Friday, October 8, 2010

William Hague spells out plans for EU Scrutiny

UK Foreign Minister, William Hague this week sent a warning shot to the European Union – the sovereignty of the British parliamentary system is paramount and any future EU treaty will be put to a referendum – by law.
Mr Hague was giving his keynote speech on foreign affairs at the Conservative Party Conference and he underlined the government’s commitment to introduce an amendment to the European Communities Act 1972 to ensure that any treaties “giving away power” would be put to a public vote before ratification. This would put the UK on the same footing as Ireland. The Irish have voted on any new EU treaty since 1987. The Foreign Secretary also said he would follow through on his election promise to introduce a United Kingdom Sovereignty Act – making it clear where the ultimate authority in the UK lies.

Party conference is a great opportunity for any politician to play to the gallery and Mr. Hagues’ tough words on Europe was music to their ears. However, on re-reading his speech, his bark was much worse than his bite.
After the traumatic ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty, there is no appetite in the EU or in any of it member states for another institutional treaty.
At the Conservative Party conference in 2009, there were calls for a referendum on the repatriation of powers in the field of employment and judicial affairs. It was believed that this could strengthen a Conservative Government’s hand in demanding opt-outs in those areas.

The Conservatives, now in office, seem to have backed off from attempts to renegotiate shared competences with the EU. This may be because they are sharing power with the more euro-enthusiastic Liberal Democrats in a coalition government. It might also be because it would be just too difficult – and may even undermine any attempts to get a good deal from the on-going bargaining over the EU budget.
All that was left for Mr Hague to say on Tuesday in Birmingham was to say that his government would, “reaffirm once and for all the sovereignty of our ancient parliament”, I suppose to protect the legislature from encroaching demands from Brussels.

Again, this is not such a radical departure from what is already acknowledged elsewhere in Europe. One of the reasons for the delay in ratifying Lisbon was that the German constitutional courts had been asked to rule on whether the Lisbon Treaty would have any effect on the sovereignty of the Bundestag.
Mr Hague pointed out to party representatives, “EU law has effect in this country because - and solely because - Parliament wills that it should. Parliament passed the 1972 European Communities Act…..I can tell you today that we will legislate this autumn to underline that. A sovereignty clause on EU law will place on the statute book this eternal truth: what a sovereign parliament can do, a sovereign parliament can also undo.”

This has been met with some bemusement in Brussels where it is considered that the Lisbon Treaty actually offers a greater role for national parliaments to block EU legislation. Indeed there is some frustration in the European Commission that there is not enough scrutiny of EU laws by national assemblies. The scrutiny committees in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons are under-resourced and lack the time and political weight to properly scrutinize European legislation.
Mr Hague does acknowledge that the new sovereignty clause is hardly ground-breaking. He says, “It will not alter the existing order in relation to EU law. But it will put the matter beyond speculation…This clause will enshrine this key principle in the law of the land.”

So the foreign secretary’s speech does not herald a departure with the UK’s relationship with the EU. Brussels can breathe a collective sigh of relief. The coalition government’s package of EU policies amounts to little more than symbolism.
Messrs. Cameron and Hague had successfully buried the issue of the Lisbon Treaty during the general election campaign, they still run the risk of encouraging the euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party to amend the Sovereignty Bill during its parliamentary passage. The Conservative leadership will be desperate to contain this prospect since it would not only put the UK on a collision course with Brussels but also create tensions with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners.
Given their political limitations, the Conservative leadership will need to look elsewhere to restrict the expansion of EU decision-making post-Lisbon. David Cameron has hinted at negotiating the application of the “so-called” passerelle clause in the Lisbon Treaty.

This article allows the European Council to switch decision-making from unanimity to qualified majority (but not in foreign affairs or defence). This could significantly widen the scope of EU influence. However, Gordon Brown had already negotiated the insertion of a provision that the passerelle cannot be used without the agreement of both houses of Parliament.

So what red meat is left for the euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party?
Firstly, the UK is notorious for gold-plating EU directives. Where other Member States implement the spirit of the directive, the UK follows it to the last letter.
Secondly, the Lisbon Treaty envisaged national parliaments playing a fuller role in EU legislative scrutiny. However, the EU scrutiny committees in the Houses of Parliament are under-resourced – and although there is a wealth of talent in the House of Lords committee, it is difficult to find experienced MPs wanting to serve on the Commons committee. The Committees should initiate debate on draft directives before they are adopted by the EU institutions.

In Denmark, parliamentary committees mandate ministers on the line they should take in EU negotiations. And ministers are then required to report back to their committee after their Council meeting. Of course, this would not work quite so well in the UK. However, we do have some talented MEPs in Brussels and the scrutiny committees could and should invite them to take part on a regular basis.
For the Conservatives, the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation is clearly important. They are restricted in their ambitions despite some grand-sounding initiatives. However, the new government could make a real impact by improving the scrutiny mechanisms already available to them.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Will the UK sign up to European Economic Governance?

Brussels was brought to a standstill yesterday by 100,000 trade unionists from across Europe who were demonstrating against plans being drawn up by the European Commission that would penalise member state governments that fail to rein in their deficits.

Trade Unions across Europe are concerned that the fiscal conditions being placed on Member State governments by the EU will lead to more job losses and threaten economic growth.

