[Relevant documents: Thirty-third Report from the European Scrutiny Committee Session 2001–02 HC 152-xxxiii, Third Special Report (Government Reply) and minutes of evidence from the European Scrutiny Committee Session 2002–03 HC 103-i.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Caplin.]
I am pleased that we have this opportunity to debate my Committee's report on democracy and accountability in the European Union and the role of national parliaments. The report is intended as the Committee's contribution to the Convention on the Future of Europe. We decided to focus on a specific aspect of the Convention's work—the role of national Parliaments and related issues of democracy and accountability—rather than cover all the main questions set out in the Laeken declaration.
Our inquiry was thorough, and it included 11 oral evidence sessions, some of which were held in Brussels. The political classes are not yet taking the Convention on the Future of Europe seriously enough, although how our lives are governed within the EU is at stake. The Convention has recently started drafting a new EU treaty, which will supersede the existing treaties. It is impossible to exaggerate its importance. For example, it is becoming clear that if the convention reaches a consensus on a new treaty, it will be difficult for member state Governments to unpick it.
Pressure is also building for a quick intergovernmental conference in 2003 to endorse the Convention's work, rather than waiting until 2004. Growing recognition of the Convention's importance is reflected in the increasing involvement of high-ranking Ministers, such as Germany's Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, and we will watch with interest to see how the Government view it and how they involve their Ministers when the Convention finishes its work.
Drafting a new treaty inevitably puts at risk the hard-won compromises incorporated in existing treaties. If other member states agree a new treaty, the position of any country that likes the old treaties, but not the new ones, will be uncomfortable, to say the least. It has to be said, too, that while the Convention process is welcome in that it allows open debate, the Convention itself is not representative. Some of its working groups have produced strongly integrationist reports, notably working group 10, which advocates qualified majority voting in matters such as criminal law. The Convention is therefore hugely significant for the United Kingdom and there is a great deal at stake in the next few months. There are, of course, opportunities as well as risks, which is why the analysis of the recommendations of my Committee's report is so important.
Instead of going through the report in detail, I intend first to say a little about the underlying problems that it examines and then highlight seven aspects of the report, taking account of developments since it was published and putting questions to the Minister. The Committee is likely to return to some subjects shortly.
The central problem that the report seeks to address is the disconnection between citizens and EU institutions—as reflected, for example, in the low turnout for European parliamentary elections. The Prime Minister, among others, has suggested that one remedy is a greater role for national Parliaments in the EU. The Committee strongly agrees, because national Parliaments generally have a much closer relationship with citizens than any of the EU institutions. National Parliaments reflect the history and culture of the country, and have fewer electors per Member. Also, Members can spend more time in their constituencies and deal with the majority of subjects that interest people.
National Parliaments, through their relatively close relationships with citizens, can help to remedy the EU's problem of democratic legitimacy. At present, democratic legitimacy rests on elected national Governments represented in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, but there are problems. Ministers in the Council act as legislators on their own, without most of the safeguards of a parliamentary Chamber. Most of all, they usually meet in secret. As for the European Parliament, the electorate have little knowledge of its activities and tend to vote on national issues in European Parliament elections.
Parties and individual MEPs are not held to account for their actions at EU level. On the other hand, national Parliaments have no formal role in EU law making. Their main role is to ensure that their own Ministers are made accountable for their activities in the Council, which is extremely difficult because the Council nearly always meets in secret. Unless national Parliaments acquire real influence in EU decision making, through their own Ministers or in other ways, they will never be in a position to strengthen the EU's democratic legitimacy.
To maintain intellectual consistency with that argument, does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Council of Ministers is to be opened up to allow full transparency and accountability, the concordats regulating the relationship between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations—in which that interrelationship is secret, not transparent—should also be opened up?
My hon. Friend will recall that we discussed that topic when we met the Scottish Parliament's European Committee. Will he confirm that we recommend in the report further consideration of privileged access to the Commission for the devolved Parliament's executives and that the topics discussed in meetings on the concordat should at least be listed?
I always enjoy listening to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, because he speaks for us all when he says that we want a greater role for national Parliaments. Will he tell the House what progress he has made in testing the temperature in similar European Scrutiny Committees? How do they view the importance of the role of national Parliaments and increasing the responsibility that they take for their citizens, rather than delegating it more and more to Europe?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for tempting me down that road. I could put my speech away and talk for a couple of hours on that subject. Through the work of the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union, or COSAC, a realisation of the situation has been achieved, especially in respect of the work of the Convention. As a consequence, other member states are more conscious of the role of their national Parliaments, and we should welcome that.
I move on to the first of the seven issues that I intend to mention, which is the need for the Council to meet in public when it legislates. That basic principle of democratic government is observed everywhere except North Korea and, shamefully, the EU. No EU member state would tolerate for a moment any state legislating on domestic issues behind closed doors, and they should not tolerate it in the EU. Apart from it being repugnant in principle, it has specific harmful effects that are listed in the report.
Ministers are evading responsibility, believing that they can blame Brussels. Compromises can be made that suit the interests of the Governments, but those contain no genuine accountability of government, which makes the Council mostly invisible and too remote from its citizens. We welcome the fact that the UK Government favour the Council meeting in public when it legislates and we support the modest steps taken at the Seville Council to open up proceedings, but more needs to be done.
Openness should apply to all legislative procedures, including the common agricultural policy and other policies that are not subject to co-decision. It should not be necessary to go to Brussels to find out what Ministers are saying and doing. Both a Hansard report and a video recording should be available. Will the Minister tell us where the opposition to that is coming from, what the Government plan to do and how soon greater openness will be achieved in the Council?
Secondly, steps are needed to stop presidencies rushing through controversial legislation without allowing sufficient time for scrutiny by national Parliaments and other interested parties. As we say in the report, procedures often combine the worst of both worlds: extremely long delays when Governments are unable to agree and a lack of time for scrutiny when it is needed most.
We emphasise that time for scrutiny by national Parliaments is not an optional add-on, but a fundamental aspect of accountability. It is in the Government's interest, as well as ours, to sort out the problem, as Ministers who are pressed into agreeing proposals before those are cleared by the Committee are usually called before us to explain their activities. I am told that they do not enjoy that experience.
Our report suggests that either national scrutiny reserves should be incorporated into EU procedures or there should be a minimum time between consideration of a text by the Committee of Permanent Representatives and agreement by the Council. In either case, there should be tightly drawn provisions for urgent cases.
The Convention's working group on national Parliaments has made a proposal on giving greater force to national scrutiny reserves, and the Committee intends to reconsider the matter in order to make a more specific proposal. We should ensure that that does not fall off the Convention's agenda. One problem is that some national Parliaments make little attempt to hold their Ministers to account. Some presidencies do not understand the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, and we have sought to deal with that through COSAC.
Thirdly, the Committee supports the view that the EU six-monthly presidency should be replaced by something longer-term, which, as well as being more effective, would remove the incentive for presidencies to rush through proposals toward the end of their six months so as to clock up presidency achievements. The EU presidency has proved to be controversial, mainly because smaller countries fear that larger ones would dominate a new-style presidency, but it should be possible for an arrangement that safeguards smaller countries' interests to be made.
The Committee also notes how badly organised the Council of Ministers and, especially, the European Council are. The European Council showed evidence of inadequate preparation for meetings and bouncing items on to the agenda. We call for greater professionalism.
Fourthly, we examined the case for electing the President of the Commission, and we are against for two reasons. First, it would weaken the Commission's ability to rise above sectional interests, which is the main reason for having a Commission, and, secondly, it would change the balance among EU institutions by giving the President greater authority while making him or her less accountable in practice, but do little to reconnect citizens with EU institutions.
We were least attracted by the option of MEPs electing the Commission President. That would do nothing to remedy the disconnection of citizens, but it would create the possibility of a politically motivated President backed by a majority in the European Parliament. It is said that the French and their German friends support that proposition, and I invite the Minister to tell us whether the Government support the alleged Franco-German plan.
The fifth aspect of the report is the step to bring the European Parliament and its citizens closer together, which the Convention and its large contingent of MEPs have so far ignored, although it will become more important if the European Parliament is given more power through the extension of the co-decision process.
An important aspect of the problem is the election of MEPs through party lists in multi-Member constituencies, at least in the UK. Will the Minister tell us how the change to the election system in the EU has affected the relationship between MEPs and constituents? The system needs to be re-examined. The UK electorate have universally rejected proportional representation. If the political classes ignore the electorate, they will have little to complain about when the electorate return the compliment by disengaging from the electoral process. That is why the Committee recommends a return to the British tradition of using first past the post for European elections.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way once again. Does he agree that although a spectrum of opinions was expressed during the Committee's debate, most firmly suggested moving away from the current system, which has disengaged people? If we do not move toward the Committee's recommendation on first past the post, we must have a system that at least has constituencies, so that constituents believe that they have a representative rather than somebody chosen from a large list to go to Brussels who then loses touch with the electorate for ever.
Yes. My hon. Friend has a valid point. I am sure that all Members have been burning the midnight oil while avidly reading the Committee's report, and they will have noticed that that recommendation was carried by the Chairman's casting vote. I was also voting on behalf of absent members of the Committee.
We will not help to promote the involvement of the electorate by confusing people with different systems of election for different democratically elected bodies—local government, devolved Parliaments and national Parliaments. All the evidence that I have seen suggests that people prefer first past the post because they are used to, and comfortable with, the system and because it allows them to make a decision.
Perhaps the Chairman of the Committee remembers that the amendment that led to that great change in the report was prompted by a suggestion of mine. The amendment was carried, which shows that we are considering a genuine all-party Committee report in the national interest and on a matter that goes to the heart of democracy in the United Kingdom. I concur with what the hon. Gentleman says.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out, as a matter of record, that his amendment was made, with the help of my casting vote. That amendment succeeded, but, if I remember rightly, his other 152 failed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful point. In my experience, when we discuss COSAC countries, we do so with other member states. Member states with PR sometimes look in envy at the UK system, which produces a majority Government. Many would like a system better than their own.
I joined the Select Committee on European Legislation two years after Mr. Cash. I met Mr. Andreotti in 1989, when he was the Italian President, although I do not know where he is now, or whether he is in prison yet. He had been an elected Member of Parliament since 1946 and, some 40 years later, had been in every Government during those years—there had been 53 elections. That is a fairly strong point against PR, but I do not want to concentrate too much on that aspect. I feel that I have given it fair coverage.
Then I will not give way.
The report argues for more effective enforcement of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Paragraph 106 gives a convincing explanation of why no EU institution is willing to comply with the principle of subsidiarity. The report points out that, in contrast, national Parliaments have no in-built institutional interest in transferring powers to the EU. We therefore conclude that national Parliaments should have a role in enforcing the principle.
The Convention's working groups on subsidiarity and on national Parliaments have since supported that by proposing an early-warning mechanism, whereby if a specified proportion of national Parliaments object to a proposal on the ground of subsidiarity, the Commission would have to re-examine it. In principle, that is a major development. It would give national Parliaments a formal, but small, role for the first time. In practice, however, it is not clear that it would have much impact, as there is nothing to prevent the Commission and other institutions from pressing on regardless.
