European Commission: National Parliaments

Deregulation Bill (Programme) (No.3) – in the House of Commons at 5:03 pm on 10 March 2015.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 5:03, 10 March 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
takes note of European Union Documents No. 12425/14, the 2013 Annual Report from the Commission on relations between the Commission and national parliaments, and No. 12424/14, the 2013 Annual Report from the Commission on subsidiarity and proportionality;
recognises the importance of the principle of subsidiarity and the value of stronger interaction between national parliaments and the EU Institutions;
deplores the failure of the outgoing Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship to respond to national parliaments’ concerns about the proposal to establish a European Public Prosecutors Office;
looks forward to the European Commission responding to the call of national parliaments and the European Council to strengthen national parliaments’ role in improving EU legislation;
and welcomes the Government’s commitment to increasing the power of national parliaments in EU decision-making by strengthening and, where possible, enhancing current provisions.

The motion stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who sadly cannot be with us because he is currently giving evidence before a Committee in the House of Lords. If he is unable to join us later, I will ensure that he is updated on the points raised.

Today’s debate relates to two European Commission annual reports for 2013—one on the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and the other on the EU’s relations with national Parliaments. The question of subsidiarity and proportionality goes to the heart of the debate that national Governments and Parliaments around Europe are having on reform of the EU. They are fundamental principles that govern whether the EU should act, and if so, how.

Evidence provided to the Government’s recently concluded balance of competences review found that the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality had not been sufficiently rigorously applied and that that had contributed to undermining the EU’s legitimacy. Where these principles are not rigorously applied, it can also cost British business billions. Let me provide one example from the balance of competences review. The CBI assessed in its evidence that the prescriptive requirements of the agency workers directive undermined subsidiarity and cost UK employers £1.9 billion a year, largely in compliance costs and red tape. These concerns need to be addressed, and it is incumbent on all EU institutions to make sure that the treaty-based principles are applied across all aspects of EU business and throughout the legislative process.

In that respect, I welcome the early signs from the new Commission that it is going to take subsidiarity and proportionality more seriously. First, Vice-President Timmermans, who was here last week, has a strong and explicit mandate to promote a new partnership with national Parliaments. During his visit, Mr Timmermans said that national Parliaments should be at the heart of the debate on democratic legitimacy, as a bridge between the EU and its citizens. So there should be no repeat of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office yellow card debacle, which neglected the legitimate concerns of national Parliaments. Mr Timmermans has the overarching power to veto any proposals that do not meet the requirements of subsidiarity and proportionality. That means a mandate to say no to other Commissioners, to say no to the European Parliament and to say no to outside lobbyists. I take heart from the fact that we have in this powerful new role somebody who has previously gone on the record to say that the guiding principle should be:

“Europe where necessary, but national where possible”.

The EU must follow this principle to begin to address the public disaffection in so many member states, in part derived from a sense that the EU has intervened in matters better dealt with by member states themselves.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said in this House only yesterday, the Government are encouraged that the new Commission work programme has jobs and growth at its core, but the real test will be whether the Commission delivers on the early, promising signs and puts subsidiarity, proportionality and better regulation at the very heart of its work.

The reports for debate today focus on the mechanisms available to national Parliaments to update the subsidiarity principle through the so-called yellow card mechanism and to influence Commission proposals through political dialogue. In 2013, national Parliaments submitted 88 reasoned opinions to the Commission, covering 36 different proposals. That represented an increase from 2012, when 70 reasoned opinions were issued, but the overall number remains low, and the Government are concerned about the reasons for that. We do not believe that it is because there are few subsidiarity concerns.

Year after year, most reasoned opinions have come from the same few parliamentary chambers, with the Swedish Riksdag being the consistent front-runner. Some parliamentary chambers have issued very few, or indeed none at all. Here, the record is that in 2013 the House of Commons issued five reasoned opinions and the House of Lords three. I agree with those who argue that the existing mechanisms laid down in the Lisbon treaty do not work well enough or go far enough, but I note that the disparity in the number of reasoned opinions submitted by different national Parliaments is striking, and I hope that all national Parliaments, both individually and through COSAC, reflect on whether there is more that they can do to make full use of their existing powers.

There are, as I have said, flaws in the system. The tight time limit of eight weeks from transmission of a proposal to issuing a reasoned opinion is difficult, and it does not allow sufficient time for national Parliaments to share information with each other, which we all know is crucial to delivering a yellow card. The scope and threshold of reasoned opinions required to trigger a yellow card are also factors. Parliaments should have explicit powers to issue reasoned opinions on more than just subsidiarity. The mechanism should be explicitly extended to proportionality, for example. Normally, a yellow card is triggered when reasoned opinions represent at least a third of national Parliaments, which means 19 votes. This threshold is clearly too high.

How, then, do we change the process? The Commission's response to the yellow card on the EPPO—the second ever—was unacceptable. It decided quickly, without additional evidence and despite Parliaments’ concerns, to proceed with the original proposal. Along with a number of Ministers from other countries, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe—who I am pleased to see in the Chamber—protested strongly to the Commission at the subsequent meeting of the General Affairs Council. As the Government have argued before, we believe that the EPPO controversy makes a case for the introduction of a red card, which would allow national Parliaments to come together to block an unwanted proposal permanently.

I welcome the initiatives that have been launched by national Parliaments across the EU which are pressing for a stronger role. Twenty-nine parliamentary committees from 22 member states have written to the President of the Commission calling for the establishment of a working group to consider a strengthening of their role, and Parliaments have produced many good ideas that the Government support. They include enhanced political dialogue with the Commission, the introduction of a green card allowing Parliaments to work together to recommend to the Commission either new legislation or the amendment or repeal of existing legislation, and a Dutch initiative for a late card, which would allow Parliaments to look at a proposal again at the end of the legislative process.

