Open Europe Blog

Who should represent the UK in the EU, MPs or the Government?

The Hansard Society’s recent collection of essays included many good proposals on how to improve Westminster’s scrutiny of EU business. We have already commented on who did not have anything to say on improving it  – here are some of the ideas of those who did:

Firstly, Gisela Stuart MP made a fundamental observation as to what scrutiny should seek to achieve. “If it’s about shaping decisions, then Parliament enters the stage far too late to make a difference” but “it’s not the role of national parliaments to second-guess their governments at EU level. I’d argue that Parliament’s role is to scrutinise its own government’s actions at EU level.” In essence – who scrutinises the scrutinisers. While acknowledging that the UK Parliament can not change measures already agreed at an EU level she went on to suggest some innovations including a Europe Minister in the Cabinet, with his/her own question time to improve political accountability.

By contrast the Europe Minister David Lidington MP, although probably not opposed to being in the Cabinet, sees the role of MPs differently believing in “upstreaming the process, so that Parliament can influence Brussels at the very beginning of the decision-making process.” This view of Parliament as an ‘influencer’ was shared by the chair of the EU Committee in the House of Lords Lord Boswell who explained that his “committee engages actively with bodies including the Commission, the European Parliament, national parliaments of other EU member states and the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom” without addressing the concerns raised by Stuart.

This all raises interesting questions, picked up on by Open Europe’s Christopher Howarth who argued in cases where say a Lords’ committee gives its opinion to the Commission it is unclear whose opinion is being voiced – it is not Parliament’s as a whole, just a sub-section of parliamentary opinion”. In essence if MPs seek to influence the EU directly, on whose behalf do they speak? How do they decide what to influence and to whom should they be accountable? Should the unelected Lords Committee be seeking to influence the EU perhaps to do things the UK Government does not approve of?
 

In other submissions, Chris Heaton-Harris MP and Robert Broadhurst’s looked at the proposal for an EU red card to give national parliaments a veto over EU measures concluding that in practice it “would still leave Parliament unable to control the flow of EU legislation”. Instead they proposed a new Act of Parliament that would require Ministers to receive a mandate before negotiating in the EU, giving Parliament the final say and a new UK EU relationship. They added a thoughtful look at how the current scrutiny committee mechanisms could be sharpened up.

Bill Cash MP, the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee explained how Parliament’s scrutiny process grew up and  “commented on ideas for incremental reform” while believing that “it is important to consider more radical options”.

Dr Ariella Huff and Dr Julie Smith looked at other systems around Europe including the Dutch Parliament’s devolved scrutiny system and the Danish mandating system before suggesting that Ministers attend the UK’s scrutiny committee before and after Council meetings.

Lastly Open Europe’s Christopher Howarth suggested a number of other innovations including giving MPs the power to summon MEPs to Westminster and conduct confirmation hearings of the UK’s EU officials before concluding “Scrutiny without power is not scrutiny, it is ritual… The only real solution is to return powers to Westminster”.

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Who should represent the UK in the EU, MPs or the Government?

The Hansard Society’s recent collection of essays included many good proposals on how to improve Westminster’s scrutiny of EU business. We have already commented on who did not have anything to say on improving it  – here are some of the ideas of those who did:

Firstly, Gisela Stuart MP made a fundamental observation as to what scrutiny should seek to achieve. “If it’s about shaping decisions, then Parliament enters the stage far too late to make a difference” but “it’s not the role of national parliaments to second-guess their governments at EU level. I’d argue that Parliament’s role is to scrutinise its own government’s actions at EU level.” In essence – who scrutinises the scrutinisers. While acknowledging that the UK Parliament can not change measures already agreed at an EU level she went on to suggest some innovations including a Europe Minister in the Cabinet, with his/her own question time to improve political accountability.

By contrast the Europe Minister David Lidington MP, although probably not opposed to being in the Cabinet, sees the role of MPs differently believing in “upstreaming the process, so that Parliament can influence Brussels at the very beginning of the decision-making process.” This view of Parliament as an ‘influencer’ was shared by the chair of the EU Committee in the House of Lords Lord Boswell who explained that his “committee engages actively with bodies including the Commission, the European Parliament, national parliaments of other EU member states and the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom” without addressing the concerns raised by Stuart.

This all raises interesting questions, picked up on by Open Europe’s Christopher Howarth who argued in cases where say a Lords’ committee gives its opinion to the Commission it is unclear whose opinion is being voiced – it is not Parliament’s as a whole, just a sub-section of parliamentary opinion”. In essence if MPs seek to influence the EU directly, on whose behalf do they speak? How do they decide what to influence and to whom should they be accountable? Should the unelected Lords Committee be seeking to influence the EU perhaps to do things the UK Government does not approve of?
 

In other submissions, Chris Heaton-Harris MP and Robert Broadhurst’s looked at the proposal for an EU red card to give national parliaments a veto over EU measures concluding that in practice it “would still leave Parliament unable to control the flow of EU legislation”. Instead they proposed a new Act of Parliament that would require Ministers to receive a mandate before negotiating in the EU, giving Parliament the final say and a new UK EU relationship. They added a thoughtful look at how the current scrutiny committee mechanisms could be sharpened up.

Bill Cash MP, the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee explained how Parliament’s scrutiny process grew up and  “commented on ideas for incremental reform” while believing that “it is important to consider more radical options”.

Dr Ariella Huff and Dr Julie Smith looked at other systems around Europe including the Dutch Parliament’s devolved scrutiny system and the Danish mandating system before suggesting that Ministers attend the UK’s scrutiny committee before and after Council meetings.

Lastly Open Europe’s Christopher Howarth suggested a number of other innovations including giving MPs the power to summon MEPs to Westminster and conduct confirmation hearings of the UK’s EU officials before concluding “Scrutiny without power is not scrutiny, it is ritual… The only real solution is to return powers to Westminster”.

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