National parliaments in EU decision-making

What role do and could national parliaments of EU member states play in the EU framework? How do the Treaty of Lisbon reforms, which aim to generate more influence for national parliaments in EU decision-making processes, work in practice?

Crum and Fossum have submitted a report to the House of Lords on the role of national parliaments in EU affairs based on research in a new book (Photo:

Representation through national parliaments is one of two channels for representative bodies to influence EU decision-making. The other channel runs though the European Parliament.

National parliaments play an indispensable role in the EU’s multilevel configuration. Even if decision-making powers are shifted to the EU-level, national parliaments remain the main repository of political allegiance and the focal point for democratic will-formation.

Increased internationalisation

National parliaments are however challenged by internationalisation, a process which privileges executives and experts. In this context, national parliamentarians increasingly engage in inter-parliamentary coordination. These developments are examined in a collective volume edited by Ben Crum and John Erik Fossum.

The book Practices of inter-parliamentary coordination in international politics: the European Union and beyond includes contributions from eighteen European political scientists who provide a thorough examination of the issues.

National parliaments’ dual role

National parliaments’ primary role in EU decision-making is to scrutinize the involvement of their respective national governments in EU affairs. The book finds that their effective scrutiny varies considerably in actual practice, across parliaments and across policy fields.

A second channel of influence has gradually emerged in the last two decades: inter-parliamentary coordination and direct national parliamentary involvement in EU decision-making. Through the Early Warning System (EWS) national parliaments can influence EU-level decision-making at a very early stage. But the great amount of information and knowledge circulating represents a major challenge with regard to prioritisation. Although EU decision-making is a secondary concern for national parliamentarians, they are making progress by systematically scanning the EU legislative agenda and developing alert mechanisms between each other.

Cooperation is crucial

Ben Crum and John Erik Fossum, editors of Practices of inter-parliamentary coordination in international politics

Members of national parliaments (MPs) have to recognize that they operate in a network or ‘field’ of 28 national parliaments plus the European Parliament, the editors argue. Through cooperation, they can determine the direction of EU politics. The big question is, however, to determine how parliaments can effectively collude to (re-)gain power in the EU rather than being played off against each other.

One of the main challenges according to the editors seems to lie in fully exploiting the formal opportunities that are in place. Here the main issues requiring attention are the incentive structure for parliamentarians and the fostering of formal and informal networks across parliaments. The other is to make the system democratically accountable.

Motivations for engaging in EU affairs

Probably the main challenge for increasing national parliaments engagement in EU affairs lies in the limited incentives for MPs to do so. The investment costs are high and the gains very uncertain. The primary concern for national parliamentarians continues to be their national institution, which is also where they find immediate rewards: political influence, media exposure, and party political credits. However, the incentives seem to have gained in relevance and force in recent years. Engaging with other national parliaments may provide useful information, and increase one’s status and career prospects.

Interaction at unprecedented levels

It is still early days with regard to evaluating the effects of the Treaty of Lisbon reforms, particularly the yellow card procedure. Contrary to what sceptical observers had expected, however, in a context of strict time limits and translation challenges, the volume finds that the EWS can have decisional effects.

One should not measure the success of the yellow and orange card procedures in the number of times they have been used, the editors argue. The system in place requires a ‘responsible usage’ of the procedures, which should increase the EU legislators’ sensitivity towards parliaments’ concerns, but which should only be activated as a last resort. These procedures thus serve a dual purpose: as an incentive for national parliaments to become more alert to and directly involved in EU decision-making; and to encourage the Commission to internalise the subsidiarity principle and to anticipate criticism.

The volume finds that the yellow card procedure has brought mutual awareness and interaction between national parliaments to unprecedented levels.

The importance of informal contacts

If national parliaments are to be effective in EU decision-making, collective mobilisation is crucial. So what is the current level of coordination and dialogue? The volume points to variations across policy issues. For some generic EU issues, COSAC may be the obvious platform for coordination, however parliamentarians also tend to coordinate through the NATO Parliamentary Assembly or through the European Parliament in policy-specific matters. The volume further acknowledges the importance of informal contacts among individual parliamentarians and political parties, which are probably of even greater importance than official networks.

Success depending on two conditions

The editors find that two conditions need to be met for the successful influence of national parliaments on EU decisions. First, some of the stronger parliaments must be involved, where strength may reflect both the size of the member state involved and the EU scrutiny powers of the parliament. Second, one or more parliaments must take the lead in seeking to mobilise others.

Implications of the financial crisis

There is an urgent need to flesh out the role of parliaments in the reorganization of economic and financial policies that has taken place in recent years. The new arrangements around the European Semester put parliaments in a marginal and reactive role. There is a need for further clarification as to the role of national and European parliamentary scrutiny, and for effective arrangements for inter-parliamentary coordination.


Published Dec. 18, 2013 12:13 PM - Last modified May 8, 2014 10:26 AM