This chapter examines the general trends and best practices in national parliaments of the European Union for engaging in EU affairs. It analyses the position of European Affairs Committees, ex ante and ex post parliamentary scrutiny of governments, direct communication with EU institutions, and how a broader public is involved in EU issues. The position and weight of an EAC and indeed of the parliament differ from one member state to another, but nevertheless there are a certain number of common approaches that would help a national parliament to increase its power relative to other national and EU institutions involved in EU policymaking
This chapter is copied from the book ‘Deliberative Democracy in the EU: Countering Populism with Participation and Debate’. You can access and download it here.
9.1 Introduction: Roles of national parliaments
This chapter is dedicated to identifying general trends and best practices relating to the role in EU affairs of national parliaments (NPs) and, more particularly, parliamentary European Affairs’ Committees (EACs). Its three sub-sections are linked to the roles NPs play in respect to EU affairs: providing scrutiny of their own governments, engaging directly with EU institutions, and with the broader public regarding EU matters
According to a survey conducted by the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC) in 2016, all of the NPs surveyed have an ambition to be active players at the EU level (COSAC, 2016a: 9). Being active does not mean that an NP needs to be engaged in every single matter related to Brussels. On the contrary, in order to be influential, the NP needs to “select the matters that are worth parliament’s time” (De Wilde, 2018, cited by Winzen, 2013: 153).
For national parliaments it is more important to provide scrutiny of their own governments than to be a frequent and independent actor on the EU scene.
So, what are the most important matters that are worth NPs time? According to their self-evaluation: for national parliaments it is more important to provide scrutiny of their own governments than to be a frequent and independent actor on the EU scene.
At the current stage of the EU’s institutional development, NPs still tend to perceive their own governments as being the lead players in negotiating in Brussels, and it is relatively rare that an NP would see for itself a role independent of their government. As evidenced by Figure 9.1, NPs currently prefer to try to shape their government’s position rather than actively engage with EU institutions. Nevertheless, in recent years, NPs have started to explore more direct means of engagement in EU decision-making, as well as ways of engaging a broader public (especially experts).
This article is based on a presumption that an active NP would want to play all three key roles well, namely, (1) to provide scrutiny of their own government related to EU affairs, (2) to engage in EU decision-making directly and (3) to educate and engage a broader public in EU matters. The prioritisation of these different roles might differ from one NP to another, but it is important for an NP to have sufficient capacity in each function.
There have been several attempts to rank the institutional strength of NPs in EU affairs (Auel, 2016: 268). These attempts do not provide a clear-cut answer to the question on whether the institutional strength of NPs is dependent on concentrating EU expertise in a specific European Affairs Committee or dispersing it throughout the parliament. The general tendency seems to be in favour of mainstreaming EU expertise across the parliament and not keeping it within the bounds of European Affairs Committees.
The general tendency seems to be in favour of mainstreaming EU expertise across the parliament and not keeping it within the bounds of European Affairs Committees.
Even though EACs have been formed in every NP of EU member states, there is a different extent to the involvement of those members of parliament who are not sitting on an EAC. For the majority of NPs, not only the European Affairs Committee, but also sectoral committees are involved in scrutiny of the EU proposals (COSAC, 2017a: 9). In some parliaments, EU-related debates frequently take place not only in EACs, but also in plenary settings.
On the one hand, the benefits of concentrating EU expertise in an EAC is clear: it provides for swifter and more streamlined decision-making. On the other hand, with the increased range of policy areas related to the EU, it makes sense to involve sectoral committees in EU-related scrutiny and to spread EU-related expertise across the NP. Some of the strongest NPs have at least some ways of engaging sectoral committees in EU affairs – for example, in Germany and Ireland each EU proposal is addressed by sectoral committees (Munro et al., 2016: 19). In Sweden, the EAC retains the lead role as it has been entrusted with mandating rights, but scrutiny of the proposals is decentralised to sectoral committees (Auel, 2018: 36).
9.2 Scrutinising one’s own parliament:
ex ante, ex post or both?
According to the NPs, governmental oversight is the most important function for an NP in relation to the EU affairs (see Figure 9.1). Each government produces its national positions before the Council and European Council meetings, and – over the years – NPs have become important players in providing scrutiny for these positions.
Each government produces its national positions before the Council and European Council meetings and NPs have become important players in providing scrutiny.
Overall, NPs prioritise prior control over accountability: more NPs debate and provide scrutiny over their government’s plans before the Council meeting (ex ante control) than demand accountability after the meeting (ex post control) (Auel, 2018: 21).
