Letter: How the Prime Minister could curb EC secrecy

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The Independent Online
Sir: While I agree with much of what Kevin Featherstone writes in his letter (29 September) on secrecy and centres of power in the European Community, I think I can add something based on my experience in the European Parliament and, more recently, at Westminster.

In early July, I asked the Prime Minister in a written question what initiatives he intended to take, as President of the European Council, to establish greater openness and transparency in the work of the Council and that of the Committee of Permanent Representatives of Member States of the EC (Coreper) in its support role for Council meetings.

On 6 July, Mr Major replied, stating that:

Under the rules of procedure of the Council, meetings of the Council are not public unless the Council unanimously decides otherwise. The same rules apply to Coreper. We no not intend to seek a change in the rules.

I followed up this reply by asking why the Prime Minister did not intend to seek a change in this secretive arrangement during the UK's Presidency of the Council. Mr Major replied, on 13 July, saying that as unanimous agreement was required to make a change, he saw 'no prospect of change to these rules in the foreseeable future'. This is pure evasion. The Government is trying to change quite a range of administrative and political arrangements within the Community, including importantly the definition of 'subsidiarity'. The UK has by far the most secretive administrative and political culture within the EC. If a proposal to open up the proceedings of the European Council were to come from the UK, it would have an excellent chance of acceptance by our EC partners.

Along with many commentators and politicians, Dr Featherstone proposes addressing the very real problem of the democratic deficit in the institutions of the EC by allowing greater powers to the European Parliament. Despite these good intentions, his proposal would be unlikely to have the desired effect unless the European Parliament were to be given control over decisions allocating the EC budget.

The European Parliament can only play a useful role in keeping the European Commissioners and the Council of Ministers on their political toes with probing questions in written form, or during the monthly Plenaries in Strasbourg. These very rarely get any media attention. Nor do European Parilament committees.

Similarly, some reports by the committees of the Parliament can result in positive changes taking place in regard to information disclosure and even, occasionally, on policy. For instance, the EC's Euratom nuclear agency now publishes a biannual report on nuclear safeguards as a result of two strong reports produced by European parliamentary committees four years ago.

I have recently completed a report for the European Parliament's committee on the environmental aspects of the storage, transport and reprocessing of spent fuel.

This will be considered by the committee in the autumn, and its recommendations could lead to the tightening of safety standards on nuclear transport and the harmonisation of EC policies on toxic and radioactive waste movements, thereby introducing much more stringent conditions on any form of transport of these dangerous pollutants.

It will be interesting to see if the report achieves cross-party backing in the Parliament, and thereafter, if the Commission or Council choose to block its recommendations. This is the sharp end of the democratic deficit.

Yours sincerely,

LLEW SMITH

MP for Blaenau Gwent (Lab)

MEP for South East Wales (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

29 September

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