We will continue to press for those reforms, and, working with Parliament, will hold the new Commission to its promises.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:11, 10 March 2015

Last night we debated the similar issue of the Commission’s work programme for this year. The programme expresses commitments to better regulation and to focusing on the big things that the European Union needs to do, and that leads us to the issues of subsidiarity and proportionality. Over the years, there has been much talk in the European Union of subsidiarity—a concept whose origins lie in Catholic social teaching—but few would claim that the EU has abided by the notion that it should act only when it has to, and should otherwise leave things to the Governments of member states.

The Minister gave the example of the agency workers directive. In fact, the CBI reached an agreement with the TUC on that directive, and I think that the record should show their participation in order to present the complete picture.

As the Minister said, we are debating two reports, the one on subsidiarity and the one on relations with national Parliaments. They concern the interaction between the EU and national Parliaments, and, specifically, the use of reasoned opinions on EU proposals when, for instance, Parliaments come together to invoke the yellow card procedure—that is, to ask the Commission to think again about one of its proposals. According to the reports, 621 written opinions, including reasoned opinions, were submitted by national Parliaments in 2013, down slightly from 663 the year before. The most common subjects were the proposal to establish the European Public Prosecutor's Office, regulations covering the manufacture and sale of tobacco products, maritime spatial planning, access to ports, and matters relating to Europol. Opinions from 20 Parliaments were received on the EPPO proposals, of which 13 were reasoned opinions, triggering the yellow card procedure.

The European Scrutiny Committee has understandably voiced its frustration that the triggering of that procedure did not result in the Commission’s either withdrawing the proposal or changing it radically. That has, of course, prompted further debate about a range of different procedures going by the names of differently coloured cards—not just yellow but orange, red and even green cards, which will allow Parliaments to initiate proposals if they so wish. If a system is established whereby national Parliaments are given a voice and can come together to lodge reasoned opinions or objections, it is important that those objections are taken seriously and not simply ignored.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Let us say there is a really important issue to the British people which causes them to vote in a new Government who promise to do what they want on it, and then that Government are advised it is against European law. What right should this House have to say, “This is the will of the British people”?

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The procedures we are talking about here are in line with European law. I think what the right hon. Gentleman is driving at is the question of vetoes, and we do not have vetoes. It is important for clarity, as well as the political debate between us, to be clear that these yellow card procedures are not national Parliament vetoes of the kind he may be referring to, and there is a difference between the two.

The objections to the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office focused on the Commission’s own interpretation of subsidiarity, the comparison between the new proposals and the arrangements already in place and the question of whether this proposal would add value in combating fraud. The House of Lords has issued a report on this matter, and it gave the following verdict:

“We fear that under the Commission’s proposed model an EPPO enjoying exclusive competence for PIF crimes”— financial or fraud in the European Union crimes—

“would be in danger of being overwhelmed by its workload, and its structure would not be sufficiently robust to enable it to monitor its investigations and prosecutions in the Member States. We see a similar problem with the Presidency’s alternative proposal. The evidence we received on the proposed introduction of a collegiate structure into the EPPO overwhelmingly suggests that this would complicate the prosecution of these crimes even further.”

Its reservations about the proposal were clear, and we shared many of them, although for the sake of clarity and completeness I should say that that does not mean that we on the Opposition Benches object to all European involvement in matters of criminal justice. Without rehearsing debates in the House on the European arrest warrant—that may be to the relief of all—we believe that that measure does have a useful role to play in combating crime both here and elsewhere in the EU.

Following all these exchanges and the rejection of the yellow card procedure by the Commission, there have been proposals from a number of Parliaments, including the Dutch and Danish Parliaments as well as our own, for reforms to the yellow card procedure. We welcome the Commission’s willingness, indicated by Mr Juncker, to establish a working group on the role of national Parliaments in the EU, but it is important that that is a serious process and that it takes the suggestions for different reforms seriously. We would also endorse the sentiment in the Government’s response to the reports about the value of Commissioners appearing before national Parliaments to explain and answer questions on the Commission’s actions and policies. We would like to see more of that in the future.

The important point is that, however many opinions are submitted or whatever the architecture of the yellow card procedure, it will be seen to be of little value if it is simply ignored. To refer to the question of Mr Redwood, we do not seek to turn the legal basis of the EU on its head or make demands which are incompatible with membership, but we do believe that dialogue between the Commission and national Parliaments must take seriously not only the sum of correspondence over the course of a year but its content.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not about European laws, but about the fact that this House should be expressing the sovereign will of the British people, rather than our having a pale imitation of a referee’s code of conduct on the field of play? This process is farcical. This talk about red, yellow and green cards is an insult to the democracy of this country. This House should be making the decisions, as expressed in the democracy of this country.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I shall give my hon. Friend a similar reply to that which I gave the right hon. Member for Wokingham: in 40-plus years of membership it has been clear that sovereignty is pooled and is not complete and absolute for this House. That is the nature of our membership. Without going into too much detail, I would repeat that improvements should be made to this procedure but I do not seek to make demands that are incompatible with continued membership, although that is the agenda of some in this House.

There are shortcomings in the reports; they revolve more around the volume of correspondence than the content. If dialogue is to be real, the exchanges have to be taken more seriously and they have to be about content as well as volume. That is what we have to look to in the future.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset 5:20, 10 March 2015

This may be my last contribution in the House, after 18 years here. I have always believed that we are, to coin a phrase, in Europe but not run by Europe. I have always believed that one can be a good European but a pragmatic European who believes that this debate goes beyond red, yellow and green cards, and so on, as Graham Stringer said. I discovered in 12 years serving on delegations to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union that many of the opinions expressed in this House are expressed by our colleagues right across Europe in other national Parliaments.

