Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No, they can't repatriate powers

It is good to see Lord Spicer becoming considerably more courageous than he was when he was simply Michael Spicer MP and a less than defiant Chairman of the 1922 Committee. This sort of transformation, I maintain, is one of the best arguments for the existence of a House of Lords that does not depend on the whim of the electorate or of the party machinery.

Yesterday he asked a Starred Question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government which powers they are seeking to repatriate from the European Union.
Remember that promise? It was at the heart of the Conservatives' campaign to win the eurosceptic vote and was much touted by all and sundry, including the great Daniel Hannan MEP. Some of us said at the time that this was not possible without a complete re-writing of the Treaties, which cannot be done without an IGC, unanimous agreement and implementation in all the Member States. To achieve a unanimous agreement other Member States would demand something in return for agreeing to whatever it is the Boy-King or his minions proposed. It was never going to work unless some radical threats were employed.

It would appear that HMG has come round to that position if Lord Howell's harrumphing answer is anything to go by:
My Lords, our priority has been the European Union Bill, but we have begun initial work on the balance of the EU's existing competences and what they mean for Britain. This complements our ongoing activity with the Commission to reform the EU institutions. All this work needs to be undertaken before we can determine the way forward, but we are also taking some action now. We will want to limit the application of the working time directive in the UK and we are deciding whether to opt into legislation on criminal justice on a case-by-case basis with a view to maximising our security, protecting our civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system.
That is a very long way of saying that there is nothing we can do and, therefore, we are not going to do anything.

Lord Spicer, clearly briefed by some of his colleagues, persisted:
Does my noble friend agree that, so long as the acquis is at the centre of the European treaties, it will be impossible to repatriate any powers?
More harrumphing from HMG in the person of Lord Howell:
My Lords, the acquis obviously embodies an accumulation of powers. We are now in the 21st century and I suppose that we would all wish to see, if I may use a domestic analogy, a bit more localism in the management of our affairs. However, we are reviewing the situation. The work is at a fairly early stage and I cannot make any further detailed comments on that matter now.
What on earth does it matter which century we are in if the EU is stuck in the middle of the last one and HMG happily goes along with it?

For once Lord Pearson of Rannoch was allowed to get in early and put the matter brutally:
My Lords, will the Minister not come clean and admit that not a comma can be changed in the treaties, nor can the smallest power be repatriated, without the unanimous consent of all 27 member states, and that therefore the repatriation of powers is really not possible?
And the response? Yes, you guessed it: more harrumphing and yet another reference to this being the 21st century, which is completely true and a very good reason why we should not be part of a completely outdated project, one, which was outdated almost as soon as it was proposed, moreover.
I understand exactly the noble Lord's concern on this, but I think that he is being a bit defeatist. It seems to me that there is a very widespread will throughout the European Union to reform it and indeed, if I may borrow a phrase, to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. That certainly involves a sensible pattern of competences between the nation member states and the central institutions. Therefore, I think that, by gloomily saying that nothing can happen until everyone agrees, the noble Lord is taking a very negative approach to an area where European reform is perfectly possible.
Various peers then proceeded to attack Lord Howell and the government policy with Lord Dykes going off on a tangent (as ever) by demanding that he and they should become more enthusiastic Europeans. Not for the first time one has to wonder what exactly is the purpose of Lord Dykes's existence.

Nevertheless, we are left where we were before: HMG may huff and it may puff but it won't blow that house down.

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