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Europe’s national parliaments are making the EU an offer it can’t refuse: a package of democratic legitimacy and proactive partnerships that could address a good many of the political problems facing the EU. It’s now up to the European Commission to accept this offer.

Let’s imagine that Europe’s national parliaments all had the right of initiative. Each member of a national parliament could go to his or her constituency and invite citizens to bring forward good ideas that could, if they have local, regional, national and pan-European support, be turned into EU legislation.

Right now, national parliaments can only obstruct European legislation by handing the Commission a “yellow card”. But why not let the EU’s national parliaments participate in the legislative process by issuing political opinions that EU institutions are obliged to take into account. Why not let national parliaments propose new initiatives just as the Council and the European Parliament can already do today?

“Why not let the EU’s national parliaments participate in the legislative process by issuing political opinions that EU institutions are obliged to take into account”

Critics might say that the right of initiative is the prerogative of the European Commission, and giving national parliaments this right would require treaty changes. But what I am arguing for is to allow a certain number of national parliaments to invite the European Commission to table legislative proposals that they deem necessary. I am not alone in this argument. In late June of last year, around 40 chambers of national parliaments met at the Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC) in Dublin and agreed to invite the Commission to consider any individual or collective legislative proposal requests from national parliaments. With a political commitment from the Commission, I expect we’d see several innovative and constructive proposals brought forward for the benefit of all.

The participants of COSAC also called on the Commission to give special consideration to opinions from national parliaments on specific proposals that have been issued by at least one third of national parliaments. In other words, we are not happy with the strictly negative role of delaying or obstructing draft laws using the “yellow card” procedure to guard the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Yes, these are important principles, but we want to play a more positive and proactive role to help strengthen democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.

All this talk of democratic legitimacy reflects the growing disillusionment with the EU to be found in many European countries. The latest Eurobarometer saw 72% of Spaniards no longer trusting the EU, and the Pew Research Center has found that 75% of Italians think European economic integration has been bad for their country, as do 77% of the French and 78% of the Greeks. Even though the unemployment rate in my own country, Denmark, is far less alarming than across southern Europe, support for the EU is at an all-time low, with 39% of Danish citizens wanting to leave the EU altogether.

As Europe struggles to recover from economic and financial crisis, the question of democratic legitimacy and accountability is becoming ever more relevant. New policies to deal with the effects of the crisis that consist of sometimes harsh but necessary medicines have consisted of bail-out packages with tough conditions, but how are those who have made these decisions to be held to account? The heavy-handed bail-out of Cyprus in March of last year is a clear illustration of the problem.

“We are not happy with the strictly negative role of delaying or obstructing draft laws using the “yellow card” procedure to guard the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality”

Commission President Barroso himself has stated that the crisis has made clear that economic governance and democratic accountability “need to move forward hand in hand, keeping pace with one another.” Europe needs a democratic framework that matches the EU’s increased economic governance powers. It is here that the role of national parliaments is crucial.

Some might ask “is democratic legitimacy not secured by the European Parliament?” Although the EP has a very important role as co-legislator and parliamentary control body, national parliaments have a different role to play. National MPs are closest to citizens, know their concerns and can make people’s voices heard at a European level through their own government or through inter-parliamentary co-operation. National parliaments play a special role both in bringing citizens’ concerns to Europe and in bringing Europe closer to its citizens by explaining how EU institutions work and how the work of national governments is scrutinised in European decision-making. This means sharing responsibility for policy output, and this in turn is vital for increasing citizens’ faith in European policy solutions. There has been too much scapegoating of the EU over the years, so member states should stop pointing the finger at the EU when they are themselves to blame. How else can we bring Europe closer to our citizens, and how better can we enhance our scrutiny procedures to ensure accountability and democratic control?

Democratic control within national governments is all the more important because the EU’s crisis response has been driven by increased inter-governmentalism at the expense on the one hand of the community method and on the other of parliamentarism. The creation of the European Semester and the gradual move towards an integrated budgetary and economic framework is at the heart of national parliamentary democracy. The European Semester process, which to some extent “Europeanises” national economic policy processes and decisions, has changed the economic governance relationship between EU institutions and national parliaments.

“There has been too much scapegoating of the EU over the years, so member states should stop pointing the finger at the EU when they are themselves to blame”

New tools will be needed if national parliaments are to fulfil their role as democratic watchdogs. That is why we in the Danish Parliament recently introduced a “National Semester”, as part of which the European Affairs Committee and the Budget Committee will debate with government ministers three important steps in the European Semester. These are the launch of the Commission’s Annual Growth Survey, the government’s submission of the National Reform Programme and Convergence Programme, and the Council deliberations on the Country Specific Recommendations. With this Danish example in mind, I would urge other national parliaments across the EU to consider similar arrangements. Enhancing national parliaments’ roles and exchanging best practices among parliamentarians are important aspects of inter-parliamentary co-operation as there is no “one size fits all” that spans the 28 parliamentary cultures.

