Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

More Powers for National Parliaments? This Should Have a Price

Adelina Marini, June 17, 2014

Former German President Roman Herzog joined the choir of reformers in EU who want more powers for national parliaments in the Union. In a special article, Mr Herzog calls for "defensive rights" of national parliaments against EU and for measures against over-regulation from Brussels. Bureaucracy is huge and is spreading like a "wildfire", he writes. It can be responded to this with new blocking rights for national parliaments. With this appeal, the former head of state of Germany joins the British efforts to "restore national sovereignty" from Brussels. Recently, British MPs demanded national parliaments to have bigger role in the decision-making process in the EU as a supplement to the almost two-year-long debate in the United Kingdom about a reform in the direction toward a looser union. In the EU committee in the Bundestag, a proposal in the same vein from the Danish parliament was discussed.


The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on December 1st, 2009, provides more powers for national parliaments to participate together with European institutions in the Union's work. In a new clause the powers and obligations of the national parliaments are clearly defined. They get the right to be informed, to monitor the respect for the subsidiarity principle (something that can be done at national level not to be done at European level), they get also mechanisms to evaluate the policies in the area of freedom, security and justice. Furthermore, national parliaments received the instrument "yellow card". If a third of national parliaments decide that a proposal is not in line with the subsidiarity principle, they can raise a yellow card and force the Commission to review its proposal.

This is precisely what happened with the Commission proposal to create a common European prosecution office. If the Commission does not back off from its proposal it has to explain itself and the final decision is taken by the European Parliament and the Council.

Is this sufficient from the point of view of the current political crisis in the EU, especially after the European elections in May and David Cameron's tragicomic efforts to rescue his agenda for EU reform or rather himself, is a question that is open for debate. This question, however, raises another issue - have national parliaments taken advantage of their increased powers? And here the answers are not at all to the benefit of those who want a bigger say of national parliaments, especially in countries who are not part of the euro area. Apart from the Lisbon Treaty, national parliaments received a role in the reformed EU economic governance as well. Representatives of respective committees take part in joint sessions with the European Parliament in discussing the European semester. And this has been going on for four years. But on European level. In how many member states national parliaments debate on what is going on at European level?

Let us take, again, the European Semester and the most recent stage of it - the country-specific recommendations which European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called the biggest transfer of national sovereignty to Brussels. On June 18th, the recommendations will be discussed in the EU affairs committee of the French national assembly. In the German Bundestag they have already been discussed judging from the agenda of the EU committee. The country-specific recommendations, however, were not to be found on the agendas of the EU affairs committee of the parliaments of Bulgaria and Croatia despite the fact that the two countries received very serious criticisms about the condition of their economies and judiciaries.

The calls for more powers of national parliaments become lighter also by the fact that so important issues like the European Commission's independent analyses of the member states' economies are discussed in the EU affairs committees not in the respective committees, like, for instance, the committees for economy or finance. Moreover, how often the issues on the EU agenda are debated in plenary sessions of the national parliaments not only on committee level? Excluding, of course, cases like imposing sanctions against Russia which, too, is hardly debated in the national parliaments of all the member states, only where the issue is controversial.

If we go back to the German Bundestag, because the latest call for more powers of national parliaments comes from an ex-president of Germany, the EU issues that are mainly debated are related to new instruments as was the case with the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) - the euro area's permanent bailout fund. The Bundestag triggers debates when it comes to voting more money for resolving the euro area crisis and that is after the Constitutional court forced both the government and the parliament to do that. It is a fact, however, that in most cases the important decisions are taken at government level and in the Council of the EU, often without consultations with the Bundestag. Something which Chancellor Merkel is heavily criticised at home for. This, however, is not a problem of the treaties, but is related to how at national level the developments at EU level are discussed and to what extent these issues are perceived as inseverably linked to the national agenda.

That is why, if changes are to be demanded in the direction of more powers for national parliaments to be able to reject EU legislation, this should go both directions. The member states should commit to ensure that their national parliaments will discuss all important issues from the EU agenda not only in the EU affairs committees but also in the respective national committees as well as in plenary sessions. They should also commit to make this public because in the case of the German committee on EU affairs in the Bundestag the discussions are often not open for the public and there the agenda for Ecofin meetings is also discussed. As a matter a fact, isn't it quite telling that the latter is discussed in the EU affairs committee not in the financial or economic committee? It all seems that in the euro area members the issues from the EU agenda are much more closely intertwined in the national agenda than in the non-euro countries.

In the past year or two of the building up of a tool-box for handling the euro area crisis, the most frequently raised issue was about the lack of democratic legitimacy at EU level. However, the way EU issues are discussed by the member states at national level and the way decisions are taken reveals an even more serious lack of democratic legitimacy. I have mentioned many times that after a short outburst of transparency the Bulgarian government closed for media the work of the EU affairs council which works under the patronage of the Council of Ministers, which is responsible for the coordination and hammering of the country's positions for Council meetings - on justice, economic and financial affairs, foreign relations, etc. There are no longer even press briefings after the sessions of that institution.

The situation is the same in Croatia as well, where decisions on EU are taken at the closed parts of the government meetings with the argument that positions are subject to negotiations and should not be revealed beforehand in order to keep them strong. In the same time, at European level the democratic legitimacy is much higher. With the changes of the Union's economic governance, procedures were introduced for hearing finance ministers of the member states in the European Parliament's economic committee. These hearings are always webcast live and everyone can watch them with translation if not in all EU languages at least in the major ones. In the plenary in Strasbourg or Brussels, are also heard heads of state or government who lay out their visions about the future of the EU. Subject to hearings in the past term were Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, Finland's PM, the president of Slovenia, etc.

So, there could be a democratic deficit in the EU, but much more tangible is the communication deficit - what is decided in Brussels and Strasbourg to reach without any distortions (as in the Chinese whispers game) to the capitals and the smaller towns and villages of the member states and vice versa - national decisions on EU issues to reach Brussels and Strasbourg passing through the public. This is something which requires more work. In this sense, it is not a bad idea to start hearings in national parliaments of heads of European institutions and why not of ministers or heads of state or government of other member states. Something that is not alien to France and Germany as a practise.