hope that when my noble friend the Minister comes to respond to the debate, he will indicate in what ways that can be done.
My Lords, the idea of strengthening the role of national parliaments in the EU looks, on the surface, fairly obvious. The EU has gradually acquired additional competency and the Lisbon treaty, while giving more power to the European Parliament, has not led, as was intended—as we were reminded by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—to a parallel development between the Commission and the parliaments of member states. However, the more I read about subsidiarity and reasoned opinions—I have to acknowledge early training in the old Sub-Committee E under the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and our very patient legal adviser Mike Thomas—the more technical and legalistic are the arguments behind these Lisbon concepts and the related solutions. Today, for my own self-preservation among other things, I propose to step back to try to understand the view of the ordinary citizen.
To the UK public, Europe is still the continent: it is a vast bureaucratic union opposite our southern shores, which sends us regulations and with which we have to do business. People do not feel that they truly belong to it. It is a power bloc with which we need to trade and only an older minority—like most of us here—feel the emotion of solidarity since 1945, which bound the original founding fathers. The undoubted advantages of the single market and of political co-operation escape the ordinary citizen. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is right that we can correct that in time, although I have my doubts.
The more visible agenda is the athletic political stance of our Prime Minister, for whom there has to be a degree of sympathy. He has quite rightly aligned himself with reform and a gradual repatriation of national sovereignty. However, being British, he is also a bit of a loner: he stands out at EU summits—not unlike Mrs Thatcher before him—as an independent but somewhat isolated figure defending the nation of shopkeepers, while for some he can even be a source of fun or irritation. With his left hand he has to hold on to his coalition partner; with the other, as we approach the election, he is making increasing overtures to the right wing of his party and to potential defectors.
We all know the Prime Minister to be a pro-European at heart, but does he have what has been called a “Lust für Europa”? Is the UK still enjoying the luxury of not having been invaded in the last war? Can we overcome our island mentality, which makes us permanently different, difficult and ready to criticise, or do we have to make a virtue of it? Some of us were in Berlin a fortnight ago. We heard German Members of Parliament from the two Bundestag committees imploring us to stay in the EU to support a strong EU line against Russia, which is desperately needed at the moment. But why should they think we would leave the EU? Are we so aloof that we must continue to keep them guessing?
Political manoeuvring with the referendum and treaty change explains some, but not all, of this. I recognise that reform has been too sluggish. There were tactical arguments, for example, behind the recent opt-outs and opt-back-ins. I acknowledge that the UK is, in practice, an equal partner in the legislative sense. We take a lead in EU scrutiny through a range of committees, as I can see at first hand. Since the recession, there has also been a lot of alarm about the eurozone and whether there will be a two-tier Europe, but because of our strong financial position we have remained in that discussion. That is all good. Nevertheless, despite all that, I look forward to the day that we can pass on the role of prima ballerina to someone else.
Turning to subsidiarity, I have studied the two very helpful reports by the University of Copenhagen and the Tweede Kamer. The Danish analysis is fascinating, showing how national parliaments have suffered from disempowerment since Lisbon. We should all be encouraged by the acceleration of decision-making and the rapid rise of genuine early agreements in the European Parliament, which accounted for two-thirds of adopted proposals in 2012. However, this means that, as national parliaments, we need to do much more pre-legislative scrutiny. As has been said, we need to question Ministers before Council meetings as well as after. The Commission’s response shares this view and says that,
“very few national parliaments make their views known”,
at an early stage. That is very surprising. The voice of concerted national parliaments surely must be heard on the most important issues—yellow and green cards have been mentioned. As a member of the Select Committee, I was equally amazed and frustrated that the legally required number of reasoned opinions on the EPPO was still not enough to jog the Commission into action.
This attitude will surely change under President Jean-Claude Juncker. After all, he has promised to raise the profile of national parliaments and we must keep him to his word—whatever the Prime Minister’s view of his method of election, he will certainly find allies in this House on that subject. Perhaps he will pick up the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, for a new Commissioner for Parliaments. I hope that he will.
Apart from that, the Tweede Kamer report sensibly recommends a more active stance in interparliamentary co-operation. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, went into that, but I do not think we made enough of it in our report. It is not easy, as has been said, and it can only work on single issues that draw like-minded parliaments and connected Members of the European Parliament together. Our Select Committee has discussed how that might be done in relation to reasoned opinions. One obvious practical suggestion is that the two UK Houses should increase their present liaison staff in Brussels. Strengthening the Commons Select Committees has also been mentioned, as has mainstreaming. Another solution is, of course, improving COSAC, which is a very long-term project. That could become a less formal and more flexible institution, although that also has its limitations.
