Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs. Sajjad Karim is an MEP for North West England and was a Parliamentary Rapporteur on Subsidiarity & Proportionality from 2011-2014.
We all know that the European Union is too big and too bossy, and too often taking decisions about some things that it shouldn’t. It is our view that an enhanced role for national parliaments, as set out by the Prime Minister in his recent letter to Donald Tusk last month, is an important and achievable aim for renegotiation.
Here in the European Parliament, we are increasingly aware that there is growing support across the EU for ensuring that decisions are taken at the right level – whether at a European, national or local level.
The existing “Yellow Card” system for national parliaments sends a warning message to the Commission if 18 national chambers object within eight weeks to an EU legislative proposal. It must then be sent back to the Commission for review.
Last week, Open Europe published a report suggesting that the existing powers for national parliaments are not enough: we agree, as do many of our colleagues in the Parliament. In Saj’s annual subsidiarity report, adopted by the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in October, the Parliament signalled its support for the five ideas in the Open Europe report:
1) A threshold low enough realistically to be attained
Only twice has the threshold of 18 national chambers objections been achieved and a yellow card triggered. It is our view, and that of the Legal Affairs Committee, that if a “card” had more power and was accompanied by more communication between institutions, national parliaments would see more value in using it.
2) Binding on the Commission
On those two occasions, the Commission response was disappointing and dismissed the concerns of the national chambers – that is no way to engender trust in the legislative process. The warning message from parliaments should formally lead to the proposed legislation being halted.
3) More time to scrutinise proposals
It is a common complaint that national parliaments do not get the time needed to properly consider the Commission’s submission, let alone coordinate a ‘card’. Doubling the scrutiny period to 16 weeks would allow sufficient time to object on the grounds of an incorrect legal base (such as the working time directive which despite being obviously employment legislation is under a health and safety legal basis) and prevent ‘competence creep’.
4) Broaden scope for objections.
The EU has two principles that determine to what extent it can exercise the competences conferred upon it: the principle of subsidiarity (decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen) and that of proportionality (action limited to what is necessary to achieve the objective). It does not seem at all logical that national parliaments only scrutinise one of the two principles – subsidiarity. There is support for broadening the scope of national parliaments’ scrutiny to include issues of proportionality, as evidenced in Saj’s report.
5) Apply to existing legislation.
The current Commission’s ‘REFIT’ programme, to review existing legislation, is a step in the right direction to lighten the load on business and the citizen. A proposal in our subsidiary report includes a ‘green card’ for national parliaments to suggest legislative proposals. This could also be used to suggest a review of existing legislation.
We also think that there should be a further recommendation: the cards should also apply at the end of the legislative process. After legislation has been through the Council and the Parliament, and amended from both left and right, it can look very different to that originally proposed by the Commission. We think that it should be checked again once it has been through the entire legislative cycle.
It is important that enhancing powers for national parliaments is not seen as a veto, which it absolutely isn’t. The card system is designed for groups of parliaments. If it were able to be used by just one member state, it could excessively hinder the legislative process. This would cause market uncertainty and could undermine the value of a common single market.
The Prime Minister has suggested a reform that will not only help Britain but the entire European Union. The idea of an enhanced role for national parliaments has wide support, including in the European Parliament. As suggested in the Open Europe report and in Saj’s report, there are a number of ways in which this reform can be done – now is the time to be ambitious and make sure that the oft-quoted Dutch ambition: “Europe where necessary, national where possible”, is a reality for the entire European Union.