A new push for European democracy: what place for (national) parliaments?
Monday, 9 March 2020 marked the 100th day in office of the new European Commission under President Von der Leyen. The Commission had promised to deliver a number of priorities set out in the President’s Political Guidelines by this self-imposed deadline – priorities that, however, do not include any clear strategy on how to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Europe.
Amongst the priorities included the Political Guidelines is the headline ambition entitled “A new push for European democracy”, under which Von der Leyen proposes a variety of measures to protect and strengthen democracy in the EU. But while she only makes vague suggestions regarding the strengthening of the European Parliament, she conspicuously fails to make any mention at all of the second pillar on which EU parliamentary democracy rests: the national parliaments of the 27 EU Member States.
A new push for European democracy
In her Political Guidelines, then Commission President-elect Von der Leyen set out six headline ambitions:
- A European Green Deal
- An economy that works for people
- A Europe fit for the digital age
- Protecting our European way of life
- A stronger Europe in the world
- A new push for European democracy
The first 100 days of the new Commission saw, amongst others, the publication of a strategy on a European Green Deal and White Paper on Artificial Intelligence. With regard to European democracy, the Commission outlined in particular two measures in its first annual Work Programme, which was published on 29 January 2020: firstly, its vision for the proposed Conference on the Future of Europe and secondly, the European Democracy Action Plan, which has as an objective the addressing of threats of external intervention and disinformation in EU elections. In particular the Conference on the Future of Europe has gained wide traction in the public debate, in particular after a Franco-German non-paper supporting such a Conference became public at the end of November.
What the Commission did not do during this period, however, was to lay out concrete plans on how to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Europe.
The European Union is founded on representative democracy. While the European Parliaments directly represents EU citizens at European level, national parliaments indirectly represent their citizens at EU level by holding their national governments to account for actions in the Council and the European Council. This dual representation structure is explicitly laid down in article 10 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU).
Under the Commission’s headline ambition for a “push for a new European democracy”, President Von der Leyen seems to be exclusively focused on the European Parliament, however, with no mentioning of what her vision for the involvement of national parliaments in the EU democratic systems is.
A “special relationship with the European Parliament”
Concerning the strengthening of the first line of democratic representation provided by the European Parliament, Von der Leyen’s political guidelines focussed on two aspects in particular: strengthening the partnership between the Commission and the European Parliament as well as improving the Spitzenkandidaten system (which is somewhat ironic considering that Von der Leyen became Commission President because the Spitzenkandidaten process was not followed in the first place but that is an issue for another discussion).
Among the ideas for a strengthened relationship between the Commission and the European Parliament are a right to initiative for the EP; a commitment by the Commissioners to brief Parliament at all stages of international negotiations; more appearances by the Commission in Committee meetings and trilogue discussions; as well as the revival of the Question Hour in the EP.
Out of all of these ideas, merely the support for a right of initiative for the Parliament has been retained in the introductory part of Commission’s Annual Work Programme 2020. Under the headline “A new push for European Democracy” the focus is instead on the European Democracy Action Plan and the Conference on the Future of Europe; as is the focus of the annex outlining the specific initiatives the Commission intends to take in the year 2020.
The already vague ideas concerning the strengthening of the European Parliament as outlined in the Political Guidelines have thus been even further washed down in the Commission’s annual Work Programme. And what is more: while in her Political Guidelines Von der Leyen still speaks of being “open to Treaty change” – something that would be required in order to give Parliament its own right to initiative – such terminology has been entirely scratched from annual Work Programme.
National Parliaments in the EU: Von der Leyen’s Silence
Furthermore, what has been entirely left out of both documents, in fact, is any mention of the national parliaments of the 27 EU Member States. As mentioned above, national parliaments constitute the second strand of representation in the EU’s dual democratic system. And yet, President Von der Leyen and her Commission entirely fail to mention how they envision the role of national parliaments and their relationship with the European Commission in an improved European democracy.
In addition to their indirect involvement in EU affair through holding to account their national governments in the Council and European Council, national parliaments have since the Treaty of Lisbon – not coincidentally also often labelled the ‘Treaty of Parliaments’ – also a direct say in the EU decision-making processes. Such direct involvement is most notably provided through the subsidiarity control mechanism (or Early Warning Mechanism, EWM), which allows national parliaments to object to against a legislative proposal on grounds of subsidiarity. The objection is, however, not binding on the Commission and the current procedure requires at least a third of all parliamentary chambers in the EU to object to the same legislative proposal within the allocated time period before the Commission is even obliged to consider such objections. Additionally, national parliaments can also enter into a dialogue with the Commission through the Political Dialogue or with the European Parliaments through various forms of interparliamentary cooperation.
These dual roles of national parliaments within the European democratic system (i.e. indirect involvement via their national governments and direct involvement with the Commission) are not reflected in Von der Leyen’s plans for improving EU democracy at all - even though there are quite a few measures, which she could have proposed with regard to strengthening the role of national parliaments in the EU. This would have not only demonstrated her commitment to parliamentary democracy in Europe but also her recognition of the vital role that national parliaments, often still considered by citizens to be their main representative institution, within the complicated EU institutional system.
In this regard, it could have been conceivable, for example, for Von der Leyen to pledge to extend the time period in which national parliaments may object to legislative proposals under the subsidiarity control mechanism beyond just the current eight weeks under article 6 of Protocol No°2, in order to give national parliaments more time to draft and coordinate their objections. She could also have, similarly to the right to initiative for the EP, introduced the idea of a green and/or red card in the EU decision-making system, with which they could either propose or veto legislative proposals at EU level respectively. Or she could have expressed her Commission’s commitment to the Political Dialogue and promised to into account more strongly national parliamentary views when drafting legislative proposals.
However, none of the sorts could be found in the Commission documents thus far, with much of the focal point, also in the public debate, instead being on the Conference on the Future of Europe. (At this point it should be noted that also here many questions remain open – from the practical feasibility of a conference that is supposed to be representative of geography, gender, age, socio-economic level of education of almost 5 Million people could even be achieved, to more normative questions of how it would fit within the institutional structure of the EU described above.)
What Place for National Parliaments in the Commission’s Plan for EU Democracy?
100 days after the new Commission entered into office, the question thus still remains open what Von der Leyen’s long-term plans for EU democracy in fact are. Some vague ideas concerning strengthening the European Parliament were included in her Guidelines – most of which, however, have been scratched again in the Commission’s annual Work Programme for the year 2020. National parliaments and their vital role for EU democracy have been ignored altogether, with much of the focus being put on the Conference on the Future of Europe instead. And yet, any attempts at improving the EU’s democratic credentials should be based on structural changes and not by adding yet another diffuse, but very ad hoc layer such as the Conference to the already complicated EU democratic system. But here, the Commission President remains conspicuously vague if not entirely silent.
If, however, the annual Work Programme and the first year of the mandate will indeed “set the vision, direction and pace for the next five years”, as the document says so itself, then it is indispensable that Von der Leyen, and with her also her Commission, finds her voice on these issues and openly commits to a strong parliamentary democracy - both in form of a strong European Parliament at EU level and strong national parliaments at Member State level.
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