Influence of parliaments in Europe: from sop to teething-ring

2 November 2005

Influence of parliaments in Europe: from sop to teething-ring

The two houses of the Dutch national parliament, the Senate and the 'Tweede Kamer' (Second Chamber) - the rough equivalent of the British House of Commons, the Irish Dail or the US House of Representatives – could acquire more influence over European decision-making. Together with other parliaments from the EU's member states, they are seeking the right to make an annual declaration as to which policy areas should be reserved to national decision-making and which are suitable for European regulation. The sop to democracy which the member states' citizens were to be offered in the European constitution is to be replaced by a teething ring, says SP Senator Ronald van Raak.

In 2003 an official Joint Committee ('Gemengde Commissie', literally 'Mixed Committee') consisting of members of both houses of the Dutch national parliament was established to look into the question of subsidiarity, the term used in the EU's jargon to mean the division of decision-making between European and national bodies. The Joint Committee has now reported, giving its advice to the two houses this week, in particular on how national parliaments could become more involved in European decision-making. In the European constitution subsidiarity was given a definite form, it being specified that issues should be decided at EU level only if to do so at national level was impossible. One third of national parliaments could together warn the European Commission if they felt it was, by this measure, exceeding its competence. Senator Van Raak, who is a member of the Joint Committee on subsidiarity, described this proposal at the time that it was brought forward as a 'sop to democracy': "If you read the European constitution more closely it turned out that national parliaments could only give advice and had no real power to enforce their will," he said.

The principle of subsidiarity had, moreover, already been enshrined in the Treaty of Amsterdam. National parliaments have, however, never made use of the possibility of letting the European Commission know that they would rather handle certain matters themselves. The rejection of the European constitution has in any case given the Dutch parliament more self-confidence, as can be seen from the advice given by the Joint Committee: 'The Dutch Parliament should take the concerns of the Dutch people to heart and in relation to new European legislative initiatives question more emphatically than has in the past been the case which matters can best be regulated on the European level and which should remain at the national or decentralised level.'

Each year, the Joint Committee advises, national parliaments should hold a debate on the European Commission's legislative plans and work programme and indicate in which areas they feel that European interference is unwarranted. This statement would have no legal force, but would nevertheless constitute a political signal. In Senator Van Raak's opinion, the sop would then become a teething ring: "In the European constitution we acted just as if the national parliaments would acquire more power, but this would not have been the case. Now the national parliaments can themselves grasp the possibilities offered by the chance to make a statement about European legislation. In this way they can develop their milk teeth and sink them into European decision-making. They still won't be able to bite right through, because it still won't be possible for them to take an effective stand against unwanted European interference."

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