Monday, May 26, 2008

Dodgy bits of the Lisbon treaty: the "expanded" role of national parliaments

All posts on Lisbon

Update: I spoke to someone from the Dept of Foreign affairs on the phone this evening who confirmed my understanding. They also said that they felt the FAQ answer was not misleading, that the answers on that page were supposed to be shorter with less detail. That the detail they chose to omit renders the entire thing pointless was not an issue for them.

I keep hearing about the expanded role that national parliaments will have if Lisbon is ratified. As far as I can tell it is at best a figment of the imagination of the "yes" campaigners.

This is from the Dept of Foreign Affairs Lisbon treaty website

The Reform Treaty will give the National Parliaments of EU Member States a direct input into European legislation. All proposals for EU legislation will be sent directly to National Parliaments. The Parliaments will have the right to offer “reasoned opinions.”

If a sufficient number of National Parliaments object to a particular proposal, it can either be amended or withdrawn. This “yellow card procedure” is designed to give National Parliaments an important role in ensuring that the Union does not exceed its authority by involving itself in matters which can best be dealt with at national, regional or local level.
This "yellow card procedure" is what is focused on by "yes" campaigners as the fabulous new power that parliaments will have. It seems great, it seems like if enough parliaments get together they can stop bad legislation coming from the EU. The problem is, the circumstances under which they can stop something.

National parliaments will not be able to stop legislation that they don't like or that they think would be damaging to the EU or undemocratic or just generally a bad idea. There role is "ensuring that the Union does not exceed its authority by involving itself in matters which can best be dealt with at national, regional or local level". It's spelled out more clearly on the Referendum Commission's website

The parliaments may send a “reasoned opinion” to the EU institutions on whether draft legislation complies with the principle of subsidiarity. There is also a Protocol on subsidiarity which requires that draft legislative proposals are justified on the basis of subsidiarity and proportionality.

If enough national parliaments vote to send a reasoned opinion the draft legislation must be reviewed.


The review does not mean that the proposal must be withdrawn. If the proposer (usually, the Commission) wished to continue with the proposal, it must set out a reasoned opinion on why it considers that the principle of subsidiarity has not been breached.

According to this, parliaments can only object when a law breaches the principles of either subsidiarity (some things are better handled by the individual countries) or proportionality (any EU laws must achieve the goal of the treaties with the minimum of side-effects or restrictions on the member states). If enough parliaments feel the proposal breaks these principles then the EU must either change the proposal or explain why it thinks it's right and the parliaments are wrong. Either way, the proposal continues on, unless more 50% of parliaments objected, in which case either the European parliament or the Council of Ministers can kill it (by a majority vote). The full details of this are laid out (fairly clearly) in Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality (full treaty available in all EU languages from this page).

So basically the "expanded" role of the national parliaments is that they get to point out when the EU is doing something it's not allowed to do. I'm not sure who policed this previously, maybe it required someone to take a case to one of the European courts but basically this is a nonsense power. If you were to listen to the "yes" campaign you'd believe the parliaments would be able bounce back any laws that they don't like. This is simply not true.

While I'm at it, Lisbon gives the EU power in lots of new areas, areas which are currently under the power of national parliaments. So no matter how you slice that, Lisbon is reducing parliaments' roles in all of these areas. Giving them the ability to act as a speed bump in the very limited circumstances I've described does not change that and certainly doesn't justify their role being described as "expanded".

For completeness I should also point out that parliaments have a new veto power. Various areas currently require unanimous agreement by member states but in the future these can be changed to qualified majority if all member states agree (interestingly the reverse, going from majority to unanimity is never possible). If this ever happens, parliaments can veto it. Of course this would require the rather unlikely situation where a prime-minister agrees to switch to majority but his national parliament vote against him. Again if you consider that, before Lisbon, it was impossible for any area to change from unanimity to majority, describing this veto as an "expanded" role is nonsensical - previously this power resided with the parliaments (or in some countries with the people) so again this is actually a reduction in the parliaments power. It's a bit like if you (parliament) and your partner (prime minister) have a joint bank account and then someone (EU) says "I'm taking your name off the account and putting my name on it but don't worry, you now have an expanded role - if I ever try to take your partner's name off the account, you're allowed stop me."

Interestingly, other pages on the Dept of Foreign affairs completely leave out the fact that parliaments can only object on grounds of subsidiarity and give the impression that they can object for any reason:

The Treaty gives a new role within the EU to national parliaments. All proposals for EU legislation will be forwarded to national parliaments for their consideration. National parliaments will have a period of 8 weeks in which to vet proposals and offer opinions on them. If enough national parliaments object to a proposal, it can either be amended or withdrawn. Any national parliament can block moves to increase the number of policy issues that can be decided by majority voting.
it's possible that I'm misunderstanding something but give that this contradicts other pages on the same website and also the Referendum Commission's description, this seems incorrect. I am waiting for a call back from the dept. with clarification. Update: they called me back, I'm correct, they don't think it's important.

So, there you go, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength and reduced is expanded. It's funny, if this role for parliaments didn't exist at all, I probably wouldn't care. What I care about is that the "yes" side are lying about it and selling it as something it really isn't.

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