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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:44 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Wilson of Tillyorn Lord Wilson of Tillyorn Crossbench 6:44 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, I count myself very much a new boy on the European Union Committee of your Lordships’ House, although I have served on sub-committees, which do such valuable work in monitoring what goes on. It was particularly instructive for me to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on this particular report on the relationship with the European Parliament.

We are all very familiar—much too familiar, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said—with the general disenchantment in this country with political institutions. It is true that the disenchantment with European Union institutions goes even deeper than that. It is striking to compare that with the atmosphere in Scotland during the referendum earlier this year. There was enormous enthusiasm, voter turnout of 85% and deep, long discussions for weeks before the referendum took place. This was completely different from the attitude towards the overall national institutions and, indeed, towards Europe.

It may be that absence makes the heart grows fonder, but in political terms we see no evidence that political distance from the institution to which you belong makes the heart grow any fonder at all—rather, the contrary. That is why, surely, the role of national parliaments in the European Union is so important and why the recommendations of this report can be so useful in dealing with the problem.

National parliaments, after all, if seen to be taking an active role in European Union affairs and not just holding our own Ministers to account—which I think we do very well—can make people feel that their own views and their own interests are being properly brought to bear on European institutions. It does not solve the whole problem of mistrust of European institutions, but it can and it should help. I am sure that other noble Lords are much more capable and experienced than I am to deal with the detailed recommendations of the report. I should like to touch in general terms on two aspects. One of them is the relationship with the Commission; the other is the relationship with the European Parliament.

When the committee visited Brussels to hold talks, I was struck by how responsive and how willing to discuss matters some commissioners and some of the very well informed officials there were. That was not true of all commissioners, or of all officials, but it was quite marked how much it helped to go and talk to the people there. The use of the reasoned opinion—the so-called yellow card procedure—has already been dealt with in detail by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, but one cannot help but be struck by this institution’s being a very good way of involving national parliaments. Very seldom is it possible for the national parliaments to get together and produce enough votes to convince the Commission that it needs to think again. On that one recent occasion to which the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, referred, what did that particular bit of the Commission do but simply, brusquely brush it aside and pay no attention whatever to what was said? That cannot be right and one hopes that it will never be repeated.

Fortunately, it seems that the new Commission is more conscious of the need to be responsive to the views of national parliaments. Let us hope that the new Commission will also be more flexible in the ways that could broaden the grounds for objection by national parliaments; for instance, the idea of a test of proportionality—the sledgehammer-to-nut type problem. Although that is not covered by the treaties, it should surely be possible, with the right will, to find informal ways in which that, too, could be taken into account by the Commission. Of course, attempting reforms on small matters such as this would not possibly justify treaty change, but if there is the will, then on a number of these things one gets the impression that it should be possible to find informal ways in which they could be carried forward.

It is right that we should press for a greater role for national parliaments, but it is right, too, that we should not just talk about the greater legitimacy that it would give to European institutions if our national Parliaments were involved, but also recognise the legitimacy of the European Parliament and take account of that, particularly since the Lisbon treaty.

I shall just make one point on the question of having greater contact with our own MEPs. This falls by the wayside all too often, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said, often because of timetabling issues, with MEPs rushing back to their enormous constituencies when there is no time for them to stop here in Westminster. It would be helpful if we could have greater contact with our own MEPs, here in Westminster if possible, but otherwise with us going to Brussels, or to Strasbourg if the Strasbourg institution is still operating. That would be a great advantage.

In all these things, we need to somehow get through the problem that the European institutions look like some huge and impenetrable bureaucratic machine, and the further away we are from it the more impenetrable it seems. If we can enhance the amount of personal contact that we have with our MEPs, commissioners and people who work in the Commission, I am sure that this would help. In many ways, it could be much more effective than reams of official papers.

It is encouraging that the Government took a generally positive attitude towards the recommendations of the committee, and encouraging that the new Commission seems responsive to the idea of greater involvement by national parliaments. However, much needs to be done to increase the role played by national parliaments, and we will need all these favourable winds to see the necessary and practical recommendations in the committee’s report put into practice.