I spent the years running up to the dissolution of the WEU arguing with the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council about what the right form of parliamentary scrutiny over European common security and defence policy is. Europe does not, whatever Mr Juncker might have said in the past 24 hours, have an army or a defence budget. It has a foreign policy courtesy of its 28 member Governments, not one of its own. So there was a rightful role for national Parliaments to play there, but, sadly, we have lost that kind of effective parliamentary scrutiny over even that collective action. Today, we are asked to take note of two documents. That is all we can do.

We should remind ourselves how we got to this situation. The Laeken declaration brought about the current treaties—the so-called Lisbon treaty—and it was a document signed by the leaders of all the European Union member states in 2001, explaining what they considered to be good about the EU and what problems it faced. It recognised at that time the disillusion and wish for reform that was widespread across Europe. Those were the terms, in that declaration, that were given to Giscard d’Estaing’s Convention on the Future of Europe and it set out how he should work to respond. Unfortunately, he did not comply with the instructions he was given and he produced a European constitution. That was discussed, modified and eventually signed in October 2004 as what we now know as the Lisbon treaty.

Let me just read out what the Laeken declaration said about the democratic challenge facing Europe:

“Within the Union, the European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens. Citizens undoubtedly support the Union’s broad aims, but they do not always see a connection between those goals and the Union’s everyday action. They want the European institutions to be less unwieldy and rigid and, above all, more efficient and open. Many also feel that the Union should involve itself more with their particular concerns, instead of intervening, in every detail, in matters by their nature better left to Member States’ and regions’ elected representatives. This is even perceived by some as a threat to their identity. More importantly, however, they feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny.”

That was in 2001, and we are here today debating those very questions about the division of competences between the Union and the member states.

As we take note of these documents, we should look at how we can improve relations between the Commission and national Parliaments and how we can make subsidiarity and proportionality mean what they say. These will be matters for the next Parliament; but as a first step, we can improve our own relations. Scrutiny of legislation, which is done marvellously by our European Scrutiny Committee, is all very well, but it is generally too late. The laws have already been made. They are already set in stone. We can huff and puff and have debates and discussions in this Chamber or in the various European committees, but what we really need to do is to be involved in the formation of policy at a very early stage.

We need to engage with our colleagues in the European Parliament. They are elected by the same British electorate as we are. To start with, we need to give them back their passes for this building, so that they can come and meet us. It is clearly ridiculous that their passes allow them to move around the House of Lords but that they are not allowed to move around the House of Commons. They have to stop where the red carpet ends.

When we have the next Conservative Government after the election, we need to make sure that we engage with the leaders across Europe in seeking to redress the balance of power between Brussels and the member states. We will call for engagement not just with the Commission and with the European Parliament—with the Brussels elite—but in the national capitals of Europe. Members of this House may need to brush up on their French, German or Italian and engage in dialogue with our colleagues across Europe. They may be surprised that the frustrations expressed here about the lack of subsidiarity, the lack of proportionality, the lack of any real dialogue with national Parliaments, is shared across Europe.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will lead that charge, and I believe that that will end in a decisive referendum that will result in our future inside the European Union, but inside a reformed European Union with a balance of competences between the Brussels elite and the member states that all the people of Britain and of Europe will respect.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 5:28, 10 March 2015

This debate is central to what we do here in Parliament and to the promises that various parties will make to their electors as we leave this place shortly and go into a general election.

It used to be a fundamental principle of the House of Commons that no House of Commons properly elected could bind a successor House of Commons. That was a fundamental part of the British people’s liberties, because they have to trust a House of Commons for up to five years to legislate and govern on their behalf, and they can do so safe in the knowledge that if we—those in government—do not please, they can dismiss us at the following general election and elect a new group of people who can change all that they did not like about the laws and conduct of government of the Government whom they have just removed. But our membership of the European Economic Community, now the Union, has increasingly damaged, undermined and overwhelmed that essential precept, which was the guarantee of our liberties as the British people, because now there are huge areas of work that are under European law and European control. So those parties that go out from this House into the general election and, for example, offer a better deal on energy, may well come back and discover that what they have offered is quite impossible under the strict and far-reaching rules on energy that now come from the European Union.

Yesterday, we did not have time to debate in the House the energy package, but within the proposals we were being asked to approve in the Commission’s work programme was a strategic framework for energy policy that, in turn, will spawn an enormous amount of detailed regulation and legislation, making energy a European competence almost completely. Therefore, more or less anything that the main political parties say about what they wish to do on energy policy during the next five years will be possible only if it just happens that what they wish to do is entirely in agreement with and legal under this massive amount of law and regulation that is partly in place already and will come forward in ever-increasing volumes under the strategic framework and further legal policy, and that is but one area.

A couple of other big areas that will be much debated in the election are welfare and border and migration policy. Again, anything that parties say in our general election has to go through the European test. Will changes in benefits that parties wish to see be legal or possible under the European Union? May we not find that we are completely bound by predecessor Parliaments because they have signed up to legal requirements under European law that make it impossible for the House any longer to control our own welfare policy?

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe encouraged me with his optimism because he said that welfare remained a national UK matter, but there is plenty of evidence that it already is not in many respects. All sorts of policies have been looked at that I am told would fall foul of European law and regulation. It is quite obvious, again, looking at the European Union’s work programme, that it will intensify its activity in this area and make it even more difficult for a national Parliament to express the wish that it wants in its laws on welfare. The same is true of border controls, where we are signed up to the free movement of peoples and that is now being ever more generously interpreted as giving the EU carte blanche and substantial control over border and migration policy throughout the EU.

