20th Apr 2019


European parliaments' body facing 'identity crisis'

The largest meeting to take place under the Polish Presidency will in all likelihood be a group you have never heard of. Hundreds of participants gather in Warsaw Monday (3 October) for the plenary meeting of COSAC, the biannual meeting of the European Affairs Committees of EU national parliaments.

Up to six members of each national parliament and of the European Parliament will attend, along with representatives from candidate countries’ parliaments and other invited guests, and numerous staff and translators. COSAC is the most prominent forum bringing together representatives of national parliaments – as opposed to governments – in the EU. On the agenda for this meeting are discussions of the EU budget and a visit from the Polish prime minister.

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  • Hungarian parliament. Some kind of new interparliamentary conference for the scrutiny of EU foreign and defence policies is needed (Photo: Lassi Kurkijärvi)

Yet a broader question hangs over the event. Right now COSAC is undergoing something of an identity crisis. Participants are unsure whether it is, at bottom, a “technical” body or a “political” body.

Since its first meeting in 1989, its mission has been primarily technical, in that it has enabled national parliamentarians from different countries to share with one another their techniques of EU scrutiny. Most national parliaments see keeping an eye on the EU’s activities as a corollary to their main job, which is to keep an eye on their own governments. COSAC itself has no real decision-making power.

However, there has always been a political dimension to the work of COSAC as well. Its participants are, after all, elected politicians. Recently, political questions have come to the fore as the Lisbon Treaty increased the powers of national parliaments within the EU system. In this light, many argue that COSAC should devote more time to debating matters of general political interest, such as the “State of the Union,” or the foreign and defense policies of the EU.

Yet given the limited time available – the plenary only lasts from Monday morning to Tuesday lunchtime – delegates ought to focus on those areas where COSAC has expertise and can add value, and avoid extraneous subjects. For example, at the COSAC meeting in Madrid in May 2010, some participants wanted to discuss and/or condemn the Israeli raid on the Gaza relief flotilla, which had taken place the night before. But is a meeting of representatives of EU affairs committees really the best forum for such a debate?

Proper parliamentary oversight

Certainly, the EU’s recently strengthened foreign and defense policies must be subject to proper parliamentary oversight. As these policies are still largely intergovernmental and thus the powers of the European Parliament are limited, it is necessary that national parliaments exercise some form of joint scrutiny over them. This is doubly important now, because another interparliamentary body that used to exercise such oversight, the Assembly of the Western European Union, has just been abolished.

What is needed is some kind of new interparliamentary conference for the scrutiny of EU foreign and defense policies, involving national parliaments and the European Parliament as well. The Lisbon Treaty calls upon COSAC to establish such a body, but discussions on the subject have thus far proved inconclusive. While COSAC itself is not a suitable forum for foreign policy debate, it ought to be acting now to create such a forum.

Otherwise, COSAC should be focused on the EU’s internal, rather than external policies. And internally, it would do well to spend less time debating the general “State of the Union” and more time attending to the details of legislative scrutiny, such as the particulars of the Commission Work Programme.

Paradoxically, COSAC is likely to have more political influence if it remains focused on technical issues. Here is an example.

Subsidiarity tests suspended

The Lisbon Treaty established a “Subsidiarity Control Mechanism” that empowers national parliaments to intervene early in the EU’s legislative process. However, this is logistically difficult as, to be effective, national parliaments must coordinate their efforts and act together quickly, within an eight-week deadline.

To overcome this difficulty, prior to Lisbon, COSAC (which has a small but dedicated and efficient staff) ran a number of “tests” so that national parliaments could practice in making this mechanism work. These tests were highly effective over time in helping national parliaments to coordinate their response to EU legislative proposals. In this, COSAC performed a very useful “technical” function to achieve a political end, enhanced influence of national parliaments over EU affairs.

Unfortunately, these “subsidiarity tests” were suspended after the Lisbon Treaty passed into law. Since then, there has been very little concerted response of national parliaments to EU legislative proposals, with one or two exceptions.

The problem is that national parliaments now have significant collective influence over EU affairs on paper, but they have yet to exercise it in practice. This is, in part, because national parliaments as a group are leaderless and lacking a common institutional structure. As a result, any concerted action must be spontaneous and self-organizing. COSAC can solve this coordination problem by providing an institutional structure and a nominal leader, the national parliament that holds the rotating chair.

At any time, the chair – currently held by the Polish Sejm and Senat – could move to reinstate the subsidiarity tests on an ad hoc basis. Alternatively, participants could pay more attention to identifying pending legislation likely to raise common subsidiarity concerns before it is actually proposed. This could be achieved, for example, by having a regular debate over the Commission Work Programme, the EU’s annual legislative agenda.

COSAC is both a technical and a political body, and these two functions are related. If COSAC concentrates on technical matters – in particular the logistics of coordinated scrutiny – it enables national parliaments to exert greater political influence both at the national and the EU level. And that is good for democracy in the EU.

The writer is a Senior Researcher at ARENA, Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo.

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