The strongest form of ex ante control is a mandate – a government is required to obtain a parliamentary mandate before taking a position in the Council (COSAC, 2017a: 12). A less strong form of parliamentary oversight would be discretionary mandates – namely, NPs can decide to issue mandates, but are not required to do so by law (Auel, 2018: 17). The strongest expression of parliamentary oversight has been observed in Denmark, which was the first country to establish parliamentary mandates on EU issues and where, due to the frequent occurrence of minority governments, the government cannot be certain of obtaining a parliamentary mandate, so it needs to work harder to convince the different parties represented in parliament (Kluger Dionigi, 2019: 129-131).
Usually, it is ministers who are obliged to appear before the relevant parliamentary committee on the EU issues under scrutiny;1 in some cases the government position is presented by the prime minister.
It is relatively rare that an NP provides scrutiny for all EU-level proposals. The general tendency for most NPs is to select the most important EU proposals for examination (COSAC, 2017a: 11). Among notable exceptions, the German Bundestag and Swedish Riksdag scrutinise the government’s position on all EU proposals throughout the EU legislative process.
Even though it might seem strange to provide prior control without later making certain that the government has, in fact, followed parliamentary prescriptions, there are many parliaments that do not demand their governments report back from Council and European Council meetings (Auel, 2018: 17).
There are many parliaments that do not demand their governments report back from Council and European Council meetings.
Among the strongest NPs, two in particular can be recognised as having quality ex post control: Finland and the Netherlands. In Finland, ex ante parliamentary scrutiny and a mandate for government is obligatory, but the mandate is intentionally elaborated in a manner that clearly relates to the preferred outcome, but leaves the government sufficient room for manoeuvre to negotiate as they see fit. Nevertheless, if the outcome is not achieved, the government needs to justify itself (Munro et al., 2016: 17). Moreover, the government also needs to inform the Parliament of Finland in cases where EU proposals change or where the government needs to amend its position (Ibid.: 23).
In the Netherlands, ministers are also required to send a written report to parliament of each Council meeting, and – in the case of the European Council – there might be a follow-up debate in the plenary (Ibid.: 22).
The importance of parliamentary oversight exercised by NPs relating to EU affairs is affirmed by the presence of prime ministers during the scrutiny. In seven EU member states, the presence of prime minister is expected for ex ante and ex post parliamentary scrutiny (Auel, 2018: 21).
9.3 Becoming active players on the EU stage: priority areas for engagement
Compared to the oversight of their own government, being a direct Brussels’ policy shaper is a second-order priority for most NPs (see Figure 9.1)
There are three main ways in which an NP can gain in importance at the EU level: 1) by communicating directly with the European Commission; 2) by communicating directly with the European Parliament; 3) by forming networks with NPs in other EU member states.
It is relatively rare for an NP to choose a different method of engagement. For example, in 2016, 33 out of 38 parliamentary chambers admitted during a survey that they had not participated in a consultation on the transparency of trilogues organised by the European Ombudsman (COSAC, 2016a: 4).
Direct communication with the European Commission
Despite the initial promise of strengthening NPs through the introduction of the Early Warning System (EWS) or the so-called yellow and red cards, many NPs chose not to issue warnings to the European Commission regarding risks to the principle of subsidiarity. Participation rates among member states vary significantly, and only the Swedish and French parliaments can be considered active users of this opportunity.
Among the reasons for the scepticism and low uptake of the procedure are the following: 1) members of national parliaments are not the greatest experts on subsidiarity (Rozenberg, 2017: 28), which is perceived as a narrow and specific subject matter; 2) there is little faith in the effectiveness of subsidiarity checks – the European Commission is accused of responding slowly and inattentively (Mastenbroek, 2014: 19). In fact, in a survey of NPs conducted in 2019, less than one-third of all parliaments considered that participation in Political Dialogue with the European Commission had affected outcomes at EU level (see Figure 9.3) During Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission, there was an unprecedented decline in EU legislative activity as part of the Commission’s Better Regulation policy, which made the subsidiarity check partly redundant (Rozenberg, 2017: 7).
There is little faith in the effectiveness of subsidiarity checks – less than one third of all parliaments considered that participation in political dialogue with the European Commission had affected outcomes at EU level.
