During a Westminster Hall debate on National Parliaments and the EU, Bill Cash made the following speech and interventions:
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am sure the hon. Lady would not want to move on to another subject without noting that the European Scrutiny Committee has now set up an inquiry into European scrutiny, to which she has given some very good evidence. Furthermore, last night the European Scrutiny Committee and two other Committees worked together to ensure that we changed the Government’s approach to the whole business of opt-outs and opt-ins and that the Government accepted the amendment that had essentially been drafted by the European Scrutiny Committee.
Ms Stuart: I fear to tread on the subject of the European Scrutiny Committee in the hon. Gentleman’s presence, because I know I would get it wrong. I would also rather rely on his intervening to tell the Chamber about the Committee’s work. It is significant that last night it was agreed that the negotiating positions had to be brought back to Parliament, but we all know that we are still only talking to each other in Committee Rooms rather than on the Floor of the House.
What would really improve national Parliaments? I am caught between a rock and a hard place, because I do not want national Parliaments to become separate institutions within the architectural framework of the EU. The EU has the Commission and the Council, but national Parliaments provide the majorities to form the Governments that send Ministers to the Council. There is, however, a little-known organisation that is known only to those who have been to some of its meetings—COSAC, which is the conference of European scrutiny committees.
Ten years ago, I was trying to broker a deal in that working group between national Parliaments so that COSAC would be strengthened in the red and yellow card system, but for that the MEPs would have had to leave COSAC. It is difficult for COSAC to arrive at a decision, because there are, say, four representatives from each country, two from the Government and two from the Opposition. If there is a coalition Government, in our case the representatives could be a Tory, a Lib Dem and two Labour Members, so there are probably three views among the four representatives. Consensus then has to be reached across 27 or 28 countries within extremely tight time limits. What then happens is that MEPs are the only people who are sufficiently united in their view and who caucus—they are usually united in the view that the European Parliament is good and national Parliaments are bad.
The card system will not work unless the national Parliaments that exercise the veto have a network to talk to each other. If that network has an in-built number of MEPs who can outvote the national parliamentarians, it simply will not work. I do not know whether it is possible to change the job that COSAC does in such a way, but we will see.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am following the hon. Lady’s remarks carefully. She refers to scrutiny as a key issue, but in Strangford, which has an agricultural and fishing base, it is not scrutiny that we want but changes in legislation to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. Does she feel that we can change things through the scrutiny that she refers to? If we cannot change things, scrutiny is no good.
Ms Stuart: The hon. Gentleman has gone to the nub of the matter. We need to decide what we think the role of national Parliaments is. Is it only to scrutinise? If so, we need to widen the base so that more Members take part more regularly. Or is it to get Governments to change their decisions at times? I think that it needs to be the latter, but a number of things have to happen to allow that. Early information is key.
We also need information about how people actually act in the Council of Ministers. I have sat in the Council of Ministers, and I know that there is rarely a vote. If there is, it is seen as a failure by the civil servants that they have allowed the situation to arise. They do a head count to see whether they have a qualified majority, and if they do not think they will get the decision they want, they give in gracefully.
That takes me to what really needs to change. We need a proper Europe Minister. That is not to cast any aspersions on the current Europe Minister, but the position is a fallacy. Why are matters involving the European Union, which deals essentially with domestic legislation, placed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Numerous Governments have tried at times to get the Europe function out of the Foreign Office. From what I gather, the trade union of Foreign Office Ministers usually gets together and it does not happen, but there is a question to be addressed there.
If the Europe Minister is in the Foreign Office and makes decisions and strikes bargains regularly, they might say, “There’s an idea here that affects agriculture on which we want some compromise”, or it might be on cigarette advertising, the working hours of junior doctors or any number of issues on which we can get a deal. Such deals are struck across various Departments. At that level of political bargaining, the House has no ability to scrutinise, take a role or even know what happens. We are simply given the end results. A Europe Minister should have accountability for our permanent representative in Brussels, UKRep, which does all those dealings, and be answerable to the House of Commons for the bargains struck. There was a stage when a previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, seriously envisaged such a role, but for whatever reason it did not happen.
I can hear the outcry: “You can’t politicise UKRep!” I am not saying that I would do it the way that the Finns do it, for example—they call their civil servant before them every Friday morning—but Select Committees can call civil servants. There could be a regular slot for UKRep representatives when they come on a Friday to brief Whitehall Departments about what they have done. They could stay until the Monday morning or come on the Thursday afternoon to give evidence. If we do not want to do it at the civil service level—actually, I would rather do it at the political level—there should be a Minister who is answerable to the House across Whitehall Departments for negotiations, compromises and deals struck in Brussels. It would be such a far-reaching brief that the Minister would almost function as a Deputy Prime Minister.
