Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 25 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Francie Molloy

Witnesses:

Dr Lee McGowan, Queen’s University Belfast

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

Let us move now to consideration of EU issues. I welcome Dr Lee McGowan from Queen’s University, who will provide evidence in respect of the Committee’s European inquiry.

Dr McGowan, I apologise for keeping you waiting and hope that you have not been too inconvenienced. The Committee looks forward to your presentation, after which you will perhaps make yourself available to take questions. The good news for you is that the number of members present has decreased.

Dr Lee McGowan (Queen’s University Belfast):

Thank you very much. Given the time of day, I will make just a brief presentation and give the Committee my thoughts on this thing called the European Union.

The European Union is a political construct — a point I will return to later — agreed by member-state Governments. Two key words to always bear in mind when thinking of the European Union are “evolution” and “expansion”. The European Union is continuing to evolve; where it will go, we can leave to a later date. It has also continued to expand: there were six states involved in the early days and that has now grown to 27. More states are waiting in the wings to join. The European Union is also expanding with regard to policy competences, and we will look at some of those later.

What do the treaties actually do? They create a new tier of European governance — not “Government” but “governance”.

How does one think of the European Union? It is a political system, and political scientists talk about the different types of political system. The EU meets the criteria for a political system. It has institutions: you will be familiar with the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament, the courts and others. A whole range of groups are trying to influence the system from outside — a range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), business groups, trade unions, women’s groups, environmental groups, and so on. The system of European governance creates policy outputs. We need to ask where it is producing policy outputs and why it does so at those levels. In other words, we need to ask why they are in the treaties, because it is the treaties that provide the answers to those questions.

If we examine the policy base that currently exists in the European Union, we can divide it into three main types. First, there are exclusive competences — there are only five of those. They are the areas where the Commission is in main control. It includes the huge area of the euro and the European Central Bank. The Commission also negotiates trade policies on behalf of the member states, which they then sign off. It is also responsible for the lovely and exciting area of maintaining the customs union, and the even more juicy area of conservation and fisheries. The fifth such aspect is huge: it is the whole area of competition policy and antitrust, which includes mergers, cartels and state aids. There is not too much that regional bodies can do with those policies. They can try to contact and influence the Commission.

In the second group, there is quite a bit more scope to try to influence. Those are shared competences, and they include agriculture, environment and fisheries. In those areas, the Commission, Council and Parliament work together with national assemblies, regional assemblies and a whole range of interest groups that are trying to influence policy outcomes.

In the third area, EU influence is marginal. It includes health and education. Traditionally, they always have been areas of member-state control. They are huge and costly, and will remain under member-state control. The EU does, however, dabble on the fringes of them.

One point to consider is whether people view the EU as important and whether they are aware of its output. When candidates canvass the voting public, I guess that the main issues that they are asked about are housing, education, health, and social security. The EU does not really deal with those issues at all, and that will not change in a major way. Therefore, how do we as citizens of this region, or other regions, begin to identify with the European Union?

One thing that strikes me about this part of the world in particular, and the UK for that matter, is that the level of knowledge about the EU system — what it does and why, and what it should or should not do — is pretty low. Among the old 15 member states, we have one of the worst records for lack of knowledge about, and poor attitudes towards, the European Union.

Communication is a problem. Who communicates what the EU actually does? Who should communicate that information? It is debatable whether it should be the Commission or the member states. Is there a role for regional authorities, such as the Northern Ireland Assembly, to look at and explain what the European Union does? Given that the South is moving towards a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, how do we begin to explain — not sell — the EU to people, and enlighten and inform them about what it is, why it is there, and why it matters, or why it should matter?

That is my basic introduction. The Committee can develop those points from here.

The Chairperson:

Your presentation has been very thought-provoking. You identified a particular problem with people’s attitude towards, and information about, the EU. Are we at the bottom of the league in that respect? Do you sense that other European countries have an equally lazy or poor attitude towards the EU, or are we pretty much the worst?

Dr McGowan:

The European Commission produces a twice-yearly report on the Eurobarometer surveys, which is a good starting tool to use when looking at opinions on the European Union. There are issues with regard to the latest member states. However, of the old EU 15 member states, before the latest wave of enlargement, the two countries that were at the bottom of the list as regards knowledge of, and interest in, the European Union were the UK, which was at the very bottom, and Sweden. Ireland was placed much higher on the list.

The Chairperson:

Do you think that that is a matter for the United Kingdom, as the sovereign state that represents this part of Europe, to address? Is it the UK Government’s role to promote better awareness of, and uptake within, Europe, or is there a clearly defined role for a regional assembly, such as the Northern Ireland Assembly, to do so?

