As is the case in many member states, MPs in Britain rarely get the chance to put EU legislation under the microscope – Dr Ruth Fox
The European Union is a hot political topic and there is no shortage of politicians willing to debate whether the UK should be ‘in’ or ‘out’, the future of the eurozone or the repatriation of powers. Yet, although our membership of the EU affects almost every aspect of national life, many of the policy and legislative initiatives that emerge from Brussels are not subject to robust parliamentary scrutiny at Westminster.
In a new publication by the Hansard Society Measured or makeshift? Parliamentary scrutiny of the European Union leading politicians, academics and civil society experts explore what reforms could be introduced to address this democratic deficit and ensure that parliament is more effective and influential in its scrutiny of European issues in the future.
A key challenge is how to actively involve more MPs in scrutiny of EU matters on a regular basis. The present structure of European committees prevents members building up and deploying knowledge and expertise. As a result, few MPs have a real understanding of how the EU works and detailed consideration is largely confined to the European Scrutiny Committee. But there is plenty of scope to weave European matters into the everyday activity of the House of Commons chamber and committees.
Parliamentarians could restore the debates they used to hold before European Council summits. Regular departmental questioning of ministers on the EU-related aspects of their responsibilities would be an improvement. Another option would be to elevate the post of Europe minister to cabinet rank and make the occupant answerable to the house for all negotiations in Brussels.
More forensic scrutiny of EU issues could be provided through departmental select committees, particularly by introducing a system of rapporteurs each of whom would be tasked with responsibility for focusing on the European dimension of their work. Confirmation hearings by committees could be extended to include the post of the UK’s permanent representation to the European Union – or UKRep – and even our European commissioners. Committee reports could carry real weight by helping to strengthen the evidence base used by ministers in their negotiations with EU partners. In the House of Lords, the EU Committee is widely regarded as an exemplary model and its reports and recommendations are consequently influential in Brussels – demonstrating that, if done well, this scrutiny can have an impact.
Some reformers would like to give MPs more decisive influence through votes that bind government action. On those decisions where the United Kingdom has the power to act on its own, a parliamentary vote could take place before assent is given to a measure where the UK has a veto. And where there is no veto, some believe that if parliamentarians were to take a more direct and vocal interest in these issues then it would be noticed in Brussels and helpfully serve to strengthen the UK’s negotiating position. Westminster could also seek to exercise greater influence through more proactive engagement with parliamentarians and policymakers in other member states and more effective and coordinated application of the yellow and orange card procedure provided to national parliaments in the Lisbon Treaty to delay or stop policies being pursued.
The House of Lords – alongside the Danish Folketing – is one of the two chambers recognised across Europe for the significance of its scrutiny but they are poles apart in their approach. The former deploys a forensic eye to technical detail; the latter has a binding influence on its government’s scope for action. Other parliaments, notably the Dutch Tweede Kamer, have reformed the way they approach scrutiny by beefing up their committee system. But, as contributors Dr Julie Smith and Ariella Huff conclude, that there is no single right way to scrutinise EU affairs and that what works well in one parliament is not always effective in another: domestic political pressures, party dynamics and parliamentary culture all play their part.
Before deciding what changes to make at Westminster, it is therefore necessary to address the fundamental purpose of European scrutiny. As Gisela Stuart outlines in our report, we need to decide whether we want parliamentarians to be better informed, actually shape decisions or make the government change its mind. Each answer would chisel the contours of reform, and the point at which parliamentarians seek to exercise influence, in different ways. At present the system is largely one of document-based scrutiny that takes place once policy is decided. Should intervention take place at an earlier more strategic stage, seeking to influence the development of policy and providing an early warning system for government as well as holding it to account after the fact?
The current system of scrutiny by MPs is largely based on a process first put in place in the early 1970s. Given the changes to the EU and to the way the UK House of Commons now operates, the European Scrutiny Committee is rightly reviewing whether this model is any longer fit for purpose. Similarly, the Hose of Lords EU Committee recently began an investigation into the role of national parliaments to see what can be learnt from other legislatures and how they can more effectively shape and influence decision-making at EU level.
The ideas for reform outlined in the research are not party-political or pro-European or anti-European. Providing effective scrutiny of policy and laws is important whatever side of the European debate you stand. Those who take diametrically opposed views on the EU and Britain’s role in it could nonetheless find plenty of common ground in reform of the processes and procedures needed to underpin and improve scrutiny of European matters. We hope these essays and the ideas and questions they raise will contribute to efforts to define that common ground in the future.
Dr Ruth Fox is director and head of research at the Hansard Society think-tank in the United Kingdom