Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Third Report


SUMMARY OF THE REPORT


It is generally accepted that the EU has problems in respect of democracy and accountability, and that there is 'disconnection' between citizens and EU institutions. Disconnection or disengagement is the central problem which our Report seeks to address. National parliaments and parliamentarians can play a key role in bridging the gap between remote EU institutions and citizens, because they generally have a much closer relationship with citizens than any EU institution. Giving citizens the opportunity to influence decision-making is the critical requirement if disconnection from the EU is to be reduced. (Paragraphs 1-4)

National parliaments can help to remedy that disconnection only if they deal with EU matters in a way which 'connects' with citizens. (Paragraph 7)

There are problems with both the EU's main sources of democratic legitimacy. In the EU, unlike at home, elected national governments act as a legislative chamber on their own, and in secret. Individual Council members acting collectively and doing so largely in secret cannot effectively be held to account by another organisation. As for the European Parliament (EP), turnout at elections is low, there is little knowledge of its activities and voting in EP elections tends to be on national issues. (Paragraphs 14-15)

The primary role of national parliaments is to scrutinise their government's EU activities and hold it to account. Their effectiveness in doing so is partly determined by the way in which the EU conducts business. The fundamental requirements for scrutiny by national parliaments are information and time — the same as for regional and other authorities and citizens. National parliaments can strengthen EU legitimacy only if they are acquiring real influence in EU decision-making and are seen to exercise such influence. (Paragraphs 16-17)

Openness

The Council of Ministers meets in private when legislating, which is not simply objectionable in principle but also has specific and harmful effects, such as difficulty for national parliaments in holding Ministers to account. We welcome the fact that the UK Government is in favour of the Council meeting in public when legislating. (Paragraphs 18-21)

We share the Government's view that all the Council's legislative proceedings should be in public. What is essential is that sufficient takes place in public for it to be clear what line has been taken by each Member State in the proceedings and where responsibility lies for the decisions made. Confining public meetings to areas subject to co-decision would be totally unacceptable. (Paragraphs 22-4)

Consequential changes will need to include the European Council meeting in public when making decisions on legislation, Council documents being made available in unexpurgated form (without the policy stances of Member States being blanked out) and reconsideration of the system whereby the Council agrees without discussion 'A points' already negotiated by officials in COREPER. Annual reports and other important documents should also be discussed in public, especially Court of Auditors reports. The onus should be on the Council to justify meeting in private. (Paragraphs 25-6)

Support for the Council meeting in public for most or all of its legislative sessions will be a litmus test of governments' real attitude towards increasing democracy and accountability. (Paragraph 27)

The system whereby legislation agreed in COREPER is approved without discussion in the Council needs to be changed if public sessions of the Council are to be meaningful. We would support the Commission's call for new ways of monitoring and controlling the exercise of its executive role if this resulted in more open supervision than the present system of committees. (Paragraphs 28-31)

The EU's legislative process and scrutiny by national parliaments

Legislative and other proposals are often put forward for agreement before national parliaments have had time to consider them, sometimes on the basis of last-minute negotiation. Time for scrutiny by national parliaments should be seen not as an optional add-on but as a fundamental aspect of accountability. Therefore, we do not regard building some time into the system for scrutiny by national parliaments as unreasonably slowing down the legislative process. (Paragraphs 34-5)

We seek to prevent last-minute drafting which makes major changes, leaves no time for scrutiny and potentially gives rise to ill-drafted and ill-considered legislation. We advocate either incorporation of national scrutiny reserves into EU procedures or a minimum length of time between consideration of a text by COREPER or publication of a new text and its agreement by the Council, in either case with tightly-drawn provisions allowing for cases of urgency (which might require unanimity), but we are open to suggestions which would reliably achieve the same effects by less formal means. Better organisation of Council business is also important in this respect. (Paragraphs 41, 46-7)

Any deadlines for agreement on legislation set by the European Council and the timing of the negotiations to meet such deadlines must provide enough time for national parliamentary scrutiny in advance of Council decisions on new texts. (Paragraph 50)

The EU institutions

The system of six-monthly Presidencies should be replaced. Any new system will need to respect the principle of equality of Member States. It would be essential to establish parliamentary accountability for an elected President of the European Council, and joint meetings of national parliamentarians and MEPs would be a means of doing so. Subject to that, we support the proposal that the European Council should have an elected President with a term of office of two years or more. (Paragraphs 59-61)

We see merit in replacing the six-monthly list of Presidency priorities with an annual European Council agenda that relates more clearly to the Commission's annual work programme. Any European Council agenda should be subject to scrutiny before it is finalised, and national parliamentarians should participate in that scrutiny. (Paragraph 65)

