Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Third Report

'Strengthening the role of national parliaments in the European Union'


In liberal societies, such as those that make up the member states of the European Union, the legitimacy of decision-making is based on the principle of consent. That is why one of the most urgent democratic challenges facing the European Union today, is the need to make the governance of the EU more open, more accessible and more transparently related to the interests and concerns of European citizens. This paper argues that national parliaments are well placed to bridge the gap between EU decision-making and the citizens of Europe, and so to overcome the EU's 'democratic deficit'. That deficit has eroded and continues to erode the trust of the people of Europe in the future of the European project.

In addition to their function as legislative assemblies, national parliaments are the physical embodiment of the link between the government and the governed. Most EU citizens rightly look to their national members of parliament in the first instance to hold individual ministers and their government to account. As more and more legislation is introduced at the European rather than the national level, i.e. as the legislative function of national parliaments declines, so their scrutiny role should increase. The EU's law-making institutions are simply too remote for the ordinary citizen of the EU to be able to access directly. National parliaments can provide that vital intermediate link. But if this is to succeed, the role of national parliaments must be strengthened significantly.

This paper sets out three sets of proposals, strategic, practical and legal, to enhance the role of national parliaments in EU decision-making. The issues raised could be addressed at the current Convention on the Future of Europe and the changes to existing EU Treaties necessary to implement the proposals brought forward through the subsequent inter-governmental conference.

1. Charter for National Parliaments

The Charter would offer a set of broad principles and objectives to guide national parliaments in relation to their role in the European Union and to which national parliaments would subscribe. As such, it would represent a strategic framework within which the role of national parliaments could be developed and strengthened .

The implementation of specific measures or procedures to meet these common objectives would be a matter for individual parliaments (although a process of peer review could be undertaken via COSAC). In practice, this would be the only realistic option, given that parliaments, as sovereign bodies, will want to decide how best to exercise their own scrutiny role according to their own traditions and norms.

Objectives and principles to be anchored in the charter should include:

    —  a pledge by national parliaments to promote the openness and transparency of decision-making in the European Union;

    —  a pledge by national parliaments to review their own procedures with a view to increasing the opportunities for holding their own government ministers to account in relation to EU decision-making;

    —  a pledge by national parliaments to review their own procedures with a view to promoting the engagement of the citizen in the European Union.

The Charter could be worked up and drafted by the Working Group on National Parliaments at the Convention (Chaired by Gisela Stuart MP) and presented to national parliamentary representatives at the Convention. There could then be a process of consultation with MPs from national parliaments, interest groups and civil society groups. After further discussion in the Working Group, a working text could be agreed at the Convention. The Charter could also be presented to an inter-parliamentary conference such as COSAC at the time of the next IGC .

2. Raising the public profile of national parliaments

National parliaments must be more pro-active in seeking to engage the citizen with Europe and should use their own deep-seated legitimacy to this purpose. Whilst there is a significant level of lobbying by interest groups at the European level, there has been little similar activity in national parliaments. The attention of the public and interest groups therefore needs to be re-focused on national parliaments, so that a balance is struck between European institutions and national parliaments with in relation to influencing European legislation. This could be achieved in a number of ways, for example:

    —  Media presentation and public perceptions

    Decision-making bodies in the European Union, including governments, European Commission and the Council of Ministers, must seek to ensure that the media focus more attention on national parliaments and their role in the European Union. National Parliaments, in turn, could then improve access to information and provide a more positive image of Europe to citizens. There could, for example, be regular briefings by national parliaments on European legislation, briefings on EU legislation on the web-site, newsletters and/or briefings to national newspapers. National parliamentarians should be able to initiate more debates in parliament about issues of real concern to the citizen. Parliaments should be encouraged to experiment with new ways of disseminating information relating to such debates to media interests, business interests and civil society groups, which would not only help to engage the citizen by better informing them, but could encourage the national press to cover European legislation more widely.

    —  Parliamentary conventions on the 'Future of Europe'.

