Westminster's responsibilities under the Lisbon treaty
Conservative Home - November 18th 2009
The Lisbon treaty will become a reality whether we like or not in just a couple of weeks. I have written before about the need for a future Conservative government to engage pragmatically and constructively with the EU under the new architecture presented by Lisbon, particularly with regard to foreign policy. But if and when we return to government we must also understand and exploit the various new enhanced scrutiny provisions in the treaty regarding the role of our Westminster parliament and other member states’ national parliaments within the EU's institutional framework.
It is estimated that something like two thirds of UK legislation originates in Brussels. The logic of such a situation is that the European Parliament would be considered an equally desirable place to seek a political career as the Westminster parliament (were it not for the fact that in Westminster there is a potential career ladder to ministerial rank, so most politically ambitious people overwhelmingly gravitate towards Westminster rather than Brussels). Three Conservative MEPs stepped down at the last European election after successful ten-year stints in Brussels to seek election to the green benches.
Perhaps another of the reasons that Westminster still dominates the UK political scene despite the legislative realities of our EU membership is ultimately that Westminster remains a sovereign parliament, unlike the European Parliament. The decision to withdraw Britain from the EU could only ever be taken by the Westminster parliament (although in reality there would undoubtedly be the need for confirmation by a national referendum). Only the British Parliament has the absolute right to amend or repeal UK legislation related to our membership of the EU. MEPs have no legal say whatsoever on the fundamental issue of whether Britain is or is not a member of the EU, a somewhat ironic situation for UKIP given that the party's only parliamentarians sit in a parliament whose raison d'ętre they reject. Long may UKIP’s electoral success be confined to the European Parliament!
Westminster therefore needs to appreciate its own power in this respect. ConHome frequently tells us that the next generation of Conservative MPs will be fiercely eurosceptic. It’s not quite the impression I have: most I meet are fiercely loyal Conservatives interested in supporting David Cameron and mending a broken Britain, and are therefore essentially pragmatists on Europe. But we can nevertheless expect this eurorealist philosophy to have an important influence in Westminster if the Conservative Party wins big next year, which looks more and more likely.
Whether that will translate into a parliamentary majority in favour of withdrawal from the EU is in my view highly unlikely. Euroscepticism does not necessarily equate to support for withdrawal. There are plenty of people in our party who consider themselves eurosceptics but who believe in continued – albeit renegotiated – EU membership for Britain. The Conservative Party has never advocated secession as party policy; moreover, David Cameron is committed to EU membership and has said supporters of the Better Off Out campaign will not be given front bench positions.
My point is that our national parliament has the manifest authority, if not the will, to make fundamental changes to Britain's relationship with our European partners. The fact that Westminster has not sought to exercise its authority in this regard would suggest that MPs generally reflect the majority view of the British people (according to regular opinion polls) against secession from the EU. But it does not mean that MPs should remain aloof from the debate about reform and more meaningful subsidiarity – the principle that the EU should not take action where such action can be better accomplished by the member states themselves.
Westminster reflects all shades of the nuanced and complex debate about the EU and Britain's part in it. However, we cannot allow the ideological battle to distract us from the practical realities of our everyday relationship with our partners in Europe. If we are to be a member of the EU – and if there is no majority in the next parliament to withdraw Britain from the EU – then we must surely exploit the system in every way to our advantage. Refusing to engage with the new architecture will simply leave us isolated.
That means that Westminster needs to appreciate, understand and act upon the provisions of the Lisbon treaty related to national parliaments. Under Lisbon, Westminster and the other 26 national parliaments will have new rights of scrutiny of EU legislation, the so called ‘yellow card’ powers. The European Commission will be obliged to submit draft legislation to national parliaments via the publication of its annual works programme. National parliaments will then have eight weeks to study the legislation and if appropriate submit a reasoned opinion as to why the legislation contradicts the principle of subsidiarity. If one third of parliaments raise objections to legislation (one quarter in the case of security, justice and home affairs matters), the Commission will be obliged to review the legislation. All the more reason for MPs to forge strong links with other national parliaments so as to help shape the EU's policies.
Moreover, national parliaments will have an important role in evaluating the implementation of policies relating to the area of security, freedom and justice. They will have a formal responsibility for the monitoring of the activities of Eurojust and Europol – two bętes noires of hardline eurosceptics that require our attention rather than our blanket rejection. And they will participate in the inter-parliamentary cooperation mechanisms with the European Parliament, called COSAC (legislative committees) and COFAC (foreign affairs committees) in their French acronyms.
Those fundamentally opposed to Britain's membership of the EU will undoubtedly dismiss these Lisbon treaty provisions as toothless and cosmetic. But they are only toothless and cosmetic if we make them so. You can be sure that other national parliaments will take their enhanced responsibilities under Lisbon very seriously. In fact, many of them already do: for example ministers in Denmark must appear before parliament to set out their negotiating position ahead of EU summits, and the parliament must endorse this strategy. We should seek to emulate this system in the British parliament.
As a party and as a government we will be stuck with the Lisbon treaty, despite our principled and entirely logical objections to the doctrine of ever closer union. We have two choices: to retreat from our engagement with the EU, a policy that could logically lead to an in-out referendum; or to pursue a realistic, committed approach to getting the best for Britain out of the EU and implementing a roadmap to reform and repatriation of key powers as recently outlined by William Hague. It seems to be abundantly clear that David Cameron has wisely chosen the latter approach. All of us in the party who want to see such an approach succeed will be hoping that MPs composing a Conservative majority will exercise fully their rights and responsibilities under the Lisbon treaty.