National parliaments should have a greater role in EU decision-making

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

My proposal has two parts. Part 1 is for a “green card” or “parliamentary legislative initiative”, whereby 1/3 of MPs in 1/4 of national parliaments could make a legislative proposal for the Commission to implement. Part 2 is to develop the Interparliamentary Conference on Stability, Economic Coordination and Governance into a parliamentary assembly to oversee the European Stability Mechanism. Such an assembly would consist of 400 members, 4/5 from national parliaments based on the population of the member state and 1/5 from the European Parliament.

In Part 1 of his proposal, Richard Bellamy aims to allow national parties to have different positive policies for the EU. Part 2 seeks to ensure that the EU’s fiscal policy relates more closely to the different social and economic systems of the member states.

From the democratic deficit to the demoi-cratic disconnect Europhiles and Eurosceptics alike have criticised the EU’s alleged democratic deficit, which they associate with the comparatively low level of direct democratic input by citizens into EU policymaking and the selection of the Commission. The standard response to this issue is to propose strengthening the powers of the directly elected European Parliament (EP), with the EP acting as the EU’s legislative body and elections to the EP deciding the composition of the Commission, as in a domestic parliamentary system. However, critics of this proposal note that, to date, all moves in this direction have had the opposite effect to that anticipated by their advocates. The powers of the EP have been progressively strengthened since 1992, with the EP now having a much stronger role both in legislation and the choice of the Commission than before. Yet, turnout in EP elections has progressively declined to below 50 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, it has been Eurosceptical parties that have gained the most from the growing politicisation of EU issues produced by the migration and Euro crises and the resulting increased salience of EP elections.

One reason for these disappointing effects of strengthening the EP is that many citizens see such a move as taking powers away from national parliaments (NPs) and domestic democratic systems, which they regard as more legitimate than an EU-level democracy ever could be. The Brexit call to “take back control” clearly appealed to this concern. From this perspective, the EU suffers not simply from a democratic deficit, but also – and perhaps more importantly – from a “demoi-cratic disconnect”. That is, rather than seeing the different democratic peoples, or demoi, of the member states as progressively merging into a single European people, or EU demos, thereby allowing democratic authority to be shifted upwards from the member state to the EU level, we need to conceive the EU as a demoi-cracy in which the different demoi of the various member states seek to regulate their interactions in mutually acceptable ways.

Treating the EU as a demoi-cracy rather than a demos-cracy in the making recognises the fact that, for most EU citizens, their member state is the primary locus of political allegiance. As successive opinion polls have shown, the vast majority of European citizens identify more with their fellow nationals and domestic institutions than those of the EU. After all, the political cultures and socio-economic systems of the member states differ widely and reflect very different historical experiences. Moreover, domestic institutions continue to be the main providers of public goods and services to their citizens.

Yet, that does not mean that most citizens of the member states do not acknowledge the benefits of belonging to the EU. In an interconnected world, the democratic decisions of different states can undercut each other, while many public goods – such as a clean environment or security – can only be achieved through collaboration. Many citizens also have an interest in taking advantage of the enhanced economic, social, and political opportunities offered by free movement, and most states gain from their doing so. That said, the eurozone crisis and the imposition of austerity policies by creditor states on debtor states, together with the attempts to redistribute asylum seekers and refugees more evenly in the EU, have led many citizens to see the EU as a source of domination itself.

So, the challenge is to show how the EU can be a mechanism for the demoi of the member states to “take back democratic control” in a globalising world rather than “losing control” to a distant and unresponsive bureaucracy in Brussels. The proposal for empowering NPs comes in here. The aim is to promote a demoi-cratic reconnection of the EU through the “domestication” of EU politics, by relating it to the everyday concerns of citizens and “bringing it back home”. This can be achieved by placing EU decision-making in a context that is closer to citizens and that they understand. At the same time, discussion of the EU needs to be “normalised”. The current politicisation of the EU is mainly along the axis of “pro-” or “anti-”, “in” or “out”. Instead, it needs to be polarised along the “left” or “right” and other cleavages – “green”, “feminist”, “multicultural”, etc – that inform domestic politics. Political debate about the EU can thereby be shifted from “Should the EU exist at all?” to a more nuanced “What is the best way for it to do the useful things it does?” and “What should those things be?”.

Two proposals for strengthening the role of national parliaments How might this democratic reconnection be achieved? The Lisbon treaty mentioned the NPs as participants in the EU’s decision-making for the first time. Since then, the role of NPs in EU affairs has been greatly strengthened. All NPs established European committees to scrutinise EU proposals and the actions of their own representatives in the various European councils of heads of government or ministers, where EU policy is largely made. NPs can also send “reasoned opinions” highlighting issues to the Commission. Additionally, NPs obtained certain negative powers that allow them to challenge whether a EU measure is truly necessary or might be better undertaken by the member states (the so-called “early warning mechanism”). This is not an individual veto as at least one-third of national parliaments must raise an objection for it to be reconsidered (a “yellow card”) or 55 percent to be withdrawn (an “orange card”). Collaboration between parliaments is facilitated through the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs (COSAC). There is also an interparliamentary committee comprising representatives of all national parliaments and the European Parliament to foster cooperation in common foreign, defence, and security policy as well as in stability, economic coordination, and governance.

