Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Simon Murphy MEP (Leader) and Richard Corbett MEP (Spokesperson on constitutional questions) on behalf of the European Parliamentary Labour Party

What are the underlying reasons for the apparent "disconnection" between national electorates and the EU?

  To a degree, the EU institutions will always be seen as distant:

    —  Serving half a continent, they are inevitably more distant and less visible than national or local institutions.

    —  In needing to reconcile a plurality of national and political views, they are inevitably slow and will rarely be an instrument for swift and decisive action.

    —  Their procedures, even if simplified, are different from national procedures.

    —  There are complications of language and culture.

  The EU institutions constantly strive to overcome this distance. However, there are recent signs that it may be growing: is this correct or is it an exaggerated response?

  The two most frequently quoted indicators of this are (1) the low turnout in European parliamentary elections and (2) the results of certain recent referenda.

  The decline in the level of turnout, (falling 13 percentage points over 20 years from 62 per cent in the 1979 European elections), has given cause for concern.

  But it is not a specifically European issue, as turnout has similarly fallen in national, regional and local elections, across Europe (and in other countries) over a similar period (see Annex 1).

  That being said, turnout in European elections will always be somewhat lower than in our national elections. No government is at stake — merely the balance between political groups in the parliament. Most crucial political issues are settled at the national level, not the European level.

  Local and regional elections have also shown dramatic declines in turnout. The problem is not to do with the European Parliament in particular, but is a challenge to democracy in general.

  As regards referenda, there were some 13 on the European issues in the 15 member states between 1972 and 1995 (on accessions, on the Single European Act and on Maastricht). Only one (the first Danish referendum on Maastricht) produced a negative result, and that by a wafer thin majority. Now, we suddenly have two referenda within a year producing a negative out come. Is this a trend? Were there particular factors at stake?

  Denmark certainly has a long history of controversy on Europe. This was their sixth referendum on Europe in three decades, many of them closely fought.

  In contrast, the Irish referendum result was a surprise in view of the large pro-European majorities obtained on previous occasions. One can, of course, point to the extraordinarily low turnout, to the fact that there were referenda held the same day on other issues, making a focussed European campaign difficult, and to the subject matter contained in the Treaty of Nice (complex changes to the weighting of votes and seats to the disadvantage of smaller member states). Nonetheless, few expected a negative result. It would indeed appear to indicate a certain malaise about Europe.

  Another factor to bear in mind is that the successive rounds of piecemeal reform of the EU institutions in a series IGCs, each one involving complex compromises on obscure subjects, with little public debate until afterwards, has not helped.

    How can decision-making be made more open and governments more accountable for the decisions they make in Council? Is it essential for a more open and accountable EU that the Council meet in public when legislating?

  Until recently legislation was adopted behind closed doors, by ministers alone, with no publication of the results of votes. This has now improved considerably:

    —  It is now obligatory to publish the results of votes on legislation in the Council

    —  Most legislation requires approval in a public vote in the elected parliament as well.

  There has also been a significant improvement in the right of public access to EU documents, including Council documents. Council occasionally meet in public, when discussing the general orientations.

  The Union has also been making progress in placing the "state of play" of its legislative procedures on the Internet, allowing anyone to see the Commission's proposal, Parliament's amendments, Council's position and so on right the way through to the final text. This also allows citizens to contact MEPs and ministries with their views.

  There is room for improvement. Council could meet in public when enacting legislation, and when discussing the annual reports of the other institutions and agencies.

What should the role of referendums be in the EU? How should the EU respond to national referendums, and could there be a role for Europe-wide referendums?

  National traditions diverge considerably on referendums. In some countries they are unconstitutional. For this reason, the idea of a Europe-wide referendum seems illusory. In any case, what should the rules for Europe-wide referendum be? Should it require a simple majority of those voting, or should this also comprise a majority within every member state, or a majority of member states?

  As regards national level referenda, in countries where this is possible, they can of course increase citizens' sense of participation and can also play a pedagogic role. However, referenda are a blunt instrument and are not always appropriate. It may well be right for Britain to have a referendum on whether or not it wishes to participate in the single currency, where its decision does not prevent others who wish to do so from going ahead, but it is arguably a different kettle of fish if a member state were to hold a referendum on enlargement with a negative result: it is denying the right of other countries, possibly also endorsed referendum, to join the Union.

