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Committee of the Centre

Thursday 20th June 2002


Convention on the Future of Europe

Ordered by The Committee of the Centre to be printed 4th September 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 05/01/E (Committee of the Centre)


The Committee of the Centre is a Standing Committee established in accordance with paragraph 10 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Standing Order No 54 of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Terms of Reference of the Committee are to examine and report on functions carried out in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and on any other related matters determined by the Assembly.

The Committee has the power to send for persons and papers.

The Committee has seventeen members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of five members.

The current membership of the Committee established on 15 December 1999, is as follows:

Mr Edwin Poots (Chairperson)
Mr Oliver Gibson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mr Roy Beggs Jnr Dr Alasdair McDonnell
Mrs Eileen Bell Mr Barry McElduff
Dr Esmond Birnie Mr Eugene McMenamin
Mrs Annie Courtney Mr Pat McNamee
Mr Duncan Shipley Dalton Dr Dara O'Hagan
Mr David Ervine Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Danny Kennedy Mr Jim Shannon
Ms Patricia Lewsley  



Thursday 20 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Poots (Chairperson)
Mrs Bell
Dr Birnie
Mr Kennedy
Ms Lewsley
Dr McDonnell
Mr McMenamin
Mr K Robinson
Mr Shannon


Rt Hon David Heathcoat-
Amory MP ) UK Parliamentary Ms Gisela Stuart MP ) Representatives


The Chairperson: The main item on the agenda today is a presentation on the Convention on the Future of Europe. I extend a warm welcome to the Rt Hon David Heathcoat-Amory MP and Ms Gisela Stuart MP. EU issues are part of the Committee of the Centre's remit. The Committee has considered the Convention on the Future of Europe, and the issue has been debated in the Assembly. I will now hand over to you for a brief presentation, and then Committee Members will ask questions.


Ms Stuart: Mr Heathcoat-Amory and I both come from the House of Commons and our alternates come from the House of Lords. We have two Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat alternates. There are two main members, one Labour and one Conservative. I am a member of the House of Commons representatives, and also serve as a parliamentary representative on the praesidium - a group of 13 that guides, steers or dominates the proceedings of the Convention, depending on your point of view.


The Convention has recently completed a listening phase. This was necessary because almost half of the representatives on the Convention have no first hand experience of the European Union; there are 13 candidate countries represented on top of the 15 current member states. We have just set up the first set of six working groups to look at specific topics, and those groups will report in September and October with recommendations rather than draft treaty articles.


The Convention tends to have a series of meetings, and we meet as political families. I go to the PES group and Mr Heathcoat-Amory goes to the European Peoples Party (EPP). We meet as constituent groups, so national parliamentarians meet in the same way that Government representatives or the European Parliament have meetings. The Commission has only two representatives, so I am sure that they have worked out a process of coming to an agreement without having formal meetings.


The next full Convention session will take place next week, and will discuss civic society. We hope to report back by the end of spring 2003, although that is a moveable feast. It is not entirely clear whether the findings of those sessions, which will go to the International Treaties Convention (ITC), will take the form a single recommendation on treaty amendments, or a range of suggestions.


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I cannot improve on that general description. It is the intention of the President of the Convention, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, to present a constitution for the EU that will be a simplified version of the present treaties. That, in itself, is controversial, because states tend to have constitutions. Therefore, it may endow the EU with a form of statehood, even though it will be superficially attractive to have a clearer distinction between what is an EU competence and what is left to member states.


It is my belief that the European Union is democratically bankrupt, and this is evident in several ways. European electorates take little interest in the European Union, and when they do, they often deliver snubs. Referendums go the wrong way, according to the conventional wisdom, and that must be taken seriously. In other words, we must rebuild Europe from the ground up.


I am a "democracy first" member of the Convention. We are at a very early stage, and, as Ms Stuart said, we are only just beginning to get down to business with the working groups. We make different alliances with different people. As Ms Stuart mentioned, I am a member of the European Peoples Party (EPP), but I am also a United Kingdom delegate member. We tend to automatically support the rights of national Parliaments, because there are 16 MEP members of the Convention who, naturally, believe that giving them more power is the solution to the democratic problem. There are two members from the European Commission who see their role as the advancement of that body. I do not want it to degenerate into a form of institutional bargaining. I am in favour of introducing democratic ideas and ideals at this stage, in order to reconnect the European Union with the people it is supposed to serve.


The Chairperson: The point that you made about the democratic bankruptcy of the European Union is a matter of grave concern, because there is a lack of understanding of how important Europe is in the internal affairs of states. In our inquiry, we discovered that 60% of the legislation that affects Northern Ireland originates in Europe. The general public does not perceive that, which is reflected at European elections. Will the European Council, which met in Laeken, examine that situation? How will the lack of public interest in European affairs be addressed? Will the European Council go down the road of subsidiarity, or will it devise a mechanism to get people more interested in what takes place in Europe?


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: There is a tension, as they see it, between having an effective Europe and a democratic Europe. Up to now, the emphasis has been on an effective Europe - doing more- which has created more legislation, more regulations and more Directives. However, it has become separated from the democratic roots of Europe, which, in my view, lie at member state level or below. I strongly support any proposals to give powers back to member states, and also to ensure that decisions taken at EU level fully involve the national Parliaments of the member states. That would be better than the top-down model, in which the Commission launches ideas and the legislation is passed in secret, or by an obscure bargaining process between the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and various working groups and committees in Europe, all of which are part of a technocratic structure that means little to the public.


Mrs E Bell: Following on from the points made about democracy, what is your attitude towards the incorporation of the charter of fundamental rights into these structures? The more I hear about simplification, the more complex it becomes, and I am a supporter of simplicity. Do you have an opinion on fundamental rights? A convention on that subject felt that it could be adhered to, just as other member states do. Is that the best option?


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I can attempt an answer. There is a danger of a proliferation of rights. Politicians are very good at distributing rights, which can create confusion, or even contradictions, between the existing European Convention on Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the charter of fundamental rights, which is an EU charter possibly judiciable from Luxembourg. That can create confusion, not just for lawyers, but also in the eyes of the public. Although I do not serve on it, there is a working group dedicated to that matter. In trying to find a solution it is receiving high-level attention. Some people think that the best way forward is for the European Union to accede as a body to the existing European Convention on Human Rights.


Mrs E Bell: There seemed to be more complications on top of the simplifications that you mentioned, so I am pleased with your answer.


Ms Lewsley: You have talked about the public's lack of interest in Europe. One of the key issues is that the Council of Ministers does not meet in public. Perhaps there is a way to be more open, transparent and democratic, which might help to inform people about the decisions that are being made.


Ms Stuart: The Council of Ministers is the key to unlocking the question of subsidiarity - where power lies and where decisions are being made. There will always be a level at which Ministers will meet in private, and, as all politicians know, negotiations go on. However, if this were to be exposed to the light of cameras, the politicians would just go out into the corridors to talk to each other. Two things have been detrimental to the Council of Ministers. The first is the qualified majority voting, which was originally meant to be a mechanism to allow us to make decisions. That has been used to build up blocking minorities, and has almost been subverted. Secondly, no one knows how one's own Ministers voted. It was once rather mischievously said to me that the European Commission building ought to be redesigned to have 15 entrances - or, more to the point, 15 exits. Each member state could then go out and give its own press conference to its own media - giving its version of the decision that it had just reached.


There are several aspects to this. The starting point must be that when they meet as a legislative body to discuss and vote, that must be open to the public and televised so that we know who made what decisions. However, I do not think that this is necessary when they meet as a Cabinet. Furthermore, the six-monthly rotating presidency, and the way that those decisions are made, also does not work. On the way here this morning I listened to an interview about the UK's difficulties with the refrigerator Directive. The Minister of State for the Environment, Michael Meacher, made the point that at the end of certain presidencies, certain Governments desperately pushed things through so they could say what they had achieved during their presidency. They must be more open, and more strategic and long-term.


The knock-on effect of a strategic approach for national Parliaments, or any of the bodies who have devolved legislative powers, is that we know when decisions are coming up. That makes scrutiny meaningful, and not a burglar alarm mechanism by which we find out what has happened but cannot do anything about it.


