Select Committee on European Scrutiny Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Paper submitted by Mrs Birgitta Dahl, Speaker of the Swedish Parliament to the Conference of Speakers at the EU Parliaments in Stockholm, 13-15 September 2001



  For the European Union, as a political entity, it poses a problem that citizens in the member countries do not have full confidence in its political processes. Dwindling figures for participation in elections to the European Parliament and a public debate in the member states that indicates distrust of the way political decisions are made risk negatively affecting general attitudes in relation to national and local political institutions.

  Many citizens do not perceive the Union as a project of and for the people, but as a project of and for the elites with priorities designed to meet their preferences.

  Motivated by an easily comprehensible desire to show tangible results, the leaders and bureaucracies have tended to give priority to efficiency in decision-making at the expense of the more open—and certainly slower—democratic process.

  Such a state of affairs is tragic in the light of the origin of the EU as a noble peace project. The paradox seems to be that among the general public in the six founding states the European Community enjoyed an automatic legitimacy—ie everybody appeared to accept an apparently limited degree of democratic influence in these democratic states—since the new European Community seemed to allay fears of further devastating wars.

  It is true that the arguments presented during the 1980s in favour of admitting the three southern European countries which had just rid themselves of their dictatorships, were based on supporting a democratic path of development. But it was not until the discussions about the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992-93 that a real public debate started on political influence.

  That debate has taken root in all member countries and made people aware of the fact that a democratic deficit does exist. This is a challenge that has to be faced.

  When addressing this problem it is essential to realise that political skepticism and negative public opinion cannot be eradicated only by measures of information or organisation. A profound political discussion about policies shaped in a way that creates respect has to be undertaken.

  One school among political scientists argues that democracy is only possible on a national and subnational level. Even if that view is not accepted by all, studies have shown that in elections to the European Parliament European issues are actually eclipsed by questions concerning domestic policy and personality. The voters do not regard the European Parliament as a full-fledged legislative body, which can in practice be held democratically responsible for the whole legislative process. The fact that the main actual law-making body, the EU Council of Ministers, works behind closed doors does not increase the public's trust—although that working method is natural since this stage of law-making is carried out within the framework of international negotiations.

  There is, furthermore, the aforementioned risk that the lack of confidence among the citizens might infect also the national political institutions and lower their legitimacy, too.

  What is needed in this situation is an elucidation of the democratic link between the citizens and political decisions, which affect them directly and personally. This need is of course not limited to the EU, but is also relevant for issues which are transnational or global.

  Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have at times been suggested as a remedy against lack of political influence. It is true that the NGO's can play a constructive role in initiating political issues, mobilising public opinion and influencing political actors. However, it has to be admitted that NGOs in reality suffer from the same deficiency as the EU is criticised for—lack of accountability. If people do not feel that they can call their political institutions to account nothing has been gained.

  The natural answer—although not the only one—to the questions raised above lies in making the best possible use of National Parliaments.

  In the EU, National Parliaments are popularly and democratically elected. They represent the citizens, voice their views and act on their behalf. They serve both as arenas for political debate and as political actors. In the final analysis they can also be held responsible by the citizens.


  When discussing ways and means of abolishing the democratic deficit by strengthening the role of National Parliaments it is important to give due consideration to the nature of the European Union, ie to keep in mind that it is neither a supranational organisation nor an association of entirely sovereign states. It is a hybrid with an intentionally vague mandate.

  This vagueness is supposed to ensure flexibility in a rapidly developing political environment. From this follows that all methods for political influence and control have to be equally supple.

  This report is not the proper place for making an inventory of the mandates and roles of EU institutions. Suffice it to indicate two notable trends of development: The strengthened role of the European Parliament and the tendency to have the European Council launching new policies that might not have been duly processed within the other EU institutions.

  The widened powers of the European Parliament need not come into conflict with those of the National Parliaments. On the contrary—handled in the proper way these powers could well be seen as complementary to the national ones in the process of democratisation of the Union. Especially if an efficient (but not necessarily institutionalised) system of exchange of information is elaborated, the increased influence of the EP, particularly in the co-decision and conciliation procedures, could open the way to a more efficient role for National Parliaments, too.

