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
SECURING DEMOCRACY AND LEGITIMACYTHE
ROLE OF NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS IN THE EUROPEAN STRUCTURE
1. THE DEMOCRATIC
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
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 openand certainly slowerdemocratic 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 legitimacyie
everybody appeared to accept an apparently limited degree of democratic
influence in these democratic statessince 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 trustalthough that working method is natural since
this stage of law-making is carried out within the framework of
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,
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 forlack
of accountability. If people do not feel that they can call their
political institutions to account nothing has been gained.
The natural answeralthough not the only
oneto 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.
2. THE EU AS
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
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 contraryhandled 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
3. THE CHANGING
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.
4. CHANGES BROUGHT
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
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
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.
5. MAKING USE
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
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
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 ensuringaccording
to point fivethat 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
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.
6. SECURING EARLY
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 courtsparticularly the Court of Auditorsare
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
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
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.
8. KEY WORDS
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 aspectsdefining 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 conceptsopenness, political dialogue
and accountabilitywhere 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 Parliamenton behalf
of the citizens. That treatment of issues of interestbe
it in the form of debates on oral or written reports or during
question hours etcis 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