We find ourselves in the position of debating today yellow cards and red cards to try to assert the will of national Parliaments, but it comes nowhere near the task that we need to undertake as we seek to reshape our relationship with the EU. Even having a red card, where national Parliaments collectively can block a new proposal, does nothing to tackle the problem that we have this vast panoply of law already agreed, sometimes many years ago, which may prevent a national Parliament from reflecting the will of its people. If we have to get all or most of the other member states’ national Parliaments to agree, that could still be extremely difficult, and an individual member state, which had an overwhelmingly strong national view on the subject, might be thwarted because it just did not happen to be something that worried the other member states.

We need to pause over this. I remember the excellent words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his Bloomberg speech. The Bloomberg speech wisely said that the fount of political authority in any European member state, but certainly in the United Kingdom, rests from the national electorate through the national Parliament, and that, I think, is still right. We see that in the recent conflicts and rows in a country such as Greece, which is under even more European control that we are by being part of the euro. The Prime Minister reasoned that this country needs to negotiate a new relationship with the EU that recognises that on really important things—I would have thought that welfare, borders and energy were really important things—if necessary, the national Parliament can assert and interpret the will of the British people. There should be some mechanism by which we can then do as we wish, reflecting the will of the people.

We see at the moment the tragedy of Greece, where these conflicts are much further advanced because the European Union is much more intrusive on a euro member than on the United Kingdom. We have witnessed some very interesting things. Those on both Front Benches need to listen to and study this very carefully, because their futures, as well as the future of our country, are very much at stake. The first remarkable thing is that in the most recent Greek general election the two former traditional main parties—the equivalents of Labour and Conservative—polled 33% between them. Those parties, until recently, alternated in government. They had got into that parlous state because whatever they wanted to do in the interests of Greece was blocked, modified or amended because, in practice, decisions were made by the euro group, the European Central Bank and the troika they came to hate. So the Greek people said, “It doesn’t make any difference which of you two we have. The socialists can’t be socialists and the capitalists can’t be capitalists. You all end up with the same euro policy that is driving the Greek economy into the mire.” The poor Greeks have lost almost a quarter of their national output since 2007. That this can happen in an advanced western country is mind blowing. Half their young people are out of work as a result of these policies.

The two main parties had nothing to offer because they either had to go along with the euro scheme in all its details or promise to disagree, but only in the full knowledge that they would not be allowed to do so and do anything different. Then the Greek people elected into government a challenger party, with no experience of government, saying that it intended to break the rules of the euro: it did not want the troika arriving and telling them how to govern their country and did not intend to accept the bank details and loan packages that had been drawn up by the previous regimes. We now see this gripping and gruelling conflict where the euro area and the EU is telling Greece, “Well, we’ve got news for you: these are the rules. We don’t mind that your electorate have just rejected it all. We don’t care that you’ve elected into government a party that completely disagrees with us. You have no power in this. You the Greek people, you the Greek Parliament and you the Greek Government have to accept these rules, because those are the club rules.”

We heard a mild version of that attitude from the shadow spokesman, Mr McFadden, when I asked him whether, on a mighty issue that matters a great deal to the British people, there should be a right for us in this House to reflect their view and legislate accordingly. He said no, there should be no such right, and we have to follow all the rules of the European scheme.

Throughout past years, when those rules related just to trading arrangements or industrial regulation, they could be irritating or vexatious, but they were not going to become game changers that mobilised the whole British people against the whole scheme of the European Union. However, when the European Union rules start to influence things that matter a great deal to people—their welfare system, their benefits system, their borders or their migration—that might start to create a much bigger reaction. When European rules and requirements have a devastating impact on an economy and employment prospects—fortunately not in this country, because we have kept out of that bit—that completely transforms the politics of that country, and we see the politics of impotence, the politics of protest and the politics of frustration.

I do not want our country to go down that route. That is why I say that we need to negotiate now, before we get to that stage, an arrangement—not just a yellow card or a red card in conjunction with other member states—for us, the United Kingdom, to say that we are still a vibrant democracy. We need to be able to say that if something matters a great deal to the British people and if it has been approved in a general election, this House can take action even if it means disagreeing with the rules of the European Union. By all means, we can try to negotiate an arrangement case by case, but where we cannot do that, we need an override—an opportunity to say, “This thing matters too much to our democracy.” If we do not have that very simple change, we no longer have in this country a successful and vibrant democracy that can guarantee stability and guarantee to deliver what the British people want.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I agree with basic thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, but is not most of what he is suggesting impossible? Most of the rules governing the European Union are bound up in treaties that require 28 countries to decide to change them, and that is simply not going to happen. Much as I agree with his aspirations, I am afraid that they will not come about, will they?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The hon. Gentleman may be right, so I hope that the British people have a referendum in which they may decide that they cannot live under such a regime without change. I would certainly vote to leave if flexibility cannot be built into the system along the lines that I have mentioned. He is a distinguished politician both locally and nationally, and surely he recognises that when we need fundamental change, we have to make the case for it and be optimistic.

I am not completely pessimistic because I do not believe that only Britain needs such a change. If this were just Britain being difficult—the island nation, on the edge of the European Union, whose traditions are old-fashioned and whose idea that Parliament really matters is now old hat because we have moved into a new world—I do not think we would win, but this is live, desperate politics for very large parts of the euro area.

The issue is live politics for what remains of the governing parties of the euro area because the path trodden by the two leading parties in Greece, whose jobs have been taken by Syriza, could be trodden by the two leading Spanish parties given the rise of Podemos and by the Italian parties given the rise of the Five Star movement and all the other pressure movements in Italy. Those countries are not immune to an insurgency challenge like the one in Greece. That sort of thing can start to concentrate the minds of other member states of the European Union and their Governments. One thing I have learned about Governments over the years is that they quite like staying in power. When they feel that there will be a very strong electoral challenge to them, they may begin by condemning it—saying it is irrational, unpleasant and all those kinds of thing—but if they think it is going to win, they have to do a deal with it, understand why people feel as they do and make some movement.

