Friday, June 25, 2004

What is the bloody point?

One of Blair's proud claims for the EU constitution is that "for the first time ever, it provides a power for national Parliaments to scrutinise proposals from Brussels at the draft stage and to send them back if Parliaments are not satisfied".

Despite the fact that this is a hollow concession see analysis here, so proud is he of this "achievement" that he went out of his way to proclaim it in his report to the House on 21 June, only to be challenged by Michael Howard, who noted that, "…after Parliament has had its say, the Commission can ignore it".

Blair had no option to agree, admitting that, "yes it is true that if a third of them object they cannot block the European Commission proposal". But, he argued, "for the first time they are able to take objection to it and send it back to the Commission". Whoopee!

To a chorus of jeers and laughter, he then rounded on Howard, rather petulantly declaring, "Let us put it like this: that is a lot more than the right hon. and learned Gentleman ever secured when he was negotiating for this country in Europe".

But if this indeed is a hollow concession, what price the existing "scrutiny" system by which parliament already vets EU legislation? This system was set up under Heath in 1973, and on 24 October 1990 was formally confirmed by a Resolution of the House of Commons.

It laid down that "no Minister of the Crown should give agreement in the Council of Ministers to any proposal for European Community legislation which is still subject to scrutiny". Furthermore, the "European Scrutiny Committee" as it is now called can impose what is called a "scrutiny block" on any particular issue, calling for a debate and a vote before any minister goes to Brussels to agree the proposal.

In fact, this is also a charade, but it is rather ironic – if not chilling – that less than an hour before Blair was extolling the virtues of greater parliamentary involvement in EU affairs, two of his own ministers – from the very same despatch box – demonstrated quite how empty is the scrutiny mechanism – and the contempt with which parliament is treated click here.

The first demonstration came from the Secretary of State for Defence (Geoffrey Hoon), who announced that the EU's General Affairs and External Relations Council had on 14 June agreed to the establishment of a European defence agency in the fields of defence capabilities development, research, acquisition and armaments.

This is a seriously important development, as it involves the UK pooling its defence research, development and procurement under the aegis of the agency, with profound implications not only for our defence capabilities, but also for our "special relationship" with the United States.

Understandably, therefore, when the issue came before the Scrutiny Committee on 9 June, it placed a "scrutiny lock" and called for a debate in the House. So what did the government do? According to Hoon, it invoked a "scrutiny override", and agreed to the establishment of the agency, before parliamentary scrutiny had been completed and before the debate could be held.

Hoon's lame excuse was that:

The United Kingdom did not wish to prevent the decision to establish the agency being taken at the Council meeting given benefits expected from the creation of the agency and the influential role played by the United Kingdom in shaping and implementing its formation.
And then, displaying the utter contempt for which he and New Labour treat parliament, he went on to say:

The Government are, nonetheless, fully committed to the need for national Parliaments to have proper oversight of EU issues and the establishment of the European defence agency will be debated in European Standing Committee B on 22 June.
In other words, days after the thing as already been agreed, done and dusted, and nothing can be changed, the government would have a debate on it.

No sooner had these words faded, then up came Denis MacShane, Minister for Europe. His subject was the somewhat less weighty "Reform of European Union Staff Regulations", but the message was the same.

The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) adopted the proposal to revise the staff regulations for EU officials on 22 March. While we noted that the European Scrutiny Committee had withheld clearance from the proposal when it met on 17 March and had recommended the document for debate, we supported the adoption of the proposal at the 22 March GAERC.
And, with the same bare-faced contempt that Hoon had shown, he went on to regret that we were "unable to arrange the debate prior to agreement", and announced that "The debate with European Standing Committee B has now been scheduled for 23 June".

In other words, days after the thing as already been agreed, done and dusted, and nothing can be changed, the government would have a debate on it.

If this was not a family Blog, one would succumb to the temptation to use some very, very rude words, but one cannot. Suffice it to ask what is the bloody point of having a parliament, all those expensive facilities, all those rules and procedures, if the government just goes ahead and makes its decisions, and then has debates afterwards?

Yet, as we recorded earlier, shortly afterwards, there was little Blair pontificating about the wonders of increasing the role for parliament in EU affairs. The man is beneath contempt.

Two days later, Andrew Marr, chief political editor at the BBC, was weeping in his cups about the difficulty of "raising interest in Brussels" - i.e., things EU click here. He could do no better, perhaps, than look outside his own front door.

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