Dr McDonnell: I want to tease out some of the more detailed matters at a grassroots level. In the past, we regarded ourselves as a deprived area within the EU. We looked at EU as a crock of gold from which we derived funding, as did some parts of Britain. I appreciate what you are saying about the six-month presidency being a problem. There is always a rush of blood to the head the closer it comes to the deadline.


You mentioned how the commissioners function, and how we can probably handle making the changes at the top. However, the Nice Treaty was rejected in Southern Ireland, and to an extent, that was due to frustration, disconnection or disengagement of the public. Is there anyway in which we can make it more relevant to the public, as distinct from making it more open - although that is important and I do not dismiss that? More openness would satisfy us as politicians, but Joe Bloggs in the street has to feel that it is relevant.


We were strongly European. Even people like my friend across the way, Mr Shannon, who is not usually strongly European, was strongly European during that time because we were doing well while the money was flowing. I may be localising this, but our difficulty is how to get off the wavelength of the European Union as a cash cow and a subsidiser of infrastructure, to the point where we participate in the European Union.


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: That is an interesting question. In the Republic of Ireland they believe that money is no substitute for democracy, and I would agree with them. It is interesting that in Europe, even countries that are financially large net beneficiaries are feeling the frustration, and the lack of control.


The EU Fridges Directive is an illustrative case. Anyone who listened to the 'Today' programme this morning were entertained by the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Meacher, who was blaming the system. He said that he and his officials were not kept properly informed by the Commission about the implications of fridges that needed to be disposed of environmentally. It is about compulsory powers, and it must bemuse the people at the bottom of the chain - traders, local government officials and the public - when even the Minister did not know what was going on. It is a bad way to legislate, and is undemocratic.


Accountability is important. Here was a Minister of the Crown blaming officials, who said that they did not know what was going on in the Commission - everyone is passing the blame. In a democracy we need to know who takes the decisions, who will take the blame, and who can be removed. All of that is absent in the Fridges Directive case, which is small and rather technical, but it illustrates the bigger problem that no one knows who is in charge, and that must be put right.


In your case, my solution would be to debate the matters in Assemblies such as this and then in the United Kingdom Parliament, which will build up the case for the laws. If it requires an international dimension - and the environment is at least partly cross-border - then you could make a case for common legislation in the European Union, which would have common rules and framework directives that are built up from below. Currently it starts at the top, and we are at the bottom of the feeding chain - that is what has gone wrong. I hope that the Convention on the Future of Europe will take this seriously because it is also being pulled in the direction of giving the Commission more powers in foreign policy, security policy and so on, which may be desirable, but unless we get the democracy right, we are building on shaky foundations.


Dr McDonnell: I want to tease that on a little further. In Northern Ireland the politicians are not even blamed because they are seen to be impotent in the European Union sense. At the ground level, it is perceived that we have a plethora of bureaucracy and technocrats who, as you have said, are not accountable. That sort of big amorphous snowball will roll on regardless of what political input or political representation is put on the European Parliament, or on a particular Commission position. It is somehow bigger than any individual political input that there might be.


Once in a while someone comes along like Jacques Delors, who is larger than life and who has an impact. If you like Jacques Delors, or sympathise with him, that is great - if you do not like him it is not so good. When Jacques Delors was in a key position, the public related to Europe better because he was not a faceless bureaucrat. From some perspectives he may have been doing some things that were not correct; from others he was doing great things; but at least the public began to perceive that Jacques Delors was the President of the European Union in the same way that Americans perceive the President of the United States. Americans can relate to the President even though he is far removed. They connect with the presidency through the states of the Union and their governors. I would not copy the United States, but we must have a model that resonates in the same way, so that Joe Bloggs in the street feels that this guy up there is not only speaking for him, but is accountable to him from the top down.


The Chairperson: A European super state with a president.


Ms Stuart: You have touched on the unspoken question that the Convention will have to address. Do you want a United States of Europe with an elected President, from which certain consequences flow? In that version, the Commissions would be elected by the European Parliament, which would be changed. That is not a Europe that I would wish to hand over to my children, because it would not be sustainable. The Americans were a new people, but we come not only with 50 years of European Union history, and also with a couple of thousand years of baggage. We are not a new people.


