European Constitution

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 18th March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Owen Lord Owen Crossbench 11:00 am, 18th March 2004

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reinsert during the inter-governmental conference the earlier wording in the draft European constitutional treaty that explicitly rules out the President of the European Commission from being elected President of the European Council.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the Government believe that the same person should not simultaneously hold the position of President of the European Council, as introduced by the draft constitutional treaty for the EU, and the role of President of the European Commission. We believe that the effect of Article III–251 of the treaty, as drafted by the convention, would already be to prohibit this as it stipulates that commissioners may not engage in any other occupation.

Photo of Lord Owen Lord Owen Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if, by a qualified majority of votes, even with the British Prime Minister voting against it, the European Council decided to double-hat the President of the Commission and the President of the Council, that would be one of the biggest possible steps to full integration of the European Union and, even if the Government then appealed to the European Court of Justice, on past precedent the court would decide that this was a political matter? For those reasons, given Recommendation 152 of the 41st report of the Select Committee of this House, will the Government make this a red-line issue and insist that a change is made? If there were no objection, it would pass easily.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I can only say to the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that we firmly believe that the text is already robust. We believe that the text, as drafted, already rules out that possibility. As the noble Lord will know, the article states:

"European Commissioners [which would include the President of the Commission] . . . shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties . . . [and] may not, during their term of office, engage in any other occupation".

We are content with that text.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the idea that a qualified majority would outvote Britain in an attempt to combine the two posts lies in the realms of Euro-sceptic conspiracy theories rather than practical European policy? Does she also accept that, in putting in place a European Union of 25, it is more important to ensure that we have a strong and effective President of the Commission and a strong and effective President of the Council?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord. As I said, we believe that the text is robust and therefore we rule out any fantasies of an all-powerful President of Europe. We are very clear about that. The noble Lord was absolutely right in making his second point. This is a decisive time for the EU. We must rise to the challenges of enlargement to 25 member states and we must also rise to the equal challenge of bridging the gap between the citizen and Europe.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while there are fairly persuasive reasons for not opening up further argument in the context of the inter-governmental conference, nevertheless the principle raised by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, is one of fundamental importance? Can she therefore give us an assurance that there are no circumstances whatever in which Her Majesty's Government would be prepared to contemplate any degree of support for the hypothesis put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, in his Question?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. While I am on my feet, perhaps I may thank him for the work that he, the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, and my noble friend Lady Scotland carried out on the convention. We strongly believe that the President of the European Council should not also be the President of the Commission. Those of us who have any experience on the European front know that that would weaken both positions and fatally undermine the European Union's institutional balance.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the British Government may be happy with the text of this unfortunate constitution, which now looks like coming back on to the agenda rather soon, and they may be happy with the idea of a strong and permanent President, but is the noble Baroness aware that a great many people in the smaller and newer countries of the European Union and those that are about to arrive are not at all happy? All along, they have questioned whether more power should accumulate to the central institutions of the European Union in the person of a permanent President, and they have questioned the vast new powers that the constitution would give to the European Union's institutions.

Is it not incumbent on the British Government, as we have ticked the boxes and said that we are happy with these things, to fight the corner of the smaller countries of Europe much more vigorously and not to condemn their attitude as scepticism, which would be quite wrong, but to work hard for a more equal Europe which is more comfortable and better for all the people of Europe?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I agree that we must closely consult and listen to all members and, of course, those which are set to join us in May. On that basis, we fully support the approach of the Irish presidency, which is to consult closely with all member states and those that are joining in May, building on the good work of the Italian presidency.

As to a centralising of power, I disagree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Howell. The proposal for a full-time President of the European Council would, in fact, mean greater accountability to national parliaments, as well as greater efficiency.

Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, does the Minister recall that as long ago as May last year, in a preliminary report, the European Union Select Committee drew attention to the fact that there was a lack of clarity on the point that the noble Lord, Lord Owen, has just raised in his Question? Does she also recall, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, certainly does because he gave us evidence on this point, that in our comprehensive report we then said that it was essential that the original wording be reinstated. I believe that the balance of opinion among those who have spoken this morning shows that that is what is needed. Therefore, although I accept that the noble Baroness feels that the language is robust, does she accept that we could do with some more robust language which spells out the issue for the sake of true transparency so that this matter is settled once and for all?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, of course, I listen very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has to say on these matters and I acknowledge the extraordinary work that he and many noble Lords undertook during the course of consultation on the convention text. I shall certainly take his very strong feelings back to the department.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the Government had considerable success in strengthening the position of the President of the Council and that it would run entirely counter to the strategic goal of the Government, and in my judgment of the convention, to weaken it in the way suggested?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we would not put up with any weakening of our vision for the new role of President of the European Council, a full-time president being able to produce a strategic overview of where the European Union is going with its 25 new members.