European Commission: National Parliaments

Part of Deregulation Bill (Programme) (No.3) – in the House of Commons at 5:20 pm on 10th March 2015.

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Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset 5:20 pm, 10th 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.