Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Friday, 12 December 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Mr Jim Allister MEP
Mr Jim Nicholson MEP
The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
This morning, we will hear evidence from Jim Allister MEP and Jim Nicholson MEP, which will form part of the Committee’s consideration of EU issues, under its terms of reference. It will also help the Committee to review its forward work programme. We have several apologies, from Naomi Long, Martina Anderson and Dolores Kelly.
Members have before them a briefing from the Clerk, which outlines the Committee’s terms of reference. Bairbre de Brún MEP is not available today, but she will meet the Committee in January. I invite Jim Allister to join us.
Mr Allister, on behalf the Committee, I welcome you and I thank you for meeting the Committee again. We are renewing contact, having already had contact with you in Brussels in June. As you will know, we are considering European issues and how best the Assembly can work with bodies in Europe and Brussels. We are interested in your views. We anticipate that the session will last approximately 40 minutes, which will include questions and answers. I invite you to make an opening statement, and we will take it from there.
Mr Jim Allister MEP:
Thank you for your welcome, Mr Chairman. Finding an effective role for a devolved institution in the matrix of the EU is not an easy proposition. I suppose that that is because of the manner in which the EU is constructed. From the perspective of devolved institutions, there is something of a structural deficiency, in that, for very good reasons, the EU is constructed on the apex of member states. Those states make up the essential architecture of the EU and are the given constituent part in respect of each area. In consequence, the structures are designed to consult member states as entities, rather than member states and their regions.
Therefore, the first lesson to learn is that for a regional Assembly and Executive to have an effective input into the EU, they must cultivate the route that lies through the parent UK Departments — in essence, that is the way to ensure most influence. When the Council of Ministers meets, under whatever guise — to discuss fisheries, agriculture, environment, and so on — it is the national 27 Ministers from each of the member states who attend. Therefore, Northern Ireland’s interests must be channelled through the national Minister in the relevant Department, for example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Therefore, cultivating a proper ongoing exchange in relationship with the national UK Department must be a vital component of ensuring effective input. In that sense, one could say that devolution inserts another layer of distance from Brussels, because one must go through that process.
Europe has increasingly packaged and presented itself as recognising and supporting the regions, but the reality is that its structural architecture throws up a dichotomy in how the regions get an effective say. It is not easy to resolve that riddle, but that is where the Committee of the Regions comes in. However, if one does not make an input, one cannot expect any output. For instance, in two years, a Member of this House — Edwin Poots — has supposedly been a member of the Committee of the Regions, but he has attended plenary sessions only once. That is fairly indicative of how that Assembly Member rates the Committee of the Regions as not very important, and it is also fairly indicative of his party’s opinion of the Committee. Yet, that is the only direct input from local regional representatives in that regard. As I understand it, OFMDFM services that role for members of the Committee of the Regions, so the Committee should perhaps take oversight of that.
The key issue relates to how one moves from being reactive to what Brussels does and how one moves from merely responding to what has already been churned out to how one can be proactive in attempting to shape proposals rather than trying to stop the train once it is coming down the tracks. Obviously, that is a much more demanding and difficult exercise than trying to steer the train in the direction that one would like it to go. That is important. Therefore, it is vital to know and keep abreast of what is evolving in the Commission, remembering that only the Commission can propose legislation. Neither the Parliament nor the Council of Ministers can propose legislation — only the Commission can do that.
The role of the Northern Ireland Executive Office should be pivotal. However, the criticism in the task force report was that the office’s contact with the Commission is regular, but it is not systematic. However, without systematic contact with the Commission, one is never going to put oneself in the position of effectively shaping what might be coming in your direction. That has to be the key.
The Assembly needs to know what is evolving in legislative terms, if it is ever to have meaningful input. For instance, a few weeks ago, the Commission’s legislative and work programme for 2009 was published. I do not know how much the Assembly has acquainted itself with that and with the various propositions contained in it. However, if you are going to have any input, that is the sort of issue that must be tackled on the ground floor.
Staying for a moment with the Northern Ireland Executive Office, it is, in part, for you to oversee its function in Brussels. From my own perspective as an MEP, it is pretty much a closed shop. The fundamental question is whether it exists primarily as a PR shop window for OFMDFM, or whether it exists to proactively promote Northern Ireland plc. Is it open and transparent with the members of this Committee, or is it part of OFMDFM’s jealously guarded fiefdom? I do not know.
In my experience as an MEP, I have heard less from the Executive office in Brussels since devolution than I did before. One can speculate as to the reasons for that, but in my five years as an MEP I have very seldom received a briefing paper from the Northern Ireland Executive Office on an issue of specific interest to Northern Ireland that is being dealt with in Brussels and which needs to be protected.
Little attempt is made to brief the MEPs. At the moment, for example, we are in the throes of the fishing quota negotiations, and unless, as an MEP, I go asking of the Executive office, it never comes to me with information about such matters. That seems to me to be a strategic failure. If this Committee has an oversight role, it should be asking questions about how the Executive office functions.
The Assembly must have the capacity to provide input into European matters, and I suggest that that can be achieved by way of two routes — first, through the parent or associated Departments in the UK; and secondly, through the Executive office in Brussels. Furthermore, some sort of parallel relationship and interplay between the MEPs and the Assembly would not go amiss.
Structurally, it is likely that the Assembly will need something akin to a European affairs committee, which would take a strategic overview and would inform the other scrutiny Committees about matters that are relevant to their respective Departments. Those Departments should be doing that, but an overview from the legislative side of the Assembly would also be important. There are multiple templates around Europe for such a committee, and I will leave with the Committee Clerk a summation of how every country in the EU deals with the question of scrutiny, some of which are very advanced. The most advanced example of such mechanisms is to be found in Finland, which exercises the most power and control over what its Government does in Europe, closely followed by Germany.