We would welcome a simplified Council of Ministers structure which gave rise to more coherent policy-making and which would potentially make national parliaments' task of holding Ministers to account less difficult. (Paragraph 66)

It is extraordinary that the EU's main legislative body (the Council) operates in such a slapdash way. Citizens and parliaments are entitled to expect greater professionalism in the organisation of the Council of Ministers. (Paragraph 67)

We are not in favour of the Commission President being elected, because it would weaken the Commission's effectiveness in being able to rise above sectional interests and because it would give the Commission President far greater authority and significantly change the EU's institutional balance, while making him less accountable and not necessarily doing much to reconnect citizens and EU decision-making. (Paragraph 80)

The Commission should operate strictly within well-defined parameters laid down by the Council and the EP, and any political and legislative powers should be confined to those for which there is a clear justification, as in respect of state aids and competition. (Paragraph 82)

Given the concerns of the smaller Member States, we see no prospect of the Commission's right of initiative being removed. However, greater openness about how the Commission decides what legislative measures to put forward and greater scrutiny of that process are essential. This should involve national parliamentarians, who could put proposals to the Commission. (Paragraph 84)

The EP and national parliaments are complementary. There are areas where they can benefit from co-operation. (Paragraph 87)

The way the legislative process known as co-decision operates means that much of the discussion which matters takes place in private. It is inappropriate for an executive and a democratically-elected parliament to be involved so extensively in secret negotiations over legislation. Any extension of co-decision to new areas should be conditional on a change in the present procedure so that it can operate in a way which is both effective and transparent. (Paragraphs 90-1)

Strengthening the relationship between the EP and citizens by increasing knowledge of what the EP does will increase its authority and its contribution to democratic legitimacy in the EU. (Paragraph 92)

EP elections in the UK involve not only very large constituencies but also party lists. There should be a critical re-examination of that system in order to re-establish a relationship between MEPs and electorates and end the party list system in favour of a "first past the post" and constituency-based system. (Paragraph 93)

What does what

The EU should legislate wherever possible with a light touch, leaving as much flexibility as possible to Member States and authorities within them. (Paragraph 97)

A clearer allocation of powers is desirable, especially where powers have been inferred from objectives set in the Treaties, but on its own will have limited impact because of the prevalence of shared powers. (Paragraph 102)

There need to be arrangements to review the allocation of powers periodically, with the possibility both of adding new powers and of returning existing ones to the Member States. Whether the EU institutions will in practice ever be willing to return any powers to the Member States remains to be seen. (Paragraph 102)

The principle that all powers not transferred by the Treaties to the EU remain with the Member States must be maintained, and it must be made clear that the powers of Member States are not derived from the Treaties; but, subject to that, we see merit in a list of powers from which the EU is specifically excluded. (Paragraph 102)

'A simpler statement of principles, which sets out in plain language what the EU is for and how it can add value', would be worthwhile. (Paragraph 102)

We still encounter legislation clearly offending against the principle of subsidiarity. Support for the principle in the abstract does not necessarily lead to application of it, and there are widely differing views as to what constitutes subsidiarity. We do not share the view that the EU institutions are capable of ensuring adherence to the principle of subsidiarity. We agree with those who have advocated new procedures to enforce the principle. (Paragraphs 105-8).

Enforcement of the principle of subsidiarity should be a political rather than a judicial matter. (Paragraph 112)

National parliamentarians should have a role in determining questions of subsidiarity, because the EU institutions are not in practice keen on applying the principle, national parliaments do not have an inherent, institutional interest in transferring powers to the EU level, and national parliaments are relatively close to their citizens. Various methods are possible: if cases are referred by national parliaments for decision by another body, that body should be a political or quasi-judicial arbiter or watchdog. (Paragraphs 113-14)

The reference to 'ever closer union' should be removed from the Treaties. (Paragraph 116)

The role of national parliaments in the EU

We do not support the proposal that each national parliament should have a veto over EU legislation. (Paragraph 121).

