MPs could get new role on Europe

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The Independent Online
MPS WOULD gain a new role overseeing the European Commission and select committees would get new powers to question ministers on European issues under proposals being studied in Downing Street.

The plans, in a paper circulating in Whitehall and Brussels, would set up ties that could revolutionise the relationship between Westminster and the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The paper follows a debate started by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who suggested a new "European forum" - possibly a second chamber - to help to make the EU more accountable.

Backers of the paper, including Alan Donnelly, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, say their plans could be introduced quickly and would need neither new legislation nor changes to EU treaties. One proposal would create a committee of Westminster MPs with a new European scrutiny role. This would join MEPs, probably twice yearly, to attend meetings when the European Commission and the European presidency outline their proposed work programme.

The document says: "The Maastricht Treaty provided for the possibility of a conference of parliaments ... bringing together MPs and MEPs. This has not been implemented. Why not provide for a simpler version: that delegations from all national parliaments join the MEPs when the Commission and the council presidency present their programme early January (and possibly again in July)?" Another, more controversial, plan would oblige ministers who attend council meetings in Europe to discuss their position on key issues with select committees before and after they appear.

The document, "Parliamentary Scrutiny of European Affairs", says: "In Denmark, Sweden and Finland it is normal for every minister who is going to a council meeting in Brussels to appear first ... before the relevant parliamentary committee to discuss the line that he or she will take. The minister similarly reports back to the committee afterwards."

Other ideas canvassed include:

More contact between select committees and committees of the European parliament;

More powers for MEPs of "co-decision" - under which EU legislation needs the approval of the Council of Ministers and European parliament;

Greater information for both parliaments on the detail of how EU law is put into domestic legislation.