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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:31 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 7:31 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, I join those who have paid a real tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for the leadership that he provides to the work of the committee and its sub-committees—and to the House as a whole for considering these matters. This report is profound and interesting; it raises major issues and deserves the close attention it is receiving in this debate.

There is a paradox, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, made reference to it. We are all concerned about the accountability of the Commission but it should not become a ritual for us in this House to have an exchange with the Government about our frustrations about the too-many occasions when papers do not arrive in time for proper consideration and analysis. This is a major fault in the way in which we operate. I am getting rather tired of Ministers appearing opposite and saying how sorry they are, and how determined they are to work with officials in ensuring that the delays can be overcome. It never happens. It goes on and, in many ways, gets worse. There is a sort of arrogance in the machinery of government here that must be overcome, because the committee work can be only as good as the information on which it is operating—and this means excellent communication between departments and the committees.

In relation to that, if there is to be a future for the European Union—and I suspect that everyone in this Chamber on this occasion believes that the EU is indispensable and must have a future—it will be a healthy future only if there is a real sense that the member countries and their Governments belong to, are part of, and engage in that community. If too many countries and Governments—and I am afraid that the United Kingdom is a prime culprit in this context—are sort of on sufferance in the community and all the time wanting to tell their electorates and public how they are battling for the interests of their own people against this menacing and octopus-like operation in Brussels, we are not going to have a strong future. We have to belong. In the context of belonging, we must have the accountability about which we are speaking in this debate. Accountability’s muscle depends in the end on being aware of a widely based public opinion in member countries that this whole business is relevant to them—that they have an interest in it and want to ensure that those who claim to represent them are therefore playing the dynamic part that they should be playing.

Very often, the scrutiny that takes place goes on in spite of any feeling of public engagement. The public have come to see the European affair—the institutions of Europe; if they see them at all—as an elitist, closed community of those who are playing the European game. I am not sure that the public are totally wrong about that. Those institutions have become elitist, and those of us who have been involved in Europe in one way or another have become part of that reality. We have to re-engage with the public as a whole.

In that respect, I have a suggestion to make about our work in our sub-committees. We do not give the priority that we should give to ensuring that we get a social cross-section of witnesses coming to us when we are taking evidence. I have looked through the reports of one committee after another, and too often we are talking to members of our own political and social elite in Britain, with their views. It is important to talk to people who are in the front line of the reality of how society is or is not functioning, and about what the frustrations are. That means that a great deal more hard thinking has to go into considering: is this bunch of witnesses that we have assembled really representative of Britain and the people who are dealing with the consequences of the policies agreed in Europe? There is a real need for us to tackle that; and I cannot emphasise that too strongly.

I was particularly interested by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, which was refreshing and challenging. It raised certain issues, of course. Would it not be nice if we were not starting from where we are? Historians may well find it interesting to consider why we went for a directly elected European Parliament. When I was Minister of State at the Foreign Office, we were in the period of transition. I was uneasy about what was happening then because it seemed to me that among our own parliamentary body in Britain we were going to lose a degree of direct engagement in the affairs of the European Union. As happened then, people went from our Parliament to the European assembly and reported back to our Parliament. It was a broader basis of engagement. Parliament, through that process, was enabled and encouraged to see the relevance of what was going on in Europe to Parliament’s immediate affairs. Similarly, there are parliamentarians in the directly-elected European Parliament who are not as close to the reality of politics and frustrations of public policy, its implementation and contradictions as the people within the political system, whether British, French, German or whatever. That is an unfortunate divide. I do not see the clock being put back but we have to face up to it.

That takes us into another, much more profound, issue. As I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, she provoked me into thinking about it again, and it is not the first time that I reflected upon it. Perhaps we would have had a stronger Europe if we had gone for a more confederal Europe, as distinct from a federal Europe. The reality that we are coming up to is one in which we want a Europe of nation states that co-operate; that is the implication of everything that we are discussing; we want agreement between nation states. That is a sensible reality. Unfortunately, institutions that were established were much more in the context of a federal Europe. We have to face that and debate that. Furthermore, we have to ensure that our Governments, of whatever persuasion, are taking that ongoing reality seriously, because we need perhaps to get back to the confederal approach. I say that as a passionate pro-European.

It has been a very interesting debate so far. What I am more convinced about than ever is that we have to work at accountability. It is not just a matter of finding arrangements for better communication; it is a matter of politicians in different countries being able to work together, seeing much more of each other and developing a common demand of Ministers and the rest. It is also a matter of making sure that British society—a cross-section of British society at all levels—is drawn into our own work and feels that our work is relevant and that they can have a say in what we are doing.