Select Committee on European Scrutiny Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 9

Memorandum submitted by The Federal Trust

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

  The Federal Trust is an independent think tank founded in 1945 on the initiative of William Beveridge, and is committed to exploring federal solutions to issues of governance at national, continental and global level. Currently, the Trust is working on various research projects, encompassing issues as diverse as citizenship, good governance in the EU, the WTO, corporate social responsibility, and devolution in the UK. We welcome the European Scrutiny Committee's calls for evidence for its inquiry into democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliaments. We will be happy to provide further evidence, in an oral or written form, if required.

  All the questions posed by the Committee stem from one problem: the alienation of the European citizen from the institutions of the European Union. This "disconnection" is evident from low turnouts in elections for the European Parliament, from frequent Eurobarometer polls surveying public opinion, and quite specifically from the low turnout on the occasion of the Irish referendum of last June.

  How then, to connect the citizen with European institutions? The countless solutions to this problem fall into two main domains. On the one hand, there are those that seek to "reconnect" the citizen directly to the Union, for instance through the direct election of the President of the Commission, or through the use of Europe-wide referendums. Other proposals aim to reconnect the citizen indirectly, by increasing the scope of national (or indeed, regional) parliaments to influence or hold to account European institutions in the name of the citizen.

  This brief response will address points essentially from this second category, by examining in a first part the implications and consequences of a charter of competences, and by commenting in a second part on the proposals for increasing the role of national parliaments in the EU legislative process.

SUBSIDIARITY, THE CHARTER OF COMPETENCES AND THE CITIZEN

  Supporters of a charter of competences claim that, once the question of "who does what and at what level" has been explicitly answered, then the citizen would gain a clearer appreciation of the EU's work and national and regional institutions would be spared any encroachment by Brussels on their prerogatives. This would lead to better accountability of all political institutions—European, national and regional—as their roles would be more closely defined than at present. There would be better input into the policy process, and more efficient output, provided power were exercised at the most suitable level. In principle, therefore, a charter of competences would help to reconnect the citizen to political institutions, and would increase his or her participation in the political process through an efficient application of subsidiarity, backed by an explicit document.

  In practice, however, the idea of a charter of competences is controversial. Even supporters of the proposal are divided as to the nature of the charter, with Mr Blair calling for a political document, and others for a more legally entrenched text. Some fear the negative consequences of a charter of competences: would it lead to litigation between the different levels of government? How, if at all, could it be adapted as the EU evolves? And some question the very feasibility of drafting such a document. How to reconcile in a single system, for example, the hugely varying degrees of autonomy accorded by EU member states to their provinces, regions, autonomous communities, Länder, or communes?

  After considering the pros and cons of a charter of competences, the Federal Trust believes the optimal solution to lie in the drafting of a document, a legal part of the Treaties, laying out unambiguously the prerogatives and powers of the Union.

  This "constitutional settlement" would both limit the domains of competence and establish procedures for their exercise by the supranational institutions. This will help define the contemporary nature and objectives of the EU, and set out rules for increased transparency, accountability and openness in Brussels. The reconnection of the citizen to the EU's structure necessitates a clear answer, once again, to the question "who does what?". For the citizen to understand the value of supranational common policies, there must be a comprehensible and unambiguous statement of the EU's objectives, and of the means it has at its disposal that make it the suitable level for action in a particular field.

  But this charter of competences would steer clear of codifying the relationship within each member state between central and regional entities. It would limit itself to cover only the prerogatives and duties of the Union's institutions, including areas of mixed European and national competences, but reserving all unspecified competences to the national level. It would not distribute responsibilities between national and sub-national levels. This is necessary in order to respect the political diversity of the European Union's members—countries as different as the Federal Republic of Germany, unitary-minded France, or our own or Spain's peculiarly devolved system. This would allow for the existing differences in competences between, say, a German Land like Bavaria and a French région like Brittany, as there would be no need for an EU-wide declaration on these entities' prerogatives. The responsibility to apply subsidiarity, or the execution of power by the most suitable level of government, within the national framework would therefore fall on the member states. National parliaments that are committed to accountability, democracy, and a close connection between government and the citizen will also apply the subsidiarity principle to the exercise of powers within their own territory.

  However, the charter should not be totally silent as regards sub-national entities. The right of regionally elected assemblies to participate in the input of the EU legislative process needs to be addressed. The Treaty of Nice established that only persons with a regional electoral mandate could sit in the Committee of Regions, and that once that mandate was over, they would lose the right to sit there. Nice has therefore already begun the process of ensuring the participation of the regionally elected in a consultative role within the legislative process. The more precise nature of such participation now needs to be made clear. Unfortunately, the European Commission's White Paper on European Governance, published in July 2001, only proposes a vague "pro-active role" for the Committee of the Regions. This development is to be welcomed, but it needs to be considered along with the wider question of the role of national parliaments, discussed below.

