The Role of National Parliaments in the Future EU

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The Role of National Parliaments in the Future EU

An EPC Dialogue was held on the role of national parliaments in the future EU on 13 September 2002. Gisela Stuart, UK MP, Elizabeth Arnold, deputy chair of the Danish Parliament’s European Affairs Committee and Giorgio Napolitano MEP, chairman of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee were the speakers.

Background to the debate

EPC Director Stanley Crossick opened the meeting by emphasising the need for national parliaments to develop a greater EU role, not least to increase legitimacy and improve public perceptions of the European process and to hold ministers to account. The debate had been fuelled by the proposal from Valery Giscard D’Estaing, chairman of the Convention, to set up a “congress” of MPs and MEPs to replace the existing Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees (COSAC). This body might examine the implementation of fundamental rights, monitor the Commission’s action plan, elect the President of the Commission and oversee subsidiarity.

The challenge was to make the Convention issues a public debate, because at the moment it is “a debate in public among elitists”. But Mr Crossick acknowledged that it was difficult to “provoke the imagination of the people.” Public focus was on national parliaments – so the aim had to be to get national parliaments more involved in Europe.

Need for more EU knowledge in national parliaments

UK MP Gisela Stuart, a member of the Convention Praesidium and Chair of the Working Group on national parliaments, observed how little was known about EU affairs among national MPs. The contingent of MPs on the Convention was, numerically, the largest grouping and yet almost half of them had no experience of the European institutions. Yet this group had to establish itself as of equal weight on the Convention and in the whole EU process.

Commentators characterised the relationship between national and EU politicians as an institutional battle, but the notion of rivalry had to be rejected. The Convention was not a competition: “MPs are the face but not the power: MEPs are not recognised, but have the power. Combining this is important,” said Ms Stuart. MPs should not become co-legislators, because EU Member States were represented by their governments. But MPs could fulfil a much stronger role, if current fears about too much national interference in EU matters could be allayed.

Importance of scrutiny

She said the MPs’ role should be to scrutinise the actions of their ministers – but at the moment national approaches varied from “sophisticated” models of political scrutiny in the Scandinavian Member States to virtually no scrutiny of EU mechanisms in some Mediterranean countries. However, scrutiny had become a “substitute sovereignty” for some EU countries – “the more they scrutinise, the more it makes up for lost sovereignty.”

MPs should become active EU players, involved earlier in the process to eliminate any mood of competition with EU bodies. The EU was only strong if all its component parts – including national parliamentarians – were strong. In this perspective, it would help if MPs were informed earlier about the Commission programme, and consulted on policies at the conciliation stage of the co-decision procedure.

On setting up new bodies, she warned that this could be “bad news”, although there should be a forum for MPs to debate the Commission programme, thus reaching a position where MPs no longer speak about THEM having made an EU decision, but US.

EU process an exchange between elites

MP Elizabeth Arnold, a member of the Convention and deputy chair of the Danish Parliament’s European Affairs Committee, said that long Danish experience was that close natio nal scrutiny of the EU could be achieved while still giving ministers the flexibility they needed to negotiate in Brussels. But the EU process was still seen as an exchange between elites, and Mrs Arnold was worried about weak public support for European cooperation.

Few beyond the elite know the workings of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council, and people are unaware that national parliaments had anything to do with European affairs. Hence the low turnout at EU elections: it was vital to revitalise the European debate at national level. National parliamentarians were not taking responsibility for EU decisions, often blaming “those people in Brussels” and there was no hope of better public understanding unless they did take responsibility.

National MPs frustrated with EU institutions

Giorgio Napolitano MEP, chairman of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, described a sense of “frustration and dissatisfaction” between national parliamentarians and EU institutions, particularly about the decision-making process. The answer was to strengthen the MPs’ role by increasing scrutiny of what their governments were doing in Brussels. Everything to enable them to exercise scrutiny must be done, including despatching Commission proposals directly to national governments.

