Memorandum submitted by Simon Murphy MEP
(Leader) and Richard Corbett MEP (Spokesperson on constitutional
questions) on behalf of the European Parliamentary Labour Party
What are the underlying reasons for the apparent
"disconnection" between national electorates and the
To a degree, the EU institutions will always
be seen as distant:
Serving half a continent, they
are inevitably more distant and less visible than national or
In needing to reconcile a plurality
of national and political views, they are inevitably slow and
will rarely be an instrument for swift and decisive action.
Their procedures, even if simplified,
are different from national procedures.
There are complications of language
The EU institutions constantly strive to
overcome this distance. However, there are recent signs that it
may be growing: is this correct or is it an exaggerated response?
The two most frequently quoted indicators
of this are (1) the low turnout in European parliamentary elections
and (2) the results of certain recent referenda.
The decline in the level of turnout, (falling
13 percentage points over 20 years from 62 per cent in the 1979
European elections), has given cause for concern.
But it is not a specifically European issue,
as turnout has similarly fallen in national, regional and local
elections, across Europe (and in other countries) over a similar
period (see Annex 1).
That being said, turnout in European elections
will always be somewhat lower than in our national elections.
No government is at stake merely the balance between political
groups in the parliament. Most crucial political issues are settled
at the national level, not the European level.
Local and regional elections have also shown
dramatic declines in turnout. The problem is not to do with the
European Parliament in particular, but is a challenge to democracy
As regards referenda, there were some 13
on the European issues in the 15 member states between 1972 and
1995 (on accessions, on the Single European Act and on Maastricht).
Only one (the first Danish referendum on Maastricht) produced
a negative result, and that by a wafer thin majority. Now, we
suddenly have two referenda within a year producing a negative
out come. Is this a trend? Were there particular factors at stake?
Denmark certainly has a long history of controversy
on Europe. This was their sixth referendum on Europe in three
decades, many of them closely fought.
In contrast, the Irish referendum result
was a surprise in view of the large pro-European majorities obtained
on previous occasions. One can, of course, point to the extraordinarily
low turnout, to the fact that there were referenda held the same
day on other issues, making a focussed European campaign difficult,
and to the subject matter contained in the Treaty of Nice (complex
changes to the weighting of votes and seats to the disadvantage
of smaller member states). Nonetheless, few expected a negative
result. It would indeed appear to indicate a certain malaise about
Another factor to bear in mind is that the
successive rounds of piecemeal reform of the EU institutions in
a series IGCs, each one involving complex compromises on obscure
subjects, with little public debate until afterwards, has not
How can decision-making be made more open
and governments more accountable for the decisions they make in
Council? Is it essential for a more open and accountable EU that
the Council meet in public when legislating?
Until recently legislation was adopted behind
closed doors, by ministers alone, with no publication of the results
of votes. This has now improved considerably:
It is now obligatory to publish the
results of votes on legislation in the Council
Most legislation requires approval
in a public vote in the elected parliament as well.
There has also been a significant improvement
in the right of public access to EU documents, including Council
documents. Council occasionally meet in public, when discussing
the general orientations.
The Union has also been making progress in placing
the "state of play" of its legislative procedures on
the Internet, allowing anyone to see the Commission's proposal,
Parliament's amendments, Council's position and so on right the
way through to the final text. This also allows citizens to contact
MEPs and ministries with their views.
There is room for improvement. Council could
meet in public when enacting legislation, and when discussing
the annual reports of the other institutions and agencies.
What should the role of referendums be in the
EU? How should the EU respond to national referendums, and could
there be a role for Europe-wide referendums?
National traditions diverge considerably on
referendums. In some countries they are unconstitutional. For
this reason, the idea of a Europe-wide referendum seems illusory.
In any case, what should the rules for Europe-wide referendum
be? Should it require a simple majority of those voting, or should
this also comprise a majority within every member state, or a
majority of member states?
As regards national level referenda, in countries
where this is possible, they can of course increase citizens'
sense of participation and can also play a pedagogic role. However,
referenda are a blunt instrument and are not always appropriate.
It may well be right for Britain to have a referendum on whether
or not it wishes to participate in the single currency, where
its decision does not prevent others who wish to do so from going
ahead, but it is arguably a different kettle of fish if a member
state were to hold a referendum on enlargement with a negative
result: it is denying the right of other countries, possibly also
endorsed referendum, to join the Union.
