Moved by Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws
That this House takes note of the Report from the European Union Committee on the European Parliament Proposal for a Council decision adopting the provisions amending the Act concerning the election of the members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage (7th Report, HL Paper 87).
My Lords, I shall speak to both the Motions in my name on the Order Paper. Before I begin, may I place on the record my thanks, and that of my committee, for the work of the incredible staff who serve the committee—particularly Tim Mitchell, a truly talented lawyer, who drafted this report?
In 2009 the treaty of Lisbon introduced new procedures that gave national parliaments the responsibility of policing the application to European Union legislative proposals of the EU’s principle of subsidiarity. It is a responsibility that I, and my colleagues on the EU Select Committee and its six sub-committees, take very seriously. The draft report that forms the basis of this debate was produced by the European Union Justice Sub-Committee, which I chair, and subsequently approved by the European Union Select Committee.
The report recommends that the House should submit to the European Union institutions, under Protocol 2 of the EU treaties, a reasoned opinion stating that it considers that the European Parliament’s proposal for reforming the EU’s electoral law does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. This is a rather timely matter, coming just after the recent debate.
This is the eighth time since 2009 that the European Union Select Committee has recommended this course of action to the House. Unusually, though, this is the first time that the committee has recommended that a subsidiarity reasoned opinion be issued against a legislative proposal brought forward by the European Parliament. That has never been done before.
As the report explains,
“The principle of subsidiarity provides that, in policy areas which do not fall within the exclusive competence of the European Union, but where competence is shared with Member States, the Union can act”— the following words are a quotation from Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union—
“‘only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States’”.
That, of course, is the principle of subsidiarity. In this way, in order to comply with the principle of subsidiarity, European Union action must be both necessary and add value, as compared to action at the member state level.
The European Parliament agreed this particular significant legislative proposal on electoral reform on
The proposed legislation has been brought forward by the European Parliament under a specific legal basis in the EU treaties calling on it to do so. In late November, as required by the treaties, the European Parliament sent its proposal to the Council. The member states must now agree to the proposal unanimously. Therefore, national vetoes will apply. Key aspects of the proposal are summarised briefly in paragraphs five and six of the report.
In addition to the committee’s two substantive subsidiarity concerns, to which I will turn in a moment, a number of important procedural requirements have not been followed by the European Parliament. These include a requirement to communicate legislative proposals to all national parliaments. This, in turn, sets the timetable for the issuing of reasoned opinions by national parliaments. But it appears that the Dutch Tweede Kammer, the House of Representatives in the bicameral Dutch Parliament, has only very recently received notification of this proposal—indeed, in the last few weeks. Therefore, the application of the usual eight-week window within which national parliaments can issue reasoned opinions is unclear. Does it date from then or back to the date when we, the UK Parliament, received it? Nevertheless, in the interests of issuing a reasoned opinion in the time, we are proceeding on the basis that the deadline expires tomorrow—
In addition, the European Parliament has failed to accompany its proposed legislation with a,
“detailed statement making it possible to appraise compliance with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality”.
That detailed statement is a requirement by the subsidiarity protocol to the treaties. To our mind, that is a significant omission and makes it very difficult for individual national parliaments to undertake their treaty-imposed obligation to assess the compliance of EU legislative proposals with subsidiarity. I say that as someone who is supportive of the European Union, but it really does fail to live by the standards it has set itself. The absence of a detailed statement should be a matter of real concern to this House.
The assumption underpinning the principle of subsidiarity is that decisions to legislate should be taken as closely as possible to the European Union citizen. The report notes:
“Any departure from this presumption should, therefore, be justified with sufficient detail and clarity so that EU citizens, and their representatives in national parliaments, can understand the”,
reasons for EU action. The Parliament’s failure in this instance makes any assessment virtually impossible. That was the view taken by my committee and endorsed by the full EU Select Committee of this House.
The report argues in paragraphs 12 to 15 that,
“this omission constitutes a clear failure to comply with the essential procedural requirements in the Subsidiarity Protocol”.
The report notes that such a procedural failure is also,
“a ground for judicial review under EU law”.
