The EU's 'yellow card' comes of age: Subsidiarity unbound?

Hugo Brady
12 November 2013

EU law-making is undergoing a profound change in an oddly-shaped annex to the European Parliament building in Brussels. Here, officials working on behalf of 28 national parliaments are helping their members flag up draft EU laws that may fail to respect ‘subsidiarity’. That is the idea that the Union should act only when strictly necessary, and that the national governments should act where possible. The 2009 Lisbon treaty gave national parliaments the right to police subsidiarity through the creation of a so-called 'yellow card' system. This allows a third or more of them, acting together, to vet and temporarily block draft laws proposed by the European Commission. (For legislation in the sensitive area of justice and home affairs, the threshold is only a quarter.)

Each parliament has two votes, or one per chamber for the 13 member-states that have bicameral systems. Each chamber that votes for a yellow card provides a 'reasoned opinion' why the EU law in question is an unwarranted trespass on their sovereignty. A yellow card requires 19 reasoned opinions (14 for a piece of justice legislation). The Commission can get around a yellow card by giving clearer justifications for its actions and proposing the law again, perhaps with some changes or caveats added. But if it does, half the national parliaments can still block the second attempt, rather than just a third the first time around. This is the unwieldy 'orange card' (29 reasoned opinions). At this point, if either a majority of governments or MEPs agrees that the orange card is justified, then the legislation is defeated outright.

National parliaments have yellow-carded new legislation only twice. The first occasion was last year when they rejected the adoption of common EU rules on the right to strike (known as 'Monti II'). But last month, parliaments in Britain, Cyprus, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Romania, as well as the French and Czech senates, rejected a proposal by the European Commission to create an EU prosecution office. (See here for a fuller analysis of the stakes in the European public prosecutor debate.) National parliamentarians' deliberate blocking of a project that has a distinctly federalist flavour marks their arrival as serious players in how the Union is governed. Why?

First, because the Commission has so far treated a yellow card as a virtual veto. In 2012, EU officials withdrew Monti II, albeit while insisting that the legislation did not fall foul of the subsidiarity principle. European Commissioners have even amended draft legislation pre-emptively, such as the 2012 directive on public procurement and another (the IORP directive) on pensions, just to ward off a likely yellow card from national parliaments.

Second, most national parliaments have long had their own offices in Brussels. But the existence of the yellow card regime since 2009 has made this network of offices – cooped up in their shared corridor – more coherent by giving it a common purpose. These officials are getting better at using the brief two-month period allowed for assessing draft legislation to connect the debates in their home parliaments to each other, and to the EU's legislative process. So it is likely that yellow cards will become more frequent in future.

Third, the yellow card scheme is making national parliamentarians more assertive on EU issues. Apparent attempts by Commission officials to pressure wavering parliaments over their EU prosecutor proposal only served to turn more chambers against the idea. And now, one national parliament, or even a single chamber, has a powerful means to signal that they do not fully agree with their own government's European policy. For example, France's government, and its National Assembly, supports the creation of the proposed EU prosecutor. The French Senate clearly has a different take. (The powers of such chambers over EU business could become pivotal if a member-state has a minority government.)

Hence the yellow card innovation is encouraging governments to be more careful about consulting national parliamentarians first – including the frequently ignored upper chambers – before striking deals in Brussels. It may even make the lines of democratic accountability within individual member-states stronger than they were before the Lisbon treaty. And the scheme should demonstrate to eurosceptics in Britain and elsewhere that the checks on EU executive power provided for under the Lisbon treaty are far better than they would perhaps like to believe.

The spectacle of national parliaments acting in concert to limit EU action is aptly symbolic at a time when euroscepticism is rising to unprecedented levels across the Union. But it is more likely that the yellow card system will act as a safety valve for such pressures, rather than a US-style filibuster for those who would like to stymie the EU altogether. Governments could also make a minor, surgical change to the treaties to expand the procedure so that it can be more constructive. For example, new rules could allow a third of national parliaments to request the Commission to bring forward new laws and a half of them could ask for useless or out-of-date legislation to be repealed. Furthermore, eight weeks is only a heartbeat in European politics. The amount of time available for parliaments to consider the Commission's draft proposals should be extended to twelve weeks. (These ideas were recently proposed in a major CER report.)

Twenty years ago, Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission, jokingly offered a €200,000 prize for a clear definition of what 'subsidiarity', a concept drawn from Catholic theology, actually meant. Lord Mackenzie-Stuart, a former British president of the European Court of Justice, later termed it mere “gobbledygook”. But the actual answer is neither theological nor legalistic. It is being eked out politically, on a case-by-case basis, as some 40 parliamentary chambers across Europe slowly learn how to form alliances, determine what their shared interests are, and – when warranted – take action vis-à-vis Brussels.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow & Brussels representative of the Centre for European Reform.