It is often said that this House operates a better system of scrutiny and reporting than, shall we say, most other EU chambers. Should we therefore reach out a little further into Europe and hold seminars on topical issues of subsidiarity that might attract MPs and MEPs from other nations? The imperative in the EU always seems to be aiming for uniformity, but we already have disunity. We have natural coalitions with the Dutch and Germans. We could, for example, work more closely with Poland and the more recent EU members in eastern Europe.
I have said enough, but I stand by the recommendations in our report and I hope that they attract a much wider readership throughout the EU. The Government already mainly agree with us and the Minister is bound to say that this is a matter for Parliament. All the same, I am sure that he will be more generous than that and I look forward to what he is going to tell us.
My Lords, no one who has heard the debate this evening can be under any illusion that the topic we are discussing is not very important. I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and his committee on the work they have done.
It was about 30 years ago when I began my involvement in political life when I stood as a candidate in the European elections in County Durham. It was not an especially glorious chapter as I got beaten by 55,000 votes, but it was a start. Nevertheless, even though I was inexperienced then I appreciated that the European Community, as it then was, was a sui generis type of institution that shared systems of government from both parliamentary and diplomatic traditions. It seemed to me that there were only two reasons for this. First, and we sometimes forget this when we are debating these things, different parliaments in different countries operate in really quite different ways. Secondly, the scale of what was involved was much smaller and seemed to be more aligned with what diplomacy traditionally did.
Of course, it is 30 years on now and the world has changed and the European Union with it. Economic integration, improved transport and communications and movement of people have changed the way people live and work not only in the Union but right round the globe. The role of the European Union has become functionally much more akin, it seems to me, to what states traditionally used to do than was the case then. At the same time, the diplomatic attributes of the EU’s modus operandi are much less prominent than they used to be. I am very glad that the member states are still the principal building blocks of this institution but we need to be clear that as the world changes the way in which nation states—and in the case of the European Union member states—work is going to have to evolve. One of the difficulties is that the role of national parliaments has not evolved in the same way as the European Economic Community became the European Community and then the European Union.
I should like to turn briefly to the report itself and break it down and focus on some of its themes. Scrutiny is perhaps the most prominent theme and is still probably the most important attribute of the engagement of national parliaments. I agree here very much with my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, who said a number of wise and sensible things. One of the most wise and sensible was that scrutiny of Ministers in the Council of Ministers should be enhanced. Certainly I had a brief spell when I was a departmental Minister of going to the Council of Ministers and nobody wanted an account from me about anything I was doing. From a purely personal point of view it was one of the most exhilarating parts of my political career. I think one brief discussion with my Secretary of State over a cup of coffee was the whole measure of it. I have wondered against this background whether Parliament as a whole might not be wise to revisit its general approach to European matters, which was put in place by Sir John Foster several decades ago.
I was also interested in the point made in the report about wider, less specific formal scrutiny, because in recent years most of the work I have done in this House has been with the Communications Committee and the Extradition Law Committee. That work has suggested to me that there may frequently be important European aspects that take a bit of digging out. I am particularly thinking of the significance of competition policy and regulatory policy in the context of media markets and communications—because I spent 10 years in the European Parliament I probably was more conscious of these aspects than many other Members.
I turn now to what might be described as the personal institutional engagement that could be enhanced between the Commission, Parliament, COSAC and so on. The idea is absolutely excellent but the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is right that the problem is finding the time to do it because the laws of physics are still such that you cannot be in two places at once. I listened with very great interest to my Cumbrian neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, but when I was in the European Parliament—and you could do it then—I had the dual mandate. Given the workloads that apply in each of the two places I simply do not think it is possible to revert to doing that in the old way. Therefore, it is dangerous and misleading to try to overplay and over-rely on the ability of individuals, whether MPs or Peers, to engage fully in very extensive ongoing dialogue, because of their other commitments—although I add the proviso that it would depend on whether the way Parliament works changes or not, and I will touch on that briefly in a moment.
Like a number of noble Lords, I think that the reasoned opinion provision is an interesting and radical development, because on a very small scale it gives national parliaments a place in the legislative process. That is very important and something that should be worked on. The report said that there was no interest in treaty change; we have touched on it this evening. However, despite protestations to the contrary, the kind of changes that are being called for across Europe are such that certainly in the old days I doubt they could have been put into effect without treaty change—although, speaking for myself, if clever lawyers can find ways round, good luck to them.
In recent years, much of the background to the discussion and focus on the role of national parliaments in the European political system has been based, as has been said, on concerns about the European Union’s democratic deficit and its lack of popular legitimacy. This was a point the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, raised. However, we in Parliament need to be very conscious of some of the criticisms that have been levelled against Westminster recently. An awful lot of the traditional criticism of the European Union we now hear levelled against us here. It may follow from that that, as time goes by, our own terms of reference change. It seems to me inevitable that the role of national parliaments, and indeed the part that member states can play in a globalising interdependent world, are inevitably going to change and we no longer here have a Parliament set in a world that would be familiar to a Bagehot or a Dicey. Therefore, when we look forward we must tailor our thinking to what we recognise as the likely shape of the world as it will become.
