Europe and the EU


Democratic control and national parliaments

08 May 2013 - 16:44

The on-going Euro-crisis has reinforced concerns that monetary policy-making is de facto drifting away from the authority of member states, and into the hands of an elusive “Euro Group” of Finance Ministers, whose deliberations remain cloaked in secrecy. Apart from the EU’s “big players” (like Germany, France and the United Kingdom), few governments cherish illusions that they remain in control over decisions that may well cost them many billions of Euros, like bailing out southern EU member states (Italy, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus). Even a key EU member state like the UK has become a “policy-taker” on financial matters, mainly because it remains outside the Euro Group. The secrecy of the Euro Group’s deliberations is explained by the simple fact that crisis management always involves secret and often hard-nosed negotiations. Knowing that the financial markets will react to the slightest hint of policy change, silence and confidentiality have become valuable assets within the Euro Group.

These recent developments have rekindled the long-standing debate about the so-called “democratic deficit” that lies at the heart of EU policy-making. German sociologist Ulrich Beck even suggests that “the euro crisis is tearing Europe apart. But the heart of the matter is that, as the crisis unfolds, the basic rules of European democracy are being subverted or turned into their opposite, bypassing parliaments, governments and EU institutions” (Beck, German Europe, Polity Press, 2013). This is why our debate focuses on the role of national parliaments (of EU member states) on decision-making within the European Council, with a special emphasis on parliamentary control over Euro Summits. A recent European Parliament Report (January 2013) suggests that “’something is happening’ in national parliaments in relation to European Council meetings”, and that there are “some signs that parliaments are starting to wake up to the European governance and that, after years of false promises, they may eventually ‘learn how to fight back’” (p. 61).

The Report (authored by Wolfgang Wessels and Olivier Rozenberg) suggests that the level and method of parliamentary control of European Council meetings varies significantly. These rules and practices within all 27 EU member states have developed within different political cultures, offering widely diverse national models on how to influence and even control governmental positions in Council negotiations. According to the EP Report, crucial differences can be explained by several factors like the institutional strength of the parliament in domestic affairs and the European views within public opinion. “Strong parliaments” tend to be not only influential on domestic matters, but on EU issues as well. Eurosceptic member states are also inclined to scrutinize EU affairs more, and “latecomers” often have a more activist legislature due to their involvement in the (recent) accession process (p. 20).

Taken together with other national traditions and political idiosyncrasies, the following overview arises:

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The seven models identified in the Report, cover the spectrum of the Traditional Model (which assumes that decisions within the European Council require discretion, and therefore do not require extensive functions and powers for national parliaments), to the Policy Makers Model (where parliament is actively involved in influencing government before every European Summit), and the Full Parliamentarisation Model (offering a maximum involvement of parliament, both before and after European Council meetings). Several countries find themselves as intermediaries between these models.

What does this mean for the quality of scrutiny and the strength of democratic control by national parliaments in European affairs? We have asked experts from key EU member states how they would qualify the role of their own national parliament in the deliberations of the European Council, and the Euro Group in particular. Do they recognize the “model” that their country (supposedly) represents in the above scheme? Has the Euro crisis indeed been the required wake-up call for their national parliament to exercise democratic control, and where do they see room for improvement? Lastly, can strengthened democratic control at national level increase the legitimacy of EU decisions?