The House of Lords in the United Kingdom provides a useful template, because it has a very active European Affairs Committee. Its Chairman sifts through every document that emanates from Europe. Naturally, because they are of little relevance, most of them go in the bin, so to speak. However, about 25% of them are referred on to subcommittees. Each year, those subcommittees might conduct a major inquiry into one or two matters. All relevant Committees then advise a view to Her Majesty’s Government before a decision is taken on behalf of the United Kingdom in the Council of Ministers or the European Council.
The House of Lords Committee has regular sessions with the Minister of State for Europe, and the UK Parliament has an agreement with the Government that they will have scrutiny opportunity before the Government commits themselves. There has been some controversy about whether that is always honoured, but the reports in which the House of Lords Committee publishes its scrutiny of various EU proposals are impressive documents. They cannot scrutinise every proposal, because there is a vast array of those, but the Committee certainly does an effective job.
The problem for a devolved institution is that, in order to be effective, it must get in even earlier in the process, because its first task is to try to shape the UK Government’s view. Time is short in all of these matters, and the demands on and the requirements of the devolved Assembly are even more difficult.
The experience of Scotland is interesting. The Scottish Parliament has a European and External Relations Committee, and one of the relevant features of that — and something that I would certainly urge be established here — is that, before the Council of Ministers meets, the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee receives an annotated agenda of that meeting, accompanied by the Scottish Executive’s view on the matters arising. That has two consequences: it means that the local Department must take a view — which is no bad thing — and it means that the European and External Relations Committee can itself express a view on the view taken by the Executive.
Does that happen here? Do Members ever see an agenda for the Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels? Do they ever see an agenda, annotated with the views of the local Executive on issues that arise at that meeting? That is a good model on which to establish a similar facility here. Of course, that raises resource issues — it would be resource intensive; there is no doubt about that.
I will say a few words about the effects of the Lisbon Treaty, and what changes will be made if the electorate in the Irish Republic are successfully rolled over and the Treaty comes into play — the new target date is 1 January 2010. Under the Lisbon Treaty, national Parliaments will have eight weeks to scrutinise draft laws. Those proposals can be objected to on the grounds of subsidiarity — the new buzz word that refers to a supposed hierarchy of involvement, whereby, if something can allegedly be done better locally or nationally, then it should not be done at Brussels level. Therein, there will be great dispute as to whether the rules on subsidiarity are being honoured.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, if one third of national Parliaments object that a particular proposal offends the subsidiarity rule, then they can serve what is called in the jargon a “yellow card”. In other words, the proposal can be held up. The Commission must then reconsider — it is obliged only to reconsider, but is not obliged to change the proposal. If, however, 50% of national Parliaments continue to object — in the present arrangement that would be 14 of the 27 countries — then the Commission has to refer the reasoned objection to both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament on a co-decision basis. That process has been gloriously designated “playing the orange card” — not something to which I would object, as you might imagine.
There will be a mechanism for national Parliaments — but not local devolved Parliaments — to object and seek to thwart, or at least delay, a proposition. Therefore, the challenge will be to find an effective way for devolved Assemblies to feed in to that process, and do so in a timely manner. That opens up the front of relationships between devolved Assemblies and the national Parliaments. That is something that, undoubtedly, must be explored.
The other issue that was mentioned in the letter that I received was the Barroso task force report. It is necessary to acknowledge its limitations. It does not involve new money, but rather a process of better informing one on how to draw down existing moneys.
I think that there was a missed opportunity, particularly as the task force report does not address the very vexing issue of additionality. For all regions, particularly within the United Kingdom, no issue is more vexing than that of additionality.
The relevant article of the regulation is very clear in its stipulation. It states that:
“in order to achieve a genuine economic impact, the appropriations of the Funds may not replace public or other equivalent structural expenditure by the member state.”
In other words, it is meant to be additional.
As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the reality is, by and large, that it is not additional. Funds go into the national UK pot of money that, in turn, reduces the demands on taxation and other means used to make up the national requirement for funding. Therefore, the impact of EU funds in Northern Ireland is spread across the board, rather than being specifically additional.
If the local Assembly corrected that, over any other single issue, Northern Ireland would benefit much more from its relationship with the EU. I think that it is a matter of regret that the task force steered around that entire matter.
It is also regrettable that the Executive’s response to the task force report has been so tardy. The report was issued in April; it is now the end of the year, and, as far as I am aware, there is still no sign of an Executive response. Even under direct rule, it would not have taken so long. What is holding that up?
Has the Committee been involved in, or been consulted on, the Executive’s response? Indeed, was the Committee consulted before OFMDFM’s input on the task force, including the divisive promotion of the Maze shrine, was published? Was the Committee given an opportunity to express a view on that? Surely, in order to be an effective scrutiny device, the Committee must be involved while the Executive is formulating a response.
Those are my questions for the Committee; no doubt you have questions for me, which I am happy to answer now.
Thank you very much for your contribution. It was the intention that we would question you.
We had hoped to receive a copy of the Executive’s response to Barroso this morning. That has been further delayed; however, we expect to have it at our first meeting in January, for officials to brief us, and for us to then consider matters further.
A number of members have already indicated that they have questions. I will start with my question. You mentioned the practice of other Governments, including Germany and Finland. Were you referring to regional Assemblies?
No; to their national Assemblies. There may be experience that you could gain from them.
