Select Committee on European Union Seventh Report



29.  Our witnesses identified a number of difficulties with a proposed second chamber. We consider these in three groups:

  • Practical
  • Political
  • Constitutional

Practical Problems

30.  An immediate practical difficulty with a second chamber involving existing members of national parliaments is time. If the second chamber is to be composed of national parliamentarians, and if it is to require a regular commitment, how will busy parliamentarians find or make time to serve in two places, which are quite likely to be some distance apart? These are well-known problems with any system of dual mandate and, in the European context, surfaced during the early days of the European Parliament when it was made up of national parliamentarians. We were told that, in some cases of a dual mandate, a parliamentarian would be able to use experience under one mandate to support another but in this case "either ……one of the mandates is a part-time job or there are 48 hours in a day" (p108), and that, in the case of the 1979 European Parliament which was composed of national parliamentarians, "it was very difficult, even then, for MPs to spare enough time to do the job effectively"(p62)[16]. Concern was expressed that members of the second chamber "would be expected to devote themselves to long and difficult meetings three or four times a year regardless of the domestic agendas of their own parliaments and national electoral mandates" (Q 276, pp 69, 91). It was suggested that problems of timing would only not arise if the work of the proposed chamber was not serious enough to justify its creation (p114). Lord Russell-Johnston thought that problems with a dual mandate would be most significant for delegates coming from busy national parliaments with a small majority (Q 87). Our conclusion overall is that a dual mandate involving national parliamentarians in a second chamber that was busy enough to justify its existence would place so onerous a burden on an individual parliamentarian that, in reality, it would not be possible to do both jobs effectively. There could be particular problems for parliamentarians early in their career, trying to undertake two careers and not succeeding in either.

31.  We accept that the Prime Minister, among others, is not in fact proposing a chamber that would meet often. In making his proposal, we see that he is attempting to meet these arguments head on. The flavour of his proposal is for a chamber that meets infrequently; is not expected to get involved in the detail of legislation; and is formed of senior parliamentarians who carry real political weight and will make a significant contribution. We are not convinced, however, that such a model will work. Subsidiarity is an important issue but not one likely to offer sufficient interest to senior parliamentarians, who will have a diversity of pre-occupations and who will accordingly face particularly serious constraints on their time. Members may wish (and need) to get involved in the details of legislation and any general debates held in, and resolutions agreed, by such a body will degenerate to a general level in order to secure agreement. Without a real job of work to do, such a chamber could (it was suggested) also be portrayed - not least by the Press - as "an expensive talking-shop catering for backbench MPs in search of trips abroad" (p61).

32.  A practical problem will also arise with identifying at which stage in the legislative process a second chamber might look at proposed European legislation, if that is to be one of its functions. It is difficult to envisage how proposals could be checked for subsidiarity (as suggested by the Prime Minister) without looking at a text in detail and it was suggested to us that doing so would take time (Q 276). Consideration at an early stage would be futile, unless based on a wide-ranging and in depth analysis of policy issues, which does not seem to be a proposed role for the second chamber, and would be very time-consuming for members and require lots of staff (Q 163). Consideration at a later stage would run the danger of second-guessing the Council of Ministers (Q 181). Trying to involve a body that only met infrequently in the final stages of the legislative process would also be futile: even scrutiny committees and national governments who are in constant touch with legislation as it develops sometimes find it hard to keep up. And, adding another institution to the legislative process would increase delay and "reduce the much despised common denominator of agreement yet further" (pp61-62, 117, 120 also Q181). We accept that there is a real problem in identifying a suitable stage in the legislative process for a second chamber to function.

33.  Witnesses cited other practical problems with any second chamber (pp102, 114-5). These included: location and logistics, languages to be used, size and cost, which could be very high. We do not pursue these in detail but merely note them for the record. We note, however, that Her Majesty's Government thought the practical problems to be "not insurmountable" (p2), although they would not be drawn on details. The onus is on those who are proposing a second chamber to prove its practicability, as well as its desirability, before the proposal goes forward.

Political Problems

34.  Witnesses cited political problems with a dual mandate, problems that would apply at several levels. Jean-Pierre Cot was concerned that "competing legitimacy" could be "schizophrenic" …… unsound and unhealthy" for the individual parliamentarian (p109). At the level of national delegations, Richard Corbett MEP and Andrew Duff MEP both raised concerns about how representatives in the second chamber would operate in national delegations (p69, Q181). Other concerns were raised about ensuring balanced representation from bicameral national parliaments (p100) and about how a parliament with few members would regularly be able to spare representatives to attend a second chamber (p31).

35.  There was evidence that some MEPs did not find that their European work translated into political benefits nationally, when important decisions - such as the composition of party lists - continued to be taken at a national level (p108). Lord Norton of Louth questioned how members drawn from national parliaments could truly represent those parliaments (Q 40) and Mr Pierucci from the Commission also doubted how an individual could be mandated to vote (Q 163). It was suggested that a delegate with no mandate would not be in a position to take decisions (Q 216).

36.  More generally, some thought the proposed new chamber "one institution too far". This would not be a second chamber, but a third. The European Parliament itself is one; and the Council, acting in a legislative capacity is another. There were thought to be dangers of competing legitimacy between democratic institutions appointed by different procedures (p109). Sir William Nicol, formally Director-General in the Council, suggested that it would be "unedifying" if the EU saw "running conflict" between three legislatures. Conflict would be "inevitable", not least if a "second" chamber saw its own national legitimacy (derived from representatives of individual states) as a reason to block other institutions (p120).

37.  Others argued that the political status of any second chamber would be unclear; and that any necessary political function was already provided by the European Parliament, even if the work of the members of the European Parliament was not widely understood. Andrew Duff MEP suggested that a second chamber as proposed by the UK government would "second-guess" the EU legislative processes. If its work was based on a political code of competencies with no legal force, how would that fit with the Treaties? "Legal uncertainty and political confusion will ensue". (We say more on this in paragraph 51 below) He also queried how "blatantly political intrusion" into the existing checks and balances would work (p69).

38.  We conclude that, while tension between strong and powerful democratically elected bodies can be healthy, we are not persuaded that this applies in the European institutional context. An elected second chamber is bound to be drawn into conflict with the European Parliament. It would also be hard to avoid the members getting involved in the details of legislation whatever the "Terms of Reference" of a second chamber might say. There would also be difficulties in ensuring that national governments did not seek to pack their delegations with loyal supporters. More importantly, if a second chamber claimed legitimacy equal to that of the European Parliament, who would be accountable to the electorate for policy outcomes? There is also a possibility that a second chamber, if it were to involve significant numbers of national parliamentarians to the extent necessary to make a substantial contribution, could, by distracting national parliamentarians, weaken scrutiny by national parliaments of national governments. There could also be problems if a three-chamber system, with a three-way co-decision procedure, involved national parliamentarians both in making legislation at a European level and scrutinising it in their national parliaments.

Constitutional Problems

39.  A number of our witnesses were suspicious of the motives underlying proposals for a second chamber. It was suggested that the proposal was an attempt by the UK government to "disable" the EU (p70) or made in opposition to proposals for a written constitution in Europe (p118); or that the creation of a "compliant" parliament - by implication one lacking both legislative teeth and democratic legitimacy - would be for the convenience of civil servants (p109). We make no comment on these views. The very fact that they have been expressed to us signifies deep dissatisfaction with the proposed second chamber. It would be surprising, however, were these to be real dangers as many of the proponents of a second chamber are clearly well-disposed towards the European Union.

16   Witnesses from the FCO hoped that the experience of the pre 1979 European Parliament "would not be directly relevant to the second chamber" (Q 26). Back

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