Not in front of the MPs: Why can’t Parliament have a frank discussion about the EU?

15 April 2015

Britain’s Parliament does a poor job of examining EU business. Some simple reforms would improve the way that it scrutinises European legislation.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, wants to make the EU more democratic. National parliamentarians, in his view, understand citizens’ concerns better than MEPs who deliberate in far-away Brussels and Strasbourg; national parliaments should therefore play a greater role in EU decision-making. However, Cameron’s argument would carry more weight if UK parliamentary scrutiny were improved.

The European scrutiny committee of the House of Commons recently questioned whether Cameron means what he says about involving Parliament more in EU law-making. This committee examines EU documents and the British position on them. So if it says the government is not serious about giving Parliament a bigger role in EU affairs, its views deserve attention.

The rule in Britain is that, with a few exceptions (set out in a parliamentary resolution), the government does not agree to any EU proposal until Parliament has expressed a view through the scrutiny process. Each year the European scrutiny committee sifts around 1000-1100 EU documents, including both European Commission legislative proposals and non-legislative texts (such as Commission consultation papers). The committee can either clear them from scrutiny or ask ministers for further explanations.

Whenever the scrutiny committee considers the documents “politically or legally important” it can request a debate on them on the floor of the house, or in one of the Commons’ three EU committees. Each of these committees is responsible for a range of topics; for example, ‘EU Committee A’ deals among other things with energy, climate and environment, food and rural affairs. The three committees do not have a permanent membership. The committee of selection nominates MPs to serve on these committees whenever debates are requested.

In the March 2015 follow-up report to its own 2013 inquiry into the system of scrutinising EU affairs in Parliament, the European scrutiny committee criticised the coalition government for failing to pursue a fruitful dialogue with MPs over European policy. The committee complained that its requests for debates with ministerial participation had fallen on deaf ears in Downing Street.

Six of the plenary debates the committee requested in the current Parliament – just dissolved, pending May’s general election – have not been held. One of the unfulfilled requests was for a debate on the freedom of movement of EU citizens – a central issue in British politics and the general election.

The government’s response to the committee’s criticism has been to argue that few MPs are interested in the EU. William Hague, the Leader of the House (the minister responsible for arranging the government’s business in Parliament), told the committee in February 2015 that the only parliamentarians to request EU debates were members of the scrutiny committee. In other evidence to the committee’s inquiry, the government pointed out that on one occasion, an EU committee meeting on EU law-enforcement co-operation lasted only 13 minutes, because it attracted so little interest among MPs. Only one of the 13 MPs who attended the meeting put a question to the minister present.

Hague has a point. However many debates are scheduled, Parliament can only hold the executive to account if MPs understand the issues. But most MPs have neither the time nor the inclination to learn how the EU works. The EU is seen as too technical and complicated, and many MPs doubt whether voters would reward them for understanding its mechanics. In the 2014-2015 parliamentary session, the scrutiny committee’s overall attendance rate was 48.7 per cent. Julie Elliott, a Labour MP who was shadow energy minister in the last parliament, Linda Riordan MP (Labour) and Stephen Gilbert MP (Liberal Democrat) did not turn up for a single meeting.

Even if all the members of the scrutiny committee had a 100 per cent attendance record, they would need help from other committees to do their job effectively. This is not always forthcoming. To support the scrutiny process, the committee can request an opinion from a departmental select committee, but the latter is not obliged to provide one. Some select committees, like the home affairs and justice committees help, but others are less inclined to do so.

The overall level of knowledge about the EU could improve if the House of Commons spread EU business more equally among MPs. The lower house of the Dutch parliament, for instance, has a decentralised system in which sectoral committees are responsible for scrutiny of documents in their areas of responsibility. But asking Commons’ committees, which already have a full agenda, to take on extra responsibilities for EU scrutiny would not necessarily improve the current situation: committees could well prioritise domestic issues over EU business. The House of Commons should rather take a step-by-step approach which would give MPs time to learn on the job. The European scrutiny committee sensibly suggested that each of the departmental select committees appoint a European rapporteur. The justice committee and the business, innovation and skills committee, which have already nominated such rapporteurs, could serve as an example to others. European rapporteurs could serve as contact points for the chair of the scrutiny committee. They would also ensure that whenever the European scrutiny committee requested an opinion from a select committee on an EU document, it would get an answer. In the next parliament, all departmental select committees should appoint at least one European rapporteur.

