Select Committee on European Union Seventh Report


A SECOND PARLIAMENTARY CHAMBER FOR EUROPE: AN UNREAL SOLUTION TO SOME REAL PROBLEMS

PART 5:  THE REAL ISSUES

Introduction

40.  This part of our report analyses the pressures which, we believe, lie behind the various proposals for a second chamber. What is it that those pushing for a second chamber really want to achieve? What are the real problems that need solving? Is a second chamber the best solution? If not, what other way forward would be better?

41.  This part of our report is quite wide-ranging. We could have taken more evidence and held a much longer inquiry into each one of the topics covered here. What we have accordingly tried to do is draw attention to those issues that we think are significant, rather than to provide final answers. We hope that by doing this we will inform the debate, not least in the forthcoming Convention to prepare the 2004 IGC on which we expect at least one member of the House to serve. We also note that our sister committee in the Commons is conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into Democracy and Accountability in Europe and we look forward to seeing their report.

42.  We divide this part of our Report into three sections:

43.  Under the section of areas where oversight by parliamentary bodies might currently be thought to be weak, we consider first scrutiny of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), in which the role of the European Parliament is limited. We then look at the case for additional scrutiny of the Commission's annual work programme, which the European Parliament does examine formally. Under constitutional issues, we try to analyse some of the issues lying behind, in particular, the Prime Minister's proposal for a second chamber. These include issues such as the need to sort out the competencies of the various players in the European Union; the related case for a statement of principles underlying subsidiarity; and the case for Treaty reform. Under democracy issues, we deal with the lack of connection between institutions and the citizens those institutions are supposed to serve. In this section of the report we also cover co-ordination between national parliaments and scrutiny by national parliaments of European matters, including co-ordination with the European Parliament.

Areas Where Oversight is Weak

COMMON FOREIGN AND SECURITY POLICY (CFSP)

44.  There are formal inter-governmental procedures for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (which is not subject to community competence but forms the Second Pillar as established under the Maastricht Treaty). Developments in this area are subject to different procedures: in practice, the CFSP works mainly through diplomatic channels, and, in relative terms, fewer instruments are subject to the scrutiny processes. Many policies are agreed without reference to national parliaments. Some of those in favour of a second chamber have suggested that such a body could provide oversight in this area but a number of objections have been raised to this. First, what guarantee is there that those members appointed to a wide-ranging second chamber would have sufficient specialism in CFSP matters? Secondly, as discussed above (paragraph 32) if the second chamber were to examine policy in general terms its work could be lacking in substance; and if it were to attempt to tackle individual policy initiatives, it would be difficult to manage their flow through the legislative timetable.

45.  It was suggested that national and European Parliament scrutiny ought to be adequate; a third level would not add value (Q 181) although the European Parliament's role could be developed (Q 199). Andrew Duff MEP proposed a more permanent joint arrangement between the European and national parliaments (p69). We note that a new "Assembly" or "conference" of national parliamentarians has been proposed to fulfil this function but there is little to suggest that there is any support for such a body, especially if established on a formal basis. The Government has made clear its opposition to any such body being set up in advance of the 2004 IGC. We note there exist already a number of Assemblies (WEU, OSCE, Council of Europe, NATO), and a further body could only be of any use if it consolidated the work of two or more such existing bodies. In any event, creating an ad hoc assembly now could prejudice the outcome of the future of Europe debates being held in the run-up to the IGC. We conclude that, at least until the IGC reaches conclusions in 2004, the existing parliamentary bodies should continue to play their roles. Those preparing the IGC should examine the mechanisms of CFSP scrutiny in depth. Informal co-operation between national parliamentarians with expertise in CFSP and related matters would also serve to enhance scrutiny of CFSP.

COMMISSION'S WORK PROGRAMME

46.  The government and others have suggested that a second chamber could examine the Commission's Annual Work Programme. The FCO thought that this "would give national parliaments a more direct voice in ensuring that the institutions delivered on the EU's political priorities" (p 1), and would allow an examination of whether proposals would meet the test of subsidiarity (Q 21). This seems a sensible subject for such a body to consider but we doubt the value of additional formalised systematic scrutiny of the work programme by a second chamber: the programme often reaches national parliaments only well into the year and, although important, it may not be the only source of direction for the European agenda.

