HL Deb 19 March 2002 vol 632 cc1235-6

11.23 a.m.

Lord Barnett

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their definition of federalism in relation to the European Union.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, experience has shown that the word "federalism" often means different things to different people. Definitions can also change over time. The Government are interested in the substance of Europe's constitutional arrangements rather than the label. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has described Europe as a union of, free, independent sovereign nations who choose to pool that sovereignty in pursuit of their own interests and the common good, achieving more together than we can achieve alone".

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. At least we do have a definition from the Prime Minister. Has my noble friend seen the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, where, effectively, "federalism" is described as a union of member states receiving more power from the centre? Although, as my noble friend said, many people will take different views, in practice the bogey word as used by some should be eliminated from our vocabulary. We are talking about something which, I am happy to hear, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister described as a union of independent member states. If that is the case, can we now make it quite clear that it is not a word about which we should worry but about which we should, indeed, be proud?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the good fairy was obviously sitting on my shoulder yesterday evening when I said to officials that we should look up what the Oxford English Dictionary states is the definition of "federal". I do not know whether my noble friend and I are using different copies of that august work, but I am told that the Oxford English Dictionary defines "federal" as, Of or pertaining to, or of the nature of, that form of government in which two or more states constitute a political unity while remaining more or less independent with regard to their internal affairs". I think that sums it up rather well.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the definition of "federalism" from the Prime Minister cannot be made to fit with the EU's ambitions for a written constitution in the shape of the Charter of Fundamental Rights; for an EU federal legal order in the shape of corpus juris; and, above all, for the EU's ambition that it should be given legal personality? If so, will the Government repudiate these aims of the European Union and veto them if necessary?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord does not expect for a single moment that I will take issue on this important question with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. As to the question of a constitution, I return to the point made by my noble friend Lord Barnett—it is not a question of the label that matters but what we are doing. There is a clear case for a statement of principles for the European Union to establish what should be done at European level and what should he left to member states at national, regional and local levels. The statement could be set out in plain language, in accordance with subsidiarity and proportionality—a point dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch—and set a clear line between what is done by the EU and what is done by member states. That is what we are about. It is on the question of the statement of principles that the Government are working.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is little point in deciding whether the European Union is technically a federation, a confederation or something in between? Does she further agree that it needs a governing instrument and that it makes very little difference whether or not that is called a "constitution"?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is the point I was endeavouring to make. The question of a statement of principles lies at the heart of what we are trying to pursue. I applaud the setting up of the European convention. We had a lengthy and exciting debate in your Lordships' House on this issue when we discussed the Nice treaty. We need to address the questions of how we can make the European Union better understood; how we can make it more democratically accountable—a point to which your Lordships often return during our discussions on this matter—and how we can make the European Union more effective. That is what we are trying to pursue through the convention.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that because of excessive harmonisation and the absence of genuine subsidiarity, the individual nation states of Europe have less autonomy in certain matters than do South Dakota and Rhode Island?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we will have the opportunity to discuss how we pursue subsidiarity through the convention. There has been a great deal of concern and interest about this matter in the House. I stress that the question of subsidiarity is a two-way street. That is implied by the very word. It is the principle whereby the European Union acts only where it can add value at an EU level to the legislation under discussion. We have a genuine opportunity in the upcoming convention, on which discussions began on 28th February, to discuss the very issues which the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and many other noble Lords wish to take further.

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