These measures have provided an incentive for some national politicians to become more informed about EU affairs, and they have prompted the EP and Commission to interact more with NPs so as to be alert and responsive to potential opposition. They have also encouraged cooperation and the sharing of information among NPs – not least in Brussels itself, where almost all NPs now have an office and a representative.

However, two major problems stand in the way of their deeper and more positive involvement as mechanisms for the “normalisation” and “domestication” of European politics. First, the main centre-left and centre-right parties have felt inhibited about politicising EU affairs. Part of the reason lies in their belonging to the grand coalition of governmental parties within the EP. As a result, they feel they cannot criticise policies that they have played an indirect role in bringing about. Worse, they fear that politicising the EU opens up a Pandora’s box from which the anti-EU left- and right-wing parties have more to gain than they do. As a result, the main EU political debates tend to be between those in favour of the European project and those opposing it rather than about different policy options that the EU might adopt. My first proposal seeks to address this problem by providing incentives for political debate among all national parties to be about which policies the EU should pursue rather than simply about whether it ought to exist at all.

Second, the establishment of the single market and the austerity measures associated with the euro crisis have led citizens to feel that the EU undercuts political debate and constrains policymaking at the national level, thereby creating a domestic democratic deficit. Governments cannot act responsively with regard to their voters. Rather, they must act responsibly and simply implement the public spending cuts demanded by the guardians of the eurozone. My second proposal attempts to address this problem by giving NPs a key role in overseeing an EU banking union and leaving fiscal policy a member-state competence.

Proposal 1 is for a “green card” or “parliamentary legislative initiative”, whereby a third of MPs in a quarter of national parliaments may make a legislative proposal for the Commission to put forward. The aim here is to allow national parties to have different positive policies on the EU to argue and campaign for, rather than their being reduced to simply accepting or rejecting whatever is put to them. The comparatively low threshold allows opposition party groups the possibility of putting forward proposals, perhaps with the support of certain rebels from the governing party(ies). Otherwise, the danger might be that the “green card” would never be used, as governments could be assumed to have already agreed with current EU policy.

Proposal 2 is to develop the Interparliamentary Conference on Stability, Economic Coordination and Governance into a parliamentary assembly to oversee the European Stability Mechanism. A number of commentators have argued that the only adequate way to manage the euro and avoid a further crisis is to move towards both a fiscal and a deeper political Union that effectively turns the EP into a European legislature and the Commission into an elected EU government with tax-and-spend powers. Yet, others argue that such a move would simply compound the euro crisis with a political and economic crisis, as the demoi of the various member states would continue to block redistributive policies from one state to another. Moreover, the common policies that might be adopted could risk imposing inappropriate “one size fits all” regulations on the highly diverse economies of the EU in ways likely to benefit the richer, more developed states at the expense of the poorer, less developed ones.

The current proposal argues for a banking union, but not a fiscal union. Completing the banking union would allow fiscal policy to be returned to national governments by reducing the danger that fiscal mismanagement in one country could spread to others and potentially upset the banking system. If governments make bad decisions and overspend, they would need to restructure their debts rather than receiving a bailout from other states. A genuine European Monetary Fund would replace the ECB and European Commission as lender of last resort, be able to ensure liquidity, and provide for a European debt-restructuring programme. The fund could be overseen by a parliamentary assembly based on the Interparliamentary Conference on Economic and Financial Governance of the European Union, which was set up under Article 13 of the TSCG. As a result, the process of granting an emergency loan could be given “demoi-cratic” legitimacy (compare also the similar proposal by Jens van’t Klooster in this volume).

Thomas Piketty and colleagues have suggested that the proposed assembly to oversee the European Stability Mechanism would consist of 400 members: 320 from national parliaments based on the population of the member state, and 80 from the European Parliament. As they note, any positive policies for additional funding and investment need the support of national taxpayers. The reason the EU has turned to austerity policies rests on limited solidarity between states, which is itself the product of a perceived lack of control. Empowering national parliaments in this area would enable them to take back control.

Conclusion Numerous problems no doubt exist with both proposals. A worry might be that such a system would lead to stasis – that NPs would cooperate only to block measures they dislike. It might also be feared that it would further entrench a narrow nationalistic and self-interested point of view. These concerns need to be taken seriously. But it might also be hoped that collaboration among NPs would lead to alliances of like-minded politicians across the EU and lead to policies that are more sensitive to the different needs of the different states. It might also lead the EU to be seen as a way for citizens to retain control in an interconnected world and to regulate their interactions with each other in mutually respectful and beneficial ways.

Further Reading

Sandra Kröger, Richard Bellamy. Beyond a constraining dissensus: The role of national parliaments in domesticating and normalising the politicization of European integration. Comparative European Politics, Volume 14, Issue 2, March, Pages 131-153

Online Debate

On 14 July 2018, Richard Bellamy defended his proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.

Background Research

Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.

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