47.  We are also not convinced that the establishment of a second chamber is the only way to ensure proper scrutiny in this area. The Work Programme alone is not of sufficient weight to justify a new chamber to scrutinise it. Any lack of planning at a European level can be addressed by national parliamentary scrutiny, which in turn feeds into the activities of Member States acting in the Council. Our own Committee aims to hear from representatives of every presidency before it begins; and to hear from the Minister for Europe after every European Council. We have also on occasions examined issues before a European Council. We are very grateful to those who have assisted with our deliberations in this regard and we will examine ways to strengthen our scrutiny of the European Council. We consider that thorough scrutiny by national parliaments, combined with similar work by the European Parliament, could provide sufficient examination of the Commission's Work Programme.

Constitutional Issues

CLARIFYING COMPETENCIES

48.  When proposing a second chamber, the Prime Minister also set out the case for reforming the competencies of the European Union. A Declaration adopted at Nice[17] calls for an examination of the possibility of establishing and then monitoring a delimitation of competencies (Q1), which witnesses from the FCO told us could be in a statement of principles: this would be a "more accessible and clearer text" than a legal text (Q 5). Such a text would also avoid the "difficulties" with a legal document on the German model (Q 32). This is a laudable objective. How can the citizens of Europe have any confidence in the European Union if it is not clear who is responsible for what? on what occasions the Union is meant to act? on what occasions the Member States are meant to act within Europe? and on what occasions Member States Governments alone are meant to act? It clearly contributes to the lack of interest in the European Union that there is little understanding of how it really works. We welcome the Prime Minister's attempt to tackle this issue.

49.  We received evidence, however, that defining such a statement of principles would itself be an extremely complicated exercise. Of particular concern would be sensitivities about the competencies to be given to regions. In some countries, such as Germany, there are regions that enjoy a relatively strong position. In most Member States, however, the regions find themselves "in more ambiguous terrain". There are also practical questions about the clarification of competencies. What should the contents of any such statement be? Should it be legally binding or just have political status? Should it be a constitution or a contribution to a constitution? (p103). These are all very complicated questions on which we do not express an opinion here. We conclude that if the case for a second chamber is built on the existence or potential existence of a statement of principles of competencies, then the second chamber proposal is premature.

50.  The second chamber proposal comes forward in this area, however, as a contribution to the debate about who should be entitled to implement or enforce any such statement of principles underlying competencies - sometimes called a charter of competencies. Assuming that a charter of competencies can in fact be agreed, there is no reason why an institution - a second chamber - is necessary to police it. Why is it not possible to mainstream oversight of any such charter in the existing institutions both of the European Union and of the Member States? If the second chamber were to be a body meeting infrequently, their contributions to any scrutiny of a charter of competencies, while worthy, might well miss the boat. If the issue is to monitor subsidiarity, Stanley Crossick of the European Policy Forum told us that this was a matter which national parliamentarians should not be involved in anyway (even if meeting under the umbrella of a second chamber) because they had an interest in defining where matters lay under subsidiarity (Q 100).

51.  If any such charter of competencies were, whether or not part of a "constitution" of Europe, to be a legal document, then the European Court of Justice, or a new institution, might develop a further and more formal role as a European constitutional court. In proposing that the second chamber monitors a charter of competencies, the Prime Minister appears to be positing political review by a body of democratically elected politicians instead of judicial review by such a court. In any event, the creation of a charter of competencies would lead to questions about its legal status, as has already been seen in the case of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The conflicts that would arise would be all the more intense were any such charter to be under the authority of an elected second chamber. There would also be potential for conflict between the second chamber on the one hand and the European Parliament and the Commission on the other, as all these institutions would in all probability claim a legitimate interest in scrutinising any such charter.