There have even been accusations levelled against the EWS stating that the procedure redirects NPs’ attention away from more important duties – such as controlling their governments and communicating with citizens (De Wilde, 2018: 3). Some parliaments from across EU, such as Germany’s Bundestag (Brandes, 2019: 167- 168) or Slovakia’s Národná rada (Világi, 2019: 304) prefer to control their own governments rather than to check subsidiarity. There might even be a case where the “strength of parliamentary control over the government and thus its negotiation position in the Council seems inversely related to the use of EU-level procedures” (Blockmans, 2019: 368).
In a similar manner to Political Dialogue – an institutional mechanism between an NP and the European Commission to exchange information and opinions on policy issues, legislative and non-legislative initiatives – NPs may hold contradictory opinions during EWS and their opinions are just one item of information among many. There are even fears that an overly active NP might see its credibility with the European Commission damaged (Mastenbroek, 2014: 19, 27-28). In spite of this, for several NPs, both the EWS and Political Dialogue are important mechanisms both to generate their own position on a subject matter, and to communicate it to the European Commission and other NPs.
Some parliaments prefer other methods for direct engagement with the European Commission. For example, the parliaments of the Netherlands and Germany try to invite European Commissioners at a very early stage during the elaboration of a new EU policy (Munro et al., 2016: 26). The number of visits of European Commissioners and Commission officials to NPs visibly increased during Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission. There was also some increase in visits of NPs to the European Commission.
Overall, the European Commission tends to appreciate a timely involvement in EU decision-making (Mastenbroek, 2014: 19), and the EWS is intended for a relatively late stage in the legislative process, when the legislative proposal has already been developed. That is why it is worrying to see a recent trend in NPs paying less attention to the Commission’s green and white papers (Ibid.: 19-20) where – prior to elaborating a legislative proposal – it proposes issues for discussion or policy options. Sweden is among the few exceptions: its committees still scrutinise Commission green and white papers (Munro et al., 2016: 24).
Direct communication with the European Parliament
It is relatively rare that an NP prioritises establishing good contacts with the European Parliament. Germany’s Bundestag is an exception: it tries to meet with European Parliament rapporteurs on important topics, and to send its sectoral committees to Brussels (Munro et al., 2016: 26).
The European Parliament cannot be expected to be interested in communications to the European Commission produced by NPs. The primary reason for this lack of interest is information overload, though there is also some institutional rivalry (Mastenbroek, 2014: 20 & 28).
Nevertheless, it is likely that MEPs from the member state concerned would be more interested in regular communication between their NP and EU institutions. Currently, there is a lack of involvement of MEPs in their respective NPs: less than half of all NPs organise regular meetings with their MEPs (COSAC, 2016a: 1). Nevertheless, MEPs from some countries are simultaneously members of European Affairs Committees, can be rapporteurs for the NP on the most significant EU matters, and even have the right to participate in the NP’s debates.
Cooperation with other NPs
For most parliaments, an active exchange with parliaments in other EU member states is an important part of their job.
For most parliaments, an active exchange with parliaments in other EU member states is an important part of their job (see Figure 9.1). There are several main ways an active NP can actively network with other NPs in order to raise support for some EU policy or to block it:
- Networking during parliamentary conferences, such as COSAC (The Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs) or some policy-specific forums, for example, on defence. It is such networking that can play a key role in amassing support for yellow or red cards during EWS (Auel, 2018: 29).
- Networking with other NPs via parliamentary liaisons from each NP in Brussels – they are useful to gather and exchange information. In fact, a survey of NPs indicates that this is the most frequently used method for an NP to gather and exchange information on EU-related matters with other parliaments/ Chambers.
- To share information with other NPs using The Interparliamentary EU information exchange (IPEX). It should be taken into account, though, that NPs would prioritise just certain types of information to share with others, such as their input to the Political Dialogue or subsidiarity checks. Rarely, if ever, will they be prepared to share more sensitive information relating to trilogue negotiations (COSAC, 2016a: 18).
9.4 What else is important for a well-functioning European Affairs Committee?
In order to be able to control their own governments regarding EU affairs and to engage more directly in EU decision-making, members of parliaments need assistance as well as expertise. It is usually the administrative staff of the NP that helps to draft NP’s communications with the European Commission that selects and summarises the relevant EU documentation. Germany’s Bundestag not only provides the largest administrative staff related to the EU policy, but also organises training classes for MPs both on the EU and thematic subjects, as well as on using EU-related databases (Munro et al., 2016: 28).
In order to be able to control their own governments regarding EU affairs and to engage more directly in EU decision-making, members of parliaments need assistance as well as expertise.
An NP and/or an EAC might also consider additional powers and considerations to help them achieve more in the scrutiny of their governments, involvement with the EU and communication with the public.
Additional powers/considerations related to the scrutiny of government
In order to ascertain that a government is following the basic outlines of the national position during the Council and European Council, an NP needs access to more information than is available to a broader public. Actual negotiations in the Council, especially during the working groups and COREPER, are not well documented, so the NP is reliant on its own government to either share this information with parliament. There are two countries that provide very extensive information to their NPs: Germany (Auel, 2018: 32) and Italy. Italy’s permanent representation in Brussels is required to provide its parliament with comprehensive information, including information relating to negotiations during trilogues and minutes of Council working groups and COREPER (Ibid.).
One area of EU-related scrutiny that is frequently overlooked by both the EACs and NPs in general: scrutiny of their governments related to the implementation or non-implementation of EU legislation. Even though it is possible to raise this issue in almost all the parliamentary chambers across the EU (COSAC, 2017a: 15), it is relatively rare that an NP asks its government to explain whether it has managed to implement an EU law. Nevertheless, granting a greater role to parliaments in monitoring the implementation of EU law is controversial even among parliaments themselves.
Granting a greater role to parliaments in monitoring the implementation of EU law is controversial even among parliaments themselves.
In order to increase the importance that both the government and the broader public gives to EU affairs, it might be useful to have an obligation or an option to organise plenary debates on EU policy. For example, Portuguese prime minister has participated since 2012 in such debates before European Councils (Auel, 2018: 20). Also France’s Assemblée Nationale convenes for a public debate before each meeting of the European Council. Regular plenary debates on the EU are relatively rare in NPs, but the majority of NPs do find an appropriate way to discuss issues of high EU importance, such as, for example, Brexit (COSAC, 2017a: 18). From 2010 to 2018, there were more than thirty debates in the Austrian Parliament on EU policies (Schaller, 2019: 70-72).
Even though the workload of NPs is already substantive with their involvement in scrutiny over governmental positions and with direct communication on EU legislation, NPs nevertheless need to allocate some time to participate in EU-level policy coordination activities, among which the European Semester is currently the most important. In 2016, only around a half of all NPs scrutinised both the Stability or Convergence Programmes and National Reform Programmes (Rozenberg, 2017: 43-46). It is not yet common to give NPs voting powers on these documents and/or to amend them – only some NPs have such powers (Ibid.: 43-46).
Additional powers/considerations related to NPs becoming active players on the EU stage
NPs that are not tasked to provide mandates for their government on every single EU-related issue need the ability to prioritise different dossiers. The prioritisation may be based on different considerations. For example, for many parliamentary chambers the key document is the European Commission’s work programme (Auel, 2018: 35). Croatia obliges its government to come up with a list of items of draft legislation expected to be discussed at the EU level, and picks its priorities from the list. Ireland prioritises those documents that need attention at an early stage (Munro et al., 2016: 19).
To provide for early engagement, the Netherlands looks at the European Commission’s work programme and sends it to sectoral committees that might express interest in more scrutiny. In 2014, around half of all European Commission’s initiatives were deemed worthy of further scrutiny (Ibid.: 24). A similarly decentralised early engagement system is in place in Sweden.
The Parliament of Finland prefers to be engaged at a very early stage, so it tends to respond to green and white papers issued by the European Commission (Ibid.: 24). Germany’s Bundestag has 20 staff members in its liaison office in Brussels who check for new legislative developments of interest to the Parliament (Ibid.: 27).
Sometimes NPs – in EACs or in sectoral committees – appoint their own rapporteurs on some EU subject area of specific interest. This person would collect more information on the issue and draft an NP’s position. Rapporteurs in NPs on EU issues are becoming increasingly common.
It is quite uncommon for NPs to evaluate existing EU-level legislation: only the French Sénat regularly produces its own evaluation reports about EU legislation (COSAC, 2017a: 14). NPs tend to be more active scrutinising their own government’s position on the evaluation reports produced by the European Commission (COSAC, 2017a).
Powers/considerations related to informing and engaging the public on the EU issues
Fewer than half of all NP chambers have developed a communication strategy on EU policy (COSAC, 2016b: 26). The most frequently used channels for informing the public about the EU are parliamentary or committee websites, specific meetings, social media, newsletters and even dedicated TV channels. In general, NPs tend to inform the public about the agenda and discussions during EAC and plenary meetings, as well as about proposed EU legislation. Some NPs adapts their communication to their audience, for example, school students.
