Relations between the European Parliament and national parliaments
The European Parliament (EP) and national parliaments cooperate in a growing number of ways. Under Rule 24 of the Parliament's Rules of Procedure, the Conference of Presidents is responsible for relations with the member states' national parliaments. More specifically, these activities are carried out under the authority of the Parliament president, currently Jerzy Buzek, by several EP vice presidents.
In theory, the European Parliament's stated intention is "to collaborate with the national parliaments in constructive partnership for the good of our nations and of the whole European Union".
"Based on the complementary nature of the responsibilities of the European Parliament and the national parliaments, the objective of the European Parliament is to develop overlapping networks in order to promote more parliamentary accountability and transparency and handle efficiently its links with national parliaments."
In practice, the European Parliament seeks to keep national parliaments fully informed of its activities. Moreover, a number of EP committees regularly invite national MPs to their meetings, to share their knowledge and expertise when discussing policy proposals.
Indeed, Joint Parliamentary Meetings and Joint Committee Meetings have today become a regular form of cooperation between national parliaments and the European Parliament.
Joint Parliamentary Meetings (JPMs) are meetings on broad political topics, which are organised and chaired jointly by the parliament of the country holding the EU
presidency and the European Parliament.
Joint Committee Meetings (JCMs) are meetings on specific political and sectoral issues. They are organised and chaired jointly by the relevant sectoral committee or committees of the parliament of the member state holding the EU Presidency and the relevant committee of the European Parliament.
Apart from this, members of national parliaments regularly visit different committees of their interest in the European Parliament. Also, the EU assembly provides organised thematic visits for members and officials of national parliaments
With the Lisbon Treaty now in force, the European Parliament's rules of procedure will be amended to incorporate new details on how MEPs and national parliaments will cooperate from now on.
• Conference of European Community Affairs Committees (COSAC)
COSAC is a biannual conference, enhancing cooperation between European affairs committees from national parliaments and representatives of the European Parliament.
At COSAC's biannual meetings, six members represent each parliament. In addition, the national parliaments from candidate and acceding countries are invited to participate, bringing three observers each. COSAC meetings normally take place twice a year, in the capital of the country holding the rotating six-month EU presidency.
A number of factors led to COSAC's creation, notably a feeling of loss of contact with Community policies in many national parliaments after the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Indeed, at the time of COSAC's creation, not all national parliaments had specialised European affairs committees, strengthening the sense that contact had been lost with EU legislators.
COSAC was created in May 1989 at a meeting in Madrid, where the speakers of the parliaments of EU member states agreed to strengthen the role of national parliaments in the EU by bringing together their European affairs committees. The first meeting of COSAC took place in Paris in November 1989.
COSAC was formally recognised in a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty, which was concluded by heads of state or government in June 1997. The protocol came into force on 1 May 1999.
According to this protocol, COSAC is allowed to address to the EU institutions any "contributions" which it deems necessary.
• The Conference of the Speakers of the European Union Parliaments
The Conference brings together speakers from the parliaments of EU member states and the president of the European Parliament. At its annual meetings, the speakers discuss overall EU matters and in particular inter-parliamentary EU activities. The presidency of this Conference is not held in parallel to the EU presidencies as in the case of COSAC, but is slightly harmonised with it. The organisation of the Conference is set up in accordance with the Guidelines for the Conference of Presiding Officers.
The Speakers at their meeting on 22-24 September 2000 in Rome also adopted Guidelines for Inter-parliamentary Cooperation, which aim to promote the exchange of information and best practice between national parliaments and the European Parliament with a view to reinforcing parliamentary control, influence and scrutiny at all levels. The guidelines were amended at the Speakers Conference meeting on 19-21 June 2008 in Lisbon.
• Interparliamentary Information Exchange (IPEX)
IPEX is a website designed to support interparliamentary cooperation in the EU. This is done by "providing a platform for the electronic exchange of EU-related information between parliaments in the Union".
Basically, IPEX allows national parliaments to publish any relevant documents on a pan-European website, keeping MPs abreast of to key policy issues.
According to the website, "exchanging EU information among parliaments has become increasingly important during the past decade. In order to facilitate the flow of information, national parliaments - in cooperation with the European Parliament - have created their own database and website".