52.  There are other practical difficulties with what might be described as "a chamber of subsidiarity" to police the various boundaries between the levels of competency in the EU. One is the practical difficulty in identifying an appropriate stage in the legislative process when the body could operate (as set out in paragraph 32). If Commission proposals were to be checked for competence by the second chamber early on (as envisaged by the Government, Q3) this would be too early as they are quite likely to be amended by the European Parliament and the Council; if the second chamber was expected to intervene at the end of the process, national parliamentarians would be in the difficult position of being asked to second-guess a position adopted by the Council (p61, Q 181), formed of ministers who are themselves democratically accountable, on which we say more below (paragraph 59).

53.  It is also questionable whether sensitive questions of subsidiarity would not be better exposed by specialist examination by expert national parliamentary committees, rather than by "occasional visitation from Euro generalists" who would make up the proposed second chamber (p68, Q206). The Federal Trust suggested that the European Union has existing mechanisms for scrutinising subsidiarity and that the second chamber would not be needed if the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers gave "serious consideration" to these matters (p113). The institutions of the Union have a duty to observe the principles of subsidiarity; and the European Parliament has a role in monitoring those principles too. Our conclusion is that it is equally important for national parliaments to monitor subsidiarity, and agreeing a clearer set of competencies for the various elements in the Union would assist this.

54.  We have already, referred to the Report from the French Senate on a second chamber[18]. We commend this as a thorough and well-researched document, setting out in more detail then we have been able to the many variant proposals that have been made. One of that Report's many arguments in favour of a second chamber is that it would help to achieve a better balance between the Union and its Member States by allowing careful attention to be paid to the consistent application of the principle of subsidiarity. It is argued that this is a role not currently carried out. We can see the force of this argument. We can also see the case for arguing that national parliaments working together would strengthen their hand if they reached a common approach on particular questions. But we doubt whether it is in fact likely that a proposal that so fundamentally breached the principles of subsidiarity would actually get very far at all. There are already a number of stringent tests that can, in effect, check subsidiarity in a particular case. Do the Treaties allow it? Does it have the support of the necessary majority in the Council? Can it withstand parliamentary scrutiny? Would a proposal survive on a challenge in the Court? Adding a second chamber would not add value to these mechanisms; and, in our view, the benefits would certainly not be sufficient in themselves to justify the creation of a second chamber.

A BODY TO AMEND THE TREATIES

55.  Another possible constitutional function of second chamber might be to monitor the Treaties, or parts of the Treaties. It has often been suggested that the Treaties could be split into two sections: constitutional and other, with different procedures applying for amendments to Articles under the two different headings (see for example Q 163). At first sight, it is attractive to suggest that a second chamber might oversee changes to the non-constitutional sections of the Treaties but it is hard to see how Governments would allow such a body any more than an advisory role in such work. An alternative method of involving democratically elected national parliamentarians in the process is the Convention model on which we say more below in paragraphs 76-78. One witness noted that the Council was already able to amend (by unanimity) some Treaty provisions, and this could be extended (Q193). We conclude that it would be impractical to involve an elected second chamber in Treaty revision in any other than a purely advisory capacity.

Democracy

56.  Some aspects of disconnection between individuals and political institutions are common to both national politics and European politics. Lack of interest in parliament, low turnouts for elections, and the absence of media interest in parliamentary activity are evident at both national and EU level. But there is general agreement that the problem is particularly acute at EU level, although Richard Corbett MEP argued that the democratic deficit in Europe had to a large extent been overcome: the EU was no longer "hopelessly undemocratic" but remained "inevitably distant" (Q 182). We note that it might be argued that the problem remained greater in the UK than in some other Member States. In considering this question, we prefer to use the term "disconnection" rather than "democratic deficit" as the concepts of connection, disconnection and reconnection seem to us more neatly to summarise what it is that people feel is lacking in Europe at present.

