Demonstrating Democracy

by Shane Fitzgerald

How to empower national parliaments for European democracy. 

In March 2009, the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) adopted a report (subsequently adopted by the European Parliament) on the development of relations between the European Parliament and national parliaments under the Lisbon Treaty. The report proposed “new forms of pre- and post-legislative dialogue” and advocated strengthening the network of meetings between corresponding committees of the European Parliament and national parliaments. The report also urged innovations such as encouraging MEPs to address national parliamentarians and to participate in the meetings of European affairs committees. The Oireachtas has already begun to respond to this report, for example by allowing for the attendance of Irish MEPs at the Joint Committee on European Affairs.

The importance of exchanging EU information among parliaments is already recognised. In order to facilitate the flow of this information, national parliaments, in cooperation with the European Parliament, have created their own database and website at Meanwhile, the Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC), a gathering of EU affairs committees that includes representatives of the European Parliament, plays an important role in coordinating committee work and promoting best practice (representatives of candidate and acceding countries are also invited to participate). In addition, the Speakers of Parliament of all EU member states meet each year (in Paris in 2009 and Stockholm in 2010) in order to discuss their work in the European context. The Swedish Presidency of the European Union has called an extra conference this year specifically to discuss the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty with regard to how national parliaments can better cooperate with each other and with the European institutions.

Making the EU more accountable to national parliaments is one of the best ways to counter the perceived democratic deficit between the Union and its citizens. At a meeting of the Irish Joint Committee on European Affairs on 15 October 2008, Dr Gavin Barrett offered his observations as to how the role of the Oireachtas in European scrutiny could be enhanced. A subsequent report of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union made a number of recommendations about how citizens’ engagement with the EU might be improved and the role of the Oireachtas made more robust. Among these was a proposal that a stronger system of legislative scrutiny be introduced. In the UK, for example, the underpinning of parliamentary scrutiny is a power known as the scrutiny reserve.

This is an undertaking by Ministers that, bar exceptional circumstances, they will not agree to anything in the Council until it has been cleared through parliament. Whenever the scrutiny reserve is over-ridden, the Minister must write immediately to the appropriate committee explaining why this was the case, and risks being brought in front of the committee for questioning.1

An alternative is the so-called mandate system, pioneered by the Danish Parliament in 1973. This puts EU affairs committees at the heart of the scrutiny process by allowing them to act on behalf of parliaments as a whole and adopt negotiating positions which are politically binding on their respective Governments.

Both of these systems are now quite common across the Union, though the form and depth of parliamentary scrutiny still varies greatly from country to country.

Representatives of the Sub-Committee have raised the issue of a formal scrutiny reserve system in Dáil debates, to which the Minister for Foreign Affairs has replied:

We will respond specifically to the idea of the formal scrutiny reserve mechanism to deal with the issue of secondary legislation and whether we agree with the establishment of an EU panel for the Seanad. The political parties, independent of the committee’s work, have put forward other ideas that have to be taken on board and considered and we are committed to doing that.

Regardless of whether or not the government decides to move towards a more formally robust system of scrutiny, there is a growing consensus, underlined by the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty,2 that vigorous parliamentary scrutiny is vital to the advancement of national interests within the EU, to the effective functioning of the Union, and ultimately to the democratic legitimacy of the European project itself.

Ireland is fully committed to all of these causes. The government would do well therefore to consider carefully the suggestions and recommendations emanating from the committees, conferences, parties and processes described above.

1. Jones, Sir Digby. 2005. “UK Parliamentary Scrutiny of EU Legislation”. London: The Foreign Policy Centre. Accessed on 4 December 2009 at:

2. Specifically Article 6 of The Protocol on the Application of the Principles of Subsidiarity and Proportionality and Article 3 of the Protocol on the Role of the National Parliaments in the European Union.