Finally, I cannot recall any House of Lords report so enthusiastically endorsed by the Government. I have to admit that that makes me a bit concerned. However, it suggests that they too are finding the wider world a very perplexing place at present. I suggest that they might endorse their general stance in these matters by prioritising the importance of scrutiny and Ministers making themselves available for scrutiny as their number one priority.
My Lords, as a member of the European Union Select Committee at the time of the preparation of this report, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, both for his comprehensive introduction of the report and for his guidance and chairmanship during the inquiry. It goes without saying that I support the conclusions and recommendations in the report. I want to emphasise one particular aspect of the report, express a concern and put two matters on the record, not so much to Ministers as to the usual channels and parliamentary authorities.
The aspect that I wish to emphasise is the need for enhanced contact and working with the European Parliament and its members. If our scrutiny is to be effective and we wish to try to ensure that our views are reflected in the final version of European Union legislation, it is vital that we build relationships with the chairmen of committees, the rapporteurs and, indeed, the spokesmen and spokeswomen of the important political groups in the Parliament. It is important, too, to remember that the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees are there not just to scrutinise the draft EU legislation but, as many Members have said today, to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account in the way that they approach these matters.
Co-decision presents us with significant challenges in knowing what may happen at various stages—particularly the first reading deals, referred to in the report. We need robust systems which will enable us further to scrutinise measures when substantial changes have been made to the proposal originally scrutinised. Agreements as to working practices between the European Parliament, the Council, the Commission and other national parliaments are what are required, not treaty changes, and these will, I believe, be easier to achieve when personal relationships are established.
The concern that I have is this: a national parliament’s view of a greater role for national parliaments may be rather different from that of a national Government, which may espouse the cause of greater power for national parliaments. I believe that we have to be careful to ensure that national Governments, including our own, do not seek a greater role for parliament if the motivation for that greater role is to use a whipped majority to support a government view as a way of circumventing the decision-making processes of the treaties. To do that in the extreme will lead to a slower and less efficient decision-making process in the European Union and undermine the position of the European Parliament.
The so-called democratic deficit will not be solved just by national parliaments and national Governments proclaiming themselves to be the only keepers of the democratic flame in the European Union. There is a real role for the European Parliament, and I am pleased to say that the report recognises this. We in the United Kingdom do not always help to dispel that deficit. There has in recent months been much questioning of the candidacy of Mr Juncker as Commission President, with it being said that we in the UK knew nothing about the campaign during the European elections and that therefore the positions adopted by the parties in the European Parliament were somehow irrelevant and not justified. But, quite simply, we did not engage in the way of the other member states. There was election literature in all the languages of the European Union and there were televised debates. Of course, I have to say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that the United Kingdom Government could have had an input into the choice of right-of-centre candidate had the Conservative Party still been associated with the European People’s Party.
My last points I address to the parliamentary authorities and the usual channels, and perhaps, in their absence, to Treasury Ministers, as there are not many pies in which they do not have a finger. Relationships with the European Parliament, the Commission and national parliaments are important, and many of the proposals in this report require resources in terms of staff and Members’ time. I do not believe that those relationships can be built initially just with video links. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, said, people need to meet people—at least initially. So, although I am not advocating a merry dance around the capitals and parliaments of the European Union, I believe in those personal contacts.
Likewise, the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees cannot carry out the work of scrutiny and holding the Government to account without the necessary support. We have very great support through the committee and its sub-committees but it would be a brave individual who suggested that in some way there was any element of slack in that support.
My last point will, I fear, not be heeded because it would involve a change of a decision already made by the House and is likely to be dismissed as special pleading, but I put it nevertheless. The proposal which has been agreed regarding length of service on a committee, and particularly the decision to treat the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees as one—and the retrospective nature of that decision—will, I understand, mean that some two-thirds of the existing members will no longer be able to serve for at least two Sessions of the next Parliament. Of course, I accept what my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham, said—that there is a need to involve as many Members in EU matters as possible, and that it be seen to be a part of mainstream politics and not a specialist interest. It is regrettable perhaps that today, as the noble Baroness described it, only the usual suspects are present.
Nevertheless, having said all that, I believe that the Select Committee, under both its current chairman and his distinguished predecessors, has built an enviable reputation across the European Union. That is at least in part due to the fact that a body of knowledge of issues and people has been built up over the years and members have acquired experience in a wide variety of different areas of EU activity. There is a corporate memory which may well be lost with the rapid turnover which is now to become the norm. I hope that someone may think again on that issue.