If national Parliaments are to be subsidiarity watchdogs, they must be able to bite as well as bark. Will the Government support efforts to give a specified proportion of national Parliaments the power to block a Commission proposal? We considered ways of giving national Parliaments greater influence in EU policy-making, although such proposals tend to bring MEPs out in hot rashes. Some can even be caught foaming at the mouth.
I should emphasise what we are not proposing. We specifically reject the idea of a second Chamber and we do not want national Parliaments to get involved in the detail of scrutinising EU legislation and expenditure. Even if anyone wanted that to happen, MPs would be too busy to do it. We are not suggesting a change to the lines of accountability in the EU, and we are certainly not suggesting the creation of a new EU institution to tangle up the legislative process.
What we have in mind is national parliamentarians having a role in scrutiny and consultation that does not put too great a burden on national MEPs and that contributes to greater knowledge of, and interest in, EU matters in the national Parliaments. Rather than taking anything away from MEPs, that would strengthen the ability of national Parliaments to represent their citizens on such matters and to influence Ministers.
Members are well aware of the low level of interest in EU matters at Westminster. That is a serious problem, and it should concern us all. The European Scrutiny Committee advocates meetings that would bring together MEPs and MPs to scrutinise the Commission's annual work programme and question Commissioners on it; scrutinise other annual programmes, such as those of the European Council; and consider major reports, such as the annual report on the common foreign and security policy. MPs would be able to ask questions and put views directly to senior EU figures, although their role would remain one of scrutiny.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the low level of interest in the work of this Parliament and of the Committee is not alleviated by the fact that the Committee's meetings are held in private?
That is a valid point, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Committee addressed in its report. The Committee is committed to examining ways in which more of its work can be done in public. However, the Committee meets in public more often than in earlier years and many of its evidence sessions are televised. We are doing our little bit, but we want to improve.
Giscard d'Estaing, President of the Convention, proposes a congress. That proposal has encountered strong opposition, but the precise mechanism is not crucial. The congress could be a development on existing co-operation between the European Parliament and national Parliaments. At present, that co-operation consists of the European Parliament calling meetings—when it feels like it, on whatever subject it wishes and without consultation—and then complaining if national parliamentarians do not attend. National parliamentarians need a real stake and a real voice in that co-operation, but they lack those at present.
It is time for MPs and MEPs to decide what should be in the inter-parliamentary agreement proposed in the European Parliament's Napoletano report. I believe that the fears of MEPs are unjustified, and the EU has a lot to gain from involving national parliamentarians more.
It would be nice to end on an optimistic note, but I do not believe that it is realistic to do so. Despite the excellent work of the representative of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend Ms Stuart, who chaired the Convention working group on national Parliaments, it is not clear that the Convention is likely to make any proposal that would make a significant difference to the role of national Parliaments. If that is not put right, the Convention will not achieve the aim of reconnecting citizens with the EU. National Parliaments could contribute greatly to a more democratic and less remote EU, but only if they are given the opportunity so to do.
We are all grateful to Mr. Hood for his exposition of the issues at stake. I entirely agree with his remarks about the importance of the Convention, on which I serve as a representative of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister said that the decision whether the United Kingdom joins the euro is the most important constitutional issue facing the country. The outcome of the Convention will be of equal importance for the future of Parliament, our courts and our self-government as a country.
The developments in the Convention over the past few weeks added to my alarm that we are not fulfilling its prime purpose, which is to create a more democratic Europe that is closer to its citizens. That mandate was given to the Convention in the Laeken declaration, and pious words were spoken at the beginning of our proceedings back in February about the importance of re-engaging the ordinary citizen and closing the democratic deficit, but recent events have somewhat obscured that mission and old vested interests and institutions are increasingly reasserting their requirements for more powers and influence at the expense of the primary role of creating a more democratic European Union.
It was useful to have attended, and indeed given evidence to, the European Scrutiny Committee, and to have read its reports. I have frequently quoted from those reports in meetings in Brussels. In the plenary session on
Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that it is a pity that Ms Stuart is not here today? There may be some good reason for that, but given what emerged from the working group on national Parliaments that she chaired, the proposals are almost a waste of time. The further recommendation that European Union proposals could be blocked by two thirds of national Parliaments is constitutional nonsense.
To be helpful, my hon. Friend was in the House earlier this morning and has sent her apologies because she has to attend a family funeral.
I know that the hon. Lady would want to be here. To pick up on what was said in the Committee's deliberations last year, in favour of stronger rights than simple consultation on the subsidiarity principle, she and I are both trying to strengthen those proposals. She has proposed a yellow card and red card system, in which a small number of national Parliaments could request, and a larger number could require, that the Commission withdraw proposals that breach the subsidiarity principle.
The right hon. Gentleman may, because of his close involvement in the Convention, know better than I and other hon. Members where we might find the proposal. The conclusions of working group 4, which was chaired by the hon. Lady, include no express mention of yellow cards, red cards or any system that can be associated at all closely with that characterisation.
The hon. Gentleman is right in his implication that the proposals are not firm. Certainly, they have not been taken up formally by the Convention. Indeed, I share the view of the hon. Member for Clydesdale that the original recommendations of the working group were inadequate. A reason for that—and this perhaps follows from a remark of my hon. Friend Mr. Cash—is that policing the subsidiarity principle may be desirable, but it is too modest an aim. After all, that principle has been in treaty law for 10 years now. It was included under the Maastricht treaty. Giving national Parliaments the job of enforcing it is really an admission of defeat, in that the principle has not been observed. It is too modest a concession to give those Parliaments the job of doing something that should have happened anyway for the past decade. We must bid much higher.
My right hon. Friend is describing the principle of subsidiarity as a sort of Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes battle—no one quite knew who survived that. Conservative Members believe that subsidiarity should be strengthened and that national Parliaments should have an increased role, while the role of the Commission and the European Parliament should decrease in matters that are peculiarly significant to the member state. Could he give us some idea whether, as the Convention has developed, other member states have felt that national Parliaments and subsidiarity are as important as we in this country know them to be?
I am not an expert on Sherlock Holmes, but that particular battle was, I think, never wholly resolved. There was always another book coming out in which the final battle was to take place. So it is with subsidiarity.
Despite the fact that the principle has been in the treaty all these years, there has been a steady accretion of power by the European Union and its institutions. Even if we manage to do things better in future, there remain in the acquis communautaire many breaches of the principle. There is no appetite in the Convention for revisiting the past and putting right the breaches.
To give a direct answer to my hon. Friend, very few other member states have the same tradition of parliamentary democracy and instinct for self-government that drive this House in its demand that we should find a better way of deciding things, nearer to the citizens. Therefore, we—by which I mean myself and my co-representative, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston—are very much in a minority. However, I think that we are right and that we have public opinion on our side. We are fulfilling the Laeken declaration if we find new ways in which to bring powers nearer to the citizen, either at national or at sub-national level. There are strong demands from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and from local authorities to repatriate many measures that are decided in the remote tier of government in Europe.
On that point, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the British Government's representative is not in favour of powers being passed down to sub-state legislatures and has made no attempt to support measures that would bring that about?
I cannot speak for the Government, but I can speak for my party. We want to make a reality of devolution. One does not devolve powers to the citizen by taking more powers upwards to the European Union. That is what has been and is going on, and it has to stop. The only way in which we can get powers to the Scottish Parliament or to the Welsh Assembly, which is an internal matter for the United Kingdom Parliament, is to bring them back to the UK from Brussels. I shall join the hon. Gentleman in that endeavour, if he wishes.
I strongly support what the Committee has said about the need to go further than simply trying to ensure that subsidiarity is observed. We must get national Parliaments into the legislative process. At present, we are at the end of the food chain. A deluge of legislation is initiated and passed above our heads, and we have no real mechanism to stop or influence it. The volumes are increasing and many of the proposals are not only inadequately debated but not debated at all.
One of the Committee's earlier recommendations was that A points should be considered. Those are decisions that are agreed at official level in the European Union and are then passed without any discussion by the Council of Ministers. I was pleased to see that the Committee recommended that that should be considered. Sadly, it was not supported by the Government's response. To show the scale of the problem, a parliamentary written answer says:
"The list of A points requiring clearance from London over the past five years amounts to over 8,000 items."—[Hansard, 14 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 513W.]
That is a submerged part of the European Union. There are literally hundreds of working committees in Europe making important decisions about technical standards or implementation and compliance in which Ministers are not involved at all. I know, because when I was a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office my responsibilities included Europe. I admit that I failed to bring that huge area of decision making under even the vestiges of democratic control. The agenda and minutes of those committees are not published, and nobody knows where they sit or what they do, but they take important decisions affecting the people whom we represent. The Committee was right that the Convention looks down into that submerged part of the EU and tries to bring it under at least ministerial if not parliamentary control. That has not been supported by the Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why the European Union is going nowhere economically is the over-regulation that emerges from the failure of the system to control what comes out of the bureaucracy? That is going to accumulate. It has now reached proportions that are so vast that it is impossible to imagine how anybody would ever be able to gain control over it.
Yes. The European Union's itch to regulate and legislate is enormous because it has the luxury of legislating while the pain of raising the taxes to pay for it falls on national Governments, and that is having the most unfortunate economic consequences. One of my concerns in the Convention is that the economic future of Europe is not getting anything like the same attention as its political future. That is very noticeable in the debate in Germany. Last year, Germany re-elected a left-wing Government, but unemployment has continued to rise and it is now well over 4 million. The German Chancellor said that they cannot reduce interest rates because of the euro, and they cannot raise expenditure or cut taxes because of the stability pact—what the President of the Commission calls the stupid pact—so they are left with deregulation. At present, the European Union is introducing more measures on temporary and agency workers that will further restrict and regulate German and other European labour markets. There is complete disjunction between what the Germans say is necessary for their economy and the practice of the European Union.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the great success of the European project to date has been the successful completion of a single market that has created more jobs and more prosperity than we have ever seen? That is why so many countries want to join it.
The single market is being overtaken by world trade talks and by the creation of global free trade; the tariff wall between member states and the outside world is very low compared with when we joined the European Union. The significance of the customs union is much less than it was. Many crimes have been committed in the name of the single market; it has given the green light to enormous and unnecessary over-regulation, which is regrettably reflected in high unemployment. By world standards, the European Union is a low-growth, highly regulated, high-unemployment zone, and the Germans are extremely worried about it even if the hon. Gentleman is not.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the regulations introduced by the European Union have broken down all the barriers to trade between the 15 member states? Every regulation that is introduced in Europe supersedes regulations that would have stopped trade at national level: they have facilitated the growth of the European Union, not hindered it. Apart from this country and Denmark, most countries feel that regulation is working and is benefiting them. It is also significant that this country and Denmark are not in the euro and do not benefit from the abolishing of different currencies, which is another barrier to trade.
That is a highly selective reading of what is happening in Europe. I do want to engage in a discussion on the euro, but I must observe that the Germans whom I meet on the Convention are extremely worried about their economy. We should all be worried about German unemployment. It matters less when a small country slows down, but when the economic motor of the European Union records almost zero growth and when its unemployment stands at well over 4 million, the rest of Europe is in danger of catching an economic cold. The Germans attribute the problem to the over-regulation and rigidities that are at least in part attributable to the European Union. There is nothing that they can do about it, as they cannot get out of the euro. The stupid pact is still in the treaty, and deregulation means that it will require the consent of all other member states before they can start to dismantle the barriers to new jobs. I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis.