The question is: who do they identify with when decisions are made? I chair a working group on national Parliaments, and I would like to put an alternative view. Rather than the pillar structure with the EU at the top, Governments in the middle and Parliaments low down the food chain of political decision-making, the loop should be closed by having the Commission come to national Parliaments to outline its legislative proposals. Bodies with legislative powers should have not just a scrutiny role but also a decision-making role in subsidiarity, which, 80% of the time, is a political decision.


I am not comfortable with saying, "whenever things get tough, we should go to the courts." I want to have people who are accountable, and I agree with Mr Heathcoat-Amory when he says that people will relate to Government if they can also kick them out. That is the basis of democracy. If I do not like the people who have made the decision, I have a means of getting rid of them, and that is at the national level. People are not turning up for European elections because they are not sure what they are voting for.


Mr McMenamin: I represent West Tyrone, a constituency on the border with the Republic of Ireland, where the euro is in everyday use. When will Great Britain adopt the euro? Secondly, what are your views on illegal immigrants?


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Immigration is an enormous issue, and is going to grow in importance in popular debate. It is partly a reflection of a sense of frustration. One of the reasons that people voted in large numbers for an extremist party in the first round of the French Presidential election is because they did not think that the centrist parties were delivering or even offering a solution - they seemed to be almost the same. There was also a denial of any national influence, and there appeared to be a consensus that the issues of immigration, asylum seeking, visas and refugees should be decided by the European Union as a whole. Many French voters felt that the matter of who comes into France ought to be argued out and decided in an election in which they could express an opinion and see a result, and that vote was the consequence. Something similar happened in the Netherlands.


It is, by definition, a cross-border issue, and cross-border discussions are, therefore, necessary. No single country can solve the problem. However, that could be taken too far. Voters believe that is for them and their Government to say who their citizens are, and how many people the country can peacefully and economically absorb. If it goes off into "Eurospace", the democratic problem that voter choices do not show up in voter action is resurrected. A national policy is therefore necessary to keep control of our own borders. Although the matter is on the European agenda, discussion is also necessary. The problem must not be shoved onto the shoulders of the European Union to be solved. Not only would that fail, it would feed the frustrations that drive the support for extremist parties.


The Chairperson: With regard to the euro, our local electoral offices are preparing for a referendum in conjunction with the Assembly elections on the first Thursday in May 2003.


Mr Shannon: Accountability is a concern for many of us. I am not a Euro sceptic, despite what was said, but I have concerns. The European Union can be good if the process includes accountability. The increase in membership of the European Union, especially by eastern European countries, will undoubtedly impact upon the present membership, and will lead to problems for Northern Ireland. Having been on the periphery of Europe, we shall find ourselves further away. There should be a process whereby Northern Ireland, as a region, can feel less isolated from Brussels. We are here, the Eurocrats are there, and they never visit us. We know nothing about them and they make decisions for us. How can we influence what happens for the benefit of the Northern Ireland people? We do not want lip service to be paid to the principle of subsidiarity; we want something more solid - something that we, and those who voted for us, can feel part of.


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I shall take the point on enlargement first. The EU is negotiating for enlargement with 12 states, 10 of which may join in one big bang in 2004. The problems of the lack of democracy and accountability could become worse. There will be even less sense of a European voter identity. There will be a greater diversity, and the possibility of a federal or super-national democracy will become even more remote. Questions on cost and agriculture have not been answered at all. Neither has the question of free movement of people, which brings us back to the immigration issue. People from countries waiting to join the European Union have been successful in claiming refugee status in the United Kingdom, on the grounds that they have been badly treated in those countries. Perhaps we should think about not admitting these countries until that problem is sorted out? Enlargement has a momentum behind it, and the difficult questions are not being asked. That feeds the problem of peripherality, and we shall all be even more on the periphery if Europe as the centre of gravity moves east.


It alarms me that enlargement may occur against the background of shaky democratic foundations, without profound questions being asked about what sort of Europe are we creating for those countries and ourselves. That is the Convention's job, and I hope that it takes that task seriously.


