Treaty opens EU door to national parliaments


European Commission President José Manuel Barroso sent a letter to the speakers of the EU 27’s national parliaments this week, informing them of their increased powers under the Lisbon Treaty, EURACTIV has learned.

In the letter to speakers of the EU’s 40 upper and lower chambers of parliament, seen by EURACTIV, Barroso and outgoing Vice-President Margot Wallström explain that “the new treaty recognises the central importance of national parliaments in the democratic fabric of the EU”. 

For the first time “national parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union,” they write, providing them with a means to make the European Union “more democratic and more transparent”. 

The letter argues that the outgoing Commission has been “a strong advocate of an increased role for national parliaments,” citing the 500 meetings with national parliaments between 2004 and 2010, and highlighting the “enthusiastic response” from parliaments to the so-called ‘Barroso initiative’. 

This mechanism, adopted during the “period of reflection” that followed the 2005 rejection of the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands, transmitted directly all new proposals and consultation papers to national parliaments, “inviting them to react so as to improve the process of policy formulation”. 

Between the start of this new initiative in 2006 and the end of 2008, national parliaments transmitted some 368 opinions to the Commission. Of these, 84 were sent by the Portuguese Assembleia da Republica, 53 by the French Sénat, 39 by the German Bundestag, 33 by the UK’s House of Lords, 23 by the Danish Folketinget and 22 by the Czech Senate. 

However, as one parliament official told EURACTIV, these statistics do not tell the full picture, as in some cases they simply related to a parliament informing the Commission of its approval on a given proposal. 

Some parliaments ‘nowhere near ready’ 

With these changes now in place, the big question in Brussels is how actively parliaments will use these new opportunities. As shown above, while some parliaments have been extremely enthusiastic in exploiting the ‘Barroso initiative’, others have remained conspicuously silent. 

The general attitude among European Parliament officials contacted by EURACTIV seems to be ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’. In other words, it is up to the parliaments to make the most of the new rules encouraging their participation in EU decision-making. 

A leading parliamentary source, speaking to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity, said that some parliaments have been “very actively preparing” for the changes, while others are “nowhere near being ready for the Lisbon Treaty”. 

If these less prepared chambers do not get to grips with this soon, they risk falling badly behind their counterparts, the source said. “I think the better-prepared parliaments are helping their colleagues who are struggling,” the source added optimistically. 

European and national parliaments in talks 

Meanwhile, officials from both European and national parliaments are busily preparing plans to formalise how they will interact now the Lisbon Treaty is in force. On 12 December, an extraordinary meeting of the EU parliamentary speakers conference will take place in Stockholm to debate the details how the European Parliament and national parliaments will cooperate. 

The European Parliament rules of procedure will be amended to take the results of this meeting into account. The groundwork for the speakers’ meeting will take place in Brussels next Monday (7 December) in a meeting of the secretaries-general of the European and national parliaments. 

“This is entirely new territory, and new procedures and mechanisms are therefore needed,” the Parliament source concluded. 

Practical measures for smoother cooperation 

Besides these commitments, Barroso’s letter 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”), mentioning explicitly 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 on a proposal’s compliance with the principle of subsidiarity. 

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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". 

The Assembly of European Regions (AER) called for a genuine EU multilevel governance system, in order "to ensure the sustainable development of the Union and enhance its legitimacy". 

In a position paper  adopted at its General Assembly in Belfort (France) and submitted to the European Commission on 30 November, the AER stressed that the "right political framework, political culture and capacities" must be fulfilled if the European Union is to take the idea of multi-level governance from an amorphous concept to a genuine system of governance. 

In a letter sent to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, AER president Michèle Sabban noted that "the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty will bring substantial progress towards a more efficient and democratic governance in the European Union. Beyond the legal texts, however, it is the whole political culture which needs to evolve". 

Sabban's letter went on to ask the Commission "to ensure the sincere application of the sub-national subsidiarity and partnership principles throughout the whole decision-making process, including the pre-decision phases, by better structuring the consultation process".

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". 

The Lisbon Treaty will for the first time in the history of the EU give national parliaments explicit democratic powers (see EURACTIV LinksDossier for more).

Most notably, they will have the right to raise objections to European 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 Parliament, who 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 constitutes a real additional power: national parliaments cannot ultimately veto a new proposal, merely 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. 
  • 7 Dec. 2009: Secretaries-General from the European and national parliaments will meet Brussels to lay the groundwork for the speakers meeting. 
  • 12 Dec. 2009: Extraordinary meeting of EU speakers' conference in Stockholm will debate the provisions detailing cooperation between the European Parliament (EP) and national parliaments. The EP's rules of procedure will be amended to take the results of this meeting into account. 
  • 1 Jan. 2010: Provisional launch date for an enhanced IPEX website – IPEX is the official online forum for interparliamentary exchange in the EU. 

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