25th Mar 2019


The silent revolution of parliamentary reform

The increased role of the European Parliament as a legislative body, effectively making it a co-legislator with equal powers to the Council on virtually all EU legislation, means that it must re-balance its workload and focus more effectively on those matters where it has power and influence.

Consequently, next week, the parliament will vote on my report to implement the proposals made by the Working Group on Parliamentary Reform, established last year and ably chaired by German Socialist MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt.

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  • The issue of written questions has caused most contention (Photo: European Parliament)

The proposals include modification of the rules on own-initiative reports, proposals to make parliamentary debates more open and lively and guidelines for the procedure of tabling written questions to the commission.

The parliament's agenda is often clogged up by debates and countless amendments on 'own initiative' reports that have no legislative standing at the expense of time spent debating and scrutinising legislation.

This should be corrected by a rule change to categorise parliamentary reports. With the exception of strategic reports and reports undertaken through the parliament's right to initiate legislative proposals to the commission under the treaties, own-initiative reports would be taken without debate and amendment in the parliament and be subjected to a single vote.

However, political groups or 40 MEPs would be able to table alternative resolutions, which would also be subject to a single vote.

In this way, the plenary would not be used as a grand drafting committee to re-write committee reports line by line. Instead, the committee own-initiative reports, unless they are particularly important, would stand in their own right, much as House of Lords committee reports in the UK do.

Meanwhile, on legislative reports my report proposes that debates in the parliament should be introduced and concluded by the rapporteur.

This would increase the parliament's visibility in the legislative process and, hopefully, enhance the quality and liveliness of debates by allowing the rapporteur to respond to, and sum up, the debate.

But, the issue that has caused most contention in the Constitutional Affairs Committee has been the relatively minor one of written questions.

A silent revolution

Unlike the vast majority of national parliaments in the EU, the European Parliament currently has no rules or limitations on parliamentary questions. Indeed, the parliament's Rule 110 states: "The content of questions shall be the sole responsibility of their authors."

The commission has a deadline of three weeks to reply to priority questions and a further three weeks to respond to non-priority ones. However, the high number of questions, some of which have nothing to do with the work of the EU, often leads to long delays for replies.

My report would introduce, for the first time, a clear set of guidelines on the admissibility of written parliamentary questions. The guidelines would deem a question inadmissible only if it fell outside the remit of the EU, contained offensive language, or related to personal matters.

In cases where an identical question had recently been tabled, the member would be informed of the previous reply before deciding whether to maintain his/her question.

Several members have claimed that these provisions impinge upon their rights as MEPs, however, such claims are little more than a spurious attempt to find sinister motives in what are sensible reforms.

For example, one MEP has repeatedly asked the commission to disclose whatever information it holds concerning unconfirmed reports about the death of Osama bin Laden.

The most notorious tabler of nonsense questions is Robert Kilroy Silk, who, despite having not made a speech in the parliament for nearly three years, has compensated by tabling well over 1000 questions since 2006. These have included asking the commission about "the death of culture in France" and whether British retailer Marks and Spencer uses weight distorting mirrors in its shops!

Of course, these guidelines will not stop assiduous MEPs who wish to table dozens of questions each month, but they will prevent MEPs from wasting time and money by tabling questions on matters that have nothing to do with the work and competences of the European Union, but which clog up the system at the expense of genuine questions.

All in all, these proposals, taken individually, are not radical changes that will overhaul parliamentary procedures. Rather, they will, hopefully, allow for a silent revolution, modernising the machinery of the parliament to make it more effective, transparent and democratic.

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