European and national parliaments: the zero-sum fantasy

Opinion piece (Policy Network)
18 November 2014

The EU’s democratic deficiencies are in the limelight again. Turnout in elections to the European parliament have been in the freefall ever since 1979, but for so  long as the EU offered its citizens a prosperous life, its leaders believed that economic and social benefits would compensate for the democratic deficit. 

This now looks hollow. The eurozone is beset by crisis and citizens are more wary of the way the EU debates their future. The growing popularity of Eurosceptic movements in the May European elections indicated citizens’ dissatisfaction with decisions being taken over people’s heads in the European council or at eurozone summits. More Greeks voted for Syriza, a party which viewed the  elections as a nationwide referendum on the financial assistance programme, than for any other political movement. Opponents of European integration celebrated victories in France, Denmark and the UK. These victories suggest that citizens, in both debtor and creditor countries, believe that in its efforts to manage the crisis, the EU is limiting their countries’ sovereignty – and they do not like it. 

The system of Spitzenkandidaten, where all the major political families nominated candidates for the European commission president’s post, aimed to mobilise voters and provide  a sense that they could influence the makeup of some kind of European government. But the change failed to reverse dwindling turnout or to stop the Eurosceptic advance in the European parliament. 

The European parliament’s failure to establish itself in the minds of European citizens as a source of legitimacy for the EU has given national parliaments an opening to fill this role. But whether parliaments are able to grasp the opportunity will largely depend on whether they can prove that thinking ‘European’ is not a problem for them.

Some governments hope that an increased role for national parliaments will help them to block any further increase in the powers of the European parliament. The British government is at the forefront of this debate. It claims that allowing national parliamentarians a greater voice in the EU would be a panacea to its democratic deficit, because national MPs understand citizens’ concerns better than MEPs do. Not only London but also The Hague believe the ways in which national parliaments are currently involved in EU decision-making do not allow MPs to address people’s worries. 

Under the current early warning regime, designed to prevent any breaches of the subsidiarity principle, a coalition of parliaments can raise opposition to a EU legislative proposal only when it impinges on national competences. This is called a ‘yellow card’ procedure. But a group of parliaments cannot force the commission to withdraw the proposal. This, according to the British government, widens the gap between EU citizens and Brussels rather than narrowing it. In also its view, and that of the Dutch government, if parliaments had the right to issue a ‘red card’, then EU decision-making would be more democratic. 

But the introduction of the ‘red card’ could be the thin end of the wedge. If parliaments used this right irresponsibly, they could paralyse the overall EU decision-making process and call into question the value of plugging MPs into EU affairs. The Danish parliament, often held up as the best example of how a legislature can scrutinise the positions the government takes in EU debates, understands this risk and argues for a more constructive role for national parliaments. The priority, in the Danish view, should be contributing to decision-making not blocking it. Parliaments should be able to review the content of the legislative proposal and propose amendments. ‘Yellow cards’ are seen in Copenhagen as a better way to make parliaments more vocal on European affairs.

The commission too may find that involving national parliaments in EU work could be useful. If it wants to improve its popular image it will have to challenge a perception that it undemocratically imposes its will on others. Greater scrutiny of governments’ negotiating positions would leave national leaders less room to backtrack on commitments made in Brussels. Perhaps it could even help the commission to get governments to introduce unpopular and painful structural reforms. Jean-Claude Juncker, the new commission president, understands this and wants to strengthen political dialogue with national parliaments. His first vice-president, Frans Timmermans, who is a well-known advocate of parliaments’ involvement in EU affairs, will help him push this agenda. Strengthening ties with parliaments could facilitate Juncker’s efforts to restore the commission’s own legitimacy, severely damaged by the constant struggle between member states and the European parliament over who has a greater influence on what the commission proposes.

National parliaments could benefit from these inter-institutional tensions and other institutions’ waning legitimacy. But will they take advantage of this opportunity? Parliamentary scrutiny of eurozone matters in individual member states sheds light on MPs’ readiness to play a greater role on the EU stage. Research conducted by Katrin Auel and Oliver Höing for the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies has shown that crisis-related measures are far from top of MPs’ agendas. The apathy of the parliaments of debtor countries is surprising. Their parliamentarians, with the exception of Ireland, are among the least active in debating matters related to the eurozone crisis. This is despite their pivotal role in approving memoranda of understanding listing unpopular reforms that member states have to commit to as a pre-condition of obtaining financial assistance.

There are, of course, ways to draw MPs’ attention to EU affairs and encourage them to ‘adopt a European perspective’. Inter-parliamentary conferences, where MEPs and MPs meet and jointly debate over EU affairs, is one of them. On paper, they look like the most effective tool to familiarise MPs with the EU and close the gap between national and European politics. But in practice, MPs and MEPs spend most of their energy on political squabbles around internal organisation rather than on substance. The inter-parliamentary conference on economic and financial governance, which was established by the fiscal compact, serves as an example. Since its formation, the conference has been unable to reach a consensus on its own rules of procedure, mainly because MEPs and MPs have behaved as rivals rather than allies. 

There is little doubt that national parliaments can play a positive role in the EU. They could also make economic governance more democratic. The eurozone crisis has triggered a shift of competences to the EU level in policy fields traditionally reserved for the national parliaments. Under the revised stability and growth pact rules, eurozone member states submit their budgetary plans to the commission before they can be adopted at the national level. It thus seems only logical for democratically elected parliaments to better scrutinise the European framework under which commission addresses recommendations to member-states. This would not only increase transparency of eurozone governance, it may also boost the effectiveness of the EU’s actions.

But the democratic dimension of economic governance should not be seen a ‘zero-sum’ game where enhancing the role of national parliaments takes place at the expense of the European parliament. This way of thinking has often paralysed inter-parliamentary co-operation and should be replaced by joint efforts by MEPs and MPs to work towards the common European interest. 

Finally, MPs should take a critical look at their own scrutiny practice and reform it where it proves inefficient. They could use inter-parliamentary platforms to exchange views on the models for parliamentary scrutiny across EU member states, and develop a code of best practice on overseeing governments’ position on the EU affairs. This could effectively contribute to narrowing the gap between the EU and its citizens and would be a first but important step in shifting the involvement of national parliaments in EU affairs to a higher gear. 

Agata Gostyńska is research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.