Will national parliaments use their new powers?
By Ian Cooper
Earlier this month in Stockholm a gathering of national parliamentarians from all across Europe was abuzz with talk of the news out of Ireland.
The occasion was the meeting of COSAC, the conference of national parliaments' EU affairs committees. The group meets twice a year, hosted by the country holding the rotating EU presidency. It is the forum for backbench MPs to get together and compare notes on how best to monitor EU affairs.
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In attendance were over one hundred members of 32 parliaments – from 27 EU member states, four candidate countries and special guests, and the European Parliament – plus dozens of staff, including 57 translators to render the proceedings into 23 languages.
The group met in the Swedish Riksdag, a parliamentary chamber designed in coolly minimalist off-white tones that reminded some visitors of IKEA. Under the efficient chairmanship of the Swedish hosts, they discussed pressing issues like climate change and asylum policy. But ever-present in the background was the question of how national parliaments could exert greater influence in the European Union.
Early Warning Mechanism
As things stand, the role of national parliaments in EU affairs is limited and indirect: Each parliament keeps an eye on its own government's actions in the EU arena. Sometimes they are called upon to make consequential decisions – such as whether to ratify a new treaty – but they have no direct say over the day-to-day business of the EU.
But this situation may well be about to change – which was the significance of the Irish news.
Three days before, in a second referendum, Irish voters had given a resounding "yes" to the Lisbon treaty, making its final entry into force all but certain. To those gathered in Stockholm, this meant that they would soon gain new powers and a direct say in EU affairs.
One under appreciated aspect of the Lisbon Treaty is that it significantly enhances the role of national parliaments. Most notably, it introduces an "Early Warning Mechanism" in which national parliaments will vet new EU legislative proposals: for the first time, this gives them a direct role in the EU's legislative process.
Under the new mechanism, national parliaments will have eight weeks to raise objections to a proposal if they think it violates the principle of subsidiarity – that is, if they think the matter should be left to the member states.
If one third of them raise objections (a "yellow card") then the proposal must be reviewed; If a majority do so (an "orange card"), then the proposal can be immediately voted down either by the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament.
It is commonly said that national parliaments have been the big losers of European integration, as they merely rubber-stamp decisions already made in Brussels. From a democratic perspective, even a powerful and directly-elected European Parliament cannot fully compensate for national parliaments' loss of influence. The new reform is meant in part to remedy this.
In the long process that led to the Lisbon Treaty, there were proposals to create a "third chamber" for the EU, made up of national parliamentarians. These were rejected – perhaps wisely, because assemblies of this kind often end up as powerless talking shops.
The Lisbon Treaty's early warning mechanism is different in that it gives national parliaments the legal power, limited but still significant, to act collectively at the EU level.
In fact the EU's national parliaments could form a kind of "virtual" third chamber in the sense that together they carry out some of the functions of a legislature even though they don't meet together in the same physical location.
Major logistical obstacles
For such a feat of intra parliamentary coordination to be accomplished, major logistical obstacles must be overcome. Even more important, national parliaments must undergo a shift in thinking towards acting collectively at the European level rather than individually vis-à-vis their own governments. This will be difficult, if the recent efforts of COSAC are taken as a guide.
Twice yearly, COSAC has coordinated a number of "subsidiarity checks" as test runs of the early warning mechanism. The results have been mixed. The difficulty is in part conceptual: it is hard to grasp the nature of the review, in particular the ever-slippery meaning of "subsidiarity."
Moreover, there are practical problems, in that national parliaments find it difficult to vet proposals within the eight-week window and to coordinate their responses.
So far they have not come close to the yellow-card or orange-card thresholds that would trigger an official review of a proposal. That seems feeble when one considers that after the Lisbon Treaty becomes law they will be required to vet not just two but hundreds of proposals per year.
Thus while national parliaments are set to gain new powers when the Treaty of Lisbon becomes law, it remains an open question whether they will exert substantial influence in the future EU.
Ian Cooper is a Senior Researcher at ARENA, Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo.