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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:51 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Tugendhat Lord Tugendhat Chair, EU Sub Committee C - External Affairs 6:51 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, I am delighted to have been a member of the committee that produced this report. I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on the way in which he chaired the committee and brought it to a successful conclusion. The report deals with two subjects crucial to the future of the European Union. One is its insufficient democratic roots and the other is the lack of an EU-wide demos. Just as we on our committee have drawn from ideas and practices of other parliaments—the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, rightly paid tribute to the Dutch and the Danes—so I hope that other parliaments will look at the ideas that we have put forward and draw on them.

My reference to insufficient democratic roots and the lack of an EU-wide demos does not mean that I fail to recognise the enormous progress made by the European Parliament in recent years. I will not pretend that I am happy with all that it does or has done, but that its power and influence in European Union affairs and over both the Council and the Commission has increased very considerably cannot be denied. The recent initiative of Spitzenkandidaten is an example of that. None the less, the European Parliament’s debates, decisions and personalities still fail to resonate within the member states. We see that in terms of electoral turnout and media coverage. For the vast majority of people throughout the European Union, the fulcrum of political debate and decision remains their national parliaments. Therefore, if we are to strengthen the European Union’s democratic accountability and framework and create an EU-wide demos, national parliaments must be more closely involved in European Union affairs.

The European Parliament and national parliaments must not be seen as opposing or even as rival forces; rather, they should be seen as complementary forms of democratic legitimacy, each with its own role in the European Union framework. In large, decentralised and democratic countries such as the United States and Germany, one of the two Houses in their bicameral legislatures represents the component states. This is the principle, suitably adapted for a vast Union of 28 sovereign states, with more than 500 million inhabitants, that I wish to see carried forward in the European Union. The specific proposals in this report go some way towards doing that and I fully support them. However, in addition, I should like to make three additional points of my own.

My first point is directed to the Commission. I recognise the practical problems of responding to the demands of 28 parliaments, many of which have two Chambers. I welcome the responsibility for inter-institutional relations accorded to Mr Frans Timmermans in his role as first vice-president, but he is a very busy man and he has a great many responsibilities. This particular responsibility does not feature very high on the list. I noticed that when I looked at the website. Therefore, more is needed.

Many years ago, in the late 1970s, when I was a member of the Jenkins Commission, Mr Jenkins signalled a change in the relationship between the Commission and the European Parliament and the enhanced role of the latter by appointing a commissioner for European affairs, the senior commissioner at that time, Lorenzo Natali, an Italian vice-president. These days, there are not enough proper jobs to go around for 28 commissioners. In those days, some of us had three or four directorates-general, while some people now have less than one directorate-general. So I do not hesitate to suggest setting up a new body in the Commission to provide work for a commissioner. I think that the Commission should consider setting up a department for parliamentary affairs with a commissioner responsible for dealing with both national parliaments and the European Parliament as his main responsibility. By dealing with both the national parliaments and the European Parliament, it would emphasise the fact that these are two complementary forms of democratic legitimacy and not rival forms. Were there to be such a body within the European Commission, it would facilitate the Commission’s dealings with the national parliaments and make it less difficult for national parliaments to make their voice and opinion heard in Brussels. That is my first suggestion.

My second suggestion is to Her Majesty's Government, or at least to the Conservative element in it—the element that I support. I am delighted that the Government have explicitly welcomed the committee’s suggestion for greater co-operation between national parliaments and the European Union Parliament and also welcomed a greater engagement between the national parliaments. However, I wonder whether the Government—or the Conservative element in it—have fully thought through the likely consequences of such a development. As we all know, parliaments work through political parties, so this closer co-operation and engagement will be conducted by and through political parties, which in turn is likely to enhance the existing links between parties in the European Parliament and parties in the national parliaments and to foster new combinations of parties. That in turn will strengthen the influence of the big political families, left, right and centre. This will, I am afraid, leave those parties, such as the Conservative Party, which are not part of a big political family, at a very considerable disadvantage. I strongly recommend to the Conservative element in the Government that it should seek to end this self-imposed isolation. In doing so, it would be able significantly to increase its influence and, perhaps, avoid débâcles of the sort that occurred not so long ago over the appointment of the Commission President.

In this respect, I would draw a parallel with what happened over enlargement. As noble Lords will recall, the United Kingdom, under Conservative as well as Labour Governments, was one of the strongest advocates of bringing into the European Union the countries of central and eastern Europe. Somehow, it did not seem to foresee what this would mean in terms of free movement of labour, and it is now faced with the consequences. I would not like a similar lack of foresight to lead to a disadvantage for my party in terms of the European Parliament and the greater engagement of national parliaments.

My third point is addressed to the House of Commons. At present, EU matters are largely seen as the preserve of the admirable European Scrutiny Committee, under its very energetic chairman. However, just as national parliaments can reinforce the European Parliament in promoting democratic accountability and strengthening the democratic framework of the European Union, so other Commons committees could reinforce the role of the European Scrutiny Committee. I should like to see the subject-specific committees in the House of Commons become more engaged in considering the impact of existing EU legislation, and possible changes to it, whether by addition, amendment, or the return of powers to the member states. I should also like to see the subject-specific committees in the House of Commons do much more to hold British Ministers to account for what they do and say and advocate in the various Councils of Ministers. I should like to see this done both before Ministers go to Brussels and when they return. In that way, a very considerable strengthening in democratic accountability would occur.

I strongly support the proposals in the report, but I should also like consideration to be given to the three that I have added.