Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

Opinion

Will national parliaments use their new powers?

  • National parliaments must undergo a shift in thinking towards acting collectively at the European level (Photo: EUobserver)

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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.

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. On Monday hundreds of national MPs gather in Warsaw for the plenary meeting of COSAC, but what role should the organisation play in the future, Ian Cooper asks?

EU's chance to step up on Hungary and Poland

Viktor Orban of Hungary and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski seem to share the idea that the rights of some may come at the expense of the rights of others, and public institutions should serve the majority, and not all citizens.

Could Finnish presidency fix labour-chain abuse?

There can be no more excuses for business. They will be held for responsible for their failure to take action to prevent the risk of human and labour rights through their supply chains.

Brexit vs Grexit: The six stages of losing to the EU

Theresa May's venture seems very similar to the attempt by Alexis Tsipras in 2015 to persuade Brussels to accept his terms for the bail out - a huge negotiation failure, presented to the public as the best possible deal.

Why Brussels' toxic lobbying culture must end

What is revelatory about the study by Corporate Europe Observatory is the sheer number of embassies, committees and advisory groups that lobbyists can target: from the Council all the way down to standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed.

News in Brief

  1. Visegrad countries meeting with Israel called off
  2. EU ministers call climate change 'direct and existential threat'
  3. Seven MPs leave Britain's Labour Party
  4. Czech PM: May's EU elections 'most important ever'
  5. 'History will judge us': May tells MPs on Brexit
  6. Trump warns EU on release of Islamist fighters
  7. Venezuela expels 'conspiratorial' MEPs
  8. Holocaust dispute upsets Israel's EU lobbying

What does Poland want from the EU?

We propose several changes to the EU, derived from the political philosophy behind the current Polish government, and what Poles expect from the EU - this could be seen as a manifesto Poland wants the next European Commission to tackle.

Migration and May elections - time to get facts right

If misinformation in the field of migration can bring a government down, as in the recent case of Belgium following the country's adoption of the UN migration pact, then it can doubtless produce a populist majority in the European parliament.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  2. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  3. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  5. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  7. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  8. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups

Latest News

  1. EU should clarify rules for plant burgers and lab meat
  2. Italian populists could be second biggest force in EU parliament
  3. Merkel defends Russia ties, ridicules Trump on cars
  4. British MPs condemn Facebook CEO's misrule
  5. EU's chance to step up on Hungary and Poland
  6. ESA pushback against new EU space agency plan
  7. Sluggish procedure against Hungary back on table
  8. Could Finnish presidency fix labour-chain abuse?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us