European Union (Amendment) Bill
Lord Howell of Guildford (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Conservative)
This amendment is on a specific and narrow point, and I hope that it will gain some approval and a clear exposition from Ministers. It concerns not the procedures of the past but the procedures of the future as presented as innovation in the Lisbon treaty embodied in the Bill. The concern is with the new provision that the President of the Commission—not the President of the Council, which is also a new feature in its extended form—should be elected by the European Parliament. The precise proposal is that the new Commission president should be nominated by the Council by qualified majority voting and then elected by a majority in the European Parliament, which brings that post and the candidature for it right to the heart of the lobbying, factions and political blocs in the European Parliament.
The Government very strongly opposed that change at the time of the convention that drew up the original constitutional treaty, and the words of the proposal here are identical. The Labour Minister at the time, Peter Hain, said:
"Another suggestion is for the European Parliament to elect the Commission President. However, I am sceptical of that idea. My concern is that such an independent figure, who must be acceptable to the member states through the Council, will get caught up in the politics of the European Parliament".—[Hansard, Commons, 20/3/03; col. 309WH.]
I could not have put it better, and it was a perfectly sensible concern. Attempts were made in the convention to delete the proposal, but I am afraid they failed. The reason Mr Hain was worried and why the Labour Government of yesterday were worried and fought not to have it in this treaty either is that they feared the outcome that the dominant EP party blocs, whatever they happened to be, would have the initiative in choosing a name, and the European Council would have to go along with that candidate. I know that our excellent European Union Select Committee report rather bravely thought that this would not stop the Council coming to its decisions, although it was very candid in adding,
"the practical consequences of the ... provisions are as yet unclear".
The lack of clarity is now beginning to dissolve, and there is already a campaign website from the European Parliament to announce its preferred candidate in what it calls, "the first European presidential election".
All that will please many people who want things to go that way and who believe that Europe is moving in the right direction; a prospect that many of us are not at all sure about. This is light years away from the Monnet ideal that the Commission would be a genuinely independent college of wise men and women standing clear of national party politics and lobbies. It also shifts power away from national Ministers and national Parliaments—again this may be welcome to some but not to me—in which we on this side have argued again and again that the modern European Union should have its powers properly anchored.
The European Parliament does an excellent job and many of its Members work extremely hard but it really cannot be said, except by a fantasist, that moving powers to the European Parliament somehow fulfils the Laaken dream—it is only an unfulfilled dream—of bringing the European Union and its works closer to the people. That is why Ministers fought strenuously against the idea when it first surfaced in the rejected constitutional treaty; but here it is now in identical words. We believe that it should not be there and that a wiser, better Europe would be less prone to be centralised in this way. I beg to move.