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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 16th July 2013.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe 10:45 am, 16th July 2013

That is a very good point. To my mind, it means that one needs to focus the collective memory of elected Members through the members of the Liaison Committee, which is composed of relatively senior Members of Parliament, and through the system of the Committee Clerks. If we look at our Parliament’s representation in Brussels, we have some very talented people representing the two Houses, but that amounts to three staff. The Bundestag and the Bundesrat have 18 or 19 people between them, and that is on top of the German federal representation and the representative offices from each of the German Länder that are present in Brussels. Again, Parliament should consider the question of whether our level of representation and the number of people we have on the ground in Brussels are sufficient, but the Government cannot, or should not, issue instructions on that.

The hon. Lady asked whether COSAC could be improved, and my answer is definitely yes. It is an imperfect organisation, and it could be strengthened through reforms to the secretariat or through a formal power to summon commissioners, rather than expecting commissioners by convention to come and give evidence. It is not just about the formal meetings of COSAC, because if any system of red or yellow cards is to be effective, there has to be a culture of talking and working together that means that different parliamentary representatives, and in particular the chairs of the relevant committees, are used to having contact with each other in networking and co-ordinating an approach to a particular Commission draft measure.

The hon. Lady asked about the role of the Europe Minister, and she was very fair in how she put it. There is a perfectly legitimate debate to be had in this country about where that office sits. Some argue that it should sit in the Foreign Office. Others argue that it should sit in the Cabinet Office and so be directly accountable to the Prime Minister. Some argue that it should be a self-standing Department or be located in Brussels, in effect performing the political office of the permanent representative. In France, Germany, Poland and Spain my counterparts sit in their respective Foreign Ministries. In Sweden, however, the Europe Minister sits in the Prime Minister’s office and reports directly to the Prime Minister, although she represents a different political party from the Prime Minister in the current coalition.

The key thing is not where the Europe Minister sits, but how the right level of co-ordination and accountability is achieved across Government. The Europe Minister could be put in the Cabinet Office, but that raises the question of how the work at Brussels, which is certainly cross-departmental in Whitehall terms, is co-ordinated with the bilateral diplomatic work that has to be done with 27 other member states, because European business cannot be done in Brussels alone. I would be worried about a gap opening between a Minister dealing with Brussels business and a Minister dealing with our diplomatic efforts on, for example, Germany. We try to co-ordinate our conversations with German Ministers across all relevant political dossiers. When I see German counterparts, I do not talk strictly about Foreign Office business; I talk about financial services, the European budget and whichever European issues are high on the agenda at that moment.

The key is to have effective co-ordination through a Cabinet system, which we do through the European Affairs Committee of the Cabinet. I repeat the point I have made elsewhere: the permanent representative, who is a professional civil servant, follows the mandate set by the Cabinet. If he wishes to move from the mandate he has already been granted, he has to go back to Ministers and seek their agreement and authority to go beyond it.

On the question of yellow and red cards, under the current system national Parliaments or chambers of national Parliaments can submit a reasoned opinion that a draft directive or regulation fails to comply with the principle of subsidiarity. They have to submit that within eight weeks of the formal communication from the Commission about a draft measure. One third of the voting weight of national Parliaments needs to be signed up for the Commission to be compelled to carry out a formal review, and the reasoned opinion may only be submitted on the grounds of subsidiarity. We could make more use of reasoned opinions than we do. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is meticulous in looking at the legal grounds of a directive and whether it meets the subsidiarity test.

The Westminster Parliament has so far submitted fewer reasoned opinions than some Parliaments in other member states, but we could look to reform the system. Is eight weeks long enough? Should we not give national Parliaments longer to consider their response? There is an obvious problem with recesses. Should we reduce the threshold below a third? Should we widen the grounds for challenge? If we have subsidiarity, why not have proportionality as well? Why not have some sort of test on excessive burdens on business, or on whether there is evidence that a draft measure would have a harmful impact on European growth? Why not make provision for the yellow card to become a red card under certain circumstances, with an outright veto that national Parliaments could impose? Could we give national Parliaments the power to impose an emergency brake in certain circumstances?