The European Parliaments
What will be the role of the national parliaments in the European Union in 25 years from now? This is the subject of this award-winning essay by the Italian student Andrea Finesso. The essay was submitted for the contest organised by the House of Representatives and Senate of the Netherlands in light of the EU-presidency in 2016. Andrea Finesso calls for the urgent need of a radical evolution of parliamentary involvement in EU affairs. He studied European Studies at Maastricht University.
'The European Parliaments; The Role of National Parliaments in an Ever-Evolving European Union'
Parliaments embody the core principle of modern liberal governments, i.e. popular sovereignty. Direct representation of the people’s wishes, preferences and concerns in a state’s legislative process is vital to the concept of democracy itself. It mirrors the fundamental assumption that, despite the necessary presence of a centralised executive, decisions must always reflect the will of those who are governed.
In recent years, this principle seems to have faded away. This process is caused first of all by the complex circumstances in which we are living, where financial crises and social challenges require quick and effective decision-making. This demanded reactiveness from governments has contributed to a concentration of power within the executives, at the expense of parliamentary – indeed democratic – debate.
Another factor leading to the weakening of parliaments is one of the side-effects of the European Union membership. Although important efforts have been made to increase the democratic basis of the Union and its functioning, Heads of Government still occupy a central role in most significant EU decisions. In this context of political bargaining and intergovernmental confrontation, we find little room for parliamentary intervention.
In response to this flaw in the European democratic system, many during the last decades have demanded a major change in the relation between the EU and national parliaments. In fact, it is often argued that the root of the democratic deficit in the Union can be found in the weak link between final decision-making at Community level and parliamentary discussion and scrutiny at the national level.
The aim of this essay is to address this problem, and it does so through a double analysis. Firstly, it illustrates the changes brought about by the last treaty provisions on parliamentary involvement in the EU legislation, in particular in the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Lisbon. Secondly, ideas and proposals for changes in the involvement of parliaments in the EU legislative process will be put forward.
The essay is requested to concern itself with the specific position of the Dutch Parliament in the EU. However, facing a Union characterized by an ever closer-ness, and being myself not Dutch, the essay will focus more broadly on the role and position of European national parliaments in the EU, and their cooperation and interaction for the democratization of the EU.
A Historical Account
We can synthetize the debate about national parliaments’ involvement in the EU policy-making and decision-making process in the distinction between indirect and direct participation. In the earlier stages of integration, emphasis was put rather on the indirect aspect of parliamentary influence: national parliaments work exclusively within the domestic domain, scrutinizing their respective national executives’ actions in the EU realm. This form of indirect participation took the form of mandates, by which parliaments provide their government with instructions and paths on policy preferences. This system of preventive control on the executive has, for instance, been widely used in the Netherlands through meetings between deputies and ministers.
Treaty of Maastricht (1992)
The first efforts towards the strengthening of national chambers’ say in the EU date back to the Maastricht Treaty (1992). The aim was the extension of parliamentary influence beyond mere precautionary recommendations to the executives. It was established that governments of the Member States should ensure that national parliaments would receive Commission proposals for legislation. Although the Treaty provision gave national parliaments the right of information, it still does not represent a valid link between parliaments and the EU, since the information must necessarily pass via the Member States, and not directly from the Commission.
Treaty of Amsterdam (1997)
Further steps were undertaken by the Amsterdam Treaty (1997), by establishing that the Commission should make all its consultation documents available to national deputies. Nonetheless, in both provisions legislative proposals would still be forwarded by national executives, thus not addressing and tackling the weak link between parliaments and EU legislation.
Treaty of Lisbon (2007)
Real change was to be pioneered by the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). The Treaty introduced two new instruments involving directly national parliaments in EU decision-making. First, it established the treaty-revision procedure, which, on the one hand, involves national parliaments in the preparation of treaty revision, and on the other, gives each of them veto power on passerelle clauses – a provision by which, under certain conditions, a legislative procedure can be replaced by another one.
