Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Third Report


The European Scrutiny Committee has agreed to the following Report:



1. It has become generally accepted that the EU has problems in respect of democracy and accountability, and that there is 'disconnection' between citizens and EU institutions. Symptoms include the result of the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty, protests during recent European Council meetings and the low turnout at the last European Parliament elections. We welcome the recognition in the European Council's Laeken Declaration that EU citizens 'feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny.'[1] The Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) in Nice in December 2000 acknowledged 'the need to improve and to monitor the democratic legitimacy and transparency of the Union and its institutions, in order to bring them closer to the citizens of the Member States.'[2] A report of January 2002 by the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) traces the causes of disaffection from the EU not just to shortcomings in what the EU does but also to 'a sense of alienation, the serious difficulties encountered in understanding and participating, a fear of helplessness in the face of imposed decisions which cannot be influenced or controlled.'[3]

2. The problem of 'disengagement' is the central problem which our Report seeks to address and not just the backdrop against which we aim to set out various improvements to EU decision-making. We stress that the problems we have identified in relation to the EU are symptomatic of a wider disengagement from politics or at least traditional forms of politics (e.g. voting in elections) both at the national and local level. This problem of 'disengagement' is particularly acute in relation to the EU. Part of the explanation is to be found in terms of the remoteness of EU institutions from the citizen, as Jean-Luc Dehaene, a Vice-President of the Convention on the Future of Europe, stressed in his evidence to us.[4] Public awareness of democratic scrutiny of EU decision-making is very low. Therefore increasing democratic scrutiny, while important and worthwhile in itself, will have little direct or immediate impact on citizens' views about the EU. The key task should be to make both EU decision-making and the scrutiny of EU decision-making more relevant to the citizen. Reform must result in greater opportunities to exercise democratic control of EU decision-making and a greater awareness of those opportunities.

3. The Prime Minister, among others, has indicated that one of the remedies is a greater role for the national parliaments of EU Member States,[5] and 'the role of national parliaments in the European architecture' was listed in a Declaration attached to the Nice Treaty as one of four subjects to be considered at the next IGC.[6] National parliaments and national parliamentarians can play a key role in bridging the gap between remote EU institutions and the citizens of EU Member States and in making EU decision-making more relevant and EU decision-makers more accountable. This is because national parliaments generally have a much closer relationship with citizens than any EU institution, including the EP, since they reflect the culture and history of their country, they have fewer electors per Member, Members can spend more of their time in their constituencies, and they deal with the majority of the subjects which interest people. The report by the EP's Constitutional Affairs Committee on relations with national parliaments, while insisting that the EP and national parliaments 'are equally representative of the peoples in the European Union', states that 'the solidity of national democratic frameworks and their closeness to the citizens are an essential asset which can in no way be ignored in pursuing the "parliamentarisation" of the Union'.[7]

4. Therefore we considered it important for us to conduct an inquiry, concentrating on the role of national parliaments in the EU but also examining the allocation of powers between the EU and its Member States (another of the four subjects listed at Nice) and the role of regional and other sub-Member State authorities in the EU. Part of the subject matter relates directly to our role as a scrutiny committee, and some has previously been examined in Reports by our predecessor Committees.[8] The terms of reference we adopted were to examine ways in which the EU could be made more democratic and accountable and citizens could feel more in touch with and able to influence political developments in the EU. We regard giving citizens the opportunity to influence decision-making as the critical requirement if disconnection from the EU is to be reduced.

5. We took oral evidence in Westminster, Brussels and Edinburgh, and also received written evidence.[9] We are grateful to all those who provided evidence. We would like to thank UKREP[10] for its assistance in Brussels and the Scottish Parliament for its assistance in Edinburgh. We were able to make use of the Report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union on A second parliamentary chamber for Europe: an unreal solution to some real problems,[11] and that of the Scottish Parliament's European Committee on The governance of the European Union and the future of Europe: what role for Scotland?[12]

6. Where we refer in this Report to the Government, the Prime Minister and individual Ministers, we mean the UK's Government, Prime Minister and Ministers.

7. We have made a separate Report on European scrutiny in the Commons, to cover matters which relate solely to the way in which the Commons deals with EU business.[13] As we observe there, the potential for national parliaments to assist in remedying the disconnection between citizens and EU institutions can be realised only if national parliaments, including our own, deal with EU matters in a way which 'connects' with citizens. How the 15 national parliaments use existing opportunities and any new ones to reconnect citizens and EU decision-making is crucial to the impact of our proposals below for giving new roles to national parliaments.

