Select Committee on European Union Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Jean-Pierre Cot, former member of the Assemblée Nationale (France), former member of the European Parliament

  1.  I submit the present evidence to the Committee, mainly on the basis of my experience as member of the Assemblée Nationale and of the European Parliament. I was member of the Assemblée Nationale for Savoie from 1973 to 1981. I sat in the foreign affairs and finance committees and in the délégation pour les affaires européennes. I was appointed member of the European Parliament from 1978 to 1979, under the dual mandate system, I was elected to the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999. I chaired the budgets committee, the socialist group and sat in the committee for legal affairs and the ACP-CE Joint Parliamentary Assembly. As chairman of the Socialist group, I was involved in the preparation and meeting of the Rome Assizes in 1989 and in setting up the initial relations between the European Parliament and the Committee Regions.

  2.  I well understand the case for a second chamber. It is not a question of checks and balances or of efficiency of the legislative process. Technically speaking, the European Parliament has done a decent job. The members are reasonably competent in their fields of interest. The reports coming out of committees are well drafted given the constraints. Most members have built a network of contacts enabling them to retrieve the adequate information so as to exercise their legislative and control functions and to smooth out the political process at that stage. As members are elected by proportional representation on a large constituency basis, whatever the national technicalities, most of them do a full-time job in Parliament.

  3.  True, a minority rarely shows up and has a poor record. But that is true of all democratically elected institutions I have observed. The only ultimate sanction in democracy is the vote. If the voters are content with absentee members, there is nothing much to do about it. The majority of the European Parliament is reasonably present, turns up for votes in the chamber, follows group meetings and committee work. I would rank the European Parliament about average and certainly above both houses of the French Parliament as far as discharging parliamentary functions.

  4.  Moreover, shortcomings of the European Parliament are not only of its own making. The rules of the game are not set by the Parliament, but by the member states. The minute technical detail of the texts voted upon by the Parliament are due to the failing of comitology to screen adequately what is essential and what is administration. As a result, Parliament is often dependent on exterior advice—governments, but also lobbies—in the positions it takes in such matters.

  5.  A second chamber offers no remedy in these fields. Quite to the contrary. A second chamber would certainly complicate an already complex decision-making process. It would introduce more delays in an already lengthy legislative procedure. It would make the system even more incomprehensible for the European citizens. And it certainly would cost even more to the European taxpayer.

  6.  The heart of the matter is not one of efficiency, but one of legitimacy. European citizens do not feel adequately represented by the European Parliament, by their Euro-MPs. They understand and by and large accept delegation of matters to the European Union. Jacques Delors noted upon adoption of the Single European Act that 80 per cent of the economic legislation dealt with by national parliaments at the time would be transferred to the European level through the process of completion of the single market. This is all the more true with Maastricht and extension of EU into fields of sovereignty as sensitive as monetary affairs, foreign policy or justice and home affairs.

  7.  Our public opinions have more or less reluctantly accepted the fact, but are calling for a more strict and representative monitoring of decisions taken at a European level. They do not feel the European Parliament delivers the job.

  8.  Here, we run into a contradiction this Committee is well acquainted with. More control by national parliaments and at national level amounts to some form of renationalisation of European policies. It certainly complicates decision-making and might ultimately paralyse the whole system. Enlargement would become a nightmare in such a perspective. There obviously is a case for better monitoring of national policies in European affairs by national parliaments. But a better monitoring of European policies by national parliaments is self-defeating.

  9.  Hence the second chamber. It sounds wonderful on paper. But what does it amount to in practice?

  10.  The ratio legis of the second chamber proposal is to build an institutional tie between the national and European parliamentary decision-making processes. Thanks to the dual mandate, national-euro MPs can ensure the two-way flow of information and advice between the two systems. Representing a national viewpoint in the European system, national MPs with a national background, following and legitimacy can ensure that their nation state's point of view is duly taken into account. Beyond their particular national interests, they can also insure that "ordinary people's views" are articulated and that "common sense" prevails, as their institutional tie with the national political system makes them less prone to eurocrat manipulation.

  11.  On the other hand, dual mandate MPs can bring their inside knowledge of European affairs to the debate in national parliaments, provide for an early warning mechanism, ring the alarm if necessary in due time. They can explain the intricacies of the European procedures, give the necessary insight into the political compromise behind the decision, while staying aloof from governmental pressures.