To return to my central point, Parliament should be even more ambitious in its demands on the Convention. It is becoming a bargaining session between the existing institutions, and national Parliaments are in danger of missing out. The Commission has a well-organised lobby and is represented in the Convention. All the working groups have Commission representatives, whose sole task is to defend and extend its interests. The European Parliament, too, thinks as a cohesive body. National Parliaments are not European institutions, however, and cannot organise themselves in quite the same way.
Moreover, member states, and particularly the Franco-German alliance, are beginning to assert themselves. Our last plenary session devoted a great deal of time to debating the French-German plan for two elected presidents—one for the Council and one for the Commission. That will do nothing to link the European Union with its citizens; it will simply create more presidents and politicians, giving more titles and status to the elite class that runs the European Union. The plan will not address the democratic deficit at all.
I thought that it was British policy to resist an elected Commission President, and the Committee certainly opposed such a proposal. Page 7 of the Government's response records that the Committee was
"not in favour of the Commission President being elected."
That comes from paragraph 80 of the original report. At the time—last year—the Government supported that view, and page 7 of their response states:
"We therefore do not believe it would be sensible to politicise the Commission through the election of its President."
There was a happy elision of the Government, the Opposition and the Committee against an elected Commission President. However, it has not lasted.
In the recent plenary session, the Secretary of State for Wales, who represents the Government, supported the French-German proposal word for word. I was sitting near him at the time, and that is exactly what he said. His speech is reported in the 111th edition of the Brussels Bulletin, which is put together by British officials for hon. Members' guidance. The Government now support the French Government plan, including the proposal for an elected Commission President.
That is a regrettable development, because it will be impossible for the Government to retrieve any concessions that they subsequently regret. The Convention is turning into an intergovernmental conference, partly because of the institutional bargaining to which I referred, and partly because France, Germany and other member states are engaging at Government level. It will therefore be impossible for the Government to retrieve matters at a subsequent intergovernmental conference, as they seem to believe that they can.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not recall his Government rejecting the proposed presidency of Jean-Luc Dehaene and insisting on Jacques Santer? We all know what happened to him. Is it not perhaps better to leave it to people in Brussels who know who they are dealing with to choose a Commission President?
The election of Jean-Luc Dehaene would have been a disaster for this country. A more powerful Commission making mistakes on an even bigger scale would have been detrimental to British interests.
The corruption and mismanagement of the Commission that eventually brought about its downfall were deeply rooted in its mode of working and its structure, which long pre-dated Mr. Santer's accession to the presidency. It is flawed as an institution, and that could not be cured by making the least democratic European institution—the Commission—more powerful by making its president elected and therefore making it able to assert itself over other institutions and national Parliaments. That is why I entirely agree with the earlier observations about that, and I regret that they are not now supported by the Government.
I cannot recall whether the Committee Chairman referred to the ever closer union clause in the treaty, but the Committee recommended that it should be removed. I agree with him: it is prejudicial to include in the treaty a presumption in favour of ever closer union, to be used by the European Court of Justice as a reason for further transfer of powers. That is why the Committee, I and a number of members of the Convention from other member states agreed that that should go.
Again, I was disappointed that the Government did not support that recommendation, and the response was simply a waffly reference to the need to ensure that the language of the treaties provides a clear and transparent guide to the policies and objectives of the European Union. We can all agree with that, but the Committee thinks that the clause should go, and I agree. There is a chance that it will go, but I am afraid that it will not be because of pressure from the British Government.
On the existing scrutiny procedure, it is important that we in the national Parliaments do our bit to make a reality of our existing powers. Indeed, I am glad that that has the Government's general support: they agree that we need to influence the Council of Ministers in such a way. However, their response does not do full justice to the long list of examples given on page 22 of the report, which says that the scrutiny process is something of a shambles because of the late submission of documents—or, in my experience, because of wrong documents being submitted. I remember attending a Standing Committee to debate the European arrest warrant that had to be adjourned because the Department for Trade and Industry had supplied the wrong documents. It meant that when scrutiny did take place, it was only a day or two before final decisions were to be made. In no realistic sense was the House able to express an opinion and hon. Members could not get their reservations and recommendations acted on by the Government.
We must be more ambitious in our demands. Such things as the scrutiny reserve ought to be respected and enforced, perhaps in the treaty, so that it cannot be overridden, except in extreme and unusual circumstances, by the Council of Ministers. The Commission ought not to have the monopoly of initiative on legislation. It is absurd, in a so-called democratic Europe, that 20 people in Europe, none of them elected, have a monopoly on legislative initiative. If a member state with such a system was to apply for membership of the European Union, it would undoubtedly be turned down because it would be in breach of the Copenhagen criteria on its democratic structures. Therefore, the European Union is not fit for membership of the European Union. We must bring scrutiny under the control of an elected Parliament.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I wish to conclude. I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute, but I have two final points to make.
I say to the Minister that the United Kingdom Government must back the Committee's demands. I have given several examples of how the Government have not acted on even modest recommendations by the Committee. That is clear from the response that they have given and their actions in the Convention.
Finally, the Government must make no more concessions in the Convention that they will be unable to retrieve. If we are to create a democratic Europe, they must be bolder in their demands; resist the community method taking over from the intergovernmental method of decision making; and improve—indeed, democratise—the intergovernmental method to involve national Parliaments and those whom we represent. If we do not do that, the Convention's very purpose will have failed.
It has dawned on me only in the past 20 minutes or so that I am probably the only Back Bencher present who is not a member of the Committee or here for some other purpose connected to Europe or their position. I have not fled—I am still here, and I congratulate the Committee on an excellent report. Much of it, in language that is plain and easy to understand, deals with the internal arrangements for decision making in the European Union. There is no doubt that the internal decision-making processes are necessarily complex, and they probably will remain so. That suggests that the task to make the EU more publicly accountable, at a time when it is being greatly enlarged, will be very difficult.
Enlargement is having the immediate effect of reducing democracy in the EU, inasmuch as the Europewide limits on MEPs are leading to a reduction in representation in existing member states. I note that in paragraphs 92 and 93, in which the Committee considers the relationship between the European Parliament and citizens, the only method suggested to enhance MEPs' relationship with voters is to bring back first-past-the-post elections. In such a good report, I regret that that is such a slim section. Much more must be done, and the voting system does not have much to do with it. MEPs who are trying to represent more than 500,000 voters effectively will still find that a tall order, and it is not helped by their having to do so in two different Parliament buildings, hundreds of miles from each other. Moreover, the media show little interest in any European matter, unless it is bad news.
There should be greater representation, not less. However, that does not necessarily mean more MEPs. We only have to look to the role of our Select Committees to see that parliamentarians can develop their representational role without increasing numbers. The question is how to apply that model to the EU. There could be EU Select Committees, and I see no reason why they should not include national parliamentarians. I cannot see why they could not also bring on board expertise outwith elected Members.
We must develop a strong interrogative culture in the EU. Perhaps I have not read enough on the matter, but I am not aware of any external scrutiny being deployed to investigate EU corruption, the amount of waste that goes on, or the inefficiencies, which some people might see as normal for such a large, multinational organisation.
The hon. Gentleman may or may not be interested to know that, nearly 10 years ago, I promoted a campaign in the House to try to get the functions of our Public Accounts Committee, which has a first-class record of investigating fraud, replicated elsewhere in the European Union, culminating in the Court of Auditors. He will not be surprised to hear that there was anything but enthusiasm for that, because, frankly, most of the other countries do not want anyone to investigate the fraud in the first place.
I am grateful for that intervention. It would be better for the hon. Gentleman to find allies in other member states before he launches such a proposal. However, a good point is that national Parliaments across the European Union have different models of scrutiny that the EU could employ. As the report suggests, it is difficult in the EU to pin down responsibility, so we should look for those new models. The EU's relationships might be enhanced if citizens panels or juries were established to consider proposed legislation and, just as important, the impact of legislation. The report says that 70 per cent. of European legislation is prepared by junior civil servants. Once drafted, such legislation will no doubt develop a life of its own, with only professional lobbyists aware of its progress or able to influence it. When it is passed into law, how is it monitored? Does anyone stop to ask whether it is working?
We must all be aware of the debate now raging over EU legislation on health food supplements. The matter has led to one of the largest postbags that I have had since being elected. Since the source of the law is European, I suppose I could just tell my constituents to contact their MEP about it, but it falls to national Governments to implement EU legislation, and that is where one of the major problems occurs in accountability. How do we tell people, and not least those who are perhaps not motivated to vote, where all the different responsibilities lie, and that an MP has little influence over such things?
It can be argued that decisions ultimately rest with representatives of national Governments in the Council, but that is true only in a limited sense, whether or not Council meetings are held in public, as they should be. The EU is more than the sum of its parts. Although our national representatives can be questioned, Parliament has little power to do much about it.
What if the legislation is badly drafted or misconceived? There seems little possibility of independent examination or critique that could remove the suspicion that behind the scenes the whole thing has been cast in stone well before it emerges into the public domain. An enlarged EU might well add to that perception. Thus when matters reach a certain level of controversy—the health food supplements directive is a good example—the whole matter should be called in for full, open and transparent examination by citizens' panels, which could include democratically elected representatives.
I can think of other matters that could benefit from such an approach. In pursuit of a single postal market, our services now face a make-or-break test, which, when it has been applied elsewhere in Europe, has led to unwanted consequences, such as higher costs, reduced services and redundancies. What opportunities are available to any citizen to influence such decisions, apart from a vote every five years? I suggest that citizens' panels be given not only the power to investigate issues but powers similar to those of an ombudsman to force the institution in question to respond and take action. Failure to do so could be referred to the European Court of Justice.
To ensure that such panels carry out their duties properly, they should have their own staff, separate from those answerable to the Commission. They could be chaired by MEPs. National parliamentarians, with their vast wealth of experience, could also play a part, adding gravitas and wisdom, and ensuring that a strong relationship develops among representatives at all levels. Although I support Statewatch's call for a European freedom of information Act, I can see that some documents might have to remain confidential. Citizens' panels, however, should be given access to all documents and officials. They should be able to see records of all contacts between EU officials and lobbyists, and all such contacts should be minuted. They should be able to follow the audit trail of any decision from start to finish, without fear or favour. The creation of citizens' panels is one proposal that I hope will be taken seriously. Indeed, perhaps it already is, and I claim no originality for the idea.
I believe there is an institutional weakness in another area, too. We hear much about the Europe of the regions, but it has no meaning in a parliamentary sense, at least as far as England goes. The Government have recognised that the English regional democratic dimension is missing, and it is appropriate that that should—as far as European matters go—be dealt with immediately. I say that not least because the electorate are a long way off giving their approval for the establishment of regional assemblies.
Much of our regional economic development strategy has a European dimension, and we should have regional European parliamentary bodies that comprise the relevant Members of both Parliaments and are empowered to oversee regional economic developments. That would remedy the problem with the present arrangement, whereby MPs seem to act only as consultees as and when a strategy is up for review. Directly elected regional assemblies may adequately fill the democratic deficit when they are created, but MPs and MEPs should have a greater role to play, especially in those regions that choose not to go down the assembly route.