The report addresses, further to these procedural matters, two aspects of the proposal that my sub-committee believes are difficult to justify in subsidiarity terms—a difficulty exacerbated by the Parliament’s procedural failures. The proposed rules governing the selection of candidates for election to the European Parliament, in particular the imposition of a gender balance requirement, have caused us some reflection. I should make it clear that most of us are wholly supportive of gender balance and want to see that come into being, but this is not the power in the treaty with which to do it. In our view, it really should not be done at the European Union level but by member states in a way that is appropriate for the different nations.
The other matter of concern is the proposed expansion of the existing right to vote in European elections for all EU citizens resident in the EU, to encompass all EU citizens regardless of where they live—in or outside the EU. This seems to be creating an unlimited right to vote in the European Union for citizens, wherever they live in the world, for ever. As we know, European Union citizens who are nationals of a member state are usually confined to a 15-year limit when living abroad to exercise the right to vote. We feel that that incredible extension should be taken at the national level.
The report argues that the European Parliament’s failure to produce the requisite detailed subsidiarity statement, taken in conjunction with the two provisions I have just mentioned, justifies this House’s conclusion that the proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. Once the preliminary issue of subsidiarity has been concluded, my sub-committee will soon begin its formal scrutiny of this proposal.
What is the opinion of the noble Baroness—I am not sure of this myself, which is why I am asking the question—on the process of renegotiation the Prime Minister is currently involved in, whereby what is now called the yellow card would be substituted by a red card? Would it mean that national parliaments could block this proposal if they deemed it the right thing to do?
The situation is difficult to imagine. What should be happening here is very clear: a statement should normally be made explaining the justification, but subsidiarity is the primary principle that should be applied. Our concern was that not only was there a failure in terms of the normal proprieties, but that some of the proposals did not fit with subsidiarity at all in any event. We have not moved on to the second stage, but for the moment, I would rather leave the question of whether introducing a red card would somehow mean that one would be able to prevent it automatically. I am sure that my advisers would have an answer to that. We feel that this is precisely the kind of failure that gives the European Union a bad name. We are calling them on it, because if anything upsets citizens in the member states, it is the failure of the Union itself—here, it is the Parliament—to live by its own rules. Really, it is about conforming to the rulebook and that is the reason for this Motion today.
Once the preliminary issue of subsidiarity has been concluded, we will scrutinise the proposals in the normal way. But we are really concerned about the EU’s failure to live up to the standards it has set itself. That is the sort of thing that discredits the Union and causes alarm to many people within the United Kingdom just now—and I say that as someone who is a great supporter of the European Union.
I commend this report to the House and I beg to move.
My Lords, I am a member of the European Union Select Committee. Unfortunately, I was not present at the Select Committee’s discussion of this proposal; if I had been, I would have said some of the things I am going to say now.
I, of course, do not in any way apologise for, accept, or try to defend what appear to have been administrative mistakes in not sending documents in time to this Parliament or to the Tweede Kamer in the Netherlands; I know nothing about that. Clearly, if people have been remiss in not meeting deadlines, they should be held to account. I totally agree with my noble friend’s comments on that point. However, I am much more concerned with the substantive point she makes, and particularly with the second resolution, which I oppose in principle. I hope that I will have a chance to vote against it but I do not suppose that I will. However, I certainly do not want it said that it went through this House without any voice of dissent at all.
In the Motion before your Lordships, the second resolution says that this proposal of the European Parliament should be set aside on the ground of subsidiarity. It seems to me that any democratic parliament worthy of its name is accountable to its own electorate. Any democratic parliament worthy of its name is responsible, and should be responsible, for its own rules and procedures. It should not be beholden to any organisation outside. It should not be under the command of any outside authority or it is not a democratic parliament. In this case, of course, the European Parliament was set up by the member states through the treaty—we all know that. All parliaments, by definition, have to be set up by somebody other than themselves. This Parliament, which we have the honour to serve, was set up by kings of England—Edward I and subsequent monarchs—who summoned it. That does not mean to say that we expect the monarch or, indeed, the politically elected Executive branch—the Prime Minister or the Cabinet—to fix our rules of procedure or our methods of operation. It would be scandalous for anybody to suggest that and everybody would quite rightly think that that was a threat to the democratic independence of this House. No one has, of course, ever suggested that.
