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Posts tagged with: National Parliaments

CER on national parliaments in EU decision making

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 14.41.17Charles 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. [1943] (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.

As a national parliamentarian, why would you bother with EU matters?

The first briefing today is from the EU Affairs Committee of the Danish Parliament. This committee has the reputation as being the toughest of the 27 national parliaments when it comes to holding national ministers to account before they head to Brussels to Council meetings, and often meet at the same time as the Ministers are meeting in Brussels. At any time Danish ministers negotiating in Brussels know they will need the approval of the EU affairs committee.

The real question for me is: why do these parliamentarians actually bother? Why spend time on this? Because if you’re an ambitious member of the House of Commons then why would you aim to be on the European Scrutiny Committee? It’s technical, complicated, and it’s hard to present to any voter what you have actually done as a member of that committee. No MP (except perhaps for raving EU-phobes like Bill Cash) can ever make a career of it.

Why, I wonder, is Denmark different? A small country? List-based election systems? Less everyday, direct contact between MPs and constituents? A more consensual, responsible political culture?

The Dutch obsession with national parliaments

EP - CC / Flickr

EP - CC / Flickr

Adriaan Schout and Jeroen van Dijken wrote a column last week in Dutch daily de Volkskrant entitled EU kan goed zonder Europees Parlement – essentially that the EU could do OK without the European Parliament. I picked up on the story via euro|topics.

The whole line of the column, as far as I can determine, is that the European Parliament is essentially useless if national parliaments took their job in scrutinising EU legislation seriously.

For a whole bunch of different reasons this is the wrong approach.

Firstly, national parliaments are rubbish at using the powers they currently have to hold ministers to account before they go off to meetings of the Council of the European Union. Only Denmark and Finland come close to having reasonable systems of parliamentary scrutiny; the EU, ironically, relies to a great extent on the unelected House of Lords to do the task the Commons cannot be bothered to do.

This leads to the second point: what incentive do national parliaments have to improve their scrutiny of EU legislation? Basically none as far as I can tell. National politicians don’t win their seats on the basis of checking whether the market for widgets functions at European level.

Thirdly, is it even right, in governmental terms, that national politicians should determine the conduct of EU affairs? I think all of Europe’s populations are grown up enough to understand – broadly – that different problems are solved at different levels, and each of those levels needs democratic accountability. I don’t think that the Tweede Kamer should be uniquely composed of local councillors from towns in the Netherlands, yet that’s the logical equivalent of what they propose at the European level.

Now don’t get me wrong: there are a whole bunch of problems with the way the European Parliament works: opaque party system, the EP cannot determine the President of the Commission, dull debates, dull election campaigns etc. but the Dutch obsession with national parliaments as a way to solve these problems is not the way forward.