TEPSA Newsletter Editorial “Euro zone governance and democratic legitimacy”, October 2012

In its interim report “Towards a genuine Economic and Monetary Union” of the 12nd October 2012, President Van Rompuy devoted few lines in the end to democratic legitimacy. This paragraph gives the impression of paying lip service to the concept, rather than reflections on its applicability in the ‘genuine’ Economic and Monetary Union. The report does nonetheless clearly outline the subject matter. To the extent the core aspects of the Euro zone governance are fulfilled at intergovernmental level, the democratic oversight of the Euro zone naturally lies within the competency of national parliaments. The European Parliament also has a role to play in the democratic oversight of the Euro zone insofar the governance of the Euro zone is governed by the community method . No need to emphasize on this second point, since it clearly emerges from the treaties.

Regarding the role of the national parliaments however, it is interesting to assess to what extent national parliaments actually play a role in the system. After all, the decisions taken at European level have not only an impact on the power of the national parliaments, but also and most of all, on the life of citizens in the member states. The last years have demonstrated that national political debates focused on EU’s economic and monetary activities. The successive austerity plans imposed on some Euro zone members have also compelled these governments to feed these constraints into national debates. Another implication is that national Heads of State and Government individually bear the consequences of the decisions taken by the European Council in Brussels in their national arena.

A study currently elaborated by TEPSA in collaboration with Notre Europe on the role of national parliaments in oversight of the positions taken by Head of State or Government in the European Council shows a remarkable development in this field. The study demonstrates that nowadays in 17 Member States formal rules exist on the participation of national parliaments in the preparation of the European Councils. These rules can be applied mutatis mutandis to Euro zone summits. They vary between the member states and are more developed in those which have already established a system of oversight on the activity of the Council of the EU. There is a tendency that can be observed in favour of a priori control by providing documents and organising debates before European Council meetings. This a priori oversight consists more often of issuing non-binding recommendations than giving a legally or politically binding mandate. Meanwhile, the practice of debates on the outcome of European Councils is maintained. Insofar the Prime Minister personally takes part to the European Council and a Euro zone summit, his participation in debates in the national parliament is particularly important. The future will tell whether this practice will become widespread.

The trend shows it is no longer only about submitting politically binding positions ex post that can be adopted. Instead it is also about orienting the position of the government during the European Council meeting in question. However, this trend has some limitations. First of all, it faces the still largely informal character of European Council meetings. It is difficult to provide national parliaments with comprehensive information on future conclusions which are still under negotiation. It is neither possible nor desirable for national positions to be fully publicly discussed before the meeting or even subject to a national mandate. This would risk to reduce the bargaining power. National parliaments can only shape general recommendations, which will be subjected to the Prime Minister or the President’s interpretation while acknowledging that if it deviates too much from the mandate given by his parliament it could impact on his/her political responsibility. The above mentioned report will suggest in this sense a set of best practices.

However, considering that the Euro zone governance uses both community and intergovernmental methods, it is deemed essential to ensure that the positions of national parliaments and of the European Parliament are not entirely in conflict, otherwise difficulties of implementation would soon arise. For this particular reason national parliamentary debates should initiate an exchange of views between national parliaments and the European Parliament. Article 13 of the Treaty on Stability, Cooperation and Governance provides for cooperation between the European Parliament and specialised committees of national parliaments. It would be advisable that this cooperation is set-up at an early stage and not only focuses on Euro zone summits’, but also on the work undertaken in the framework of the European Semester. A parliamentary network has already been formed in the field of foreign policy, it is essential that a similar network starts to function on Euro zone issues without delay.

One cannot request efforts from the European citizens unless they have the conviction of being listened to and understood. Solidarity is not born spontaneously from a generous feeling, it must be based on the idea that efforts undertaken by everyone will benefit to all. So far we have not found any better way to achieve this outcome than through a debate between representatives of the people. Democratic legitimacy is therefore part of the responses to the crisis.