National Parliaments

National Parliaments in Europe

Description of National parliaments

The Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union describes national parliaments in the following terms: [1] The EU story is one of progressive reduction of the influence of national parliaments as legislative powers are transferred to the Commission in Brussels. Hence the ‘democratic deficit’, for which the Council of Ministers – consisting as it does of elected national politicians – provides scant compensation, since the accountability of ministers to their own parliaments in respect of their Council deliberations rarely goes beyond reporting after the event (with the notable exception of Denmark, which requires its ministers to consult a parliamentary committee before agreeing to significant Council proposals – an example followed to a more limited extent by a few other countries).

National parliaments are an awkward anomaly in EU decision-making (see more in this European encyclopedia). They do not form part of the Community’s institutional system. They are mentioned in the treaties only as bodies that are entitled to timely information and permitted to make non-binding ‘contributions’. Their residual powers are not, however, trifling (see more in this European encyclopedia). They can ratify or reject Treaty changes, accession treaties and modifications to the Community’s financing (see more in this European encyclopedia). They have some scope for manoeuvre in the manner in which they implement Community Directives. Where there are opt-outs, as with the UK and Denmark for EMU, or where policy still rests with individual governments, as it largely does with Justice and Home Affairs and the Common Foreign and Security Policy, national parliaments retain much of their traditional role (see more in this European encyclopedia). A strong parliament can also set broad parameters to the negotiating freedom of its government ministers, although the effectiveness of this means of control is limited by the secrecy of Council proceedings and the increasing use of qualified majority voting.

British ministers are in theory barred from agreeing to any Community legislation until the House of Commons Scrutiny Committee has examined and passed it. In practice, however, such scrutiny is greatly impeded by the unmanageable volume of Community law. The level of debate and the mastery of detail has generally been higher in the Lords than in the Commons, with the Lords European Select Committee distinguishing itself by a series of authoritative reports which have commanded attention throughout the Union. At the time of the Maastricht Treaty, several member states either amended their constitution to reflect the loss of powers or reformed their procedures to give their assemblies greater rights of scrutiny over the actions of their own governments. Nevertheless, in most countries other than the UK and Denmarkscrutiny is perfunctory and debate apathetic.

Parliament must … resign itself to becoming a rubber stamp. Lord Kilmuir, advice to Edward Heath, December 1960

In the early days of the Community, the European Parliament was composed exclusively of national MPs, a state of affairs which came to an end with the advent of directly elected MEPs in 1979. The subsequent proliferation of interparliamentary committees has done little to engage domestically elected representatives in the European legislative process. Thus the source of genuine democratic legitimacy is separated from the decision-making arena – a failing for which various solutions have been suggested, including the creation of a European ‘Senate’ drawn from national MPs. No such suggestion, however, has found favour within an EU which already has a confusing number of institutions.


Notas y References

  1. Based on the book “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach (Profile Books; London)

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