My strong advice to the whole European Union is that it needs to do a deal with the people who disagree with it, because the scheme is not working for all those people in the euro area. It needs to change policy, and it should do so before politics changes it. I do not want our country, which matters most to me, to get anywhere near such a point. I am pleased to have been part of the forces in this country that kept us out of the euro, which meant that we missed the worst—this country has a reasonable economic recovery that is completely unrelated to the continent, with its long recession and deep troubles in the southern territories—but as I see my country sucked into common policies on energy, borders, foreign affairs and welfare, I think that we might be sucked in too far and have exactly the same problems on those issues that the euro area is already experiencing on the central matter of economics.

I urge Ministers to take this seriously and to re-read the words of the Bloomberg speech. I urge the Opposition to join us, because they aspire to govern this country. One day they may come up with really popular policies and be elected on that basis, and what a tragedy it would be if they discovered that they could not enact those policies because they were illegal under European law. That could happen just as much to the Labour party as to the Conservative party.

These are not some private arguments among Conservatives in some secret club of Eurosceptics held in the privacy of the House of Commons; these are mighty arguments about the future of our continent and our country and about the nature of democracy itself. Accountability still rests with a national Parliament, not with the European institutions. If there is to be trust between politicians and the people, the national Parliament must be able to deliver when the people speak. We are in danger of that no longer being true, which is why a yellow card and a red card are not sufficient. It is also why we need to answer the question: how do the British people vote for what they want and how do an elected Government in Britain deliver it if it disagrees with European rules?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 5:44, 10 March 2015

May I apologise, Mr Speaker, for arriving after the beginning of the debate? I was detained elsewhere. I want to say a few words, but will not speak for too long.

When I was a student, I read the works of Walter Bagehot, the 19th-century writer on constitutional matters who distinguished between what he called the decorative and the effective parts of the constitution. Much of what happens around the European Union is decorative. The real power resides not with the elected bodies, but elsewhere. Many people among the political elites of the various members of the European Union go to great lengths to ensure that the European Parliament and their own Parliaments have a comfortable majority of Euro-enthusiasts who will just go along with what the political class wants.

However, Euroscepticism is a major force. It is not effectively represented in many Parliaments, but it is among the populace. I remind hon. Members of the referendums that the French and Dutch held on the proposed constitution. The Socialist party in France went to the extreme of having a ballot of its members and encouraging them to vote yes for the constitution, which they duly did. It was assumed that the conservative party would vote in favour of the constitution anyway. In the referendum, the great majority of working people voted no. It was the working class and those on the left—and, no doubt, some people on the right—who voted no because they did not think that the constitution was in their interests. Euroscepticism was therefore found to be quite a strong force when a referendum was held, but it is not necessarily a strong force in the elected Parliaments. The same thing happened in Holland.

From time to time, I attend meetings of COSAC with other members of the European Scrutiny Committee. COSAC is an organisation for representatives of the national Parliaments and it includes some Members of the European Parliament. However, Members of the European Parliament are rather irritated that they have to listen to Members of the elected national Parliaments, because they see us as interlopers in their preserve or realm. They think, “We are elected European Members and we do not want these other Parliaments having their say.” Nevertheless, we go to the meetings. Even there, the overwhelming majority of Members are docile supporters of the European Union and all its works.

It is interesting that the British voices from the House of Commons are often very distinctive in being outspoken and critical, and just in raising issues. We were in Italy not so long ago and I said, “Well, what about the 13.2% unemployment rate in Italy? What about those who are arguing for the restoration of the lira?” Those voices are not represented at COSAC, but they are represented in the street outside. When politicians stop listening to the voices in the street outside, they are in danger in the longer term.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Labour, East Renfrewshire

I was just reflecting on how much I miss the time my hon. Friend and I spent together on the European Scrutiny Committee. Without wishing to entice the opprobrium of Government Members, I was also reflecting on my time as Minister for Europe, when I worked on the Lisbon treaty. In his conversations with colleagues in COSAC, has my hon. Friend discussed the fact that a quarter of the written opinions of national Parliaments relate to 15 legislative proposals? Does he accept the logic that objections from the UK Parliament have greater validity when the legislation applies to the UK, as opposed to when the UK already has an opt-out? When it comes to the written objections from the UK and the conversations that he has in COSAC, does he distinguish between issues that apply to the UK and those that do not?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I have not had conversations about those specific issues. However, there is everything to be said for making strong objections to anything that we disagree with and for trying to overturn proposals for legislation if we do not find them acceptable. We would probably find quite a lot of support among the electorates of many member states, even though we do not find it among their politicians. Even in countries that have voted against joining the euro, one will find that the political class privately wants to join it.

One country that has voted time and again—twice now—to stay outside the European Union is Norway, yet for a long time the political class tried to pressure its own people to vote to join it. I am a member of the all-party parliamentary British-Norwegian group and at a recent meeting with the Norwegian ambassador he said that support for joining the EU had dropped to 11%, which is pretty decisive. Nevertheless, it is vital in any meaningful democracy that elected parliamentarians listen to the voices of their constituents—to the people outside.

One reason I disagree so strongly with systems of proportional representation is because they break that link with electors. In a national list system, the only people who matter are those who put candidates on that list—the party leaders—and not the people outside who vote for them. We have personal relations and contacts with our voters in single-Member seats, and as I mentioned in a debate yesterday, last weekend I spent six hours knocking on doors in my constituency and listening to what people had to say. That link is important in a democracy.

