Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 2 July 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Democratic Legitimacy and Accountability in the EU: Discussion (Resumed) with CEPS
This is the 78th meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. The first item on our agenda is a discussion on the subject of democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU with Dr. Sonia Piedrafita, a research fellow with the Centre of European Policy Studies, CEPS, in Brussels. Our guest has travelled from Brussels to be with us and we thank her for attending.
The CEPS is a leading Brussels-based think tank with a particular focus on issues relating to European integration. We have held a number of meetings on this topic. We look forward to Dr. Piedrafita's contribution.
Before we begin, I must read out the privilege notice. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, the witness is protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence she is to give the committee. If she is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and she continue to so do, she is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of her evidence. She is directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and she is asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, she should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Even though we are sure that none of these warnings will in any way apply to Dr. Piedrafita, I must read it. I invite her to make her opening contribution, after which everyone will comment.
I apologise, but I am a member of the foreign affairs committee, which is receiving a delegation of Vietnamese National Assembly representatives at 2.30 p.m. If Dr. Piedrafita sees me disappearing, it will not be a reflection on her contribution. I apologise to the Vice Chairman in advance instead of later.
I thank the Deputy. I am sure our guest will understand that many of our colleagues are either on other committees or may be called to the Dáil or the Seanad to speak on or attend in respect of a Bill. If colleagues leave, it will be no reflection on Dr. Piedrafita. They just have other duties.
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
I thank the joint committee for inviting me to contribute to these meetings on the future of the European Union and the role of Ireland in same. It is a privilege to be present. I have been asked to discuss the democratic legitimacy and accountability of the EU. The first part of my presentation will consider how recent developments in EU economic governance might be underpinned in terms of democratic legitimacy and accountability and a greater role for the national parliaments. The second part of my presentation will examine the latest news on preparing the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.
Whereas the Lisbon treaty was a large step in the promotion of the Community method and the reduction of the EU's democratic deficit, the euro crisis has brought back increasing intergovernmentalism and the Council's prominent role in EU decision making, circumscribing the Commission's agenda-setting power and the European Parliament's co-legislative role.
Decisions which impact on citizens' lives are taken by other States and implemented by non-elected bodies which are more difficult to hold politically accountable. Some of these measures impose heavy constraints on national budgets and member states' capacity for policy setting. To address these shortfalls, it is essential to enhance the role of the European Parliament and that of national parliaments in the process. I am aware that the question of the European Parliament has been discussed by the committee previously. As such, I will focus in my presentation on the role of national parliaments.
The treaty on stability, co-ordination and governance in the Economic and Monetary Union obliges contracting parties to enshrine the balanced budget and debt rules their respective legal orders and to set up the necessary correction mechanisms. The two pack regulations introduces a common budgetary timeline and common budgetary roles for euro area member states. By 3 April, euro area member states must publish their medium term fiscal plans and stability and convergence programmes, together with a policy on priorities for growth and employment for the forthcoming 12 months. These are the national reform programmes following the recommendations forwarded by the Commission to the European Council and adopted by the European Council in its spring summit.
Following adoption of the two pack regulations, member states must send their draft annual budgets to the European Commission by 15 October so that the Commission can give its comments on them and say whether they comply with the obligations under the stability and growth pact. The President of the European Council recently proposed the development of bilateral agreements with each member state, detailing a specific reform programme on the basis of the country specific recommendations by the Commission and further indepth review of the economy of that country. Together, all of these constrain the role of national parliaments in the budget process and policy setting in member states. To counter-balance this pitfall, steps could be taken in the area of inter-parliamentary co-operation and parliamentary scrutiny by national parliaments.
I will deal first with the area of inter-parliamentary co-operation and will later speak about how to improve parliamentary scrutiny by national parliaments. On inter-parliamentary co-operation, Article 13 of the treaty on the stability, co-ordination and governance of the Economic and Monetary Union provides that the European Parliament and national parliaments will together determine the creation of a conference of representatives of the relevant committees in order to discuss budgetary and other issues covered by the treaty. The parliaments of the founding member states, together with the European Parliament, put forward a proposal which has been endorsed by all the national parliaments, namely, that the conference comprise six members of parliaments of member states and 16 members of the European Parliament and shall meet twice a year. The conference of committee chairs of the European Parliament has proposed instead to hold a European parliamentary a week prior to the spring council so that representatives from the relevant committees of the national parliaments can be informed of the annual growth survey and share their views with the European Parliament. Then, a committee chairpersons conference will be organised by the country holding the rotating presidency before the June European Council on the basis of the country specific recommendations. Whatever format this conference may take - agreement has not yet been reached - it is important that it is workable and not so large it becomes inefficient, that positions on the conference include not only the chairpersons of the committees on finance and public expenditure but also members of the Opposition parties and other committees and that the inter-parliamentary meetings are held in due time to enhance national parliaments' knowledge and capacity to act in regard to the annual growth survey and the country specific recommendations, either in their adoption or implementation phase.