MPs should talk to their colleagues in the House of Lords more often. There is a wide gap between MPs and members of the House of Lords in terms of their interest and expertise in European affairs. Peers who sit on the EU select committee and its six sub-committees (jointly referred to as the House of Lords EU committee) often have a better understanding of the EU than their Commons counterparts. Some, like Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (the chair of the CER’s board), worked for the British government and participated in formulating its European policy; other peers worked in the European Commission or served as MEPs. Without the constituency responsibilities of MPs, peers have more time to conduct in-depth inquiries into the EU and British policy on it.

Today, MPs and peers rarely exchange views on the EU. Nor do they co-ordinate their positions on Commission proposals. Since 2006, national parliaments have been able to provide the Commission with direct feedback on its new proposals and consultation papers. After pro-Europeans lost referendums in the Netherlands and France on ratifying the EU constitutional treaty in 2005, the European Commission realised that it needed a dialogue with national parliaments on EU business; it hoped that this would narrow the gap between national and European politics. The House of Lords has grasped the opportunity but the House of Commons has been reluctant to engage in such a dialogue with the Commission. Since December 2009, after the Lisbon treaty entered into force, parliaments have also been able to object to the Commission’s legislative proposals when they think that member-states can better tackle the subject matter themselves (the so-called subsidiarity principle). The House of Commons makes use of this procedure more enthusiastically than the House of Lords: in the years 2012 and 2013 the House of Commons questioned eight of the Commission’s proposals on subsidiarity grounds; in the same period the House of Lords raised objections to only four of them. This lack of co-ordination between the houses weakens Westminster’s ability to get the Commission to take on board British concerns.

MPs and peers should establish a joint committee on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU, to provide parliamentary oversight in the event of a future government trying to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership. There are precedents, in the joint committees on human rights and on national security strategy. Such a committee should not replace the existing European scrutiny committee in the Commons or the EU committee in the Lords but rather complement their work. Normal EU business would carry on, despite the government’s efforts to renegotiate the terms of British membership. A joint committee could help to ensure that parliamentarians in both houses were equally well-informed and could contribute fully to a discussion of the UK’s relationship with Europe.

British parliamentarians should make better use of the experience of their colleagues in the European Parliament. The UK national parliament office in Brussels organises joint meetings for MPs, peers and British MEPs twice a year. This is not often enough to support effective co-operation on European affairs. In the German Bundestag and the Polish Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament), MEPs can participate in meetings of the EU affairs committees. But in the House of Commons only MPs can take part and speak in the scrutiny committee or on the floor of the house; MEPs can only contribute if the scrutiny committee invites them to give evidence as part of an inquiry. It would therefore be difficult to copy German or Polish practice in the UK. Individual MPs, however, should make more use of their party channels to make contact with British MEPs. MEPs could help them to understand the legislative process in Brussels, and in particular in the policy areas that the British care the most about.

Parliamentarians can do a lot to help themselves, but there also are things the British government should do to facilitate Parliament’s knowledge of and interest in EU affairs. The scrutiny committee sensibly proposed that the incoming prime minister allocate sufficient time for debates in the Commons on EU matters, within a month of a request from the committee. MPs also complained that the government refused to circulate to Parliament classified or sensitive EU documents which were relevant to the scrutiny process. The new government could organise informal briefings for MPs from the scrutiny committee and peers from the EU committee on sensitive topics. The government has held such briefings on EU proposals for international sanctions, but only for peers. Briefings should take place on so-called Privy Council terms, whereby parliamentarians promise not to reveal what they learn during the meetings.

The new government should also reinstate regular Commons debates on European Council meetings, before they take place. These were abandoned in 2010 after the Conservative-led government took office. David Cameron has usually reported back to the Commons after EU summits. If the British government wishes to renegotiate the terms of UK membership, it will be up to the European Council to decide whether to consider its proposals for reform, or not. MPs should be able to discuss this process and provide their own input before each summit.

Rather than blaming each other for Parliament’s ineffective contribution to EU policy, MPs and ministers should accept that improving parliamentary scrutiny of EU affairs requires a joint effort. MPs need to be better prepared for discussions on the UK’s approach to the EU. Any British proposal for national parliaments to have a stronger voice in the EU will be more credible if the prime minister of the day is prepared to discuss EU business more openly in Westminster.

Agata Gostyńska is a research fellow at the Centre for European reform. This insight is part of on-going research supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.