On that basis, it is perfectly reasonable that the European Parliament should make its own proposals for its own future procedures, including for its own electoral system. That is totally right, and it is right that it should do it. Above all, the application of the subsidiarity principle against its doing so seems to me entirely absurd. Of course, only the European Parliament is in a position to judge the functionality of any set of rules or procedures in relation to itself. To ask 28 different national parliaments to make their judgment is crazy. It would probably take 1,000 years for them all to agree on the rules to be adopted and they would not be in a position to assess the functionality and merits of any proposals of that kind in the way that people sitting in the European Parliament would be able to do. Therefore, on both pragmatic grounds and grounds of principle, I oppose this resolution. The principle of subsidiarity—indeed, my noble friend has just cited that principle—deems that matters should be decided at the European Union level only when they cannot be better decided at the level of the member states. I think I have said enough to indicate that this matter certainly could not be effectively decided at the level of the member states—that would be an absurdity. It must be decided at the centre by the European Parliament itself. On that basis, I oppose the second resolution.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the report which her sub-committee prepared for my EU Select Committee. I echo her words of thanks to members of that committee and to the excellent staff in drawing this together. It will already be clear from the exchanges that this is an interesting and, to some extent, unprecedented, coincidence in matters connected with process and substance. What we have heard so far has clearly shown deficiencies in a procedure in which, in fairness to the European Parliament—to which I will return in a moment—it has relatively new experience as a co-legislator. Therefore, we can perhaps condone the explanation relating to fault for this matter, although we should not allow it to go unchallenged.
I was not minded to speak in this debate—and will do so only briefly—had it not been for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford. He and I have known each other for quite a long time. I have huge respect for him and very much enjoy and value his contributions to our Select Committee. As he rightly said, he was not available on the relevant occasion. However, it would have been more helpful had he shared his concerns and dissent with the chairman of the sub-committee and/or myself. With pre-notification, I am sure that we would have done our best not to warn him off but at least to have seen whether we could accommodate those concerns or reflect them in our report. As noble Lords present who have had experience of negotiation will know, we are in the position where in effect a late card has been played and it is a little difficult to handle it at this stage.
I apologise for any discourtesy but, as soon as I saw this resolution on the Order Paper, I mentioned to my noble friend my opposition to it and invited her to make any comments that she wished to make. She made no comments to me on that occasion and I therefore assumed that she did not wish to have a discussion with me on the subject, but I would have been delighted to do so.
My Lords, we are now, as it were, in the Chamber and we need to take the argument as it goes. However, for the avoidance of doubt—I hope this reassures the chair of the sub-committee—if any noble Lord is minded to take the temperature of the House, I am very much inclined to defend the sub-committee’s recommendation. I put that on the record.
However, let us take that as past. I add two other points. We have a Motion for a reasoned opinion. We have good reasons for asking for that. Indeed, we made it clear in the report we prepared some years ago for your Lordships’ House on the role of national parliaments—that has already been touched on in relation to the current European negotiations—that a reasoned opinion deserves a reasoned response. In entering a reasoned opinion we seek to enter a dialogue with, and gain an explanation from, the European Parliament, not with the purpose of subverting this move but of getting it into the right order with the right conclusion—no more and no less than that.
That leads me to my final point. When we debated this matter in the Select Committee, I was concerned to make it clear to its members that I would not like it to be seen as an oblique or indirect attack on the European Parliament itself. Some people in these Chambers seek to downplay the role of the European Parliament and even, occasionally, to question its legitimacy. I do not share that view. My view of parliamentary sovereignty is that it is better to have two levels of application and scrutiny than only one. I think that we have a joint and complementary role. I would not claim any great virtue in it but I have laboured long and hard to try to dispel any illusion that we are in any sense at war with Members of the
European Parliament and its leadership. This is, I hope, a friendly discussion about procedure and a slightly more substantive one about the levels at which we take this argument forward. It is not a declaration of war or an attempt to create difficulty. I very much commend our report to the House.
My Lords, I had not planned to speak in this debate but the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, provoked me to add my tuppence worth. I should clarify to the House that I speak in my capacity as the chairman of another sub-committee of the EU Select Committee—the sub-committee on financial affairs. It is true that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, holds original, interesting and enormously important views, from which certainly my sub-committee benefits every week—week in and week out—and we are very grateful for his presence there.