Would election of the Commission or the President
of the Commission either directly or by the European Parliament
(a) be appropriate or (b) contribute to reconnecting electorates
with the EU?
The proposal that European Parliament should
elect the President of the Commission would lead to political
parties putting forward candidates for President during the European
Parliamentary election campaign. National Parliamentary elections
are really about keeping or changing national governments. European
elections have up to now been about electing a Parliament in isolation
with no visible impact on any executive. This idea would change
that, with at least a visible impact on the choice of the President
of the Commission. However, its practicality and its wider consequences
on the EU's political system would need to be evaluated carefully.
As to the idea that the President should be
directly elected, such a presidential system would run counter
to the national political traditions of all but one or two of
the member states.
Should there be any new institutional arrangements
to give national parliaments a more important role in the EU,
such as the second Chamber, or involvement of national parliamentarians
in the Council? [The Committee will take account of the results
of the Lords Committee's inquiry into the second Chamber proposal]
It has periodically been suggested that a "second
chamber" for the European Parliament be set up composed of
representatives of national parliaments. At first sight, such
an idea is attractive. It again emphasises that Europe is not
just an "intergovernmental" matter for ministers and
diplomats. It could lead to a more informed debate in national
parliaments about EU affairs. However, this particular idea is
one that raises as many questions as it solves. It is also by
no means the only possible solution to involving national parliaments
more closely in European Union issues.
This proposal was considered during the negotiation
of the Amsterdam Treaty when it was strongly pushed by the then
(Gaullist) French Government. However, it obtained little support
for reasons which remain valid.
Creating yet another EU institution risks making
the EU system more complex and less comprehensible to the wider
public. If it were given any power, it would make the decision
taking system of the Union slower and cumbersome. If it were not
given any powers, it would soon be portrayed in the press as an
expensive talking shop.
In any case, the EU's most powerful institution
is the Council, whose members are drawn from governments enjoying
the confidence of their national parliaments: in what sense would
direct and separate parliamentary representation bring added value?
Would it not just provide a European level repetition of national
There are also practical problems. Experience
with the pre 1979 European Parliament (which was then composed
of representatives from the national parliaments) showed that
it was very difficult, even then, for MPs to spare enough time
to do the job effectively. Furthermore, majorities depended on
which national delegation was absent in it entirety due to key
events in their own national parliament. One day, there would
be no Germans, the next day no Brits, and so on.
Experience in parliamentary bodies drawn from
national parliaments does not lend support to arguments used by
some of those advocating such a body, who claim that extra scrutiny
by known and trusted national politicians would fill the gap in
public confidence in Europe. What proportion of the electorate
has heard of who represents Britain in the WEU Assembly or in
the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, even when
a UK MP has been elected to the presidency of such bodies?
Such bodies are useful for networking, but little
more. And for such purposes, there already exists the Conference
of European Affairs Committees ("COSAC"). Created a
few years ago, it is developing a useful role as a forum and an
opportunity for those MPs most involved in EU issues in their
national parliaments to meet and network. It would be more practical
to use this light framework rather than amend the treaties to
create a new institution.
More effort should be made to explain the EU's
new, more democratic, structure whereby draft legislation must
pass two tests to become law: acceptability to the ministers from
elected national governments meeting in the Council and acceptability
to the directly elected MEPs in the Parliament. Two hurdles constituting
a double check on the quality and acceptability of legislation.
In practice, already a two-chamber system. A third chamber would
be excessive for a level of governance with limited powers.
Faced with these arguments, most supporters
of the idea have backtracked somewhat.
The idea that a second or third chamber would
be a good way of involving national parliaments in European debates
is thus fraught with difficulty. Instead, there is ample scope
to discuss how national parliamentary scrutiny over their own
ministers in the Council can been improved.
National parliaments are now guaranteed a six
week period for deliberation and discussion with their ministers
of any Commission proposal before Council adopts a position. How
this is done is, of course, up to each country. Some, such as
the Nordic countries, have set up far-reaching procedures. Their
ministers virtually go before the national parliament's specialist
committee on their way to Brussels and on their way back.
There is, of course, nothing to stop other national
parliaments following this example. But it does not require a
change in the treaty.
There are also other ways to improve national
parliamentary involvement. One suggestion is that ministers at
Council meetings be accompanied not just by civil servants but
by the chair (or others) of the relevant parliamentary committee.
