The European Scrutiny Committee has agreed to the following Report:
REFORM OF COSAC
- COSAC is the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees. It consists of six representatives from the European Affairs committees of each national parliament in the EU and from the European Parliament (EP). It was founded in 1989, and was recognised in the Amsterdam Treaty's Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments in the European Union in 1997. It meets twice a year in the countries which hold the EU Presidency.
- COSAC's role has never been clearly defined, and it has not been effective even in its most obvious function of promoting exchange of information between parliaments. Its meetings have tended to be dominated by speeches by Ministers of the host country, and much time is spent agreeing texts, which, since unanimity is required, tend to be bland. Consequently, dissatisfaction has been expressed for many years about COSAC. Both this Committee and our sister Committee in the Lords have criticised it in recent reports, and the two committees have co-operated in promoting reform.
- At the Madrid COSAC in May a UK-inspired text was agreed calling on the forthcoming Danish Presidency to draw up a detailed proposal for a more effective COSAC, focusing its activity more on the role of national parliaments. An initial Danish proposal was discussed at a meeting of Chairmen on 16 September, and more detailed proposals were put to COSAC itself in Copenhagen on 17-18 October. They included proposals for majority voting, an enlarged COSAC leadership, a small permanent secretariat and benchmarking of the role of national parliaments.
- At the October meeting the proposals encountered opposition from several delegations, including the EP's. The text eventually agreed (Appendix 1) did not agree to the proposals in principle, as originally proposed, but set up a working group to consider them. The working group will meet on 18 November.
- We would like to express our appreciation of the work undertaken by the Chairman, members and staff of the Folketing's Committee in drawing up detailed reform proposals of high quality and for the manner in which the Copenhagen COSAC was chaired.
- As some of the reform proposals could have implications extending beyond the European scrutiny system as such, particularly the proposal that COSAC should involve sectoral or departmental committees of EU parliaments, we have thought it right to report briefly to the House. We have also taken the opportunity to set out in more detail than hitherto our views on COSAC.
- In our view COSAC should have the following roles:
- exchanging best practice and benchmarking parliamentary scrutiny;
- drawing up minimum standards of parliamentary scrutiny for governments and national parliaments (as recommended by the Convention's working group on national parliaments);
- acting as a strategic group on behalf of national parliaments by pressing for change when there are specific problems hindering parliamentary scrutiny, such as new texts being put to the Council for agreement without sufficient time for parliamentary scrutiny or unrealistic deadlines being imposed by the European Council;
- encouraging co-operation and exchange of information generally between parliaments, including the EP.
- COSAC is incapable of performing any of these roles effectively at present because there is no continuity between meetings, its agenda is drawn up without consultation and has rarely focused on COSAC's core role, and all decisions require unanimity. Therefore we strongly disagree with those who argue that COSAC does not need reform. In fact we see no future for it in its present form.
- We see little value in one of COSAC's existing roles: presenting 'contributions' to the EU institutions on specific EU policies. Unfortunately this is almost the only activity mentioned in the Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments. We regard it as largely futile, for two reasons: first, on many individual EU policies there is no specifically parliamentary view to be presented but only different national or party views; secondly, there is no evidence of any EU institution ever taking any notice of a COSAC contribution.
- If necessary we can 'constructively abstain' on a contribution, which means it can be agreed without our support, or even veto it, and the Protocol expressly states that COSAC contributions 'shall in no way bind national parliaments or prejudge their position'. Our objection is instead that agreeing contributions takes up a great deal of COSAC's very limited time, usually to no useful purpose.
- A role for COSAC in co-ordinating national parliaments' views on subsidiarity has been suggested. It is not at all clear that COSAC needs to be involved in this, but further consideration must await detailed proposals on subsidiarity from the Convention.
Objections to reform
- The objections to reform appear to be based on four arguments:
- that COSAC does not need to be reformed. We disagree, for reasons already given.
- that COSAC reform should await the outcome of the Convention. This is misconceived: there is nothing in, for example, the proposals of the working group on national parliaments which could conflict with the Danish reform proposals, and there are proposals in the working group report which depend on COSAC becoming more effective; indeed the working group was 'encouraged' that reform proposals were being put forward by the Danish Presidency.
- that COSAC reform could weaken the EP. It is true that reform calls into question the position of the EP in COSAC (as discussed below), but otherwise we can see nothing in the reform proposals which could possibly weaken the EP or usurp any of its roles. Moreover, the thrust of the EP's recent report on relations with national parliaments (the Napolitano report) is that both national parliaments and the EP need to be strengthened in their respective roles, and reform of COSAC which strengthens national parliaments therefore contributes to the 'parliamentarisation' of the EU sought by the EP.