We do not believe the proposed second Chamber would achieve the objectives set for it. (Paragraph 126)

The two main practical problems of the second Chamber proposal are those of time and representativeness. We conclude (i) that any involvement of national parliamentarians in the EU should make the least possible demands on their time, and should draw on different Members for different purposes in order to spread the burden; forms of involvement not entailing meetings and travel should also be considered; and (ii) that meetings of national parliamentarians should be so managed that the representatives can consult widely in advance, and should normally have a scrutiny and consultation rather than accountability role. Involvement of national parliamentarians will be worthwhile only if there is a genuine possibility of exerting influence, and will be most beneficial when it strengthens their ability to scrutinise the activities of their own Ministers in the Council. (Paragraphs 127-8)

The Convention format is useful for open debate and for developing ideas and making proposals, but (because of the problem of representativeness) not for making decisions, and we do not regard it as giving parliaments a 'joint constituent power.' (Paragraph 130)

National parliamentarians need more than the right of consultation as regards subsidiarity problems. We favour a system in which national parliamentarians could refer items of legislation to a 'subsidiarity watchdog' or other body for examination of compliance with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Meetings of national parliamentarians to scrutinise the Commission's annual work programme from a subsidiarity point of view could also be of value. We envisage a subsidiarity watchdog consisting of senior politicians. (Paragraphs 131-4)

More thorough scrutiny of the Commission's policy strategy and work programme at EU level, including questioning of Commissioners, would be worthwhile, and would make the opaque process by which the Commission decides what legislation to introduce much more transparent. Similar issues arise in respect of any European Council 'annual agenda', and indeed the current six-monthly Presidency priorities; there is a risk of a heavily top-down approach. Consultation with the EP would be too indirect: national parliamentarians should be involved in discussions directly with the Commission. We welcome the Commission's proposal for 'a reinforced culture of consultation and dialogue', and call for joint meetings of national parliamentarians and MEPs to scrutinise the Commission's annual policy strategy and work programme, question Commissioners on it, and debate it, and would support a similar procedure for the European Council's annual agenda. (Paragraphs 138-40)

Joint meetings of national parliamentarians and MEPs should be placed on a more formal basis with a small secretariat and joint organisation by national parliaments and the EP. National parliamentarians could then ensure that subjects of concern to them were covered, that the number of meetings did not result in excessive burdens on them and that subjects were selected with a view to bridging the gap between citizens and EU decision-making. (Paragraphs 141-3)

We support the proposal for regular meetings of members of the defence, foreign affairs and European affairs committees of national parliaments to scrutinise ESDP. (Paragraph 147)

We do not support the proposal for national parliamentarians to accompany Ministers to Council meetings. (Paragraph 148)

The opportunities COSAC could provide are largely squandered. We would re-define COSAC's main role as assisting national parliaments to improve their scrutiny of government activities in the EU, by sharing best practice and information and acting as a strategic body on behalf of national parliaments. COSAC needs to have a small secretariat to facilitate the exchange of information (e.g. on scrutiny problems, in respect of particular documents or more generally), to monitor activities relevant to national scrutiny (e.g. compliance by the Council with the protocol on the role of national parliaments), and to take up procedural matters of concern with the Council secretariat or the Commission. Changes in COSAC's rules must cease to require unanimity. The role of the EP in COSAC would need to be reconsidered. (Paragraphs 149-51)

One of the problems facing national parliaments which actively scrutinise EU legislation is that many national parliaments do not. Consequently the overall climate of accountability is lacking in the Council. COSAC should draw up minimum standards of parliamentary scrutiny setting out both rights and duties of national parliaments. (Paragraphs 152-3)

We shall press for our ideas to be included in the detailed proposal for a more effective COSAC which is to be presented to COSAC in October. (Paragraph 154)

We encourage the Convention working group to set out how national parliaments should be scrutinising government activities in the EU and reconnecting citizens and EU decision-making. It would be helpful if the Convention asked COSAC to take action to seek to raise the overall standard of scrutiny by national parliaments. (Paragraph 155)

Sub-Member State authorities

There are still unanswered questions about how the proposal for partner regions of the Union status might work in practice. (Paragraph 165)

We regard it as common sense for the Commission to consult authorities with legislative powers and to take particular notice of their views. The Convention should fully explore whether any such consultation or access to the Commission should be 'privileged'. (Paragraph 167)

Referendums

Where referendum results impose a veto on what other Member States may do, neither of the alternative responses are attractive. However, where turnout is low, we do not dissent from the practice of holding a referendum again. (Paragraph 169)

We regard the idea of Europe-wide referendums as impracticable for the foreseeable future. (Paragraph 170)

Conclusion

Bridging the gap between EU citizens and EU decision-making will remain inherently difficult, not only because of the EU's size but because of its unique combination of supranational and Member State authority. However, our proposals would have a substantial impact in two ways: by increasing openness in the legislative process and by enlarging the role of national parliaments. This would potentially strengthen national parliaments, democracy and accountability in the EU, and the EU itself. (Paragraphs 171-3)


 
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