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.