My Lords, my first point, which others have made before me this evening, is that the role of national parliaments and the role of the European Parliament do not constitute a zero-sum game. An increase in the powers of one does not imply a decrease in the powers of the other. The EU is a highly complex set of institutions, with shifting relations between them. The European Parliament has a key role, as is evidenced by the amount of time and money that lobbyists—including lobbyists in this country—spend seeking to influence it. On some issues, such as the environment, NGOs see it as a powerful force for good. Perhaps I may say in parentheses that I was delighted to hear on the “Today” programme this morning a representative of the RSPB—of which I am delighted to be a member, along with more than 1 million of my countrymen—paying tribute to the wild birds directive for helping the great bittern to boom and flourish in the wetlands of our country.
Yet, despite the booming bittern, there is no doubt that for many—indeed, I suspect, for most—citizens of the EU, national parliaments are seen, and in my view will continue to be seen, as the fundamental guarantor of the democratic process, despite the shifting views of our national parliaments, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. I think I am right in saying that in every single European Union country, national elections count for more than European elections. Given the recent quite dramatic growth through much of the EU in disenchantment with the EU and its institutions, as shown in the last European Parliament elections, it is of very great importance for the continued democratic legitimacy of the EU as a whole that the role of national parliaments should be clear, should be well understood and should be increased.
It follows that the British Government are surely absolutely right to emphasise the need to increase the role of national parliaments as part of the reforms they would like to see to the EU and its institutions. As others before me tonight have said, there is much that can be done in that regard without treaty change.
Equally, the Government’s hand will be greatly strengthened in their negotiations with other member states if they are seen by their EU colleagues to be taking their own EU scrutiny responsibilities seriously. Of course, very often they do—but, to take just one example and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, the Home Office’s rather cavalier approach to its scrutiny obligations in respect of police and judicial co-operation seems not only to be wrong in itself but to prejudice the Government’s broader objective of winning their partners’ support for a stronger role for national parliaments within the EU structures. I look forward to the Minister’s assurance that this was only an aberration.
That does not mean that there is no scope for streamlining the scrutiny process, for example over the depositing of documents. This should be reviewed jointly by both Houses and by the Government—but, in the mean time, it is hugely important that the Government take their own scrutiny obligation seriously.
I agree with one point that was stressed by the Government: the need for a more systematic approach to scrutiny during the recess. EU business, particularly the foreign affairs issues considered by Sub-Committee C, does not stop between August and October, and should still be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Some way needs to be found to ensure that this happens, perhaps by means of an ad-hoc committee drawn from the Select Committee itself and the different EU sub-committees, which could meet from time to time during the recess.
I will make only two other points, one of which is procedural and the other substantive. The procedural point is to endorse the idea that the National Parliament Office in Brussels should be strengthened. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on that, and I echo his point that it is in no way at all a reflection on the quality of the present incumbent. The point is simply that if the role of national parliaments among the Brussels institutions is to be strengthened, we do need to find some way to have a stronger link between national parliaments and the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. I very much hope that that can be pursued.
Finally, I strongly support the strengthening of the reasoned opinion procedure, in particular the extension of the scope of the procedure to include proportionality. There is a need to ensure that the Commission takes seriously its duty to review a proposal when a yellow card is issued—again, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. This should not be seen as giving way in an institutional battle between the Commission and national parliaments, to the detriment in some way of the European Parliament. It should surely be seen as a way of assuring national parliaments—and, through them, those who vote for them—that the concerns of citizens really are being taken into account and listened to, thereby strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU as a whole. That is surely what we all agree is needed.
My Lords, I thank the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell in particular, for the excellent work that they have done in this report. It has been an urgent and necessary task to look at, and to try to do something about bridging, the gap between the legislatures and the public. That is certainly true in terms of EU legislation and the citizens of the European Union. The distance between elected representatives and the public is certainly a problem. It is a problem for the European Parliament. It is probably fair to say that, in general, people relate more readily to national parliaments, so how national parliaments relate to EU law is absolutely critical. It is worth taking note of the wise words of my noble friend Lord Judd in terms of how we engage people beyond the usual suspects and try to go beyond the elite when we are taking evidence. That may go some way to bridging that gap.
I served 15 years as a Member of the European Parliament. I can tell noble Lords that during that time, the Lords European Union Committee was the best example that we had of how national parliaments interacted with the process of EU legislation. Yes, there were some good examples in Holland and Denmark as well, but the fact that this House took that responsibility seriously was noted. It therefore makes sense that your Lordships’ committee is the group that comes up with practical reasons for why national parliaments perhaps find difficulty in influencing EU debates and provides some constructive suggestions about how some of those problems can be overcome.
