National parliaments eclipsed by EU powers
By Honor Mahony
The EU financial crisis has prompted centralisation of economic and budgetary powers in Brussels, while national parliaments struggle to fulfil their role as democratic watchdogs.
The issue will be highlighted on Wednesday (29 May) when the European Commission publishes detailed budget recommendations for member states, potentially touching on sensitive areas such as wage-setting, pension age or social spending.
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"I am worried about the degree of influence of the country-specific recommendations," said Eva Kjer Hansen, head of the Europe committee in the Danish parliament.
"It’s somehow underestimated how much it actually means because you either have to follow them or you have to explain why you are not following them," she added.
The risk for sleepy national parliaments is that if they are not entirely on top of the EU debate then significant economic decisions will be simply be taken without their input.
"We need new tools to stay close to EU decisions," Kjer Hansen noted.
She suggested the recently-introduced European Semester should be mirrored by a "national semester' - something just agreed in Denmark.
The European semester, now in its third year, kicks off at the end of each year with the commission setting EU growth priorities. This is followed by governments submitting national reform programmes and then the commission issuing specific economic policy recommendations.
"It is not sufficient that we just discuss the recommendation afterwards but that we are also involved throughout the year," Kjer Hansen said.
Michiel Servaes, a Dutch MP, agrees.
He noted that the Dutch government last year sent the Netherlands' reform programme to Brussels without it first being debated in parliament.
This was "unacceptable," he said.
Other changes the Dutch have made to open up the process is appointing a rapporteur on the European semester (Servaes himself) and asking EU economic affairs commissioner Olli Rehn to appear before parliament (he will do so in June).
The Dutch are particularly concerned about the process because they are breaching the EU's budget deficit rules - meaning Brussels gets more of a say on economic decisions.
But even in fiscally sound countries, such as Finland, there is potential for difficulty.
Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, chair of the grand committee in the Finnish parliament, notes there could be problems if the commission issues "too concrete" instructions on "grey areas" such as wage policy - an issue not dealt with by politicians but rather by social partners.
She underlined the "big responsibility" that governments have in making sure parliaments are involved, noting that Helsinki last year worked to change wording on the pension age, "the hottest topic" of the recommendations.
"I think we have a feeling in Finland that we know our economy better than the commission does," she said.
Kjer Hansen noted that keeping national deputies involved is the only way to ensure democratic legitimacy.
"To me, there is no doubt that Europe needs this transparency about the European semester to make sure there is an understanding and an acceptance that the EU is taking over in more and more areas," she said.
For his part, Servaes says that while he and his colleagues are "a lot more aware" of the changing nature of EU budget decisions, the same cannot be said of the general public.
"In general people find it really difficult to understand the details of the process," he said.