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European Union/Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union

Published on November 6, 2013
Speech by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs (excerpts)

Vilnius, 28-29 October 2013


In 1989 I was – and it was a strange situation – both President of the French National Assembly and a member of the European Parliament, and to that end I suggested that the COSAC [Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union] be created. (…) The aim, in my mind and those of my colleagues who had supported the initiative, was twofold: on the one hand, it was about enabling the national parliaments to take part in the life of what we didn’t yet call the European Union, and on the other it was about encouraging cooperation between national parliaments, and between national parliaments and the European Parliament.

Like you, I had a strong belief: that national parliaments have an important role to play in the proper functioning of the European Union. I strongly believed then, and I still believe today, that interparliamentary cooperation gives the EU’s decisions greater legitimacy and enables us to take better account of the people’s wishes. (…)

That was nearly 25 years ago, and today we’re taking part in the 50th meeting of COSAC. And it seems to me that the reasons justifying the creation of this institution are still valid and no doubt even more valid, given the development of an EU which has given this Europe a different shape from the Europe at the end of the 1980s. In fact this Europe – as we all know and you’re going to repeat in the course of today – must face up to growing disaffection by people often disappointed by policies that fail to address the challenges of a period of crises and transformations. If we’re clear-sighted – and I think we have to be – we must recognize not only that the majority of Europeans are still committed to the European idea but also that many of them – not without reason – criticize the way Europe is run, and that confusion between the idea and the way things are run has a negative effect. An important way of remedying this shortcoming – which calls into question the EU’s democratic legitimacy – is to bring European decision making closer to citizens in order to improve it. It’s not just about having ideas, legal mechanisms and European policies. Those ideas, those mechanisms, those policies must really address people’s expectations.

Since the time I’m referring to, a lot of progress has been made. The European Parliament – which, according to the treaties, represents EU citizens – is now co-legislator for most of the legislative texts. That Parliament is a fundamental player in the institutional triangle, and its mission is to ensure that European citizens’ interests are upheld in the decision-making process. The Commission is also responsible to the European Parliament, and the procedures for hearing commissioners when the institutions are renewed have become more demanding. The national parliaments are now involved in discussions about Community legislation or the deepening of EMU. The debates organized in our assemblies are proof of this, as is the procedure for ensuring compliance with the subsidiarity principle, and the interparliamentary conferences.

But, ladies and gentlemen – and this is the thrust of the short speech I’m going to make – I believe we must go further.

The European Union, and in particular Economic and Monetary Union, has deepened in recent years in an effort to address the economic and financial crisis. The two-pack and six-pack mechanisms are having direct consequences on national parliaments’ budgetary sovereignty. Now, budget and parliament are the same thing. The strengthening of EMU demands increased coordination of economic policies, and so this strengthening requires, in parallel, better coordination between national representations. And above all, we must respect the principle that there must be a deliberative body for every stage of the decision-making process: at stake is the democratic legitimacy of the direction taken for the future of EMU and the EU. So the parliaments must be in a position to take their full place in this new framework in order to reflect, in the parliamentary sphere, the deepening of EMU. That’s the aim f the interparliamentary conference on economic and budgetary governance – established under Article 13 of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the EMU –, the first meeting of which was held a few days ago here in Vilnius.


To this end, how can we do more and, above all, better? I believe that all the bodies share responsibility and that each level of decision-making – the Commission, the governments, the national parliaments and the European Parliament – must be committed to working for greater democratic legitimacy for the EU. And I’d like to offer you a few modest suggestions in this regard.