In addition, scrutiny of EU economic governance by national parliaments shall be improved and include ex-anteand oversight of the Governments' multi-annual strategies, stability and convergence programmes, national reform programmes and draft annual budgets which will be forwarded to the Commission in October; the Commission's annual growth survey, country specific recommendations and those regarding macro-economic imbalance procedures; the bilateral contractual arrangements that President Van Rompuy intends to sign with each member state and the activities of the European Central Bank and bank supervisory authority, among others.
In the second part of my presentation I will examine developments at European Union level in relation to political groups and their role, focusing on three initiatives by the European Parliament. These initiatives are the proposal for a modification of the Act concerning the election of the members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage. This proposal has been in the pipeline for four years. The second report on the Legislature presented by Andrew Duff, MEP, was referred back to the committee. There is an apparent agreement on the election of 25 members of the European Parliament by a single constituency formed of the whole territory of the European Union from pan-European lists composed of candidates drawn from at least one-third of member states. However, the question of how to decide on the allocation of seats and the application of proportionality remain controversial.
The second initiative will be voted on the floor of the European Parliament the day after tomorrow. It is an initiative to improve the practical arrangements for the holding of the European elections into next year. This initiative recommends that, first, European political parties name their candidates well in advance to allow themselves to run an EU-wide campaign focused on European Union issues; second, national parties clearly state to which European party they belong and which person they support for Commission President; third, the name of the European political parties must appear next to the names of national parties on ballot papers and, fourth, that the candidate for Commission President of the party which wins the most seats be the first to be considered by the European Council with a view to asserting his or her ability to secure support of the absolute majority in parliament.
The third initiative revises the rules on new political parties, and per ordinary legislative procedure, is currently going through its first reading and under negotiation at trialogue meetings. This proposal includes two measures regarding European political parties. First, the possibility to register as a European political party or foundation and obtain a legal status base on EU law, which will not necessary to apply for EU funding. Second, an increase in the amount of donations allowed, including stricter sanctions to ensure compliance. I am happy to answer any questions members may have.
On Dr. Piedrafita's view of the role of national parliaments and in particular their interaction with the European Parliament, she will be familiar with the fact that in the past there were a greater number of joint parliamentary sessions organised primarily in Brussels by different groupings there.
As a method of ensuring that the national parliaments remain more in touch with what is going on in the European Parliament, we get information on a regular basis but it is often hard to get the agenda of the European Parliament or the issues relevant there discussed within the environs of individual state houses. In that context, does the witness believe there should be a greater level of interaction between European and national parliamentarians through the joint parliamentary session and does she believe there should be more specific scheduling of committees of the European Parliament in attendance in various member states to spur debate and generate activity? Does she have any other insights that might assist in building that dialogue between national and European parliamentarians?
Members of the European Parliament are ex officio members of our European affairs committee but the schedules do not permit their participation. That is not a criticism of members and we may sit on a Thursday or Friday to facilitate European parliamentarians. Generally, their schedules are very different to ours and we do not get that level of interaction. Unless we create a specific level, such interaction can be difficult.
Ireland hosted the recent COSAC meeting and although in the history of that organisation there was a strong level of representation from the European Union it is quite limited now to a number of people with a particular interface between national and European parliamentarians.
I welcome the witness. There has been much debate about democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU. What initiative by the EU has best increased democratic legitimacy and accountability, and how is that measured in terms of effectiveness. A second question relates to the three initiatives by the European Parliament, and the witness spoke about the election of MEPs and new arrangements for elections . Dr. Piedrafita mentioned revision of the rules on new political parties but is she talking about political parties within states or EU-wide political parties in that instance? For example, my Fine Gael Party is a member of the EPP.
I thank the witness for the presentation. There is an eight-week window in which parliaments and member states can give their observations on proposals from the European Union. Does Dr. Piedrafita consider that while around November every year the European Commission publishes a programme for the following year, there should be more engagement with national parliaments even with that programme? Last year the Commission published 129 items intended to be dealt with throughout 2013.
We have had the former President of the European Parliament before Seanad Éireann but could Commissioners appear before member parliaments? Our own Commissioner, Ms Máire Geoghegan-Quinn also appeared before the Seanad. With regard to getting into the public arena in each member state, what is the agenda of individual Commissioners over two or three years? It is about getting information to the ordinary members of the public and using national parliaments in that process so what is the witness's view on the more effective use of that strategy?
