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Giving more voice to national legislatures will not enhance the EU’s legitimacy

Posted by hkarner - 25. Juli 2016

Date: 24-07-2016
Source: The Economist: Charlemagne
Subject: Parliament plot

IN FOOTBALL two yellow cards are enough to get a player sent off. But in the European Union three may pass with nary a word. Under the EU’s “yellow card” system, if one-third of the union’s national parliaments think that a proposed law tampers with matters better handled nationally, they can force the European Commission to reconsider it. Before this year parliaments had issued two yellow cards, once against a law limiting workers’ right to strike and once against establishing an EU-wide prosecutor’s office. The commission rejected the card both times (though it withdrew the strike law for other reasons).

This week the commission made it a hat-trick. In March, ten central and eastern European countries (plus Denmark) yellow-carded a directive that would force firms that post employees to work in other EU countries to match local pay and conditions, rather than simply paying the minimum wage. The easterners said this undermined their ability to set wages themselves, and would kill jobs. But on July 20th Marianne Thyssen, the employment commissioner, said the directive would remain unchanged. The easterners, already annoyed off with the commission over its plans to redistribute refugees around the EU, are now fuming.

So are some who want a greater EU role for national parliaments. For in the aftermath of Brexit the EU is undergoing one of its periodic fits of soul-searching. Whatever popular legitimacy is, the EU plainly lacks it. The European Parliament has utterly failed to capture the imagination of European voters. Turnout for its elections has steadily decreased even as it has accrued powers. And it is far too cosy with the commission it supposedly holds to account. National parliaments are reckoned to have a greater feel for the weft and warp of citizens’ political preferences. Perhaps one remedy for Euro-blues is to hand them more influence.

David Cameron thought so. In the renegotiation of Britain’s EU status that preceded his doomed referendum, the former prime minister won agreement for a “red card” procedure under which groups of parliaments could block legislative proposals. Research suggested the procedure would rarely, if ever, be used, and some analysts mused that vetoes were a rather blunt way of involving parliaments (under EU rules governments may already stop laws in their tracks). We will never know; Mr Cameron’s deal died with his premiership when Britain elected to leave the EU.

Does the raspberry the commission has blown at the latest yellow card suggest that the whole enterprise is pointless? Perhaps. But Ms Thyssen had no easy option. Several western European states, notably France, were hopping mad at the easterners for posting lower-paid workers to their countries, even though such employees represent just 0.7% of the EU labour force. These days such thinking holds sway in a commission fretful about the rise of anti-globalisation populists, like Marine Le Pen in France. “We have to act according to the general interest of Europe,” says Pierre Moscovici, the (French) economics commissioner. “If you have total freedom for posted workers, you’re dead.”

In any case, the national parliaments have just won their biggest battle yet. Earlier this month the commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, bowed to trade-wary governments and agreed to send a mooted EU-Canada deal to national parliaments for approval, even though lawyers had said ratification could be limited to the European Parliament. That could delay or even scupper the agreement. And it sets a precedent which could be bad news for TTIP, an EU-America deal that leftist MPs in countries like Germany and Austria have built careers opposing. A future Britain-EU agreement might face the same fate.

It is easy to romanticise national parliaments. But they also suffer from the distrust of political elites that is spreading across the democratic world. The Eurobarometer survey consistently finds that European citizens trust the EU more than their own parliaments (by 40% to 31%, in 2015). This helps explain Europe’s mania for referendums, which pose a greater threat to parliaments than anything the EU may do. One irony of the Brexit vote is that it was held to safeguard British parliamentary sovereignty, but the majority of MPs would have voted to remain in the EU.

No doubt legislatures could do a better job of examining their governments’ EU positions. Many national MPs need a crash course in the procedures of the EU, and could start by paying more attention to what their party colleagues do in the European Parliament. The British House of Lords, perhaps surprisingly, is sometimes held up as a model of EU expertise and scrutiny. Nordic parliaments do a good job of telling their ministers what deals they are allowed to make in Brussels, though this does not seem to have made their voters any less Eurosceptical.

Make parliaments great again
The real test comes when the EU interferes in matters that parliaments care about—euro-zone bail-outs, for example, which are funded from the national treasuries which parliaments oversee. Each Bundestag vote on Greece is monitored closely across the EU; never before have so many non-Germans known so much about the views of deputies from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In 2011 all Europe held its breath as 150 Slovak MPs debated whether to support a euro-zone fund. As leaders negotiating late-night deals in Brussels well know, parliaments can insert themselves effectively into European debates when they care to.

The question is what this actually accomplishes for the EU. When the Bundestag demands tough bail-out terms for Greece, Germans may feel empowered—but Greeks feel trapped. Prescriptive agreements imposed on bailed-out countries do more to damage the EU’s legitimacy than any yellow cards can remedy. It is unclear why a Europe of feuding parliaments will be more popular or harmonious than the current one. Expect to hear more about the role of parliaments as the EU desperately seeks new sources of legitimacy. Do not expect it to help much.

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