Europe: Hague calls for MPs to vet commissioners

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE sided with Labour left-wingers yesterday when he demanded a strengthening of Parliament's power to vote for and appoint British commissioners in Brussels.

The Tory leader echoed Tony Benn's call for greater powers for MPs over appointments to the European Commission in light of this week's exposure of fraud and mismanagement by an official inquiry.

But Tony Blair repeatedly rejected his proposal during question time, stressing the Tories had had 18 years to change the system and failed to do so.

The Prime Minister pointed out that Mr Hague had already enjoyed his own right to nominate a new commissioner when he recommended Sir Alastair Goodlad, the former Tory chief whip, for the next opening. "You never said once it should be done in a different way," he added.

"In respect of parliamentary scrutiny, of course they are always subject to parliamentary scrutiny. But I believe the system of appointment that has applied under successive governments is the best system."

Under the present convention, Labour, as the governing party, takes turns with the opposition parties - namely the Tories and Liberal Democrats - in nominating commissioners.

Mr Blair also made it clear that any commissioner found "guilty of fraud or misconduct" should not get large pay-offs when they leave office.

However, launching his attack Mr Hague insisted that this was an opportunity to enhance the role of Parliament: "Is there any reason why we should not agree across the House that the appointment of new British commissioners should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and the approval of this House?...

"You have not appointed commissioners before and I haven't been involved in it before. This is an opportunity to talk about the future, not the past... Can't you agree for once to expand the role of Parliament?"

Replying, the Prime Minister said Parliament was "always entitled to scrutinise whatever it wishes to".

"I know you try to say it was nothing to do with you the last 18 years... in relation to the nomination of European commissioners, you have made your nomination on behalf of the Conservative Party and as far as I recollect your letter never once said it should be done in a different way."

Mr Hague said it was of "paramount importance" to say to the commissioners they must do less, because the report found that the Commission was implementing policies over which it was exceedingly difficult to exert effective control."

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, called the "Brussels fiasco" of the last few days " a scandal waiting to happen". But he challenged the Prime Minister: "What urgent steps are you now taking to ensure that following the welcome resignation of [Jacques] Santer today, the Commission is not left leaderless, Europe is not left incapacitated and the essential reforms are not indefinitely delayed?"