The report recognises that national parliaments have a dual responsibility in relation to EU law, not just in scrutinising their own Government’s positions on EU policy, but in influencing more directly EU institutions and proposed laws. The authors have correctly identified that a national parliament holding its own Government to account for its EU policy positions can be done now. It is a matter of the will of parliamentarians and of their Governments to effect that will. As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, the UK has to put its own house in order when it comes to this.
It is worth noting that the House of Commons Library reported that the number of laws influenced or based on EU law varies between 15% and 50%, depending on the definition. Knowing that, does Parliament have the balance correct in terms of the time and resources set aside to scrutinise these laws, given the number and quantity of laws emanating or being influenced by Brussels? Let us be clear. These laws are not decided by Brussels: they are proposed by Brussels. No EU law is passed without the UK Government having been involved in detailed discussions in terms of the outcomes. But the Government need to be held to account by Parliament on their position in relation to EU law.
A point not picked up in the report is the fact that it would be extremely difficult for some Parliaments, including the UK Parliament, to keep up with legislative scrutiny of EU laws, as we sit for only 30 weeks a year, compared with the 45 weeks a year that the European Parliament sits. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Judd. We need therefore to take seriously this point of prioritising the laws on which to focus.
Some of the major decisions that are made in the EU, which set the political direction and tone for various debates and forthcoming EU laws, are made, as has been pointed out, in the European Council meetings. The suggestion by the committee of holding pre-Council scrutiny meetings to feed into government preparations, rather than holding them afterwards, makes eminent sense. However, due to the fact that the Government are by definition entering into a negotiation, we understand the need to be sensitive to the view that requiring the Government to disclose their negotiating plan in public would not necessarily be in the interests of the UK. But that does not mean that they cannot listen, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, suggested.
Is not the simple solution to this problem that these pre-decision scrutiny sessions should, where necessary or when the Government so desire, be held in private? I understand that that works in Denmark. There is no problem with leaks and the system works perfectly well as a result.
That makes a lot of sense. As long as there is an understanding that sessions are held in camera, I see no problem. But accountability pre-scrutiny and pre-Council makes sense. It is something that we should perhaps take up.
In terms of influencing EU institutions more directly during the process of elaborating legislation, the process becomes more complicated. For me, one of the problems when reading the House of Lords European Committee reports as an MEP was that, despite their brilliance, they would almost invariably be published after the law had been passed. Although there were some gems in there, in terms of critiques of EU directives, they were too late to influence the debate—which is why that pre-legislative scrutiny by national parliaments would be invaluable.
Analysing the Commission’s work programme would be an obvious way of ensuring a degree of pre-scrutiny, and it should become a core task—as has been suggested—of the whole Parliament and all the relevant Select Committees, rather than the preserve of EU committees. Furthermore, will the Minister comment on how we get a degree of consistency, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Quin? How do we ensure that there is a systematic approach to thorough, ongoing analysis by subject committees?
It is also essential that policymakers have a thorough understanding of the legislative processes of the EU institutions. In my experience, that was not obvious, even—dare I say it?—when dealing with some of the UK Ministers involved. So, mainstreaming, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, mentioned, is critical.
The committee’s suggestions for tightening up the reasoned opinion procedure make sense, and the fact that only two yellow cards have been given since the introduction of that system suggests that the hurdles may be too high. I note, however, that the expectation that the Commission should respond within a set timeframe is possible only if resources are provided. Imagine the resources involved in giving a comprehensive response to the 2,000 written contributions made since the Barroso initiative was introduced. There were 33,000 members of staff in the Commission last year. Let us compare that with the number of staff employed in the Department for Work and Pensions: 90,000. Just imagine the extra burden on the administration in answering 28 member state parliaments within a tight timeframe. Something would have to give; something would have to be prioritised. We need to be sensitive to that when we are asking for these things.
National parliaments, however, need to learn how, and when best, to influence the EU legislative process. It is worth considering the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, of an annual get-together, but more relevant is a real understanding of how influential individual MEPs can be, particularly those who lead and formally shadow debates and who navigate the directives through the legislative process—that is, the rapporteurs. They are extremely influential, so identifying who they are and communicating with them at the appropriate time would be as impactful as trying to convince 28 different EU member states to take up an alternative position. There is no inconsistency in saying that national parliaments, as well as the European Parliament, should be involved in developing EU laws. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I must say that I am disappointed to read that the real source of democratic legitimacy in the EU lies with national parliaments, according to the Government’s response to the report.
As the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, suggested, it is worth thinking about some of the ideas put forward. I fully endorse the point that the Conservatives have cut off their own influence in the EU by ceasing to be a member of the largest political group. It is worth considering the idea of a commissioner for national parliaments and European parliaments, but I warn that there is a danger that the job might be seen to have been done, and therefore the departmental commissioners might not take their responsibilities seriously in relating to national parliaments.