8. We have necessarily concentrated on institutional and organisational aspects of the EU. Some argue that what citizens want from the EU are policies and actions which benefit them in their daily lives; for example, Jean-Luc Dehaene argued that the concerns of many citizens were more about 'a deficit of delivery of Europe' than a democratic deficit, 'and so we have to organise things so that they deliver ... the results that people expect.'[14] In fact the EU is already active, and sometimes achieving results, in areas of great concern to citizens, such as measures to reduce global warming and other environmental damage, international trade, and immigration and asylum policies. However, citizens are becoming ever less willing to accept solutions imposed on them by means they do not feel able to influence. As Commissioner Barnier put it, 'the key point here is that we have to work with citizens and not just for citizens and on their behalf.'[15] Thus both what the EU does and how it does it (and greater clarity in both of these) are relevant to reducing disconnection. Institutional and organisational aspects of the EU in the abstract may be of no interest to most EU citizens, but how the EU works nevertheless affects citizens' perceptions of it.

9. Much has changed since we began our inquiry. In particular, at the Laeken European Council in December 2001 a Convention on the Future of Europe was established, with members from national governments, the European Commission, the European Parliament and national parliaments, together with government and parliamentary representatives from the candidate countries. It includes two House of Commons representatives. Its purpose is to consider the matters set out in the Laeken Declaration, including 'more democracy, transparency and efficiency in the European Union', the allocation of competences in the EU and the possibility of a constitution for the EU, and to put forward proposals; final decisions will be made by the IGC in 2004. The UK Permanent Representative to the EU (Sir Nigel Sheinwald) commented that 'the Convention is a real innovation. I do not think that life will be quite the same again.'[16]

10. Another important part of the background to our inquiry is the prospect of enlargement of the EU from 15 Member States currently to perhaps 25 in 2004 and more subsequently. This will inevitably change the ways in which the EU operates, which were originally designed for six countries.

11. Another underlying issue is what one witness referred to as the 'trade-off between transparency (providing democratic accountability) and private deliberation (maximising negotiating effectiveness).'[17] The Commission touches on the same issue in observing (somewhat prematurely) that 'It is time to recognise that the Union has moved from a diplomatic to a democratic process.'[18] The EU does indeed need to make that transition.

Reasons for disconnection

12. Many reasons have been suggested for the disconnection between citizens and EU institutions, some of which have been touched on already. The Commission's list includes a perceived inability of the EU to act effectively where a clear case exists, the EU not obtaining the credit when it does act effectively, Member States blaming 'Brussels' for decisions they have agreed to themselves, and lack of understanding about the EU institutions; the EU 'is often seen as remote and at the same time too intrusive'.[19] The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain) listed a general trend towards non-participation, euro-jargon, lack of involvement of national parliaments, over-emphasis on institutional changes at the expense of delivering practical benefits, confusion over who does what, lack of consultation, and worries about excessive EU interference.[20] Other reasons offered have included the opaqueness and complexity of EU law-making, a perception that the EU is undermining democracy and national sovereignty, lack of emotional commitment to the EU and (at least in the UK) lack of media coverage and the nature of such coverage as there is.[21]

13. Two witnesses pointed out that not all the reasons for disconnection were peculiar to the EU, and in particular that many countries have experienced a decline in election turnout similar to that of the EP in terms of percentage points.[22] However, the EP's percentage started at a lower level and has remained well below that of most national parliaments in the EU.[23] Moreover, as Lord Norton indicated, reasons why disconnection is likely to remain more serious in the EU's case than in the case of Member States include geographical size, the fact that votes at EP elections do not determine the composition of the EU's executive, and the lack of visible symbols of the EU (such as the Palace of Westminster and 10 Downing Street in the UK's case).[24] To these might be added the number of languages, the lack of clearly identifiable leaders, differing political cultures and the complexity of EU decision-making. Unless tackled, the problems are likely to worsen as the EU enlarges (reducing the influence each country can exert), as EU laws affect new areas and as citizens become even less willing to accept policies handed down from above.

Democracy and national parliaments in the EU

14. The two main sources of democratic legitimacy in the EU (the 'double democratic mandate')[25] are elected national governments, represented in the Council of Ministers, and the directly-elected European Parliament. However, in both cases there are problems with that democratic legitimacy. National governments, through national parliaments, are indeed the EU's most important element of democratic legitimacy, but whereas at home their legislative proposals require the assent of their national parliaments, in the EU they act as a legislative chamber on their own, without most of the procedural safeguards of a parliamentary chamber and, though needing EP agreement in some areas, making laws on their own in other areas. This is compounded by the secrecy of Council proceedings.[26] While the Council collectively is not accountable to any other body, Council members are individually accountable to their national parliaments. However, individual Council members acting collectively and doing so largely in secret cannot effectively be held to account by another organisation.

15. The EP in some respects has more power than most national parliaments, but turnout at EP elections is low (just under 50% at the 1999 election), and there is little knowledge of its activities among the electorate, which tends to be motivated in EP elections by national issues rather than EU ones.[27] This means that parties and individual MEPs are not held to account for their actions at EU level. It also reduces the EP's ability to connect citizens and EU decision-making.

16. National parliaments have no formal role in EU law-making at all (though they do of course have to implement much EU legislation). There is general agreement that the primary role of national parliaments is to scrutinise the activities of their national governments in the EU and hold them to account. It would obviously be inappropriate for any EU institution to try to determine how they do so, but the way in which the EU reaches decisions is nevertheless a major factor reducing the ability of national parliaments to hold governments to account, as we show in the two following sections of this Report. Later in the Report we discuss ways in which national parliaments might be given some formal role in EU decision-making.[28]

17. We make here three observations about national parliaments which underlie the following parts of our Report:

  • The relationship between national parliaments and their governments as regards EU matters is not a purely domestic arrangement for each Member State to sort out in its own way, but is partly determined by the way in which the EU conducts business[29] — a crucial aspect of the role of national parliaments which is ignored in the Laeken Declaration;

  • The fundamental requirements for scrutiny by national parliaments of EU legislation are adequate information and sufficient time before decisions are made, and these requirements are the same as those of any regional or other authority or any citizen seeking to influence EU legislation;

  • Since the central problem which our Report seeks to address is the problem of disengagement by the citizen from the EU, national parliaments have a key role to play in strengthening EU legitimacy. This can be done effectively only if they acquire real influence in EU decision-making and are seen to exercise such influence.

1   Laeken Declaration on the Future of the European Union, December 2001. Back

2   Treaty of Nice, Declaration 23. Back

3   Report on relations between the European Parliament and the national parliaments in European integration ('Napolitano report'), January 2002, A5-0023/2002, explanatory statement, para. 3. Back

4   Q. 267. Back

5   Speech in Warsaw, 6 October 2000; para. 122 below. Back

6   Treaty of Nice, Declaration 23. Back

7   EP, A5-0023/2002, Napolitano report, explanatory statement, para. 8. Back

8   Twenty-fourth Report from the Select Committee on European Legislation, 1994-95, The 1996 Inter-governmental Conference, HC 239; Twenty-eighth Report from the same, 1995-96, The role of national parliaments in the European Union, HC 51-xxviii; Thirteenth Report from the same, 1996-97, The draft Protocol on the role of national parliaments, HC 36-xiii. Back

9   Published as volume II of this Report. Back

10   The Permanent Representation of the UK to the EU - see glossary. Back

11   7th Report, 2001-02, HL Paper 48. Back

12   9th Report, 2001, SP Paper 466. Back

13   ESC, 2001-02, HC 152-xxx, European scrutiny in the CommonsBack

14   Q. 267. See also Ev 111, para. 1(iv). Back

15   Q. 95. Back

16   Q. 123. Back

17   Ev 16 (Lord Norton). Back

18   European governance: a White Paper, July 2001, p. 30. Back

19   Ibid., pp. 3,7. Back

20   Ev 111. Back

21   Ev 35, 167, 170, 183. Back

22   Ev 93, 98. Back

23   Ev 1; figures in The Statesman's Yearbook, 2001. Back

24   Ev 15. Back

25   European Commission, European governance: a White Paper, p. 7. Back

26   See para. 20 below. Back

27   Ev 1, 3, 15, 192. Back

28   Paras. 117-48 below. Back

29   Paras. 20, 34, 41, 49 below. Back

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