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
I would appreciate if the members could remind me if I forget any of their questions. There was a question on the level of interaction between Members of the European Parliament and Members of national parliaments. The interaction is very useful and it should take place either in one way or another. Members of the European Parliament should at least attend sessions in the national parliaments, although the idea that they can sometimes be a Member of a national parliament is controversial. They should at least attend sessions, given the position of the Parliament in legislative dossiers that are being negotiated at the moment. The European Parliament may have a different position to that of the European Council, which may be useful and increase political accountability and democratic legitimacy. Increasing numbers of interparliamentary meetings are taking place either in Brussels when organised by the European Parliament or the rotating Presidency, which Ireland has just left with a successful record.
There was a question of which initiative, so far, has been effective in improving democratic legitimacy in the European Union. The subsidiarity checks on the political dialogue with the Commission is one such example, and checking the subsidiarity principle remains on the sidelines. Sometimes it is a very technical exercise and although national parliaments have already been doing it, the process should be put in the context of political dialogue with the Commission. This related to the question on the annual work programme. If we can do this from a very early stage, there can be a capacity of the national parliament not only to scrutinise what is happening in the Council but also what European institutions think about this. There would also be a capacity to react and influence governments in order to shape a final outcome, which is very important. It would be a very successful initiative.
There is still much to consider in how the Commission reacts as it is not just receiving recent opinions on compliance with the principle of subsidiarity; it is also taking comments on the substance of the proposal. The Commission should increase resources to accommodate all the comments from national parliaments, as sometimes such suggestions can be helpful and useful. The Commission always sends a letter taking good account of comments received but perhaps it should move to explain whether it takes into account any such comment or suggestion from a national parliament, and in what way that happens.
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
Many national parliaments, such as the Spanish Parliament, do not send a reasoned opinion unless it is negative. According to law, that is how it should be done as unless there is a breach in a principle, there is no need to send a reasoned opinion. Sometimes the Commission does not get enough reasoned opinions because although national parliaments undertake scrutiny, they may not find a breach.
As far as political dialogue is concerned, many member states still lag behind and they could be sending more comment to the Commission. Engagement in dialogue may come too late and there may no time to ask questions or become more informed, for example, in issuing a report on proposals.
Sometimes it is a matter of time. However, there is still a great deal to do, and that would be very useful.
The legislative proposal by the Commission that is now in the legislative procedure negotiations is about EU-wide political parties, not national parties. That is a legislative proposal, and it is only about European Union political parties. The other initiative is an own initiative by the European Parliament. It is not EU law in a strict sense. That contains a recommendation both for European political parties and for national parties. The European Parliament is asking national parties to make it clear which European parties they belong to, so citizens can associate the party with the European political party and the debate goes from domestic issues to the European sphere, and also which candidate for the Commission the party will support in case that European political party wins the elections to the European Parliament.
I already referred to the importance of being aware of the annual work programme of the Commission. I am aware that in this Parliament there are staff dealing with that and looking at the work programme when it is published. It is a very good way to establish priorities for the scrutiny that will come afterwards, because national parliaments cannot scrutinise all EU law and all EU documents. It is very useful to look at the work programme and establish the priorities on which the national parliament will work. It is also good to try to find a way to influence that annual work programme before it is issued. There are means through which the national governments of member states could do that in a previous phase. It is essential that individual Commissioners continue their work and make a bigger effort to come to national parliaments to explain what their DGs are doing. That is part of the political dialogue. It was institutionalised as part of the political dialogue started in 2006 and it should continue. It is really useful, not only for members of national parliaments but also for citizens because if a Commissioner comes here, the media will probably also come here and European Union affairs will be in the press as well. That is very positive for democratic legitimacy and for political accountability.
How significant do you believe the European Parliament elections next year will be? What do you think will be the most likely outcome and what are the consequences of that for the institutions of the European Union being able to function well? Deputy Durkan also has a question.
Given that under the Lisbon treaty both the national parliaments and the European Parliament have gained more power and influence, how does Dr. Piedrafita anticipate the evolution of European-wide parliamentary parties being affected by what I consider to be an imbalance whereby the larger countries in the European Union will inevitably have much more influence than the smaller countries, notwithstanding the built-in provisions in respect of weighted voting?
I wish to put a related point and to follow up on a question Senator Healy Eames asked. The total number of occasions on which national parliaments have used the additional power that is available to them under the Lisbon treaty is one, and that related to the Monti proposals that were put forward. They never even got to the dialogue point with the Commission because the Commission withdrew the proposals when all the parliaments submitted their observations. I am aware that a critical mass of national parliaments must be reached for the system to be triggered - I believe it is one third - but is that not a very low figure? Given everything that has happened in the last 18 to 24 months, the system has only been triggered on a single occasion and when it was triggered, it did not even develop because the Commission withdrew its proposals. In view of the huge amount of activity across the European Union over the last 18 months why do you think national parliaments have only triggered their right to intervene on a single occasion?