The Chair of the European Parliament committee
on Constitutional Affairs, Mr Napolitana, who used to be the President
of the Italian Camera di Diputati, is currently drawing up a report
on the role of the national parliaments, which your committee
will no doubt wish to look at.
What changes are needed to the EU's legislative
process to facilitate democratic scrutiny before decisions are
made? For example, is there adequate consultation at early enough
stages; and should there be tougher rules on allowing time for
scrutiny by national parliaments?
When discussing democratic scrutiny, some try
to pit the European Parliament against national parliaments and
make rivals of them. In fact their two roles are complementary
and not contradictory.
National parliaments help shape their country's
national position on EU issues and they hold their ministers,
their own individual members of the Council that is, to account.
The European Parliament deals with the Council as a whole, as
an institution and, of course, keeps an eye on the Commission.
Now both these aspects the national
and the European have been improved, notably through the
Maastricht and the Amsterdam Treaties. For instance, the national
parliaments were given the guarantee that Council would not act
on Commission legislative proposals without leaving national parliaments
six weeks to discuss the issue with their respective minister
before the Council meeting. At the same time the European Parliament
was given its co-decision powers (introduced by Maastricht, extended
by Amsterdam) and this has improved the European Parliamentary
There is room for further improvement on both
these dimensions. The deadline that gives national parliaments
time to act could be extended to non legislative proposals as
well as to legislation. The co-decision powers of the European
Parliament should be extended to those few areas that remain where
the Union adopts legislation but without using the co-decision
On the national side, each Member State Parliament
will take advantage of this in its own way in accordance with
their own traditions. No doubt they will learn from each other's
experiences through COSAC and spread best practice.
Could national parliaments play a greater role
in informing the public about the EU and its activities, and channelling
the public's views to EU institutions?
Yes, if they so wish, this would be a welcome
What is the potential contribution of delimitation
of competences, subsidiarity and variable-speed Europe to reducing
any "disconnection" between electorates and political
institutions? Would a clear statement of the EU's purpose help?
What impact will enlargement have?
A number of national governments are pressing
for a better definition of the European Union's field of competence.
Such a task will not be easy. In modern systems
of multi-level governance, it is practically impossible to allocate
responsibilities for whole subject-areas entirely to one level.
Instead, the concept of cooperation between different levels of
governance is appropriate.
In practice, the EU touches a wide range of
policy areas, but to a limited degree. Even a subject such as
education, which is essentially a national or regional responsibility,
is dealt with by the EU to a limited degree (mutual recognition
or diplomas, educational exchanges, student mobility). Conversely,
a subject such as agriculture, which is largely a European responsibility,
still leaves ample scope for national action within the European
framework. This is sketched out in the Treaty, but the exact degree
of European involvement is determined each time through the political
processes of the European Union.
Some of those pushing for a charter of competences
to be added to the treaty are doing so because they fear over-centralisation
or an undermining of existing constitutional structures (eg Lander
Federal relation in Germany). But the EU structure has
an in-built bias against over-centralisation:
The EU can only act in those areas
specified in the Treaties which are laid down by national Parliaments
and can only be amended with the agreement of each of them.
Even within these areas, no significant
legislation can be adopted without the approval of the Council,
composed of national ministers, who are members of national governments
accountable to national Parliaments:
As an extra safeguard, the European
Parliament provides extra scrutiny and is now able to block EU
legislation in most areas.
As a final safeguard, the principle
of subsidiarity has been written into the Treaties allowing an
appeal to the Court should the EU overstep the mark.
Consequently, the EU is decentralised:
Only 3 per cent of public expenditure
is through the European budget: 97 per cent is national or sub-national.
The European Commission, far
from being the great bureaucracy of popular mythology, has a smaller
staff than most average-sized cities (eg Leeds).
Many key political issues: health care, education,
the social security system, housing, income tax, crime and punishment,
the organisation of local government, etc will remain essentially
national issues, settled in national elections and subject to
legislation by national parliaments. We are not creating a centralized
Nevertheless, a review of the competences of
the EU is one of the tasks set by the conclusions of the Dec 2000
What contribution can be made by regional and
local government and devolved institutions in the UK and elsewhere,
and should the EU have any new institutional arrangements in this
Regions and local authorities are "networking"
with European institutions more than ever before. More and more
have offices representing their interests in Brussels. The (still
new and developing) Committee of Regions has given them a formal
voice in the system and access to information. This is all to
The Committee of Regions cannot, however, be
given a "codecision" role similar to the EP. Its composition
is too heterogenous (some Member States having powerful regional
governments and others only relatively weak local authorities).