I mentioned Bagehot, but more recently essayists from our own Chamber have contributed to a new book, “What They Never Told You about Parliament and How It Should be Put Right”. Some of our colleagues from this House and another place have made a lot of suggestions for increasing the democratic power of this House in holding the Executive to account, which is absolutely right. I would also like more democracy within parties to hold their leadership to account, but that is perhaps a dangerously radical view that would not be shared by some of my colleagues on the Front Bench. I have always believed in democracy being something that comes from beneath, rather than from the top.

When I was studying politics at university we covered political constitutions, including the Soviet constitution that was written in the mid-1930s, no doubt by friends of Stalin. Clearly, a great democratic panoply of organisations and structures meant absolutely nothing because all power resided in Stalin’s office. It is where power resides that really matters. If power is with the people, that is what democracy should be about; if power is with the elite and people have do what the elite tell them, that is not democracy. All sorts of structures may look like democracy, but if there is no power in the hands of ordinary people, voters and their directly elected representatives, that is not true democracy. I am not talking about anarcho-syndicalism or anything of that kind; I am talking about representative democracy of the kind we have now.

I believe that in the European Union power really resides in secret councils and the backrooms of the Commission. I heard a story from a Member of the European Parliament who some years ago stumbled by mistake into an office in the Commission building, and found themselves with a group of officials who were deciding who was going to hold a certain post. They wanted a commissioner on social affairs. That sounds very socialist and left-wing, so they wanted somebody weak. They thought, “Ah yes, we’ve got this rather feeble commissioner from one of the smaller east European countries. They won’t cause any trouble so let’s put them forward”, and that is what happened. That is not democracy either. I think we ought to elect our commissioners directly from Parliament. That would be a good idea because we would have a say in who our commissioner is, rather than them being appointed. These issues are fundamental.

Today I had a meeting with an academic researcher from Germany—a very charming, intelligent person. He said, “You’re a critic of the European Union. What would you like it to be like?” I said, “I am passionately European in the sense that I love Europe as a continent of wonderful peoples, countries, cultures—everything about me shrieks ‘Europe!’. I love the music, art, wine, peoples, languages—everything about Europe I love, but not the European Union, which is a political construct imposed on Europe; it is not Europe.”

When people talk about Europe but mean the European Union, they are trying to con us into thinking that Europe can only have the European Union, but there are alternatives. My alternative, which I put to the academic researcher, was that we should have a loose association of democratic member states with elected Parliaments that meet and agree on issues for mutual benefit, but that there should be nobody above those Parliaments telling them what to do. We could no doubt have joint ventures on military aircraft, for example; we have done that from time to time. Concorde involved a joint agreement between France and Britain. We could have bilateral and multilateral international agreements on all sorts of things. We could even agree to standardise the way in which we do things, but these should all involve mutual agreements between the various member states, rather than having something imposed from a very undemocratic bureaucracy above the member states of Europe.

It would be a splendid idea to have a loose association of member states coming together to agree things that are of mutual benefit, and I would love to see that happen. In a few months’ time, I shall be taking a holiday in Italy. I normally go to France, but this year it will be Italy, and I shall enjoy Europe in all its glory. However, I shall continue to be critical of the European Union, which is not Europe.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset 5:55, 10 March 2015

It is a great pleasure to follow Kelvin Hopkins, who speaks such sense on these matters. It was also interesting to hear about his holiday plans for the summer, and I hope that he will tell us more about them in future debates.

I turn immediately to the wording of the motion. Her Majesty’s Government like to say all the right things and do all the wrong ones. Let us look at the end of the motion, which proposes that the House

“welcomes the Government’s commitment to increasing the power of national parliaments in EU decision-making by strengthening and, where possible, enhancing current provisions.”

It sounds splendid that we in the national Parliaments should have an increased role and that there should be proper scrutiny within this House. But let us look further into the Order Paper, where we find the European business and the debates set down to take place on the Floor of the House. We had one yesterday. How generous of Her Majesty’s Government to allow us, after months of delay, to debate an issue that had been suggested for debate by the European Scrutiny Committee!

Turning to the future European business, however, we see that no time or date has been set for the first debate in the list, on the free movement of EU citizens, despite its having being asked for more than a year ago. Debate No. 2 would be on strategic guidelines for EU justice and home affairs to 2020. Debate No. 3— [Interruption.] Bless you! Debate No. 3 would be on the rule of law in EU member states. Debate No. 4 should be on ports, a highly controversial matter awaiting the discussion that was suspended in the Committee because the Government had not got their act together. No. 5 is the topic that we are discussing now. No. 6 should cover the EU budget 2014, which is not a minor matter. Indeed, it is rather important. When we discuss our own Budget, we have four days of debate on it, yet we are not even given 90 minutes for the EU budget. No. 7 on the list is the EU charter of fundamental rights. So there are six further debates that we have not been given, yet today we are debating the Government’s wonderful commitment to increasing parliamentary scrutiny of European matters.

There is a saying that fine words butter no parsnips. We get a lot of fine words from Her Majesty’s Government but the parsnips remain distinctly unbuttered, and as I represent a dairying constituency, I think it is about time we had some butter and got the debates that the European Scrutiny Committee has been asking for. There is a considerable lack of wisdom in this approach—this contumely towards the House. These debates take place in an atmosphere of considerable cross-party consensus. Those on the Opposition Front Bench rarely cause any trouble in European debates, and the motions that are tabled are normally so anodyne that it is hard to oppose them. The Government broadly say that they are in favour of motherhood, apple pie and democracy while giving away as many of our freedoms as they can, as quickly as possible. Furthermore, these debates do not end up being front-page news.

