HL Deb 05 July 1995 vol 565 cc1083-5

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in accordance with their positive approach to the Inter-Governmental Conference (HL Deb., col. WA 100, 8th June 1995), they will attempt to clarify and limit the powers of the European Court of Justice and otherwise seek a repatriation of sovereignty to the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, our positive approach to the IGC is governed by the belief that the Union should do less, but do it better. So far as the European Court is concerned, we need a strong Court to enforce Community rules and obligations on all member states and as a bulwark against abuse of power of Community institutions. We are concerned that some judgments may have had unforeseen consequences or resulted in disproportionate costs and we are therefore looking at likely remedies.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Does she agree that the admirable aim of getting the European Union to do less but to do it better might start to be met if the unelected Commission were to lose its power to initiate legislation; if the doctrine of the occupied field were to be abandoned and if Article 3b of the Maastricht Treaty—the controversial subsidiarity clause—were to be amended to have the meaning that the British Government have always said it should have?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am extremely glad that my noble friend believes our aims are admirable; I shall remember that. However, his solutions to this problem are not likely to be either the most practicable or indeed the most workable since any changes must be agreed by unanimity. The most important thing is to make subsidiarity work properly. I believe that it can under the existing Article 3b because the test in that is whether the Community is doing too much or too little. Most of us want to work together at a European level when it makes sense to do so, but not when it does not.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on these Benches we welcome what she said regarding the Government's desire to see a strong European Court of Justice? In the light of the Prime Minister's re-election as leader of his party, will the Government now discourage the sniping that goes on to encourage the United Kingdom to renege on its backing for one of the most fundamental institutions of the European Union?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, will remember that we have been over this ground many times. The position has not changed. As I have said often before in your Lordships' House, we have concerns about some ECJ judgments. We are looking at ways of addressing them. But those who wish to speak their mind, even if their opinion is different from that of the Government or of the Opposition Front Bench, must be free to do so. We live in a democracy.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is not the fundamental defect of my noble friend's original Question that it starts from a false premise and is followed by a non sequitur? The false premise is that we have lost our sovereignty and therefore it needs repatriating. In fact this Parliament is the sovereign body in the United Kingdom. The non sequitur is that, if we wanted to repatriate our sovereignty, limiting the powers of the European Court would be the last way to do it.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right. This Parliament is sovereign. Though it may be attractive to some to contemplate repatriation of policies and to speak as they do, the reality is that if we want to make the field in which we have done so well economically—the European Union—succeed, we must be in there making sure that we play our full part and obtaining sensible decisions for the whole of the Union, not only for Britain.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, without wishing to disturb anything which may have happened in another place yesterday, and animated by a desire to move into calmer waters, is it possible for some of us to concur with the views expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, on this matter? In view of the Minister's encouraging reply, will she have regard to the judgment of the German Supreme Court in Karlsruhe on 12th October 1993 to the effect that, in so far as German law affects the fate of individual German citizens, it remains firmly in the hands of the German courts?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am certain that British law will remain firmly in the hands of the British courts just as German law remains in the hands of the German courts when cases are on an equal basis.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, in so far as there has been a loss of sovereignty—inevitable in a global economy—it took place to a far greater degree when currency was given freedom to move wherever it wanted under the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and Mrs. Thatcher, than as a result of anything which is in the Treaty of Rome?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. When I look back to the decisions taken in the earlier days in regard to NATO or those taken in relation to the Single European Act in both Houses, I see far more change than I see in the more recent Act we passed in your Lordships' House. The essential point is that we must work at this positively. In any organisation there will be points with which we disagree. Those can be changed. If we need to change legislation within the European Union because it is not meeting the needs of the European Union and its member countries, then it must be changed on the same legal basis as that upon which it was first enacted.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, when there are judgments from the European Court which appear perverse or are against British interests, is it because the Treaty of Rome is wrong or because the court has interpreted the Treaty of Rome wrongly?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I cannot comment on the European Court of Justice's interpretation—I am not a lawyer and I would not deem it right to do so. I have made it perfectly clear in your Lordships' House that we do have concerns about some ECJ judgments. What we are doing is looking at ways of addressing them. But, as I made quite clear just now, whatever the treaty base, any changes to treaty articles relating to the Court of Justice have to strengthen and not weaken the rule of law in the Community. The rule of law in the Community is there in all our interests. We have to make sure that it continues to be so.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am slightly perturbed to hear my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington say that he agreed with what the Minister had said? I shall have to examine with great care what she said. But, on what I thought she said, I find myself in considerable agreement with her. Will she take this opportunity to refute the assumption in the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that if a judgment of the European Court of Justice is not necessarily in British interests it must be either perverse or unjust? That cannot be right, can it?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I learnt a long while ago not to tangle with my noble friend Lord Tebbit. I think it would be fair to say, in this mood of harmony and light which seems to exist a little more today than it did at this time yesterday, that we are very conscious indeed and have always been—this is not something new—that there are ECJ judgments which have a retrospective effect unless there is a ruling to the contrary. So we do set about changing things. But I think that the noble Lord and I work at this on the same pragmatic basis. We have to make sure that the legal niceties of our European Union meet the pragmatic needs of our peoples.

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