Europe needs influential national parliaments

A Federal Union paper for the European constitutional convention

National parliaments should be given time to scrutinise legislative proposals

The Council should meet as an assembly, not as a committee

There should be no new stages in the legislative process


1. The European Union is a unique and pioneering international system. It has a mixture of intergovernmental and supranational features, set up after the second world war to establish a shared democracy amongst the countries of Europe. This was to replace the secret diplomacy that had failed so dramatically in the recent past.

2. As time has passed since then, the EU has acquired new powers and attracted new member states, and the diplomatic methods of decision-making (secrecy, unanimity) have slowly been replaced by democratic ones (openness, majority voting). It now needs to go further towards becoming a parliamentary democracy with a legitimate and effective means of taking and implementing decisions.

3. This paper outlines how national parliaments should be involved in the decision-making of the EU.

4. Federal Union, on whose behalf this paper has been prepared, was founded in 1938 and campaigns for federalism for the UK, Europe and the world. It believes that democracy and the rule of law should apply to states as well as within them.

The task of national parliaments is to hold national governments to account

5. National governments are significant actors in the European Union decision-making process. They must agree all legislation and approve all major appointments. The expression of the member state interest in the EU is strong. However, national parliaments do not have the same influence in the programme of the EU. This needs to be changed.

6. The principal reason why the EU does not involve national parliaments in its workings is because of its diplomatic origins. Diplomacy is something conducted in private by governments: parliaments are only occasionally informed or consulted. As the functions of the EU have extended to affect the citizen more directly, the gap between national parliaments and EU decision-making needs to be closed.

– The legislative process needs to become open: the Council should meet as an assembly and not a committee.

– The legislative timetable needs to allow time for national parliaments to consider proposals and question their national ministers.

– The European Commission should publish an annual work programme to be debated in every national parliament as well as in the European Parliament and the European Council.

– Members of the European and national parliaments should be ready to meet together to share expertise and analysis of European policy issues.

A formal subsidiarity mechanism will not work

7. It has been widely proposed that some new kind of mechanism should be established so that national parliaments can intervene directly in the legislative process in order to enforce the principle of subsidiarity. Such a mechanism cannot work and it is not necessary. There are other ways to achieve this objective.

8. It is not necessary because there are already other possible protections against over-centralisation. The first is an explicit definition of the competences of the European Union. The constitution should define what the EU can – and cannot – do.

9. Secondly, there is the legislative process itself. To become law, a proposal from the European Commission must be adopted by both the European Parliament and the Council (this process should grant an equal role to each institution). Such a proposal may change substantially during its progress through the different legislative stages. For subsidiarity monitoring to make sense, it must apply throughout the legislative procedure and not only on the initial publication of a proposal by the European Commission. The proposals on openness and accountability above – the Council must meet in public as an assembly and not in secret as a committee – would establish an opportunity for national parliaments to make their concerns known.

10. Establishing a formal right of objection for national parliaments would be fraught with difficulty. There is no objective legal definition of subsidiarity that can be applied in all circumstances: is it conceivable that the ECJ might pronounce on the motives of national parliaments in objecting to draft legislation? A formal subsidiarity mechanism therefore can only amount to an additional stage in the legislative procedure to be observed on every occasion. This would surely be an unwelcome addition to the workload of national parliaments and an unnecessary addition to the legislative process which needs simplification rather than more complexity.

11. Lastly, it is worth noting that most complaints about violations of the principle of subsidiarity do not arise as a result of EU legislative acts. They come either from executive decisions of the European Commission or the Council – to which a new stage in the legislative procedure would not apply – or from the implementation of directives in national law. In each case, the proposals on openness and accountability we have already set out are the best means of ensuring that national parliaments can protect the principle of subsidiarity and the interests of the member states.


12. The parliaments of the member states have an important role to play in bridging the gap between the European Union and the citizen. They can play this role by holding to account national ministers for their actions in the Council. The legislative procedures of the EU must be opened up and made more accessible to ensure that national parliaments can play this role.

March 2003

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