[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair] — National Parliaments and the EU

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:57 am on 16th July 2013.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 9:57 am, 16th July 2013

One of the most offensive kinds of provision that appear in our domestic legislation is the Henry VIII clause, as well call it. The passerelle clause has all the same characteristics; it is a capacity to make changes without having to go back to the source of authority. However, we have to pin our main concerns to the source of authority, which is the European Communities Act 1972 itself. I allude to the White Paper, which was brought out, preceding that treaty, in 1971, and upon which, as a result of a huge amount of discussion in Parliament but not so much outside, the United Kingdom Parliament decided to pass the Act on an apparently—I say “apparently”—free vote. It happened, however, because certain Labour Members at that time decided that they would back Edward Heath’s proposals for what was to be enacted in the 1972 Act.

That White Paper is the foundation of our national parliamentary commitment to the whole panoply, the tens of thousands of lines—millions, I suspect; I have never counted them, thank God—the fabric, the labyrinth and the inexplicable and completely impossible complexities of the legislation, as was clearly demonstrated in yesterday’s debate on the opt-out. The fact is that all that ultimately turns on one piece of legislation, which we entered into voluntarily in Parliament—no doubt some, or perhaps most, did so for the best of motives. What it said was that we will accept all the decisions that are ultimately taken in the Council of Ministers as the legislation of the United Kingdom.

At the same time, we set up a scrutiny process, which I shall come on to in a moment. However, the fundamental issue is that the White Paper stated unequivocally—I do not have the quotation to hand, but I am sure that I will in no way fail to express it clearly—that we must retain the veto in our own national interest and to do otherwise would not only undermine our national interest, but endanger the very fabric of the European Community itself. That was a very wise remark, because as Members will note from what I said at the beginning, the whole of

Europe is in convulsion. It is faced not only with a democratic deficit, but with a democratic crisis, and there is not only a eurozone crisis, but a European crisis. It affects the whole of Europe, which is being contaminated by a complete refusal to look at the essential ingredients of the treaties.

Those fundamental questions are now being completely ignored. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston referred to COSAC, which, as she rightly said, is not a well-known body. It is the meeting—periodically, but much more frequently these days—of the national chairmen of each of the European scrutiny committees in each of the member states. Believe it or not, its proceedings are recorded. They are even webcast—not, I suspect, that anyone knows that, but it is a fact.

In Dublin, only a month ago, I was invited by the EU presidency—then the Irish Government—to respond officially as the main respondent for the national Parliaments on the question of democratic legitimacy. Viviane Reding, who was meant to turn up, did not bother to. She sent a video, and I can assure Members that the Dublin parliamentarians were not at all amused. That is the manner in which we are being treated—that is all the member states. She said, unequivocally—I paraphrase her remarks—that we need a federation of nation states. It was completely and totally without any attempt to enter a dialogue or a debate. That was the line that she wanted to take; it had already been written. Viviane Reding is the vice-president of the European Commission and is responsible for justice and home affairs—the very matters on which we scored that notable result last night in upholding national scrutiny. However, they are not listening.

In Vilnius, the following month—only last week— Mr Sefcovic, the Commissioner responsible for relations with the national Parliaments and the European Parliament, made his position clear. I arrived in Vilnius at 1 o’clock in the morning, and I was back in London by 7 o’clock that evening. People said, “What on earth did you think you were doing going all the way to Vilnius for four hours?” I explained very simply that, as the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee—one of 28 national Chairmen—I had the right to be there and that, when I saw that the meeting was about the next steps towards political and economic union, I knew, in the light of what I know from other sources, that the EU has not the slightest interest in renegotiation; all it wants to do is to press on with the process of integration.

Leaving aside the scrutiny process, it was interesting that an increasing number of member state Parliaments are conscious of the impact that these issues are having on their populations, on which they rely for re-election, and of the fact that they must respond. A silent revolution is in the making. I am not going to exaggerate these things, but there is an issue when the Belgian representative gets up and starts talking about Belgium’s problems with democratic legitimacy. I cannot think of one of the 28 member states that does not, in the relevant chamber or outside, in the margins, over coffee, lunch or dinner, refer to the problem of democratic legitimacy.