The European Union's democratic deficit must be tackled openly and honestly, from both within the institution and without. If the public are not engaged more in the EU's processes, its credibility with them will continue to slide. People should be able to make choices without being bombarded with messages and methods that are cynically designed to get the right result. Criticisms can be levelled, for example, at the way in which the Irish were forced to vote twice for the Nice treaty because the turnout in the first referendum was said not to be high enough. On the basis of that argument, a great many MEPs in this country would be forced to stand again for election. Democratic legitimacy, it seems, is a variable thing.
Denmark will probably hold a referendum on joining the euro in a couple of years' time. However, it is being suggested that the question will be whether to join the euro or leave the EU altogether—one that is guaranteed to get the right result. I wonder whether the Swedes will be asked to consider the same kind of proposition. Presumably, we in Britain will at least have a referendum on a question that springs from a study of the famous five economic tests. We can therefore look forward to much transparency and objectivity when it is our turn to vote. The irony, of course, is that the euro referendum will take place to satisfy the needs of internal party politics more than anything else, and I am not referring only to the Labour party.
People stop voting when they think that it will make no difference. As far as the EU goes, the old anarchist slogan, "Don't bother to vote, because the Government always wins," is coming true by default. Now, as it faces radical enlargement, the EU needs a radical reassessment of its relationship with European citizens. If it thinks that it can plod on with a few internal adjustments—shuffling the cast of characters and making some a tad more accountable—it is making a big mistake. It will be like throwing open the first-class salon of the bureaucratic Titanic to its third-class passengers just as the ship hits the iceberg.
Before I call the next speaker, I should note that I intend to start the winding-up speeches at about 10 minutes to 5, so we do not have that much time. I therefore call on hon. Members to show some self-discipline so that all those who are keen to participate can do so.
My concern about the Select Committee report is reflected in the minority report, which I published with my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson. I agreed with a substantial portion of the report. However, I have been on the relevant Select Committees—the European Scrutiny Committee and its forerunner, the European Legislation Committee—since 1985 and I have undertaken other activities in the House over most of the past 20 years. I have therefore become somewhat familiar with the subject, and I was stimulated to table something in the order of 130 or 140 amendments to the report. I can summarise them in one word: democracy. Ultimately, they all pointed to the fact that, when we considered the necessary recommendations, the element that was lacking was not whether criticisms had been made but what action would be taken. That is crucial. The Chairman of the Committee made a splendid speech, but we keep hearing suggestions about investigation and that we must analyse the matter further, and the plain fact is that that is no longer enough, and it has not been for a long time.
I go back to the Maastricht treaty, not to mention the Nice and Amsterdam treaties, to which, collectively, I tabled about 500 or 600 amendments, none of which was frivolous. In fact, the Minister's predecessor was good enough to write a personal note to me, in which he commended the nature of my amendments to the Nice treaty. Such matters are serious and go to the heart of our democratic system.
We must decide whether the proposals in the report and the tendency towards the European constitution, which has been virtually stitched up by the European Convention and is exceedingly unrepresentative of public opinion both throughout Europe and in this country, show that an extremely heavy locomotive is thundering along the rails, as we speak. Anyone with a smidgen of realisation about the political implications of the report would be staggered by its lack of intelligent observation and analysis. The European Scrutiny Committee, as a whole, ought to be commended for the seriousness with which it tackled so many such questions, but it has not come up with sufficient answers.
I understand the problem. The whole European integration process, the role of the Commission and its draft treaty proposals duck the fundamental question of accountability and how questions can be asked of unelected Commissioners, for example. I am glad that the report reflects the problems of the lack of transparency in the proceedings. My right hon. Friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory told us of his experiences when he was Minister for Europe and the difficulties that he experienced because of the activities of Coreper and the A and B list points system. Such procedures are undemocratic, and that matters very much indeed.
I suspect that the train will crash into heavy buffers because of the massive over-regulation that has resulted from a lack of scrutiny and accountability. That will lead to an economic decline that will generate high unemployment. I have written about the matter and make no apology for saying again that the unemployment levels that will follow in the wake of such a regrettable state of affairs will stoke up again the dreadful spectres that we have seen in the past. We will have a mixture of high unemployment, authoritarianism and a lack of democracy.
In certain parts of Europe developments have emerged such as the regrettable advance of Le Pen in France and Haider in Austria. Germany has serious problems in that respect, too. If they escalate as a result of a lack of accountability and scrutiny, if the safety valves of the national Parliaments are taken away—as they are—by the progress of European integration towards a European constitution, and if the democratic deficit continues to increase, there is no doubt that there will be a serious political crisis in Europe.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fantastic success of the democratic and pro-EU parties in Austria in its recent general election? They all gained at the expense of the Mr. Haider's anti-EU Freedom party.
I do, but I also notice that Mr. Haider has not given up. The circumstances that I described are more likely to lead to difficulties in the future, which will not be confined to the countries that we have mentioned. I have great respect for the many European countries that have done fantastically well in developing their democracies. However, those democracies may not all be as deeply rooted as we would like, and by definition not as well rooted as in this country, and we must be extremely wary about how combustible a lack of democracy can be in disadvantageous economic circumstances.
On the question of national Parliaments, the whole concept of ministerial responsibility and accountability has been severely diminished by the way in which the EU has progressed in its constitutional quest. The qualified majority voting system affects each country. There are now some 27 member states, if and when the new accession countries decide to hold their referendums. Poland may say no—we shall see. Qualified majority voting means that decisions taken by Governments in Cabinets such as in 10 Downing street are continually overridden.
When one moves way from the less difficult areas of commerce and trade—although those are not without difficulty—to accepting qualified majority voting on foreign policy matters, which the Prime Minister has virtually agreed to do in today's Financial Times, one moves into very dangerous waters. That also applies to defence and in respect of the levers of government as a whole. Hon. Members, even some members of my own party, may be glad to hear the consequences of such actions. I remember well that in 1991, Chevénement said to Lord Hurd, "If the Maastricht treaty goes through you will no longer be able to go to the Gulf." We have heard exactly the same sort of statement from the French Minister only 10 days ago.
The Minister is shaking his head or looking puzzled, I am not sure which, but I assure him that I have the facts at my fingertips. One must be able to carry through the national interest, especially in these dangerous and difficult times. The Prime Minister recognises that there are issues of massive national interest involved and he is struggling to find ways of solving them, as we saw in yesterday's exchange in Prime Minister's Question Time with regard to article 3 of the European convention on human rights. He knows that article 3 must be addressed. That is an uncomfortable subject for him, because by the same token, in a rather Janus-like fashion—or is it a third way? I can never work out which is which—he is promoting the European idealism that is expressed in the remarks that he made in the Financial Times today. He is promoting the European security and defence policy and integration more and more. I challenged him when he returned from St. Malo, and I hesitate to suggest how often I have had to challenge him on the Floor of the House in relation to this further integrationist process. The plain fact is that one cannot have it both ways. One cannot say that one wants more integration, yet still deal with such problems as terrorism that are implicit in the European convention on human rights.
There is a question about legal personality, which I do not need to talk about in detail because it is a rather arcane subject. I have been called on to give advice on that matter in another capacity. I say an emphatic no to legal personality in respect of the European Union because that would emasculate national Parliaments. The problem would go further—this is my real point—and the people who vote in general elections would be emasculated, because if their representatives cannot reflect their views in Parliament though the principle of accountability and our parliamentary process, everything is brought to nothing. That is exactly what is going on.
By the way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you would agree with me is a matter that others must establish from the records of the House, but all I can say to you is this: the bottom line is that the matter is ultimately about democracy itself.
The problems of the concentric circles plan and the whole business of the enhanced co-operation procedure, which is endorsed further and deeper by the European constitution, are yet further examples of creating massive barriers to the right to ask questions and accountability. The question in the report about how to adjust procedures to make things better is not just technical. We need the procedures because as Maine said in the famous book "Ancient Law", justice is to be found in the interstices of procedure.
We also have to examine the historical and political landscape in order to make a judgment about practical considerations. I mentioned that the Prime Minister is on the rack over asylum and immigration and the connection of that with terrorism. One cannot just make a statement on pieces of paper subject to the acquis communautaire, which means that they cannot be changed, and then turn round and say, "Well, actually, we've got a real problem here. Terrorists are rife in our land and there is the prospect of more to come." We could not do anything about that because the charter of fundamental rights, which is to become legally binding, and/or the European convention on human rights bind us in a fashion that is reminiscent of what Rousseau said about a social contract: why do people bind themselves in order to be free?
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most fantastic U-turns made by the Government relates to the charter of fundamental rights? We understand that our representative at the Convention, the Secretary of State for Wales, who was previously Minister for Europe, said that the British Government would accept its incorporation into a treaty as long as that did not apply in UK law. My hon. Friend will know that that is nonsense in practice.
Indeed, it is complete nonsense. Mr. Richard Plender QC appeared before the Committee when the former Minister for Europe, Keith Vaz, said that the charter of fundamental rights would be no more than the Beano—I had words with him about that in Committee. Subsequently, we had the expert opinion from Mr. Plender, who said that whether or not that was made legally binding, it would be interpreted and used by the courts in a similar fashion. We now know that the Government are committed to the principle of a European constitution, with everything that that involves in respect of diminishing and depriving the people of this country of their right to vote, and incorporating the legal phantasmagoria that comes through the charter of fundamental rights.
I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, even though I disagree with him on many things. However, I wish that he and the leader of the Conservative party would not indulge in this fire and brimstone stuff about terrorists being rife in this country as a result of our having relaxed the immigration laws. He will be aware that we have not signed up to the Schengen agreement—the UK is one of the few EU countries that has not done so. I wish that he would withdraw from the kind of stuff that he is coming out with.
I am more than happy to accept the hon. Gentleman's gentle rebuke. I understand the spirit in which he made it, but he knows as well as I do that there is no one in the House who is less racist than I. I take enormous interest in the third world and I have done much in practice about it. We are faced with problems that the Prime Minister has acknowledged in stark terms, and of which we need to take account in the context of the legislative process that we are considering.
The present issue is intimately connected with how the treaties were scrutinised in Parliament—that scrutiny was, by and large, inadequate—and with the implementation of the directives and the other pieces of legislation, many of which emerged from one line in a treaty that produced a plethora of further legislation. The questions of the party list system and proportional representation have already been discussed. I am strongly opposed to the party list system, which is another form of tyranny that needs to be overcome.
I have the gravest concern that the papers that are coming from the constitutional convention under the chairmanship of Ms Stuart, charming as she may be, are wholly inadequate to deal with the question of how we get back accountability for national Parliaments. The absurd suggestion, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and which came first from the Foreign Secretary and is now endorsed by the hon. Lady in her latest emanations on the subject, that two thirds of national Parliaments might use a red or yellow card system, is an outrage in constitutional terms. It is nonsense to imagine that one could get Parliaments together. The Foreign Secretary referred to these matters in a suggestion in his article in The Economist, and proposals are being developed, so we know that things are progressing all the time. It is constitutional nonsense that does not need any further explanation. The key point—[Interruption.] I would be happy to give a full explanation, but Mr. Deputy Speaker would, quite rightly, not want that.