Would election of the Commission or the President of the Commission either directly or by the European Parliament (a) be appropriate or (b) contribute to reconnecting electorates with the EU?

  The proposal that European Parliament should elect the President of the Commission would lead to political parties putting forward candidates for President during the European Parliamentary election campaign. National Parliamentary elections are really about keeping or changing national governments. European elections have up to now been about electing a Parliament in isolation with no visible impact on any executive. This idea would change that, with at least a visible impact on the choice of the President of the Commission. However, its practicality and its wider consequences on the EU's political system would need to be evaluated carefully.

  As to the idea that the President should be directly elected, such a presidential system would run counter to the national political traditions of all but one or two of the member states.

Should there be any new institutional arrangements to give national parliaments a more important role in the EU, such as the second Chamber, or involvement of national parliamentarians in the Council? [The Committee will take account of the results of the Lords Committee's inquiry into the second Chamber proposal]

  It has periodically been suggested that a "second chamber" for the European Parliament be set up composed of representatives of national parliaments. At first sight, such an idea is attractive. It again emphasises that Europe is not just an "intergovernmental" matter for ministers and diplomats. It could lead to a more informed debate in national parliaments about EU affairs. However, this particular idea is one that raises as many questions as it solves. It is also by no means the only possible solution to involving national parliaments more closely in European Union issues.

  This proposal was considered during the negotiation of the Amsterdam Treaty when it was strongly pushed by the then (Gaullist) French Government. However, it obtained little support for reasons which remain valid.

  Creating yet another EU institution risks making the EU system more complex and less comprehensible to the wider public. If it were given any power, it would make the decision taking system of the Union slower and cumbersome. If it were not given any powers, it would soon be portrayed in the press as an expensive talking shop.

  In any case, the EU's most powerful institution is the Council, whose members are drawn from governments enjoying the confidence of their national parliaments: in what sense would direct and separate parliamentary representation bring added value? Would it not just provide a European level repetition of national political conflicts?

  There are also practical problems. Experience with the pre 1979 European Parliament (which was then composed of representatives from the national parliaments) showed that it was very difficult, even then, for MPs to spare enough time to do the job effectively. Furthermore, majorities depended on which national delegation was absent in it entirety due to key events in their own national parliament. One day, there would be no Germans, the next day no Brits, and so on.

  Experience in parliamentary bodies drawn from national parliaments does not lend support to arguments used by some of those advocating such a body, who claim that extra scrutiny by known and trusted national politicians would fill the gap in public confidence in Europe. What proportion of the electorate has heard of who represents Britain in the WEU Assembly or in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, even when a UK MP has been elected to the presidency of such bodies?

  Such bodies are useful for networking, but little more. And for such purposes, there already exists the Conference of European Affairs Committees ("COSAC"). Created a few years ago, it is developing a useful role as a forum and an opportunity for those MPs most involved in EU issues in their national parliaments to meet and network. It would be more practical to use this light framework rather than amend the treaties to create a new institution.

  More effort should be made to explain the EU's new, more democratic, structure whereby draft legislation must pass two tests to become law: acceptability to the ministers from elected national governments meeting in the Council and acceptability to the directly elected MEPs in the Parliament. Two hurdles constituting a double check on the quality and acceptability of legislation. In practice, already a two-chamber system. A third chamber would be excessive for a level of governance with limited powers.

  Faced with these arguments, most supporters of the idea have backtracked somewhat.

  The idea that a second or third chamber would be a good way of involving national parliaments in European debates is thus fraught with difficulty. Instead, there is ample scope to discuss how national parliamentary scrutiny over their own ministers in the Council can been improved.

  National parliaments are now guaranteed a six week period for deliberation and discussion with their ministers of any Commission proposal before Council adopts a position. How this is done is, of course, up to each country. Some, such as the Nordic countries, have set up far-reaching procedures. Their ministers virtually go before the national parliament's specialist committee on their way to Brussels and on their way back.

  There is, of course, nothing to stop other national parliaments following this example. But it does not require a change in the treaty.

  There are also other ways to improve national parliamentary involvement. One suggestion is that ministers at Council meetings be accompanied not just by civil servants but by the chair (or others) of the relevant parliamentary committee.