It is relatively uncommon for NPs to develop specific citizen engagement procedures for EU affairs. Nevertheless, around half of all parliamentary chambers admit that they share their information with NGOs, and some even actively seek contact with NGOs to scrutinise governmental positions and EU documentation (COSAC, 2017b: 20-21). Finland has even developed an EU expert database, naming people who can provide useful guidance for different thematic areas related to EU policymaking (Munro et al., 2016: 29).
The position and weight of an NP and an EAC differ from one member state to the other, so the following recommendations have been generated on the assumption that an NP or an EAC would seek good ideas, based on best practices in other EU member states, to increase their strength relative to other national and EU institutions involved in EU policymaking.
In addition, it would make sense for an NP or EAC to commission regular assessments of the effectiveness of its engagement relating to EU issues. According to a 2019 survey, almost half of all NPs have not had such assessments since 2010.
- It would be preferable to involve in EU affairs not just the members of parliament on EACs, but also those on sectoral committees and the plenary sessions. That would help to strengthen the weight of NPs’ positions, spread EU-related interest and expertise across each NP and help to contribute more extensively to EU policymaking.
- If an NP wants to improve its ex ante scrutiny powers over national positions, it should consider: (1) making it obligatory for the government to obtain a mandate from the NP; (2) requiring ministers and the prime minister to appear in parliament before Council and European Council meetings;
- If an NP wants to improve its ex post scrutiny powers over national positions, it should consider: (1) making it obligatory for the government to report back to the parliament after each Council or European Council meeting; (2) making it obligatory for the government to report all information relating to the changes in the original proposal of the European Commission or changes in the position of the government.
- The best and most effective way for the NP to communicate with European Commission: direct meetings with Commissioners and top officials, as well as responses to green and white papers at an early stage of the legislative process. The Early Warning System and Political Dialogue may also be used, but an NP should be careful with not overvaluing the importance of these communication channels and they also should be mindful that subsidiarity checks arrive quite late in the legislative process.
- The best and most effective way for the NP to communicate with the European Parliament: finding ways to communicate regularly with MEPs from their own countries; meeting with European Parliament rapporteurs on dossiers of interest; participating in small-scale events organised by the European Parliament on specific topics of interest.
- The best and most effective way for the NP to communicate with other national parliaments: taking part in common networking events, especially COSACs, and using the NP’s Brussels liaison as its eyes and ears regarding legislative developments of interest.
- The NP and/or EAC needs sufficient administrative assistance to summarise and draft its EU-related communication, as well as to provide advice to MPs on EU policy
- Additional powers/considerations relating to the scrutiny of the government:
- In order to ascertain that government is following the basic outlines of the national position in the Council and European Council, an NP needs access to more information than is available to a broader public, particularly regarding negotiations during trilogues and Council working groups, as well as COREPER.
- NPs and/or EACs might benefit from receiving regular updates from their governments on the implementation of EU law.
- The importance of EU-related policy would increase if there were additional debates on EU affairs in plenary sittings of NPs.
- NPs need to allocate some time for participation in EU-level policy coordination activities, among which the European Semester is currently the most important.
- Additional powers/considerations relating to NPs becoming active players on the EU stage:
- The NPs and/or EACs need to find a way to prioritise those EU policy dossiers that require extra attention.
- The NPs and/or EACs need to strive for involvement in EU policymaking at the earliest of all possible stages – when the European Commission’s proposal has not yet been developed, but exists as an idea expressed during a conference, a green/white paper or has just appeared in the work programme.
- It would make sense for an NP and/or EAC to appoint their own rapporteurs on EU-related policy issues of high importance to their country.
- NPs should consider producing their own evaluation reports regarding legislation currently in force across the EU or, at least, provide feedback to their government when it states its position to the European Commission regarding those evaluation reports.
- Additional powers/considerations relating to NPs becoming active players on the EU stage:
- Powers/considerations relating to informing and engaging the public on the EU issues:
- EACs should consider having their own sections on the NP’s website, where at least the following information can be easily found: agenda and discussions during EAC and plenary meetings, as well as about proposed EU legislation.
- EACs and sectoral committees (during their discussions on EU policy) should strive to involve NGOs and experts who would be able to provide guidance on EU policy and national interests.
- Powers/considerations relating to informing and engaging the public on the EU issues:
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