I say no to this constitution—no, full stop—and to the referendum. If we must have referendums, they should be held in this country and in all European countries. I do not want a Europewide referendum, as suggested in these fake proposals, thanks very much. This is ultimately about the supremacy of Parliament and therefore of democracy. The proposals, including all the matters relating to national Parliaments and to the scrutiny process, must be renegotiated drastically so that we can achieve a consistent scrutiny process that will work in the interests of the individual Parliaments and recognise the importance of political co-operation in Europe.
The veto by national Parliaments must be reaffirmed. In the light of such an historical political landscape, we must examine these questions and do something about them—we must have more political will. The Prime Minister is on the rack over the European convention on human rights and, under the Lord Hoffmann judgment of 1999, it is crystal clear—as I have said in the House from the Front Bench—that this Parliament has an absolute right to legislate subsequent to the 1998 Act in any manner that we choose, providing that we do so expressly and unambiguously. That was a clear statement by Lord Hoffmann in the House of Lords. The same will have to apply to the European Communities Act 1972 because we are heading towards a situation in which the European constitution will absorb this country into a federal system. As Churchill said, we should be associated but not absorbed.
I warmly welcome this report because I firmly believe that Europe matters. To the people of this country, it matters that the European Union works. That is because the economy of this country is now inextricably linked to the economies of other European states. The single market is a reality. It is becoming ever deeper and increasingly successful. In my constituency of Caerphilly in south Wales, manufacturing is now the bedrock of industry. Most of what is produced is exported to the single market. We want that market to deepen and I want more jobs to be created in my constituency as a consequence. It is important that Europe works.
Some issues concern us all. I am thinking about the environment. We are all concerned about pollution and we are all aware that pollution does not recognise national boundaries. If we want a cleaner world, it is important to tackle such issues on a transnational and, especially, a European basis. Issues such as immigration and asylum loom large in our consciousness. Does anybody seriously believe that, in today's world, we can tackle such complex and sensitive issues on a nation-state basis? We cannot. We have to co-operate with our European partners to ensure that we have policies that are responsible, humane and truly effective.
Europe is a reality. It is with us and I want it to be successful. That is why this report is extremely important. It acknowledges that, although Europe is a reality, it is not popular with the people of this country. One of the main reasons for that is, as the report says, a disconnection or disengagement between the people and the European Union institutions. The report contains a number of realistic and practical proposals to bridge that gap—to remake the connection between the people and the institutions. The central thesis of the report is 100 per cent. correct: national Parliaments are the best-placed bodies to make that connection.
The report makes a number of specific proposals and I want to focus on one or two of them. The report refers to all EU institutions. The Council of Ministers is arguably the most important one and it should meet in public when it is making legislation. That is a fundamental point of tremendous importance. On a similar issue of democracy, the European Commission could be more transparent, and the European Parliament, which is engaged more and more in the legislative processes of co-decision, should be more transparent and open.
The report also refers to other matters. It touches on some of the debates about the Convention that have focused the minds of hon. Members. It makes no sense for the Council of Ministers to continue to have a six-month presidency; there should be more permanency. The Council must adopt a more strategic role in developing the EU, and I welcome the suggestion that there should be a president of the Council of Ministers. That would provide a greater sense of purpose for the Commission.
I should like to focus on the national Parliaments. Debate has moved on since the suggestion made by the Prime Minister in his speech in Warsaw that there be a second Chamber of the European Parliament consisting of national parliamentarians. However, credit must be given to our Prime Minister for raising the matter of the importance of the role of national Parliaments in the European architecture at that critical time. MEPs, of course, are also parliamentarians. In fact, I am a former MEP. We need to get away from the all too frequent sniping between MEPs and national parliamentarians, and should recognise that MPs and MEPs have a joint mission to ensure greater democracy and parliamentary involvement. The report's proposals are, therefore, warmly to be welcomed. In fact, I would like there to be a Grand Committee of this House, to which MEPs were regularly invited to participate in on an equal basis with hon. Members.
The working group chaired by my hon. Friend Ms Stuart proposed that national Parliaments should play a key role in ensuring that the principle of subsidiarity is upheld, and that is important. Although I certainly concur with the earlier comments about the need for the watchdog to have real teeth, it is firmly established that national Parliaments have a key role to play in ensuring that the principle is upheld. I warmly welcome the fact that we are having a debate about the possible introduction of a red or yellow card system. I recommend that members of the Convention support that proposal and make sure that it is beefed up.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain, either now or at a later date, how that process would work? Subsidiarity has not worked so far, and national Parliaments do not have a cohesive or corporate identity.
I would be happy to elaborate on that now, as that was my next point, anyway. If we are serious about extending the role of national Parliaments, it is important that we have a dual perspective, and envisage the role of national Parliaments increasing not in each member state, important though that is, but internationally. There is scope for developing the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees, the body charged with responsibility for links between the European Scrutiny Committees of different member states. I attended a meeting of COSAC this week. It must be said that it was a difficult meeting, but progress was made on that front.
It was agreed this very week that, in future, COSAC will make decisions on the basis of qualified majority voting. Why? Because, realistically, that is the only way that we can come to any sort of determination at European level on meaningful issues. Agreement has been reached on that and I hope that, in the next few months, there will also be agreement on the establishment of a secretariat to ensure that COSAC works properly and that information is provided to national parliaments, which will effectively police the principle of subsidiarity.
Regarding the concept of a red or yellow card, I can see where my hon. Friend and the Government are going, but I find it difficult to accept a red card; perhaps there should just be a yellow one. I am all in favour of a watchdog, but not particularly of one with teeth. I should like to see a scrutiny body that could, perhaps, bark and give the Government or the European Parliament a good gumming, but nothing more.
Before the hon. Gentleman replies—I do not want to interrupt the flow of debate—if hon. Members who want to speak are to be fitted in, there has to be a certain amount of self-discipline in not being provoked to ask questions of those who are speaking.
I will try not to take the canine analogy too far, but I would say that we must have institutions that can bite.
The process of European scrutiny has to be undertaken at national as well as European level. I should like to make a few closing remarks about our work in this Chamber. The European Scrutiny Committee does an excellent job, but there is scope for its powers to be increased. The Government should take the scrutiny reserve far more seriously, although the fault lies not so much with them as with the processes at European level, which need to be changed so that it can be formally recognised and incorporated into European proceedings. In addition, our engagement with Coreper can be increased substantially and made far more streamlined and transparent. Perhaps we can discuss that at a future date.
In conclusion, the report is important. Nation states are the building blocks of the European Union. I am firmly committed to the European principle. I recognise that sub-national bodies have an important role to play, as do national bodies that do not have full legislatures. Nation states are the anchors of the European Union. This House should take European issues and European scrutiny far more seriously. For example, this important debate should be taking place on the Floor of the House, not in Westminster Hall. It is a sad reflection of the lack of priority that the House of Commons gives to European issues that that is the case. Nevertheless, I am glad that the Government have responded in a largely positive manner to the report. Above all, it is important to see the debate not as an end in itself but as part of an ongoing process. All the members of the European Scrutiny Committee are determined to take the matter forward; I hope that we can take other Members of this House with us.
I welcome the chance to take part in the debate. As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee I should like to put on record my appreciation of the professional and convivial convenorship of that Committee by Mr. Hood. I associate myself with almost everything that he said in his opening speech, but beg to differ on the issue of proportional representation. The Committee took a decision when only half of its members were there and, with the Chairman's casting vote, decided against the Government's standing policy. I also put on record that I, like other Committee members, believe that an increasing amount of the Committee's work should be done in public. I appreciate that that may not be possible in every circumstance, but I would welcome moves to see more of its work being done in public.
We are discussing the role of national Parliaments, and it will be no surprise if someone speaks on behalf of the Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru. I find it rather curious, when talking about national Parliaments, that no other right hon. or hon. Members have talked in any detail about the role of the national Parliament of Scotland, the National Assembly for Wales or of Northern Ireland's democratically elected Parliament, which, under the right circumstances, we all hope will reconvene soon.
Mr. David made a passing reference to sub-national bodies while looking in my direction, so I assume that he believes that Wales is sub-national. Perhaps that explains why his previous candidacy was unsuccessful. He was campaigning in one of the safest socialist seats in Europe, but was defeated by my sister party, Plaid Cymru, which views Wales as a nation and not as sub-national.
The hon. Gentleman did not listen carefully enough. I referred to sub-national bodies, but also to national bodies that do not possess legislative powers like those of the House. I gently remind him that elections to the National Assembly for Wales will be held in a couple of months time, and I have absolute confidence, given the small blip that occurred in Wales, that those traditional Labour seats will nevertheless return to the fold.
I am grateful for that intervention, although I am sure that the Labour party did not view losing one of its safest seats as a minor blip. However, the hon. Gentleman has now put that on record.
It is a statement of constitutional fact that we have other national Parliaments within the United Kingdom, which is why I was a little confused by Mr. Heathcoat-Amory when he said that it would be impossible to create a supranational democracy. That was from a unionist and a member of a unionist party, which I suppose espouses the union of the United Kingdom and says that it is a good working example of supranational democracy—or perhaps the Conservative and Unionist party does not view Scotland as a nation.
While on the subject of supranational democracy and the inclusion of sub-member state Parliaments or assemblies, I would like clarification on an issue that has been widely discussed. What has happened with partnership status for sub-member state nations or regions? Is it supported by the Government? It is often said that the measure is blocked by Spain, but I was under the impression that one of the closest working relationships in the EU was that between the British and Spanish Prime Ministers. Perhaps that relationship does not go far enough to overcome the difficulties that the Spanish Government have with the subject.
Of course, the background to today's debate is a movement throughout Europe—of powers going up to the European level. Indeed, the hon. Member for Caerphilly rightly pointed out that in important areas, like the environment, but also on key issues, such as terrorism, if we did not have the European Union we would have to invent it. I am sure that we could all come up with a list—some short, many longer—of improvements that we would like to see, but there is undoubtedly a need for a confederal international organisation for our continent. On one hand, powers are going up; but on the other hand, they are going down by being devolved.
Although in general I am glad that the UK and other European countries are seeking to improve Governments through the EU, the union has made some profoundly damaging decisions. I represent a fishing constituency, in the extreme east of which up to 40 per cent. of jobs depend on an industry that could be nearing its end. I warn the Government most strongly that those who seek to improve Europe should make every effort to reach the right decisions in order to convince everybody in our communities that the EU is to their benefit. I am not convinced that that was the case in the UK's involvement in fishing negotiations. Those involved did not even seek to get the subject put on the agenda at the most recent meeting of the Council of Ministers.
One of the issues mentioned in the report was openness, and a comparison was made between the EU and North Korea: the decision-making process is not transparent, not accountable, not democratic and subsidiarity plays no part in it. I draw the Minister's attention to a systemic and fundamental breakdown of the four principles, not in the EU but in the UK, in how we seek to scrutinise and have democratic oversight of policy. That follows on from the report on scrutiny in the House of Commons because this is about the role of national Parliaments. Although I would like the Scottish Parliament to have the powers of a normal Parliament over all EU matters, unfortunately, this Parliament retains the say on them. The European Scrutiny Select Committee recommended:
"The Government should relax the confidentiality provision in the concordat sufficiently to be able to indicate in EMs whether discussions have taken place with the devolved institutions and, as far as possible, on what subjects."