  The Chair of the European Parliament committee on Constitutional Affairs, Mr Napolitana, who used to be the President of the Italian Camera di Diputati, is currently drawing up a report on the role of the national parliaments, which your committee will no doubt wish to look at.

What changes are needed to the EU's legislative process to facilitate democratic scrutiny before decisions are made? For example, is there adequate consultation at early enough stages; and should there be tougher rules on allowing time for scrutiny by national parliaments?

  When discussing democratic scrutiny, some try to pit the European Parliament against national parliaments and make rivals of them. In fact their two roles are complementary and not contradictory.

  National parliaments help shape their country's national position on EU issues and they hold their ministers, their own individual members of the Council that is, to account. The European Parliament deals with the Council as a whole, as an institution and, of course, keeps an eye on the Commission.

  Now both these aspects — the national and the European — have been improved, notably through the Maastricht and the Amsterdam Treaties. For instance, the national parliaments were given the guarantee that Council would not act on Commission legislative proposals without leaving national parliaments six weeks to discuss the issue with their respective minister before the Council meeting. At the same time the European Parliament was given its co-decision powers (introduced by Maastricht, extended by Amsterdam) and this has improved the European Parliamentary scrutiny.

  There is room for further improvement on both these dimensions. The deadline that gives national parliaments time to act could be extended to non legislative proposals as well as to legislation. The co-decision powers of the European Parliament should be extended to those few areas that remain where the Union adopts legislation but without using the co-decision procedure.

  On the national side, each Member State Parliament will take advantage of this in its own way in accordance with their own traditions. No doubt they will learn from each other's experiences through COSAC and spread best practice.

Could national parliaments play a greater role in informing the public about the EU and its activities, and channelling the public's views to EU institutions?

  Yes, if they so wish, this would be a welcome development.

What is the potential contribution of delimitation of competences, subsidiarity and variable-speed Europe to reducing any "disconnection" between electorates and political institutions? Would a clear statement of the EU's purpose help? What impact will enlargement have?

  A number of national governments are pressing for a better definition of the European Union's field of competence.

  Such a task will not be easy. In modern systems of multi-level governance, it is practically impossible to allocate responsibilities for whole subject-areas entirely to one level. Instead, the concept of cooperation between different levels of governance is appropriate.

  In practice, the EU touches a wide range of policy areas, but to a limited degree. Even a subject such as education, which is essentially a national or regional responsibility, is dealt with by the EU to a limited degree (mutual recognition or diplomas, educational exchanges, student mobility). Conversely, a subject such as agriculture, which is largely a European responsibility, still leaves ample scope for national action within the European framework. This is sketched out in the Treaty, but the exact degree of European involvement is determined each time through the political processes of the European Union.

  Some of those pushing for a charter of competences to be added to the treaty are doing so because they fear over-centralisation or an undermining of existing constitutional structures (eg Lander — Federal relation in Germany). But the EU structure has an in-built bias against over-centralisation:

    —  The EU can only act in those areas specified in the Treaties which are laid down by national Parliaments and can only be amended with the agreement of each of them.

    —  Even within these areas, no significant legislation can be adopted without the approval of the Council, composed of national ministers, who are members of national governments accountable to national Parliaments:

      —  As an extra safeguard, the European Parliament provides extra scrutiny and is now able to block EU legislation in most areas.

    —  As a final safeguard, the principle of subsidiarity has been written into the Treaties allowing an appeal to the Court should the EU overstep the mark.

    —  Consequently, the EU is decentralised:

      —  Only 3 per cent of public expenditure is through the European budget: 97 per cent is national or sub-national.

      —  The European Commission, far from being the great bureaucracy of popular mythology, has a smaller staff than most average-sized cities (eg Leeds).

  Many key political issues: health care, education, the social security system, housing, income tax, crime and punishment, the organisation of local government, etc will remain essentially national issues, settled in national elections and subject to legislation by national parliaments. We are not creating a centralized Super-state.

  Nevertheless, a review of the competences of the EU is one of the tasks set by the conclusions of the Dec 2000 Nice Treaty.

What contribution can be made by regional and local government and devolved institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and should the EU have any new institutional arrangements in this respect?

  Regions and local authorities are "networking" with European institutions more than ever before. More and more have offices representing their interests in Brussels. The (still new and developing) Committee of Regions has given them a formal voice in the system and access to information. This is all to the good.

