Wednesday

24th Apr 2019

Investigation

MEPs shun commission-led group on future of EU

  • The European Parliament's repeated decisions to refuse participation in working groups led by the European Commission, are taken at the so-called Conference of Presidents meetings with the parliament president and group leaders. (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament (EP) has decided not to participate in the drafting of a report on the future of the EU and how to improve EU lawmaking, based on a decade-old position that MEPs should not be part of working groups set up by the European Commission.

The Task Force on Subsidiarity, Proportionality and 'Doing Less More Efficiently' will meet for the first time on Thursday (25 January) without any representatives from the parliament, despite an invitation to put forward three members.

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  • European Parliament president Antonio Tajani presiding over a Conference of Presidents meeting. Tajani used to be on the other side, when he was European Commissioner, sending invitations to the parliament, instead of deciding to reject them (Photo: European Parliament)

The refusal will mean that the parliament, the only EU institution with directly elected members, has effectively decided to pass on an opportunity to shape the debate on subsidiarity, a principle that is central to EU integration.

The subsidiarity principle requires that policy should be carried out at the level - local, regional, national, or European - where it is most effective.

As Europe reflects on its future after Brexit, numerous initiatives are emerging to help determine what the EU should look like.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had invited the parliament last November to participate in the task force.

While the establishment of a task force sounds procedural, the group will produce a report whose contents will be political.

Past experiences has shown that reports of EU task forces or 'high level groups' often steer the debate in a certain direction, leaving only room for minor adjustments.

Not parliament's job

Jeroen Reijnen, spokesman for the parliament's Liberal Alde group, told EUobserver that the leaders of the parliament's political groups - the so-called Conference of Presidents (CoP) - unanimously decided not to participate.

He said that while the CoP praised the initiative, group leaders felt that the parliament should not be involved at the inception of regulation, because that could clash with its task of scrutinising the commission.

"It is the job of the European Parliament to assess the proposals of the commission once they are released," said Reijnen. His colleague from the centre-left socialist group confirmed that position.

Spokesman Jan Krelina, for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, struck a different tone.

"Since subsidiarity and proportionality are among the key elements to the EU reform we are proposing, we believe that the European Parliament should take this kind of working group seriously," he told EUobserver in an email.

According to the official minutes of a CoP meeting on 11 January, ECR leader Syed Kamall was present at a debate about whether to participate in the task force.

The CoP "decided unanimously to decline the invitation to participate in the task force", according to the minutes, which said representatives of all eight political groups were present at the meeting.

Krelina said, however, that the decision was not unanimous. According to him, Kamall had wanted to nominate UK Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim as member of the task force, but when the ECR leader saw there was no majority to accept the invitation, he did not insist.

Declining invitations since 2006

The EU parliament refusing to participate in commission-led working groups has become something of a tradition, dating back to 2006, when the Spanish centre-left MEP Josep Borrell was president of the parliament.

On the agenda of a CoP meeting in Strasbourg on 15 February 12 years ago was an invitation by the commission for three MEPs to participate in a High-level Group on Competitiveness, Energy and the Environment.

Borrel said that the parliament needed to "define its policy in response to the commission's growing tendency to set up 'forums' and 'high-level groups' to which it invites parliament to send representatives".

The leader of the Liberal group at the time, Graham Watson, said by participating, the parliament "was running the risk of prejudicing its own position", while then Greens co-chairman Daniel Cohn-Bendit said "such groups were neither representative as a whole, nor were MEPs taking part in such groups representative of the European parliament".

Another participant in that discussion - Martin Schulz - would later take over as parliament president.

The German leader of the centre-left group at the time said the commission "was trying to take on board parliamentarians at an early stage, which made it difficult for parliament to effectively control" the commission.

In hindsight, that observation can be applied to at least one example.

In 2005, MEPs had participated in the Competitive Automotive Regulatory System for the 21st Century (CARS21), which set the stage for Europe's lenient attitude towards the car industry that can partly be blamed for the Dieselgate scandal.

