Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Lord Russell-Johnston President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

  The Prime Minister's speech in Warsaw last autumn on the future of Europe launched a debate in which all prominent European political personalities, including, recently, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, have taken part.

  Their visions for tomorrow's European Union are different, often conflicting and sometimes clearly contradictory. Substantial differences in political motivation underpin their interventions and influence their respective analyses, but there are some issues on which they all seem to broadly agree. The need for the setting up of a second chamber, or senate, to the European Parliament, composed of representatives of national parliaments of the European Union member states is the most important.

  It is broadly accepted that the European Parliament has so far failed to garner sufficient grass-root support and its democratic legitimacy is therefore questioned in member states. This has been obviously reflected in the disappointingly low turn-out in the last European election. Both its agenda, which deals almost exclusively with European Union legislation, and, perhaps paradoxically, the direct suffrage through which it is elected, contribute to this "alienation".

  In a way, the European Parliament is a victim of its own success. The fact that many of its most prominent personalities are virtual political unknowns at home is also serious and is shared by other international Assemblies including that which I chair, in which a lot of people do a huge amount of relevant dedicated work, which is not known or recognised.

  Even for a convinced European, and former member of the European Parliament such as myself, it is evident that the widespread perception of the European Union's only parliamentary body as remote and even irrelevant to the everyday life of European citizens, contributes to the perceived "democratic deficit" in the European Union, and, as such, represents a serious obstacle to the development of "an ever closer union" stipulated in the Treaty of Rome. Against this background, a chamber composed of representatives of national parliaments, could stabilise attitudes towards the Union and enable thinking about future integration, and its pace, to proceed with wider understanding and acceptance.

  Others may have different motives, and hope that the setting-up of such a body would give a more prominent role to those who wish to protect the interests of "the nation state" as opposed to the federal aspirations of many Brussels-based MEPs. Either way, creating a second chamber, founded in the national parliaments, would enable a dialogue to proceed which all could view as open.

  And that we certainly need.

  So my contention today is that in a very complicated situation, there is acceptance in general terms of the need for a second chamber and that the existing Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe should be the starting point. I think this is a practical commonsense position.

  This paper cannot claim to formally represent the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe but is intended to draw to your attention some of the thinking in the Assembly

  Apart from the European Parliament, which is directly elected, all other international parliamentary bodies in which our country is represented, namely the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Western European Union and the North-Atlantic Assembly, are composed of members of national parliaments.

  A future second chamber of the European Union would have to meet with regularity and have a workload that would go significantly beyond that of any of the parliamentary assemblies mentioned above, with the possible exception of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is, through its plenary sessions and the working bodies, sitting on a virtually permanent basis; and is the only international parliamentary body which has significant statutory prerogatives within the Organisation of which it is a part (election of Council of Europe's Secretary General, election of judges of the European Court of Human Rights, the obligation of the Committee of Ministers to respond to its recommendations, the possibility of initiating international conventions . . .).

  Consequently, such a chamber would have to be assisted by a secretariat, by infrastructural and logistical support that would be notably greater than that available to the other existing parliamentary assemblies.

  In the present circumstances of an exceptionally large majority, the British parliament, either through the House of Commons or through the House of Lords—provided that its representation in a possible future second chamber would be allowed—would probably be in the position to set up a new delegation to take part in the work of a possible new European Union chamber.

  However, a significant future reduction of the majority could threaten the normal functioning of such a representation, particularly in the light of the suggested frequency of the sittings (a report in favour of a second chamber, recently presented in the French Senate, envisaged six annual sessions lasting a day and a half each. But that's all notional of course. I think it would inevitably be more.

  Similarly, in most of the parliaments of the European Union's smaller member states, present or future, the setting up of a new body would create significant, even dramatic, difficulties, and for some of them, the requirements for participation would be impossible to meet. On the occasion of my official visits to parliaments of the Council of Europe member states, 41 visits so far, all member states except Cyprus and the United Kingdom, I have discussed this matter and often been told, particularly in smaller countries, that they have reached their limits.

  One should take into account that the Luxembourg parliament, for example, has only 60 members, Estonia, for example, has 100 and Slovenia, not the smallest of the possible future European Union members, has only 90. With the electoral systems in most of the countries on the continent being predominantly proportionate, majorities are often counted in single digits. To envisage, in such circumstances, a regular monthly or bi-monthly attendance at a possible future second chamber of the European Union with a delegation of five or 10, or even more parliamentarians, is just not realistic.

  It is therefore clear that international institutional proliferation must be avoided.

  Consequently, the best way forward would seem to be to try to combine the work of a future second chamber with the operations of an existing one. For the obvious reasons described above, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—the only one which sits virtually permanently and has at its disposal a relatively numerous and highly qualified secretariat (80 in the Assembly Secretariat, 1,700 others in the intergovernmental part with which it closely co-operates), lends itself as the obvious candidate for such a role and also already facilitates dialogue with non-EU countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Macedonia, etc.

  I would mention that the Assembly already serves as a body for parliamentary discussion to a number of international organisations other than the Council of Europe, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

  Of course I know that what I am saying challenges established institutional positions and would represent a radical change in the existing international architecture but I put it forward for two, I believe sound, reasons:

    1.  It would enable a genuine democratic expression not only in the EU but wider more effectively and stronger than the existing arrangements.

    2.  It would be cost-effective and possibly quick to implement.

28 June 2001

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