Firstly, many of the mechanisms put in place to address the crisis have strengthened the role of the Commission, particularly in the area of economic governance. This is particularly the case with the chances brought about by the procedure known as the European Semester. I think such a development was necessary. But the essential corollary of those decisions is better democratic control of the procedures. And to this end I think it’s desirable to lay the foundations for a debate in which all sides are heard, between the national parliaments, or their representatives, and Brussels. I think a representative of the Commission could, for example, travel to the parliamentary assemblies when the Commission draws up its country-specific recommendations, in order to present its report to the national representatives. The Commission is often said to be distant. One way it could respond would be to have a greater presence in the member states. Admittedly, as I’m well aware, this can already be done. But I think it should be done more broadly. To put it differently, while each member state must strive to adopt what I’d call “a European reflex”, the Commission should also, in exchange, go and visit member states more and appear before national citizens’ representatives to explain its policy more, but also take their questions and demands into consideration. That’s the first modest suggestion I’m making.

The second concerns the member states. (…) I suggest that all our countries’ governments strive to involve national parliaments more in decision-making at European level without, however – and I stress this – blocking the progress necessary for the European enterprise. (…) But let me warn against a situation that could arise if systematic pressure on European decisions developed from national parliaments, and if systematic recourse to constitutional courts also developed. We could find ourselves in a situation whereby the progress necessary to the European enterprise would be blocked. And so we must be very mindful of striking the right balance – and it’s difficult – between, on the one hand, the legitimacy of consulting parliaments and referring matters to constitutional courts and, on the other, the need for the European enterprise to move forward.

The third suggestion I venture to make concerns MEPs. As players in the institutional triangle and representatives of European citizens, they have the responsibility to work with the national deputies, particularly in the framework of COSAC, and several of them are present here. (…)

In the short term, I think a structure devoted to the Euro Area could be established within the European Parliament after the forthcoming European elections, in order to guarantee appropriate democratic control and legitimacy for decisions concerning the Euro Area. And it seems to me legitimate for it to be the European Parliament which has to decide on the wherewithal to achieve this. It’s a proposal which was highlighted, among other things, in a joint Franco-German proposal which was put forward in May 2013 and I think makes good sense. But I believe at the same time that a parliamentary body should be able to meet, made up of delegates from the lower chambers of Euro Area member states. (…)

Fourthly, national members of parliament have a range of instruments to intervene in European decision making. I want to turn my attention momentarily to Protocol No.2, which is the subject of debate, to come back to the notion of subsidiarity. Everyone here knows that any parliament can send a reasoned opinion to the presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission stating why it considers that a draft doesn’t comply with the subsidiarity principle. Parliaments are completely within their remit here. It isn’t a case of slowing down the building of Europe, but allowing the nation’s elected representatives to express their views about the Commission’s proposals. Members of parliament must make use of this tool to call into question potential abuses in some draft legislation and also to highlight their determination to go further in the European enterprise. This provision has already been seen to be working, for example with regard to the so-called draft “Monti II Regulation”. Up against the Commission, national parliaments were able to sound the alarm in time to uphold, in this instance, the right to strike. And Brussels listened to them. This very day, as we speak, the French Senate is examining a European resolution on the creation of a European public prosecutor’s office; it’s the second time the yellow card procedure has been examined. And here too I think there’s a possible way forward which is interesting to follow, even though of course it mustn’t be abused. (…)

In a few months, European citizens are going to be called to the ballot boxes to elect their representatives in the European Parliament. (…)

These elections – I think everyone is stressing this – are taking place against a background of anxiety, linked in particular to the economic situation. Abstention, even anti-Europeanism, in a way, are posing a threat. Given this, some people believe, on the basis of a strong aspiration, that only by fundamentally revising the treaties will we be able to strengthen the European Union’s democratic legitimacy. We can perfectly well have a discussion on this and, for our part, we aren’t against doing so. But it seems to me that swift action is going to be required as a matter of urgency and all levels of decision-making – the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament, the national parliaments – will have to improve their cooperation fast. Yet we know how difficult it is to make fundamental changes to the treaties. And so the possible ways forward I’ve talked about could be looked at to try and improve the way we function democratically in response to what our fellow citizens feel is a vacuum or gap. (…)./.

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