  12.  Can a dual mandate system ensure these functions? I have my doubts, because I have a direct and long experience of dual mandates. As this Committee knows, the French political system thrives on dual mandates. It is quite impossible to achieve a position of power or influence in France without practising the dual mandate in some way or another. I personally held dual mandates through statutory obligation, as appointed member to the European Parliament from 1978 to 1979 and as member of the Conseil Régional Rhône-Alpes from 1974 to 1981, when the French system called for MPs to sit automatically in the regional councils alongside appointed members. But I also held local government positions in my "commune" and "département" from 1971 to 1995, while I was member of the French parliament, the government, then the European Parliament.

  13.  The basis of the dual mandate is to use one's position and influence in one institution to enhance one's position and power in the other institution. As a mayor of a small community in the French Alps, I had more easy access to the préfet and was less impressed by the opinion of local administrations than my colleagues. In a way the dual mandate was an asset for my local community.

  14.  But the dual mandate envisaged here is quite a different matter. A European position does not significantly shore up ones political position in national politics and vice versa. The rationale underlying the proposal is a different one. It is to use the addition of competences to make the system work. But this implies either that one of the mandates is a part-time job or that there are 48 hours in a day.

  15.  European politics are a full-time job. In-depth knowledge of the system and procedures, establishing a network of contacts both at national and at European level, keeping up with change are time-consuming. If one adds a minimum of national political contacts and constituency work, the week is quite full.

  16.  The difficulty is compounded by the fact that European politics and policies are intricate, complex, difficult to understand and to manage. This is due to the historical intricacies and cultural diversity of the European Union. The basic field of European law is still economics. The texts are written out with great detail because the member states don't trust each other or the Commission on fair implementation of the law. Procedures have grown in complexity over the years, each ICG adding new ways of dealing with legislation and rarely substituting for the older procedure.

  17.  Familiarity with the ways and means of the European Union calls for an important personal effort by the members. You just can't leave the job to your assistant because, if you do so, you carry no weight or influence in the institution. Such an effort is not all that easy for members who are not chosen for their linguistic skills or prior knowledge of the jurisprudence of the European Court. Seniority in the Parliament is an important factor just because of that. It takes time to build the necessary networks and acquire the necessary talents to discharge reasonably the duty.

  18.  The point here is that parliamentary legislation and control call for some hard work by the members, whatever the parliament, if parliament is to mean anything. "Mickey Mouse parliaments" are those where members fly in for a good meal, read a speech prepared by someone else, preferably a civil servant, then fly back to attend serious business at home.

  19.  Such a situation is a bureaucrat's paradise. The system has a democratic fig leaf and decisions are taken with rubberstamp parliamentary approval. National alignments ensure predictability of amendments and votes, along the lines experienced in the preliminary diplomatic negotiation. No indiscreet prying, prodding or pestering is to be feared. No surprise the French Quai d'Orsay is one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the second chamber.

  20.  This is no caricature. I well remember the days of the dual mandate system in 1978-79. As a young member and even though my academic training did give me some notion of the matter, I just didn't have the time to do my homework. Hard-working as I was, domestic politics called for the essential of my time and attention. Within a year, I still hardly knew my way about the places in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. As soon as I got to a meeting-room, I would run out to the telephone booth to check with National Assembly or constituency affairs. It was all very nice and the restaurants were excellent. But it was hardly an efficient way of dealing with the issues.

  21.  I was not a particularly lazy member. The same was true of the great majority of the members, in particular the members who did carry influence in national politics. To be more specific, I recall very enjoyable moments with Maurice Faure or Pierre Joxe, future colleagues in government after 1981 or with Betty Boothroyd and John Prescott. But none of these members were more active or present than I was. A few members were hard-working euro-MPs. They all lost their seats in the direct election in 1979 because they had neglected their home base. In particular, George Spenale, former chairman of the budgets committee and former President of the Parliament, was dropped from the list because he had faded out of political existence in Paris. The only members who did combine hard work in Strasbourg with a safe seat at home were the British members of the House of Lords.

  22.  It was quite a shock for me to take my seat in the new Parliament, in 1984. I was anticipating the relaxed sort of situation I had known in the past. When I asked a clerk in 1984 to draft my first report, I was actually turned down. He patiently explained that members were expected to do their own homework since 1979. And quite a heavy load of homework it was. The good old days were gone. This was a real parliament at last.

  23.  The inefficiency of the dual mandate in that respect was not a particularity of the European Parliament. I witnessed a comparable situation in Lyon, in the Conseil Regional Rhône-Alpes. At the time, the Conseil Regional was composed of all the members of Parliament (Assemblée Nationale and Sénat) of the Région and an equivalent number of members appointed by local government (departements and communes). In Lyon as in Strasbourg, the eminent parliamentary members didn't show up and, when they did, certainly did a poor job. The locals were an interesting, hard-working group. But they didn't carry the power and influence in the institution. The préfet de région and mission régionale in reality called all the shots. The situation drastically changed in 1985, with the direct election of the Conseils Régionaux.

