What role for national parliaments in EU law making?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Lisbon Treaty entrusted national parliaments with new tools to hold their governments accountable for decisions taken at the European level. The fact that some national parliaments do very little to use these tools, shows a true “democratic deficit”, Richard Corbett writes.

Richard Corbett is a former MEP and currently a member of the cabinet of Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council.

Reforms over the last two decades, culminating in the Treaty of Lisbon, have established a dual accountability, as the basic mode of EU accountability.  It requires that proposals are approved by: (1) a large majority (known as the “quality majority”) in the Council, composed of national ministers accountable to national parliaments; and (2) the European Parliament, composed of directly elected MEPs.

This applies notably in the EU’s ordinary legislative procedure, budget procedure and for the approval of significant international agreements entered into by the Union.  There are exceptions, in which the European Parliament has a lesser role and/or where unanimity is required in the Council, but in all cases, ministerial approval in the Council is required.

It is therefore natural that a national parliament’s main opportunity to shape or reject European legislation rests with its ability to determine its minister’s position and hold him or her to account.

The Lisbon treaty brought in reforms intended to facilitate such national parliamentary scrutiny. National parliaments must now receive all legislative and budgetary proposals eight weeks in advance of Council deliberation on the matter, giving them more time to examine proposals (and possibly discuss them with their minister), shaping the position that their country will adopt in Council.

Shaping their minister’s position is actually more important than the new right to formally object to a proposal if they consider that it violates the principle of subsidiarity (the “yellow card” and “orange card procedures”), which has received so much attention. These days, EU legislation is increasingly about modifying existing EU legislation, not about extending the EU’s remit into new fields – perhaps with exception of financial sector regulations. So far, the “orange card” has never been deployed, and thinking that the “yellow card” is the main instrument for national parliamentary influence is to miss the real issue: it is about the substance of a proposal, not about subsidiarity.

The procedures, methods and traditions for holding ministers to account vary considerably. More parliaments are beginning to follow the Nordic model of ministers appearing before the appropriate parliamentary committee before they catch the plane to Brussels, to justify (and sometimes even receive approval) for the line they intend to take.

Some national parliaments, however, do very little, and arguably this is where there is a democratic deficit to be found: some governments (admittedly, elected governments) can act at European level with very little parliamentary scrutiny. The UK is a country where there is surely room for improvement, perhaps, like Ireland, drawing on the Nordic experience.

Stronger reporting requirements to the appropriate inter-parliamentary body with questioning and debates, could be provided for. They should be seen as complementing, not replacing, national parliamentary scrutiny of European affairs. They can deepen the understanding and increase the amount of information available to national parliamentarians.  But the final decisions to be taken are for each parliament separately.

Does the deepening of EMU change all this? Is it qualitatively different? True, we are dealing with decisions that are not necessarily legislative (banking supervision, macroeconomic coordination, etc.) and also with subjects that are key national responsibilities, set in a European context.

As President Van Rompuy (himself a former Speaker of the Belgian national parliament) said at the Brussels Think Tank Dialogue, last April: “Of course, as a general rule, accountability for national decisions is via national parliaments, and that of European decisions is ensured jointly by the European Parliament and the Council, whose ministers are accountable to national parliaments. A double safeguard, but a dual complexity. And when a decision involves both national and European competences, it becomes even more complicated. And that’s exactly what’s happening these days.”

But the key is still to ensure that, whether they are scrutinising a national decision by their government, or their government’s participation in a European decision, national parliaments are able to ensure accountability and have the tools to do so. The key tool, the ability to scrutinise their national minister, is for each Member State to organise in respect of its own constitution and parliamentary tradition. It does not require a European rule to do so.

Read the full length version on the European Movement blog on BlogActiv.eu.

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