Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Three bald men…

Clearly intrigued by the spectacle of two bald men fighting over a comb (see previous Blog), Lib-Dim MEP Christopher Huhne has joined in the spat between Bill Cash and Digby Jones over parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation – to make three bald men fighting over a comb.

In a letter to The Times today, Huhne actually argues against the British parliament having the power to reject parts of EU legislation on the grounds that, if every one of the parliaments in the 25 member states could do so, there would be very little left of the legislation by the time every one of them had finished with it.

You can see where Huhne is coming from with his comment that, "for those of us who also want to stop EU red tape from impeding British business, but see that the EU delivers peace, prosperity and the power to tackle problems outside the reach of nation states, there must be other solutions". Therein lies the essential fantasy of the Europhile: "peace, prosperity and the power to tackle problems outside the reach of nation states".

Tell us more, Mr Huhne, tell us how the EU has brought us peace and prosperity… And is subordination to a supranational government really the only way to "tackle problems outside the reach of nation states"?

Anyhow, within the limited scope of Mr Huhne’s thinking, he identifies three origins of bad EU law. The first, he writes, "is a poor EU Commission proposal". His remedy is "to insist on thorough and independent impact analysis", but he does not seem to get his head round the concept that, in many areas, the EU should not be legislating at all. How, for instance, would he deal with the proposed "Commission Directive on Foods Intended to Meet the Expenditure of Intense Muscular Effort (Sports Foods)"? (see previous Blog) and how would a "thorough and independent impact analysis" improve matters here?

His second "origin" is the "failure to amend the proposed law in the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers" yet, as far as the European Parliament goes (of which Huhne is a member), I think there are only four occasions in the history of this institution where the parliament has actually rejected a commission proposal.

As to the Council of Ministers, Huhne sees the failure here arising out of the tendency of British ministers to delegate key decisions to officials. "Because ministers are not properly held to account by the Commons", he writes, "there is no personal advantage to their greater involvement in the EU legislative process. Nor is there any personal disadvantage in laziness or mistakes".

Actually, he completely misses the point here. Because of the huge volume of legislation going though, delegation is an absolutely essential part of the system – the very thing that makes it work. No one person – and especially a busy departmental minister, with domestic affairs to deal with as well – could possibly hope to keep track of all the legislation being processed.

What happens. therefore, is that proposals are discussed between commission officials and the national civil servants who form the little-known Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER). The bulk of legislation is agreed between these two bodies and then goes to the Council on what is known as the "A-list" to be approved by ministers without a debate or vote. Only where there is disagreement amongst permanent representatives is a matter ever referred to ministers and even then, the civil servants instruct their ministers on "the line to take".

If ministers actually took an interest in everything going through in their name – assuming they were capable of so doing - they would actually bring the system to a halt - but they would also cease to function as ministers.

This notwithstanding, Huhne's "third source of failure" is when the provisions of a directive are transposed into British law and Whitehall either adds its own provisions, or interprets the directive in a convoluted manner. But, as has been pointed out in a previous Blog, because the commission now relies more on framework directives and regulations, this is considerably less of a problem that it used to be.

But Huhne wants to maintain the fiction that the problem is one of "scrutiny", hence his closing comment that, "Until ministers are held to account by the Commons for their actions in the council, MPs will continue to be shocked by some of the sloppy decisions nominally taken in their name".

What this man does not want to deal with is the real issue – that in many or all cases, the commission has no business legislating at all, and Britain should have no part in accepting legislation produced by an undemocratic, unelected body. Our parliament should be producing its own legislation, not scutinising that made by another body.

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