Where the Government get into trouble, however, is through their lack of willingness to go along with what the European Scrutiny Committee has asked for. At that point, they run into procedural difficulties. We saw that in spades over the European arrest warrant, and we thought that the Government might have learnt the error of their ways and realised that trying to obstruct the procedures of the House of Commons is an error. They might have found from yesterday’s experience, when an amendment was tabled on a subject that the Government did not want us to discuss, that the House would get its way in the end. It did so because, fortunately, we have a robust Speaker who ensures that the House gets what it wants in the end. That is much to be welcomed. However, there should not be this constant battle between the European Scrutiny Committee and the Government to get that which the Standing Orders of the House of Commons require. The Government come out with ridiculous promises and fine words but simply fail to deliver on their promises.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Could it be that the Government believe their own propaganda? We are faced with having two Governments for the price of three in this country, a European Government and a United Kingdom Government, but the Government fondly believe that they are the sole Government and have not recognised that there is a much bigger Government over there doing a lot of their work for them. They do not want us to look at that.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

My right hon. Friend makes the interesting suggestion that the Government are naive and foolish, and that is one way of looking at it. My view is that they are deliberate in their attempt to subvert the will of the House of Commons and its efforts to debate things. My right hon. Friend is a generous and kindly figure, for which he is renowned across the land, whereas I am afraid that I am perhaps rather more hard-nosed on this occasion and think that there is a desire to run away from debate. I do not know where that desire comes from. It is fundamentally unhealthy and undemocratic and the Government must understand that many of us will complain if this continues to happen.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless UKIP, Rochester and Strood

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the Prime Minister stating expressly at the Dispatch Box that he would deliver a vote on the European arrest warrant before the Rochester and Strood by-election? What happened to that promise?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am grateful to Mark Reckless, who knows only too well about that by-election. It is extraordinary that other people within government try to subvert the will of the Prime Minister. Our constitution works well as the Prime Minister, as the head of the Government, shows leadership. However, there are then people, minions—I do not know who they are, as they will not emerge or admit the role they play in undermining parliamentary scrutiny—who deliberately undermine what the Prime Minister has promised. That is the most extraordinary state of affairs, Mr Speaker, as the Prime Minister needs your help to deliver on his promises. Your impartial help is needed to get the Prime Minister out of a hole dug for him by his own officials. This is a quite extraordinary and regrettable state of affairs.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making liberal reference to the Chair, to which I have no objection, but in so far as he is foraging in the undergrowth to try to find a solution to Parliament’s difficulties as we approach Prorogation and then Dissolution, he might find that the shortage of allocated time is such that his only recourse is to seek a debate under Standing Order No. 24. He should not be put in that position, but he can always have a go, with no promises and no advance undertakings. We should not be reduced to this state of affairs, but needs must.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. I was worried when you said that I was making liberal reference to the Chair; I hope that I was making Conservative reference to the Chair. Other than that, I am much obliged for your helpful reminder of the Standing Orders of the House.

I do not want to go on for too long, as my hon. Friend Mr Walker has an important debate that will follow this one. In that context, I note that when I sit down before the full time for the debate is complete the Government will once again say that the debate did not run for its full time and that the desire for such debates is therefore not as much as we might think, so they do not need to give them in future.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I know that the hon. Gentleman is being respectful to Mr Walker, but the obvious solution would be for him to spin out his speech to the end of the time. I would certainly enjoy listening to it.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I would hardly have begun my speech if I were going to go through all the intricacies it might be necessary to cover, but I do not want to upset my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, who has a serious matter to discuss that concerns my constituency.

The Government must bear in mind that the debate is truncated out of the good nature of members of the European Scrutiny Committee and the Whips scurrying around asking whether we would be kindly. It has not been truncated because there is not a great deal to discuss. When the answer comes back that we are not interested as we do not take the full time, that will be an untruth. I am glad to see that the Minister for Europe is looking in my direction and notes that, because he never says anything other than the truth. I have great confidence in his intellect, if not always in the answers that come from it.

Proportionality and subsidiarity are of considerable importance. I am slightly suspicious of subsidiarity because, as the shadow Minister Mr McFadden has said, it comes from the teaching of the Catholic Church. The holy mother Church, to which I belong, is a great, illustrious and historic institution, but if it is known for one thing other than its piety, it is its centralisation of power. It therefore strikes me that, if subsidiarity has been thought up by the holy mother Church, it is more likely to be to do with reinforcing the authority of the Holy See and of the papacy in particular than with spreading it far and wide. I happen to think that, in the case of the Church, that is a thoroughly good thing.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is it not the other way round? We want this House to be able to do the big things. We do not want to be left with the crumbs from the table—we want the main meal.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend and I was coming on to that.

The heart of the matter is the question of where we think democracy lies in the European Union. Does it lie in the Commission? The answer, in fairly short order, is no. Every country has a commissioner and, as Kelvin Hopkins has said, commissioners from very small countries sometimes get very important briefs. It was the Maltese Commissioner who finally decided whether neonicotinoids could be legal across the whole of the European Union. Malta has a population of about 250,000—which is tiny in proportion to ours, let alone that of the whole of the EU—and it was someone representing them who made a decision for all of us without any democratic accountability because the Council could not come to a decision.

There is no election for European Commissioners—they are appointed by their home Governments. The President of the Commission represents Luxembourg, which is hardly the great bulwark of population and importance for which one might hope. It is not exactly the Texas, or even the Illinois, of the European Union. Relatively minor figures from their own domestic functions are put forward as commissioners, with no support from, or knowledge of, the people living in the other member states. Before he became a commissioner, very few people in the United Kingdom could have named the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg. There is no democratic accountability in the Commission.

Perhaps there is democratic accountability in the European Parliament, but, if there is, it is of a most extraordinary kind. The d’Hondt system for electing people is most unsatisfactory and means that most people have no clue who their MEP is. It is very difficult to seek redress of grievance through the European Parliament in the way our constituents can seek redress of grievance through this House. Indeed, one of my concerns about the whole European project is that it denies our constituents that proper redress of grievance that they can get through the House of Commons.

