by Sabina Lange (translated by Grega Jug)
On Friday December 12th 2014 the European Commissioner Violeta Bulc attended a joint meeting of four committees of the Slovenian National Assembly, where she was received also by the Assembly’s president Milan Brglez. Bulc’s visit is in line with the announcement of the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who said that his Commission will be more “political” and that will maintain closer contacts with the member states, specially through visits in national parliaments.
Commissioner Bulc presented to Slovenian MPs the investment plan of the EC, while adding that commissioners don’t have the power to choose projects. Does the National Assembly have it? Which is the role of national parliaments in the EU? Do they act directly towards the EU or they act through the national governments? What can we expect from more frequent visits of the Slovenian and other commissioners in the National Assembly? This post will answer to these questions.
Based on the Treaty of Lisbon (articles 5(3)(2) and 12(a)(b) of the Treaty of the EU and Protocols 1 and 2), the national parliaments in the EU legislative process have a supervision role, to ensure the respect of the principle of subsidiarity in the legislative drafts. Briefly this means that they can issue a so-called reasoned opinion within 8 weeks after they have received the Commission’s proposal in which they inform the Commission that, in their opinion, the EC exceeded its powers and entered in the field of competence of the national parliaments.
This right was introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon. In the procedure each parliament has two votes, that are allocated to the upper and lower house (in the Slovenian case the National Assembly has both votes). If one third of national parliaments send a reasoned opinion the Commission has to explain if it will continue with the procedure of not. In this case the draft receives a “yellow flag”. If more than a half of the national parliaments raises concerns, an “orange flag” is given, which means that if the Commission decides to proceed, the Council and the EP can block the procedure.
In the first five years after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the parliaments adopted two “yellow flags”. In the first case (Proposal for a regulation on the exercise of the right to take collective action within the context of the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services – COM(2012)130) the Commission decided to stop the procedure. In the second proposal it decided to continue with it. The Slovenian National Assembly used its “veto” power in the second case (Proposal for a regulation on the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office – COM(2013)534).
If we consider the 5 year period, when 658 legislative proposals were adopted, the role of national parliaments seems almost insignificant. But what can national parliaments do if a proposal clearly falls under the EC competence and they just want to give an opinion? What can they do if they want to give their opinion on a part or on the whole proposal and to present to the EC, for example, how would they solve the situation on the national level or to point out that the proposal could cause some problems? In fact this should be a task for the national governments in the Council to enforce national interests. However, within the so-called “political dialogue” with national parliaments, the previous Commission has already encouraged national parliaments to participate in a thematic dialogue. The visits of the commissioners are therefore a continuation of this habit started by the previous Commission and the visits of the commissioners need to be seen as part of a strategic dialogue. The contacts between the Commission and the democratically elected national representatives in national parliaments should be seen in a broader context of a much-needed legitimization of the Union in the eyes of its citizens. Such contacts represent also a mode how to regularly present the EC and its work to the citizens.
As the government represents the interests of the country within the Council, the main question is, how the legislative and executive branch work together. The organisation of this collaboration is left to the States. In some cases this collaboration is closer (like in Nordic countries), while in others the executive branch has more freedom (like in the old/founding countries that formed the collaboration as it is done in the foreign policy field).
The role of the Slovenian National Assembly is regulated by the Slovenian Constitution (article 3a(4)) and the Act on Cooperation between the National Assembly and the Government in EU Affairs. The Assembly’s rules of procedure (article 154) regulate the work of the Assembly in the field of EU Affairs. The Slovenian system falls among those where the government has to closely collaborate with the legislative branch, as the government within the Council represents the Slovenian position, which is adopted by the National Assembly (formally by the Committee on EU Affairs). This means that the government has to present to the EU Affairs committee and the other responsible committees its view on the Commission’s (or in some cases on other proposer’s) proposal. The government has to do this within a couple of weeks after it receives the proposal. The EU Affairs committee debates on the government position and votes on the amendments prepared by itself and the other involved committees and in the end it adopts the position of the Republic of Slovenia, that the government has to represent within the Council. Due to the development of the negotiations within the Council or between the Council and the EP, the Slovenian position needs to be reviewed and therefore the government has to prepare a new one that needs to be approved by the EU Affairs committee.
This role of the National Assembly in the field of EU affairs is without any doubt the most specific. However, it is neither the only one nor the most time consuming and largest. Before every of the nearly 70 Council meetings held each year, the ministers have to present to the EU Affairs committee the position that they will represent. The committee adopts guidelines for the work of the government, who has to report about its activities (mainly in written). The Friday meetings of the Committee are usually filled with the presentation of the ministers that will attend a meeting in Brussels. The only exception is the foreign affairs minister, as the competent body for the questions dealing with the common foreign and security policy is the committee on Foreign Affairs. To the meetings of the committees are invited also the Slovenian MEPs.
What is therefore the influence that the National Assembly has regarding the choice of projects of the EU investment plan? As this is not a legislative topic, nor a debate within the Council, the influence of the National Assembly falls under the other two collaboration options. The government can present and request the Assembly for an opinion that falls within any of its competences and the Assembly can itself debate on any topic connected to the EU where also the government representatives can attend. The National Assembly has in the previous mandate started to use this power, specially before and after every European Council.
The national parliaments, and therefore the Slovenian National Assembly, are not among the direct decision makers in EU affairs. Directly on the EU level they have limited possibilities. However, in the Slovenian case, the National Assembly has a bigger responsibility on the national level as it shapes the positions that the government has to represent in the Council and during ministerial meetings and has also the right to give its opinion on any EU related topic. To use this responsibility there have to be appropriate sources, expert support and, nonetheless, the interest of the MPs into EU Affairs. Regular visits of Ms Bulc (and also of MEPs) to the meetings of the EU Affairs committee can contribute specially to the greater interest of the latter.
About the author
Sabina Lange (PhD) is a lecturer at the European Institute of Public Administration in Maastricht and an external collaborator of the Centre for international relations of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Ljubljana. She is the author of the chapter on the role of the Slovenian National Assembly and National Council in the Palgrave Handbook on National Parliaments in the European Union, Palgrave Macmillan (edited by Hefftler, Claudia / Christine Neuhold / Olivier Rozenberg / Julie Smith / Wolfgang Wessels, 2014).