Across Europe, it is much more difficult to get information on how the regional Parliaments and Assemblies deal with things, with some countries having a very patchy relationship. Some of the German regions, however, are very active. For example, in Brussels, one of the biggest presences is that of the Bavarian representation, which is extremely active.
The information that I have for the Clerk relates to how each national Parliament reins in its own Executive.
Regarding the other regional Administrations within the United Kingdom, is there good practice that can be followed?
I have mentioned some practices from Scotland. Their European and External Relations Committee has a practice of making sure that it gets a copy of the Council of Ministers agenda, with annotations from its own Executive of the input that they have had to London onwards to Brussels. That is a very worthwhile exercise that any regional Assembly could follow. I would suggest it as something on which to model or draw from.
Thank you very much. I omitted to tell you, Mr Allister, although I think that you were aware, that our session is being Hansarded today. I apologise for not making you aware of that sooner.
I have a couple of queries. The issue around the Scottish Committee is quite interesting. Does it see the Executive’s input before the regulations or legislation are made in Europe? That is where we have difficulty, because we are just told to implement legislation — what we really need is an input. Does the Scottish European and External Relations Committee have input before the legislation is made?
Your comment about devolution adding another layer and leaving us a bit more removed was interesting. I know that you have made a few indications as to how we can improve that. Regarding the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Europe, I assume that that is where our Executive can have a direct input into those proposals or legislation. Is that correct?
Yes, there are two points there. Although I have no first-hand experience of the Scottish example, I have spoken with some Scottish MEPs about how it is perceived to operate. The key seems to be that, whatever is coming up at the Council of Ministers; be that legislative, a White Paper or a Green Paper proposal, to put it in our terms, or anything else, they have the agenda and they have knowledge of what their Executive’s input — if any — has been, through London, to the formulation of that proposal.
The key group in Brussels is not the politicians in many regards; it is an organisation called the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union. That group comprises the senior civil servants who reside and work in Brussels, and have daily contact with the Brussels machine, particularly the Commission. They do the groundwork on behalf of the British Government in respect of any proposal or negotiation. If you can shape their mind, that often shapes the Minister’s mind. On the fish quota talks recently, I sought them out and spoke to them in order to try to stiffen the UK Fisheries Minister’s position. I sometimes find that to be a much more beneficial exercise than anything else. Forming a relationship through your own Civil Service, through Whitehall, to the UK Permanent Representation, has to be vital.
I have digressed for a moment, but to return to the Scottish experience, if they get the Council of Ministers’ agenda, then they get the legislative proposals. They get everything that is coming up. That gives them an opportunity to shape legislation, so you must get that, and you must get it in a timely manner. That will tell you what your own Executive Ministers are thinking and doing, if anything, on those issues. That is important. I apologise; what was the second issue?
You indicated that devolution added an extra level of bureaucracy. What is the Northern Ireland Executive’s role?
I will take you back to what the task force report said. It said that it has regular — but not systematic — contact with the Commission.
There is considerable opportunity for input to the Commission, although the Executive Office will probably require more staff, as it is running with four. The Commission has quite an open door, and its officials do not stand on ceremony with civil servants representing a region, rather than representing the national Governments, and they will be received and informed, and the Commission will talk to them about the issues. For example, the Commission announced recently a €200 billion package relating to the global economic downturn, which is supposed to focus mainly on two issues: simplifying regulation, which is something long promised and seldom delivered; and, on the structural fund side, focusing on reducing the co-financing rates for private-sector revenue-raising projects.
Being able to reduce the co-financial element in EU funding is important for Northern Ireland. One of the great hurdles and burdens Northern Ireland has faced in drawing down EU funding is due to that fact that, more often than not, it comes with a co-financing obligation. As a consequence of the British rebate, the British Government are always reticent to draw down funds, because the more they draw down, the less they get back in rebate. It has always been a constant battle when funds are affected with co-financing.
A proposal to reduce the co-financing element in structural funding would have the potential to benefit Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Executive Office should look into that issue fairly thoroughly to see how it can be tweaked, twisted and turned to best suit Northern Ireland.
I have no doubt that the Committee’s best door into the Commission is the Northern Ireland Executive Office — if it is doing its job right — and the office would bear further investment, if it were directed. However, what is its primary purpose? Is it just part of a fiefdom that is jealously guarded, or has it a wider ambit to serve Northern Ireland plc?
Thank you for that widespread briefing.
How can you, as an MEP — or the three MEPs — come together and brief the Committee on how you could build a relationship with the Assembly? What relationship do you have with the various Departments in the Assembly, particularly the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
Mr Chairman, some parallels can be drawn with how matters work in other countries. I have already referred to the Finnish situation, which has a series of scrutiny Committees upon which its MEPs sit as ex-officio members, so that there is interplay between locally elected and internationally elected representatives — and feedback from the MEPs to those Committees. I am not for a moment suggesting that this Committee do that — I have quite enough Committees to attend. However, that is one end of the spectrum whereby MEPs are made ex-officio members of national Parliament Committees.
MEPs have some of the same problems as MLAs in shaping proposals at ground-floor level. However, undoubtedly, MEPs are in a better position as they serve on Committees that deal with issues that will arise, and, therefore, they have advance knowledge of the issues and the ready facility to seek out the relevant directorate general to find out the information.