57.  The evidence we received suggests that, at best, it is doubtful whether the creation of a European second chamber would make a significant difference to any of these problems. Lord Norton of Louth argued that "it is impossible to solve the democratic deficit solely by looking at it in terms of process. If we just start tinkering with the system or creating new institutions that is not going to impact significantly on people's perception of the European Union……. The real problem in terms of public perceptions relates to scope rather than process" (Q47). He said "even if citizens were aware of the changes, there is no reason to believe that the impact on the democratic deficit would be substantial"(p16). Richard Corbett MEP said "creating yet another EU institution will hardly be popular and risks making the EU system still more incomprehensible to the wider public" (p61). It was suggested that, in the context of enlargement, it would make more sense to reform existing institutions, rather than bolt new ones on - "deepening not widening" (p107). Lord Norton of Louth also told us, very succinctly, that underlying the second chamber proposal was "a fundamental problem of popular legitimacy …… arising from the limited impact into the law making process of the EU by directly elected representatives of the people"(p 1). More fundamental reform of the EU may be necessary, and that could only arise from a "reasonably well-rooted political culture" which was lacking (pp13, 17-18). It was also argued in general terms that any lack of connection arises from political rather than institutional reasons and the creation of any new institution will not in itself provide a solution (Q 167). Bolting on a few parliamentarians to solve the problem was, to quote Christopher Beazley MEP, "absurd" (Q 219). The problem will only be solved when EU citizens take a closer interest in the work of the Union.

58.  We believe that the problem of disconnection between citizens and the institutions is of importance because many individual citizens in the EU are fearful that, while "Europe" is a significant factor in their lives, they cannot control it (Q 57). There are obvious dangers in this lack of connection and the consequent sense of frustration. It is unclear how far a proposed second chamber would in fact solve this problem. Many citizens are ignorant about many of the political institutions that already represent them and an element of ignorance will always remain. Whether people are satisfied with their institutions will to a great extent depend on the quality of those institutions. Our witnesses presented us with a number of practical alternatives to the creation of a second chamber, to help to solve issues of disconnection. Some have suggested better education (Q 283); but many witnesses talked of the need to reform the working of the Council, to which we now turn.

REFORM OF THE COUNCIL

59.  It was suggested that the Council being composed of ministers themselves democratically accountable in their Member States already provided a body with a certain degree of democratic legitimacy. Andrew Duff MEP asked "if the Council makes the law, and if Ministers in the Council represent their national parliaments, how can their parliaments be given a separate, valid legislation role", unless one assumed that government ministers in the Council did not adequately represent their national parliaments (p69). In evidence to us, the Federal Trust welcomed the position of Johannes Rau, President of Germany, who had argued that the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers "should be developed into a genuine bicameral parliament"(p115).

60.  Many of our witnesses suggested that the Council, in its legislative role, should operate more in public although executive decisions would remain in private (Q 170). Decisions were taken behind closed doors and there was no public accountability, in spite of the numerous officials who attended meetings of the Council. Lord Inglewood MEP accepted that deals would continue to be done but "what matters is that once the deal is up front those who are responsible for it are held to account and describe what it is they have done and why……to justify it" (Q 302). Stanley Crossick thought that the functions of the Council were confused; it was secretive; and its decision-making procedures were "appallingly complex, "making it difficult for citizens to understand what was happening" (Q 111). Witnesses suggested that the Council should split into two separate formations, with a separate legislative Council for the purposes of agreeing legislation (QQ 129, 197). This latter (legislative) formation would be more transparent and accountable.

61.  Others suggested that national parliamentarians could be directly involved in the work of such a legislative Council. It was suggested that, instead of Ministers being accompanied by civil servants alone, they could also be accompanied by representatives of their national parliaments with a particular interest in the legislation being considered (QQ109, 129). Such changes might in any event need to come about with enlargement, when the present "diplomatic" procedures of the Council might no longer be adequate (Q 178). It was also suggested that Presidency ministers should, in addition to their Council work, appear before their national parliament's subject Committees (Q 316).

62.  The suggestion that the Council, when acting as a legislature, should operate in a more transparent way is made in a genuine attempt to increase accountability of the Council. Achieving greater accountability would significantly help reconnection of citizens with the institutions of Europe and provide important reassurance to the public about the working of their institutions. It is unlikely, however, that Member States governments will agree such a change in the near future, as doing so would expose political deals to outside scrutiny. Letting the cameras in to this process would by no means do away with the deal making, as it would continue in the corridors outside any public meeting. We see a paradox here: the Council performs a legislative function but is also an executive, with its inherent desire for secrecy. We recognise the genuine desire of our witnesses to address this paradox head on by increasing openness. Our recommendation is accordingly that Member States' governments should make every effort to ensure that they are fully accountable to their national parliaments both in being scrutinised on Council meetings in advance, and in reporting the outcome of Council meetings after the event.