Ms Stuart: I hope that the Convention agrees that the institutions need more clarity about their authority and mandate, and you return to what made their use such a success. The European coal and steel union had a clear mandate, and it had authority and rigorous mechanisms to enforce it. For example, we have enforced only 60% of the single market provisions. If the Commission has a mandate they should use it, but should not encroach on areas over which they have no authority. A two-valve mechanism must be devised in the Convention because as soon as any power becomes EU competent, that institution demands no mechanism other than treaty changes to which the value can flow back. We must design a combined mechanism that allows decisions to be made at national level again, but that also closes that loop of decision making so that the Commission is not at the top of that pile. It is a genuine circle that feeds into other national legislative bodies, and will also involve devolved Administrations.


Mr Shannon: Another problem is the process takes too long. Whenever anything is going on it seems to continue for years, and whenever you need reaction and response you do not get it when you need it - it comes in two years' time, which is too late.


Ms Stuart: The point was made earlier that you do not know who makes what decision, and that the EU is almost an amorphous body. I was involved with something called the prospectus Directive, which is a sensible idea if you want to raise money in the stock exchanges as you have only one prospectus. However, I knew that they knew that I would not be around long enough to be an effective pain in the neck because of elections, reshuffles and so forth. Such Directives are seven years in the making. Therefore it is a Civil Service that holds the collective memory decision-making; the politicians do not have that collective memory. When the Council of Ministers begins to work on a long-term reform strategy, the collective memory of the decision making process is then with elected politicians. The Commission then tells national Parliaments what will happen. Therefore you know what is on the horizon and can see it coming and change it, which is vital.


Mr Kennedy: What place should regions and regional Assemblies have in an enlarged Europe?


Ms Stuart: I hoped that you would not ask that. The convention sometimes rather grandly compares itself with Philadelphia. I do not agree with it, because Philadelphia did not deal with one issue - slavery -that led to a civil war. When I want to be mischievous I say that the regions are the equivalents of slaves for the convention. There are two extremes in the European models. First, if you talk to the German Länder you will find that they would be happy to cut out Berlin and go straight to Brussels. Bavaria has 11·5 million people; North-Rhine Westphalia has a larger gross domestic product (GDP) than Spain but will not get a seat at the table unlike Latvia which has only 3·5 million people. Their national Governments are incredibly, and strangely, relaxed about that.


The other extreme is Spain. It gets nervous, although the presidium suggested in September that it would establish a group to examine regional implications. Italy has three different kinds of models, Greece has none and the United Kingdom has Assemblies and Parliaments. The most difficult thing that we will face over the next few months, and many national Governments are just beginning to wake up to this, is asking how those various models feed into the decision-making process. My working group on the role of national Parliaments will have to devote a substantial amount of time to thinking about that. I should welcome your thoughts, particularly on subsidiarity, because we start with blank sheets, and there is no plan in anyone's back pocket.


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: The regions and provinces of Europe ought to make more decisions. If Europe were built up from below, Assemblies and sub-national Parliaments would be better involved. The European Union, however, sometimes pays lip service to that but has a different model in mind. It likes to deal directly with regions, because there is always a tension between the ambitions of the Commission and those of the Council of Ministers. The Commission and, to some extent, the European Parliament would sometimes prefer to have bilateral arrangements with regions and bypass the Governments of member states. The decision-making and the technocratic structure in Brussels, however, would remain in accordance with the European Union's model.


Dealing with a multitude of regions throughout Europe would put Brussels in an even more powerful position, so that does not solve the problem. The right thing is to transfer some powers back to member states and for those member states to devolve powers to local or regional governments as suits their constitutional requirements. By transferring powers back to the people, rather than simply altering the present structure, there can be a proper working democracy,


Mr K Robinson: I was very pro-European until the last time I tried to fly out of Brussels. I was held up for an hour because President Prodi decided to fly out on the same day and was late. That put me off the presidential model, and I turned my attention to regional power instead.


We discussed this with the Scottish EU Committee. It is the role of the devolved regions in the United Kingdom to ensure that the national Government reflect their regional difficulties, for example, in agriculture and fishing. How are we to be heard at Westminster and Brussels, perhaps not through the national Government but alongside it? We spent time in Brussels trying to find out how far upstream it is necessary for a regional Parliament to be to spot things coming over the horizon or to influence the decision-makers before some change is made and it goes through the machine. We are keen to ensure that more power comes down to regional government, not to undermine the role of the central Parliament as our Scottish Colleagues have done, but to complement it and run parallel to it as far as Brussels.