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
I will start with the last question. Perhaps the European Union is not doing that badly regarding the subsidiarity principle. Perhaps it is complying with its role quite well. On the occasion you mentioned, the Danish national parliament was very active in convincing, through interparliamentary co-operation, all the national parliaments to cite it and to send a negative reasoned opinion. That is very difficult to do and it is not likely to happen. It was an exceptional circumstance. National parliaments carry out the subsidiarity checks on the proposals on which they want to carry them out so, first, it is difficult to see how they all decide to carry out the checks on the same proposal. Indeed, the Commission publishes a report explaining which proposals were subject to a subsidiarity check and many of them do not receive a subsidiarity check by more than two or three member states, so that also makes it difficult to happen. There is a third factor, which is the way national parliaments work. In many member states they have a majority supporting their governments so it is very unlikely that if a government votes for something in the Council the national parliament will say that it does not comply with the subsidiarity principle, because it is their own party that has the majority in most cases in the national parliament. That is the third reason it only happened once, but I was even very surprised that it happened once. It was a sign that it can happen again and it is an alarm bell for the Commission that it can happen, so it must do better.
Regarding the weight of the big parties among the European Union political parties-----
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
That is a problem. European Union political parties are big alliances of national delegations. Indeed, the weight of these national delegations in the EU political parties is very heavy. The delegations from the big member states, of course, have stronger power than those of smaller member states. The initiative dealing with the legal status of European political parties could help because they would have a legal EU status. Perhaps the next thing is that European political parties have their own affiliates and will not come through national delegations.
The fact that in the future 25 Members of the European Parliament can be chosen from a pan-European list may contribute to these European political parties having a different nature from national delegations from member states, which have a greater say in all decisions taken in the European Parliament.
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
Regarding the issue of the European elections, so far there is a great deal of interest in making these European elections different because people are concerned about the low voter turnout typical in European elections, but we should be concerned about making them too different. Recent national contests are signalling that radical parties with their rather anti-European discourse are winning votes and seats in national elections. If that happens in the European elections also, with many people unhappy because of the austerity measures, or the bailouts in the rich countries, the electoral systems in member states are rather proportional and therefore it would be very easy for those bodies to get representation in the European Parliament, perhaps easier than in the national elections. If that happens, that would pose a risk in terms of decision-making in the European Parliament, with high representation from parties that are not that European or pro-integration. Sometimes they are not that democratic or they do not defend democratic principles. That is a risk, and I do not believe we are aware of that risk or perhaps we are turning a blind eye to it when it is an issue that should worry us more than it does at present.
How does Ireland fair vis-à-vis the other European countries with regard to reasoned opinions in terms of testing the subsidiarity principle? Where do we feature in terms of the number of reasoned opinions Ireland submits versus other parliaments?
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
I do not believe Ireland sent any reasoned opinion in 2011 and 2012, but I think it was related to the fact that Ireland changed the scrutiny system in the Parliament. It moved from a centralised model to a decentralised model, and it took some time for it to come up again with all the scrutiny procedures.
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
Ireland was sending some of them. It was not on the top, but that does not mean anything. What matters is the quality of the scrutiny and because my previous post-doctoral research was on Ireland and Spain, I therefore know quite a lot about it. Ireland goes into the detail of those proposals it finds interesting for Ireland, and it calls on members of the Government to get into this custom. It generates debate. It is not that important if it does not find there is a breach with the subsidiarity principle. It does or does not send a reasoned opinion to the Commission.
Dr. Sonia Piedrafita:
It is also a quantitative check. The current proposals come to the committee and the committee decides which proposals to scrutinise further or not. That further scrutiny is good quality. Ireland has established a procedure where it has received all these proposals and decides to scrutinise them. There is much to do regarding the political dialogue with the Commission. We do not find there has been a breach with the subsidiarity principle but Ireland should try to do a better job in sending comments on the substance of the proposal so that the Commission can hear its voice.
Regarding subsidiarity, since the introduction of the euro in non-euro countries, surely the European Central Bank should have an overall governance feature throughout the eurozone in particular, an issue we raised in a previous meeting of this committee, whereby each member state within the eurozone would automatically feed into a general policy over which the ECB would have supervision, not necessarily to dominate but at least to co-ordinate the economic and fiscal activity in each euro member state. Unfortunately, that was missing for a number of years, hence the kind of difficulties we all face now, some of us to a greater extent than others. Would it not be desirable to have a situation whereby individual central banks within euro member states would have more transparent activity under the guidance of the ECB and that the ECB in turn would try to ensure all the euro states were treated equally in fiscal terms?
Do colleagues have any other questions? In that case, on behalf of the committee I thank Dr. Piedrafita for her presentation. We will take everything into account in a report that we will produce. We all appreciate her contribution and hope she has a safe journey home.