- that a reformed COSAC might develop into a second Chamber. This objection has been specifically put to us by the Bundestag's European Affairs Committee. We do not agree. A reformed COSAC will not develop into a second Chamber for two strong reasons: first, because virtually no-one within COSAC wishes such a development to take place; and secondly, because there is not the slightest likelihood of a willingness elsewhere in the EU to confer such powers on COSAC. Nothing in the Danish proposals would turn COSAC into an EU-level decision-making body or give it any formal role in representing national parliaments. We remind our German colleagues that both European committees at Westminster have rejected the idea of a second Chamber.
The position of the EP in COSAC
- The EP has the same membership rights in COSAC as a national parliament, but also has a place on COSAC's four-person leadership (known as the Troika). We value the opportunity to discuss matters with MEPs and hear their views at COSAC. We are also aware of the importance many of our colleagues from other parliaments attach to the EP's presence in COSAC.
- However, we regard it as unacceptable that in the most important body bringing together members of national parliaments, MEPs should have a veto over what is decided, even on issues which pertain only to national parliaments, and even in respect of the organisation's agenda. On the other hand, in discussing issues which relate to all the EU's parliaments including the EP, or to specific EU policies, there is much more scope for co-operation.
- A related issue is the proposal that COSAC should 'involve the sectoral standing committees' (departmental select committees in UK terms). COSAC is of course only one form in which this could happen; others are the existing ad hoc meetings organised by EP committees and the proposed forum or Congress (on which views in the Convention are divided). If COSAC decides to meet on a sectoral basis, major questions arise, some relating to membership, such as whether in such a body it would be sensible for the EP to be treated as just one among 29 parliaments. As we see it, the purpose of any such arrangement (as in the case of contacts between MPs and MEPs generally) is to help both national parliaments and the EP to perform their own roles more effectively, rather than to take decisions jointly or have any formal role in EU decision-making.
- While we believe there is a need for a re-think about exactly what inter-parliamentary bodies there should be within the EU, which will in turn be related to what they are expected to do, we would be happy with an arrangement in which COSAC met in two formations: 'traditional' COSAC focusing on scrutiny issues and a broader COSAC, including sectoral committees, in which the EP could have a greater role.
- The EP's report on relations with national parliaments emphasises co-operation, and includes a call for an inter-parliamentary agreement to make such co-operation more systematic. We believe the aims set out in that report would be furthered by a reformed COSAC which made it easier for national parliaments to co-operate among themselves. If the EP were to create the impression that it saw any increase in co-operation among national parliaments as a threat, that would undermine the trust on which any co-operation must be based. We will therefore regards the EP delegation's actions in relation to COSAC reform as a test of the sincerity of the views expressed in the Napolitano report.
Specific reform proposals
- As regards the specific proposals put forward by the Danish Presidency, we attach particular importance to the following:
- the proposal for majority voting for contributions and rule changes, though we would favour a qualified majority rather than a simple majority;
- the proposal to expand COSAC's leadership, in order to make it more representative and to ensure broader input to the planning of COSAC's agenda;
- the proposal for a small permanent secretariat, to provide greater continuity.
- the proposal for COSAC to draw up minimum standards for national parliamentary scrutiny.
All four of these are essential if COSAC is to be a worthwhile organisation.
- National parliaments are vital to securing democratic legitimacy within the EU, and have certain common interests and consequently areas where they can benefit from co-operation. It is not therefore surprising that they (or most of them) should wish to have an organisation which brings them together and where they can share experience and, if necessary, express joint views, not subject to veto by any other organisation.
- We still believe this can be achieved through COSAC, and we are determined to do so if at all possible. If this fails, however, we will seek to achieve the same ends by other means outside COSAC.
1 The acronym stands for Conférence des Organes Spécialisés dans les Affaires Communautaires. Back
2 Thirty-third Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, 2001-02, Democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliaments, HC 152-xxxiii, para. 149; 7th Report from the Select Committee on the European Union, 2001-02, A second parliamentary chamber for Europe: an unreal solution to some real problems, HL Paper 48, paras. 73-5. Back
3 Convention document CONV 353/02, para. 20. Back
4 Ibid., para. 11. Back
5 See the Report on relations between the European Parliament and the national parliaments in European integration, January 2002, A5 - 0023/2002, and the EP resolution, 7 February 2002, P5 - TA (2002) 0058. Back
6 Paper of 6 September 2002, para. 2 (d). Back
7 Appendix 1, para. 6 (d). Back
8 i.e. including the parliaments of the 13 applicant countries. Back
9 See HC 152-xxxiii, paras. 141-3. Back