Brighton MP calls for better checks to make EU more accountable

Posted On 04 May 2016 at 6:16 pm

Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas has called for better checks to make the European Union (EU) more accountable to parliamentarians and the people.

The Green MP presented a bill – a draft law – to fellow MPs yesterday although it is unlikely to become law.

It has the support of – among others – the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock. MPs may have a chance to discuss it on Friday 13 May.

Caroline Lucas said that she favoured Britain remaining in the EU – unlike Green peer Jenny Jones who is also known as Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb.

Run for Great Ormond Street Hospital
Caroline Lucas

Caroline Lucas

Here is Caroline Lucas’s speech in support of her bill in full.

I beg to move that leave be given to bring in a bill to establish an independent commission of inquiry to examine ways of improving parliamentary and other public scrutiny of ministerial mandates and outcomes in relation to European Union institutions, policies and legislation and for connected purposes.

In 50 days, this country will go to the polls to take the most important single decision of a generation, namely that of whether to remain in the EU or to leave.

I am strongly in favour of staying in and I will continue to make the case that we are stronger in, greener in and fairer in.

In today’s globalised world we can achieve so much more by working together with our closest neighbours than we can by going it alone.

I make this speech not as a lover of everything about the EU. Indeed, I understand it when some constituents ask, “Why stay part of an institution that has faults?” or, “Why spend time reforming the EU when we could leave it instead?”

Many concerns about the EU and how it operates are valid – as, indeed, are concerns about how Westminster operates – but they are not a reason to walk away.

Moreover, such concerns are often exploited by populist political opportunists with toxic xenophobic messages. Outright fearmongering about foreigners is again rearing its ugly head across the continent.

What worries me most about the rise of this divisive politics is that it erases from history the series of events that led to the formation of the EU and it is also remarkably complacent about the future.

Conflict

The EU is not an abstract project born of idle philosophising in continental think-tanks. The imperative to share sovereignty in Europe and to ensure that economic competition does not again spill over into conflict was built on the blood and bones of the Europeans killed in the terrible first half of the 20th century.

The EU is a pragmatic response to our failure to manage the forces of nationalism and industrialisation and I would argue that it has done much to reduce the aggressive ambitions of European elites who have disputed control of the continent for centuries.

For me, one of the foremost reasons for staying in the EU is that it makes peace more likely.

We cannot wish away the EU’s problems, however, and nor can we simply urge people to love it because of its history of peace-making.

Instead, we must be bold in reforming how the EU works and making sure that our constituents have more of a say over what happens at EU level.

Data suggest that British people are among the least knowledgeable about the EU. That is not their fault, but it highlights the urgent need to ensure that the public are able to be more engaged with EU policy and legislation.

The fundamental point is that there are dozens of things that can be done unilaterally here in the UK radically to improve the accountability for, and engagement with, EU decision-making. And that is what my Bill is about.​

After 10 years working as an MEP in the European Parliament, I am in no doubt that the EU needs far-reaching reform.

Reforms

One major set of reforms could happen tomorrow because implementation is entirely in the gift of the UK government.

No agreement or even discussion with other EU countries is required and those reforms are the subject of my bill.

They build on proposals from the Electoral Reform Society, the Hansard Society, the House of Lords European Union Committee and the Commons European Scrutiny Committee which have already done much important work in this area.

One of the proposals is that the UK Parliament should engage with the government’s negotiating position before European Council meetings as well as after. That practice is routine in many member states.

We need a more effective model of scrutiny to allow Parliament to hold the government fully to account regarding its dealings with other European states.

The Hansard Society has pointed to the fact that our system is largely one of document-based scrutiny that takes place only once policy is decided.

We could easily improve the scrutiny of ministers at monthly departmental oral questions, including topical questions, by setting aside specific time for the coverage of European issues related to their policy areas.

Powerhouse

Our select committee system should also provide a high-profile powerhouse for scrutinising EU policies.

To make that happen, the European Scrutiny Committee should not just be reactive. It should have the capacity proactively to choose what to follow up, in the same way as a departmental select committee.

We need to raise the profile of the House’s three European Committees which cover particular departments. I have much sympathy with the suggestion that the membership of those committees should be made permanent so that experience and expertise can be built up.

