Wednesday

24th Apr 2019

Opinion

How national parliaments could gain EU influence without treaty change

  • UK's House of Commons. National parliaments are able to take EU law initiatives. (Photo: House of Commons)

One of David Cameron’s postulates for EU reform is to strengthen national parliaments in EU policy-making. Yet, the proposals to date either require treaty changes or are merely technical adjustments.

In fact, much more could be achieved by enhancing the mechanisms of inter-parliamentary cooperation within the existing scope of the treaties.

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One of the reasons behind the alleged lack of EU democratic legitimacy is the fact that its policies suffer from a deficit of parliamentary representation and accountability.

The European Parliament (EP), though formally empowered by the Lisbon Treaty, is still weak in terms of its democratic representativeness and political leverage. Electoral turnout in the 2014 European elections was the lowest ever, failing to reach 43%.

While national parliaments, in their own capacity, cannot (and should not) compensate for this gap in representation, they have an important role to play in the EU as legitimacy intermediaries.

As institutions that control their governments in EU affairs, and transpose EU legislation into domestic orders, they are well suited to translate the needs and wants of the different national demoi into European policy approaches, and vice versa.

Proposing legislation

This, contrary to some opinions, will not be achieved by improving the “yellow card” procedure, by which a parliament warns against a the lack of adherence to the susbsidiarity principle, let alone by introducing a "red card" to block unwanted EU legislation.

Parliaments should invest further in complementing the EP’s influence in EU policymaking.

As unconvincing as it might sound for national parliaments, the EP has the capacity to act as their power multiplier by adding more institutional weight to their own policy proposals.

One of the ways to achieve this is to build on the so-called "green card" initiative which foresees a way for a group of national parliaments acting together to make constructive suggestions for EU policy solutions, or for reviewing existing EU legislation.

Instead of sidelining the EP in their “green card” proposals, national parliaments should treat it as a facilitator in suggesting legislative solutions to the Commission.

To date, the EP has rarely used its power to propose legislation, but rather relied on its prerogative to table amendments to draft legislative acts proposed by the Commission.

Yet, it might be heard from within the ranks of its administration that, in the light of a decreased number of legislative proposals from the Commission, the EP has the ambition to take a more pro-active approach to legislating under its right of indirect initiative.

The EP could perform the role of a leader in proposing new legislation, or amendments of the existing EU law, supported by a group of like-minded national chambers.

The process could be initiated, as in the case of the “green card”, by any parliament but would be developed jointly with the EP.

Right of initiative

When the legislative proposal was submitted to the Commission, the EC would then have the formal obligation to respond not only to the EP, but also to a number of national stakeholders presenting the same positions.

The idea of joint parliamentary initiatives should not be treated as an abstract institutional innovation, since it stems from the very centre of the EP’s operational core, the committee for constitutional affairs (AFCO).

In response to a March 2015 question by the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs, which gathers delegations from national parliaments, about the “green card”, the AFCO committee signaled it was open to further developments in the dialogue with national parliaments in the framework of the right of initiative.

The inclusion of national parliaments in the EP's legislative initiative could be envisaged in light of wider EU inter-parliamentary cooperation provided for by Article 9 of Protocol 1 of the Lisbon Treaty. The article leaves it to the discretion of the EP and national parliaments to determine the organisation and promotion of their effective cooperation.

It could be assumed that it would not require treaty changes.

From a legal point of view, it could be feasible to formalise such cooperation by a memorandum of understanding. It could also be initiated on a more informal basis, simply by doing it and testing its feasibility.

The trial “green card” on food waste, initiated in June 2015 by the House of Lords, could have been a good start.

It related to a salient socio-economic issue of interest to citizens and NGOs, thus to the EP, and will be addressed by the Commission in a circular economy package. Yet, national parliaments decided to go ahead on their own.

Pleasing the UK

Enhanced cooperation with the EP would constitute an effective Europeanisation mechanism for members of national parliaments by producing the feeling of ownership of EU legislation.

It would also play an essential role in driving European integration forward, by allowing a common examination and understanding of policy issues and smoother transposition of EU legislation into national law.

The timing has never been better for this. By the end of this year, the Commission intends to sign the renewed inter-institutional agreement on better regulation with the EU Council and the EP.

It would be advantageous for the EP to complement this agreement with a memorandum of understanding with national parliaments to revitalise its position in the legislative process.

Moreover, the EU is seeking ways to satisfy the British postulate of giving more powers to national parliaments without treaty changes.

Finally, such an initiative should count on the support of important member states such as France, Poland, Netherlands, Ireland and, hopefully, the UK.

Karolina Borońska-Hryniewiecka is an expert on EU institutional affairs at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). Follow her on Twitter @K_Boronska

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