Unless we organise ourselves relatively quickly, we shall be submerged in the post-enlargement difficulties that will hit the world market. How can we achieve those goals? What will happen in post-enlargement Europe to regions such as Northern Ireland?


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: You have put your finger on the problem, and it partly concerns volume. The deluge of European Union legislation, the torrent of directly applicable regulations or Directives that must be transposed into United Kingdom legislation, is overwhelming the United Kingdom system.


Then there are fiascos, such as the fridges Directives. I could mention many others. This is not an isolated example of when the House of Commons did not know what was going on, and neither did the Minister. Perhaps Brussels did not really know what was going on - so it tried to do too much. If the process of EU legislation were slowed down, subjected to much more critical scrutiny, and if national Parliaments were involved in decision-making from an early stage, which is crucial, there might be fewer laws, but they would be much more responsive to local concerns. The slogan "Europe should do less, but do it better" has been used in the past, but it has never been acted upon.


Meanwhile, an enormous backlog is developing in financial services, health and safety, employment legislation and environmental legislation. Everyone is thoroughly bemused. If it were slowed down, it would be incumbent on the United Kingdom Government to consult much more closely with the Scottish Parliament and the Assembly about what is really required. If there are identifiable environmental problems that can only be dealt with on an international level, the case should be discussed, and the costs, obligations, necessary trade-offs and implications argued before the Commission is committed to the legislation. That does not happen now.


Northern Ireland's office in Brussels can keep the Assembly informed, but that needs a spoke in the wheel at an early stage by member states with clout and negotiating power and that only take action when the implications have been fully and democratically debated at the lowest possible level.


Ms Stuart: I shall find out about the Northern Ireland Office on Tuesday when I have lunch there.


Tacitus said that the more laws a state has, the more rotten it is. There is a huge danger that regions, in particular, will fall into the trap of saying "If only we were told more, we would be happier", because they will spend all their energy finding out what goes on, and no energy will go into affecting any of the decisions that are made. Enlargement will also change the dynamics in a quite different way. There will be five large countries and one medium-sized country, which will account for 80% of the population and over 90% of GNP, so there will be more countries, but some real power blocks will build up. The dynamics of 10 or 15 years ago - when many small countries saw the Commission as their big protector, and the regions thought that they would be protected by going straight to Brussels - will change.


I was struck when the Belgian Government in Brussels used to say that the euro was good for them because they got a place at the table of the European Central Bank (ECB) and could affect financial decisions. They had shadowed the Deutchmark before, had gained nothing and had no influence. The president of the Bundesbank gave a speech last week in which he said that he wants voting on the EC to be reformed, so that it is weighted according to population and GDP. That means that in five years' time all that will matter will be the UK, Germany and France - never mind about the little countries. Belgium will be away from the table again.


So, a slight word of warning - even though the Assembly is in Brussels and is more informed that does not mean that it will influence decisions. The solution is to ensure that the national Government's voice, which will be a serious voice at the table, is that of the devolved chain. Northern Ireland in Brussels is a very small fish in a very big pond.


Mr K Robinson: I want to make a crisp response on the tail of that. Mr Heathcoat-Amory said that an effective Europe almost conflicts with a democratic Europe. I suggest that citizens want to see an effective Europe - one that gives employment, a good quality of life, health cover, good education and so on. He is not worried about the niceties of the democratic process, as politicians are. Is there a danger that politicians may be trampled upon by the public voice?


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: We all want both, and Europe will always find more things to do. There is almost nothing in the world that does not have a trade or single market implication, and that can make a case for legislation to remove some supposed barrier to trade or the environment. We all want cleaner air, water and soil, and people will say that this must only be done internationally; so more legislation and regulations are needed. There is no logical end to it, and we are building up a mass of costly regulations. Small businesses are not at this convention, and they have to pay for much of it. If we make Europe uncompetitive in world markets, who will pay for this in the long term? We will make Europe uncompetitive as a trade block, and that must also be considered.


We must restrict what Europe does to what is essential. There are trade and cross-border issues that cannot be solved solely by a member state, but much more ought to come back to member state level where there is no case for EU legislation. We need bold repatriation so that we can decide about the trade off between the costs and the benefits. Brussels has no real interest in the cost - that is someone else's problem. Someone else has to raise the money, employ the workers and pay the taxes. Europe simply pumps out the regulations, and that is the easy part.