I, too, was not present when this matter was discussed and when I saw it on the Order Paper I took it upon myself to find out what it was about. I came to the view that—as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and the chairman of the EU Select Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, have said—it was not a provocative gesture but the utilisation of a mechanism that has been hard fought for by this Parliament. This mechanism should improve dialogue and make us co-operate better, because it is an early warning system. It allows us to say, “Hang on, there is an issue here and we need to discuss it”.
I am slightly disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, did not suggest to me that he had opinions on this. I would, of course, have fed them into discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. Speaking only for myself, but as a member of the EU Select Committee, I absolutely support the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws.
My Lords, I speak as a member of the EU sub-committee on justice. I, too, pay tribute to our chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and to our advisers, who have been brilliant. There is very little to add to what has been said but I want to say something about why we felt this was so important.
One argument worth adding is an emotional one. A degree of irritation was felt at the report coming out just before Christmas at a time when parliaments were going in to recess around Europe and there was not time to respond. We have heard that both Dutch Houses did not get it, as far as we can see. We did get it but with very short notice, hence the rush to bring it to your Lordships’ House. So I think there is a degree of irritation.
This is a procedural issue. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, I am rather sympathetic to the report—at least to the matters within on gender equality. I think that that is great but it is not the point we were looking at. It is important to emphasise that we all felt that at a time when there is considerable criticism of the European Parliament and of European institutions more generally, it would have been better—hence this iterative process we hope to engage in—had they stuck to their procedures so that we could stick to ours. We were unanimous on this and I think that for all of us that was the strong argument. Therefore, I think that this should be supported.
My Lords, unlike the previous speakers I am not a member of the EU Select Committee or its sub-committee. But I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years and during that time served on the Legal Affairs Committee and the Constitutional Affairs Committee. It is a truism that it is very important that the European Union, and the European Parliament within it, works on the basis of conferred competencies. In other words, it can only do what it is permitted to do by the treaties that set the institutions up.
As I mentioned, I served a considerable number of years on the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the EP. It is one of its characteristics that in a chamber of enthusiastic pro-Europeans, it is one of the most enthusiastic parts. We saw only a few weeks ago, in the discussions on tax credits between this House and the other place, that parliaments are always angling to gain a bit of territory. You see this in a pronounced form from time to time in the European Parliament. But the important point about this proposal was mentioned at the outset by the noble Baroness: subsidiarity has nothing to do with the merits of the subject in question. The only issue is whether the European Parliament, in its proposals, which are after all not legislation but only draft legislation, has overreached itself. Having looked at it—although not at great length—I think there is a strong case for saying it has.
A separate but important aspect is whether the appropriate procedures have been adhered to. It seems pretty clear that they have not. Therefore, we are looking at a proposal from the European Parliament in the European legislative system, which, as currently drafted, breaches the principle of subsidiarity and which, in any event, has been brought forward in a flawed manner.
My Lords, I am a member of the sub-committee and I would like to put on record how good it is to serve on a committee chaired by my noble friend. She is a very effective chair and I think everybody on the committee recognises that and is rather inspired by her from time to time. It can be quite entertaining to watch her irresistible charm being put to the cruellest effect.
This report is very important. Of course, all of us who serve on committees that produce reports think that every report is important. But this is a particularly significant one because it touches on much wider issues, which are very close to the current negotiations led by our Prime Minister. I will touch on some of those wider issues.
History is a long process over many decades and centuries. It will examine the proposition that Europe might have had a more effective and powerful story had it gone for a confederal as distinct from a federal approach. Sometimes, what confederations produce has stronger meaning than top-down federal institutions.
But that will be resolved in history. It just leaves me to say that I do not believe that the negotiations in which our Prime Minister is involved will be anything like the end of the story. This debate will go on for a long time. Indeed, in much of the evidence that we took this kept coming up as a reality.
I am totally convinced that strong parliaments come from struggle. If we look at our own Parliament, we see that a great number of struggles led to its evolution. We like to talk about it being the most successful parliamentary system in the world. We would do just as well to remember our forebears who struggled, and fought on occasion, to make that a possibility. There is an inevitable struggle going on within the history of the European Union. The struggle is for the kind of Parliament we want. That will go on. If the Parliament is to be effective and to mean anything, it will create awkward occasions. But that does not mean we have to succumb to everything it says. Its recommendations will always be stronger if they have been thoroughly tested. If they do not stand up and are rejected, in the long run that will be a good thing for the evolution of the Parliament itself. The distinguished chair of the EU Select Committee made the point—and I am very glad that he did—that we are not in a war but in a meaningful debate about strengthening institutions. So there our report is highly relevant and should be taken very seriously.
