Legitimacy and efficiency for EU institutions: National Parliaments

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Federalism vs. Inter-governmentalism


Legitimacy and efficiency for EU institutions: National Parliaments

The future role of national parliaments will be crucial in enhancing the legitimacy of European integration. After it was chosen as one of the main issues to be addressed in the Declaration of Nice, many European leaders outlined various proposals for a better involvement of national parliaments.

The Nice Declaration on the Future of Europe, which launched the process leading to the Convention, mentions “the role of national parliaments in the European architecture” as one of the four key issues to be addressed. The subsequent reflections of most European leaders on this question have resulted in a wide range of radically different proposals. In an effort to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the European Union, the Declaration of Laeken also raised the issue of the role of national parliaments, summing up at the same time some of the ideas voiced during the debate: “Should they be represented in a new institution, alongside the Council and the European Parliament? Should they have a role in areas of European action in which the European Parliament has no competence? Should they focus on the division of competence between Union and Member States, for example, through preliminary checking of compliance with the principle of subsidiarity?”

The speech made byJoschka Fischerin Berlin on 12 May 2000 was instrumental in spurring the high-level debate on the future of Europe. However, his proposal concerning the involvement of national parliaments has not found much support. The German Foreign Minister advocated a real bicameral legislature, with one chamber of elected members who would also be members of national parliaments, and a second chamber, along the senate model, with directly elected senators from Member States.

The need for a better political arrangement between the European and the Member States’ parliaments has been widely recognised. However, many proposals have remained vague about the actual role of national parliaments.Jacques Chiracunderlined that enhancing their role was crucial in making the Union more democratic but gave no concrete practical or institutional proposals for change.

Some positions deny the need for institutional change. TheBenelux countriesunderlined in a memorandum that the existing institutions should form the basis for new reforms. Many contributors, such as the group ofEuropean Liberal Democrats, acknowledge that national parliaments would best help themselves by exploiting to a wider extent their powers vis-à-vis their own governments. This certainly holds true when European legislation is implemented at the national level, andMichel Barnieradds that European legislation should be limited to broad objectives in order to leave greater room to the national legislator for implementation.G. Perssonalso emphasises the role of national parliaments in the scrutiny of their governments as members of the Council.David Byrnegoes one step further by indicating that national parliaments should go beyond mere control and provide a greater direct input to national positions in the Council.

However, theDanish government, while stating that the primary task of national parliaments in the EU is to supervise their own governments’ conduct, speaks in favour of an assembly of national parliamentarians – a Council of Nations with an equal number of representatives from each Member State. This new body would essentially be in charge of assuring that the principle of subsidiarit y is respected. This idea is largely taken over fromTony Blair, who expressed this clearly in his Warsaw speech on 6 October 2000. The primary sources of democratic legitimacy in Europe are the directly elected and representative institutions of the European nations – national parliaments and governments. Thus a second parliamentary chamber, made up of representatives of national parliaments, should be set up. This body would not be involved in day-to-day legislation but help implement a “charter of competences”. The Danish and British proposals are very close to the views presented by theFrench SenateandLionel Jospin. The French Prime Minister advocated a “permanent conference of parliaments” with a more European flavour, as it would also include members of the European Parliament. This new institution (Congress) would monitor compliance with the principle of subsidiarity.

All these plans significantly differ from the initial proposal put forward byJ. Fischer, whose framework was a clear bicameral system.Tony Blaircalls the new body a “second chamber”, deliberately forgetting that the European Parliament and the Council acting as legislator already form a bicameral system. In effect, the body he advocates, alongside theDanish governmentandLionel Jospin, would be a third chamber. TheHouse of Lords Select Committee on European Unionrecognised that this would undoubtedly complicate and slow down the already cumbersome decision-making process of the Union. Therefore, it has rejected the idea of a new institution representing national parliaments, precisely because it would fail to solve the democratic deficit, while raising numerous practical difficulties such as the stage at which and the manner in which, it could be involved in the legislative cycle, and not least, the burden for the individuals concerned.E. Stoiberand theEuropean People’s Partyargued exactly along the same line against the so-called second chamber. TheEuropean Commissionhighlights the fact that a new institution could prove disruptive for the Community system of decision-making.

TheEuropean Parliament, in adopting the report of the Chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, Giorgio Napolitano, also rejects the creation of a new body. The report points out that the peoples of the Union are represented by the European Parliament and the national parliaments, “each in its own realm”. However, it does not deny the need for closer formal and informal cooperation and proposes, for instance, the exchange of best practice in national parliaments in following European legislation and monitoring the action of governments at European level, the strengthening of the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees (COSAC) as a vehicle for exchanges and convergence between parliaments and the systematisation of inter-parliamentary cooperation through formal agreements.

But theEuropean Parliamentis opposed to representatives of each national parliament taking part, alongside the relevant minister, in legislative meetings of the Council of Ministers. This would, according to the Parliament, entail a dangerous confusion between the respective roles of Member States governments and parliaments.Michel Barnieron the other hand, believes that the participation of national parliamentarians in certain Council gatherings will contribute to bridging the gap between the national and the European level. This view is shared by the GermanChristian Democratic Union.

Whilst not specifying how the representatives to the two chambers should be elected, most German contributions advocate a pure bicameral model, clearly based on the German federal system.W. Clement, J. Rau, E. Stoiber and G. Schröderall agree that the national level is already represented by the Council of Ministers, and that this should be made more explicit by its transformation into a “Chamber of European Nations”(Schröder) and the “full parliamentarisation”(Fischer) of the Union.

Another measure proposed for enhancing the role of national parliaments in the European architecture is to institutionalise the Convention method for the revision of the Treaty.W. Clementpleads in favour of a mandatory Convention made up of representatives of Member States governments and parliaments, the European Parliament, and the Commission. It would reach decisions by qualified majority and the proposed revision would then be submitted to an intergovernmental conference with limited rights of amendment.Lionel Jospingoes one step further by entrusting his above-mentioned “Congress” with the amendment of non-constitutional Treaty rules.Jacques Delors (together with Giuliano Amato, Jean-Luc Dehaene and others)favours an even broader role for “Parliamentary conventions” that should have the power to debate revisions of EU constitutional arrangements, accession treaties, and the direct financing of the Union.

In a more visionary fashion,Jacques Delorsalso made a particular contribution to the debate by proposing an avant-garde that would be a federation of nation states, with a Parliament made up of members both of the European Parliament and of national legislatures.

Guillaume Durandis Policy Analist at the European Policy Centre.

For more in-depth analysis, see The European Policy Centre’s website:

Legitimacy and efficiency for EU institutions: National Parliaments.  

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