Another problem is implementation. Northern Europe, Scandinavian countries and Northern Ireland have strong administrative systems, and we tend to take seriously our obligations. However, I get complaints from my farming constituents that people in Southern Europe do not abide by all the laws. This will get worse when we have 10 countries from Eastern Europe with weak administrative structures. They may sign up to the obligations, but if they do not implement and enforce the laws, what is the point? It is even more unfair than having no laws at all.


Dr Birnie: I have two questions. One relates to two important aspects of your objectives, which is the simplification of treaties and harmonisation across Europe. The second relates to the internal organisation of the convention and, particularly the role of the praesidium. I note that one of you is a member of that sub-group in the convention. Since the 1950s, the goal of harmonising laws and regulations across the EC, or later the EU, has been fundamental to simplifying treaties. However, that may be becoming an impossible goal. It is difficult enough to harmonise with 15 members, and in some cases we have so-called opt-outs, Sweden and Denmark, on the single currency. In future, that may be necessary on other issues such as emigration, agriculture or fisheries policies. If the EU is to have 25, 30 or 35 members, it is inevitable that it will have to have a multi-speed or variable geometry aspect to it?


My second question is about the internal ordering of the convention. I have read some reports that take the more malign view of the role of the praesidium, but I am interested to hear the more generous interpretation. What is that sub-committee's role in the 105-member convention? The word itself has a strange historical resonance. The old Soviet Union had a presidium that did not inspire democratic confidence. Next year, when you have heard all the views and discussed the matter among yourselves, is it likely that you will not have found consensus, as there are fundamental differences about the way forward in Europe? How will a view be taken? Will it be by a majority vote or a weighted procedure? Has the convention worked this out yet?


Ms Stuart: We had a wonderful discussion about what to call it. Should it be a bureau or a presidium? Various countries have different ideas. I referred to it as the "politburo". Once we decided that it was a presidium, the next tricky question was how to spell it. That was one of the early tensions. Some saw it as a drafting body, but that fear was knocked on its head once the working groups were set up and they came up with suggestions. We meet in Brussels, and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, as president, is continually meeting heads of Governments. I have no problem with that, because we could spend the year going to Brussels, coming up with wonderful proposals, and then in 2004 the intergovernmental conference (IGC) could say that that was very interesting but no thanks.


Presidium members are the shop stewards of their representative groups, and the three presidium members of the UK Parliament feed back and play a traditional shop steward role. We also chair the working groups. While we do not draft anything, it is our job to ensure that the various working groups do not come up with things that are incoherent and inconsistent. The president and vice-president make sure that we are tied continually to the national Governments.


On the final question, there was a debate on voting to begin with. We have four interest blocks, which are numerically unequal. The Commission is one, but there are only two of them. We are another block, but there are 56 of us. We do not vote, because whatever we come up with is not binding on anyone. We agree on some matters, and various options are open on others.


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Dr Birnie asked about the single product. I am against the determination to have a single recommendation for our constitution by consensus, because that is not possible. I would prefer options with some sort of referendum process at the end, so that the public can express itself.


Dr Birnie asked about harmonisation, and the obsession with harmonisation in the EU is unnecessary and damaging. The Commission only has to see a difference between member states and it wants to harmonise. One of the glories of Europe is its diversity, and that is often invigorating and enriching. We need ground rules for free trade, but if people want to trade with each other, they will do so if there are no artificial barriers. By all means let us remove barriers in Europe, both economic and political, but beyond that do we need this vast superstructure of rules to allow people to trade with each other freely? That tends to increase the costs because everything is harmonised up to the highest cost level. Some people think that that is why Germany likes the social employment legislation: it brings everyone else's costs up to its own.


For a small country in the East, struggling to make its way in a ferocious and pitiless global environment, the extra costs can destroy industries. We can either exclude them, in which case those countries will not be proper members, or we can drop the obsession with harmonisation in the European Union, which is what I would prefer.


The Chairperson: How powerful is Valéry Giscard d'Estaing?


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: We call him the Sun King or Louis XIX behind his back.


Ms Stuart: I do not.


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Ms Stuart must be nicer to him, because she is in the presidium. I am not, so I can flick pellets at him from the back of the classroom. He is at least an identifiable European personality who gives focus to the whole concept. He is responsible for the house that he built. He has had a great influence, and the modern Council of Ministers and the European summits are his creations. He cannot be expected to take a radical look at what he created, so he may not be the right man for the job. He has enormous influence, because he wants to leave behind a great legacy that will be known as the "Giscardian" settlement, which is at odds with my vision of Europe.


The Chairperson: Are we going through the motions? Has an outcome already been devised by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and a group of people in Europe? Is this simply an exercise to cover that?


Mr Heathcoat-Amory: There is a consensus among those on the Convention on the Future of Europe - I do not know whether Valéry Giscard d'Estaing shares it, but I think he does - that the answer to most problems is more Europe. It may be a different Europe - I think he can see that he must democratise the structure. I would be more radical and wonder whether we should solve these problems with less Europe and a return of powers. In that way we could build a smaller but stronger Europe on new foundations. That is not a part of his thought process, and to that extent, I am in a minority.


The Chairperson: We have benefited significantly from the structural funds, but we also have a very strong tradition of agriculture and fishing, industries that were very successful but which over the past few years have suffered extensively. Many in those industries point the finger of blame at Europe and say that although Europe has pumped over 30 billion euros into the common agricultural policy each year, farming is on its knees. They do not see why Europe should get more power and influence, particularly more economic power, given the mess that has been made of agriculture.


David Heathcoat-Amory: That is a good rhetorical question. Why look for Europe-wide solutions, when the best example of a Europe-wide project that we have is the common agricultural policy, which everyone is trying to reform or dismantle? It has not delivered on its aims, which makes me suspicious of taking the same approach to such matters as immigration policy, crime, counter-terrorism and foreign policy. It would be a mistake to see Europe as Americans saw their country. They built a federal structure because they all spoke English, arrived at the same time and shared the same background. You cannot say that about Europe. With regard to structural funding and the flow of money, ultimately it is our money that simply comes back to us. The United Kingdom gets back about £1 for every £2 that it spends. I like subsidising British farmers, because I represent a lot of them, but I do not like subsidising everybody else's farmers, which is what we are doing.


Ms Stuart: You asked how powerful Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is. One of his vice presidents Guiliano Amato, a former Italian Prime Minister, is the equivalent of Madison. He has done a great deal of work in the European University Institute in Florence on simplification of the treaties. He is quite a genius at coming up with solutions. The most creative forces will be that shrewd, experienced politician, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and that very creative draftsman, Giuliano Amato.


The Chairperson: Our only means of influencing them is through yourselves.


Ms Stuart: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing needs a tangible result, and I am surprised about how responsive he is with solutions. The classic one was that the Laeken Declaration did not allow certain countries to be represented on the praesidium. We managed to get an extra place. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing always tries to find consensus. No one has the draft in his back pocket, but Mr Heathcoat-Amory is right: a zeitgeist is driving people in one direction and is trying to find its voice now.


Dr McDonnell: Do you have a view on the Italian employment law that allowed the sacking of the Korean who scored the goal in the World Cup, and will Turkey be disadvantaged if it beats England?


Ms Stuart: I think the praesidium's view will not go further than the outcome of tomorrow's match.


Mr K Robinson: The Committee of the Regions has observer status in the convention, yet the thrust of the convention is to tap into the grass-roots level. How do you square that circle?


Ms Stuart: I cannot square it for you. The Committee of the Regions has not proved to be as significant a voice as I thought it would be, even before the convention. Its members are in our groups, and I talk to them regularly at informal meetings. I am the MP for Birmingham, Edgebaston, and Cllr Albert Bore of Birmingham City Council is a member of the Council of the Regions, so I receive briefings from him. It is more a reflection of how effective the Committee has turned out to be. I do not want to be critical, but that is my impression.


The Chairperson: I thank you, Mr Heathcoat-Amory and Ms Stuart. Members will have an opportunity to talk to you over lunch afterwards. Thank you for coming. It has been very informative, and I trust that you have also found it useful to hear the views of the Assembly.

8 May 2002 / Menu / 4 September 2002 (i)