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My Lords, this is not just a debate about a Select Committee report, or about internal parliamentary processes. It is also by extension a debate about the future of the European Union and the United Kingdom’s relationship with it, so I am delighted that so many noble Lords are here to debate this vital issue.
Today, Europe faces huge, almost existential problems, and the economic crisis has thrown the deficiencies of the Treaty of Lisbon into stark relief. Growing disenchantment and disillusionment with the EU is evident in the continuing fall in participation in elections to the European Parliament, the rise in extremist parties across Europe, and the lack of trust between elected officials and their electorate. The question of democratic legitimacy now needs serious public debate so that the people of Europe can contribute to finding an answer. This is not just a crisis of public confidence in the Union, it is also a crisis of public confidence in politics more generally. Not every vote for UKIP is in my view necessarily a vote to leave the European Union—often it may simply be a protest vote, a vote for “none of the above”. However, we will never succeed in overcoming the Europe-wide democratic deficit unless we also look at and address our own shortcomings. It is not “their” problem over in Brussels, it is also our problem here in Westminster.
Giving national parliaments a more positive and active role in European affairs is not a panacea, but it is a key component in addressing the European democratic deficit. That view is widely shared across Europe, and I pay particular tribute here to the work of our colleagues in the Dutch Tweede Kamer and the Danish Folketinget, which is highly consonant with our report. The European Commission and the United Kingdom Government have also given their support. The Commission has expressed enthusiasm for better engagement with national parliaments as a natural extension of the existing political dialogue. The new Commission First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, is particularly supportive, and his enhanced role within the new Commission overseeing relations with national parliaments and the issues of subsidiarity and proportionality, is very much to be welcomed.
The problem is in moving beyond easy generalities and warm words. Underlying the general agreement that national parliaments should have a greater role, there are many different political perspectives. Some in the European Commission may see strengthening national parliaments as a way to increase democratic control of the actions of national Governments in the Council of Ministers. In statements by Her Majesty’s Government, their emphasis on national parliaments sometimes acquires a tinge of slightly Eurosceptic flavour, while at the other end of the spectrum, some in the European Parliament fear that proposals to increase the role of national parliaments may simply undermine their own authority. There are also significant practical organisational problems in mobilising national parliaments to action. Against that backdrop, perhaps it is not surprising that whenever it comes to taking specific and concrete action, everything suddenly seems too difficult.
We on the European Union Committee of your Lordships’ House are acutely aware of these problems as we battle to make progress on several fronts at once. On the domestic front, we confront growing deficiencies in Her Majesty’s Government’s handling of parliamentary scrutiny. There is no point in the Government professing to support an enhanced role for national parliaments if they have neither the will nor the capacity to submit their own actions in Europe to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Last week, the committee took evidence from the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, and I listed a series of failures by various departments over recent months. I will not repeat myself now, but instead and I hope for the last time, I will touch briefly on parliamentary scrutiny of the United Kingdom’s justice and home affairs opt-out. I described this sorry saga at length during our last debate on
I trust that the Minister, as a former chairman of our Home Affairs Sub-Committee, will understand my concern over those events. Will he confirm in his reply that the first essential step towards strengthening the United Kingdom Parliament’s role in the EU is for the Government to do everything in their power to support effective domestic parliamentary scrutiny of European Union matters? I hope also that he will set out for the House some practical steps that the Cabinet Office, which he represents in this House, is taking to address its own shortcomings, and which have been the subject of further correspondence. Put simply, the Government must get their own house in order first of all.
However, this is not just a Government problem. The onus is also on us as a national legislature to make a more effective contribution to developments in Europe. We need to elevate the debate on the European Union, speaking with equal honesty about its benefits and its shortcomings. If we fail to do that, the risks are clear. I suspect that the leaders of the two main parties in this country may now be regretting their refusal to engage in a proper debate about United Kingdom membership of the European Union in the run-up to the European parliamentary elections earlier this year, as by so doing they effectively gifted control of the political agenda to UKIP. I might mention at this point that Her Majesty’s Government still refuse to acknowledge in print the democratic mandate of the European Parliament, even though meetings with individual Ministers suggest that the views of the Government are more nuanced than they are willing to admit publicly.
So much for the political background to tonight’s debate. For the remainder of my time, I shall touch on the efforts we are making in the European Union Committee to make progress in a few specific, targeted areas. The first of these is the reasoned opinion procedure. This is the only formal role in scrutinising European legislation given to national parliaments by the treaties, and as such it has an important symbolic value, but it can work only if there is good will on all sides, particularly within the European Commission. Hitherto, frankly, that good will has been lacking, and the Commission’s recent hasty, legalistic dismissal of the yellow card issued in respect of the proposed European Public Prosecutor’s Office was frankly and simply unacceptable.
We suggest in our report various ways in which the reasoned opinion procedure could be improved, without, we believe, the need for treaty change. These could include, for example, extending the deadline or reducing the threshold necessary for a yellow card to be issued. The essential point is that a yellow card should have a real impact, and be seen to have that impact. If a quarter of national parliaments feel strongly enough about a proposal to lodge reasoned opinions, then the Commission must sit up and take notice. It must undertake, if not formally to withdraw the proposal, then at least to amend it substantially. More generally, the Commission needs to be more open to dialogue with national parliaments. It must be prepared to argue its case and, on occasion, change its mind. The new Commission has publicly undertaken to be more receptive to reasoned opinions, which is good news, but the real test, in practice, has yet to come.
A bigger challenge for national parliaments is to engage upstream, in the early stages of policy development, when there is the greatest potential to exercise influence. That is especially difficult in our system of parliamentary scrutiny as it is predicated on reviewing legislative proposals only after they have been formally adopted by the Commission. In effect, we are stuck in reverse, when what we really want is a forward gear.
The so-called green card, described in paragraphs 55 to 59 of our report, could offer us that forward gear. The idea is straightforward: a group of national parliaments should be able to come together to propose legislation to the Commission, and the Commission should undertake to consider and respond to such proposals.
I emphasise that a green card procedure would not necessarily mean more legislation, or yet more Euro-initiatives. It could mean the amendment or repeal of existing legislation. Indeed, my sense is that the current Commission would be much more likely to respond positively to proposals from national parliaments which supported, for example, its own REFIT programme to simplify European law and reduce regulatory burdens. That is also very much our Committee’s approach. The response to the green card idea has so far been positive. At the COSAC conference—that is, the conference of chairs of committees such as the one I represent in your Lordships’ House—in Rome earlier this month, there was widespread support for the concept.