63.  We also consider that the present system of Council activity will not be sustainable in a Europe enlarged to nearly thirty members. We would hope that those debating the future shape of the Council under enlargement would accordingly take account of the case for greater accountability and transparency in its procedures. We also recommend that those preparing the next IGC give consideration to the role of the Presidency. Each Presidency has its own objectives and priorities. This can provide a welcome impetus for decisions but can also lead to substantial shifts in political emphasis and achievements every six months, with each country given only a limited chance to deliver changes and thereby make their mark. Given that the present rotating Presidency would be unwieldy in a Europe of 30, why not grasp the nettle of reform and make the Presidency just that, a purely procedural function?

THE GENERAL AFFAIRS COUNCIL

64.  Some of our witnesses suggested that the status of the Minister for Europe could be strengthened. It was suggested that the role of the Minister for Europe could be developed in the context of beefing up the General Affairs Council to be a stronger co-ordinating body composed of senior ministers, perhaps of deputy Prime Ministers based in Brussels (QQ 113, 137). Our Ministers for Europe, both the present incumbent and his predecessors, have taken great efforts to keep our Committee informed, both by regularly appearing before us and in written communication. We are very grateful to the Minister and his officials for the time that they spend in keeping us up to date. We urge the pre-IGC Convention to consider the role of the General Affairs Council.

A GREATER VOICE FOR THE REGIONS

65.  Another area in which it is argued that there could be greater reconnection with the citizens would be if the regions of the Member States of the European Union had a greater say in its operation. This view has been expressed by Commissioner Patten[19]. National governments could, as Stanley Crossick suggested, make greater use of regional representatives on delegations to the Council of Ministers (Q 100). At first sight, we can see the case for involving regional representatives in a second chamber particularly if doing so was combined with a review of other bodies that already involve such representation. This could help to reduce regional pressures that might subvert national identity. We note, however, two significant practical problems. First, the influence and status of regions is very asymmetrical between the Member States of the European Union. While some Member States would be more than happy to encourage regional activity, others would most strongly resist it and as Lord Norton of Louth pointed out it would be difficult to ensure proper regional representation across all the Member States. More generally, some might see such moves as an attempt to dilute the nation states (Q 53). Secondly, Europe already has a Committee of the Regions and those proposing a second chamber admit that its creation would lead to a re-examination of the role of that body (Q 13). This body is said to perform valuable work in scrutinising legislation at an early stage but its work lacked visibility (Q 265). We question whether any new formula for involving the regions would in fact lead to any greater reconnection with the citizen than is already the case. Our evidence was divided on whether the regional list system for European Parliament elections did in fact lead to better regional connections (QQ 225, 289). We doubt whether further proliferation of consultative bodies will build public confidence in European institutions.

THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE: AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL

66.  Lord Russell-Johnston, giving evidence as the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, suggested building on the Assembly rather than creating a new second chamber. This would both increase democratic expression, even more widely than in the EU, and be cost-effective (as the structures already existed) and relatively quick to implement. Proceeding in this way would also avoid institutional proliferation (p31). But no other witnesses supported this line. Our conclusion is that the Council of Europe and its Assembly performs a valuable function, particularly in human rights and in providing a forum in which newly-emerging democracies can learn from the experience of others. It would nevertheless not only be impractical to make the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe the basis of a second chamber, because of its wider membership: to do so would also dilute and weaken the important role the Assembly currently plays.

IMPROVED NATIONAL SCRUTINY

67.  A more significant way forward in our view would be to strengthen national parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions of national governments in the European context. In a protocol annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty[20], the Union has already agreed that national parliaments should be kept better informed. But any European initiatives in this area run up against the problem that different national parliaments have very different roles, powers and prerogatives. While all national parliaments are in theory guaranteed six weeks to deliberate and discuss any Commission proposal before the Council reaches a decision, each national parliament does this in a very different way. The Danish example is often cited (e.g. Q 109): their European Scrutiny Committee is intended to have a direct influence on Ministers before decisions are taken. The United Kingdom system involves both far ranging inquiries by our own Committee and scrutiny of detailed proposals both by our Committee and by the House of Commons. The Finnish model of a Grand Committee scrutinising ministers was praised in evidence. There was evidence that the Applicant States were examining their national scrutiny systems (Q 286).

68.  Witnesses suggested that all national parliaments should review their procedures for scrutiny and aim to reach best practice (pp62, 110). The timetable under which national parliaments were expected to operate could be clarified and firmed up (Q 109). For Lord Norton of Louth, the impetus for successful reform would have to come from national parliaments working individually and collectively to strengthen their role (pp 14-15). It was suggested that national parliaments had become more sophisticated in their scrutiny and that they have an ability to control ministers who attend both the Council and the European Council, a power which sets them apart from the European Parliament which has no direct control over ministers attending Council. We wholeheartedly endorse the evidence that national parliaments must take their duty of scrutiny seriously and must insist on the full discharge by Ministers of their responsibilities in respect of Council decisions. This will involve an adequate and timely flow of information from governments to parliaments. Other witnesses questioned the extent to which national parliamentarians had in fact been successful in exploiting the opportunities offered by existing mechanisms (p113). We note that more openness by the Council would assist national parliamentarians in their scrutiny role.

69.  Lord Norton of Louth suggested that "flat horizontal contacts" between national parliaments were lacking and that bilateral and multilateral contacts at that level could be improved by building up political intelligence between like-minded parliamentarians, for example, to strengthen the negotiating hand of individual governments by providing information about the work of other national parliaments. Wider sharing of information could be intensive of resources, but would be in the control of the national parliaments themselves (Q 57). Commissioner Barnier floated the suggestion that the continuing consolidation of the European acquis would mean that national parliaments would have to get more involved in scrutiny of European issues (Q 129).

CO-OPERATION BETWEEN PARLIAMENTS: COSAC

70.  As well as considering what national parliaments could do to improve scrutiny of their ministers, our witnesses also considered what national parliaments could do to co-operate, both with each other and with the European Parliament. Contacts formally take place under the umbrella of COSAC[21]. This body was established in 1989 when the Presidents of the parliaments of the Member States agreed to reinforce the role of the national parliaments in the Community process by bringing together representatives of national parliament committees dealing with European affairs. COSAC meets twice a year in the country holding the presidency of the Council, to discuss issues of common concern. In 1997, a protocol for the Amsterdam Treaty included references to COSAC in the Treaties for the first time:

    "COSAC…… may make any contribution it deems appropriate for the attention of the institutions of the European Union, in particular on the basis of draft legal texts which representatives of governments of the Member Sates may decide by common accord to forward to it, in view of the nature of their subject matter."

71.  COSAC is also given an entirely permissive role in examining legislation under the Third Pillar and is permitted to address contributions to the European Parliament, Council and Commission, subject to these being "in no way" binding on national parliaments.

72.  Many of our witnesses touched on the work of COSAC. Some saw it as a prototype for a second chamber or a key element in a future constitution of Europe. The French Senate Report saw a second chamber emerging out of more frequent COSAC meetings (perhaps up to six times a year). Andrew Duff MEP saw its role as usefully engaging national parliament in dialogue, although this would be weakened if it was given any quasi-legislative responsibilities (p69). Richard Corbett MEP thought it was developing a useful role as a forum to allow MPs most involved in EU issues in national parliaments to meet and network (Q 182). The FCO valued COSAC's role in informal contacts between the scrutiny committees (Q 33), while Lord Norton of Louth valued it as a body for "discussing the best means of doing things [and] sharing information about processes rather than looking at specific issues" (Q59). Lord Inglewood saw more value in forming personal contacts and relationships than in "political tourism" (p91).