Mr Cash: I am extremely interested in what the hon. Lady is saying, and I have often thought along similar lines. However, does she acknowledge that due to the critical mass of the European Union’s relationship with the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister and Downing street ultimately want to control all those matters? I suppose that that is understandable from their point of view.
During the constitutional treaty discussions and the run-up to Lisbon, it was thought that the Foreign Secretary was out of the loop, because Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)were in discussions but the Foreign Secretary was scarcely involved at all.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) not only for securing the debate, but for the way in which she has deployed her arguments. She has been in the House for about 10 years, I suppose—
Ms Stuart: Seventeen years.
Mr Cash: Seventeen years! I am only getting close to 30 years. It is extremely refreshing to hear such cogent and well thought out concern about the whole European issue, which has dogged our political debates for the 30 years or so that I have been in the House—whether there is any connection, I cannot say. Today, the one thing that saddens me slightly and, I dare say, her, too, is that so few people are participating in a debate about what is at the heart of our democratic system. I regard this matter as being not “about Europe” but about Britain, and about democracy, which is not peculiar to any one country.
Our democratic systems have, in real terms, emerged since the 19th century, because of John Bright and others. I mention his name because the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston represents part of his old constituency, before it was Birmingham Central. His fight for the working-class vote was in essence the beginnings of our democratic system. The Conservative party, under Disraeli, gave in to the pressures. There is no need to go into the detail, but it was incredibly important and was based on the assumption that when people went into the polling booth and cast their vote secretly in a ballot box—that was the system that was devised in the late 19th century to ensure that the people had their say—we had a democracy. Other countries have run parallel with that, so the issue is not exclusively British but applies elsewhere in the whole of the European continent and the rest of the world.
I fear that with the movement towards bigger regional systems, even those who claim that they want world government ignore national identity, traditions and democratic systems, and therefore in essence national Parliaments, at their peril. The European Union, which I voted for as the European Community in 1975—I said yes—has since moved inexorably along a trajectory towards more and more centralisation and less and less national involvement.
The Minister for Europe is here. He and I have engaged in debates and discussions on the matter since at least 1988 or 1989, when I was first elected chairman of the backbench committee on European affairs in hostile circumstances. It was interesting that the national parliamentarians who then represented the Conservative party elected me in a secret ballot because I had put out a note explaining why I was standing, which was all about national Parliaments. I had written a pamphlet for the Bow Group called “A Democratic Way to European Unity: Arguments against Federalism” and I followed that up the following year with another called “Against a Federal Europe—The Battle for Britain”. I think I can fairly say—I do so without presumption—that what I set out in those two documents has remained the central problem.
The difference is that the evidence now demonstrates the analysis of where we were going wrong, which was further and further integration, and that was in the 1988 to 1991 period. Since then, we have had Amsterdam, Nice and Maastricht, and we have had the constitutional and Lisbon treaties. Irrespective of the evidence, both economic and political, there is increasing distrust not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the whole of Europe. I need not give all the Eurobarometer’s figures, but 72% of those in countries such as Spain and Italy have now decided that they do not trust the European Union. I presume to say that riots, unemployment and the rise of the far right are all things that I said would happen when I wrote those pamphlets back in 1988-91 and since.
Despite all that, as well as the Bloomberg speech and the movement towards a referendum—I believe that there will be a money resolution this afternoon on the European Union (Referendum) Bill—if I am being completely objective, nothing has changed except public opinion. The facts demonstrate that those of us who have argued this case consistently over a long period have been proved right. I am not saying, “I told you so.” The matter is far too serious for that because, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, it is about our democratic system.
National parliamentarians are elected by virtue of manifestos in general elections. We ultimately control taxation and spending. That is what determines the nature of our economy, and it also determines public services. If circumstances arise in which the economic and political situation in this country, let alone other countries, becomes dysfunctional and as a result we cannot deliver the prosperity that people want, not only will they become completely alienated from laws that are generated to exclude them from participation in a prosperous business and social environment, but the entire fabric of the European system will disintegrate.
The real problem is the treaties. The issue is no longer just a call for reform. I was anxious for reform, and I have called for renegotiation for as long as I can remember, because I thought the treaties would go wrong. Now that they have gone so wrong, there is no prospect of their improving the situation and, as I will explain, there is absolutely no sign that any Government in any European country are seriously grappling with the intrinsic problem at the heart of the treaties. Governments talk about renegotiation, but we are past that. The reality is that we must leave the existing treaties—I make this point in the context of our national Parliament and our own country—because unless other countries are prepared to face up to the fact that there has been a cataclysmic failure of the system, they will not be impelled to make the changes that are needed to achieve what I still believe in: co-operation on the European continent and in trade.
I need not go into the arguments about trading, because we are talking about national Parliaments, but one reason why the British Chambers of Commerce and others have become so deeply disillusioned by the European Union in business terms is precisely the legislation that has come about as a result of being passed under the aegis of the treaties. Those treaties, because of the concrete framework of the acquis communautaire, cannot be changed without unanimity among all member states, and there is absolutely no intention whatever to make fundamental changes to the treaties.
Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman is making a profound point about the inflexibility of the European Union structure. Does he agree that the reason why European Union countries, with the possible exception of Sweden, are unlikely to withdraw support from the current treaties is that they have a history of fascism, communism or of being defeated in wars and controlled by other nations? They do not have the same confidence in their national democracies that we have in this country.
Mr Cash: That is absolutely correct, and is not disrespectful or a criticism of those countries. In the past month I have been to Lithuania twice, and I have great affection for that country. One has only to look at the way in which it has been brutalised for 150 years by successive dictatorships—the Nazis, Russians and Soviet Union—to realise why it would want the security of working within the framework of something bigger. The same applies to Estonia, Latvia and many other countries in central and eastern Europe, so there is an understandable reason for their wanting to play safe, as it were. However, it is not playing safe that is the problem, because the price that people will pay for allowing that democratic system to be so much at risk will be another collapse of those countries if the democratic freedom that they fought for disintegrates as a result of the European Union’s failures.
The fact is that tinkering with the treaties is not the only thing required. It is about the very foundations of the EU, which brings me on to the question of ever-closer union. Certainly that was embedded in the early treaties, including in the treaty of Rome. However, it was not capable of being implemented, unless and until the genie was gradually eased out of the bottle as a result of successive treaty changes. People are cynical about the 1975 referendum, and I understand why. There is plenty of reason to believe that, in fact, it was done with some cynicism by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. However, the reality is that people such as Tony Benn and others, who were involved in arguments on the other side, challenged whether it would ultimately lead to political union.
Although I freely state that I voted yes in 1975, it was because, as far as I was aware, it was going to be a common market. It was not only that, however. It could only become more of an integrated, ever-closer union as a result of further treaties, which is why I most emphatically put my foot down on the Maastricht treaty—I tabled about 200 amendments, or whatever it was—and fought the arguments right the way through from beginning to end, because that was about the creation of European government. There is no disputing that, and I am very glad that the present Prime Minister stated in the
House the other day that he thought that there should have been a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. He was right.
We do not need to go into the past too much, but the Maastricht treaty remains at the epicentre of the Lisbon treaty, because the Lisbon treaty is simply a consolidation of all the others. Anyone who cares to get those treaties out can see that, although I have to say that there are not many people who would. Sometimes even I have a great disinclination to get out the consolidated treaties and plough through them, although I notice that the Minister has them on his desk, with lots of little yellow flashes so that he can immediately leap to one article or another. However, I do not think this is about individual articles, nor is it about the intricacies of bits and pieces. It is about the fundamental structure.
Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman is right about the Lisbon treaty to a point, but does he agree that there is a fundamental difference between the Lisbon treaty and all the treaties that went before it, inasmuch as the passerelle clauses provide the right to change treaties without going back to the sovereign Governments and Parliaments?
Mr Cash: 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.
Mr Cash: I do not think that anyone could honestly say that the yellow card system has been a stunning success, given the number of occasions we have reached the threshold. That is also a problem with respect to any possibility of a red card system, leaving aside the federalisation they both imply.
Emma Reynolds: I do not claim that the yellow card system has been a stunning success. As the hon. Gentleman set out, it has been used successfully on only one occasion —the so-called Monti II proposals, which were then withdrawn by the European Commission. Just because the yellow card system is not a success at the moment, that does not mean that it could not be made to work better. I will move on to that and better co-ordination of national parliamentarians in a moment.
The Labour party is committed to pushing for a red card system when in government. It would, in effect, turn the yellow card into a red card, by stating clearly that a third of national Parliaments being against a proposal is a veto. It would not force the European Commission to reconsider, but would say, “No. Stop. Stop that proposal. One-third of national Parliaments have great concerns, therefore withdraw it.”
Even within the current treaties, the yellow card system could be made to work better, which brings me to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform—a think-tank that is well reputed and thorough on such matters—has suggested creating a national parliamentary forum in Brussels of MPs from different member states. I would be interested to know whether the Minister for Europe has considered that proposal. I regret to hear that European Commissioner Viviane Reding did not turn up to the meeting when the hon. Gentleman was in Dublin. Perhaps a new forum, made up of MPs—not necessarily including Chairs of Scrutiny Committees—meeting in Brussels could better hold to account European Governments, who have permanent representations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston suggested, there should be better political oversight of such representations.
Mr Cash: Holding a gathering of MPs to talk about issues is not the same as holding people to account. Holding people to account means that there is a vote, within a constitutional structure that requires people to answer questions, and if the people who have the numbers on their side do not like a proposal, the Government’s position changes, as happened last night. The hon. Lady is suggesting a Parliament of fools.