Commentary

The parliament has to get into the EU game

Summary The important task for the new European Commission will be to get the national parliaments back as team players.

This post was brought in the Danish newspaper Politiken on November 9th 2014

Eight years ago, Svend Auken called the Danish Parliament’s European Affairs Committee “hopelessly outdated”. Since then the Danish and other European national parliaments have become even more decoupled from EU decision processes.

Denmark has traditionally been an inspiration for other countries on how to manage the national government in relation to EU politics. The Danish mandate-based model has inspired newer member states in particular, such as Poland and Slovakia, but the Danish model is no longer a guiding star for other countries. The model is, as Svend Auken said back in 2006, “hopelessly outdated” and out of touch with the EU's legislative work.
 
The problem is that the government informs the Parliament’s European Affairs Committee too late, often after the negotiations are already finalised in the European Council and have commenced processing in other EU institutions. This makes it hard for the European Affairs Committee to change the course of events, because early agreements have already reduced the number of decision makers.
 
The European Parliament, the Council and the Commission increasingly conduct informal negotiations on EU laws at the so-called trialogue meetings. The trend of adopting EU laws this early in the process started after the Amsterdam treaty in 1999 and since then the speed of the decision process has accelerated.
 
If the Danish Parliament wants to be part of the decision-making, it must enter the decision process earlier. The government must be required to inform and request a negotiating mandate from the European Affairs Committee when the negotiations take place in the Council at workgroup and Coreper levels among the civil servants and EU ambassadors at the permanent representation of Denmark in Brussels. In addition, the Parliament could introduce new procedures for the European Affairs Committee. For example, the government could be required to inform the European Affairs Committee continuously while the trialogue meetings are taking place. In this case, it is important to include specialised committees early in the process to facilitate a dynamic collaboration between the European Affairs Committee and the specialised committees.
 
Many of the members of the European Affairs Committee are generalists, whereas the specialised committees have more specific knowledge. The Parliaments should work on making Denmark a country that can once again be an inspiration to other countries. A lot of the work can be done from home, but the new Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker must also get involved in bringing the national parliaments back as central players in the EU.
 
In a letter to Juncker, 29 parliamentarian chambers from the member states have asked the Commission President to create a workgroup consisting of representatives from the national parliaments and the EU institutions. This workgroup would investigate how to include the national parliaments better in the EU decision-making process.
 
This workgroup is necessary because the Danish Parliament is not the only national parliament that has lost touch with the process.
 
Currently, 85 percent of EU laws are finalised in the first treatment of negotiations between the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council. The trialogue meetings make the legislative process more efficient, but it is also a democratic challenge. When a small circle of decision makers shares the power, others get pushed out.
 
The negotiations have become less transparent and the national parliaments have lost influence, because how can the parliaments ask critical questions when decision makers reach the compromises behind closed doors? This is challenging the Danish model.
 
With the accession of the new Commission last week, Juncker has an opportunity to address the issues outlined here. The first vice president Frans Timmermans has already stated that there will be stronger political dialogue between the Commission and the national parliaments. It is as of yet unclear what Timmermans’ statement heralds, but Timmermans has himself, in his time as Dutch foreign minister, suggested introducing initiatives that would give the national parliaments greater power as guardians of the principle of subsidiarity.
 
The challenge for the Juncker Commission will be to think of new ways of including the national parliaments in the EU’s decision-making process. In a new memo, Think Tank EUROPA gives five specific suggestions for how to strengthen the role of the national parliaments:
 

  1. National parliaments should have the opportunity to present legislative proposals to the Commission.
  2. National parliaments should have ten weeks to comment on the specifics of the Commission’s legislative proposals.
  3. The final legislative proposals should include the national parliaments’ comments in the consequence analysis.
  4. The Commission should establish a set procedure on how to treat enquiries from the national parliaments. This should include standards on deadlines and the commissionaires’ visits to national parliaments.
  5. The national parliaments should have a representative present during the trialogue meetings, for example from the rotating presidency of the Council. This representative could then promptly report to the national parliaments.
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