With such turmoil in the eurozone, the reality is that the public across the whole of Europe have learnt that financial and economic policy emanating from the EU is impacting on us all both directly and indirectly, whether through the massive austerity measures that have caused such savage cuts in our public services, or through reduced demand for our export goods. Therefore, national parliaments should take a more systematic approach to the surveillance of this policy area in particular.
On behalf of the Opposition, I thank the European Union Committee for its work on this report. It is essential that it is disseminated not just in our Parliament, but in parliaments throughout the European Union.
My Lords, this has been a rich debate which has ranged widely from the lack of a European demos to the future of Britain’s role in the European Union, to the popular disenchantment with the European institutions across much of the EU to the role of COSAC. Having read the report and having listened to the first two or three speeches, I must say that I was beginning to think that COSAC had improved enormously since I was last a member. Then I heard the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, almost say that it might take another generation before COSAC becomes an effective body. I remember eating very well when I went to COSAC and some of the discussions were useful. However, all that was a long time ago, and I am sure that it has improved a great deal.
The British Government do accept that the European Parliament, the British Parliament and other national parliaments have complementary roles. We absolutely insist as part of our proposal for European reform that national parliaments need to be more actively engaged and that relying on the European institutions alone to provide legitimacy is no longer acceptable, possible or publicly achievable. We all know about the negative image of the European Union—the image that UKIP puts out that the EU is attempting to accumulate more and more powers in Brussels and has to be resisted so that power is pulled back. I am old enough to remember the old idea when I first went to meetings in Brussels and elsewhere when we were discussing joining the EU that it was there to replace national Governments. National Governments represented the old way and national parliaments were part of that. Jean Monnet, who hated the French National Assembly and was never himself a parliamentarian, believed that technocracy was much better and more efficient than democracy. There were those like Altiero Spinelli who had a passionate belief that the European demos was there, somehow, to be discovered, if only one worked hard enough for it.
We have discovered in the generations since then that it was not really there, that all politics remains local, and that the problems we are now facing are that while politics remains local, economics, finance and markets have become international and often global, security has become international and often global, and the gap is one that we are all struggling to fill. We also had a number of discussions about rivalry between the European Parliament and national parliaments, with the European Parliament sometimes claiming greater legitimacy because it represented the European demos. I recall one Member of the British Parliament attending the convention when the European Convention met and feeling from the start that she was being patronised by Members of the European Parliament. She became and she remains a rather sceptical Labour MP.
There is something of a Brussels bubble. We understand that Brussels does need a culture change, and I listened with interest to the optimism expressed about the new Commission, perhaps about the new European Parliament, and abort some of the new Commission officials. Again, I mark that we do not send enough British officials to the Commission for a whole range of reasons. I am glad that my own Government have reinstituted the European fast stream and are working to try to get more British officials to go through the concours and to come in as seconded national experts at all levels because that is part of the way we can change the culture of Brussels.
The Minister is making an extremely interesting point about the gap between the demos and the economics, as he put it. Is not the reason for that gap, which will always exist, that the Parliament will permanently be constrained by two things? The first is the European Court and the second is the treaty, which was the subject of a little discussion between me and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell.
With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, I was making a slightly different point, which is about the global market and global manufacturing. The fact that, for example, when the French sell an Airbus a third of the value added to that Airbus comes from British manufacturers, and that every time the Germans sell a Mercedes, it contains a large number of British components, means that markets have gone beyond the nation state but legitimacy has not. That is a fundamental, structural problem of the world in which we now live. I will not touch on the migration dimensions of that, but the security dimensions are also extremely difficult. That leaves us with a set of dilemmas which are not solvable and which we have to cope with.
A number of noble Lords made the point about the resources and time required. Resources are needed for scrutiny, as the report suggests. If we are setting up for national parliaments to be more closely in touch with each other, that requires a good deal of travel and time. One noble Lord remarked—it may have been the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood—that, in some ways, a European Parliament that was drawn directly from national parliaments was more appropriate. However, it did not work before 1979, partly because national parliamentarians are elected to serve constituents in their national parliament and the more time we expect them to spend elsewhere, the less time they will have to do their primary job. So there is a set of real problems there.
I noticed, as a member of the Government talking to newly elected MPs—there was a very large turnover in the British Parliament last time—that a great many newly elected MPs coming from outside politics had very little idea of the complexities of international negotiations in which we are engaged with other European parliaments, or of the contacts one needs to have with members of other national parliaments or, indeed, members of the same political family as yours in other Governments. They have learnt, but it takes time. After all, more and more of our parliamentary candidates, I saw in one newspaper at the weekend, are now being drawn from people who have established roots within their local constituency. They are not elected to Parliament because of their international experience and they are unlikely to get re-elected if they spend too much time travelling around Europe and beyond. That is one of the obstacles with which we have to deal.