  The media-focused launching of policies at European Council meetings is, on the other hand, more of a threat to all other institutions of the EU. It places a particularly heavy burden on the National Parliament in the country of the Presidency. That Parliament has, if it is to carry out its duty of scrutinizing political decisions, to insist on a dialogue with its Government as early as the stage at which the plans for the Presidency are presented. Parliaments in the member countries, which are not in the chair for the moment, will of course have the same opportunity to carry on a dialogue at home, but probably with less access to information about the coming proposals.

  There are, of course, possibilities which can be utilized for a political dialogue at a later stage of the Presidency:—During the meeting of the European Council in Go­teberg in June 2001 the Advisory Committee of the Riksdag was assembled at the venue of the Summit and acted as an informal sounding board for the Presidency (although it could not constitutionally hold a formal session outside Stockholm).

  With the flexible structure and the hybrid nature of the Union one can expect constant changes in the way policy-making is carried out in practice. As stated above, this calls for a corresponding measure of preparedness and flexibility in the various National Parliaments.


  In the Swedish Constitution it is stated that "all public power proceeds from the people" and that "the Parliament is the foremost representative of the people". Most constitutions of the member countries of the European Union include a declaration to the same effect.

  The people elect their Parliament, which, in turn, sees to it that a Government is formed, which is to serve as the operative institution within the framework laid out by Parliament. The Government must always enjoy the confidence of Parliament, which can otherwise remove it by a vote of no confidence. The legislative and financial powers rest more directly with Parliament as well as the power to monitor, examine and supervise the Government.

  This description of the principles of a democratic parliamentary system was more or less directly applicable to all fifteen nation states before they joined the European Communities or the European Union. With the subsequent development of the Communities and the Union the character of the role of the National Parliaments has changed to various degrees in the member states according to their constitutional circumstances and the prevalent concept of the Union.

  The fields where the changing roles of National Parliaments have been most noticeable are those which are affected by policy-making in the first pillar. Here, the National Parliaments have seen their direct and operative legislative powers transferred to a Council of Ministers, which on their behalf, carry out the legislative work within a process of international negotiation. Over the years, the role of the non-transparent so-called comitology has increased to the detriment of the National Parliaments' influence on necessary follow-up legislation.

  In the second pillar the changes have not been so dramatic. It could even be argued that National Parliaments are increasing their operative role in the field of foreign policy from a position where their only option was to accept or reject an international agreement in a ratification procedure (see below).

  The third pillar has, so far, not brought very much change in the way issues have to be treated by National Parliaments. Although it might appear somewhat paradoxical, it is especially third pillar problems like transnational criminality, migration etc, which the general public expect the Union's members to treat jointly. This fact places a heavy responsibility on National Parliaments.


  It is interesting to note that National Parliaments in the member countries have approached their tasks in different ways when organising the required interaction concerning European Community matters with their Governments.

  Some concentrated their efforts to the field of steering and controlling the operative activities of the Government. The foremost exponent of this pre-council scrutiny focus. The European Affairs Committee of the Danish Folketing, was empowered to issuing strict instructions to their negotiating ministers.

  Others attached more importance to the post-decision control mechanism. The British House of Lords developed a highly effective scrutiny system for selected issues.

  The newest members seem to have endeavoured to include the entire range of control measures:

    —  The Plenary would serve as an open arena for discussing EU-related matters. Written and oral reports by the Government would be the object of debates. Written and oral questions and interpellations would expose governmental EU policies to public scrutiny;

    —  Parliamentary Committees were expected to follow EU policies in general in their fields and to keep themselves informed about the plans of their national ministers;

    —  A Specialised Committee on European Affairs (in Finland, the Grand Committee) would secure the "helicopter perspective" and the regular contacts with ministers concerning current issues to be decided on at Council meetings in the following week.

  It has often been said that National Parliaments have relinquished a great deal of powers "to Brussels" without getting anything in return. This interpretation is perhaps somewhat simplified.

