Europe needs a democratic and efficient legislative process

A Federal Union paper for the European constitutional convention

The European Parliament should have co-decision making powers on all legislation and the budget

The Council should meet as an assembly, not as a committee, and vote by majority

Each Council should elect an individual to act as permanent chair for a 2½ year period

Introduction

1. The European Union is a unique and pioneering international system. It has a mixture of intergovernmental and supranational features, set up after the second world war to establish a shared democracy amongst the countries of Europe. This was to replace the secret diplomacy that had failed so dramatically in the recent past.

2. As time has passed since then, the EU has acquired new powers and attracted new member states, and the diplomatic methods of decision-making (secrecy, unanimity) have slowly been replaced by democratic ones (openness, majority voting). It now needs to go further towards becoming a parliamentary democracy with a legitimate and effective means of taking and implementing decisions.

3. This paper outlines how to reform the legislative process of the EU.

4. Federal Union, on whose behalf this paper has been prepared, was founded in 1938 and campaigns for federalism for the UK, Europe and the world. It believes that democracy and the rule of law should apply to states as well as within them.

Opening up the legislative process

5. The legislative process of the European Union (or more correctly the legislative processes, for there are many of them) is slow, erratic, and unaccountable. Substantial parts of the EU budget are similarly out of reach of the democratically elected European Parliament. This needs to be changed.

6. The most successful areas of European policy – the single market, the environment – are those which have been subject to the Community method of decision-making, meaning that proposals are made by the European Commission and submitted to the European Parliament and the Council for approval. The unsuccessful areas of policy – agriculture, foreign affairs – are those where the Council has dominated decision-taking at the expense of the European Commission and European Parliament. There is a lesson to be learned here.

7. All legislative and budgetary decisions should be taken on the basis of co-decision between the European Parliament (directly elected by the citizens) and the Council (representing the member states). The Council must end its diplomatic habits of secrecy and instead adopt normal democratic decision-making procedures.

8. Legislative proposals should be published and sufficient time allowed for analysis and scrutiny – importantly, in national parliaments – before formal readings in the European Parliament and the Council. Amendments to these proposals must also be published and open to analysis and scrutiny in the same way.

9. This might sound obvious, but it is not. Too often in the Council at present, amendments arise during the meetings and there have been occasions of genuine uncertainty about what is being proposed and discussed. It acts like a committee, where the chair takes the sense of the meeting, rather than an assembly which takes decisions by casting votes. The results of a meeting might not be known for several days until the relevant civil servants have deciphered their notes and written the minutes of the meeting. This is an absurd way for a democratic decision-making body to behave. The normal methods of democracy must become the rule.

Bringing continuity to the Council

10. A weakness of the legislative process is that the chair of the Council changes every six months. Member states take it in turns to chair the Council and set themselves grand targets and objectives in an attempt to boost their international prestige and appeal to their voters at home. These attempts to set the agenda are always futile. The EU lurches from one priority to another without adequate preparation or follow-up, and badly thought-out legislation is rushed through in the dying days of the six month period so that each national presidency can claim some successes. This good neither for the EU nor for its citizens.

11. The rotating presidency is a perfect example of the diplomatic heritage of the EU. Every member state has an equal share in the system and no hard decisions have to be taken. It is now time to move to a democratic system of chairing the Council.

12. The key to this lies in unpacking what is meant by the term “presidency”. It consists of three tasks:

– providing political leadership for the Union as a whole;

– chairing the Council sessions, both legislative and executive;

– providing the secretariat for the Council meetings themselves.

13. The first of these, providing political leadership, does not form part of the legislative process. It is considered in a separate paper from Federal Union.

14. The third of these can better be done by a dedicated full-time secretariat in Brussels. It already exists in embryo: it simply needs to be staffed properly. The wholesale diversion of national civil servants that is required at present whenever a member state assumes the presidency has a debilitating effect on the conduct of the normal business of national government, particularly in small member states. It is time to end this process and professionalise the administration of the Council.

15. If we approach the concept of the presidency by breaking it down into its constituent parts, we are then left with the task of chairing the Council sessions. Bearing in mind that there is not one but in fact several different Councils, each covering a different area of policy, the solution is straightforward. Each Council should elect its own chair – a person, not a member state – to serve for a 2½ year term, the same timetable as that followed by the European Parliament. The person elected to chair each Council will no doubt be a senior and experienced politician in that particular field, whether agriculture, economics or whatever, and would be a very significant figure in the development of European Union policy on that issue.

16. The absurdity of the six month changeover would be ended and replaced by continuity and expertise. Democracy would have replaced diplomacy.

Majority voting in the Council

17. A European Union with 25 or more member states will grind to a halt if national vetoes are still cast. Bear in mind that the effect of a veto might apply not only to issues formally settled by unanimity but might also extend to other issues: member states have been known in the past to link issues, vetoing something they would rather support in order to get their way on an issue where the veto does not otherwise apply. The only way to ensure that the EU is not affected by this gridlock is to make majority voting in the Council the general rule.

18. The fact that the member states are of such different sizes – Germany has 200 times the population of Luxembourg – makes finding an acceptable balance between them difficult. The negotiations leading up to the Nice summit showed how tortuous it could be: only five per cent of the total votes were redistributed as a result. Furthermore, there is no provision for the accession of future member states or changes in the structure of existing ones (for example, the possible break-up of Belgium or independence for Catalonia or Scotland).

19. A system of double majority voting solves all this. A majority in the Council would be composed of a majority of member states representing a majority of the EU’s population. The interests of both big and small member states are protected, and an unambiguous principle is established for the future.

Dispelling Euroscepticism

20. With the introduction of the single market programme in the 1980s, decisions taken in the European Union suddenly became much more relevant to citizens than they had ever been before. However, the sudden increase in the reach of the European Union was not matched by an equivalent development of democracy in the decision-making process itself.

21. Euroscepticism (in its true sense of genuine doubt about the European Union rather than committed and ideological opposition to it) grew as a result. Subsequent moves towards a more open system of decision-making, with more powers to be exercised by the directly-elected European Parliament, have been grudging. Now is the time for the European Constitutional Convention finally to settle the question.

Conclusion

22. The inefficient, opaque and unaccountable legislative process is one of the main reasons why the European Union is unpopular. Opening up that process – generalising co-decision powers for the European Parliament and transforming the Council from a committee into an assembly – will restore public confidence in the EU and the decisions that it takes.

March 2003

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