Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:20 pm on 15th December 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 7:20 pm, 15th December 2014

If I may say so, that is an addition to but not a substitute for the recommendation we made. It is important, when one of the sub-committees of your Lordships’ House is preparing a report on a particular issue, that it takes evidence from the commissioner responsible at that time, not just once a year. It is normally possible to do this and co-operation is pretty good, on the whole. However, there have been occasions when it has not been and we suggested that it should never be that way again.

Suffice it to say that we did not need to go back to first principles when we started to write this report, because the Lisbon treaty settled once and for all that national parliaments have a role to play in shaping European legislation. They have a collective role to play through such procedures as the yellow card. We did not really have to argue that case: we just took it from there.

However, the evidence we took established that that role—which has existed since the Lisbon treaty came into force in 2009—was not being exercised very effectively, so far, and that reforms were needed if it was to be so exercised. That is not some British Eurosceptic fad; it is the view of many other national parliaments which we consulted when we were compiling our report. In the years to come, strengthening the role of national Parliaments needs to be one part of any positive reform agenda worthy of the name. I notice that both the Government, in their response to our report, and the European Council itself, in the strategic agenda for the next five years, refer to the need for that role to be developed.

I do not intend to dwell long on the Government's response to our report, which was broadly very satisfactory and supportive. However, one point requires comment. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, referred to it and I shall do likewise, but in slightly less polite terms. In their response to paragraph 15 of our report, the Government stated flatly that national parliaments were,

“the main source of democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU”.

That is a pretty odd remark to make, 35 years after the European Parliament became directly elected and when it has wide-ranging powers of co-decision with the Council on EU legislation. Tactically, it was aberrant to say this, since nothing is more likely to frustrate any effort to reform the role of national parliaments than it becoming a food fight between them and the European Parliament. Yes, “a main source”—national parliaments are that—but not “the main source”, which is surely getting it a bit wrong. There is no good argument that cannot be spoiled by exaggeration.

The Commission’s response to our report is a good deal less satisfactory than that of the Government and falls far short of what is needed. Fortunately, that response was made by the outgoing Barroso Commission and not the Commission that is now in office. We can therefore hope that the first Vice-President of the new Commission—Frans Timmermans, whose name has been mentioned several times in the debate and who is responsible for relationships with national parliaments—will take a more enlightened and flexible view as matters move forward.

It simply is not good enough to say, flatly, as the Commission did, that it would require treaty change to allow national parliaments more than eight weeks to submit reasoned opinions under the yellow card procedure. It is not good enough to say that to allow those reasoned opinions to contain consideration of the proportionality of the Commission's proposals is not possible without treaty change. The Commission could perfectly well take political decisions to accommodate both those reforms. Let us hope that it can be persuaded to do so.

Nor is it good enough for the Commission to duck—as it did in its response—our recommendation that it should commit itself to withdrawing or substantially amending any proposal that actually triggered a yellow card. The outgoing Commission’s response to the yellow card triggered by its proposal for a European public prosecutor’s office has been referred to already in this debate. It was, frankly, scandalously inept, amounting simply to saying that 14 national parliaments had got it wrong and the Commission, as usual, had got it right. That sort of approach simply will not do.

When the Minister replies to this debate, I hope that he will concentrate not so much on the Government’s response to our report—after all, if we have taken the trouble to read Command 8913, we know what that is—but rather on what the Government are going to do about the many ideas in the report with which they say they are in agreement. What contacts have the Government had so far with other member states about the need for these reforms? What progress have they made towards building coalitions to carry them forward? What dealings have they had with the incoming Commission to persuade it to take a more flexible approach than that of its predecessors?

Anyone reading the recent speeches by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary could be forgiven for thinking that this part of the reform—the issue of powers for national parliaments—was as evanescent as the smile on the Cheshire Cat. If so, that would be a major error. If we are to make progress, we surely need a broad-based, positive reform agenda that takes account of the views of all member states—not one that is tailor-made to the pressures from the UK Independence Party, which, in any case, is not the slightest bit interested in anything that leaves the UK as a member of a reformed European Union—and a reformed EU is, after all, the Government’s proclaimed objective. I hope that the Minister can give us a feel for the answers to those questions.