If the Committee feels that there is value in having a more formal relationship with the MEPs, it lies within its prerogative to invite the MEPs to become more involved. By virtue of my presence this morning, I indicate that I am willing to help if I can. That is how it should be: all have the same common interest in serving this part of the United Kingdom as effectively as possible within the European Union and extracting the most for Northern Ireland. MEPs have their role in that, and I am sure that there is scope for improved relationships — formal or otherwise — between the Assembly and the MEPs, who are also parliamentarians and who seek to hold to account another executive. They share in a common cause. Relations between MEPs and local Departments should be most manifest through the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels. I have commented on the efficiency of working that way.
The Scottish Parliament has its own office in the European Union, and that provides an opportunity for MEPs to meet with Ministers of that Parliament, and for each to influence the other. Do you consider that the Assembly should have an office of its own in the European Union? Would that be of benefit to both the Assembly and MEPs?
Mr Chairman, I am tempted to reply that one should learn to walk before running. However, that possibility might become relevant. It depends how far it is possible to cultivate the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels to operate in a manner of which the Assembly approves. If that office is doing the job for the Assembly, there is no need to duplicate it. However, if the Assembly thinks that it is neglectful or operating to protect its fiefdom rather than according to the benefit of NI plc, there might be a role for the Assembly in maintaining a separate presence. I do not know whether the Assembly is flush with funds — such an office would be a considerable drain.
Jim referred to serving people effectively and extracting the most for this society. Is there is a high level of co-operation among our three MEPs to the benefit of this society, and can he give examples where the three took a co-ordinated approach? Jim and I are both on the same side in relation to the Lisbon Treaty, but does he network with other MEPs from the island of Ireland, so that benefits for both the North and South of Ireland can be optimised?
Mr Chairman, I network with all MEPs who are not apologists for terrorism and who are untainted democrats. That immediately excludes the party of the questioner, which continues to glorify and support acts of terrorism. In consequence, I neither seek nor provide co-operation with such a party. I do not have, nor do I seek, a relationship with a terrorist-friendly or terrorist-related party. I have no role in co-operating with a party that acts under the aegis of a wicked, evil, illegal army council, and which glorifies terrorism in all its ways.
I do not apologise for taking that stand, which is a stand that others in the room used to take, and have long since abandoned.
It would be useful if Mr Allister discussed European issues, rather than local constitutional issues.
To be fair, a question was posed and has now been answered. I thank Mr Allister for his contribution. You indicated that you will provide additional information to the Department. We welcome that and we will, perhaps, have a continuing role in the future.
Thank you for the opportunity to attend the Committee; it was a pleasure to appear before you and those members of the Committee who are untainted democrats.
We will see what happens with the democratic process in June.
On behalf of the Committee, I now welcome Jim Nicholson MEP. Good morning, Mr Nicholson, you are very welcome.
Mr Jim Nicholson MEP:
Good morning, Mr Chairman.
The Committee is interested in your views on how the Assembly can work better, and achieve more, with the European Union.
This process is part of an OFMDFM inquiry, and we will hopefully use it to produce a report with recommendations. On that basis, today’s session is being recorded by Hansard. We expect the session to last approximately 40 minutes, which will include a brief overview or statement, if you wish to make one, and questions from Committee members.
I am happy to go straight to questions.
OK. I am happy with that.
It is nice to see you at the Committee, Jim. Currently, one of the great issues for the fishing industry in Northern Ireland is quotas, which EU officials will discuss with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and representatives from Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom on this day next week.
I am not trying to catch anybody out, so I will ask a constructive question. What has the relationship has been like between you and the fishing industry? How can we influence DEFRA? Currently, we are faced with draconian cuts for the fishing industry in relation to days-at-sea quotas; the only exception being haddock. The cod-compensation scheme is —
Please ask a question, Jim.
We are very lucky — we did not receive a presentation, so I suspect that we have an extra 10 or 15 minutes to ask questions.
I do not want one question to take up that entire time.
This is an important issue. An MEP is here today, and this is the chance to ask for his help and evaluate how the situation can be improved for our fishing industry. I am talking about my bread and butter, so I am not going to apologise for asking a question.
On behalf of the fishing industry, how can we improve our influence and ensure that that industry does not face those draconian cuts on this day next week?
We were also told that the Scottish Parliament scrutinises the agenda of the Council of Ministers. Do you have any thoughts about how that could be done by the Assembly? Chairman, those are my questions, and I respect your graciousness for letting me have the opportunity to ask them.
Thank you very much. As it is the season of goodwill, I could hardly fail.
That is one of the great long-running problems that we have had since I was first elected to the European Parliament in 1989. Each year, normally the week before Christmas, taxes and quotas for the next 12 months are set for fishermen. There has been an ongoing argument between the scientists on one hand and the fishermen on the other regarding the numbers of fish that are available to catch in the sea.
Our fishermen have had to suffer the closure of box 7A in the Irish Sea — from which they get most of their catches — for the longest period of time. I must say that DEFRA does not seem to be overly concerned about the future of our fishing industry, so it is Brussels that must be influenced. That has been a long-running campaign.
For years, the European Parliament Fisheries Committee and I have fought for better deals. Some members of the Committee will know who the leaders of our fishermen are. Dick James, from Portavogie, and Alan McCulla, from Kilkeel, have visited the Parliament as part of delegations. We have set up a mechanism in which they have an input from a regional point of view. You are right to raise the issue, because the quotas that will be announced next week will probably be some of the worst in memory. I have been aggravated about that for a long time.
It seems that the fisheries directorate in Brussels and the scientists always put forward the worse-case scenario for the fishermen and then give them a little at the end of the negotiations to keep them happy. That has aggravated me for a long time.