  It is, of course, indisputable that national political institutions (Parliament and Government) in certain cases have given up their formal national sovereign right to make unilateral decisions. At the same time, it could be argued that the nature of today's often transnational political issues seldom allow for truly unilateral decisions. With the current system of decision-making in the EU, the member states can always participate and make their voices heard. The degree of influence of the national legislature is then a matter between the Parliament and the Government.

  In the case of Sweden it could actually be said that the Riksdag has in fact strengthened its position in relation to the Government and gained new insights in many areas as a consequence of EU membership. Earlier, the Government could negotiate matters with no or very limited insight on the part of the Riksdag. Now, the Government must inform and consult with the Riksdag on issues which were earlier the sole prerogative of the Government. This applies to many traditional foreign policy matters as well as to conventions and agreements in the third pillar area.


  As indicated above, the ratification process of the Maastricht Treaty triggered a discourse on democracy and democratic governance in the Union. Close results in referendums in Denmark and France caused the previously automatic legitimacy of the European Community to be called into question.

  Public opinion became more critical of the integration process and its democratic shortcomings.

  One of the first to react to this new situation was the Netherlands, where a transparent pre-council scrutiny was introduced with ministers being questioned at joint meetings, which were open to the public, of the European Affairs Committee and the relevant specialised committee.

  The subsequent work to revise the Treaty of the European Union, which was carried out within the framework of the 1996-97 Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) contributed to an even more profound discussion about the democratic deficit and, among other things, the role of National Parliaments.

  In some quarters, especially in France, ideas were brought forward suggesting that National Parliaments might be more influential if they cooperated in an institutionalised way, possibly by creating a second (or third) chamber in the European Union.

  Others noted that an absolute prerequisite for National Parliaments to be able to carry out their influence and control functions with respect to their Governments' policies was timely access to information about EU plans.

  One of the results of these debates was the "Protocol on the role of National Parliaments in the European Union" which was annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam. The Protocol contains provisions about making available documents of the Commission and the Council of Ministers as well as time limits for this. It also accords the COSAC the right to express its points of view to any institution of the Union without, however, binding any of the Parliaments represented.

  The varying constitutional circumstances of the member states have, thus, necessitated leaving it to each National Parliament to cope with its own standing in relation both to its Government and to the COSAC.

  The formal position of National Parliaments in the EU structure is today limited to five basic tasks, which may be described in the following way:

  1.  ratifying Treaties and fundamental amendments to the Treaties, including approving new member states in the Union;

  2.  appropriating financial means in general for the EU;

  3.  approving legislation in the Union framework or adjusting national legislation accordingly;

  4.  elaborating secondary legislation (including certain budgetary implications);

  5.  holding Governments accountable for their activity in the Union's decision-making process.

  The last-mentioned task is, of course, politically and psychologically, the most important one with regard to securing legitimacy for the European Union. It is not sufficient for the elected parliamentarians to have the formal possibility according to point one to refuse to ratify an agreed text (something which is politically difficult to do anyway). Far more important to a National Parliament is to be perceived by the citizens as ensuring—according to point five—that the agreement which the Government is negotiating will contain those elements that will make it natural for it to ratify the text.

  To meet this challenge all member states have over the years set up specialized committees which can be used for pre-council dialogues with the negotiating Government. But as the actual decision making concerning important issues is nowadays often carried out in the framework of the Summits, ie by the Heads of States or Governments in the European Council instead of the ordinary Council of Ministers, National Parliaments have had to act accordingly.

  That is why Sweden's Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs had repeated telephone conferences with the Riksdag's Advisory Committee on EU Affairs during the long weekend of the Nice Summit and also made room for it at the Summit venue in Gteborg. This type of practice has been used on several important occasions. The documents that have emerged from these important meetings have been well known to the Committee and well anchored among the members of parliament. The Riksdag has thus been consulted and given ample opportunities to exercise its influence.

  There are many examples of this kind of adjustment by National Parliaments to a changing political environment. In addition to those described below the report by the Speaker of the Bundestag, Mr Wolfgang Thierse, will, i. a. treat the German one more in detail.

