In the letter to speakers of the EU's 40 upper and lower chambers of parliament, seen by EurActiv, Barroso and outgoing Vice-President Margot Wallström explain that "the new treaty recognises the central importance of national parliaments in the democratic fabric of the EU".
For the first time "national parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union," they write, providing them with a means to make the European Union "more democratic and more transparent".
The letter argues that the outgoing Commission has been "a strong advocate of an increased role for national parliaments," citing the 500 meetings with national parliaments between 2004 and 2010, and highlighting the "enthusiastic response" from parliaments to the so-called 'Barroso initiative'.
This mechanism, adopted during the "period of reflection" that followed the 2005 rejection of the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands, transmitted directly all new proposals and consultation papers to national parliaments, "inviting them to react so as to improve the process of policy formulation".
Between the start of this new initiative in 2006 and the end of 2008, national parliaments transmitted some 368 opinions to the Commission. Of these, 84 were sent by the Portuguese Assembleia da Republica, 53 by the French Sénat, 39 by the German Bundestag, 33 by the UK's House of Lords, 23 by the Danish Folketinget and 22 by the Czech Senate.
However, as one parliament official told EurActiv, these statistics do not tell the full picture, as in some cases they simply related to a parliament informing the Commission of its approval on a given proposal.
Some parliaments 'nowhere near ready'
With these changes now in place, the big question in Brussels is how actively parliaments will use these new opportunities. As shown above, while some parliaments have been extremely enthusiastic in exploiting the 'Barroso initiative', others have remained conspicuously silent.
The general attitude among European Parliament officials contacted by EurActiv seems to be 'you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink'. In other words, it is up to the parliaments to make the most of the new rules encouraging their participation in EU decision-making.
A leading parliamentary source, speaking to EurActiv on condition of anonymity, said that some parliaments have been "very actively preparing" for the changes, while others are "nowhere near being ready for the Lisbon Treaty".
If these less prepared chambers do not get to grips with this soon, they risk falling badly behind their counterparts, the source said. "I think the better-prepared parliaments are helping their colleagues who are struggling," the source added optimistically.
European and national parliaments in talks
Meanwhile, officials from both European and national parliaments are busily preparing plans to formalise how they will interact now the Lisbon Treaty is in force. On 12 December, an extraordinary meeting of the EU parliamentary speakers conference will take place in Stockholm to debate the details how the European Parliament and national parliaments will cooperate.
The European Parliament rules of procedure will be amended to take the results of this meeting into account. The groundwork for the speakers' meeting will take place in Brussels next Monday (7 December) in a meeting of the secretaries-general of the European and national parliaments.
"This is entirely new territory, and new procedures and mechanisms are therefore needed," the Parliament source concluded.
Practical measures for smoother cooperation
Besides these commitments, Barroso's letter details a number of practical ways in which the Commission intends to improve the flow of information with national chambers.
- The Commission will send all its consultation documents and draft legislative acts to national parliaments electronically, at the same time as they are sent to the European Parliament and/or the Council.
- Draft legislative acts falling under the scope of the subsidiarity control mechanism, i.e. all draft legislative acts in the field of shared competences, will be accompanied by a transmission letter ("lettre de saisine"), mentioning explicitly the procedure referred to in Protocol No 2 of the treaty and specifying the deadline concerned.
- At the end of each week, the Commission will send a reminder of documents that have been sent to each national parliament in the course of the preceding week. Should the non-receipt of a document by a national parliament have an impact on the deadline mentioned in Protocol No 2, the Commission will fix a new deadline on an ad-hoc basis, taking into account the respective delay, and inform the national parliament accordingly. For any other national parliament, the original deadline will apply.
- In order to take account of national parliaments' summer recesses, the Commission considers that the month of August should not be taken into account when determining these deadlines.
- The Commission invites national parliaments to distinguish in their opinions as far as possible between subsidiarity aspects and comments on the substance of a proposal, and to be as clear as possible as regards their assessment on a proposal's compliance with the principle of subsidiarity.