The Government's reply agreed:
"In future, where an Explanatory Memorandum states that a minister from one or more devolved administrations also has an interest, the Government intends this to indicate that those devolved administrations have been consulted on the terms of the Explanatory Memorandum and on its subject matter".
This has cross-party support on the Committee, and it was reinforced by the Committee chair earlier and by Mr. Connarty in an intervention.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Much as I enjoy my friend Angus Robertson raising that point, and I call him friend because we are from the same country, the debate is on a completely different report. He is holding a debate on the report by the same Committee on scrutiny in the House of Commons and not on the report on democracy and accountability in the EU.
I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said and I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Moray has as well. I am convinced that he will bring his remarks entirely into order.
I am grateful for the guidance of the Chair and am addressing myself to the role of national Parliaments. It is a hugely important issue. If there is to be a role for national Parliaments—and I wish that it were not this Parliament—in deciding European issues, we need clarity from the UK Government that the system to which they have agreed is working. I cite in evidence several explanatory memoranda that the European Scrutiny Select Committee had to deal with recently. This is important because not one Member of the House is elected with any mandate to decide on matters of agriculture, fisheries and several other issues that are wholly devolved to the Scottish Parliament, yet we have oversight when it comes to the interrelationship with the European Union. That is beyond debate and dispute—it is enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998. However, following the agreement of the UK Government that we on the European Scrutiny Committee are to be expressly told that the devolved Administrations are included in discussions—and I take these only as examples—there has been no mention whatsoever of the Scottish Executive's involvement in the common agricultural policy; the CAP review of milk quotas; the execution of confiscation orders, which is a matter of Scots law; and fisheries. The fisheries representatives in my constituency, the people elected to deal with the matter, are interested to know why they have not been involved.
The Scottish Executive is involved in one area. The Scottish Executive's Justice Department is included in discussions with the Lord Chancellor's Department. I welcome that, because it allows members of the European Scrutiny Committee to have oversight of policy and understand that there has been co-operation, which has been enshrined in the concordat, although it is said that that should be confidential.
The answer may be that the Scottish Executive have not shown the initiative to seek input in the CAP, the common fisheries policy and the Scottish legal system. The political consequences of that are for the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to answer. It is a Labour Government in the UK, and a Labour and Liberal coalition in the Scottish Executive. In fact, it is a Liberal Democrat Minister who is responsible for the CFP and the CAP. We need clarification.
Ross Finnie's bag-carrying role in representing Scotland in Europe is well known. The fact that he has never led a delegation at a European discussion, despite representing more than 70 per cent. of the fishing industry in the UK, is well understood in fishing communities. The fundamental breakdown on that important issue lies either here or with Edinburgh. I hope that the Minister, in his winding-up speech, will help us understand where that breakdown lies.
I move on to the Convention, which many previous speakers have mentioned. I wish to put on record my appreciation of all members of the Convention, be they representing the UK Parliament or other bodies. Members present would not expect me to ignore the important role played by Professor Sir Neil MacCormick MEP, the only democratically elected Scottish representative on the Convention.
I seek clarification on the famed yellow and red cards. The Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Clydesdale, talked about the need for bite and bark. I agree with the suggestion made by Ms Stuart that such a system is an improvement, although I note that Mr. Cash is not especially convinced. My confusion arises from the fact that I do not know from where the proposal is coming. If one reads the conclusions of the working group that the hon. Lady chairs, no mention is made of a new and specific system.
I am grateful for that clarification, but I am still waiting to see the legal text. It is important for all Members to consider that proposal in some depth so that we can come to a considered view. However, on balance it would be a move of progress to have a system that guaranteed subsidiarity for state Parliaments. Speaking as someone who believes in a confederal Europe and in the independence of member states in the EU, which will soon include many countries from central and eastern Europe that regained their independence only recently, I welcome the constitution. Those countries will maintain their independence within the EU, even under the proposed constitutional treaty. I join those who say that it is necessary to hold a referendum on something that is so important to every part of the EU. It is up to each member state to decide how to verify important constitutional changes. I would not dream of telling other EU states which method they should choose. However, I would favour a referendum in this country so that the argument can be had on the workings of the EU and its future.
In conclusion, I should like to add my support to the report that the Committee Chairman introduced. I think that it is a valuable contribution to a greater understanding among a greater number of people of the workings of the EU and the role of the democratic process in that. I should like to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, on the workings of EU business between the Government and the devolved Administrations in the UK, are the Government in favour of the concordat being reviewed, as was supported by the European Scrutiny Committee? If the Government support the review, reform and opening up of the concordat so that we shall have transparency, accountability, proper democracy and subsidiarity in the UK, when will that happen and when will the House be able to consider the proposed changes to the concordat?
Secondly, on the involvement of national Parliaments, what is the UK doing to support the role of the Scottish Parliament in EU business? At the next meeting of the Convention at the beginning of next month, will the Secretary of State for Wales argue vigorously that Scotland should be able to have full partner status within the EU if it so wishes? Similarly, will the Secretary of State argue at that meeting for the improved representation and rights of sub-member state regions and nations? Thirdly, do the Government support the Scottish Executive having the automatic right to raise cases at the European Court of Justice?
Much as I enjoyed the rehearsal of all the arguments to do with the questions at the sub-state level, we must consider the Committee's report on democracy and accountability in the EU, which was excellently introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Hood. Before talking about that topic, I shall say a few words about the Chairman, sparing his blushes. It has been a privilege to have him on the Committee. The fact that he chose to remain with us—he is a former member of the Defence Committee—has brought great benefits. With the two reports, one of which is not before us for scrutiny, we have made a major contribution to the debate on Parliament's role in European business. That has certainly had an impact on Departments. I had the privilege of going to a seminar on European scrutiny at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and found that it was on its mettle in looking to keep itself from being called to the attention of the Chairman of our Committee for misdemeanours. We are certainly making an impact.
I also commend the work of my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), former Members of the European Parliament. They have added breadth to the way in which the Committee carries out its business and have lent a great deal to the report. I have learned much from their contributions.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory over-egged the pudding. He started off so well by correctly signalling the worry of most British citizens about the methodology of the European Union in legislating. The Commission, the generator of almost all legislation, is an oligarchy. It is not a democratic institution. It may have been correct to start like that—as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly said, we were forming a common market. However, now we are into so many other fields it is wrong to leave the burden of power in the Commission's hands.
The other part of the process that we are trying to make democratic and accountable is the Executive—which are the Governments. In reality, Governments are not the same as Parliaments. They cross that divide. They take the king's shilling, or the president's shilling—it depends how one describes the Prime Minister. Parliaments carry out the orders and programme of Governments. To our great cost and embarrassment—this sometimes happens even in the Labour party—it is not always the same programme as we thought we were elected on. Nevertheless, it is carried out.
There is the oligarchy of the Commission and the programme of the Executive. Then we have the Parliaments, and that is where the Committee comes in. That is who the Committee tries to speak for. It is the parliamentarians, who do not have the burden of office or the responsibility of collectively carrying out the Executive's programme, who speak for the citizen. As the right hon. Member for Wells said so well at the start of his speech, they tell us of the problems with the machinery of the European Union.
That is one of the reasons—it is not the only reason—why people do not turn out for elections. Most people do not know who their MEP is. It is easy for people with a particular allegiance, because they can name their member of the Praesidium because he is a member of their party. Most citizens do not have that connection because they are turned off from politics partly by the media and partly by politicians.
The question is who should scrutinise. I believe that it is the job of parliamentarians. It is our job. As the Chairman said, the report mentions that we should be scrutinising annual work reports for the Commission, but in a larger forum led by the European Scrutiny Committee, possibly in alliance with the Foreign Affairs Committee and other Members of Parliament.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree—I think that we get on well on these matters—that it is not enough to scrutinise, but that Parliaments should insist, so that a measure of political will goes with it? If they do not like something, particularly in the context of qualified majority voting in other countries, scrutiny necessarily carries with it the right to say no—that is, to continue to use the veto.
I take a different view. The hon. Gentleman said that we get on well. I think that we have basically rubbed many of the sharp edges off our personalities over the past three or four years as members of the Committee. I can remember some very heated exchanges at the start, and we still have some now. On the question of veto, we would probably continue to fall out. Qualified majority voting has favoured the United Kingdom in about 97 per cent. of cases. As a member of a larger organisation—I think that the larger European Union is a democratic institution as well as a market—we have to give and take. If we are winning 97 per cent. of cases, we should accept that the system favours our country's point of view.
We are beginning to get a grip on pre-Council scrutiny and post-Council scrutiny. We are beginning to demand better written responses from Ministers about what went on in Councils of Ministers. I have said, on the subject of departmental briefings, that obfuscation is of no use. A smartly presented civil servant's reply to Parliament that leads us to ask what exactly people meant by what they said, will lead also to citizens not trusting the Council of Ministers. We need clear written responses and we need more evidence sessions or debates on Council business before people will believe that there is democratic accountability.
I am glad that my hon. Friend Mr. Challen has returned. There is one point on which I agree with Mr. Cash. I am deeply disturbed that the opportunities that Standing Committees offer for any parliamentarian to put any Minister from any Department under scrutiny on any topic that the Committees choose, and the opportunities to debate the substance of that topic, are not often taken up. Few non-members of Standing Committees go along to them. I want to say on the record that many members of Standing Committees only go along to them because the Whips tell them to. They do not want to be there and they do not take part in debate or scrutiny. They simply attend to their mail, allowing the Opposition, and only the Opposition, to quiz the Minister. However, if a Parliament has a large majority from one party, and if no members of that party are quizzing the Minister, the majority party is failing in its duty. The Opposition is in opposition precisely because it represents a smaller number of people. The majority party, and not the Opposition, is responsible for representing the concerns of most people on the EU.
We have to consider the operation of the European Standing Committees. People should become members of those Committees because they volunteer to and because they are interested in Europe and in representing the views of businesses and individuals in their constituencies. Parliament has a long way to go before it gets accountability right.
Paragraph 47 of the report is on scrutiny. The explanatory memorandums that we receive are based on information from the Commission. That information does not come quickly enough and it is not full enough. We are not able to see how an initial idea leads to a decision being made in the Council. We say in paragraph 47 that we should be allowed to intervene more effectively in that process and that we should have enough time to do so. Scrutiny should not be regarded as being all right as long as it does not slow the Minister down in getting his policies through, or slow the Council of Ministers down in reaching agreements. We have the right to scrutinise.
In paragraph 50, we say:
"We emphasise that any deadlines set by the European Council and the timing of the negotiations intended to meet such deadlines must provide enough time for national parliamentary scrutiny in advance of Council decisions on new texts."
Does the Minister agree with that? If so, what will he do to ensure that that happens while we are in government?