Cooperation must be developed between MPs and MEPs, reinforced by the signing by all national parliamentary leaders of an inter-parliamentary agreement, setting out areas of common work. MPs should be closely associated with amending treaties, an issue on which the Convention was a turning point.

He suggested stepping up the national role by enabling national parliaments to give governments a mandate to oppose draft Commission proposals that they fear threaten subsidiarity. In fact, each national parliament could be given the power to issue a “reasoned opinion” objecting to a Commission proposal. Mr Napolitano suggested a time limit – six weeks, say – within which this could be done.

Discussion

Ms Arnold acknowledged that more involvement of MPs in the decision-making could blur lines of political responsibility and fail to improve public satisfaction with the EU procedures. European construction was complicated and difficult to explain, but she rejected a suggestion that the public was frustrated with the Commission and European Parliament, insisting the difficulty lay with national parliaments which did not tell the public what they were doing at EU level.

Ms Stuart stressed that the real frustration was that the public could not remove EU figures because they were not directly elected. Also by the time decisions “hit the ground” or entered into force, the people concerned had usually moved on. She cited NATO, which represented a major loss of sovereignty, and yet its purpose was clearly understood. The notion that the public had to understand the EU was wrong: people simply needed “delivery” of policies.

Mr Napolitano said the frustration was with the lack of transparency and accountability, but the Convention was reacting well to the problem. Asked if there should be a trans-European list system for the European elections to improve the direct link to the public, Mr Napolitano agreed there could be incentives towards that end through the financing of political parties, stimulating the EU electoral process.

Ms Arnold supported the financing of European parties, although she felt it would not be easy to get Danes to vote for non-Danes, and it would also come down to some extent to national elections.

Ms Stuart pointed out that she was a German national who had been elected to the British parliament for Neville Chamberlain’s old constituency, but questioned how the election issue could bind national policies and parties into the EU process. She said the European Parliament was an institution wit h large blocs of national political parties largely operating in the interests of Europe, but national political leaders were not setting national policy on the basis of European priorities.

Asked about the involvement of devolved regional governments, Ms Stuart said it was important to consider all options, but she did not think that regions should try to use Europe as a place to by-pass conflicts with their national administrations.

Mr Napolitano said it was not for the EU to interfere in the internal institutional organisation of Member States.

Asked about the challenge for the Convention of getting Europe onto the domestic agendas in the EU, Ms Arnold said the euro-elections were a key moment when politicians could be mobilised and brought closer to the people.

Mr Napolitano blamed the media for not giving attention to European policy discussion and decisions, and he said he was diffident about the “over-personalisation” of the debate at national and European level.

Ms Arnold said the media was responsible for the information gap because many journalists knew nothing about the EU: parliamentarians had to work very hard to raise their profile.

Ms Stuart said the issues that interested ordinary people were whether their rubbish was collected, their mortgage paid, schooling was good and there was quality health care. They were not concerned about job demarcations of MPs and MEPs. They don’t need to “love” Europe: as long as there was inward investment, delivered possibly through the work of regional offices in Brussels.

One questioner suggested that it would be much easier to resolve the problem of the role of MPs after the definitive structure of the EU “federation” was established. Ms Stuart disagreed, and Mr Napolitano said the EU was not the end of the philosophical discussion on Europe. Asked when it would be, he replied: “When the process has developed even more than now.”

Conclusion

Summing up, Stanley Crossick said there seemed to be a broad consensus around the closer involvement of national parliaments in the EU, with more information fed back and more involvement in the decision-making. There should be more efficient use of electronic communications and, above all, it was important to increase understanding of EU affairs, and end the “them and us” mentality.

The national parliament scrutiny of ministers’ role was very important. National involvement in amending Treaties was a “two-way process”, and it was necessary to look at the extent to which MEPs were involved in the legislative process of parliaments.

There were differing views on the subsidiarity issue and the role of MPs in the process. There were reservations too about setting up of new bodies because they become ends in themselves, and it was critically important to engage citizens. If the European Parliament was not very popular, it was worth pointing out that neither national parliamentarians nor governments were popular either.

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