  24.  Competing legitimacy of two chambers appointed by different procedures within a parliamentary system is always a tricky situation to manage, as this House knows from experience. The sort of schizophrenic situation, where those who do the work aren't those who carry power and influence, is basically unsound and unhealthy. Members must be in full possession of their brief to take the right decisions and exert reasonable political power and pressure. It is to be feared that a dual chamber—dual mandate system comes up with the same sort of situation. The second chamber, carrying the legitimacy of elected members added to that of privileged relations with the national political systems, would certainly have a major political influence. But it would not have the know-how and technical means to exert such an influence. The result would be a built-in conflict between the two chambers, but also with national parliaments naturally supporting the views and ambitions of the second chamber. It is a recipe for confusion.

  25.  I do not think a second chamber is the adequate answer to the problem of democratic legislation and control in the European Union. The European Parliament certainly can do a better job, streamline its procedures, and clean up the shop so as to give less cause to criticism. National political parties and systems should pay more attention to the European Parliament, be more attentive to the issues of European legislation and consider that contributing to legitimacy of the European Parliament does not mean weakening the legitimacy of national parliaments and the national political systems. This is not a zero-sum game. All players share an interest in reinforcing democracy at all levels.

  26.  A closer working relationship between the European Parliament and national parliaments certainly is necessary. Association of euro-MPs to European affairs committees in national parliaments is already standard practice in certain member states. Closer relations at staff level and temporary exchange of parliamentary staff can help establish personal relations and cut through red tape. One problem is the sheer amount of documents coming from the European Union. Vetting these documents, deciding which decisions should be submitted to political scrutiny, is an exercise that euro-MPs and European Parliament staff can help manage.

  27.  Strengthening national scrutiny of European legislation and control of national policies in European matters certainly is a helpful development. Over the past 20 years, national parliaments have become much more sophisticated in the job. Contrary to what certain observers predicted, better knowledge of the European system and process has not fuel anti-European feelings within national parliaments, quite to the contrary. As long as it is agreed that such scrutiny should not hold up the already cumbersome European decision-making procedures, the contribution of national parliaments is helpful.

  28.  National parliaments are in a position to monitor and control national governments, but also the Council and the European Council, The European Parliament is not. It has no way of compelling ministers or the Council, who are responsible before national parliaments, but not before the European Parliament. National parliaments must take this duty seriously and ensure accountability of their ministers and administration. It is all the more important because national decision-making in European affairs tends to be concentrated at an administrative level, under the direction of organs such as the British cabinet office or the French SGCI with no direct political control, either by parliament or, because of the interministerial nature of the problems, by the ministers in charge. The Prime Minister oversees the whole process, but cannot be expected to follow day-to-day decisions and necessarily delegates authority to his staff.

  29.  National Parliaments and the European Parliament can usefully pool their resources and efforts in certain matters. I think it is an error to expect national MPs to follow the intricacies of European legislation or monitor the Commission in its day-to-day operations. But national parliaments should be involved in major decisions and orientations. I see no reason why national MPs should not be informed of decisions of the European Council at the same time and in the same way as euro-MPs. I think national MPs should examine the annual report of the European Central Bank. And I believe they should have their say in the annual working program of the Commission.

  30.  A joint assembly or a Convention could be a solution in my eyes. We tried out the system in 1989 with the Rome assizes. It was not a success. But these may have been growing pains. The Convention that elaborated the Charter of Human Rights certainly was more successful. The formula, or a similar forum, could be repeated for to address constitutional matters, where approval of texts by national parliaments is called for. It should be entrusted with major decisions on enlargement. But it could also be convened to hear the European Council, Council, Commission and Central Bank reports and debate on these reports. National parliaments would thus be associated at par with the European Parliament in determination of the major political issues addressed by the European Union.

  31.  The advantage I see in such a joint assembly is that it does not pit one chamber against the other. It does not call on national MPs to examine the fine print of euro-law and administration, which they cannot adequately manage for lack of time and interest. A joint assembly creates useful links and ultimately ensures that national parliaments have their say in the major decisions and orientations concerning the European Union. But checking the nuts and bolts of the system better be left to the members of the European Parliament. They have the staff, the time, the commitment. They are equipped to do the job. Members of national parliaments are not. The dual mandate does not change that simple fact.

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