However, there is another issue. I do not know what the perfect description of democracy is and I always feel a bit concerned about people who think they do, because the whole concept of democracy is being tested all the time and going through evolution and change. But for democracy to be successful it must be about empowering citizens—empowering people to be part of the process of the formation of policy that affects their lives. That is what it is about, and that means accountability is very important. One of the fundamental weaknesses of the European Parliament is that it is too remote from people.
I therefore look at the proposition of the European Parliament itself and say that I do not think it is helpful. Should we not be looking instead at how we strengthen the indirect representation of parliaments at the European level? How can a hard-working Member of the European Parliament, many of whom work very hard and with great dedication—the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, was no exception in this respect—on a whole range of issues at the European level with which they are confronted, be effectively part of the politics of the community in which they are living? The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, was a very good exception because he was very much part of the politics of the community in which he lives—I know because I live adjacently to it. But it is asking a hell of a lot.
Similarly, how do you breed a sense of relationship to the big issues that are coming before Europe if national parliaments have no direct feeling of responsibility for Europe? They can have the luxury of being negative, rather than facing up to the responsibility of making a positive contribution. There is a lot to be thought through here. The European Parliament has been getting a bit ahead of the game on this one and may actually be kicking into its own goal—well, perhaps not its own goal as an institution, because it may have institutional ambitions, but in terms of what it is theoretically there to achieve.
I am very glad to have been part of this. It is always extremely challenging for somebody who is not a lawyer to sit on a committee on which there are so many effective lawyers arguing so well, but it is an extremely stimulating committee on which to serve, and our chairmanship is tremendous and has a great strength about it, and is all the time facilitating our work. I hope the House will take this report very seriously and endorse it.
My Lords, I, too, have the honour of being a member of the sub-committee and I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about our marvellous chair. I will spare her blushes and not repeat it—he put it far better than I would anyway.
As another non-lawyer on the committee, perhaps it is helpful for me simply to put succinctly what I believe this matter is about. A case for subsidiarity was not made. We are asking for one to be made. It is really that simple and if, rather to my surprise, this does test the mood of the House, I hope we will all support that proposition.
My Lords, I speak on this subject for the very first time on behalf of the party. Having spent 15 years in the European Parliament, it is a great privilege. The European Union Committee is regarded very highly by the Parliament, the Commission and the Council. Therefore, I see absolutely no reason why a reasoned opinion should not be sent. It would certainly be welcomed by the Council and the Commission.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, put his finger right on it. What we are dealing with is an own-initiative report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Like the Legal Affairs Committee and various other committees, when it is not taken too seriously it jumps ahead of itself and puts forward its wish list to the European Parliament. There are some excellent recommendations in the report and I urge your Lordships to read it, as well as the draft proposal, which is annexed. Interestingly, this wish list had to be deferred from going to plenary after it was voted on in committee because there was not enough widespread support for it to gain a majority. It therefore went to the Strasbourg plenary in November.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Kennedy on her chairmanship of the committee and absolutely endorse her reference to the excellent work done by the staff of that committee and, indeed, by the staff who serve us throughout the House. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for his chairmanship of the EU Select Committee. During my 15 years in the Parliament, whenever the European Union Committee visited, it was taken seriously by all Members across the political spectrum.
In this instance, we have an own-initiative report that was agreed at the plenary and was duly sent to the Commission, the Council and the President of the Parliament. There was reference earlier to whether a red card would apply after the Prime Minister’s completed negotiations. A red card operates now, not for the
Parliament but indirectly because the Westminster Parliament can make its views known to the Minister and the Minister will then vote against or for in committee. This proposal, if it is to be amended, will have to be agreed unanimously. Interestingly, as I said, there are some good proposals and some that are perhaps indicative of the European Parliament jumping ahead of itself. One is to shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting.