The issue is terribly simple: if we do not get rid of the existing treaties and deal with the fundamental structure, there is no answer to the question of democratic legitimacy. We do our best in the European Scrutiny Committee. When I was first elected Chairman, at the end of 2010, the first thing I did was to set up an inquiry into the

European Union and the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament, which is basically what we are discussing. I wanted to get expert evidence, and we did. Our report came out, and we made it clear that national Parliaments actually have the last say. We voluntarily introduced the 1972 Act; that is what the principle involved in the Factortame case is all about. It is not, as some people believe, that we are locked into a completely irreversible situation. Although the treaties say, as the Maastricht treaty did, that the euro, once entered into, is irrevocable, individual member states must voluntarily decide to accept that system.

At the moment, there is no recognition whatever that things are going wrong. There is not the slightest intention to change the foundations of the treaties, which is absolutely what is needed if we are to preserve democracy in each member state, including in the United Kingdom. Whether we are in the euro is by the bye; the fact is that all the other legislation that affects our economy every day must be subject not merely to a competence review, but to a clear decision. I look to the Minister, because the issue is his responsibility, although he will, quite understandably, take his instructions from No. 10.

I admired the fourth principle of the Bloomberg speech, which said that the fundamental principles of our national democracy depend on our national Parliaments. The Prime Minister was right; the question is whether we do anything about that. We are promising a referendum in 2017, but that is far too late. The fact is that it should be held before the general election, because we have profound reasons for getting on with it. In Dublin, when I had finished making my rather strong remarks about the state of the European Union and the role of national Parliaments, the chairman of the Bundestag’s European affairs committee said, “We must have a referendum in the United Kingdom as soon as possible, because people do not like the uncertainty,” and that is right.

We now have two Governments and two Parliaments, both dealing with the same subject matter. That inherent contradiction is completely unworkable. There are attempts at assimilation, but they just create a more complicated labyrinth, as a result of which the whole situation becomes increasingly dysfunctional. What is more, the creation of a two-tier, two-Government, two-Parliament Europe with no real connection to anything is happening before our very eyes, without any treaty changes. That is why a referendum is required.

The fundamental reason for holding a referendum is that a fundamental change is taking place now in the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. We are not talking about change in 2017; indeed, there may not be another treaty—I cannot say, although the Minister probably knows. However, whether or not there is another treaty, and whether or not there is renegotiation and some nibbling here and there—some of it may sound attractive to some people—that will not change the basic structure. That is what is wrong, and that is why national Parliaments must reassert themselves. They have the power to deal with their respective parties, particularly from the Back Benches, including by persuasion. I was extremely glad that the Government listened yesterday. It was partly a numbers question; we live in a civilised world, and we appreciate that there are times when Ministers recognise that they do not have the support that they need. Three Select Committee Chairmen got together—other members of the Liaison Committee were also involved—and that created a bit of a problem for the Government. None the less, we are grateful for what happened.

The hon. Lady mentioned consensus and the fact that there are rarely votes. I simply recommend that people read VoteWatch, which is produced by Simon Hix of the London School of Economics. It has demonstrated that where there could be different outcomes, all countries end up agreeing on 90% of the legislation, and I believe that the figure has increased since Simon Hix looked at that. Part of the problem is the qualified majority voting system and part of the problem is the co-decision system, but I shall park those issues. However, that is how the system overcomes the issue of what national Parliaments could decide for themselves if they regained the power that they should regain for themselves. I also recommend that people read Professor Damian Chalmers’s paper on democratic self-government, which will prove to be a seminal contribution to this debate. He will give evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee quite soon.

What worries me about the red card system is that it is a further indication of a refusal to grapple with the essential question—that we should end up as an association of nation states that have a veto where necessary, but that co-operate where possible. We should also be able to trade and to work in political co-operation with our neighbours, without being governed by them. The red card system is liable to increase federal arrangements. I do not see why, when this Parliament, as a national Parliament, says that it does not want a measure, we should then be obliged to say yes to it, just because we do not reach a certain threshold when other member states, for completely different reasons, say they want the measure or are not prepared to stand up and say that they do not want it.

That goes back to the fundamental question on which I will end. It is about the ballot box, freedom of choice and those questions that people fought and died for, and that should determine our attitude towards not merely nibbling at, revising or reforming the European Union, but dealing with the real problem: the foundations of the treaties themselves. It may be a big ask to expect the Minister to agree, but if we do not deal with that, just as those of us who found that what we said in the 1990s has not exactly been proved wrong, we will be in a similar place in 10 or 15 years’ time, and, regrettably, by then I fear it will be too late.