Tajani: From inviter to decliner

On 27 September 2007, the CoP discussed another commission invitation, to nominate five MEPs to join the High-Level Group on the Competitiveness of the Chemicals Industry in the European Union.

The group leaders "decided that no member of the European parliament should take part, in any capacity, in working groups or advisory fora (regardless of their denomination) set up by the Commission, where these bodies deal with subject-matters in which parliament is co-legislator".

Minutes from at least six CoP meetings in the past decade, discussing invitations to MEPs to participate in commission-led working groups, repeated that same position, virtually word-for-word.

No MEPs are present in this group photo of the High Level Steering Group on European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials. In the centre is Antonio Tajani's successor as EU commissioner for industry, Elzbieta Bienkowska (Photo: European Commission)

It included rejections in 2010 and 2013 to participate in high level groups on a better food supply chain, another one on the competitiveness of the EU's car industry, and raw materials.

The invitations for these three groups were sent by none other than Antonio Tajani, who was vice-president of the commission at the time, but since 1 January 2017 is president of the parliament.

According to the minutes of the January 2018 meeting, Tajani now repeated the parliament's decade-old position and said that "a participation in the task force would disregard parliament's institutional role and standing as the only directly elected institution of the European Union, representing the citizens at Union level and exercising functions of political control of the commission".

Tajani's spokesman did not want to comment when asked to explain why the parliament would not participate in the task force.

Exceptions

As to every rule, there are exceptions, although they are not evidently explained.

In 2008, the group leaders decided that the chairpersons or other member of the parliament's committees for internal market, agriculture, and environment could become a member of the High-Level Group on the Competitiveness of the Agro-Food Industry, "in a personal capacity".

They added, according to the minutes, that this "was entirely consistent" with the earlier decision – although the final report of the group on agro-food did not list any MEPs as its members.

Group photo of the high-level group or 'group of personalities' on defence research, with MEP Michael Gahler on the front row, third from the left, next to EU industry commissioner Bienkowska (Photo: European Commission)

As recently as 2015 though, an MEP joined a commission-led working group, albeit under a different name.

In advance to the EU's plans for increased defence integration, the commission set up a Group of Personalities on Defence Research, which included centre-right German MEP Michael Gahler as a member.

Criticism from national parliaments

As for the task force on subsidiarity and proportionality, the commission will go ahead without the parliament.

A commission source said that the task force will have its first meeting on Thursday, but that the three seats available for MEPs will remain open, if the EU parliament decides to change its mind. He added that the commission never received an official reply from the parliament.

The task force now consists of three members of national parliaments, and three members of the Brussels-based Committee of the Regions.

When the task force was announced last November, the president of the Committee of the Regions, a consultative body without binding powers, "warmly" welcomed the initiative.

The EU's national parliaments, however, were more critical.

At an event in Tallinn, members of national parliaments meeting in the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs (Cosac) adopted a declaration saying that they regretted that Juncker sent his invitation letter "at such a late stage" - seven weeks before the body would be set up.

They also criticised that only three Cosac members were invited, and asked for three more.

"Cosac expresses its surprise at the size of the task force and the limited timeframe to present its work. National parliaments do not constitute a singular institution and the proposed number of representatives does not reflect proportionality," the conference said in its official conclusions.

This request has apparently not been granted by the commission.

Pro-European task force?

The commission has told the task force to meet at least once a month and produce a written report with recommendations before 15 July 2018.

The six members of the task force are all members of parties from the political mainstream, which generally advocate further EU integration to various degrees.

They are: committee of the regions members Karl-Heinz Lambertz (S&D), Michael Schneider (EPP) and Francois Decoster (Alde); Estonian parliament member Toomas Vitsut (Alde), Austrian parliament member Reinhold Lopatka (EPP), and Bulgarian parliament member Kristian Vigenin (PES).

"The new subsidiarity and proportionality task force will help us to decide which powers can be better exercised at a national or local level, and respond to citizens expectations to take care of the concerns that really matter to them," said Juncker last week.

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