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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:53 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 7:53 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, the idea of strengthening the role of national parliaments in the EU looks, on the surface, fairly obvious. The EU has gradually acquired additional competency and the Lisbon treaty, while giving more power to the European Parliament, has not led, as was intended—as we were reminded by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—to a parallel development between the Commission and the parliaments of member states. However, the more I read about subsidiarity and reasoned opinions—I have to acknowledge early training in the old Sub-Committee E under the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and our very patient legal adviser Mike Thomas—the more technical and legalistic are the arguments behind these Lisbon concepts and the related solutions. Today, for my own self-preservation among other things, I propose to step back to try to understand the view of the ordinary citizen.

To the UK public, Europe is still the continent: it is a vast bureaucratic union opposite our southern shores, which sends us regulations and with which we have to do business. People do not feel that they truly belong to it. It is a power bloc with which we need to trade and only an older minority—like most of us here—feel the emotion of solidarity since 1945, which bound the original founding fathers. The undoubted advantages of the single market and of political co-operation escape the ordinary citizen. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is right that we can correct that in time, although I have my doubts.

The more visible agenda is the athletic political stance of our Prime Minister, for whom there has to be a degree of sympathy. He has quite rightly aligned himself with reform and a gradual repatriation of national sovereignty. However, being British, he is also a bit of a loner: he stands out at EU summits—not unlike Mrs Thatcher before him—as an independent but somewhat isolated figure defending the nation of shopkeepers, while for some he can even be a source of fun or irritation. With his left hand he has to hold on to his coalition partner; with the other, as we approach the election, he is making increasing overtures to the right wing of his party and to potential defectors.

We all know the Prime Minister to be a pro-European at heart, but does he have what has been called a “Lust für Europa”? Is the UK still enjoying the luxury of not having been invaded in the last war? Can we overcome our island mentality, which makes us permanently different, difficult and ready to criticise, or do we have to make a virtue of it? Some of us were in Berlin a fortnight ago. We heard German Members of Parliament from the two Bundestag committees imploring us to stay in the EU to support a strong EU line against Russia, which is desperately needed at the moment. But why should they think we would leave the EU? Are we so aloof that we must continue to keep them guessing?

Political manoeuvring with the referendum and treaty change explains some, but not all, of this. I recognise that reform has been too sluggish. There were tactical arguments, for example, behind the recent opt-outs and opt-back-ins. I acknowledge that the UK is, in practice, an equal partner in the legislative sense. We take a lead in EU scrutiny through a range of committees, as I can see at first hand. Since the recession, there has also been a lot of alarm about the eurozone and whether there will be a two-tier Europe, but because of our strong financial position we have remained in that discussion. That is all good. Nevertheless, despite all that, I look forward to the day that we can pass on the role of prima ballerina to someone else.

Turning to subsidiarity, I have studied the two very helpful reports by the University of Copenhagen and the Tweede Kamer. The Danish analysis is fascinating, showing how national parliaments have suffered from disempowerment since Lisbon. We should all be encouraged by the acceleration of decision-making and the rapid rise of genuine early agreements in the European Parliament, which accounted for two-thirds of adopted proposals in 2012. However, this means that, as national parliaments, we need to do much more pre-legislative scrutiny. As has been said, we need to question Ministers before Council meetings as well as after. The Commission’s response shares this view and says that,

“very few national parliaments make their views known”,

at an early stage. That is very surprising. The voice of concerted national parliaments surely must be heard on the most important issues—yellow and green cards have been mentioned. As a member of the Select Committee, I was equally amazed and frustrated that the legally required number of reasoned opinions on the EPPO was still not enough to jog the Commission into action.

This attitude will surely change under President Jean-Claude Juncker. After all, he has promised to raise the profile of national parliaments and we must keep him to his word—whatever the Prime Minister’s view of his method of election, he will certainly find allies in this House on that subject. Perhaps he will pick up the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, for a new Commissioner for Parliaments. I hope that he will.

Apart from that, the Tweede Kamer report sensibly recommends a more active stance in interparliamentary co-operation. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, went into that, but I do not think we made enough of it in our report. It is not easy, as has been said, and it can only work on single issues that draw like-minded parliaments and connected members of the European Parliament together. Our Select Committee has discussed how that might be done in relation to reasoned opinions. One obvious practical suggestion is that the two UK Houses should increase their present liaison staff in Brussels. Strengthening the Commons Select Committees has also been mentioned, as has mainstreaming. Another solution is, of course, improving COSAC, which is a very long-term project. That could become a less formal and more flexible institution, although that also has its limitations.

It is often said that this House operates a better system of scrutiny and reporting than, shall we say, most other EU chambers. Should we therefore reach out a little further into Europe and hold seminars on topical issues of subsidiarity that might attract MPs and MEPs from other nations? The imperative in the EU always seems to be aiming for uniformity, but we already have disunity. We have natural coalitions with the Dutch and Germans. We could, for example, work more closely with Poland and the more recent EU members in eastern Europe.

I have said enough, but I stand by the recommendations in our report and I hope that they attract a much wider readership throughout the EU. The Government already mainly agree with us and the Minister is bound to say that this is a matter for Parliament. All the same, I am sure that he will be more generous than that and I look forward to what he is going to tell us.