We did not want a Commission president. Everyone was agreed on that. But now someone has done a backflip, because the Germans and the French have come up with a different proposal. We were clear. We wanted there to be a president of the Council, who would obviate the wasteful process of having six-monthly cycles of new presidencies. If there were a proper rolling programme, it would not matter who was wearing the president's hat, as long as the programme was kept to. If that programme were agreed correctly, we could debate it properly and see it progressing. The president—elected by the Council—would ensure that the programme was kept to. We would be able to hold that person accountable. What we said in paragraph 80 of the report has now been overturned.
I want to finish by speaking about the European Union election system. The Chairman made an important point and I am sadly disappointed about the fact that we went over to the system of proportional representation in large blocks, so that there was one list for Scotland. It does not make any sense at all. People in Scotland do not know who their MEP is, unless they have a party affiliation to that MEP. That is the reality. They do not know if there is anyone they can go to or if anyone is carrying their flag for them or raising issues for them. We have lost the connection between the citizen and the European Union.
I go along with the Chairman because we lost the vote on the casting vote of the Chair. The Committee report says that we should have a first-past-the-post system. Paragraph 93 states that we should have
"a critical re-examination of the system" and that we should have an electoral boundary, so that people know who speaks for them in Europe. If we do not have that, we cannot work for the citizen. As parliamentarians, we and the Government have a role to take into account the needs of the citizen, not ignore them. When they vote on European matters—not many people bother doing so at the moment—they must feel that they have a connection with Europe. Otherwise, they will feel that it is not worth participating in such elections.
It is a real pleasure to follow Mr. Connarty, whose comments, by and large, I support, although he will not be surprised to learn that I disagreed with some of them. He made a passionate case for the role of Parliament to be expanded to take account of what goes on in Europe in our name and the names of our constituents. The report is timely and thoughtful, and I commend Mr. Hood, my political neighbour, for the work that he and his Committee have done and the debate that they have provoked.
The Committee was right to place emphasis on the disconnection between ordinary citizens and the institutions of the European Union. We always agonise about being disconnected from our voters. That is even more of a reality for the different parts of the European Union. The Committee made important observations about some of the problems that the European Union inevitably has as a result of its size and the unique combination of supranational and member state authority. Many issues are at the forefront in the Convention on the Future of Europe, which has been tackling a range of different issues. Again, the Committee was right to focus its report on disconnection and how national Parliaments can play a stronger role.
In his opening speech the hon. Member for Clydesdale, the Chairman of the Committee, highlighted many of the failings of the current situation and I agree with much of his analysis. Where I would part company with him and the hon. Member for Falkirk, East is on the issue of the elections to the European Parliament. I recognise that there are difficulties. The hon. Gentleman made a valid point about the loss of connection between individual citizens and their MEPs but, under the previous system, with vast regions in Scotland, many people had no idea who their MEP was, particularly in the south of Scotland, which I represent in part.
While there are limitations and difficulties, if we move back from a system of proportional representation to one of first past the post, we would create difficulties for the representation of political opinion in Britain in the European Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman will have noted that the previous position of the Committee was somehow to bring in a new constituency configuration. It would not necessarily do away with proportional representation, but it would make people re-connect with the person for whom they voted.
I apologise if I have misrepresented the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman was saying. There are ways of improving what we have, which perhaps could deal with his concerns and still retain proportionality.
In just over a year, we will see a significant enlargement of the European Union, and it is right that we are focused at present on the reform agenda. The European Union is often too remote, unaccountable and distant. It is often hard enough for Members of Parliament to relate to it, never mind the wider population. We have all had experience of gaining access to different parts of the European Union. Some of the Commission's buildings are commendably open—more so than Whitehall. However, it is difficult to penetrate the cordons that surround meetings of the Council of Ministers. I agree with the thrust of many of the contributions to the debate: we must open up the meetings that operate in our name. We must have the ability to scrutinise the Council of Ministers when it is in legislative mode.
The principles of transparency and freedom of information should extend between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster as they should between Westminster and Europe. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, although I suspect that we have different motives for supporting such a proposal.
There are many ways in which the Commission and the Council of Ministers can become more accountable, but we are debating the future structures of Europe and are in danger of being sidetracked by concerns about the presidency of the Council, and whether that will rotate on a six-month basis as it does at present and whether it will have an elected president. We must listen to the views of many of the smaller countries in the European Union about the proposals that we have heard so far from France and Germany. It seems that the Government support those proposals, and that is bad news. Can the Minister confirm the position?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory referred to the morass of unaccountable bodies in Europe that make many decisions. Sadly, we are ignorant about their activities and have no potential to understand what they do. The Committee is well represented in the Chamber. It does sterling work and tries to deal with many of the inadequacies of the scrutiny process. As a collective body, we must make a stronger fist of holding Ministers to account.
The hon. Member for Falkirk, East made an important point about the limited number of times that people attend European Standing Committees. Most of those present today are the usual suspects, who have a great interest in Europe and who turn out regularly for such debates. The Minister has great European credentials, but I hope that he will keep arguing with his colleagues in the Government that there are perhaps better ways in which to look at business in the Council of Ministers before it is concluded. We should have more time to discuss European business on the Floor of the House, and not always be remaindered here in Westminster Hall, where the opportunities to discuss Europe are too infrequent. At present, we have to put up with a debate every six months ahead of the European Council. We do not have the chance to debate matters when there is an interim meeting in Brussels every three months. The inadequacies are legion.
We must insist on the principle of subsidiarity and that must be the focus of the reform process. It is essential that we make decisions locally, when possible, and that that is done nationally if necessary. We should make decisions at a European level when appropriate—examples of that have been given throughout the afternoon. We must clarify what subsidiarity means and ensure that there is a model that gets the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales built into the process.
A constitution for Europe is the right way to do that. If a charter of fundamental rights is included, citizens will know the part that they play in Europe. If we combine those principles and if the Convention is allowed to do its work properly, the Europe about which we are worried at present will be reformed and a better place.
I warmly congratulate the Chairman and members of the European Scrutiny Committee on producing the excellent report and their scrutiny of European legislation. That is often a difficult job, but the Committee does it with much competence, and that is valued by all Members. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory and Ms Stuart, who contribute eloquently to the Convention's proceedings.
The European Scrutiny Committee's June report was excellent. The bulk of its recommendations were pragmatic and wise, and would certainly strengthen democracy and accountability in the European Union if they were put into practice. Several Members made that point in excellent speeches, and in an ecumenical spirit, I mention the thoughtful speech of Mr. Challen.
The report points the right way forward and gives a sense of direction to the European Union on ways to increase greatly the role of national Parliaments. The Conservative party is in sympathy with that approach, as it is the way to tackle the disconnection between the EU and its peoples and to restore ownership of its institutions to member states. The point made by Mr. Connarty about elections and representation in the European Parliament is important. I note that the Liberal Democrats are moving away from their diversion to proportional representation. I suppose that that is about as categorical a statement as we are likely to get.
I know that the hon. Gentleman would not wilfully misinterpret something. He will find our enthusiasm undiminished, but our recognition of reality slightly more focused.
A recognition of reality would be a major achievement for the Liberal Democrats.
It is therefore all the more disappointing that the Convention on the Future of Europe is, in reality, taking insufficient notice of those who want the EU to be opened up and those who understand that national Parliaments are the political bodies with which most people in Europe identify. That point was powerfully made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells. The Laeken declaration called for the European Union to be brought closer to citizens, but that can happen only when national Parliaments are involved more closely in the EU's workings. My hon. Friend Mr. Cash rightly pointed out the ultimate consequences of the continuation of that disconnection.
The European Union will become closer to its peoples and more democratic only when its leaders and elite understand that there is no pan-European demos. Frankly, our electorates do not think politically in Europe-wide terms. The political institutions to which they look first for democratic redress are our national Parliaments.
Romano Prodi may hope for an advanced supranational democracy and many on the Convention may be engaged in building a European state that they perceive to be democratic, but if they succeed in building their dream, they will have made something that cannot be truly democratic by its very nature. It will have been built from the top down rather than the bottom up. If the EU has an institutional failing, that is it. Too much of its progress has involved doing things for people, not letting its peoples take the lead and giving our citizens a sense of proper involvement and ownership.
It is to the national Parliaments that we must look if we hope to democratise the EU. Of course, we recognise that they are not perfect institutions, but at least the people of Europe understand them, which is more than can be said for European bodies as a whole.
It is symptomatic of much thinking in Europe that the Franco-German contribution to the Convention mentions national Parliaments only as an afterthought. We must be realistic. The pattern of thinking and the architecture set out by the Franco-German alliance seem inevitably to carry the day in the absence of a clear vision of such architecture from our own Government. That has been further borne out in the three texts concerning the role of national Parliaments that have emerged from the Convention: the working group reports on subsidiarity and on national Parliaments, and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's draft constitution.
Much has been made of the proposals, especially by the Government, and I agree that they are good as far as they go, but it is a depressing fact that they do not go very far. Indeed, they are badly inadequate. The working group on subsidiarity rightly recognised that the question of subsidiarity is political. I acknowledge the work of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and others, but the proposals would give the national Parliaments no real power. I am glad that there has been some fresh thinking, which has been alluded to this afternoon, on the ability of national Parliaments to stop Commission proposals. All institutions have a natural tendency to want more power for themselves, and it is not hard to understand that, unless national Parliaments have the right not merely to warn against breaches in principle, but to enforce measures to address that—enforcement, not just warning, was the word rightly used by the Committee in its report—the EU's centralising tendencies will continue.
Reservations on subsidiarity expressed by a third of national Parliaments, for example, should be enough to halt legislation if, after the exchange of views proposed by the working group, that legislation was still deemed to fail the subsidiarity test. The issue needs further exploration, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is right. The rigidity of the whipping system in so many of the national Parliaments causes difficulties that must be addressed if we are to make the proposition viable.
The national Parliaments also have a crucial role to play in ensuring that the exercise of power in the EU is made accountable. Our European Scrutiny Committee performs excellently in circumstances that are not always ideal, but it has long been a just criticism that too much EU business is done in a way that is convenient for Governments and bureaucracy, but not in the best interests of everyone else.
I am glad that a cross-party consensus—indeed, a European consensus—is emerging and that those involved believe that the European Council should be much more open and transparent. That openness must apply at the parliamentary end. The working group on national Parliaments made many sensible suggestions on how that could be done, especially regarding the better communication of documents, but we should go further. Echoing the sentiments of Mr. David, we have repeatedly urged the replacement of the civil service Coreper representative with a senior Minister fully answerable to national Parliaments. That is a sure way to allow our Parliament to hold the Government to account for what they agree to in Brussels.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that there are severe criticisms of the fact that the Convention and its working group on national Parliaments has not produced anything of sufficient practical value to make a difference to how national Parliaments influence matters? That is a serious and devastating indictment, and I use strong language because, unless success is achieved, our assumption that national Parliaments lie at the heart of the democracy of Europe will completely evaporate.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Officially, the view is that national Parliaments can vet or return Commission proposals, but not veto them. We have heard about red and yellow cards, but the issue has not yet been spelled out categorically, as Angus Robertson said. I hope that we get more details.
The essential point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone makes is that unless real power is vested in national Parliaments to deal with the problem of legislation in the EU, the process of disconnection, about which we are all alarmed, will only grow worse. I agree with my hon. Friend on that. We need better communication between this place and the British delegation to the European Parliament so as to monitor the progress of legislation and to provide a check on gold plating. Furthermore, there must be more room for parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation before it goes to the Council.