The Electoral Reform Society points out that the House of Lords is considered to provide exemplary scrutiny of the EU, with six sub-committees covering various aspects of EU policy, as well as the standalone European Union Committee.

It is an irony that the part of the British Parliament that provides the greatest scrutiny of the EU is the part that is both unelected and unaccountable and it is time for that to change.

Credit should be given to the European Scrutiny Committee which has for some time been reviewing its links with departmental select committees.

For example, it has examined the role of an informal network of EU contact points on each select committee team, as happens in the Scottish Parliament.

The European Scrutiny Committee can require our select committees to develop and provide an opinion on a particular document.

Inconsistent

However, Commons select committees often do not look at legislation and they do not have the capacity to do so which means that coverage of European Union matters may be patchy and inconsistent.

The commission of inquiry provided for in the bill would examine the very strong case for expanding the Commons select committee system so that it could proactively scrutinise EU proposals and legislation.

I recognise that in order to manage the workload, some kind of sub-committee process would be needed and the whole system would need to be properly resourced. But putting that in place could make a real difference to scrutiny and accountability.

We also need better mechanisms to give devolved parliaments and assemblies the ability ​to hold UK ministers to account on EU negotiations and devolved ministers should have the right to participate in European Council meetings.

Those are just some examples of changes the UK could unilaterally make to improve accountability and our scrutiny of EU decision-making. Indeed, a House of Lords EU Committee report in 2015 identified no fewer than 35 such measures.

Under the bill we should also consider reforms that UK ministers could champion at an EU level.

The same House of Lords Committee report has repeated its previous call for a formally recognised green card system.

At present, that is just an informal mechanism that is intended to enable the Parliaments of EU member states to join forces to make proposals to the European Commission to initiate EU policy and legislation.

The first green card, on food waste, was proposed by the House of Lords and submitted to the Commission last year.

Action

This is an important means of strengthening national parliaments’ ability to take joint action proactively to make proposals, not just to react to them, and of revitalising our democracy in Europe.

It also means strengthening the role and work of the offices of national parliaments in Brussels so that we can enhance parliamentary co-operation among member states on a wide range of issues.

The European Commission is one of the less democratic parts of the EU and we urgently need better ways to hold our European commissioners to account.

The 28 European Commissioners appointed by governments act almost as a cabinet, with each commissioner being responsible for a certain brief.

The Commission is too powerful. It proposes EU legislation, manages and implements EU budgets and policies and enforces EU decisions.

Yet the channels of representation are byzantine and there is a serious lack of transparency about how we select our commissioners.

The significant gap between the European Commission and the people obscures channels of accountability but we can do something about that.

Transparency

The remit of the commission proposed by my bill should include an assessment of what mechanisms we could use in the UK better to hold our EU commissioner to account and to allow for transparency in and scrutiny of their role.

In that way, we could begin to remedy the situation in which most voters neither know nor care who our European commissioners are or what they stand for.

We need new mechanisms to ensure that parliaments can undertake a more proactive role. It is unacceptably and unnecessarily difficult to follow what our ministers are doing on our behalf in the EU, let alone for parliamentarians and the public to have meaningful input to shape it.

That is a big part of the perceived democratic deficit associated with EU decision-making.

There is so much that we could and should do, unilaterally in the UK, to make that better and there are actions that we can take at EU level.

Of course, much bigger reforms are needed, such as with regard to the relative powers of the European Parliament and the European Commission but the bill’s purpose is to identify the measures that we can take here and now in the UK, if there is sufficient political will.

We already have powers to make the EU more democratic and accountable, if we choose to take them, and there are clear steps we could and should take in this House.

I hope that, on (Friday) 24 June, the UK not only will have voted to remain part of the EU but will grasp the opportunity to reform our continued participation,​and that we in this House will create a positive gateway to a new and revived strand of vital political transparency, participation and accountability.

The reforms I have outlined will not, in themselves, save the EU from a crisis of accountability but they will make a big difference and will certainly help.

  1. Gerald Wiley Reply

    @Frank – very interesting – but will it now be Brighton & Hove News policy to publish every speech made by every MP that has a constituency in the city?

    • Joe Stains Reply

      At least Frank has stopped referring to her as ‘Dr’ Lucas (‘5 Homes’ has a Doctorate in ‘Womens studies’

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