Dr McGowan:

It can come from both sides. First, the UK Government, as with all Governments, should be responsible for trying to explain what they have signed up to and what the EU is all about and why it is needed. I do not think that that can come from the European Commission. In the mid-1970s, the UK held its only referendum in its history to date for people to decide whether it should remain in the European Economic Community, as it was called then. The European Commission campaigned for a “Yes” vote in that referendum, but it was rapped on the knuckles afterwards and told that it could not do that. Certainly, since the UK joined in 1973, the UK Government — Labour and Conservative Administrations — have never really tried to explain, in any systematic fashion, what the EU is all about.

The Government’s task now is a huge mountain to climb, when one considers the opinion polls commissioned by newspapers about the UK joining the euro, or signing up to the Constitution, which has now been reworked and become the Lisbon Treaty. If there were to be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the UK, it looks as though it would be lost by a rather large majority. In a regional sense, there is also scope to identify the areas that are crucial to this part of the world and then to say why the EU matters in that particular policy area.

Mr I McCrea:

I thank you for coming along. You obviously have an extensive knowledge of European issues.

What role does Queen’s University specifically play in working with other universities across Europe? For example, how can students gain more knowledge from working in other parts of Europe or with other European universities? Is much of that happening currently?

Dr McGowan:

I can speak only for my part of the university, but there are other schools in the university that may have other schemes. The School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University has a series of agreements with other universities across the European Union that allows us to send students to them for a semester or a year abroad. The issue is that it is really difficult to get students to go. I do not know why that is the case.

Money could also be an issue but, because the arrangement is reciprocal in many ways, the students do not have to pay anything extra beyond the cost of living, so we really encourage them to go wherever possible. One of the real issues with a lot of students is the language element. We note that more and more students doing politics do not have a language at A level. In the past, it was possible to have seminar classes in which we looked at ‘El País’, ‘Le Monde’, or ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’ for Spanish, French, and German views of different aspects of policy, but that possibility seems to have gone for the moment. What we have in place is a series of options whereby students can go to Scandinavia and are taught in English alongside their Swedish and Dutch counterparts. The language issue is very important as it may give students a competitive advantage. One could make the case that we need to get more students learning languages again.

Mr Molloy:

Thank you very much for coming to the Committee. Can you give us examples of how Queen’s University is drawing down funding from Europe to develop its role in Europe and its involvement with European institutions?

In relation to the implications of the Lisbon Treaty being ratified, do you think that we should have a referendum here as well?

Dr McGowan:

That depends on what you want the outcome to be. The Lisbon Treaty, as a document, is absolutely uninspiring. It would be wonderful to stand back and watch, as a casual observer, politicians here try to sell it on the doorsteps when it comes to election time. As specialist academics studying the EU system, we can understand why the Governments think that the treaty makes sense, and we can try to work out whether they are right. However, to explain that document, one really needs to know how the EU works at the moment. Again, opinion polls indicate that people do not seem to know that.

We talk about why public opinion is so low — that could be the fault of the Government; however, if you think of the newspapers that you may read, it is clear that the media has a huge role to play in that. The media’s defence is always that it gives people what they want to read, but that creates a circle in many ways — the media should be informing people as well. The only paper that I think covers the EU in any detailed fashion is the ‘Financial Times’, which is the paper that I advise or encourage my students to at least look at. There seems to be so little extensive coverage in much of the UK media.

I cannot say what sort of grants the rest of Queen’s University has. There are various Seventh Framework programme (FP7) projects under way across the university. The School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy is a Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence, which means that we have had funding from the European Commission to do various educational programmes and to assist with various modules. We have recently submitted another proposal under the Jean Monnet scheme. As a school we have close links to different parts of the European Commission. One of my colleagues is part of a European research network that holds a multimillion award from the European Union, under FP7, to look at the issue of gender in the European Union, but that is something that we would need to go much further with. The university can provide the Committee with exact information on all the various projects that are funded from Europe currently.

Mr Molloy:

We are often accused of gold-plating legislation. Is there any indication that the British Government gold-plated more legislation than any of the other European Governments?

Dr McGowan:

That would require an area-by-area breakdown, looking at what each of the Governments actually does with the legislation. The European Union is a good safety valve for Government as well — sometimes it is good for Government to blame the EU for something, or deny all knowledge that something is their fault. Sometimes one would like to get some of those Minister back and really give them —

Mr Elliott:

Politicians would never do that.

