European Commission: National Parliaments

Part of Deregulation Bill (Programme) (No.3) – in the House of Commons at 5:03 pm on 10th March 2015.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 5:03 pm, 10th March 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
takes note of European Union Documents No. 12425/14, the 2013 Annual Report from the Commission on relations between the Commission and national parliaments, and No. 12424/14, the 2013 Annual Report from the Commission on subsidiarity and proportionality;
recognises the importance of the principle of subsidiarity and the value of stronger interaction between national parliaments and the EU Institutions;
deplores the failure of the outgoing Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship to respond to national parliaments’ concerns about the proposal to establish a European Public Prosecutors Office;
looks forward to the European Commission responding to the call of national parliaments and the European Council to strengthen national parliaments’ role in improving EU legislation;
and welcomes the Government’s commitment to increasing the power of national parliaments in EU decision-making by strengthening and, where possible, enhancing current provisions.

The motion stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who sadly cannot be with us because he is currently giving evidence before a Committee in the House of Lords. If he is unable to join us later, I will ensure that he is updated on the points raised.

Today’s debate relates to two European Commission annual reports for 2013—one on the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and the other on the EU’s relations with national Parliaments. The question of subsidiarity and proportionality goes to the heart of the debate that national Governments and Parliaments around Europe are having on reform of the EU. They are fundamental principles that govern whether the EU should act, and if so, how.

Evidence provided to the Government’s recently concluded balance of competences review found that the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality had not been sufficiently rigorously applied and that that had contributed to undermining the EU’s legitimacy. Where these principles are not rigorously applied, it can also cost British business billions. Let me provide one example from the balance of competences review. The CBI assessed in its evidence that the prescriptive requirements of the agency workers directive undermined subsidiarity and cost UK employers £1.9 billion a year, largely in compliance costs and red tape. These concerns need to be addressed, and it is incumbent on all EU institutions to make sure that the treaty-based principles are applied across all aspects of EU business and throughout the legislative process.

In that respect, I welcome the early signs from the new Commission that it is going to take subsidiarity and proportionality more seriously. First, Vice-President Timmermans, who was here last week, has a strong and explicit mandate to promote a new partnership with national Parliaments. During his visit, Mr Timmermans said that national Parliaments should be at the heart of the debate on democratic legitimacy, as a bridge between the EU and its citizens. So there should be no repeat of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office yellow card debacle, which neglected the legitimate concerns of national Parliaments. Mr Timmermans has the overarching power to veto any proposals that do not meet the requirements of subsidiarity and proportionality. That means a mandate to say no to other Commissioners, to say no to the European Parliament and to say no to outside lobbyists. I take heart from the fact that we have in this powerful new role somebody who has previously gone on the record to say that the guiding principle should be:

“Europe where necessary, but national where possible”.

The EU must follow this principle to begin to address the public disaffection in so many member states, in part derived from a sense that the EU has intervened in matters better dealt with by member states themselves.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said in this House only yesterday, the Government are encouraged that the new Commission work programme has jobs and growth at its core, but the real test will be whether the Commission delivers on the early, promising signs and puts subsidiarity, proportionality and better regulation at the very heart of its work.

The reports for debate today focus on the mechanisms available to national Parliaments to update the subsidiarity principle through the so-called yellow card mechanism and to influence Commission proposals through political dialogue. In 2013, national Parliaments submitted 88 reasoned opinions to the Commission, covering 36 different proposals. That represented an increase from 2012, when 70 reasoned opinions were issued, but the overall number remains low, and the Government are concerned about the reasons for that. We do not believe that it is because there are few subsidiarity concerns.

Year after year, most reasoned opinions have come from the same few parliamentary chambers, with the Swedish Riksdag being the consistent front-runner. Some parliamentary chambers have issued very few, or indeed none at all. Here, the record is that in 2013 the House of Commons issued five reasoned opinions and the House of Lords three. I agree with those who argue that the existing mechanisms laid down in the Lisbon treaty do not work well enough or go far enough, but I note that the disparity in the number of reasoned opinions submitted by different national Parliaments is striking, and I hope that all national Parliaments, both individually and through COSAC, reflect on whether there is more that they can do to make full use of their existing powers.

There are, as I have said, flaws in the system. The tight time limit of eight weeks from transmission of a proposal to issuing a reasoned opinion is difficult, and it does not allow sufficient time for national Parliaments to share information with each other, which we all know is crucial to delivering a yellow card. The scope and threshold of reasoned opinions required to trigger a yellow card are also factors. Parliaments should have explicit powers to issue reasoned opinions on more than just subsidiarity. The mechanism should be explicitly extended to proportionality, for example. Normally, a yellow card is triggered when reasoned opinions represent at least a third of national Parliaments, which means 19 votes. This threshold is clearly too high.

How, then, do we change the process? The Commission's response to the yellow card on the EPPO—the second ever—was unacceptable. It decided quickly, without additional evidence and despite Parliaments’ concerns, to proceed with the original proposal. Along with a number of Ministers from other countries, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe—who I am pleased to see in the Chamber—protested strongly to the Commission at the subsequent meeting of the General Affairs Council. As the Government have argued before, we believe that the EPPO controversy makes a case for the introduction of a red card, which would allow national Parliaments to come together to block an unwanted proposal permanently.

I welcome the initiatives that have been launched by national Parliaments across the EU which are pressing for a stronger role. Twenty-nine parliamentary committees from 22 member states have written to the President of the Commission calling for the establishment of a working group to consider a strengthening of their role, and Parliaments have produced many good ideas that the Government support. They include enhanced political dialogue with the Commission, the introduction of a green card allowing Parliaments to work together to recommend to the Commission either new legislation or the amendment or repeal of existing legislation, and a Dutch initiative for a late card, which would allow Parliaments to look at a proposal again at the end of the legislative process.

We will continue to press for those reforms, and, working with Parliament, will hold the new Commission to its promises.