  The Danish Folketing decided at an early stage that it wanted to supplement the information about EU matters which it got via the Danish Government by sending its own correspondent to Brussels. This special representative could furnish the Parliament with valuable, tailor-made reports about current plans and issues.

  The Finnish Parliament not only followed suit in this respect together with the United Kingdom, France and Italy and later Sweden (on a trial basis during its Presidency), but also initiated a rapporteurship for interesting EU matters, which were to be observed closely.

  The Belgian Parliament set up a joint committee with 10 deputies, 10 senators and 10 Belgian members of the European Parliament in order to increase the flow of information between the National Parliament and the EP.

  For the same reason, the Committee for European Union Policies of the Chamber of Deputies in Italy holds periodic meetings with Italian members of the European Parliament.

  The Italian Parliament, which has been very active in the general effort to improve the quality of legislation, also established a procedure for examining documents relating to the EU's legislative programme: each parliamentary committee examined the European Commission's programme for 2000 as well as the strategic aims for the period 2000-05. A spokesman for each committee presented the conclusions to the Committee for European Union Policies, which in turn presented a report to the Assembly. At the close of the general debate, the Assembly adopted a resolution addressed to the Government.

  The Belgian Chamber of Deputies has chosen another route to the same goal: it has appointed so-called Euro-whips, who are members of the Federal Advisory Committee for European Affairs and are charged with the task of making sure that issues which are examined by the Councils of Ministers are subject to regular examination by the relevant committee of the Chamber.

  The Spanish Parliament forms subcommittees for particular matters, within the Joint Committee on the EU. They arrange non-public hearings involving MPs, members of Government, experts, representatives of EU institutions or EU member states etc. Reports are submitted for approval by the Joint Committee or even to the Plenary (for a debate without vote).

  In 2000-01 the Swedish Riksdag carried out an extensive study of the handling of EU matters. One of its most important conclusions was that the Committees should play a more active role. These committees, with their specialised knowledge, should engage themselves at a very early stage in the treatment of various issues within the EU. The basis for this active engagement is that the committees not only have the right to take initiatives of their own, but are encouraged to do so without waiting for the Government or the EU. Other main ideas behind this are that the dialogue with the citizens should be intensified, that more members of the Riksdag will be directly involved in EU-related work and that EU issues will more easily be treated as an integral part of national Swedish policy-making.


  It is obvious that a prerequisite for any National Parliament's prospects of actively influencing EU policies is the securing of early information.

  The new tasks of the European Parliament under the Treaty of Amsterdam have resulted in a situation where the Commission and the Council have to keep the European Parliament instantly informed in certain cases. The National Parliaments have had to design methods for procuring information not later than the time when it is furnished to the European Parliament by their own Governments.

  In Sweden there is a proposal to include such an obligation for the Government to inform and consult with the Riksdag in the Constitution. Other countries have chosen other ways of strengthening political and legal demands for timely information.

  A fact that is often overlooked in this respect is the usefulness for National Parliaments of maintaining contacts with all institutions of the Union. It has eg sometimes been forgotten how central the courts—particularly the Court of Auditors—are for the scrutiny work and the activities of the implementation committees (for which the abstruse term of "comitology" is sometimes used) for secondary legislation.

  Parliaments in some member countries have invited members of the European Commission to hearings under the auspices of the Plenary or a specialised committee.

  As has been mentioned above, several National Parliaments have also decided to supplement the collection of information by using their own representatives in Brussels. One of the main benefits of such an arrangement is that the correspondent in Brussels can help in screening the enormous amount of information and focusing on those issues, documents etc, that are relevant to the National Parliament.

  General understanding of the work of the institutions of the EU is enhanced by an interchange of trainees and officials, provided that there is an adequate machinery for making proper use of the experience gained.

  Another source of information that has been available for a fairly long time, but has perhaps not been optimally used, is the Internet. A whole range of documents of interest are available on the web. In line with the decision by the EU Speakers' Conference in Rome in September 2000, the administrations of National Parliaments and the European Parliament have initiated cooperation in order to make better use of this asset.