The yellow card
Second, and most importantly, the Lisbon Treaty introduced the Early Warning Mechanism (EWM), commonly known as the ‘yellow card’ procedure. This implies that the Commission has to forward its legislative proposals to national parliaments, and the latter have to examine whether the specific piece of legislation complies with the subsidiarity principle. This means that if parliaments believe that a proposal for legislation from the Commission best suits to a lower level than the EU one – be it national or local – a reasoned opinion can be sent to the Commission to reconsider that proposal. If one-thirds of national parliaments believe that the principle is violated by the piece of legislation, then the procedure is triggered: the Commission then has the possibility to either maintain, amend or withdraw the proposal, and has to motivate its decision.
Open house in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, 2009. Source: Europese Unie
The Future of Parliaments and the Future of Europe
The Lisbon Treaty certainly improved the democratic architecture of the Union. National parliaments are now more involved in EU decision-making and can actually see their concerns and opinions being taken into account by the EU institutions. However, this involvement is only provided in quite a weak way, and many in fact consider them to not be as effective as they should.
Proposals for further progress are put forward, and three main points of improvement are identified: first, strengthening and giving more weight to the already existing procedures; second, increasing involvement in the area of Freedom, Security and Justice; third, more solid inter-parliamentary cooperation.
Strengthening the existing procedures
Starting with the improvements of the currently available system – the Early Warning Mechanism – two main flaws are to be addressed: first, national parliaments are given a relatively short period of time, i.e. eight weeks, to examine and discuss the legislative proposals and build a consensus among one third of them to request the Commission to reconsider it; second, even if the one third is reached, the Commission may still ignore their advice and continue the legislation process.
The first changes must start here. When the one third of national parliaments disapprove of a legislative proposal by the Commission, the latter should dispose of one month to re-submit an amended version of it. In the case national parliaments reject the proposal for a second time, under the same conditions of the previous reading, the proposal falls. This procedure, although it would require more time for a proposal to be accepted, at least would ensure an increased commitment by the Commission bureaucracy to not infringe the principle of subsidiarity with its proposals.
Increasing involvement in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice
Concerning the role of national parliaments in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice, the creation of a transnational parliamentary forum is suggested. It is already common among Member States to have a system of parliamentary control over national intelligence and security services. A Parliamentary Committee for the Control of Intelligence and Security Services would gather these national bodies together with representatives of Europol and Eurojust. The forum would serve as an information-sharing platform for matters concerning European-wide security.
This initiative would ensure a greater awareness by national and supranational authorities of what happens within our common borders. Moreover, it would be particularly helpful in fields such as counter-terrorism and combating drug-trafficking: wanted individuals in one country would be acknowledged also by other national authorities, preventing their flight throughout the Union without nobody knowing. This forum would meet on a regular basis and each time under a specific agenda set by common accord, discussing and sharing information on issues that are regarded as common.
More solid inter-parliamentary cooperation
Finally, greater cooperation between national parliaments is regarded as necessary to ensure them an equal and fair involvement in European-wide affairs. This cooperation should be strengthened in both its vertical and horizontal dimension.
Horizontal cooperation should be fostered by establishing a transnational network for information-sharing and joint initiatives between parliaments, both on a formal and informal basis. Although a similar system already exists, the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC), it is considered by many not effective, and especially too bureaucratic and formal, but it still represents a starting point. By making its working methods more efficient and more informal, the COSAC could become the main platform for transnational parliamentary discussion and cooperation. It would enable the identification of common issues and common responses, and translating these in policy suggestions and resolutions for initiation in the European domain.
On the other hand, vertical cooperation should see parliaments as the ‘bridges’ between legislative action at EU level and public opinion at national and sub-national level. In cooperation with the Committee of the Regions (CoR), national parliaments should foster and improve the communication between the different layers of European governance.
'National parliaments are not provided with a real and effective platform in which they can share and exchange opinions about the Union'. Source: Flickr / NiederlandeNet
An Evolution in Governance
The problem with these measures, however, is that they demand a degree of cooperation and information-sharing that at present is simply not possible. National parliaments are not provided with a real and effective platform in which they can share and exchange opinions about the Union. Moreover, despite its best intentions, the Commission cannot be asked to forward every single legislative proposal to national parliaments, wait for their judgement and then report to them decisions concerning their comments. This lack of communication undermines the democratic efficiency of these parliaments that, alone, cannot compete with the legislators in Brussels.