  Finally, the charter of competences would also need to be flexible enough to ensure it could adapt to evolving circumstances: the competences of the EU should be defined unambiguously, but they should not be set in stone. The main purpose of a codification of the EU's prerogatives should be to clarify the Union's roles, and not to limit the development of common policies. There should be a review clause, possibly attached to a recurring timetable, such as 10 years.

LINKING NATIONAL AND REGIONAL INSTITUTIONS TO THE EU LEGISLATIVE PROCESS

  The principal justification for increasing the role of national and regional parliaments in the EU legislative process is the oft-proclaimed shortfall in legitimacy from which the Union's institutions are seen to suffer. This perceived democratic deficit, deemed to affect all branches of the institutional triangle, needs to be examined more closely. While elections to the European Parliament attract few voters, that is insufficient reason to denounce the body as undemocratic. The Council of Ministers meets behind closed doors, and is often bogged down by excessively time-consuming procedures. But it is the representative of elected governments, and therefore suffers from no lack of legitimacy. The problem lies mainly with the semi-appointed semi-elected Commission, the executive branch of the Union. It is perceived by many as unaccountable, however much cognoscenti know that its legitimacy is anchored in the Treaties.

  Any proposals to increase the role of national and regional parliaments, bodies which are considered more legitimate because the electorate turns out in greater numbers to vote, must focus on this shortfall: the lack of accountability of the executive, as well as seeking ways to strengthen the legislature. Yet some proposals for an increased role for national parliaments in the EU process misguidedly focus on the creation of a "second chamber", as an apparent democratic boost to the legislative branch of the Union. (Certain observers present this body as an actual third chamber, the Council of Ministers already serving the function of an upper chamber). It is hard to see what advantages a further chamber to the European Parliament could bring. Would a delegation of national politicians appointed to a third chamber attract any more allegiance from the electorate than MEPs elected to the European Parliament? Besides, prior to 1979, the European Parliament was composed of delegates drawn from the national parliaments, a formula that was abandoned precisely because direct election was deemed to be more democratic and allows for greater popular accountability.

  In so far as reform of the legislature is required, it should concentrate on two practical steps. The Council of Ministers, that existing upper chamber, seen as a chamber of European states to the European Parliament's chamber of European peoples, must fully assume its legislative duties, and deliberate in public and take public responsibility for its decisions. More power and responsibility must be shifted onto the lower, directly elected chamber, the existing European Parliament, for example through an extension of co-decision and a remodelling of the budgetary procedure.

  National parliaments can and should be more involved in the legislative structure of the EU. But this should not be done by creating a further distant and ineffective chamber to add to the structure above the European Parliament, but by increasing the input that national parliaments enjoy in the EU's legislative process. National parliamentary committees should be better informed about and further involved in the committee work of the European Parliament. The COSAC structure should be strengthened, with more frequent joint meetings of national and European parliamentarians, and possibly the creation of COSAC sub-committees specialising in particularly contentious issues. And national parliaments should be given—or should take—more powers to supervise the activities of their respective governments' ministers in the Council, demanding information before as well as after Council meetings.

  Aside from increasing the consultative and scrutiny contributions of national parliaments to the European Union's legislative process, it is important to focus on the question of input into the executive. Scrutiny of the European Commission is indeed ensured adequately by national governments through the Council of Ministers, and by the European Parliament. But the national and regional parliamentarians hold relatively little power to shape the policies proposed by the Commission.

  It is here that national and regional parliaments' roles can, and should, be profitably extended. Whereas regional bodies are represented at regional level through the Committee of the Regions, and civil society is consulted through the Economic and Social Committee, national parliaments have no direct input into the formation of proposals by the Commission. If regional parliaments are going to be given a more "pro-active role" in policy formation at the stage of prior consultation, it seems only logical that national parliamentarians be given the same access to shaping the orientation of the Commission's proposals. Like the Committee of the Regions, and the Economic and Social Committee, they should be consulted formally on all legislative proposals before they are decided by the Commission, and their opinions should be published along with the Commission's explanatory memorandum.

  National parliaments indeed do need a greater role in the implementation of European legislation. It is in these areas that the debate on the future of Europe should seek to examine, rather than the proposals for an ineffective and superfluous third chamber.

8 October 2001



 
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