This then poses the question of how to involve
devolved authorities when the EU is taking decisions in policy
areas which, domestically, are their responsibility (eg in the
UK, fishing, education)? The treaty now allows (and some Member
States have done this) regional ministers to represent them in
Council meetings. But they must take a single line and vote as
a State. So in any case, coordination is essential to have an
agreed position. The UK has set up mechanisms to do this which
seem to be working well.
Another aspect of the regional dimension is
that MEPs are now elected and work on a regional basis.
What is the role of the European Parliament in
promoting a more democratic EU? Is there scope for more co-operation
between the European Parliament and national Parliaments?
These are two questions in one and need separate,
but complementary, answers.
The role of the European Parliament is part
of what makes the EU different from a traditional intergovernmental
organisation. Indeed, it is only necessary to imagine what the
EU would be like without the Parliament: it would be a system
totally dominated by bureaucrats and diplomats, loosely supervised
by ministers flying periodically into Brussels. The existence
of a body of full-time representatives in the heart of decision-taking
in Brussels, asking questions, knocking on doors, bringing the
spotlight to shine in dark corners, in touch with constituency
interests back home, makes the EU system more open, transparent
and democratic than would otherwise be the case. MEPs are drawn
from governing parties and opposition parties and represent not
just capital cities but the regions in their full diversity. In
short, the Parliament brings pluralism into play and brings added
value to the scrutiny of EU legislation.
It also takes the edge off national conflict.
Council can all too often give the appearance of decision taking
by gladiatorial combat between those representing national interests.
Reality is more complex and the fact that the Parliament organises
itself not in national delegations but in political groups shows
that the dividing line on most concrete subjects is not between
nations but between political viewpoints or between sectoral interests.
Where the European Parliament scores less well,
is in terms of its visibility. It lacks the cut and thrust of
debate between government and opposition that can be found in
some national parliaments. A multiplicity of languages makes its
debates less spontaneous. In other words, it has its limits, and
that is why it will never be the Parliament alone that is responsible
for adopting or rejecting European legislation, but Parliament
jointly with representatives of national governments in the bi-cameral
legislature that we have, for most legislation, since the treaty
of Amsterdam. Within those limits, it plays a useful and irreplaceable
Regarding the question of cooperation between
the European Parliament and national parliaments, this has evolved
over the years with a variety of mechanisms such as COSAC, joint
meetings of corresponding parliamentary committees, cooperation
among parliamentary libraries, annual meetings of the Speakers,
MEPs giving evidence to national parliamentary committees, and
so on. Some national parliaments give MEPs a formal role in their
own structures (eg in Belgium, the committee responsible for EU
Affairs is composed of 10 MPs, 10 Senators and 10 MEPs). We were
delighted to see that the responses to the questionnaire sent
out by COSAC to national parliaments, prior to the Versailles
COSAC meeting, were positive as regards the participation of national
parliamentarians in meetings of European Parliament committees,
with every single national parliament responding stating that
it found such participation to be a very positive experience.
This natural evolution of cooperative structures
has come about without an overall blueprint and, given the diversity
of national parliamentary procedures, such a blueprint is not
How should the debate on the future of Europe
be conducted, eg should there be a convention, and if so, how
could it be made representative and how should it operate?
On the idea of a "convention" to prepare
the next IGC, why not? IGCs are usually prepared by a working
party of foreign ministry officials. A wider, pluralistic body
holding public debates, exploring various options and trying to
solve differences could make a useful contribution and help counter
the impression that treaty revisions are always presented to national
parliaments as a fait accompli.
Of course, an IGC requiring the unanimous consent
of every national government to any amending treaty remains a
legal requirement, and this fact will no doubt feature prominently
in the minds of those who participate in any convention. The convention
cannot replace this treaty requirement.
Annex 1Decline in Turnout in elections
to national parliament's
in the Netherlands there was a fall
of 14.8 percentage points between the 1977 and the 1998 national
In France, the decline has been 13.3
points between the 1978 and the 1997 elections.
In west Germany, the decline was
12.6 points between the 1976 and the 1990 elections.
In the UK, the decline was 18.6 points
between 1979 and the 2001 elections.
In Portugal, the decline was 16.5
points between 1979 and the 1999 elections.
27 September 2001