  The Committee of Regions cannot, however, be given a "codecision" role similar to the EP. Its composition is too heterogenous (some Member States having powerful regional governments and others only relatively weak local authorities).

  This then poses the question of how to involve devolved authorities when the EU is taking decisions in policy areas which, domestically, are their responsibility (eg in the UK, fishing, education)? The treaty now allows (and some Member States have done this) regional ministers to represent them in Council meetings. But they must take a single line and vote as a State. So in any case, coordination is essential to have an agreed position. The UK has set up mechanisms to do this which seem to be working well.

  Another aspect of the regional dimension is that MEPs are now elected and work on a regional basis.

What is the role of the European Parliament in promoting a more democratic EU? Is there scope for more co-operation between the European Parliament and national Parliaments?

  These are two questions in one and need separate, but complementary, answers.

  The role of the European Parliament is part of what makes the EU different from a traditional intergovernmental organisation. Indeed, it is only necessary to imagine what the EU would be like without the Parliament: it would be a system totally dominated by bureaucrats and diplomats, loosely supervised by ministers flying periodically into Brussels. The existence of a body of full-time representatives in the heart of decision-taking in Brussels, asking questions, knocking on doors, bringing the spotlight to shine in dark corners, in touch with constituency interests back home, makes the EU system more open, transparent and democratic than would otherwise be the case. MEPs are drawn from governing parties and opposition parties and represent not just capital cities but the regions in their full diversity. In short, the Parliament brings pluralism into play and brings added value to the scrutiny of EU legislation.

  It also takes the edge off national conflict. Council can all too often give the appearance of decision taking by gladiatorial combat between those representing national interests. Reality is more complex and the fact that the Parliament organises itself not in national delegations but in political groups shows that the dividing line on most concrete subjects is not between nations but between political viewpoints or between sectoral interests.

  Where the European Parliament scores less well, is in terms of its visibility. It lacks the cut and thrust of debate between government and opposition that can be found in some national parliaments. A multiplicity of languages makes its debates less spontaneous. In other words, it has its limits, and that is why it will never be the Parliament alone that is responsible for adopting or rejecting European legislation, but Parliament jointly with representatives of national governments in the bi-cameral legislature that we have, for most legislation, since the treaty of Amsterdam. Within those limits, it plays a useful and irreplaceable role.

  Regarding the question of cooperation between the European Parliament and national parliaments, this has evolved over the years with a variety of mechanisms such as COSAC, joint meetings of corresponding parliamentary committees, cooperation among parliamentary libraries, annual meetings of the Speakers, MEPs giving evidence to national parliamentary committees, and so on. Some national parliaments give MEPs a formal role in their own structures (eg in Belgium, the committee responsible for EU Affairs is composed of 10 MPs, 10 Senators and 10 MEPs). We were delighted to see that the responses to the questionnaire sent out by COSAC to national parliaments, prior to the Versailles COSAC meeting, were positive as regards the participation of national parliamentarians in meetings of European Parliament committees, with every single national parliament responding stating that it found such participation to be a very positive experience.

  This natural evolution of cooperative structures has come about without an overall blueprint and, given the diversity of national parliamentary procedures, such a blueprint is not desirable.

How should the debate on the future of Europe be conducted, eg should there be a convention, and if so, how could it be made representative and how should it operate?

  On the idea of a "convention" to prepare the next IGC, why not? IGCs are usually prepared by a working party of foreign ministry officials. A wider, pluralistic body holding public debates, exploring various options and trying to solve differences could make a useful contribution and help counter the impression that treaty revisions are always presented to national parliaments as a fait accompli.

  Of course, an IGC requiring the unanimous consent of every national government to any amending treaty remains a legal requirement, and this fact will no doubt feature prominently in the minds of those who participate in any convention. The convention cannot replace this treaty requirement.

Annex 1—Decline in Turnout in elections to national parliament's

    —  in the Netherlands there was a fall of 14.8 percentage points between the 1977 and the 1998 national parliamentary elections.

    —  In France, the decline has been 13.3 points between the 1978 and the 1997 elections.

    —  In west Germany, the decline was 12.6 points between the 1976 and the 1990 elections.

    —  In the UK, the decline was 18.6 points between 1979 and the 2001 elections.

    —  In Portugal, the decline was 16.5 points between 1979 and the 1999 elections.

27 September 2001

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