DEMOCRACY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE EU AND THE ROLE OF NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS: GOVERNMENT OBSERVATIONS ON THE COMMITTEE'S THIRTY-THIRD REPORT OF SESSION 2001-2002
We will continue to take a strong interest in the matters covered by the Report, some of which will be examined in the report of the working group on national parliaments of the Convention on the Future of Europe. We will also raise some of these issues when taking oral evidence from the Government representative on the Convention shortly.
- The Government is grateful to the Committee for its comprehensive and considered Report and welcomes the Committee's interest in expanding its involvement and input into EU processes. The Government strongly believes that strengthening the role of national parliaments in the EU institutions will help improve democratic legitimacy and bring the EU closer to its citizens. These issues feature on the agenda for the Convention on the Future of Europe, in which the Government and representatives of both Houses of Parliament are fully engaged.
Democracy and National Parliaments in the EU
Whereas at home their [national governments'] legislative proposals require the assent of their national parliaments, in the EU they [national governments] act as a legislative chamber on their own. ... However, individual Council members acting collectively and doing so largely in secret cannot effectively be held to account by another organisation. (para 14)
- The Government shares the Committee's concerns about the lack of transparency in Council proceedings. We have argued for the principle of opening up Council meetings to the public. The Government therefore welcomes the first step of the agreement reached at the Seville European Council in June 2002. This requires the opening up of the initial and final stages of Council debates on acts adopted under the codecision procedure.
The Council of Ministers
We1/4welcome the fact that the UK Government is in favour of the Council meeting in public when legislating. (para 21)
We share the Government's view that all the Council's legislative proceedings should be in public. What we regard as 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. (para 23)
We emphasise that confining the public meetings of the Council when legislating to areas subject to co-decision would be totally unacceptable. (para 24)
The European Council will also need to meet in public when making decisions on legislation. Council documents will need to be made available in unexpurgated form, and especially without the policy stances of Member States being blanked out. ... The system whereby the Council agrees without discussion 'A points' already negotiated by officials in COREPER will need to be reconsidered. (para 25)
We1/4see no reason why the Council should discuss Court of Auditors reports in private. While it will often be appropriate for the Council to meet in private, the onus should be on the Council to justify doing so. (para 26)
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. If they do agree to it this will show that they are serious about increasing accountability and reconnecting citizens and EU institutions; if they do not so agree, it will be evident that they are not serious about it. (para 27)
- As mentioned above, the Government warmly welcomed agreement at Seville to allow public access to particular elements of Council meetings. The Government supports as broad an application of the new Seville regime as possible, and continues to advocate the Council meeting in public for all legislative proceedings, not just co-decision.
Other Aspects of Legislation
We emphasise the need to change the system whereby legislation agreed in COREPER is approved without discussion in the Council if public sessions of the Council are to be meaningful. (para 29)
We would support this [new ways of monitoring and controlling the exercise of the Commission's executive role] if it resulted in more open supervision of the Commission's exercise of its powers. (para 31)
- The Government agrees on the importance of public sessions of the Council being meaningful and substantive discussions. However, in practice the number of items on the agenda for Council meetings is usually too great to enable Ministers to hold substantive discussions on every issue. For that reason, the convention of "A points" is used by the Council for uncontroversial items that have been discussed by officials at Coreper, on Ministerial instruction. The Government is, however, open to suggestions for making the current system more transparent, without increasing the burden on the Council to an unsustainable level.
THE EU'S LEGISLATIVE PROCESS AND SCRUTINY BY NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS
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. (para 35)
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. (para 47)
- The Government is strongly committed to the effective scrutiny of EU business by national parliaments. It welcomes the view of the Committee (30th Report, paragraph 38) that "the general principles on which the European scrutiny system in the Commons operates are largely sound", and shares the Committee's interest in further improving the system. The Government is responding separately to the recommendations in the Committee's 30th Report.
- More fundamental changes to the decision-making process in Brussels, of the type set out here, are among the proposals being discussed by the Convention Working Group on national parliaments, chaired by Gisela Stuart MP. That Group is looking at ways to enhance the role of national parliaments in the EU. It is also considering suggestions for improving national parliamentary scrutiny procedures, whilst recognising that it is for national parliaments to determine their own domestic arrangements. The Government looks forward to seeing the recommendations of the Working Group and encourages the Committee to ensure its own ideas are made available to that forum.
- The volume of business and multitude of textual changes in the course of a negotiation make it impossible to impose minimum lengths of time every time a draft text is revised, without unacceptably stalling the negotiating process. The Government endeavours to keep Parliament promptly informed of any significant changes in the course of negotiations. We would be happy to discuss with the Committee better ways of keeping them up to date with developments in the final stages of negotiations.
European Council Deadlines
We emphasise that any deadlines set by the European Council and the timing of the negotiations intended to meet such deadlines must provide enough time for national parliamentary scrutiny in advance of Council decisions on new texts. (para 50)
- The Government recognises the difficulties that can be encountered, particularly with fast-moving dossiers. The ability to respond quickly to crises is essential to ensure the Union's effectiveness and credibility when dealing with urgent dossiers. The UK's ability to move flexibly and rapidly is also imperative to ensure we are not sidelined in negotiations.
- The date of Council meetings often sets the effective deadline for reaching agreement on a dossier. However, the Government is working hard to provide Parliament with sufficient time in advance of Council decisions to be able to scrutinise dossiers effectively and thoroughly. This includes efforts to encourage better timetabling of dossiers to ensure that successive Presidencies comply with the minimum requirements set out in the Protocol on the role of national parliaments in the EU, annexed to the Treaty on European Union. The Government believes that better planning of the scrutiny timetable and improved information flow between UKRep, Departments and the Committee should reduce to a minimum the number of occasions when Ministers find themselves taking decisions to override the Committee's reserves. The Government is grateful to the Committee for accepting more informal methods of information provision.