I also advise your Lordships that under the leadership of Dame Glenis Wilmott, the Labour Members of the European Parliament voted against the report, for a number of reasons: ideas of transnational lists—not national or regional but pan-European; internet voting; pan-European party names and logos on the ballot papers; and issues over the single candidate for the EU Commission President. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, all parliaments—particularly the European Parliament and the European institutions, which are so defamed and misrepresented, certainly in the British media—need to make themselves less remote. Indeed, in the body of the report which goes to make up the amended Council decision, that is the stated intention.
Issues of gender equality were mentioned. But I should point out that the proposal calls for gender equality on the list and not in the make-up of Members going to the Parliament. That is to be decided by the voters, whether the lists are open or closed. It also calls for greater openness and transparency in how parties actually select their candidates. That is to be welcomed. It also recognises that as the Parliament, and indeed the Union, has grown in size, it needs to do more to connect with its citizens and the concept of European citizenship.
It is not my intention to detain your Lordships further but I want to make these closing points. As I said, it is an own-initiative report. The moment the clock starts ticking vis-à-vis consultation is when the Commission or the Council produces its draft and then sends it back to the European Parliament to be amended. Thus, the clock starts ticking on consultation and spreading the document further afield than the Commission, the Council and the Parliament.
I welcome the reasoned opinion. It is a good, proactive measure, again signalling the importance of this Parliament not just to subsidiarity and proportionality. Equally, it warns governments, including our own, about how we believe they should proceed when amending the Council decision on European elections. Therefore, I wholeheartedly endorse the work of the committees. I endorse both Motions before us and thank noble Lords for being so patient as I have rambled through my 15 years of experience. I hope I have put it to some good use.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, did not ramble at all. He was very eloquent. I thank the European Union Committee for its report and, much more importantly, for its work in the round. The list of your Lordships who devote time and energy to its work is long, but I thank them all, in particular my noble friend Lord Boswell and the noble
Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. This committee is a shining example of this House at its very best, picking to pieces legislation and exorcising the devil from the detail.
Before turning to the specific details of this issue, I shall put it in context—context of critical importance. Over the weekend, I reminded myself of public opinion of the European Parliament, since this seems to be the nub of the issue that the proposals are trying to address. The European Parliament is, according to the Parliament itself, suffering from a problem: declining participation rates in its elections. In the early 1980s, voter turnout was over 65%; in the last elections, it had fallen to beneath 42%.
It is worth noting, too, what voters think of the Parliament. Over the weekend I spent a few hours looking in the bowels of the European Parliament’s website. According to its November Eurobarometer survey, while seven out of 10 voters think that it plays an important role in running the EU, just one in four voters has a positive view of the Parliament. Those who do not trust the European Parliament outnumber those who trust it. The main reason given for not trusting the European Parliament is that it is,
“too far away from ordinary citizens”,
as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said. I say this without any glee or satisfaction, but this is the worrying backdrop to the proposals for the reform of European law that the Parliament has itself proposed.
As has been said, these are proposals from some of those in the European Parliament. They believe that this voter apathy and mistrust can be tackled in part by changing how the elections themselves are conducted. They are perfectly entitled to their views and I do not wish to impugn their motives. It is always worth considering whether voter engagement might be improved by changing electoral processes. However, I question, gently, as did the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whether this should be the priority of the European Parliament now, with all the other enormous problems that we are facing.
Consider what voters across Europe have told the European Commission are their priorities. According to polls conducted for the Commission itself last year, immigration, the state of the economy and unemployment are voters’ top three priorities. A relentless focus on identifying credible solutions to these problems in a way that respects national sovereignty is the way to increase public engagement and trust in the European Union.
This brings me to the proposals themselves. As I was reading them, the wise words of the Dutch Government,
“European where necessary, national where possible”,
were ringing in my ears. It is not necessary for Europe to micromanage the system for European elections, whereas it is both possible and desirable for national governments to do so. Unsurprisingly therefore, the Government do not agree with these proposals as they stand. For example, there is no public support for details of European political parties to appear on ballot papers, or for harmonised quotas of women candidates at European elections. Such provisions on electoral law should be a matter for national parliaments and individual political parties.
The Government therefore share the concern of the committee that the proposals do not comply with the principles of subsidiarity and that the issues that they are designed to address should be decided at a national level and not at European level. As the members of the committee have pointed out, there are concerns with the level at which the action is proposed, concerns on whether the measures suggested are proportionate to the issues being addressed and concerns as to their added value.