The conditions are being drawn up to ease market fears over unsustainable public spending after the “shock and awe” €750billion plan to protect the Eurozone from collapsing during the weekend of May 7-9th.

The Commission believes that the €110bn EU bail-out of Greece earlier this year shows that without any fiscal union there is no guarantee that the whole system won’t fall apart when a shock hits the system. Olli Rehn, the Commissioner for monetary affairs has said: “We need stronger and better EU economic policy co-ordination”. In other words; more economic governance. And this spells trouble for the UK’s relations with the EU.

For now, the idea of more EU “economic governance” has not registered in the UK. It is seen as a Eurozone response to a Eurozone problem.

However, the German Chancellor is insisting that it should be a matter for all 27 Member States. This is to ensure that the French don’t get it all their own way. Germany is concerned that France will form a political bloc with the more “fiscally-relaxed” member states rather than agree to serious structural economic reforms. France is more ambitious about fiscal union but not so keen on the budgetary constraints that Germany is insisting on.

There are inevitably conflicting views on what economic governance would look like. If applies to all of the EU27 Member States, then the UK will want to see a minimalist framework – a sort of code of good fiscal conduct. However, BusinessEurope – the employer’s federation want to see co-ordination of demographic pressures on pensions, stress-testing of public finances and monitoring of labour, product, services and capital markets.

The European Central Bank has not shied away from proposing a radical agenda for European control of deficit and spending. In June this year, the ECB proposed an independent EU fiscal agency to monitor public finances; financial sanctions and the even removal of voting rights in EU institutions.

The ECB believed that Member States had not been stringent enough in applying the fiscal rules that exist. Apart from ignoring the pressures that governments were under to revive their economies following the financial crisis, the ECB solution would be an unacceptable loss of fiscal autonomy. Its response is that Greece had de facto lost fiscal autonomy after it was bailed out.

But member states are not going to give up the fiscal controls that easily. What might be more acceptable is the Commission’s less ambitious plans to synchronise preparations of national budgets. The idea is that governments would submit national economic programmes to the Commission every April. Commission experts will look at the plans and advise the Council, which in turn will issue country-specific policy guidance in July. Only then would member states finalise their budgets and present to their national parliaments.

This arrangement was agreed in September but the UK managed to get a concession and the UK government will continue to present the budget first to the House of Commons and only then would it submit the budget to the Commission and Council “for their consideration”.

The Coalition Government in the UK is looking on with some trepidation. The Conservative Prime Minister and Chancellor will be resistant to anything that smacks of undermining national fiscal autonomy. The LibDem deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary are likely to see some merit in better fiscal co-ordination. Divisions within the coalition on Europe will, at last, surface after the governments best efforts to ignore their differences.

Sarkozy’s “Blustery Spat” over EU Rebuke

Tempers are still frayed in the Berlaymont this week. Nerves are still raw and noses not yet quite back into joint following what was probably the most ill-tempered working lunch of Europe’s leaders for a long time.

Despite the earnest agenda that had been prepared, the heads of government from the EU’s 27 Member States had to restrain themselves from turning the European Council lunch into a bun fight.

Instead of using the opportunity to flesh out the EU’s foreign policy post-Lisbon or develop new measures on economic governance following the Euro-crisis, the lunch, according to the FT, instead turned “into a blustery spat” over France’s expulsion – or voluntary relocation scheme - of Roma.

Put simply, the European Commission believes this contravenes the sacred cows of free movement for EU nationals and non-discrimination of EU nationals. The Roma that were sent back to Romania are EU nationals and the Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship – and Vice President of the Commission to boot, Madame Viviane Reding is on the warpath.

At first, the formidable Mme Reding was measured in her response to President Sarkozy’s initiative to offer money to Roma who had set up camps in France. It was when she claimed to have found out that the French Government were being “duplicitous” in what they had been telling the Commission, she went nuclear. The Commission Vice President said that the policy was worthy of Vichy France.

This did not go down too well in Paris. President Sarkozy bounded into Brussels last week for the Council Summit looking for a show-down with the Commission – something which always plays well at home.

Sarkozy slammed Viviane Reding for her "deeply shocking" and "insulting" comments. However, he couldn’t help himself from going further. He suggested that perhaps Luxembourg – Mme Reding’s Member State – would want to accommodate Roma travellers. This only undermined his position that France was well within its rights and that it was an infringement of national sovereignty to order the Government to change policy that had been designed to crack down on crime and disorder.

Although President Barroso tried to quell the dispute, he was forced to defend his Vice President when President Sarkozy harangued him in front of EU leaders. The result? Mme Reding apologised only for the Vichy remark. President Barroso stood his ground on the substantive allegations that were levelled at the French Government.

President Sarkozy was publicly isolated. He had failed to rally any political support from his European colleagues. It was a shame that serious issues around economic governance and EU foreign policy were sidelined.

However some fundamental principles were re-established. The Council President Herman Van Rompuy concluded that the European Commission has the responsibility of overseeing the application of EU law in the areas of freedom of movement and non-discrimination.

Another positive result for the Commission was an invitation from the Summit to the Commission to write the strategy for Roma travellers.

As for M. Sarkozy, he was sent back to the Palace Elysee with his tail between his legs, facing the prospect of Mme Reding taunting him with infringement procedures for contravening EU laws.