The new Commission has signalled that it is open to a much more positive dialogue with national Governments. New President Juncker has stated this on a number of occasions; Vice-President Timmermans, as has been remarked, has made it very clear that this is one of his priorities. As a Minister in the Dutch Government beforehand, he was already heavily committed. Closer co-operation among national parliaments was mentioned by many noble Lords. The offices which we now have in Brussels are to be strengthened. It is a very good way of using Brussels as a means of communication that enables you to find out earlier what is going on, examine proposals at an earlier stage and talk among national parliaments about how one might use yellow cards—lowering the threshold. The green card question is a very interesting one which the Government will wish to consider. We are not yet committed. We note the proposal that the coverage of these mechanisms should be extended to cover proportionality as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, talked about first reading deals. One of the problems that the Government have in responding to that is the sheer complexity of a multilateral negotiating process, with co-decision with the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers coming in. The points at which national parliaments insert themselves into that process and how national parliaments keep up with that process is, again, part of the problem with which we all have to deal. Over the past year, as I have struggled with the EU balance of competencies exercise—a fascinating exercise—I have changed my mind on whether it would be useful for this Chamber also to examine other international organisations through which the British Government work. Time and time again in the EU balance of competencies exercise we have had evidence which has said, “We work through the EU on this, and we also work with OECD or the World Health Organization”. Indeed, the EU operates in some respects as a regional member of the World Health Organization in specific areas. Explaining that to the national public, as far as we can, and examining how effective those other international organisations are—most of them are a great deal less effective than the European Union—is perhaps also something which this Government might be able to achieve.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, remarked that perhaps it would be easier if we explicitly had a confederal Europe rather than a federal Europe. I thought the chapter in this report on economic governance was particularly interesting and difficult because the contradictions of where we have got to with international markets come in because you need some power to decide as soon as you have an integrated single market, let alone a common currency, and when you face a global economic crisis, the legitimacy to decide above the level of the nation state is not there. So we are again stuck with the problem that it is not possible to reconcile the principles of democratic accountability and legitimacy and the need to take these decisions among a range of different actors.
Is it not highly relevant here to recognise that in what the Minister is saying about what has happened to international finance, the real discussions that influence policy are going on in the G7 and places such as that? In this sense, it gives us room to reconsider the structures that built up before this was of such manifest significance.
My Lords, I suspect that any incoming British Prime Minister does not begin to understand just how much of his time he will now have to spend out of the country dealing with other Governments and so on. One of my very small roles within government has been trying to say, “No, the Deputy Prime Minister cannot go to that international conference, in spite of the fact that he speaks the language”, or whatever it may be. The pressure on Ministers to travel, particularly those in the British Government who have much more pressure to spend time being accountable in Parliament and to parliamentary committees than many of our counterparts, is among the real strains that I see our senior Ministers facing.
On consulting the public, I shall briefly remark on the balance of competences exercise. The final report will be published this Thursday. The two-year exercise has consulted British stakeholders on the single market and a range of other areas. We have had more than 2,000 pieces of evidence from a very wide range of organisations—economic think tanks and others—and have attracted contributions and evidence from more than two-thirds of the other member states.
One of the most pleasing aspects of it has been to hear people in other Governments saying, “This is a very useful exercise. We should do something like it ourselves”. People within the French Government, the Dutch Government, the Finnish Government and others have said the same. One of the small achievements of this coalition Government has been to consult widely on how far the current arrangements under the Lisbon treaty suit British business, British interests, British trade unions and others. I cherish the evidence from easyJet, which began, “If it were not for the European single market, easyJet would not exist”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, touched on the exchange of information between national parliaments and Brussels. I welcome her as someone who has made the transition from being a witness before committees of the House of Lords to being a Member of the House of Lords—a route that I remember transiting myself rather too long ago.
The question of how far we co-operate with other national parliaments raises some difficulties. There are other national parliaments with which we are in very close touch. There are others which do not have quite the same style or tradition. Two years ago I had lunch with the chair of the European affairs committee of a particular national parliament, who did not seem to have the sense that he should ever criticise his own Government or should disagree with their approach to Brussels. It was a rather surreal experience.
Some, however, are very active. I note, incidentally, from the table in Appendix 6 of the report that second chambers in several countries are much more active than first chambers. We are not the only ones who are able, because of our second-chamber status, to do what we can.
The European Union is, of course, a political system. How it works depends on how actively different institutions engage with it. We wish, as far as possible, to encourage other European parliaments to engage with us. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about the government response and how this fits in with the Government’s reform agenda. I remind him that the Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend Philip Hammond, is engaged in active conversations with other national Governments. He has so far visited 11 national capitals. The feedback he has been getting demonstrates very clearly that there is an achievable, broad-based reform agenda shared by many other Governments which does not require treaty change.
