The results of last month’s European elections demonstrated an appetite for change in Europe among voters – all parties seem to agree on that. Which is why David Cameron went into the most recent set of EU Council negotiations with cross-party support to secure a candidate for Commission President that would make achieving that kind of change and reform easier, not harder.
Today there is a widespread and profound sense of disappointment at David Cameron’s apparent failure to build an alliance to secure an alternative candidate for the role. He weakened his own hand in these vital talks by seeming to choose public criticism at the expense of private influence – all of which feels like a worrying foretaste of his ability to deliver on any other promised EU priorities in the future.
As David Cameron’s stock in Europe seems to be slipping, the case for an increased role for the British Parliament in scrutinising the Government’s handling of European affairs strengthens. So whilst the Prime Minister’s negotiating approach to try and block Juncker fell well short, there are a number of reforms here at home that he could implement immediately to enhance the role of the UK Parliament on issues relating to Britain’s relationship with Europe.
MPs who served in Parliament before 2010 will remember that the House of Commons used to have the opportunity to debate upcoming EU Council meetings before they took place. Sadly the current Prime Minister scrapped this shortly after he took office, and UK parliamentary oversight of EU affairs risks slowly being weakened as a result.
By contrast, Ministers in the Netherlands appear before relevant select committees in advance of EU Council meetings to outline and explain the Dutch government’s policies on the items that feature on the upcoming EU Council agenda.
So to address this issue, Labour would reinstate debates in the House of Commons ahead of EU Council meetings, and we would consult on the creation of a dedicated EU Select Committee to provide further detailed and comprehensive oversight. A crucial moment in the coming weeks will come when David Cameron nominates Britain’s next Commissioner to the EU. If he is serious about giving our Parliament more clout then he could act now to give MPs the chance to scrutinise his choice before they head off to Brussels.
At the moment, the Prime Minister alone can decide who his nominee for Commissioner is and the only scrutiny the UK Commissioner is set to face is from MEPs in the European Parliament during the formal hearings. Members of the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee have already raised this issue with David Cameron directly, and given the importance of ensuring the UK’s next Commissioner in Brussels champions reform, I believe there would be support across all parties for the Prime Minister to accept the Committee’s proposal.
For months now, the Prime Minister has been unable or unwilling to set out the real detail of his reform agenda. But if indeed David Cameron is now serious about helping to reform Europe to make it work better for Britain, then granting the UK Parliament a chance to quiz and question his choice for the UK’s next Commissioner would be a bold and welcome step.
And if he took this step now, then he would have Labour’s support.
Gareth Thomas is the shadow minister for Europe
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.