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My Lords, I also begin by felicitating the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on his powerful speech. He has presided over the work of the Europe Union Committee with great distinction and great force. What he had to say at the beginning is, in principle, what the Minister has to reply to.
The public are largely unaware of the detail of what the European Union is doing. It seems to me that the Government have some responsibility for this and that we, as Members in Parliament, should engage more directly in giving indications of what is happening. If it were clear what was happening, I believe that the public would be much more supportive of the European Union than they are at present.
I was very proud to be a member of the committee that drafted the report. We have received a government response to it which is broadly sympathetic to the recommendations of the committee. However, I regret that the Government said, in their answer to the question about the scrutiny of what would happen at Council meetings:
“In practice a pre-European Council session would be of limited value given that the Minister would be unable to disclose the details of UK negotiating aims publicly and that the agendas, and certainly the details, of such meetings are often finalised at the last minute”.
If the Government respect the role of the national parliament in the European Union, it should—and it does now—disclose broadly what is to be discussed at the European Council meetings. It would provide an opportunity for Parliament to express its views, which the Government could take into account in their negotiations. I wholly accept that diplomacy may lead to bargaining or to changes of agenda at the last minute, but broadly it is known what European Councils are about to discuss, and it would be helpful if the advisers included the parliament itself.
However, the involvement of national parliaments in the business of the European Union is quite strongly supported the Government. I particularly want to refer to the green card process. That seems to be an innovative suggestion, which could lead to a greater recognition of the national interests, particularly if it is backed by the requisite number of other national parliaments and Governments. It is preferable having to table reasoned opinions, which may lead to yellow cards, a process that has not so far been effective, as was mentioned earlier in the debate. It is vital that the national parliaments, reflecting the needs and opinions of the public, are engaged at a very early stage in the legislative process; I think that is really beyond dispute, certainly in this House. It is encouraging that the new Commission has indicated that it would be responsive to national parliamentary opinion.
What is most lacking at present is the procedure for bringing forward the recommendations of this committee. The Government have indicated that they approve, broadly, of what we have said. So far, however, they have not given us any indication of how they might render those innovations effective. That is something that cannot be left entirely to the national parliaments themselves, although we have the power to open up discussions with other national parliaments, and no doubt we will do that. But the Government have influence, through Council meetings, on this sort of development, and I would very much like to hear how the Government propose to exercise that influence. It is a complex business for a parliament to negotiate with 27 other parliaments and with the Commission. We do not have an institutional arrangement that can facilitate these matters, but, as has been said already, modern technology enables us to get our views across and to engage with individuals. I totally agree with the proposal that we should get much closer to individual serving Members of the European Parliament, the Commission and even other Governments.
It might be possible to invite COSAC to consider these proposals in a special session. The agenda would need proper predetermination, and I think that it would be responded to positively. The present agendas of COSAC, referred to in the report, are unsatisfactory in that too often Governments talk de haut en bas, and the Commission talks de haut en bas to the members, and they do not allow time for adequate consideration to be given to the reactions of national parliaments.
The issue of this Parliament’s resources has been raised in the report and there has been some uncertainty about the Government’s response. I do not think we have made a sufficiently strong declaration about how we can be informed about what is happening in the European Union, or on how to convey our opinions on what is happening to the other members. We have a very effective Member speaking for our national Parliament in Brussels; she is an extraordinarily capable person and helps very considerably. However, because there are so many functions in that job, it might be reasonable to have more than one person: to have someone who engages with other member countries and other Members of the European Parliament on what the Commission is doing, and who keeps in very close touch with those whom our representative seeks to assist.
One of the basic problems of our membership of the European Union is the lack of interest of our electors. I do not mean this Chamber’s electors, but the electors in this country. That is, in part, the fault of a defective press and an inadequate media response to what is going on. Too often the reports are negative; too often the positives are not even ventilated. I hope that the BBC might engage to a greater extent with Members of the European Parliament, with members of the committee and generally with the issues, so that voting does not generally decline.
I conclude by reporting that the Government have stated, in their response, that they are,
“keen to work with Parliament to strengthen the system further”.
I hope that when my noble friend the Minister comes to respond to the debate, he will indicate in what ways that can be done.