National Parliaments and the EU

National_Parliaments.jpg

National parliaments have come to play an increasingly important role in the functioning of the EU, cooperating with the European Commission and the European Parliament as well as with each other. The Lisbon Treaty further strengthens their influence on EU decision-making.

Background

European integration has continued to widen and deepen with successive EU treaties, transferring more powers from national to European level. 

As a result, national parliaments have been left more and more "out of the loop" in EU decision-making. Furthermore, the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979 meant that many national parliaments felt increasingly disconnected from European Community policies (in the early days, the European Parliament was comprised of national MPs on a 'double mandate'). 

Therefore, while the primary role of national parliaments is to scrutinise their own governments (including their positions in Council), a number of steps have been taken to re-engage the chambers in the EU policy process. 

COSAC (the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union) came into being in 1989, on the initiative of Laurent Fabius, then speaker for the French Assemblée Nationale. COSAC sought the establishment of an inter-parliamentary body composed of members of national parliaments specialising in European affairs. 

With the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the European Union acquired competence in areas which had traditionally been a national preserve, such as justice and home affairs. For this reason, the importance of exchanges between national parliaments and the European Parliament was underlined in a declaration on the role of national parliaments in the European Union (source: Europa glossary). 

The Amsterdam Treaty went a step further, making it obligatory for all Commission consultation documents to be promptly forwarded to national parliaments, which then have a six-week period to discuss a legislative proposal. 

Finally, the Lisbon Treaty, in force since 1 December 2009, provides new powers for national parliaments to scrutinise EU legislation, enhancing their role in EU decision-making (EURACTIV 02/12/09). 

Issues

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. 

Interparliamentary relations

• 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.

Positions

In a November 2009 speech, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek  said that the Lisbon Treaty will improve the EU's democratic functioning, for national parliaments and citizens alike, noting that "increased contacts between the European Parliament and the national parliaments, citizens' initiatives, Question Hour with the Commission and online streaming of the Committee meetings should help bring our activities closer to the citizens".

In a September 2009 interview  with EURACTIV, outgoing European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, responsibile for institutional relations and communication strategy, explained that the Barroso initiative "built a very different understanding of the Commission in the parliaments," noting however that this new perception needs to "trickle down the political parties and change the democratic culture in every member state". 

Wallström admitted that much of the Commission's work is boring for citizens, but it is definitely valuable for national parliaments as the legislative texts impact on their work. "We have never before had so many commissioners visiting member states' parliaments and engaging in debate," she said, but argued that "we are still far from adopting a common narrative". 

Highlighting the EU's commitment to improving relations with national parliaments, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso explained that the Lisbon Treaty seeks to "create a direct political relationship between national parliaments and European institutions, including of course the Commission". 

Praising the improvements already made in communication between the Commission and national chambers, Barroso said "our contacts with national parliaments suggest that they have found it useful in three ways: providing an opportunity for national parliaments to take a more proactive attitude about European issues; the right of information; and leaving national parliaments better placed to scrutinise their own governments. The interest of national parliaments in using this new mechanism is also a proof of your commitment to the European Union". 

Italian MEP Gianni Pitella said the Lisbon Treaty will bring "profound changes" to the role of national parliaments in the EU, noting that they will be far more involved in the earlier stages of EU policymaking. He added that Europe is now something the media will pay ever more attention to, given that European policy should now be effectively "treated as domestic policy".

However, researchers from the Centre for European Policy Studies  (CEPS) in Brussels, claimed that the new powers of the national parliaments under the Lisbon Treaty are "not providing national parliaments with a very proactive role". 

Comparing these provisions to "an emergency brake," the CEPS experts described them as "an inherently defensive instrument". 

According to Sebastian Kurpas of CEPS, most parliaments lack the capacity to follow everything the EU does and will find themselves overwhelmed by the complex task of forging a sufficiently broad alliance with other parliaments to block EU legislation. 

"If they get their act together, they could trigger a procedure to stop a legislative initiative of the Commission," they noted, but added that they will have to be quick: parliaments only have eight weeks to find the votes necessary to block a proposal. Moreover, they concluded that "in order to effectively block a Commission proposal, you would still have to lobby the European Parliament or the Council". 

In an interview with EURACTIV, Elaine Cruikshanks, CEO of the Brussels arm of public affairs firm Hill & Knowlton, said that she expects national parliaments to use their powers "rather restrictively," adding that "I would expect the Commission to work in close cooperation with member-state governments when defining new policy measures or proposing new legislation". 

She went on to argue that "in most member states, the political colours of the governments reflect the political majorities in the parliaments. It is likely to remain the exception that a national parliament would try to block a Commission initiative unless the government is in favour of this too". 

However, she concluded that "this will mean that governments will probably have to work with 'their' parliaments much more closely than they have done up to now, and keep them informed as to what is happening in Brussels to avoid them trying to block initiatives from the outset". 

In an interview with EURACTIV, Julia Harrison, managing partner at Blueprint Partners, said that "the 'yellow card' is an interesting wild card, but it would need a third of all EU parliaments to object to make it effective". 

She added that "as national governments usually hold parliamentary majorities and the EU's decision-making gives input to governments at an early stage, it is more likely that the Commission would review its competence to propose an initiative long before the parliaments of nine member states could object". 

She concluded that "perhaps this new power will concentrate minds in the Commission in some cases, but it would take a very controversial initiative to mobilise so many national legislatures against it". 

In an interview with EURACTIV, Georg Danell, managing partner at the Brussels office of Kreab Gavin Anderson, said that "the effectiveness of the system designed by the Lisbon Treaty will depend heavily on the alertness and proactive scrutiny of national parliaments". 

"It will also," he added, "be affected by the extent to which parties with suspicions of European action are influential in national parliaments – you can envisage some parties seeking to use this option for high-profile policy purposes". 

He argued that "using the procedure successfully does depend on two things: (1) effective internal procedures to be able to act within a period of eight weeks and (2) the building of alliances with other parliaments to achieve the necessary thresholds for an objection to EU action". 

"This latter aspect will reinforce the need for inter-parliamentary communication and organisation of real opportunities for exchanges on policy," he concluded. 

In an interview with EURACTIV, Caroline Wunnerlich, managing director at Fleishman-Hillard Europe, argued that "the use of the 'yellow card' facility will very much depend on two factors. Firstly, the capacity of national parliaments to get under the skin of Commission proposals at an early stage. Secondly, the ability of national parliaments to coordinate their response when a problem is uncovered". 

She added that "on the whole, the experience thus far suggests that national parliaments will face a challenge in both regards. With some exceptions, national parliaments have generally struggled to reign in their executives despite setting up scrutiny processes and having more time in the co-decision process to apply pressure". 

She concluded that "national parliaments will need to work hard to get to the bottom of a dossier quickly and find another friendly eight national parliaments if they are to have an impact. The most likely way in which the yellow card will happen is if interest groups seek to motivate and coordinate national lobbies across member states". 

Timeline

  • June 1979: First direct elections to the European Parliament.
  • May 1989: COSAC created in Madrid by the speakers of the parliaments of the EU member states.
  • Nov. 1989: First COSAC meeting takes place in Paris.
  • Nov. 1993: Entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty, including official declaration on the importance of national parliaments in the EU. 
  • June 1997: COSAC formally recognised in a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty. 
  • May 1999: The COSAC protocol (above) comes into force, allowing the body to address to the EU institutions any "contributions" which it deems necessary.
  • Dec. 2007: EU heads of state and government sign Lisbon Treaty.
  • 1 Dec 2009: Lisbon Treaty enters into force.

Further Reading

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe