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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:11 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 7:11 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, I welcome this very constructive and instructive report from your Lordships’ EU Select Committee, and particularly the comments of my noble friend Lord Tugendhat and of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, opposite. We will probably have cross-party agreement on many of the recommendations and the additional comments that have been made.

I do not propose to make any additional recommendations but have one or two interests to declare: a formal one that ought to be noted and a slightly less formal one. My formal interest is that for three years I was the principal investigator for an ESRC-funded project on national parliaments and the European Union. My department in Cambridge received money to study very similar topics to those that your Lordships’ Select Committee looked at. The slightly more trivial interest is that, on the basis of that, I was asked to give oral evidence to the Select Committee and sent in written evidence, so I appear as a small footnote in the report. However, I am one of the very few people speaking this evening who is not a member of the Select Committee or one of its sub-committees. Not being part of the committee process here in many ways puts me very much on the back foot but also raises the issue of who becomes involved in decision-making and scrutiny. One of the recommendations is very much about mainstreaming European policy. I and my colleagues from the OPAL project told the Select Committee and the scrutiny committee in the other place that mainstreaming is important. The Dutch Parliament has done it and it has worked very effectively. The report suggests that that is important here—to get more people involved.

We see that the usual suspects are here to talk about Europe, but it is worse in the other place. The Members who are willing to talk about, or engage with, Europe are usually sceptic. They have a particular interest in Europe, but not one that is necessarily informed or engaged. They think that if they stand up and opine about Europe in a way that grabs the headlines, that will be effective with my electorate. That rather misses the point. If you simply make grandiose statements which do not relate to the detail of Europe, you do your constituents a disservice. There is a real problem with the way that some chambers of national parliaments engage with the European Union. It is a particular problem in the other place in the United Kingdom, but it reflects a wider problem among national parliamentarians.

Noble Lords have the luxury of being very unusual. By dint of not having constituents and not having to go home every weekend to talk to constituents and focus on detailed constituency casework, there is the opportunity to take more time to scrutinise legislation. There is also have the opportunity to do many of the things that have been mentioned this evening and which were recommended in the Select Committee report—to engage with colleagues in other parliaments. If you are expected to be here during the week and back in your constituency at the weekend, when do you go to Brussels, Berlin or Paris to talk to your opposite numbers? That is extremely difficult. We at this end of the building have the opportunity to talk to our colleagues, but we definitely need to find ways to engage more with other parliaments. Interparliamentary co-operation is vital.

One thing that is worth bearing in mind, but which very few national parliamentarians have been willing to bear in mind, is that for decades national parliaments have lost power under the European integration process. There has been a degree of deparliamentarisation. In most elected chambers, nobody wanted to talk about it. Who is willing to say, “Actually, we are less important than we used to be. The European Parliament has gained powers and has oversight but is also a democratic body representing the citizens of Europe”? That is not a terribly popular thing to say. If you are out trying to get votes in a domestic election, reminding people of the role of the European Parliament and of your own denuded role might not be the best way. Therefore, for many reasons, national parliaments have not been willing to talk about shifts in powers or the increased role of the European Parliament. In any case, the role of the European Parliament and giving it more powers does not in itself deal with some of the questions of deparliamentarisation. It does not bring Europe closer to citizens. The Lisbon treaty was supposed to do that by re-empowering national parliaments.

Here again, we have a slight difficulty of language. Many members of national parliaments would ask, “What do you mean by saying that the Lisbon treaty has given us new powers or given us powers back”? They are very reluctant to accept that powers have shifted and, in some cases, suggest that the Lisbon treaty and the yellow card was little more than a sop. There are questions about whether national parliaments feel that they have powers and are willing and able to use them. That issue is hugely important. We do not necessarily need treaty change; we need national parliaments to use the powers that they have. That was made very clear in the appendix to the report, where other members of COSAC said that they needed not more powers but for national parliaments to step up to the plate and say, “There are things we can do. We can, and should, hold Ministers to account, but we are not very good at doing it”.

It is not just about Westminster. Indeed, your Lordships’ House is one of the Chambers that is deemed to be a paragon in many ways and which scrutinises European legislation very well, but holding Ministers to account is something which nobody but the Danish Folketing does particularly well. However, this is not about giving more powers but using the powers that we have in more imaginative ways and using them collaboratively and collectively.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, suggested, the roles of the European Parliament and of national parliaments are not part of a zero-sum game, they are about working together and ensuring that legislation at the European level is dealt with effectively. Each has different roles but we work through those roles most effectively if we co-operate, co-ordinate, exchange information, share ideas and stop the sort of turf wars that we saw at the start of the interparliamentary co-operation on common, foreign and security policy and prior to the deliberations of the Article 13 committee. It is important that parliaments co-operate vertically—national parliaments with the European Parliament—and horizontally with other national parliaments. As noble Lords have suggested, we need to do that on the basis of personal co-operation, interparty co-operation and within our parties in the other place and your Lordships’ House and our party families in the European Parliament, but also through working across parties at transnational level.

I can only say that I warmly endorse the recommendation of my noble friend Lord Tugendhat. I am not sure it is appropriate that I do so, but if the Conservative Party was part of the European People’s Party it would be able to engage more effectively in the work of the European Parliament and that would only be of benefit to the United Kingdom. Co-operation, co-ordination and exchange of information among personnel, parties and parliaments is one way in which national parliaments can become much more effective. Many of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report would ensure that those things come about.