It is the duty of the Assembly to have better relations with Brussels. The Scottish Parliament was mentioned, and maybe we could discuss how the Scots deal with Europe later. To pull no punches, the Scots and the Welsh deal with Europe much better than we do — we have to learn how they use their influence in Brussels. We use our influence to the best of our ability through the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries, of which I was a member for 17 years. Although I am no longer on that Committee, I can still influence Commissioner Joe Borg.
Fishermen have got a raw deal from Brussels for a long time, or at least they believe that they have. Like every other part of society, they have suffered from high fuel prices and the effects of the credit crunch, which is bad coming up to Christmas. In the long term, the Assembly, this Committee, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and others with responsibility must go to Brussels and meet the officials from the fisheries directorate who make the recommendations. That will be an uphill battle, but, as MEPs, we encourage local representatives to do it and echo what we have been saying for years, because it is a question of negotiation. I hope that the Northern Ireland representatives are able to get a better deal than we anticipate. I can put the situation is no stronger terms than that.
This is not the first time we have been in this terrible position — we seem to be in it at this time every year. I have pleaded with the fisheries directorate in Brussels, and, at one stage, it looked as though there would be some change — I do not understand why tax and quotas have to be set a week before Christmas, instead of in the summer, the spring or the autumn. On one occasion, we were stuck in Brussels and did not know whether we would get a flight home for Christmas, because negotiations went down to the wire — that is the way those things go when an agreement cannot be reached. It was 3.00 am or 4.00 am on Christmas Eve, the fishermen were all present, and no one knew whether they would get home for Christmas. Although that is an unsatisfactory way to do business, the Europeans approach it like the old saying in Northern Ireland: “That is the way we have always done it, so we will stick to it.” The scientists are the bugbear of the whole process.
Does Brussels or DEFRA have the biggest influence? Where should we focus our attention?
We must focus on both. The decisions are made by Brussels, but the Minister with responsibility from Whitehall is the negotiator at the table, and is flanked by the respective Ministers with responsibility from Scotland and Northern Ireland — I suspect that those Ministers will have an input in the negotiations. When Brid Rodgers was Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, she had an input in the decision-making process. Much of the negotiations are not done around the table; they are done in little rooms — it is a deal-making exercise. That is a terrible situation, and I do not know why our fishermen should be in it.
Therefore, Jim, we have to focus on both Brussels and DEFRA. You must make your argument to the Minister in London, because if he or she is not making the argument for you during the negotiations, you do not have much chance of winning.
However, at the end of the day, another argument to be made is that you should go directly to Brussels to make your point directly to the Commissioner and to the Commission’s officials.
Mr Nicholson, thank you for your presentation. In my limited experience of European funding, I found that when I managed to get to talk to the Commissioner, it was not as bad as talking to the messengers. Therefore, going directly to the Commissioner is probably the best option.
The question of how Scotland deals with the issue was raised. Would there be any benefit in the Assembly having an office in the European Parliament to facilitate direct contact with the MEPs and others? How can MEPs best relate to, and tie in with, the Assembly and the Committee? Could the three MEPs adopt a joint approach and form part of the briefing process in the Assembly?
You have opened up a can of worms by asking that question.
I would not want to do that.
You raised what is probably the crunch issue as far as the Northern Ireland Executive Office is concerned. To some extent, you are asking whether that office is doing its job. You also asked whether the Northern Ireland Assembly requires direct representation. It would be absolutely ridiculous for both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly to have offices in Brussels. That is an odd suggestion, and you are missing the mark, if I may say so.
Surely the Committee should be asking the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which has responsibility for European affairs in the Assembly, what is the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive Office. What are that office’s responsibilities, to whom is it responsible and should the Committee not have a better input?
You must consider the origins of the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels. It was established many years ago when there was neither an Executive nor an Assembly. It started as a focus for raising awareness of Northern Ireland in Brussels, and councils and business were involved. Subsequently, however, it gravitated to its current status of Northern Ireland Executive Office under the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The office is staffed by civil servants and it, and they, are only as good as the remit that they are given to carry out their functions.
If Northern Ireland were to open a second office in Brussels, it would be overkill, and people would laugh at us. The Committee should sit down with those with the relevant responsibility in Northern Ireland. The Speaker raised with me the possibility of Assembly representation in Brussels when the President of the European Parliament was here, and I have given the matter some thought.
The Northern Ireland Executive Office will soon have to relocate, and, if extra resources were available, it would be sensible to strengthen its presence. Perhaps the Assembly could have a part of that new office in which an individual could work to the Assembly and to the Committee.
I do not want to be critical of you, Mr Chairman, or of the Committee, but you have been up and running for some time now, and you have visited Brussels only once, and we hardly ever see an Executive Minister. I am simply trying to be constructive; I am not being destructive, because I am criticising everyone. [Laughter.]
The Committee must go back to basics: start at home by asking whether the Northern Ireland Executive Office is properly directed at present to enable it to fulfil its functions and deliver everything that it can for Northern Ireland. There are two jobs to be done, one of which is the difficult job of keeping track of all the various directives that are being introduced. During the week, Tom Elliott’s office phoned me because the fishermen in Fermanagh are experiencing problems with eels. I am sorry, but Brussels dealt with that issue three years ago, and whatever decision was made then stands.
If something has happened to affect Northern Ireland that was not picked up on at the time, the decision has already been made — the horse is out of the box and away.
The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels should be dealing with newly emerging directives. For instance, an important Council of Europe meeting has just taken place to deal with matters such as climate change and European carbon footprints. Did Northern Ireland have an input to those discussions? Was the Assembly’s Minister of the Environment there to represent our interests? Members have demanded that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development be there to represent the fishermen, but the Minister of the Environment should also be at the table representing Northern Ireland on such big issues.
