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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:34 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, The Arctic Committee 6:34 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said in his introduction, this report and debate are particularly important because they are about democratic accountability within the European Union—something that all of us, whether we are anti-Europe, pro-Europe or trying to reform Europe, are aware of, and something that needs to change.

The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, mentioned the 1979 election. I, too, was an MEP, but I did not enter the European Parliament until 1994. Before 1979, we had a European Assembly made up of national parliaments—and, basically, it did not work. That is why it needed to change at that time. I am glad to see that the report does not look back to that sort of model. It is good news that we are not trying to work back in that way.

It is useful to say how the system is supposed to work. National parliaments have a very specific role within the European architecture. They always have done. It is clearly to call national Governments to account. That is the fundamental element of European liberal democracies. Parliaments are there to control their Executives and their Ministers. It is Ministers who go to the Council of Ministers and make decisions. Whether before or after those decisions, national parliaments have a fundamental role in the way that Europe works through the Council of Ministers.

The European Parliament has its direct democratic role in terms of representing citizens, however well that does or does not work, and what you have, although few people outside this architecture understand it, is effectively a bicameral European Parliament. You have a house that represents citizens, which is the European Parliament at the moment, and you have a house that represents nation states and Governments, which is the Council of Ministers. Between them, they make decisions.

They do not initiate legislation under normal circumstances, but of course in the UK the Houses of Parliament do not on the whole initiate legislation, either; it is done by the Executive. Successful Private Members’ Bills are few and far between. That is how the system should work: national parliaments tie down their Ministers and their Governments in terms of accountability, and you have a European Parliament that should be fully respected by its citizens and represents direct democratic accountability.

Of course, that does not work perfectly. In fact, it does not necessarily work very well at all, because for that system to work there needs to be full confidence in the European Parliament and parliaments have to call Ministers to account effectively. It needs national Members of Parliament to understand how European institutions actually work, and that is a huge challenge. Certainly, when I was an MEP, I was quite astounded by how national parliamentarians had no clue about how the European Union worked. That is key, and I find it quite strange.

It also needs subsidiarity to work. Subsidiarity means that the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers do only things that are appropriate to the legislation they are undertaking, but that requires a common understanding of what levels of subsidiarity might be, and there is quite a north/south divide on that.

The first route in terms of getting institutions to work to more democratically is to get that system to work. Certainly, in terms of European Union reform and the European Parliament, that requires getting rid of the double seat of Strasbourg and Brussels, the European Parliament stopping its penchant for turf wars with the other institutions, and better representation. I entirely agree that regional representation is much better because of proportional representation, but it is more difficult in terms of single-Member accountability. Ironically, I was the Liberal Democrat who suffered from proportional representation in 1999. In certain nations, such as France, there is the national responsibility of deputies. I do not think that is a very good system, but clearly national Governments should be able to decide. The size of the European Parliament should perhaps be controlled, but who are we, as the House of Lords, to preach on that matter?

When it comes to national Parliaments, I think that the most important thing, in terms of national architecture, is that we do not start setting up further institutions that do not have the power to do anything. The Economic and Social Committee—and I would even say the Committee of Regions—are bodies that were set up at particular times. They are there for consultation, they can give their opinion, but, other than that, they have no ability to influence what goes on. I think that that is a major lesson. In my view, they should be abolished because of that.

I think the yellow card system is a good one, but we have seen, perhaps because it is in its infancy, the difficulty of getting it to work. The green card system that the committee has described is very positive and could be set up, I am sure, without a treaty change in terms of having an institutional agreement, which happens a lot within European institutions. Certainly my experience when I had the honour to chair the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, when I went to one of the newly established Defence and Security Conferences that happen every six months in the capital of the presidency at that time, was very mixed. It was to a degree a talking shop. Some of the nations felt that it should be able to give recommendations and vote, which it could do on certain issues. Others felt that we should keep well away from that area. It was very limited in what it was able to do.

As far as the commission is concerned—we have, of course, 28 commissioners from 28 member states—I wonder whether each commissioner should be allocated not their own nationality but a country, an EU member state with which they particularly liaise. That may be a way in which accountability to national Parliaments could work. It is particularly important in the second-pillar areas, justice and home affairs and foreign affairs, where there is not exclusive European Union competency.

For instance, the High Representative issued an annual report on the External Affairs Committee’s success or otherwise during the year. That would have been something that we wanted to talk to the external affairs service about, and I am sure that other national Parliaments would have wanted to as well. Clearly the external affairs High Representative is not someone who can go around to 28 member states, but there are other ways of doing that. I think also—and I do not think the report gets fully into this—that with regard to the President of the Council, Donald Tusk, there is a need for direct parliamentary accountability to a degree.

Here in Westminster I agree entirely that there should be pre-Council scrutiny. I think our own sub-committees should scrutinise legislation openly. We have closed sessions at the moment; I do not understand that. They should be open. We should show the transparency in this House that we are asking for elsewhere. There should be greater liaison between House of Commons committees and the House of Lords. The EU Committee has tried to bring together MEPs, MPs and Members of this House in a triumvirate of discussions. That has been of limited success, but I think it should work hard on that.

I think that the biggest gap, though—and the report emphasises this—is in the area of economic and monetary affairs. That does not affect the United Kingdom quite as much as others, but there is definitely a deficit there. In other reports that I have read, there has been almost an opt-out by national parliamentarians to get involved with those issues at a European level—except for the Republic of Ireland. That is quite strange, because it is an area that clearly needs to be filled in terms of democratic accountability. I was interested in Graham Bishop’s evidence in the report that it was only the ECON committee that had any chance of calling the ECB to account. I think that that is absolutely correct.

I very much welcome this report. I am very pleased that the Minister replying, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has a long history in European issues. I look forward to his reply to the many questions that there will be. Certainly, democratic accountability is wanting. The European Parliament is an excellent institution that needs to improve itself. This is an area that we need to make work as it is supposed to by making the improvements suggested by this report.