Christopher Huhne: If the EU wants to be popular, it must end its culture of secrecy

'If the EU's own institutions had to apply to join the Union, we would refuse them'
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Europe's leader are rightly beginning to worry about the European Union's unpopularity. The Commission President, Romano Prodi, published a white paper on reforming governance yesterday. Reconnecting to Europe's citizens will also be a key theme of Jack Straw's first big Europe speech as Foreign Secretary tomorrow.

Unfortunately, Mr Straw and his ministerial colleagues are part of the problem. They sit in the most important of all the EU's institutions – the Council of Ministers – but they might as well be invisible when they do. Opinion polls show that this key body has a lower profile than either the Commission or the European Parliament, and it is the Council's own fault.

The Council sits in 17 different forms from the most mighty – the European Council of heads of state and government – through the powerful finance and foreign ministers, to the workaday, in the form of transport or environment ministers who deal with specialist EU law.

It is the senior legislative chamber of the two-chamber European Union. Most EU legislation – perhaps 80 per cent – is adopted by co-decision. It needs both a 71 per cent majority of the votes in the Council of Ministers and the assent of the European Parliament. The remaining legislation – covering tax and other sensitive issues decided by Council unanimity – is up to the Council of Ministers alone. Nothing gets on the EU statute book without the Council's approval.

The reason this body is unknown is simple. It meets in secret. It is the only legislative body in the EU, or any of its member states, to do so. The only other world legislatures that meet secretly are those of Cuba and North Korea, neither worthy models for a body that likes to wag its finger at applicant countries that fail to apply strict democratic standards.

If the EU's own institutions had to apply to join the Union, we would refuse them membership. Without openness, no one can know what their democratic representatives are doing. And without information, there can be no informed choice and no accountability. The Council does not respect its own Copenhagen democratic criteria.

True, the Council is embarrassed enough about its position that it now holds feeble "open sessions", in which ministers give boring set-piece speeches, which are ignored by television except as "wallpaper" to a voice-over about what the journalist thinks actually happened. Then the ministers go back into hiding for the real work. They justify this furtive behaviour rather as some people used to justify Mussolini: nasty little man, but he made the trains run on time. Secrecy makes the deals easier.

The Scandinavians realise what a democratic outrage this is. Under the Swedish chairmanship, Goran Persson's government did more to shine a torchlight into the workings of this freemasonry than any previous presidency; publishing agendas, making papers available on websites and so on. But the meetings stayed secret.

And the British? Well, you would not expect Mr Straw and the men from Whitehall to be leading the charge for open government. Peter Hain, the once-liberal Europe minister, last week backed "more transparency" but was vague and unspecific. The Government is not even committed to open Council meetings when the Council passes laws, though it would be easy to separate legislative items from other occasions when the Council meets as an executive (discussing, for example, staff appointments).

Ministers like the apparent control that secrecy gives them over their press. They regularly emerge from a Council meeting half an hour before the deadline of their daily newspapers to give a doctored briefing, secure in the knowledge that the daily journalists will not have time to check out the minister's spin. Thus we feed the adversarial myth with "Minister battles for Britain". The Spitfires roar over the tabloid press.

In reality, ministers and democracy are the losers. Many decisions are prepared by the senior officials of the member states, and are put before ministers to be nodded through as so-called "A-points". This is a crucial source of the bureaucratisation of the EU. If ministers were openly held to account, they would take more care to understand and explain the politics of the laws they approve.

There is another dire consequence of Council secrecy. Remember that this is the EU institution that represents the nations. In Britain, ministers responsible to a British House of Commons (and watched by a British press) should be seen as the most legitimate part of the EU constitution, far more so (I'm afraid) than MEPs elected on a UK turnout only half the EU average. Yet the ministers are not seen. British public opinion believes that "they" in the "bureaucracy in Brussels" take decisions. In reality, British ministers and MEPs take the decisions. It is our European Union.

Council secrecy also means that Westminster scrutiny is nugatory. Of all the member state parliaments, only the Danish Folketinget and the Finnish Eduskunta really hold ministers to account, with their committees often giving a minister a clear negotiating mandate. As for the House of Commons, its oversight is a bitter joke. By the time ministers and the European Parliament have agreed a directive, and it is being put into British law via a statutory instrument, it is too late to change. In failing to scrutinise ministers, MPs have opted to become rubber stamps.

A recent study for my colleague Chris Davies MEP showed that of 40,000 parliamentary questions tabled in the Commons in the 1999-2000 session, just 79 questions were tabled about the 92 meetings of the Council of Ministers. And most of those were planted questions from government whips so that ministers had an opportunity to make written statements.

Those passionate anti-Europeans, such as Bill Cash, Iain Duncan-Smith and John Redwood, who believe that an undemocratic superstate is threatening our national life, often fail to ask a single written question about how a British minister voted in the Council. Overall, they asked just three questions. If you judge politicians by what they do, not what they say, the Tory Europhobes rate as rank poseurs.

To turn the tide of Euroscepticism in Britain, we have to show that EU laws enable the member states to exercise power over a globalising world. Acid rain, ozone pollution, organised crime and speculative capital flows are all beyond the reach of the 19th-century nation state. We must demonstrate that our democratically sanctioned representatives are taking those decisions. Above all in nationalist Britain, opening up the EU legislature that represents the nations should become a crusade.

 

Chris Huhne is a Liberal Democrat MEP for South-east England

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