Many things are happening in Europe, and the Executive office’s job is to identify problems that might arise down the road for Northern Ireland. Members are aware of the problems that farmers encountered as a result of the nitrates directive, but although that directive is being implemented now, it went through Brussels in the early 1990s. That is the problem that we face; people seek to resolve problems after the damage has been done. We must be in there at the start, formulating policy and assessing how Northern Ireland will be affected, and that is why there must be co-operation between the Executive’s office and the UK’s permanent representatives, other Governments and, first and foremost, with Northern Ireland MEPs. Frankly — and I am sorry to say it — the relationship between the Assembly and Northern Ireland MEPs is worse now than it was under direct rule.
That was a robust contribution.
I am not being robust at all; I am merely stating the facts.
You are being thought provoking.
The question allowed me to be so.
I thank Jim for the demoralising message — we are not doing anything right.
The people in your office should have known better than to ring him. [Laughter.]
We will deal with that another time. Jim has been dealing with the matter that I was going to raise, concerning how we can influence EU legislation and regulations before they are implemented. That is our difficulty.
Moreover, Northern Ireland is a regional body; it is not a member state. Somebody asked whether Northern Ireland would be better to deal directly with Europe or through the UK, and you said that we should do both. Is doing that through the Northern Ireland Executive the best way, or is there another way? You said that Ministers are seldom there.
It would be better to say that they are not there often enough.
Are you suggesting that there is another way — apart from at Executive level — to interact with Europe? Should the Assembly have a Committee for Europe, or is there a better mechanism that we might use? In addition, how could support for the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels be bolstered?
It could always do with more staff. Although the number of staff that we have and what they are expected to cover cannot match the arrangements in the Scottish office, we should be on a par with the Welsh office. We will never be able to match what the Bavarians do, because we are not rich enough — we do not have Mercedes and BMWs. Nevertheless, you are right.
I am told that more than 70% of the legislation that the Assembly deals with originates in Brussels. Therefore, the Assembly must be in there attempting to influence legislation; otherwise, by the time it reaches the Assembly, debating and approving it is the only thing left to do. Furthermore, on its way here, legislation has probably gone through Whitehall.
Much of European legislation is concerned with implementation. Often, various member states implement the same directive differently. Some time ago, I dealt with a case involving the owner of a quarry in Newry who was being affected by the implementation of the waste oil directive. The man also owned a quarry in Dundalk. In Northern Ireland, he was told that the directive meant that, rather than heating up virgin oil for use in tarmacadam, he was not allowed to use waste oil. However, in the Republic, under the identically worded directive, he was allowed to use it. That is crazy, and such matters make the EU look bad.
Someone said earlier that when one goes to Europe and meets people, one finds an open door; one finds that people are prepared to talk, listen and respond. Members of the Assembly must set their own level, but that cannot be done from Belfast. It is similar to the problem that I have if I want to an Executive Minister; they always seem to want to meet me on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. However, my job is in Brussels, and I am normally in Brussels on those days. Therein lies the difficulty.
Members must get out there and realise the problems that others are encountering, because we are not the only people with problems. People from the other member states have the same attitudes and the same problems in dealing with Brussels; perhaps even more so than us on occasion.
The Assembly is a regionally elected body, which represents the people of Northern Ireland and covers a wide variety of policy and other areas. Brussels makes decisions, which the Assembly must implement, and it would be sensible for the Assembly to be there at the earliest possible juncture, picking up the directives when they are released by the Commission. Furthermore, those directives come from the Commission and are sent to the Parliament, which, in many areas, has the power of co-decision. Therefore, it would be sensible for the Assembly to be there and attempt to influence those directives, at that stage.
For example, I am currently working as a shadow rapporteur on a report for the regional affairs committee. That committee is trying to remove rural development from DARD, and return it to the area of regional policy, where it used to reside in the early 1990s. During Ray McSharry’s time, rural development became the second pillar in Europe, allowing the rural community to be supported. The only problem with that policy was that not enough money was set aside to create any tangible effect. I am trying to fight that policy at the moment, at that level.
The Assembly also needs to take such action and attempt to influence such decisions at an early stage. The Committee will know from working in the Assembly that if a decision is made, it is very difficult to change that decision, unless a glaring mistake was made.
The creation of policy in Europe involves a very long process. The REACH directive — and many of the other directives — may have been in discussion for anything up to three to four years. Therefore, those decisions are not reached quickly and the Assembly has plenty of time — at the early point of those discussions — to make your view known and to try to change those decisions if necessary.
Furthermore, there must be a better working co-operation among the Assembly, the Executive and the MEPs because, at the moment, we are not joined up. I recently had a meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister and I recommended that they — with their responsibility for Europe — should brief MEPs at least twice a year on the priorities of the Executive. I am also prepared meet with any other statutory Committee and deal with them. After all, the Assembly is elected by the same people who elected me, and we are all responsible to the same electorate. We are all trying to deliver the best that we can for that electorate, and there is not much point in our trying to compete with each other — we must co-operate.
I thank Mr Nicholson for attending today. To what capacity should Members of the Assembly and staff be raised in respect of European issues?
I have always believed that we are under-represented in Europe when compared to other regions. For example, many civil servants have travelled to Europe from the Republic of Ireland, and are now working for the European Commission. We have a dearth of such representation, with the exception of Ronnie Hall who is with the Directorate General for Regional Affairs. We have a number of other people working in the EU, but he is the most senior person from here. There were others in the past, but they have retired and left.