73.  Many members of our Committee have attended meetings of COSAC and many have been disappointed. There is no consensus among national parliaments about COSAC's priorities or functions, or its future role. The Agenda usually consists of extremely broad debates reflecting the priorities of the Presidency of the day. Topics are so wide that many subjects are raised and debates become a series of set speeches. While COSAC has recently experimented with mechanisms for preparing more focused debates, it remains a part-time organisation and places considerable strain on the resources of the country hosting to provide the secretariat etc. COSAC meetings also aim to adopt conclusions. Some Member States believe that these increase the value of the organisation, but the text adopted is often at the lowest common denominator, given the need to secure agreement on the text in a very limited time, often without prior consultation or discussion.

74.  Mr Crossick criticised COSAC for its lack of institutional discipline, but was not convinced that COSAC would work if it was much "more institutional" (Q 120). COSAC was said to be "a good example of how not to do it" - a symbolic body rather than one formed of specialists (QQ236, 238). The opportunity to share best practice was missed (Q 201) and COSAC should focus on scrutiny (Q 316).

75.  As participants in COSAC, we accept its value in exchanging information and providing networks. We consider, however, that COSAC is an opportunity missed in terms of strengthening national parliamentary scrutiny of governments operating in the European Union. We would not wish to see COSAC given the attributes of a formal institution, for example by the creation of a permanent secretariat, as it would then run up against all the practical arguments which apply against a second chamber (see Part IV above). We would wish to see COSAC's existing informal procedures strengthened. We would also wish to see it return to its original character as a forum for the exchange of views about national parliamentary approaches to EU issues. To this end, we would recommend that debates be less general and focus more on the scrutiny role of national parliaments. A day debating how each national parliament conducts scrutiny would, in our view, be of more value than another day's general debate on a particular policy issue. COSAC will provide a valuable forum if it focuses primarily on the techniques and practical problems of parliamentary scrutiny of EU affairs while not excluding the major political themes of the day when the need arises.

CO-OPERATION BETWEEN PARLIAMENTS: THE CONVENTION MODEL

76.  There is another model of co-operation between national parliaments at a European level. This is the Convention model. The only precedent is the Convention to prepare the Charter of Fundamental Rights[22]. This was composed of representatives of the governments of the Member States; of the parliaments of the Member States; and of the Commission. These worked together to draft the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Our report on the Charter of Fundamental Rights[23] commended the Convention established to prepare that Charter for its "extremely transparent" work, with its documents available on the internet and its meetings in public. Although doubts were expressed to us about how representatives were chosen, our Report welcomed the overall structure of the composition of the Convention: "representation from national parliaments and the European Parliament provides the opportunity for a more direct input from elected representatives than is the norm at EU level". Andrew Duff MEP, in evidence to the present inquiry, noted that the press had been interested in the Charter Convention because it was an open process and concluded "if we can draw national parliaments closer to what is going on …… we will also draw with them the cohorts of the media" (Q 211).

77.  Another Convention is being called together to prepare for the 2004 IGC and, by the time this report is published, details may be clearer. We anticipate, however, that the precedent of the Charter of Fundamental Rights will be followed in this case and that the pre-IGC Convention will be composed principally of representatives of the national governments, national parliaments and the European Parliament. There may well be a role for observers from the applicant countries. Jean-Pierre Cot saw the Convention formula as being applicable in constitutional matters; in major decisions on enlargement; to hear and debate reports from the European Council, the Commission and the Central Bank. He suggested that this would give national parliaments a status equal to that of the European Parliament in determining the constitutional future of the European Union (p110). Commissioner Barnier saw the possibility of developing the Convention model in a different way too, involving national and European parliamentarians in discussions of particular topics such as defence (Q 134). Andrew Duff MEP thought that the pre-IGC Convention would provide "A tremendous chance for national parliaments to fashion debate……[by taking] a proactive, constructive role" (Q 197), although others questioned whether the Convention should not be more widely drawn, and include civil society (Q 227).

78.  We welcome the proposed Convention as an opportunity for national parliamentary co-operation. Although its work is expected to be advisory, the very fact of its open debates may serve to engage the citizen. We note, however, that there are serious difficulties in expecting a single parliamentarian to act as a representative of the chamber. We would hope that adequate opportunities are provided to allow the "representative" to seek the views of the chamber and to report back on the work of the Convention.

