'I'm in politics to seek solutions, not to block things'
By Benjamin Fox
Debating how to increase the role of national parliaments in EU law making is far from being a new subject, nor is it one to set the pulse racing
But that didn't matter to the several hundred political hacks, academics and diplomatic corps from a raft of European countries who gathered in London this week for a two-day conference on EU reform organised by the Open Europe think tank.
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The Lisbon treaty introduced an innovation - the “yellow card” system - under which an EU legislative proposal could be sent back to the European Commission if one third of national parliaments objected on the grounds that the matter would be better handled at national level.
Since the entry of Lisbon into force in 2010, the procedure has been activated twice. In both cases, the commission's response has provoked the ire of national parliamentarians.
In 2012, parliaments complained about plans for common EU rules on the right to strike. In response, the EU executive said that the parliaments were wrong, but dropped the proposal anyway.
The commission's dismissive response, last November, to complaints about the proposed European Public Prosecutor's office was taken as an act of war in 11 EU assemblies.
Chris Heaton Harris, now a Conservative MP in Westminster after 10 years in the European Parliament, described EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, who tabled the proposal, as an "abomination of a commissioner" and a "disgrace" for ignoring the objections of parliaments.
His exasperation is shared by Eva Kjer Hansen, a Danish MP who chairs the Folketing's European affairs committee.
“It was very arrogant of the commission to withdraw the [right to strike] proposal for political reasons, but insist that we were wrong about the subsidiarity question," she said, adding that "if we were showing respect to each other it wouldn't have happened.”
So what's the solution?
To the Conservative politicians who dominated the conference, the answer is simple: national parliaments need to be able to say No to Brussels.
Andrea Leadsom, chair of the Fresh Start project which is leading the Conservative party's EU reform agenda, says that there should be a permanent means for national parliaments to resist commission proposals.
But some doubt that even a “red card” procedure would be enough to stop EU legislative proposals. Mats Persson, Open Europe's director, is a supporter of giving national assemblies more power in the legislative process, though he believes that the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ), which adjudicates on EU competences, has an inherent bias towards further integration.
He moots the possibility of whether a special “subsidiarity” court giving national parliaments the ability to directly challenge the ECJ could improve democratic control..
To Kjer Hansen, the problem lies in the substance of the legislation, not in the ECJ's interpretation of it, she says. And in this, the commission is the main culprit.
Hansen also thinks that the language used by British politicians is too negative.
"My impression is that it's still too much about sitting in armchairs demanding vetoes … but that's not the way politics works," she said.
"I came into politics to seek solutions, not just to block things,” she added.
The Danish parliament has long been held up as an example to other countries.
"Our procedure in the Danish is very useful…every week we have the minister before the committee and we give him a mandate," Hansen said. Individual EU commissioners have also been summoned to her committee to explain their proposals, she noted.
In other words, the UK parliament could wield more influence over EU policy-making without any new agreements or treaties.
Heaton Harris himself concedes that the House of Commons does not have a good track record at scrutinising EU business. There isn't even a parliamentary debate as a matter of course before and after EU summits. "We're planning to copy the Danish model," he said. Meanwhile, the parliament's European scrutiny committee is regarded as a political wilderness.
"Nobody wants to go on it," noted Heaton Harris, himself a member of the committee, which is chaired by veteran eurosceptic Bill Cash.
But more could, and should, be done, says Hansen, so that national parliaments can scrutinise and exert democratic control over the Commission as well as their own governments.
Hansen argues that the recent changes to the EU's institutional balance have, rightly, increased the legislative power of the European Parliament, but that the role of national parliaments now has to be the main focus in improving democratic legitimacy.
For example, government ministers could present the newly elected commission with a mandate for its five-year term in a bid to establish more control over the legislative programme.
Meanwhile, parliaments should be allowed to table amendments to draft legislation and given sufficient time to comment on the political substance of a proposal.
Kjer Hansen is surely right. Talk of vetoes, opt-outs and exemptions simply plays into the (often accurate) stereotype of Britain as a reluctant and semi-detached EU member. If the British want the rest of Europe to listen, they must make a positive case for reform.