The UK’s House of Lords’ EU Committee aims to hold the UK government to account for its actions at the EU level, and also considers EU related documents prior to decisions being made on them. In an interview with EUROPP editor Chris Gilson, Committee Chairman Lord Boswell discusses how the Eurozone crisis has affected the work of the House of Lords’ EU Committee, as well as the UK’s relationship with Europe.
This article was first published on the LSE’s EUROPP blog
You were appointed Chairman of the House of Lords’ EU Committee in May. What are the Committee’s current priorities for scrutiny and which issues might it focus on in the near future?
In a day to day sense, the committee is looking at the enlargement of the EU. In this way, the main committee, and my job particularly, is to learn lessons on enlargement partly from the Croatian experience and retrospectively in relation to Romania and Bulgaria. With these in mind, we look at the criteria, and the sorts of questions that should be asked in advance of enlargement. When we’ve discussed this round the (committee) table one or two members of the committee have expressed an interest in asking questions about where enlargement might stop, and on what basis other EU applications might be considered. Enlargement is obviously a serious macro-topic; when you go to a meeting of the chairs of EU committees you find the Icelanders behind you saying “we’d rather like to join”. You then think, well why would people want to join at a moment like this? So that sort of question is of interest and then we need to keep up the pressure on the other ones.
As regards the sub-committee work, sub-committee A, on economics and financial affairs, has been doing some very detailed technical work and recently finished a report on proposals from the European Commission to regulate financial markets (MfID II) which has been quite a useful piece of work. This sub-committee is also charged primarily with the day to day looking at the Euro crisis as it unfolds. Sub-committee B (Internal Market, Infrastructure and Employment) is looking at women on boards; sub-committee C (External Affairs) has just reviewed their earlier findings on the EU operation in the Indian Ocean on piracy. Sub-committee D (Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy) has just done an update on the sugar regime in the EU, and sub-committee E (Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection) is going to be looking at OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office. Finally, sub-committee F (Home Affairs, Health and Education), has recently published a report after doing a report, which is yet still to be debated, on a subject I’m interested in personally, which is EU higher education. They have also had a debate on EU drug strategy, which has obviously spilled a bit wider. So there’s a good range of detailed topics within the sub-committees.
Has the Eurozone crisis changed the role or focus of the Committee in recent months?
It shouldn’t do because we do have two jobs: one is the on-going scrutiny work which is to look at all the papers coming from the Commission and the government’s explanatory memoranda, and often get legal advice on them. And from time to time you ‘say look we haven’t been given enough information on this, we do need to hold It’, or even occasionally overturn advice, but not often. Then of course if it is passed over to a sub-committee, who can, and usually in my experience they do, ask some very pertinent detailed questions.
While we are not always able to influence everything, we can do something. We have some serious and even arguably existential crises in the European Union at the moment centred on what is to be done about the Euro situation. It is possible, and keeping in mind that there are a range of opinions across the committees to have an intelligent commentary, as people will want to comment on the EU and its unfolding difficulties in a reasonably balanced way,
I’m very anxious that we don’t fall below the level of events in terms of the unfolding pattern of the Eurocrisis. I mean we’re not going to negotiate, determine or even potentially influence the outcome of the crisis – but we can’t turn away from it and “say oh well, that’s not our business”. For example, in July sub-committee A wrote a strong open letter to Mark Hoban MP, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on the Euro crisis, asking about the government’s reactions to the crisis.
What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities in the UK’s relationship with Europe at present?
I think it would be perfectly fair, being neutral about it, to say there is a very important redefinition which is likely to take place and it will centre around the role of the ‘Euro ins’ and the role of the ‘Euro outs’ and what the relationship should be between them. That’s true both in relation to the cultural and political issues, but also in terms of formal decision-making structures and how we manage that relationship. The important issue is whether at least an understanding can be reached between the 27 (and soon to be 28) EU members that some are in and some are out, but they all need to have a relationship that works together. If we find that it becomes one against 26 then that is not a particularly constructive relationship.
At the rather different end of the spectrum, what has very much struck me is the growing salience of the justice and home affairs issues that two of our sub-committees work on. One point of substance on that is that whatever you may negotiate and whatever you opt into or opt out of, or whoever you admit for enlargement, really the most important things are the cultural changes not the legal issues. You can say, oh well, there’s the acquis and we’ve closed this chapter because we’ve negotiated our way through it or analysed it, but actually until you get countries like say Montenegro, who do seem to be doing this, changing the culture of their attitudes to the use of the courts and what you do about corruption and government and so forth you won’t really make a lot of progress.
Some commentators have predicted that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is now inevitable. Do you think that this is the case?
I think it is more likely that there will be a referendum perhaps than there would have been before the Euro crisis broke out, but the exact nature and the terms of that referendum are really uncertain at this stage. I was struck in Brussels by the fact that there is perhaps greater immediate interest there in the known reality of a timetable for the Scottish referendum’. If you draw the analogy with Scotland, or other areas of Europe like Catalonia and some parts of Italy, you start seeing some serious questions about how independence would work and issues such as whether you would admit independent regions to the EU automatically and so forth.
In a sense a referendum is not waking up in the morning and saying: “how do you feel about the EU?” It’s eventually about saying something fairly pointed like do you accept the deal we’ve got, but that is uncertain yet and it’s fairly clear that there is no central appetite for rushing it. We’re not going to rush out as a committee and say you now need to do this, that’s not the remit, but I can see the background and maybe it’s a way of ‘letting blood’, if I can use a rather 18th century analogy; a way of reducing the fever.
And finally, do you think that the Euro will still exist in its present form in 5 years’ time?
I think the EU is always evolving and it will be different from what it was. I think the interesting question is whether you do now tighten up the economic governance and produce what has been called a monetary union, a fiscal union and an economic union, with some elements obviously of political union, or whether you try to get a more accommodating structure and in particular how you relate to the non-EU members in the kinds of decision-making you allow that to happen in.
As an analogy, during my experience in the Council of Europe a lot of us were quite sensitive to the position of member states like Turkey and even Russia, who were non-EU members, but nevertheless were involved in discussions on issues such as the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights. The 27 EU members of the Council of Europe can’t just stitch it up and ignore the other 20 non-EU members when it comes to decision-making. In the same way, whatever the number of countries in the euro, you can’t simply have an inner group that has one view and a group of other countries who are left on the periphery.
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Lord Boswell of Aynho (Timothy Boswell, Baron Boswell of Aynho) was the Member of Parliament for Daventry from 1987 until he retired at the 2010 general election. He was raised to the House of Lords in 2010. In May 2012, he was made Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees in the House, and Chairman of the European Union Committee.