CO-OPERATION BETWEEN NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

79.  There are many ways in which national parliaments can co-operate with each other, and with the European Parliament, in addition to the formal and semi-formal gatherings such as COSAC, the pre-IGC Convention etc. Some of our witnesses drew attention to existing exchanges of information between officials (making use of IT), co-operation between staff; links between parliamentarians concerned with particular policy issues; and links between the political parties in Europe. A number of practical examples of co-operation were cited. The United Kingdom, for example, has an office of its national parliament located in Brussels with links to the European Parliament and Andrew Duff MEP praised its work (Q 212). Some other national parliaments, including Denmark, have similar arrangements. We can see advantages in all national parliaments setting up such offices, which could then assist the exchange of information between national parliaments.

80.  Exchange of information is a more general tool for practical co-operation. We note that the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament regularly informs national parliaments of its meetings and national parliamentarians are invited to attend. Other European Parliament Committees do likewise. Lord Norton of Louth stressed that there were opportunities for joint meetings, with national parliamentary Committees including MEPs, subject to understandable reservations on both sides about their relative roles (QQ73-5). There was a welcome from MEPs for our invitations to them to give evidence, and a willingness to assist national scrutiny (QQ 183, 275, 276, 282). It was suggested that information flows could be further improved (Q214). We undertake to examine our own procedures to ensure that every effort is made to inform MEPs of our work, although what they do with that information is up to them.

THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

81.  Several of our witnesses made suggestions for improving the workings of the European Parliament itself, as a contribution to improving scrutiny of ministers and public awareness of its work. Jean-Pierre Cot thought the Parliament could "do a better job, streamline its procedures" and that national political parties should give it more attention (p109). Lord Norton of Louth noted that the Parliament could be strengthened as it did not have "all the attributes that are normally associated with a parliament as a legislature", although this would not of itself solve wider problems or guarantee, for example, any greater turnout in European elections (Q 63). He supported the Parliament "doing less and doing better" but was sceptical that the media - essentially "media of entertainment" - would ever take a greater interest in its work (QQ 70-71). Lord Russell Johnston too was doubtful whether a change in the structure of the Parliament would make a real difference (Q 77). It was also suggested that sketch writers could "humanise" and thereby publicise the work of the Parliament (Q 211). We welcome moves underway in the European Parliament to improve its procedures and thereby enhance its scrutiny role.

CO-OPERATION BETWEEN PARLIAMENTS: GENERAL CONCLUSION

82.  We welcome all forms of co-operation between national parliaments, and co-operation involving the European Parliament where appropriate. We undertake as a Committee to do our best to exchange information with others, in the interests of developing mutual scrutiny of the executive. We note, however, that opportunities for parliamentarians to attend the work of other Committees are constrained by the different timescales on which we operate and by the pressure on individual diaries. Some of our witnesses noted that modern technology could assist parliamentarians to communicate without needing new institutions (e.g. Q 121) and we welcome this as a way forward[24]. Such contacts are particularly valuable between the Committees of national parliaments where much of the day to day scrutiny work is undertaken: Parliamentarians with particular specialisms should co-operate (Q 132).


17   Declaration 23 on the Future of Europe - printed on p2 of the evidence below. Back

18   Summarised in Appendix 4: views of other national parliaments are given in Appendix 3. Back

19   See note 12 above. Back

20   Protocol 9, on the role of national parliaments (1997). Back

21   This acronym is now the standard name of the body originally called (in English) the Conference of European Affairs Committees: COSAC was originally the French acronym. Back

22   A similar forum was the Rome Assizes of 1989: see our 5th Report, Session 1990-1991 (HL Paper 20). Jean-Pierre Cot, in evidence to the present inquiry, said that the Assizes "was not a success" p110. Back

23   "EU Charter of Fundamental Rights" 8th Report, Session 1999-2000 (HL Paper 67, 16 May 2000) paragraphs 152-153. Back

24   The Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament emails us details of invitations to their meetings (Q 183). We in turn email details of our work to UK MEPs. Other ad hoc exchange occurs for example, we received communications by email from other national parliaments during this inquiry (see Appendix 3), and our staff contact colleagues in other parliaments on the scrutiny of individual documents and other matters. Back


 
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