IPEX contains a calendar of interparlimentary meetings and also seeks exchanges of views on "subsidiarity control", the notion defined in Article 5 of the EU Treaty whereby decisions are to be taken as closely as possible to the citizen (see below).
Relations between the European Commission and national parliaments
The European Commission has long understood, and has often stated publicly in recent decades, that a key strategy to halt the EU's declining legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens is through greater involvement of national and European parliaments in EU policymaking.
One important result of this thinking was the emergence of subsidiarity, the principle whereby the Union does not take action unless it is more effective than that taken at national, regional or local level. Specifically, the Europa website describes it as "the principle whereby the Union does not take action (except in the areas which fall within its exclusive competence) unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level".
Since the start of discussions on a European Constitution and the subsequent Lisbon Treaty, the Commission has taken the initiative of consulting national parliamentarians when reflecting on new directives. However, national parliaments are still a long way from being involved in all discussions.
In recent years, the European Commission has employed the 'Barroso initiative', whereby legislative proposals are systematically sent to national parliaments for inspection at the same time as they are submitted to the EU institutions. Indeed, according to the Commission's annual report for 2008, its "dialogue with national parliaments constitutes a process which is increasingly part and parcel of the EU's institutional practices".
From September 2006 until the end of 2008, the Commission received 368 opinions from 33 chambers in 24 member states. Given that 200 opinions were received in 2008 (as opposed to 168 between September 2006 and the end of 2007), Commission officials argue that the "political dialogue between the Commission and national parliaments would now appear to have become more standard practice".
Of the 368, the majority contributors were:
- Portugal (Assembleia da Republica) - 84
- France (Sénat) - 53
- Germany (Bundestag) - 39
- UK (House of Lords) - 33
- Denmark (Folketing) - 23
- Czech Republic (Senát) - 22
In its report, the Commission noted that since September 2006, only seven assemblies have not participated in this dialogue – the lower and upper assemblies in Spain and Romania, the Maltese parliament, the Austrian Nationalrat and the Slovenian Državni svet.
According to COSAC's seventh bi-annual report, a majority of parliaments considers that the new mechanism has brought added value to their dialogue with the Commission, particularly because it established a new formal channel of communication that did not exist before.
In a December 2009 letter to speakers of the EU's 40 upper and lower chambers of parliament, Barroso 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'), explicitly mentioning 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 of a proposal's compliance with the principle of subsidiarity.
Lisbon Treaty: National Parliaments grow even stronger
The Lisbon Treaty, in force since 1 December 2009, is intended to strengthen and expand further the role of national parliaments.
To begin with, Lisbon represents the first time that an EU treaty has contained a specific article acknowledging the role of national parliaments in the EU. Article 12 of the Treaty reads: "National parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union."
Most notably, the treaty introduces the right to raise objections to Commission proposals via the so-called 'yellow and orange card' procedure (EURACTIV 09/05/08). This is essentially a means for national parliaments to enforce more stringently the principle of subsidiarity. Here is how it works:
- If one third of national parliaments agree that an EU legislative proposal (usually from the Commission) breaches the subsidiarity principle, the EU executive is then obliged to reconsider it. This is known as the 'yellow card'.
- If the Commission maintains its proposal but a simple majority of national parliaments continue to object, the Commission refers the objection to the Council and the Parliament, which will then decide upon the matter. This is known as the 'orange card'.
However, it should be noted that opinions are divided as to whether this genuinely constitutes additional power: national parliaments cannot ultimately veto a new proposal, instead merely being able to express their disapproval.
The Lisbon Treaty also:
- Gives national parliaments an enhanced right to information.
- Gives national parliaments new powers to scrutinise policy in the areas of freedom, justice and security, with powers for one or more national parliaments to veto proposals.
- Increases the time allowed for national parliaments to scrutinise draft law from six to eight weeks. If a parliament objects within that timeframe, it is then invited to send "a reasoned opinion stating why it considers that the draft in question does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity".
- Includes a new clause describing all the formal functions of national parliaments in relation to EU affairs.
The treaty also defines the role of COSAC in EU policy formation and suggests that COSAC promotes the exchange of information and best practice between national parliaments and the European Parliament, and may submit any contribution it deems appropriate for the attention of the EU legislator.