National and regional parliaments bet on Timmermans’ task force to gain clout

COR President Karl-Heinz Lambertz speaking at the 8th Subsidiarity conference [Daniela Vincenti]

A few weeks after the European Commission launched yet another task force to look at ways to improve legislative scrutiny, representatives of national and regional parliaments mulled new ideas to put more flesh on subsidiarity.

“Cities and regions can act as a bridge between the EU institutions and the everyday concerns of our citizens, as people across Europe have the highest trust in their local and regional authorities” said Committee of the Regions president Karl-Heinz Lambertz during a conference on Monday (4 December) in Vienna, hosted by the Austrian Federal Council and the Committee of the Regions.

It almost went unnoticed but Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker set up last month (14 November) a Task Force on Subsidiarity and Proportionality, which by Mid-July 2018 will have to identify policy areas where decision-making or implementation could be – in whole or in part – returned to member states.

Rethinking subsidiarity

In this process, the taskforce, chaired by Commission First-Vice-President Frans Timmermans and including three MEPs, three MPs and three regional representatives, will mull  recommendations on how to better involve national, regional and local decision-makers.

Juncker said it in his State of the Union speech: The EU should be big on big issues, small on small ones and return competences to member states.

The subsidiarity principle aims to ensure that decisions are taken as close as possible to the citizen and that the EU does not take action unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level. The proportionality principle limits the exercise of the EU’s powers to what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties.

Lambertz was not shy in saying that he also saw the task force as an exercise to bring more clarity on “what kind of Europe we want to go for in the future and come up with clear proposals in view of the European elections in spring 2019”.

Early Warning System in question

National parliaments have been clear already. Although, they have gained greater clout with the Lisbon Treaty, which granted them the right to scrutinise legislation and flag any breaches of subsidiarity through the Early Warning System, they stand ready to reform inter-parliamentary and inter-institutional engagement.

“The taskforce is a step in the right direction,” said French Senator Jean Bizet, chairman of the Committee for European Affairs. “But subsidiarity control must not become a legal fundamentalism where form takes precedence over substance.”

The Early Warning System, with the yellow and orange cards, has indeed been activated only on three occasions since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty seven years ago and MPs are eager to reflect on whether that represents today the right path for the enhancement of the relationship between EU institutions and national parliaments.

Even though it has pushed national MPs to get much more involved in EU decision-making, it is seen as a passive controlling system rather than a positive injection of new political ideas.

Thank you Barroso

Much more effective, some say, has been the informal political dialogue between the Commission and the national parliaments. Initially launched by former Commission President José Manuel Barroso in May 2006 after the devastating French and Dutch referendums, the political dialogue has been an immediate success, say experts in the European Parliament.

The vast majority of opinions transmitted by national parliaments – between 87% and 97% – have indeed been contributions and opinions unrelated to the breach of subsidiarity.

As Bizet noted, national parliaments want to play an active role in EU affairs and they interpret subsidiarity in a more political way.

One of the proposals coming out of the taskforce could indeed be a ‘green card’ system, which should allow national MPs to invite the Commission to adopt a legislative proposal, similar to the ones held by MEPs.

“Subsidiarity is a political act,” Bizet insisted, stressing that the EU should be less bureaucratic and allow all levels to participate in decision-making in policy areas where it does matter.

Regionalism through a ‘Senate of the regions’

Edgar Mayer, president of the Austrian Federal Council, went even further that proper subsidiarity will take “this ground away from growing nationalism.”

“We need to oppose separatism and nationalism with a regionalism that respects the principles of freedom, equal rights and the rule of law,” Mayer said.

Raffaele Cattaneo, president of Italy’s Lombardia Regional Council, called susbsidiarity a Copernican revolution that has not been seized fully.

Noting that subsidiarity is reduced at the moment to a control system, Cattaneo said there needs to be a more structured dialogue between regional, national and EU parliaments.

He boldly pushed the idea of turning the Committee of the regions into what he calls a Senate of the regions, a chamber of territories that could play a valuable role at EU level as it will bring the specificites of the territories into the decision-making process.

“What we need is a Europe based on multigovernance which makes sure that lawmaking at all levels has its autonomy. If we fail, we run the risk of seeing a bigger gap between the citizens and EU institutions,” he added.

Background

The subsidiarity and proportionality principles are enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union. The Lisbon Treaty introduced a mechanism allowing national parliaments to scrutinise the compliance of draft EU legislation with the principle of subsidiarity.

Via the early warning system" national parliaments have eight weeks in which to submit reasons for which they believe a piece of draft legislation does not comply with the subsidiarity principle.

If the number of reasoned opinions amounts to one third of the votes allocated to national parliaments, the European have eight weeks in which to submit reasons for which they believe a piece of draft legislation does not comply with the subsidiarity principle. If the number of reasoned opinions amounts to one third of the votes allocated to national parliaments, the European Commission's draft must be reviewed.