To hold governments accountable is just one side of the coin. The other is to maintain the political dialogue with the European Commission. The Commission has agreed in principle to last year’s COSAC request to answer inquiries from national parliaments and to let Commissioners appear before national parliament committees. With this obstacle cleared, we should go ahead and invite them or high ranking EU civil servants to give a technical briefing on particular proposals and use the opportunity to bring forward our own viewpoints.

Parliamentary scrutiny is relevant in a number of other ways. It is, for instance, foreseen that national parliaments will have a role in overseeing the work of Europol, and in an area far removed from that there is the agreement between the Council and the EP on the new banking supervision proposal that ensures a role for national parliaments as they will be able to invite a representative of national supervisory authorities to discuss the supervision of credit institutions.

On inter-parliamentary co-operation, there is still room for improvement. There are a number of “inter-parliamentary” bodies that bring together members of national parliaments and the EP, COSAC being the most important. There is also a conference on the CSDP and the fiscal stability treaty set up a conference in article 13 that will gather MPs and MEPs to scrutinise the operation of the treaty and discuss wider economic issues. There has been a lot of talk produced at these meetings, but turning that into useful input for European decision-making is now crucial. We must reduce these long and inefficient meetings with too many participants, redundant speeches, too little genuine political debate and few ground-breaking decisions. Instead, we have to be operational, innovative and solution-oriented. National parliaments could be organised into clusters of shared interests and common themes to ensure a more constructive impact on European decision-making.

It is of the utmost importance that national parliaments should be part of EU-level decision-making. This must be done at several levels and in different fora. Their role might evolve further with future treaty changes. The European Commission should include the national parliaments in any considerations on the future of Europe. Then we will in turn engage in debate with the European citizens. That’s part of the offer we’re making that really mustn’t be refused.

Photo credit: Λουκάς Παπαδήμος Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας

Commentary

What’s really needed is structural reform of the European Parliament

National parliaments across Europe can feel power slipping through their fingers. And although Eva Kjer Hansen has, amongst others, proposed ideas for increasing their influence in EU affairs, it seems unlikely that adding to the existing toolbox would do much to increase the EU’s democratic legitimacy. Rather than increasing the steps in EU decision-making with her “more of the same” approach for enhancing the role of national parliaments, the time seems ripe for more drastic change.

The growing interest since the 1990s in national parliaments’ role culminated in the Lisbon ‘treaty of national parliaments’. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that their role was overstated. The yellow and orange card procedures are ineffective and cumbersome and have been used only twice. Platforms for inter-parliamentary cooperation may be useful for exchanging ideas and best practices, but the consultative nature of these platforms hasn’t actually increased the powers of national parliaments.

The latest proposals for beefing-up national parliaments’ scrutiny and rights of initiative won’t substantially change the roles of, say, the Danish Folketinget or the Dutch Tweede Kamer. At best, these initiatives contest the sidelining of national parliaments in the European-level political process. The combination of more and more centralisation in Brussels and citizens’ growing disillusionment with the EU demands a more radical approach. The reality is that the EU’s supranational character has consistently been strengthened, to the benefit of the European Parliament. The EP’s institutional ambition is to expand its scope and responsibilities, and national parliaments’ capacities and expertise are no match for it. The 766-seat European Parliament – 751 as of mid-2014 on – has a supporting staff that now numbers more than 6,000 and is still growing despite the euro crisis. The EP is more focused on EU policies and is better equipped, whereas national parliamentarians suffer increasingly from overload.

Another reason why national parliaments are sidelined – or rather, undermine their own role – stems from national political realities. In coalition governments across the EU, a majority of parties support their government’s ministers when they return from a Council meeting in Brussels, so crucial questions often go unaddressed and ministers are hardly held to account.

Rather than more-of-the-same measures designed to increase the role of national parliaments, it is structural reform in the EP that is needed. Real national representation would require the abolition of the distinction between national and European parliamentarians. Instead, representation at the European level could be an extension of the national democratic function of parliamentarians. It would require national parliamentarians to operate in their policy fields in the European Parliament. This will go further than ‘double representation’: being a member of parliament would mean working in both the national capital and in Brussels. It’s clear that more thought is needed on how to devise effective European gatherings of national parliamentarians, and that would help to put an end to the growing schism between national and European politics.