    These could be 'mini' conventions, held at regular intervals, to discuss the issues relating to the 'Future of Europe Debate'. This would enable national parliaments to take a pro-active role in reaching out to civil society and to promote openness and transparency in the European Union. Civil society could include trade unions, pressure groups and employers' associations, who could meet and debate the Europe they would like to see, with responses from Ministers, MPs, MEPs and Commissioners. This would give practical expression to the principles of openness and transparency, and provide a source of information on European issues. This idea has already been put into practice by the French National Assembly and could be institutionalised as a mechanism for engaging civil society in the European debate on a regular basis.

3. Incorporating the protocol on national parliaments into the European Treaties into a new 'Article' in the Treaties on the role of national parliaments.

The current protocol on national parliaments in the Amsterdam Treaty could be formalised into the Treaties, under a new 'Article' or 'Chapter' -National Parliaments in the European Union. This would help to strike the balance that is needed between the European institutions and the European nation-states. It would safeguard the position of national parliaments as equal partners to the European Parliament and enhance their influence over EU decision-making of in a way commensurate with the increased authority and prestige of the Council of Ministers. The new section of the Treaty would seek to define the role of national parliaments in the following ways:

    —    National Parliaments and the Council of Ministers.

    There should be at the very least, a parliamentary privileged access to documents and discussions of COREPER I and II. This ensures that decisions made by civil servants are open and transparent.

Ministers should have to provide parliament with a warning or prediction of the legislation they will discuss at the Council. National parliamentary committees could then submit reports before the Council meeting and/or call debate before or after European Councils.

    —  National Parliaments and the European Commission.

    National Parliaments could exert a greater role in the policy formation of the European Commission. This could be achieved by requiring Commissioners to attend Committee hearings, thereby holding them to account and by requesting briefings on European legislation.

    National Parliaments could also ensure that they are better informed of the Commission's annual legislative programme by requesting a 'Queen's Speech' type briefing from the Commission on its annual legislative programme (similar to the broad economic guidelines and the financial framework).

    This would enable national parliaments to predict potential problems in legislation. National parliaments or national parliamentary committees could then publish a consultation document on the forthcoming legislative programme, request submissions from interest groups, civil society, etc and then feed this back to the Commission. National Parliaments could then request a written answer to the consultation and any clarifications of particular points of legislation.

4. Conclusion

There is an urgent need for national parliaments to take on a greater role in the European Union. The Convention on the Future of Europe provides a historic opportunity to assert the role of national parliaments in new and innovative way. In doing so, national parliaments can be part, indeed a large part, of the solution to the European Union's biggest problem, namely the lack of trust on the part of EU citizens in the EU decision-making process or the so-called 'democratic deficit'. National parliaments will need a defined strategy, with target dates, for how they see their role developing in the future and with specific measures to be implemented if they are to achieve an enhanced role. It is important that this does not become another House of Lords type reform, which has taken over 90 years.

National Parliaments in the European Union could be recognised as a fourth part of the European decision-making process, with a clearly defined and interactive part together with the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. The above paper sets out a number of practical and strategic suggestions for this to happen, which could be addressed at the Convention itself.

National parliaments have a key role to play in making sure that the European citizen does not become further disengaged from the European project. National parliamentarians should themselves take the lead in developing the role of national parliamentarians in relation to EU decision-making. They can do so by strengthening the scrutiny role of parliamentary committees in their own parliaments. They can do so by ensuring that the reforms put forward by the Convention make it easier for national parliaments to assert their influence, in relation to all aspects of EU decision-making. And they can do so by making sure that as a result of these reforms, national parliamentarians are seen to be exercising some degree of democratic control over EU decision-making on behalf of the citizens of the individual EU member states.

Question put, That the Annex be added to the Report.

The Committee divided (Div. 135).

Ayes, 2Noes, 5
Mr Roger CasaleMr Michael Connarty
Mr Jim DobbinMr Wayne David
Mr Mark Hendrick
Mr Angus Robertson
Mr Bill Tynan

Resolved, That the Report, as amended, be the Thirty-third Report of the Committee to the House.

Ordered, That the Chairman do make the Report to the House.

Ordered, That the provisions of Standing Order No. 134 (Select committees (reports)) be applied to the Report.

Several Papers were ordered to be appended to the Minutes of Evidence.

Ordered, That the Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee be reported to the House. — (The Chairman.)

  [Adjourned till Wednesday 26 June at half-past Ten o'clock.

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Prepared 21 June 2002