  In this context it should also be noted that the networks which are created between parliamentarians in institutionalised cooperation within the EU (eg the regular meetings of the COSAC or of chairmen of the committees on foreign affairs, defence, environment, migration etc) as well as in other interparliamentary fora can be of great value for gathering information.

  Finally, it goes without saying that contacts at the international level between political parties are of great importance.


  After having secured early information it is naturally of great importance to design proper and useful instruments for screening, for analysing and for making politically good use of the knowledge obtained.

  The key objective in this respect is guaranteeing that the internal methods of work of a National Parliament are efficient. Since this is only possible within the framework of the particular constitutional circumstances obtaining in every country, a uniform system can never be constructed. A continuous exchange of information and ideas between National Parliaments, ie between Speakers, Members, Secretaries-General and civil servants, might on the other hand give impetus to useful reforms or adjustments.

  This could easily be done within the framework of a standing point on the agenda of the Conference of Speakers of the EU Parliaments: Based on information of the work plans of the Commission, the announced priorities of incoming Presidencies etc each Parliament could submit a short report to the host Speaker pointing at upcoming EU issues, which it sees as important for special attention and describing how it intends to tackle them. A discussion among Speakers on the basis of an amalgamated list of these issues and proposed methods for coping with them (but not a debate about their substance) would serve as a think-tank and a source of inspiration for further developing the mode of parliamentary work.

  This would furthermore make it possible for the Speakers to identify issues which deserve special attention by National Parliaments at an early stage.—Would it eg be desirable for Parliaments to concentrate on certain aspects of agricultural policies, the handling of chemical substances or transnational criminality during the following years?

  In addition to ensuring a long-term perspective and continuity in the series of Conferences of Speakers of EU Parliaments such a recurrent discussion would serve as a basis for a coordinated democratic dialogue between members of National Parliaments and the citizens.

  This would be an important step towards the broad political debate on EU matters that the Nice Summit rightly identified as indispensable.

  The role in general of the National Parliament will have to be active rather than reactive, which has often been the case in earlier stages of parliamentary-governmental interaction. Here the proactive work of the Committees as well as of the specialised European Affairs Committee will be of great importance. Perhaps it might be possible to let National Parliaments, their Committees or even their parliamentarians put questions directly to the European Commission or its Commissioners. Since the committees often work behind closed doors, the practise of arranging public hearings, seminars and round tables might prove to be a valuable supplement.


  The task of building legitimacy for the European Union by discussing the roles of its National Parliaments as formulated by the Nice Summit contains two aspects—defining possible roles of National Parliaments and initiating a broad popular discussion about this and related issues.

  Both of them will have to focus on the same areas, ie the three key concepts—openness, political dialogue and accountability—where National Parliaments can and must play a crucial role.

  Parliaments will have to be open in their handling of EU matters. The Plenary will thus have to function as the arena for political debate within the National Parliament—on behalf of the citizens. That treatment of issues of interest—be it in the form of debates on oral or written reports or during question hours etc—is in itself a way of claiming accountability, but may, of course, lead to the ultimate form of exacting political responsibility, namely a vote of no confidence.

  The prospects for success will to a large extent depend on the manner in which National Parliaments can carry out their own task of shaping internal working methods which are perceived as open and allowing for a reasonable degree of political accountability. A broad but profound political discussion with the citizens will have to be carried out.

  In addition to this, responsibility rests heavily with individual members of parliament, who will have to make themselves available for a continuous dialogue with citizens. This need for availability to the public (as well as the time needed by deputies for interparliamentary and other contacts within the EU) will also necessitate the optimal organisation of the work of parliament.

  The conclusion is that the role of National Parliaments in creating and maintaining legitimacy for the European Union can hardly be over-estimated.

  The Nice Summit has provided National Parliaments with an opportunity to start a process to make their role more effective as an obvious and practicable democratic link between the citizens of the member states of the EU and political decision-making.

15 September 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 21 June 2002