I shall focus briefly on two particular proposals that the committee has highlighted. The European Parliament has proposed that the lists that the political parties put forward at European elections should ensure gender equality. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, the Government believe that democratic institutions make the best decisions when they have a mix of people with different skills, backgrounds and experiences from across the country. We must ensure that women are better represented across all walks of life. The proportion of women in the British MEP group and that among MPs at Westminster have risen steadily over the years and I hope and expect that they will keep rising in the future. The Government do not, however, consider that it would be right to mandate a legal quota in order to effect change. Nor would it be right to install a one-size-fits-all solution for all countries and all political parties within them.
It is also proposed that EU citizens, including those living or working in a third country, should be able to vote in European elections. Of course, UK law already provides that British citizens living abroad—whether in another member state or otherwise—may register to vote in European elections in the UK for a maximum of 15 years after they were last registered to vote in the UK. The same time limit applies to voting in UK parliamentary elections. The Government are committed to scrapping the rule that bars British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting and will introduce stand-alone legislation to deliver this as a permanent change in due course. However, the Government share the committee’s concern that this sort of issue should be decided at a national level.
I shall also comment briefly on the European Parliament’s proposed changes to the way that the President of the European Commission is selected—the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process. The position of President of the European Commission is obviously important, so changes in this area need to be forensically scrutinised. If there are to be changes to the way the President of the Commission is selected, these changes must be seen as wanted and necessary by all member states. Consensus among member states is absolutely vital. The Government remain of the view that selection of the Commission President should remain a European Council decision and based in current EU law. The European Parliament has the right to draw up proposals under article 223(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union regarding the election of its members and it is within its rights to propose measures relating to that. However, it is the scope of these measures, both individually and as a whole, that is problematic where they breach subsidiarity.
Finally, there is the issue of the veto. All member states would need to approve the proposals in order for them to take effect. Perhaps anticipating some nations’ opposition to these proposals and their tenor, draft article 14 proposes to remove the veto for these matters. This, too, is unacceptable, as it would be wholly inappropriate for issues such as these to be decided by QMV.
Therefore, the Government wholeheartedly share the committee’s concerns on subsidiarity, both in terms of the content of the proposal and as regards procedural aspects. An important part of ensuring compliance with subsidiarity is the requirement for EU institutions to provide a robust assessment and justification for why an objective can be better achieved at EU level. As the committee has highlighted in its report, the case has not been made.
It is worth noting that the UK Government are not alone in having reservations regarding these proposals. During early discussions, other member states have expressed concerns on these proposals. Some 16 chambers from 10 member states have signed a letter to the European Parliament expressing their concerns on procedure regarding national parliaments. Similarly, a number of parliaments are considering issuing reasoned opinions on these measures.
All too often, the EU has exercised power in areas where decision-making could and should be done at a national, regional or local government level without interfering with the operation of the single market or the effective functioning of the EU. The EU must respect the layers of government that are closest and most accountable to European citizens, and national parliaments have a key role to play in ensuring that happens.
In conclusion, politicians across Europe wish to increase political engagement and trust in politics. This Government believe that the way to do this is by strengthening the role of this Parliament and of all national parliaments. Europe should focus on advancing our prosperity and security—the issues that citizens care about. For these reasons, the Government cannot and will not support the draft proposals that the committee has so expertly scrutinised.
My Lords, I thank all my noble friends for their participation in this debate. We have learned a lot about the importance of dialogue, which is the message that comes through from the Motion.
My noble friend Lord Davies mentioned to me last night that he would be opposing the second Motion. We did not have any discussions about it, because I was speaking to amendments to the Immigration Bill and it was not a time when I could enter into a discussion with him. However, I hope that, having been absent from the discussion in the Select Committee, he has been persuaded after having had the benefit of hearing the good reasons why we reached the conclusion that there should be a reasoned opinion and why the report was created in the way that it was.
As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, this is not about being antagonistic towards the European Parliament but about pointing out why procedure matters. It is very important for the relationship between member states and the Parliament in the European Union. These ways of working are important and it is how you inspire trust. I hope that the House will support the Motion and that my noble friend Lord Davies will, too.