Select Committee on European Union Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The Federal Trust


  Constitutional arrangements, or the institutional architecture at European Union level, are in essence very straightforward. Over the years, however, procedures have been developed around them, which in practice are extremely complex and obscure the underlying simplicity. This has led on occasion to proposed solutions in the name of simplicity or with a view to bringing the process closer to the citizen which, while addressing the excrescences of contemporary practice, threaten to upset the essential balance of the underlying arrangements.

  In essence, legislation at European level is proposed by the Commission and approved by two chambers, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. This simple structure covers the vast bulk of legislation, although the balance of power between the two chambers varies according to which procedure (co-decision, co-operation, consultation) applies.

  Around this simple paradigm has grown a plethora of variations in the detail of procedure, from different forms of prior consultation before Commission proposals are sent to the two chambers to inter-institutional agreements which limit the margin of manoeuvre of one or other chamber during the complex to-ing and fro-ing of legislative and of budgetary texts.

  The European Parliament—since its direct election over 20 years ago—represents the people of Europe within those states which are members of the Union. The Council of Ministers represents—as its name implies—the governments of the states which are members of the Union. It is hard to see what a third chamber might represent. The suggestion that it might represent the Parliaments of the member states, though superficially appealing to those close to politics as a profession, in inadequate as a justification for yet another chamber, since the governments in the Council are already the indirect representatives of the national Parliaments from which they emerge.

  Some might argue that a third chamber should also represent the social forces of the Union, in particular employers and unionised labour, but they are represented already along with other groupings in the Economic and Social Committee, whose members are appointed by national governments. Others might argue that it should represent the regions and possibly the local communes of the Union, but they are represented already in the Committee of the Regions, whose members are also appointed by national governments. Although nothing like as important in the decision-making and decision-taking process as the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament, EcoSoc and CoR play a useful consultative role in restricted areas of policy, serving as a conduit for national and sectoral opinion involving the political elites already at European level.


  The term "democratic deficit" can be used in ways which obscure a variety of meanings.

  It is used on occasion to mean a formal lack of representation in the decision-taking process. For instance, before the development first of the co-operation procedure and subsequently of co-decision, it was used to describe the near absence of the European Parliament from the European legislative process which was dominated for many years by the Council of Ministers. It is still used in that sense, for instance, for policy decisions in the field of agriculture and fisheries, where the European Parliament's role both in legislative and budgetary terms is extremely limited.

  The term is also used to reflect a frustration felt in some national parliaments at their lack of control over Ministers when they take decisions in the Council. This feeling varies from country to country, since some parliaments have developed better control and scrutiny mechanisms than others to satisfy themselves about their governments' behaviour in Brussels. Belgium, Germany and Denmark are in their different ways all useful examples of good practice. States with two chambers have the opportunity of exercising such control in two different ways, as has been the UK experience, and the sense of frustration in one chamber may not match that in the other.

  The term is also used in a looser way to reflect the relatively low turn-out at elections and to deduce from it that in some way a parliament's role is less legitimate than it might otherwise be. In legal terms the size of the turnout in no way makes an elected representative institution more or less legitimate—as witness declining voter participation in most developed democracies, with turnout figures in local elections in the UK comparable to Congressional elections in the USA. It may, however, reflect greater or lesser popularity or public acceptance of a particular institution. This sense of remoteness from the citizen appears to be one of the motors behind the suggestion for another chamber at European level. In itself this reactive proposal says nothing about what such an institution should actually do, nor that such a proposal would in fact address the problem of low popularity for the chamber which already exists, or for the institutions in general.


  It has been suggested—notably by the Prime Minister in his Warsaw speech last October—that a third chamber might review the necessity for certain European legislative proposals (subsidiarity review) and consider foreign policy activities of the Union (second pillar review). It would also serve as a conduit for national parliamentary opinion (though the mechanism for selecting parliamentary delegates remains unclear), on the pattern of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which does so for issues relating to that body.

  This last function may be psychologically important for some members of national parliaments. It has been argued that it might help to defuse potential hesitations about further developments of the Union if members of national parliaments had a European platform from which to assess the broad lines of future Union policies. They would then feel a greater sense of ownership of the project.

  This argument is misplaced for three reasons. First, national parliamentarians have to date been singularly unsuccessful in exploiting to the full the opportunities offered by existing mechanisms, in particular the twice yearly meetings of national parliamentary delegations with a delegation of the European Parliament (COSAC). Second, the European Council—to judge from another suggestion in the Prime Minister's Warsaw speech—may be anxious to assume this function in future, reducing the European Parliament's assessment of the annual work programme of the Commission to a subsequent endorsement after the European Council has stated its own priorities. The creation of yet another chamber to repeat this exercise appears redundant. Third, the European Parliament before 1979 resembled such an appointed chamber, made up of national parliamentary delegations. That proved inadequate to the task of providing democratic oversight of the development of the Union, and hence the member states agreed that it should be directly elected. It would be bizarre if they now felt they wished to reinstate a third chamber in a form which proved inadequate to its task over 20 years ago.


  Subsidiarity and proportionality are essential features in the way the quasi-federal institutional structure of the European Union functions. Since the Maastricht Treaty in the form of an article and since Amsterdam in the form of a protocol, this concern forms part of the acquis communautaire. But the idea as an intention, if not as an obligation, has been recognised since the creation of the EEC, even though it was often more honoured in the breach than in the observance. In the selection of legal instruments, Directives were originally designed to allow for delay in their implementation (time for national adaptation) and for national variations in the application of general principles.