Indeed, other Governments are vigorously saying, “We can do this without treaty change”. It is achievable within the headroom provided by the Lisbon treaty, and it covers a stronger role for national parliaments, effective regulation, the budget, completion of the single market in areas such as services in which the obstacles come from Germany rather than from Britain and others, the digital single market and so on. We have an active reform agenda that we are pursuing.
Time is short, and I am sure that noble Lords would like their dinner before everything closes. I think that one has to stress the obstacles, such as travel requirements, yet again. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, suggested that one could spend more time visiting others. I am sure that the Daily Mail would take very careful note of the sort of hotels in which Members stayed. Again, all of these things require time and effort. If you do one thing, you cannot do another. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, suggested that we need to get ordinary people involved, not always members of the elite. Unfortunately, politicians by definition are part of the elite. We are not ordinary people, otherwise we would now be at home watching television or doing something else. Part of the underlying problem of democracy that we now have is that it is easy to decry those engaged in national, let alone international, politics as part of an elite.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I find what he says, as ever, very powerful, but I will give a practical illustration. When under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, we were doing a report on drugs in the European context, the noble Lord was at pains to make sure that we were hearing from people working with drug addicts on the front line. That is what I am talking about. It seemed to me that the remarks I was making were being addressed to us in the committees as distinct from the Government.
My Lord, I understand that, and I take that as read. Time is very short. I will therefore turn to government engagement with our Parliament and our committees which the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, mentioned in his opening. He made a number of strong remarks about the Home Office in particular and also about the Cabinet Office, which I will take back and to which we will respond in time.
I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that Ministers are delegates, as I think he said at one point. We all understand that we ask our Ministers to engage in a series of complicated negotiations. The importance there is to have a constant dialogue with Parliament and with parliamentary committees as to how far we can go.
This has been an extremely valuable debate. We all understand how vital is the question of restoring a sense of the electorate’s own membership of the European Union, and how difficult that is—as well as how much we hope that what we do in this Chamber and what is done in the other place and other national parliaments can help to rebuild a sense of legitimacy and accountability for the very necessary tasks that we ask the European Union to fulfil.
My Lords, this has indeed been a full and excellent debate, and I am grateful to noble Lords’ for both their personal generosity to me and for their contributions which, without exception, would repay further reflection and study. I am also grateful to the Minister for his response, which was characteristically thoughtful. I was encouraged by two points. The first was at the end of his remarks, when he in a sense acknowledged that all was not quite well with the Cabinet Office or the Home Office. I might say in parenthesis that that is not always confined to those two departments, and I would be grateful if he would take an active interest in making sure that that practice improves. The second point was that a number of us, either explicitly or implicitly, had expressed concern about the status of national parliaments vis-à-vis the European Parliament. It is very good to get from a Minister on the record in this place that they both have a democratic legitimacy and a role to play. That is a very good start.
I do not want to speak at length but just to pick out brief points from the discussion. In how I cast my remarks, I was anxious that we should open our eyes to the situation in Europe. By “we” I mean not only ourselves as a national parliament chamber here but the European institutions as well. It is incumbent on us all to avoid being baffled or bamboozled by technical complexity. That is inevitable in an institution of 28 member states dealing with some complex and often outward-looking technical issues. However, we need to look at the real situation that is going on. In terms of the references that have been made to relevance to the real world, I would report to the House that the most interesting conversation that I have had in the past year was with a young lawyer in Athens representing the Green Syriza opposition, who was entirely balanced in comment but whose eloquence and sense of anger and resentment was powerful—and you take that kind of thing home.
That leads me to my second point, which is the business of co-operation between national parliaments. Almost all of us who are elected—although we are not in this Chamber—or who in any case have a sense of democratic or legislative responsibility, should naturally want to work together. That could be in a whole variety of flexible configurations, sometimes between the usual suspects—the larger countries—and sometimes in geographic, regional groupings, interest rate groupings, maritime states and states large and small. There are plenty of configurations in which that can be done. It does not require treaty change to bring it about; it is a matter of just learning the habit of co-operation, as we say in our report.
My final point is that we need to change gear in relation to the European debate. Whether people come to this from a Eurosceptic viewpoint or from a more positive viewpoint, as I think that most of us do in this House, it must be in everybody’s interests to have a serious debate. Some of the concerns, and some of the reasons why I have been critical of the Government, have been that I fear some of the motivation in these debates has been driven by an element of fear or even cynicism, hoping that some of the problems would go away, rather than a readiness to move, as we will have to in the forthcoming and unfolding political context, into constructive and positive engagement with the issues. That must surely be in the interests of all of us and the citizens who we claim and have a duty to represent.
The hour is late and I will not test your Lordships’ patience longer by prolonging my remarks. This is a very serious issue, on which we need to move from words to action. In that spirit, I beg to move.