Young civil servants must be encouraged to go to Brussels to learn the system and to see how it works and operates. Hopefully, many of them will be encouraged to come back. However, they will not move to Brussels and uproot their families for three or four years, only to come back to find that their colleagues in the Department have been promoted and are ahead of them. They must be given incentives to encourage them to go to Brussels.
There are other ways, such as through UKRep . I am not sure whether there is anyone from Northern Ireland in UKRep at present. There may be one person. UKRep does not link up with us. That has been a difficulty for MEPs because, sometimes, UKRep’s priority is not Northern Ireland’s priority. We have differences with UKRep on some matters. The Northern Ireland Executive’s office also has that problem because UKRep will always be the supreme body that represents the United Kingdom in Brussels and will, certainly, continue to be.
Those avenues must be considered in order to encourage more people. It is quite a challenge for a young person who, perhaps, has a young family, to uproot them to Brussels. If they want to make a career there, that is different. Several people have done so successfully. However, they may want to return to Northern Ireland. Work must be done on that. More encouragement must be given. I use the word “encouragement”, but, perhaps, “incentives” is better.
What is UKRep?
It is the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union. Every Government has permanent representation in Brussels to deal with all the EU directives as they go through the co-decision process. UKRep is a massive body in Brussels. It will never allow the Scots, the Welsh or the Northern Irish to undermine its power. I have always said that we must work with them; however, we must prioritise our own concerns. Problems have arisen in agriculture and, at times, in regional development. On many other issues, however, there is no problem.
Thank you, Jim, for briefing the Committee. As regards 2009’s legislation and work programme, is any issue that might be important to Northern Ireland hurtling down the track?
Do you mean a financial issue where more funding could be identified for Northern Ireland?
Certainly, or any other important issue.
As far as finance is concerned, the cake is settled until 2013. We are aware of how much funding Northern Ireland will get from regional and structural funds. We are aware of how much we will get from the peace and reconciliation fund.
New ideas are always coming forward. One difficulty that we have — which we must accept, although it is not easy — is the fact that, to a large extent, Brussels’ eyes no longer look towards Northern Ireland. As far as Brussels is concerned, Northern Ireland is a done deal; it can forget about us. Its eyes look eastwards to the new member states. Regional funding is orientated towards eastern Europe.
In 1989, when I was elected to the European Parliament, there were 12 member states. There are now 27, soon to be 28. That is a big change. In fact, it is far too large, unwieldy and difficult to handle. One matter that is emerging, which they have not quite identified and have not come to grips with — and which we should try to influence — is the funding that will be available to Northern Ireland after 2013. Believe it or not, consideration must be given to that now.
In 2010, after the new Parliament and Commission have been returned, they will start to discuss structural funds; agricultural reform — Northern Ireland has just had an agricultural health check; future support for agriculture; milk quotas; and other such matters. At the end of 2010 and in early 2011, we will start to discuss those matters so that they can be dealt with by 2013. Therefore, Northern Ireland must consider them now. We need to consider from where we will get support if, say, peace funding does not continue.
There will be many people and projects out there without funding. I am sorry to have to say it, but you, as local politicians, will have to try to find alternatives for that funding. We need to identify areas where funding can continue.
Territorial cohesion is an interesting area that I have identified, and it could be useful if we can cover more than simply eastern Europe. As members will know, the cohesion fund was set up for countries such as the Republic, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Indeed, when people drove on the roads down South, they criticised me and my MEP colleagues for not getting more money for roads in Northern Ireland. If people go to Spain or Portugal on their holidays, they can also see the big highways that have been built there. However, the truth was that the money for roads in the Republic, Spain and Portugal were 85% funded by Brussels through the cohesion fund, and anyone knows that if 85% of a dual carriageway can be funded, the other 15% can always be found. Therefore, from that point of view, I feel that territorial cohesion could be introduced in the border regions, and it would be helpful if we could get it identified that we could ultimately apply for it. It will take a certain amount of work, but I am flagging that up as an area where we could look for extra funding.
Thank you. I welcome the frankness of your approach. Will you tell us about your experience of the Executive office in Brussels? Has it been a good experience? Is it proactive, or do you have to seek it out? Is there a two-way engagement? What type of communication process do you undertake back home to communicate to communities and people about the complications of the European process?
The Executive office has improved substantially over the years. However, it is only as good as the remit that it is given to deliver. Therefore, I do not know what responsibility it has, but, in the past, it was very much under the diktat of DFP. I am sure, as Assembly Members, you already know that the Department of Finance likes to try to control everything — it does not matter where you are or what organisation you are in. I do not have to seek its officials out. I have their telephone numbers and I can contact them, but I do not meet them every week, because that would be ridiculous. We meet as and when it is necessary, and I do not have any complaints about the Executive office and its contact with us.
The Executive office is excellent on the agriculture side, and it is also good in other areas. However, it is under-resourced, and extra money should be made available to it. If there are more people available, it will be more productive. The Executive office also has to facilitate organisations that come to Brussels. Many rural community and council delegations have come out from Northern Ireland, and a Northern Ireland Local Government Association delegation also came out. When new folk or Ministers come out, the office has to arrange all that. No one should underestimate the amount of work that it does, and it is working in a totally different political environment to the one in which we work. Therefore, it is a more open, accessible environment. However, I could be critical of the Executive, but it would be unfair of me to do so, because the Executive could do more with the resources that they have available. We could do more, and you could probably do more. We could all do more, and we could probably do things better than we do now. However, that normally comes with more information.
Locally, it is the most difficult thing in the world to get publicity for Europe. A couple of weeks ago, a reporter from the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ was in Brussels, and I asked him how we could get more publicity for Europe through the newspaper.
