European Communities (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:11 pm on 20th November 2001.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:11 pm, 20th November 2001

This amendment may superficially appear the same as Amendment No. 22, but it raises very different issues, although they were touched on in the previous debate. The central concern is the application of qualified majority voting to the appointment of the President of the European Commission, which is a highly significant role. The process—which has been changed, for reasons that are not totally apparent to us—is germane to the appointment.

As I understand the technicalities, the Commission President is now to be nominated by the member state governments acting by qualified majority voting rather than unanimity. The Council would also adopt the list of nominees for members of the Commission by QMV and by common accord with the nominee for president. The European Parliament would still approve the Commission as a body, but the final appointment by the Council would be by QMV instead of unanimity.

Some of your Lordships may be keen to point out that past procedures for finding the best person to be President of the Commission have not been entirely happy. That point has already been made. One might say that the results have been mixed—not all bad and not all good. The views of member states on the best man or woman for the job reflect their concerns and interests on the future shape of Europe.

The proposition that the system is bad and ought to be changed will not stand up by itself. The system has produced some great figures who have performed their role superbly. My earliest memory is of the widespread approval in the EEC, as we then called it, for the work of Walter Hallstein, whom Jean Monnet greatly admired. Walter Hallstein fulfilled the role that Jean Monnet saw for the Commission in its early days: he should be a low-profile individual with not too large a dose of political ambition and not too high a profile on the political platforms of Europe, but dedicated to sewing together the European unity that Jean Monnet sought and of which he was the magnificent and visionary architect. Other great people followed: Jean Rey, Franco Maria Malfatti, Sicco Mansholt, Francois-Xavier Ortoli, who was most impressive, then the superb Roy Jenkins, now the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who acted as president from 1977 and is universally regarded as having done an excellent job, then Gaston Thorn, Jacques Delors, Jacques Santer and now Romano Prodi.

Latterly, there has been increased unhappiness. That may be because larger accumulations of power appear to be in the hands of the president. Perhaps that is an illusion, but it may still be why people have become more jealous and concerned about how this important role should be fulfilled. I would not like to say. The unease is there and after Mr Delors left there was a great deal of in-fighting.

It could be argued that qualified majority voting would cut out all the in-fighting, but I doubt whether it would. Those of us who watch these things closely—and I know that there are people in your Lordships' House who have been much closer to the issue than I have—could not sustain the argument that bringing in qualified majority voting will clean up and swiftly refashion the entire procedure. There will always be jostling for the job. The answer of the true Europe-builder is not so much to reform how the job is sought, but to be a great deal clearer in defining the purposes and limitations of the role of President of the Commission.

I worry more for the future because people talk now about electing the President of the Commission, not just through QMV, but maybe, under a new constitution, by a Europe-wide poll. In other words, the aspiration exists to turn the job into a presidency more along the American political lines than anything that was intended by Jean Monnet. That is a great worry and should on its own cause us to be very cautious about tinkering in any way with the methods by which the succession of presidents have found their place in the job.

Then there is a worry that is particularly associated with the Nice Treaty and the Bill. It covers areas that we shall come to in later debates: how QMV will work under the new weighting systems. The new arrangements are significant and involve a pretty hefty advantage for the big states and some difficulties for the smaller states, should they wish to hold out for their own candidate against whoever was wanted in Berlin or Paris—or maybe in London.

My view—I do not necessarily claim that it is universally accepted by my party—is that our nation is at its best and pursues its true longer-term interests best when it is looking after the smaller countries of Europe. There is an inclination for us to be gung-ho and claim that we have fixed Britain's interests and made sure that we cannot be outvoted by the smaller countries, but I do not think that that is a healthy way for European democracy to develop. There should be strong circumscribed limits on the powers of the central institutions so that the arrangement of rules at the centre can be more democratic and less of a threat to the interests of individual states.

I do not want to compare the European Union with the United States, but I have always been fascinated that from the start the United States has managed a system that has full population-weighted representation in the lower House, but an upper House with two senators from every state regardless of size. Some of those states are so vastly different in size as to make any differences of size in Europe look quite modest—unless we consider Luxembourg. The difference between Rhode Island and California is colossal. So it is possible to have a fair and balanced democracy without huge weightings here and there. If such weightings are to be applied, I should tremble at what may be in prospect if I were a citizen of a smaller state.

That is a worry, but our broader worry is that we see no reason why QMV is necessary in the matter, despite the ups and downs and bumps of previous appointments. We are not convinced by the usual efficiency argument. Every time that I hear high officials talk about more efficiency and momentum in Europe, I check myself, because in a democracy we need checks and balances, and they often lead to inefficiency and loss of momentum. Perhaps the other side of the coin from momentum is more democracy, argument and tiresome disagreement. Perhaps those who are so eager to have momentum, efficiency, rapid appointments and rapid moves forward in Europe-building should occasionally pause, after the great success of the past half-century in building Europe to realise that once democracy is introduced, everything will—and ought to—slow down. That is why I move Amendment No. 23, with which Amendments Nos. 28 and 31 are grouped. I beg to move.