Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Opinion

The struggle for democratic oversight in the EU

  • Rome is hosting the third meeting of the 'Article 13 Conference' of MPs and MEPs (Photo: Giampaolo Macorig)

Hundreds of parliamentarians from across Europe, both from national parliaments and the European Parliament (EP), are gathering in Rome on Monday (29 September) in a bid to improve parliamentary oversight of EU policy making.

The occasion will be the third meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Conference on Economic and Financial Governance of the European Union (IPC-EFG) – nicknamed the “Article 13 Conference” – to be hosted by the Italian parliament’s Camera dei Deputati.

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The IPC-EFG, which meets twice a year, was created in 2013 to enable parliamentarians to discuss and oversee the new system of governance that was created to respond to the EU’s ongoing economic and financial crisis.

The impetus for the IPC-EFG came from Article 13 of the Fiscal Compact treaty of 2012. This foresaw that “the European Parliament and the national Parliaments… will together determine the organisation and promotion of a conference… in order to discuss budgetary policies and other issues covered by this Treaty.”

The main point of the Fiscal Compact was to entrench a system of fiscal rules and to delegate the European Commission, an unelected body, as their principal enforcer. Article 13 gave this system a token of parliamentary oversight.

If ever there was a system crying out for greater parliamentary oversight it is this one – because by any objective measure, the EU’s economic governance regime is failing. Six years after the economic crisis began, the eurozone economy is still stagnant, and may even be heading for yet another downturn, which would be a “triple-dip” recession.

Even the basic goal of price stability has not been achieved, as the eurozone is now in peril of slipping into outright deflation.

Improved parliamentary oversight could at least provide parliaments with an opportunity to “watch the watchers.”

After all, the new EU economic governance has involved the creation of a system of “fiscal surveillance” designed to compel member states to balance their budgets.

This system places severe constraints on how national parliaments exercise their fiscal powers, often pushing them to carry out ruinous austerity policies. The IPC-EFG could turn the tables by enabling national parliaments (along with the EP) to scrutinize this new system of surveillance and to challenge its attendant policy dictates.

Unfortunately, the early meetings of the IPC-EFG were instead dominated by acrimonious internal disagreements – in particular between national MPs and MEPs – over how the conference should be organized.

Most national MPs wanted to create a robust forum for wide-ranging policy debate, with at least a minimal ability to take collective decisions. On the other hand, the MEPs, with support from the members of a few national parliaments (including, crucially, the German Bundestag), preferred a marginal conference of limited substantive scope that takes no decisions.

Disagreements

These disagreements were evident at the first IPC-EFG meeting in Vilnius, in October 2013.

The host parliament, the Lithuanian Seimas, had drafted an ambitious agenda for the meeting. Whereas the EP would have preferred that the conference focus solely on issues related narrowly to the Fiscal Compact (i.e. the scrutiny of national budgets), the Seimas proposed the discussion of a wider array of economic and financial issues, including some not mentioned in the treaty – e.g. banking union.

Moreover, the Seimas proposed that the first IPC-EFG should debate and formally adopt two documents, an internal Rules of Procedure and a set of political Conclusions; these were effectively vetoed by the EP.

Why? The EP as a body has always been strenuously opposed to the creation of any new assembly that could rival its position as the pre-eminent parliamentary forum in the EU. In a 2012 report, it categorically rejected the idea of a “mixed parliamentary body,” combining both MEPs and national MPs, as ineffective and undemocratic.

The EP is in favour of strong parliamentary oversight at the EU level but only if it is centralised in the EP, rather than exercised jointly with national parliaments.

The meeting in Italy – one of the member states hardest hit by the crisis – offers a fresh start to resolve some of these outstanding questions and get on with the business of overseeing the economic governance of the EU.

With the new Commission yet to take office, this is an opportune moment to resolve internal organizational issues – such as the draft Rules of Procedure, which will finally be debated in Rome. Perhaps MEPs from the newly elected parliament may prove more amenable than their predecessors to compromise with their national counterparts. The need is urgent: the crisis is not over.

The writer is a Research Associate at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. This article is based on a longer working paper, which is available here:

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