The reforms that I suggest, which the Conservative party has often put forward, are positive and practical steps to make the EU more accountable and democratic. They would give the people of Europe a greater sense of ownership over institutions that too frequently seem to have the attitude that Brussels knows best. I urge the other parties and the Government to ensure that their representatives promote them vigorously at the Convention and the subsequent intergovernmental conference. The Committee's report rightly insists that the phrase "ever-closer union" should be removed from the treaties. Few things contribute more to the disquiet that British people feel about the European Union than the sense, justified by that phrase, that the EU is about sucking ever more powers to the centre. It is heartening that that fact is now widely recognised and reflected.
In contrast, the election of the President of the Commission or the establishment of a permanent President of the European Council would do nothing to bring the European Union close to its people. Both issues involve centralising measures and strengthening the exercise of power from the top down. The first would increase the politicisation of a body that is supposed to be impartial and the second, which is a pet project of the Government, although they borrowed it from the French, would establish yet another powerful central figure with only tenuous democratic legitimacy. That would raise great fears among our smaller European partners. One thing that we have learned recently, particularly in view of the EU's enlargement, is that we simply must protect the smaller EU nations. That is particularly true given the strengthened influence of the Franco-German relationship.
The EU has as its core aims the promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe. Of course, it has had considerable success in that. However, in view of the challenges on the issue of democracy, we cannot afford the EU to assume state-like powers, including a written constitution—a first for this country—a vastly increased role in justice and home affairs as well as, to quote the Prime Minister, a "unified foreign policy". I do not believe that the British people would accept that.
Such a change would be extraordinarily important to the fundamental relationship between the member states and the EU, and would demand a great deal of popular consent if it were to have democratic legitimacy. After all, there have been referendums in Scotland and Wales, and even locally in London. I echo the hon. Member for Moray in saying that any European constitutional treaty should be tested by a referendum in the nation states that comprise the members of the EU. I hope that Members of all parties agree. It would be shameful if the Government denied us a referendum, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
This has been a good discussion, but I am not sure whether it has been a debate in the sense that we have heard the arguments for and against a concrete proposition. In fact, one saw all kinds of interconnectivities arising from discussions on the general feeling of disconnectedness among people in the EU.
Mr. Spring, who spoke for the official Opposition, made common cause with the nationalist from Scotland, Angus Robertson, in calling for a referendum and with my right hon. Friend Mr. Mandelson, who is opposed to that charming and poetical call for an ever closer union. The hon. Member for West Suffolk also made common cause with Mr. D'Amato's French socialists, who want to see some mighty Minister sitting in Brussels covering the gamut of government policy and reporting back to his Parliament. That shows how the EU can produce some odd and interesting connections.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hood put the key questions to us. His report is good. It was published last June, and I agree with Members that it is not right that we have had to wait until the end of January to debate it. I believe strongly that we should debate European matters and I regret that we do not have more debates on Europe in the Chamber.
In my first five weeks as Minister for Europe, I appeared some 13 times in the House of Commons and the Lords—full debates in the Chamber, Westminster Hall debates, Adjournment debates, a scrutiny Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Lords scrutiny Committee and Standing Committees galore. I felt that I was the most "scruted" Minister in the Government. I thought that, as Minister for Europe, I would be dashing around European capitals, explaining the great ideas and policies that Britain wants to see adopted. Instead, I find myself spending my time in the House of Commons. That is as it should be and it is certainly a pleasure, because I like the House.
It has been announced today that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, the Government representative on the Convention, will table practical proposals, including:
"A role for regions and localities in monitoring the application of subsidiarity; treaty amendment to acknowledge the role of regions and localities in relation to the subsidiarity principle; mandatory consultation of regions and localities by the Commission on policy matters affecting those regions and localities; reform of the Committee of the Regions to give it more influence."
Those are just some issues that the Government are advancing—that is the right way forward.
I had a very enjoyable meeting with representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and local government bodies some weeks ago to discuss how they could become more involved in Europe. Some wanted to focus on devolved Administrations and others wanted to focus on the English regions. Those representatives want to speak for their great cities and boroughs, and it is right that all of them should have a powerful say. Someone, however, has to bring it all together, and until such time as we cease to be a united kingdom, the House of Commons and the Government should make the decisions.
How will the Government deal with the doctrine of the occupied field and the question of shared, and other, competences? The occupied field is now so overgrown with legislation that there is little room left for manoeuvre. In relation to subsidiarity, which corner of the field will be reserved for the national Parliaments?
I was coming to that. One of the problems is that one uses the most absurd jargon for profoundly difficult issues that have always confronted all Governments throughout time. At what level does one take decisions? Subsidiarity works up to the point at which someone says, "This is so important that it must go further up the governmental chain."
On Monday, I attended a meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council, at which we discussed agriculture. I said to myself, "Wait a minute. Agriculture is not really foreign policy." However, two countries—Ireland and France—demanded, as of right, that the CAP be placed on the Council agenda. I am glad to say that both France and Ireland withdrew their objections to the Commission's speaking for Europe as a whole at the Doha round of World Trade Organisation negotiations, when it put its view—I expect that it is the view of this House—on the need to phase out agricultural subsidies and open up our markets to products from the third world. I was confused, but it was important for France and Ireland.
To save a bit of time, I shall answer the question of the hon. Member for Moray before he poses it. The issue of fisheries continues to be raised at the highest levels of the European Union. If we want subsidiarity, it has to stay with the Agriculture and Fisheries Council and not be put to either the Council of Ministers representing the Heads of Government or the General Affairs and External Relations Council, which represents Foreign Ministers.
"National parliaments could quickly review each EU proposal, judging whether action is being taken at the right level and in the right way. This would not amount to a veto. But if a majority of national parliaments judged that a proposal infringed subsidiarity, the commission would be expected to re-examine its approach."
My hon. Friend Ms Stuart has introduced the metaphor of red and yellow cards. They talk about football a lot in Birmingham, and such metaphors make sense. However, I think that I heard from Mr. Heathcoat-Amory that that was a Conservative idea. There we have a co-joining of the Conservative party and the Foreign Secretary, although I ask myself why all these ideas have arrived since that party has been the Opposition. Why did it not advance them between 1979 and 1997?
Several hon. Members spoke about an elected President of the Commission. We are talking about proposals, and many proposals are made in the Convention. The Government have not yet taken a view on how the President should be chosen or selected. I give way to the right hon. Gentleman because he is a distinguished member of the Convention.
Will the Minister answer the point that in my hearing, and as recorded in the independent Brussels Bulletin, our Government representative on the Convention said that he agreed with the French and German Foreign Ministers' contribution word for word? That more than implies that he agrees with the Franco-German plan. It destroys public confidence if Ministers say one thing there that is then denied by other Ministers here.
The difficulty is that we do not have Mr. Villepin's text or that of Mr. Fischer in front of us. Both their countries have put forward the notion of the European Parliament being involved in the election of the President of the Commission. It is an idea that is dear to many people in Germany. Until now, it has been strongly opposed by the French.
We are concerned about excessive politicisation. We want a strong Commission, and we must find out what the specific modalities are. Members are right to ask questions. We have not come to the end of the Convention and we have not had concrete proposals. We are not yet at the intergovernmental conference, where we shall get into treaty detail about how things should be done. There is also the proposal—a British idea—to have a standing chair of the Council of Ministers. My view is that that person will probably come from one of the smaller countries, perhaps a new member state. He or she will speak English and one or two other languages, and come from a tradition of building consensus and bringing people together. Therefore, that person will probably not be from the United Kingdom, given our fanatical devotion to the adversarial system of parliamentary duels.
The chair will ensure the Council's continuity. That is necessary because, as the report highlights, having 25 member states means that each one would hold the rotating presidency only six or seven times a century. It is possible that the EU will expand to include Bulgaria, Romania, some Balkan states—Croatia is keen to start accession talks—and Turkey, about which there is some discussion. That would reduce still further the sense that we have a rotating presidency.
In many of my discussions with Governments of so-called smaller countries, I have found an increasing understanding of and sympathy for the notion of a chairperson. Such a chairman or chairwoman—I do not know what they are called in the different languages—could represent the elected Governments of Europe, and we would want to put such a person under scrutiny in terms of what Europe does. Of course, the Government support the Committee's proposal for greater openness.
We discussed the election system for MEPs, but I do not want to get into that. There are differing views. I can never recall the name of the MEP who represented me before the last election. In Yorkshire, we have David Bowe, Linda MacAvan and Richard Corbett. They are sound, wonderful people who should all be voted for in 2004. Some MEPs are excellent former Members of the House, such as John Bowis, Timothy Kirkhope and Edward McMillan-Scott, and there is Daniel Hannan, about whom we always read. They are real personalities, just as the Liberal Democrats Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg are, and the country knows about them. Under the old system, a massive protest vote led to the election, on a first-past-the-post basis, of a quite disproportionate number, and they went to Strasbourg. However, the numbers did not reflect the political spectrum in this House, so I am not sure that that was the right way.
The right hon. Member for Wells made his points in his forthright way and talked a lot about the German economy. My hon. Friend Mr. Challen talked about the need for citizens, panels, and that is an interesting and useful idea. The strength of the Convention—it is not an intergovernmental conference—is that it allows us all to look at such ideas.
Mr. Cash recalled a conversation between Jean-Pierre Chevénement and Douglas Hurd, who was Foreign Secretary. The French socialist said, "As a result of Maastricht, you won't be able to participate again in a Gulf war." Well, French soldiers were in Kosovo and French planes were in Afghanistan. I am tempted to tell Members to watch this space as things develop over the next few weeks and Saddam Hussein continues to defy the United Nations and the international community.
On issues such as asylum and combating terrorism, we need international solutions. The environment does not respect national borders, and, indeed, my hon. Friend Mr. David talked about the need for transnational legislation. He reminded us that the Prime Minister has raised the central role of national Parliaments, and we should be proud of the contribution that my right hon. Friend, Ministers and hon. Members are making.
I would like to see more link-ups between parliamentarians and their opposite numbers in the rest of Europe, including in the new member states. The House's new regulations make that more possible. I had the pleasure—with a spokesman from the Conservative party and one from the Liberal Democrats—of talking to our ambassadors to all of Europe, not just the EU. I insisted that I wanted our embassies to help all hon. Members who undertake visits to make contacts.
When talking about Europe, the hon. Member for Moray was elegant and visionary, and he showed his great experience of Austrian politics. When he returned to the subject of Scottish nationalism, however, he sounded like a nationalist. He asked about the concordat, and it is constantly under review, as it should be. It is a living thing, not something that comes and goes.
My hon. Friend Mr. Connarty referred to non-participation of members of the Committee. I do not know whether this suggestion is feasible, given the budget allocation, but more of its members might be tempted to come along if the Committee met in other European capitals. None the less, it does a good job, and I am not saying that just because the Chairman is here or because I want to be nice to members of the Committee, before which I hope to appear in a few months. It does one of the best jobs of any Committee in the House, and, as I told Mr. Moore, its work shapes our debates.
It being half-past Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.