I recently got a lot of publicity in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ because I highlighted the problems that were being faced by beekeepers. Believe me, that is a very serious problem. However, it is very difficult to get publicity about climate change or environmental matters, for example. It is not the press’s fault, because they put in the paper what the people want to read, or what they interpret that the people want to read.
The best form of communication is through the local papers, such as the ‘Ulster Gazette’ or the ‘Portadown Times’. It is not always easy to get into them either, but I always find that reporters on local papers print a lot of information when they go back. Bringing a lot of reporters from many different areas out to Brussels is one of the things that we do well. Unfortunately, we do not get a great many people from the press and other media in Northern Ireland. One guy came out from the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ recently, but that is something that we could do a little bit better.
Eddie McVeigh, the head of the European Commission office in Belfast, brought a group of agriculture journalists to Brussels 10 or 12 months ago. They had a tremendous and very informative trip, and covered a great many areas. The truth is that all politicians are looking for political coverage. We are in competition with you, and you are in competition with us, and we are all in competition with Ministers. Everyone is in competition with one another, but there is only so much political coverage that a paper can provide. Unfortunately, Europe falls off the ledge, and you guys seem to get a better deal than we get.
Jim Allister gets quite a lot of coverage, but he does so because he criticises the DUP. He does not get it on European issues. I would probably appear on the front page if I criticised Danny Kennedy, Tom Elliott or Reg Empey. However, that does not represent constructive politics, nor does it deliver anything. I will not go down that road; I will stick to the constructive issues. I will try to promote Northern Ireland in Europe and do my best to get that message across locally. It is difficult; I do not pretend otherwise. We could go into every area, but there are 17 constituencies to cover in the whole of Northern Ireland. It is not easy being everywhere, doing one’s job in Europe and meeting constituents. It is a full-time job.
OK. It is a huge relief that you are not going to have a go at us.
It has been a very good session. Are there any further questions?
Can we get any more from the Barroso task force? When we were in Brussels, Ronnie Hall told us that a lot more funding was available. We were looking at Peace II and agriculture funds, but there are many other funding streams from which we are not drawing. How do we go about that?
We have had Peace I, II and III. That funding was achieved by me, John Hume and Dr Paisley when we went into Jacques Delors’s office after the ceasefires. He asked us how he could help, and we told him not to get involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, but that there were many projects that could assist areas of deprivation. That was the beginning of the peace funds, from which Northern Ireland has received more than £2 billion, over and above any other moneys.
The Barroso task force was a sham, in my opinion, because it did not deliver one extra euro. It has, perhaps, allowed Departments to use the money in a better way in the future. From that point of view, it is good. We had no input into the task force. I had one meeting with Commissioner Hübner in Belfast, but my views were not listened to. We missed a massive opportunity; we should have gone to Europe and asked for a substantial package to rebuild infrastructure and create better roads and sewerage systems, which are under pressure.
I think that that was needed; it should have been done, but a stroke was missed. We were not consulted. The three MEPs at the time had their own personal appointees involved in the formulation of the Peace I programme; on this occasion, we were not consulted or asked, and we were not listened to. From that point of view, I cannot be responsible. The task force does not provide one extra euro; it may redistribute the money of Departments better, but I have to ask why the Departments require that. If the Departments had been doing their job through the years, they should have figured that out themselves.
I attended a reception, at which I was impressed by the fairly extensive networking of some of the universities in the South. They had people permanently based in Europe, networking particularly on research and development programmes, and they were getting some substantial funding. I came back and mentioned it to the Committee for Employment and Learning, of which I was a member at the time. Have you any ideas on how we could further encourage that? There is an area, particularly in research and development, which could be tapped into.
I totally agree with you 100%. Research and development is one area in which our universities do very well. They are not lagging behind; they have mastered that a long time ago. Even some of the larger companies are also very good.
I always say that the farmers were the first people to recognise how important Europe was; the Bureau de l’Agriculture Britannique was established to represent farmers in Brussels, and it does an excellent job. Then there are industries such as Harland and Wolff, and Bombardier. When Bombardier is having problems, it comes to Europe, because research and development is very important to it. That is an area in which we can gain tremendously from the new framework directive. We need to be more proactive on that. You are right to state that we must look at those other areas of funding and other areas in which we gain support from Europe, and where Europe is changing its attitudes away from the begging-bowl mentality — I may be using the wrong phrase — but we do not want that mentality. We want to hold our heads high.
I genuinely believe that we from Northern Ireland have a lot to offer the rest of Europe. We have come through tremendous difficulties and survived. That expertise that we have developed in building up from the bottom is something that Europe needs very badly. Our councils and NGOs can bring their ideas into the new emerging member states of Europe, and even into areas outside of the 27 member states — some of them are already doing it, and doing a tremendous job. We should do more in that area to give something back and not always be looking for something. That is also a responsibility. I agree that research and development is an area in which we can do more, and do it better.
Thank you very much; your comments have been very useful.
I hope that I was not too frank. I thought it better just to answer the questions that the Committee wanted to ask me, rather than giving the Committee a lot of what I think it may want to hear.
Thank you very much indeed. Those of us who have known you for a long time knew what to expect, and you did not disappoint. If there is any other information that you wish to provide as part of the Committee’s inquiry, we would be happy to receive that. Thank you for your attendance today.
I look forward to your next visit to Brussels, Mr Chairman; I look forward to many of them, and am quite happy to come here and meet you anytime, but you have got to spend a few pounds and keep coming out there.