  Regulations, on the other hand, have immediate and uniform effect throughout the Community. More recently the Commission has been required to attach a note to each discrete legislative proposal justifying it on grounds of subsidiarity, ie stating why such legislation is required at European level and why the proposed goal cannot be achieved through national regulation.

  Neither of these two ways of observing subsidiarity is particularly well practised at present. Directives all too frequently prescribe in great detail how certain goals are to be achieved and the Commission's assessment of "legislative need" is often cursory and lacking serious justification Both instruments could, however, be better applied, and since legislative proposals to which they refer are scrutinised already in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers, serious consideration of this aspect by these two bodies would obviate the need for a third chamber on these grounds.


  The "second pillar" of Union business relates to common foreign and security policy and has now developed a defence dimension. Member states vary considerably in the manner in which they attribute to their parliaments oversight of their national foreign, security and defence policies. It is unlikely that there will be an easily found consensus at European level about parliamentary oversight in this field, unless it is at the level of the lowest common denominator. It could be argued that a third chamber created essentially for this purpose would provide just that, and no more.

  This alone is an adequate reason for creating a third chamber. A lowest common denominator solution as regards parliamentary oversight of this extremely important policy area would be counterproductive as far as convincing the citizens of Europe of the need for these developments is concerned. A policy of greater European involvement in these areas is generally popular in electoral terms across the Union, particularly so in the UK, and while recognising the need for confidentiality in operational aspects, wide public support for the main policy thrust should be maintained. This will be better achieved by ensuring maximum democratic and parliamentary oversight through existing mechanisms and institutions, both at Westminster and in the European Parliament.

  Existing procedures involving the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, with the attendance of representatives from national parliamentary committees charged with oversight of national foreign, security and defence policies wherever appropriate, could be strengthened with more regular Presidency briefings and parliamentary sight of policy papers at key states of Council working group discussions. These are practical changes which do not require additional expense or further bureaucracy, nor do they require Treaty changes. They do, however, require a commitment from all governments—and in particular the Presidency—to want to make the policy work and to invest more than a modicum of trust in the parliamentarians whose function is to oversee and endorse European policy in the name of the citizens. They do not require a third chamber.


  There are few substantive arguments in favour arguments of the creation of a third chamber of national parliamentarians to add to the European institutional structure, and the foregoing indicates how spurious some of them are. Hence consideration of the practical issues concerning its hypothetical day-to-day management were one nonetheless to see the light of day appears otiose. Nonetheless, enumerating some of the major difficulties which such a chamber would face may serve to underline further—though at a purely practical level—the arguments against its creation.


  Would the existing strife between institutions and member states concerning the location of the European Parliament (Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg?) be replicated as far as a third chamber is concerned?


  Would a third chamber add to the already extraordinary linguistic burden of translation and interpretation in the Union, in particular when expanded to 25 states or more, given that already demand for interpreters and translators far exceeds quality supply?

Dual mandate

  Since the role of a national MP is already considered a full-time job, how light would the additional burden of a third chamber representative have to be to allow him or her to maintain the dual mandate? If the tasks given to the third chamber were to be made serious enough to justify its creation, would not the demands on the time of delegates from national parliaments lead to their being overstretched, as were MPs who continued to maintain the dual mandate as MEPs when the workload of the European Parliament grew with its growing responsibilities after 1979?


  Will public opinion accept the additional cost involved in creating what may well appear as a redundant third chamber without further damage to popular acceptance of the European Union as a whole and to the standing of governments which support the idea?


  Creating a third chamber is the wrong response to a legitimate concern to associate national political elites and wider public opinion more closely with the process of European integration.

  The Federal Trust welcomes the position taken by Johannes Rau, the President of Germany, in his speech to the European Parliament on 4 April 2000, when he argued that the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers "should be developed into a genuine bi-cameral parliament".

  Closer association of the political elites with the European integrative process will not be achieved by the creation of a third chamber where national delegations of MPs would mirror the national divisions on Europe and transpose to that level domestic political quarrels. It would in all probability compound the estrangement of the wider public from the integration process (criticism of costs, joy-riding for MPs, etc) and deliver no wider benefit than satisfying the personal desires of a selected number of parliamentarians who have not yet exploited all the practical possibilities in the existing mechanisms which link national parliaments and the European Parliament.

  Other developments—some of which form part of the post-Nice agenda—will also contribute to a closer association of national political elites and wider public opinion with the process of further European integration. A clear delineation of competences, a simplified treaty, a legal status for the Charter of Fundamental Rights will all contribute to this end. So, too, would a simplification of some of the arcane complexity associated with variants from the norm of EU decision-making and decision-taking. A simplification of the budgetary process to give the European Parliament comparable authority over obligatory expenditure to its powers over non-obligatory expenditure would be a start. Greater transparency and parliamentary information concerning comitology would be a further contribution to a better understanding of the process.

  The closer association of elites can and should be achieved by other means, including greater government readiness to share with national parliamentarians their forward thinking about European policies. It would also be assisted by less antagonistic presentations of the national position vis-a-vis European partners, in particular in media presentations around Council and European Council meetings. Greater transparency for the proceedings of these meetings would reduce the temptation for governments to play this card. It would further be assisted by a more pro-active government stance in promoting to the wider public the benefits of Union involvement.

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