Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Parliamentary accountability – EU style

Helen Szamuely

A motion of censure on the Commisison for its refusal to take political responsibility for the fraud and misappropriation of funds in its statistical office (Eurostat) will not succeed because the two main groupings see such an action as being against the spirit of the European Project. The European Parliament is not there to hold the Executive to account but to further the building of the European Union. The national parliaments have been completely side-lined and the new constitution spells out their role clearly: they are to be informed and allowed to complain that some EU legislation breaks the subsidiarity rules but final decision on their complaint will be taken by … the Commission.

The European Commission is about to be embarrassed during the last stretch of its mandate. Well, mildly embarrassed, since nothing much will come of it. 65 MEPs led by the Conservative Chris Heaton-Harris and the chairman of the Europe of Democracies and Diversities (EDD), Jens-Peter Bonde, have signed a motion of censure over its handling of the Eurostat affair.

The Eurostat affair is, as ever, one of fraud and misappropriated funds in the European Commission’s statistics office and the motion wishes to punish the Commisison for not taking political responsibility for the mess. (Not us, guv. They told us they were honest.) The support comes from a wide range of parties and groups but not from the two main ones: the European People’s Party (EPP) or the European Socialists (ES), which means the motion will not be adopted as that requires a two-thirds support.

Spokesmen for the two main groups are incensed. Helmut Kuhne of the Socialists thought that those who signed the motion made themselves look ridiculous. For some reason he assumed that an outgoing Parliament censuring an outgoing Commission meant that all the newly appointed Commissioners will have to be sent home. Perhaps he meant that the present Commissioners (those who have not fled back into national politics) will go home with a flea in their ears. Who knows?

Inevitably, this minor fracas and the curious reaction of the large parliamentary groups, brings to mind the famous occasion when the Parliament got together solemnly to call to account the Santer Commission for fraudulent and other illegal activity. Who can forget the sight of all those Socialist MEPs, led by the then redoubtable, now unknown, Pauline Green grimly voting to support the Commission? We have only just stopped laughing.

These ludicrous sagas do serve a purpose: they remind all of us that the European Parliament sees itself as part of the project, not as a body of democratic representatives, whose role it is to call the executive to account. That concept does not exist in EU thinking. Though there is an attempt at separation of powers (not, incidentally, something that exists in Britain) the structures, as usual, do not achieve their aims because the content is missing.

Democratic accountability, as opposed to the rather phony concept of transparency, does not and has never existed in the European Union. That explains the apparently incomprehensible fact that the more power the European Parliament acquires the less people vote for it. The fact is that the more power it acquires the more it becomes, not the organ of democratic representation of the peoples of Europe, but another part of the remote and dirigiste European Union.

Where does that leave the national parliaments who have been steadily losing power to the central EU structures? Nowhere really. They, though elected by the people of each country, have lost the right of initiating legislation or regulation over most of the political scene. The incoming countries will recognize this as they adjust to their new status. The best national parliaments can hope for is having enough time to scrutinize the legislation before it is put through the EU machinery. Even that is usually denied them.

Ah yes, we shall be told by the supporters of the EU constitution but there is now a Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments in the European Union in the proposed document. So there is and it is full of provisions for informing national parliaments, not for allowing them to legislate or to hold the EU executive to account. As trade unions in the Soviet Union, the national parliaments are seen as a counduit of information between the state and the people. Not quite what John Hampden had in mind.

Then there is the Protocol on the Application of the Principles of Subsidiarity and Proportionality. So far, let us remember, neither of these principles has returned even a smidgeon of legislative power to national parliaments. The new Protocol instructs the Commission to consult widely before proposing legislative acts, unless there are cases of exceptional urgency. But what if a national parliament, representing the people who elected it, really does not like some proposed legislation?

Article 5 of the Protocol allows any “national Parliament of any chmaber of a national Parliament of a Member Staty … within six weeks from the date of transmission of the Commission’s legislative proposal, [to] send to the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the Commission a reasoned opinion stating why it considers that the proposal in question does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity”.

Article 6 tells us that “[t]he European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the Commission shall take account of the reasoned opinions issued by Member States’ national Parliaments or by a chamber of a national Parliament”.

Then a certain amount of jockeying for position will follow after which votes will be counted. “Where reasoned opinions on a Commission proposal’s non-compliance with the principle of subsidiarity represent at least one third of all the votes allocated to the Member States’ national Parliaments and their chambers, the Commission shall review its proposal.” Goody-goody, you might say, until you read the last sentence of Article 6: “After such review, the Commission may decide to maintain, amend or withdraw its proposal. The Commission shall give reasons for its decision.”

And that is that.

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