An Uneven Balance? On Power Asymmetries Between National Parliaments in the EU

Monday, May 28 2018, analysis by Hoai-thu Nguyen

De Europese Unie is zo ingericht dat alle lidstaten evenredig vertegenwoordigd zijn. Toch heeft de Eurocrisis de ongelijkheid tussen nationale parlementen in Europa vergroot. Maatregelen tegen de Eurocrisis hebben de macht van parlementen in economisch zwakke lidstaten meer aangetast dan de macht van parlementen in economisch sterke lidstaten. Om deze asymmetrie tegen te gaan moet de EU inzetten op meer interparlementaire samenwerking. Zo kan de gelijkheid tussen de lidstaten binnen de EU gewaarborgd blijven.

When the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force almost a decade ago, it was also labelled as the ‘Treaty of Parliaments’ due to its measures significantly strengthening the role of national parliaments and the position of the European Parliament in the European Union. Nowadays, national parliaments in the European Union are accorded formal powers to participate in EU affairs by both EU primary law and their respective national constitutional law. But while all national parliaments are accorded the same formal rights and obligations under EU law, the prerogatives attributed to them under their respective domestic legal framework can vary greatly. The book An Uneven Balance? A Legal Analysis of Power Asymmetries Between National Parliaments in the EU re-assesses the role of national parliaments in the EU a decade after Lisbon and provides a comprehensive analysis of how the power asymmetries that exist between them affect the state of representative democracy in the EU.

Constitutional rules and political traditions

It is shown through a comparative analysis of two different parliaments – namely the German Bundestag and the Irish Dáil – that while the constitutional rules do differ from one Member State to another, much of the difference in power when it comes to their participation in EU affairs can also be attributed to the political traditions of the respective Member State.

This is neither a surprising nor problematic finding as such. From the beginning of the European project, the concept of dual representative democracy in the EU has never been homogeneous for all Member States. The line of democratic representation that is provided by the European Parliament is arguably, and at least insofar as it is envisioned in the Treaties, the same for all Union citizens. Leaving aside some issues with the way in which the EP is elected, Article 14(2) TEU unmistakably makes it clear that the Parliament is composed of representatives of the Union’ s citizens as a whole. This strand of democratic representation in the EU does not differentiate between the citizens of the different Member States.

The second line of representation

This is different for the second line of representation, which is provided for by the national parliaments in the EU, when they hold their national governments to account for actions in the Council and the European Council. Because the conditions under which the national parliaments can scrutinize and control the latter is, and has always been, dependent on their respective constitutional framework as well as the political traditions in the Member State itself, the degree of representation for the citizens under this second strand differed, and still differs, from one Member State to the next.

This changed to a certain extent with the beginning of the European sovereign debt crisis in 2009 and with the various instruments that were adopted as a response thereto, which transferred some of the roots of such asymmetries from the national level to the European level.

An asymmetric impact

The European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (TSCG), the Six-Pack, and the Two-Pack, had an asymmetric impact on the budgetary and legislative powers of national parliaments. Whether or not a parliament saw its budgetary and legislative powers eroded depended on a number of factors, but not least on the economic strength of its constituent Member State and whether or not its Member State had adopted the common currency.

This asymmetric impact of the crisis measures on the different national parliaments further exacerbated already existing power asymmetries between them and, as a consequence, also had implications for the concept of dual democratic representation in the European Union. There exists now a gap between the extents to which different parliaments are able to represent their citizens at EU level. Thus, citizens from a Member State with a rather weak parliament could find themselves at risk of being dominated by the decisions of another Member State with a stronger parliament.

The future: Interparliamentary cooperation

Based on the foregoing analysis the book in the end illustrates and assesses different proposals on how the role of parliaments in the EU could be (re-)designed so as to mitigate the negative implications for EU representative democracy resulting from the power asymmetries between national parliaments in the EU. A recommendation is made to strengthen interparliamentary cooperation between the national parliaments in the EU. The advantage of this proposal is that it would not require a Treaty amendment as the basis for interparliamentary cooperation is already laid down in the Treaties.

Moreover, reinforced interparliamentary cooperation can be mutually beneficial to all actors involved because national parliaments can benefit from the mutual exchange of information by receiving access to information independent from the government, which would otherwise not be accessible to them. The consequent reduction of information asymmetry would facilitate parliamentary exercise of scrutiny over the executive.

This is in particular useful to weaker national parliaments, which either have been attributed little powers to participate in EU affairs under their domestic legal framework or which have seen their powers eroded by the measures adopted as a response to the Euro crisis. This is important insofar as one of the greatest problems for EU representative democracy after the crisis is that the second strand of representation, composed of the national parliaments, has been scattered to such an extent that they can be divided into first-class and second-class parliaments. By strengthening weaker parliaments through a coordination of preferences and exchange of information, this trend towards different classes of parliaments could be mitigated.

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