Charles Grant of the London-based think tank CER has written a piece entitled “Can national parliaments make the EU more legitimate?” Of course, having posed that question, Grant does not actually fully nail his colours to the mast as to whether he actually thinks national parliaments will help the EU become more legitimate. The piece instead contains imprecise thinking, and a lack of theoretical rigour. In fact all of it is rather typical of this debate about national parliaments’ role in the EU decision making.
As far as I am concerned this national parliaments and the EU thing is based on two false premises that need to be challenged. The first is that national parliaments are necessarily more trusted than the European Parliament is, and the second is that national parliaments actually give a damn about the EU.
In the latest EU Barometer (from Autumn 2012), 28% of Europeans say they trust their national parliaments (p. 39 of the PDF here), versus 27% who trust their national governments. Meanwhile 44% “tend to trust” the European Parliament (p. 71 of the same PDF). So Grant’s case that greater involvement of national parliaments is necessary to legitimise the EU does not really hold true. Also only in 2 Member States – Denmark and the Netherlands – do people trust their parliaments significantly more than governments.
Secondly, if you are a member of a national parliament, why should you actually care about EU matters? Experience to date seems to show that unless it’s something major – like Eurozone bailouts and votes on that in the German Bundestag – national parliaments actually are pretty lousy at using the powers they currently have in EU affairs. I explore some of the reasons for this here. National parliaments could better scrutinise ministers before they go to Council meetings, and hold them to account, but that’s hard and time consuming work. Why do that, rather than be pictured meeting some children in the local school, or talking about healthcare? Grant seems to completely miss this point in his piece – no new forum of national parliamentarians is needed. They do not collaborate because they have no incentive to do so, not because they lack the forum to do so.
Grant criticises the European Parliament thus: “But few voters are aware of the Parliament’s good work and many of them are sceptical that MEPs represent their interests; a lot of MEPs have little connection to national political systems.” But he fails to examine why this is so, or indeed work out how things could work differently.
The basic problem with the European Parliament is not its lack of powers per se, because it is a full co-legislator. But the European Parliament lacks the power to shape the direction of European integration in any way that could be understandable to a voter. It does not comply with Schumpeter’s basic four points of a functioning party political system*:
Parties present programmes
Voters make an informed choice between competing parties
The successful party puts its programme into practice
The governing party judged on its successes at the next election
This is at the heart of the issue of why the European Parliament, and indeed the EU as a whole – it does not function as a representative democracy in the way any other level of representative democracy does, and the only way to improve the input legitimacy of the EU is to address this issue (by making the Commission dependent on the outcome of the European elections for example).
Trying to make the EU more legitimate through emphasising the role of national parliaments is the wrong issue to address. So, Charles, here is the one word answer to the question you pose in the title of your piece: NO.
* – Adapted from Schumpeter, J.A.  (1976), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 5th Edition, London, Allen & Unwin, quoted in Judge, D. & Earnshaw, D.,The European Parliament
[UPDATE – 1955]
Turns out that writing this rubbish for CER was not enough, but he has followed it up on Comment is Free as well. Sorry Charles, but this is poor.