Crucially, the European Parliament cannot have democratic accountability because it does not represent a single people. When the issue of unemployment in Greece, Spain and Portugal came up in yesterday’s debate, it was absolutely instructive that there was a complete lack of concern for unemployment in the other member states of the European Union. There is not a feeling that somebody unemployed in Greece is as important as somebody unemployed in Newcastle. Until we have that fellow feeling—the feeling that they are one people with us—there cannot be a proper democracy. The jargon, clearly, is that without a demos there cannot be democracy and there is not a single European people. Therefore, even if the European Parliament had Members who anyone knew about, and even if it was elected on a system that anyone thought was a reasonable system to elect people on, it would still not have proper democratic representation because it does not represent a single people.

That brings us to the Commission, which I think is the closest we get to democracy in the European Union. The Ministers represent their Governments and those Governments have to command majorities in their respective Houses of Parliament. That brings us back to exactly where we want to be: the democratic rights of Parliament and what Parliament should be able to do within the overall system and context of the European Union. Ultimately, democratic accountability within Europe—that thin thread of accountability that exists—is through the Commission to Parliaments.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry

I hate to interrupt my hon. Friend in mid-flow, but I believe that he is talking about the European Council, not the European Commission.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am so sorry. I do indeed mean the Council. The Council has that thin thread to the Parliaments, which provides that democratic accountability.

We then look at what those Parliaments can do. They can have a limited amount of scrutiny but, as my hon. Friend Mr Walter said, that mainly comes after things have been decided; the European Scrutiny Committee gets to look at things that have already reached a far stage in the approval process within the whole European system. It is very hard to stop anything at that point, so we then move on to yellow cards.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

The hon. Gentleman, as ever, is making an interesting and illuminating speech. Is not one of the travesties and caricatures of democracy in the European Union the fact that the only body that can propose new legislation is the European Commission, not even the Council?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is part of the control of the Commission and part of the anti-democratic set-up of the European

Union, and I do not think that is accidental; were it genuinely democratic, it would never have evolved to its current state.

We get these sops, with this business of the yellow cards, of which only two have been accepted by the Commission, and one of those was immediately dismissed—it said that the one for the public prosecutor was not a matter of subsidiarity anyway and so it would push ahead regardless. We have a threshold that is very hard to reach, and as a result of which nothing need happen, and a two-month period that makes it incredibly difficult for national Parliaments to get their responses in within the limited time available. The red card would be little better.

What we actually need is for our constituents—the people of the United Kingdom—to take back control of their own Government. That might be possible through renegotiation if the Government are robust, but the problem is that at the moment the Government show no sign of being robust or willing to push back to the European Union. They come out with platitudes that support the continuing accretion of power to the EU. They come forward with the fine words I have mentioned but never push on the difficult decisions. Yesterday the Minister for Europe told us that Switzerland wants to pull out of one of the treaties and that it has to take it all or leave it all, but that is an outrageous position to take if we are in favour of renegotiating for ourselves.

I urge the Government to be robust, to support democracy and to make sure that, for once, what they say and what they do match.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe 6:12, 10 March 2015

I am grateful to all Members who have taken part in this brief but interesting debate. Like my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, I am conscious that there is other important business to follow, so I will keep my remarks very brief indeed.

I take note of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset about remaining outstanding debates, but I point out that there have so far been 51 debates on European Union matters on the Floor of the House during the course of this Parliament, whereas previously the custom was to have perhaps two such debates a year.

My right hon. Friend Mr Redwood referred to the tensions that exist between national democracy and the reality of how decisions are made at European Union level. Of course, European Union law is operative and has direct effect in this country only because Parliament has decided, through the European Communities Act 1972, that that should be the case. It is clearly open to this or a future Parliament to alter those arrangements should it choose to do so. However, although that is constitutionally possible, it would bring about an immediate crisis in this country’s relationship with the European Union.

I think that it is important for us to remember that although there are some things that we find objectionable and frustrating about European Union decisions, sometimes the things that we find most valuable and beneficial to our interests are those that other EU countries resent the most. It is for that reason that I think the idea that one could simply have a unilateral right of veto for any of the 28 member states simply does not work if the European Union is to exist in a meaningful form.

I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset when they talked about the lack of a European demos. After all, that is the very reason why, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, the eurozone countries are finding it so hard to reconcile an economic imperative towards greater integration, with the political reality that national electorates want to hold economic policy decisions nationally accountable through their own national democracies.

What the Prime Minister said in his Bloomberg speech, which I read and re-read constantly, is that this is a challenge not just for the United Kingdom—as it is—but for every member of the European Union. It is the Prime Minister’s commitment and intention to negotiate a settlement between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU that is good for us and good for our partners, and which achieves a balance between membership of the European Union and a need for a measure of collective decision-making there, with the need for national accountability and for the British people to feel that they are comfortable about their place in that European organisation. That is something to which the Prime Minister committed himself in January 2013. I know he is completely determined to deliver that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 12425/14, the 2013 Annual Report from the Commission on relations between the Commission and national parliaments, and No. 12424/14, the 2013 Annual Report from the Commission on subsidiarity and proportionality; recognises the importance of the principle of subsidiarity and the value of stronger interaction between national parliaments and the EU Institutions; deplores the failure of the outgoing Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship to respond to national parliaments’ concerns about the proposal to establish a European Public Prosecutors Office; looks forward to the European Commission responding to the call of national parliaments and the European Council to strengthen national parliaments’ role in improving EU legislation; and welcomes the Government’s commitment to increasing the power of national parliaments in EU decision-making by strengthening and, where possible, enhancing current provisions.