What we need is a common assembly for national parliamentarians in which the different national wills are to be expressed. The creation of an additional permanent institution composed of elected deputies from national parliaments has long been debated in the last years. Although discussions about the creation of this new body have recently declined, it is perhaps time to bring them back in the European governance debate. On these lines, the assembly of national parliaments could take the role of the Council of Ministers in expressing and protecting the interests of the Members States. This shift in representation would not only affect the role of parliaments in the European realm, but also the overall visibility and transparency of EU policy and decision-making. The Council, which often operates in confidential and opaque contexts, would be substituted by an open and democratically elected Chamber of the States.
Towards a new concept of European governance: bicameralism
This essay calls for a radical evolution of parliamentary involvement in EU affairs. The proposal finds its core in a new concept of European governance, based on a perfect bicameralism. The European Union would then have two main legislative bodies: on the one hand, there would be a High Chamber, in which elected deputies from national parliaments gather to represent the interests and preferences of their respective nation-states. On the other, there would be a Low Chamber, reflecting the current European Parliament, in which directly elected members represent the European citizens as a whole.
These two bodies would have equal legislative power, applying the current system provided by the ordinary legislative procedure on all pieces of legislation, thus involving potentially three readings by each Chamber and a conciliation committee. This also implies shared and equal influence in policy initiation, control of the executive, and budgetary process. On the other hand, the Chamber of the States would have an exclusive veto power in Treaty ratification and association agreements with third countries.
These changes of course would imply an overall revision of the Community method, and of the EU as a whole. In this bicameral context, the Commission should evolve in a true political executive, no longer nominated but democratic elected by the European citizens.
We shall not expect these changes and reforms to occur all at once. All great evolutions in governance are the result of complex processes, that develop politically, socially and culturally. It is our duty to engage in these processes if we want Europe to evolve, if we want Europe to be more democratic, more legitimate and more respectful for its essential internal diversity. This is what keeps Europe alive, and this is what makes it unique: a people, a complex and colourful mosaic, united to pursue democracy, the rule of law and liberty. These goals cannot be achieved through isolated initiatives or fragmented opinions, but through the integration of our democratic resources. Our duty is to enrich and strengthen the European political debate, in order to attain richer and stronger European politics.
About the author
My name is Andrea Finesso, I am 19 years old, and I am Italian. In September 2015 I moved to The Netherlands to begin my studies in European Studies, at Maastricht University. European Studies is a very interdisciplinary course, involving subjects such as economics, law, history and political science, aimed at understanding the complex nature of both the European continent and the European Union. As of now, my plan for the future is to work in international journalism as a reporter, specialised in human rights violation.
A few months ago, I took part in the essay competition organized by the Dutch Parliament, and which asked for new ideas on the role of national parliaments in EU affairs. I must say that writing the essay was at times very challenging, since I had to do a lot of research to really obtain a large picture of the issue.
As the winner of the essay competition, I had the chance to witness the COSAC meeting in The Hague, and to deliver a speech at the closure of the conference, during which I could present and explain the ideas I reported in the essay. It was the first time for me to speak in front of such a large and important audience, but all in all it was a wonderful and enriching experience. Watch this video for an impression of the COSAC meeting.
About the article
Andrea Finesso’s article won the First Prize in the essay competition organized by the Dutch Senate and House of Representatives in the context of the parliamentary dimension of the Netherlands’ EU Presidency (January – June 2016). The participants were asked to answer the following question: “What role will the Dutch parliament play in the European Union 25 years from now?” Andrea Finesso has addressed this issue from a broader perspective, as testified in one of the opening sentences of his essay: “…. facing a Union characterized by an ever closer-ness, and being myself not Dutch, the essay will focus more broadly on the role and position of European national parliaments in the EU, and their cooperation and interaction for the democratization of the EU”.