Dr McGowan:

A classic and relevant example is fisheries policy. Quite often, press reports indicate that the European Commission is responsible for fisheries policy. However, it is not the European Commission that takes decisions here — it is the Council and the fisheries Ministers. Bad-news stories are quite often blamed on the EU. However, let us not get too carried away — there are certain things that the EU should be criticised for; it is not a perfect organisation and it has its faults. We should learn about the faults and the good things at the same time.

The Chairperson:

Steady now. We do not want the truth to be told. [Laughter.]

Mr Elliott:

Dr McGowan, your presentation was very interesting. The question that always exercises me is how can we, as a regional Government and Assembly, influence decision-making in Europe? That is the crux of the issue — a lot of our legislation comes from Europe. How do we influence that at an early stage?

Dr McGowan:

Representatives from a region such as this have to sit down and identify which policy areas are particularly important for them as a region. The EU has a huge remit: it covers everything from agriculture all the way through to veterinary standards. It is simply impossible to consider all of those policy areas. In many ways, representatives must cherry-pick which policies they think have the most impact or are the most useful to this particular part of the world. Those could be agriculture, fisheries or environment policies.

The representatives would then begin a process of linking in, because — taking the environment as an example — they do not want to be in a situation in which they are being reactive. The UK Government will have been involved in, and will have agreed to, the laws that come from Brussels, and, before we know it, a directive will be staring us in the face and will be implemented. Representatives here must be more proactive by getting together — the centrepiece could be the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels — and identifying certain policies as they emerge, so that their concerns about the issues are voiced at an early stage.

They could also work with other bodies that are represented in Brussels. To what extent are the three MEPs involved in the process of policy-making in the EU institutions? It is also important for the MEPs to establish good relations with the EU institutions such as parts of the European Commission that are directly relevant — for example, the environment or agriculture. In addition, that is important because there is a great deal of interaction among the EU states. That happens all the time, so goodwill could be built up with other states regarding the way that we do business. A large part of how the EU works is from goodwill and trade-offs.

The member states essentially control the system through all the various committees and the comitology committees and the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper). They are trading off and bargaining all the time. I have never seen it done, but if one polled EU members and drew up a balance sheet, I very much doubt that all member states would tick every single box, from agriculture all the way down to veterinary standards. They would be in favour of some aspects and against others, but the overall assessment would be that the process is worthwhile because they are getting something out of it.

It is about trying to engage with institutions by using our local representatives — those could be the MEPs or members of the Committee of the Regions, or the Economic and Social Committee. However, it is also really important to build relations with other parts of Europe, particularly other parts or regions of the European Union that may have exactly the same type of issues confronting them as we do.

For example, a region that has always appeared to be very similar to here is part of the former East Germany called Mecklenburg-East Pomerania. It has roughly the same size of population, and is heavily agricultural. It is also having major problems with unemployment because no main producers are based there. Those links should be made.

To give the Committee an idea, there are currently about 250 different regional authorities resident in Brussels. They are all trying to network and build up contacts so that they can influence policy. If, for example, a Directorate General environment issue arose, those groups would try to shape the policy and voice their opposition to certain aspects of the proposals.

Mrs D Kelly:

Thank you. I welcome Lee here this afternoon. Do you believe that the Barroso task force report highlighted opportunities that have not yet been grasped; particularly in relation to the Seventh Framework programme and the opportunity for universities? What is Queen’s doing about that?

Dr McGowan:

I can only give you the view of the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy. We are heavily involved in FP7 research, and some of my colleagues are considering the possibilities of research applications under the next framework programme, which will come into play in 2010-11. An essential part of securing that funding is linking and building networks with other universities. That has been part of the way that universities have changed themselves over the past 10 or 20 years. Networks with other universities are crucial to obtaining the grants from the European Union or other bodies on which we depend heavily.

There is a lot to be done with regard to seizing opportunities in the Barroso task force report. The report is a good foundation on which to build, but more action on the ground is needed.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much, Dr McGowan. Your evidence has been very informative.

Dr McGowan:

It was fast and furious.

The Chairperson:

For all that, it was very good.

Dr McGowan:

There are so many issues to cover.

The Chairperson:

The Committee may well seek either clarification or further information from you on a range of the issues that we discussed. The Committee may also try to obtain from the university some information on practical engagement that is has on drawing down funds and engaging in programmes with Europe.

Dr McGowan:

The person to contact is Trevor Newsom, who deals with all external links and grants that go through the university.

The Chairperson:

That is very helpful. Thank you.

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