Parliaments after Brexit: Building or stumbling blocks?

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska
26 July 2016

Before the UK voted to leave the EU, Britain had long argued that national parliaments should be better plugged into EU decision-making. In February 2016 EU leaders reluctantly promised David Cameron to give parliamentary chambers a collective right to block legislative proposals (red cards) if Britain remains in the EU. Brexit may have buried Cameron’s red cards but the discussion about the role of parliaments in the EU is far from over.

The Commission worries that parliaments may complicate European integration. Eurosceptic and populist movements are gaining support in many member-states and mainstream politicians prefer to strike a populist tone and win public support rather than to make a positive case for the EU.

The Commission fears that some parliamentarians might be ready to sacrifice certain EU initiatives, such as EU trade agreements, for domestic political gain. National parliaments have a final say over EU’s international agreements that cover policies where both the EU and member-states have competences. Parliaments have been asked to ratify the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement with Canada (CETA) but an increased populist and Eurosceptic sentiment in national parliaments puts the smooth CETA ratification into question.

The British referendum is another case in point. In response to growing support for the UKIP party, which called for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, David Cameron promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU. The British parliament authorised Cameron’s gamble by passing EU Referendum Act 2015; British MPs did also little during the referendum campaign to facilitate a balanced discussion about the EU.

The European Commission also worries that some governments may want to use parliaments to obstruct proposals which they would find difficult to block in the Council of Ministers themselves. Parliaments can show the Commission a yellow card when they think that its proposal violates the subsidiarity principle. In May 2016 parliaments from 11 member-states (Central and Eastern European countries and Denmark) showed a yellow card to the Commission’s proposal to revise the posted workers directive which aims to ensure that posted workers are entitled to the same pay and work conditions as local workers. The draft legislation goes against the interests of some newer member-states where labour force is cheaper and which send posted workers. Few doubt that some of these parliaments were encouraged by their governments to show the Commission a card.

But parliaments can be assets to the EU if national governments and EU institutions learn how to better engage them in European business. The CER research conducted ahead of the British referendum showed that British MPs, unlike British peers, have little expertise and interest in EU affairs. This has benefitted eurosceptics. But the same research also revealed that the British government is not without blame; it failed to engage MPs in a frank discussion about the EU and scrapped regular plenary debates ahead of the European Council. Had the British government encouraged the reform of parliamentary scrutiny of EU affairs in the House of Commons it could have boosted public knowledge about the EU and made the British people less vulnerable to Brexiteers’ myths.

British MPs are surely not the only ones that do a poor job in scrutinising EU policy but many parliaments have improved their oversight of EU affairs. After the Dutch people voted down the Constitutional treaty in a referendum in 2005 the Dutch Tweede Kamer shifted European business to select committees to get more MPs involved and interested in EU affairs. The Irish Oireachtas did the same in 2011. Neither are the EU’s 41 parliamentary chambers only interested in obstructing European projects. Many MPs resent the fact that the Lisbon treaty limits their formal role predominantly to opposing EU draft legislation whereas they would like to have a more positive influence on EU policy-making. This is why the House of Lords’ green card idea ‒ whereby parliamentary chambers could collectively suggest that the Commission puts forward certain proposals ‒ has gathered considerable support among parliaments. But EU institutions have opposed this idea. The European Commission worries that green cards could ultimately limit its monopoly to put forward proposals and the Parliament fears that parliaments would weaken its political influence. Under the EU treaties only the European Parliament can invite the Commission to table new laws.

EU institutions need to understand that parliaments play on the same team; the common objective for Brussels and the capitals is to make the EU work better for its citizens. National parliamentarians often have a good sense of what benefits their citizens. They could serve as a bridge between citizens and EU institutions and help address public disillusionment with Brussels. They will fail to do so if they have little interest in European issues or if they feel that their voice does not matter in Brussels.

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