Inside the presidency of the Council: the overlooked parliamentary dimension

03 April 2024 /

5 min

The parliamentary dimension of the Council presidencies are often overlooked.

In the dynamic landscape of European politics, the spotlight often falls squarely on the executive stage, where governments steal the show with their grand gestures and high-stakes diplomacy. Amidst this theatrical display, the parliamentary dimension of the Council presidencies remains steadfast, focusing on both day-to-day interparliamentary legislative work and monitoring the EU’s activities. 

Unveiling the parliamentary dimension of the Council’s presidency

Governments are shiny, photogenic, eye-catching … well, as much as politics can be. This is also reflected in the rotating Council presidencies, where the governmental dimension is the most visible. This makes sense, as the Council is the European institution in which the governments of the Member States come together to deliberate. Yet, there is an overlooked parliamentary dimension to the presidencies in the Council.

So what exactly does the parliamentary dimension of the presidency consist of? Mainly, it is about legislative coordination, subsidiarity, and interparliamentary accountability. This dimension focuses on the involvement of national parliaments and the European Parliament (EP) in the legislative procedure. It is mainly nested in a series of five mandatory conferences held every six months, presided by the chairpersons of the national parliamentary committees that hold the presidency. Thus, for the first semester of 2024, it was the Belgian chairpersons of the committees from the Chamber of Representatives who took the helm. 

The five conferences are the culmination of a day-to-day work of the National Parliament Representatives. Their purpose is to ensure the exchange of opinions between the legislatures and the EP. This work proves crucial for the possible activation of the Early Warning Mechanism, a system giving the national parliaments the possibility to do subsidiarity checks. The parliaments can either issue a Yellow Card Procedure (⅓ of national parliaments) based on a reasoned opinion, meaning that a draft proposal must be reviewed by the Commission. They can also issue an Orange Card Procedure (more than 50% of national parliaments), which means that the Commission must review the proposal and, if it chooses to maintain it, it needs to justify its decision to the Council and the European Parliament.

The Belgian presidency: insights from its conferences

This year’s first conference was the Interparliamentary Conference on Stability, Economic governance and Governance, or IPC on SECG. It took place in Brussels and brought together all the budget, finance and economics committee chairpersons from all the national parliaments. It aimed at ensuring democratic overview in the budgetary policy of the EU, especially focusing on the European Monetary Union.

The second one was the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group on Europol (JPSG on Europol) on the 19th of February in Ghent. This conference plays a unique scrutiny role that allows members of parliaments (MPs) to engage directly with Europol officials. After tasting some local specialities like cuberdons, the MPs had the opportunity to deliberate on data protection, organised crime, human trafficking and operational interoperability. 

The third conference was on the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Picture this: deep dives into the Russian war of aggression, the situation in the Middle East, and foreign interference in EU politics, with a troika of Spain, Belgium, and Hungary sealing a deal for a common declaration. This declaration affirms the EU’s commitment to multilateralism and democratic principles, condemns Russian aggression in Ukraine, and calls for an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces. Further, it emphasises the need to negotiate a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, advocating for greater accountability for crimes committed during the conflict. Lastly, it highlights the role of national parliaments in overseeing the EU’s external actions.  

Last but not least, the COSAC plenary (Conférence des Organes Spécialisés dans les Affaires Communautaires) took place. Every parliamentary committee dealing with European affairs came together for this grand finale. The chairwoman of this session was Eliane Tillieux, the Head of the European Affairs committee of the Belgian Parliament, who also serves as the President of the Chamber of Representatives. The reunion culminated in two declarations called “Contribution and Conclusions”, crafted with the inputs from every delegation. The two declarations have the potential to have a tangible impact on European policymaking, since they are directly submitted to the European institutions to be considered.

Overall, the Belgian Federal Parliament also tried to innovate to make these moments more valuable. Among others various things, they implemented several interactive sessions and debates among the delegations instead of solely relying on the interventions of the guest speakers. They also chose venues outside of the EU capital (Ghent, Bruges, Namur, and so on) to show that Belgium is not only about Brussels and has more to offer than the “Brussels Bubble”. 

Theatrics and symbolism: Parliaments left in the shadows 

Unfortunately, it is not all sunshine and roses. These parliamentary conferences, which are held against the background of the Council presidency, are key to one of the cornerstones of the European Union decision-making: the principle of subsidiarity, enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty on the European Union. However, the role of national parliaments is usually on the sidelines as they often operate under the radar, overshadowed by the flashiness of the executive power. 

It is a fact that the parliamentary dimension of those presidencies is a major opportunity to strengthen the direct and democratic control of EU actions, but they are also completely marginalised. The only conclusion that seems to have some kind of political implications is the one resulting from the COSAC plenary, with the conclusions from the other conferences being more of symbolical nature.

National parliaments, as the closest representatives of citizens, possess a unique capacity to ensure that EU decisions align with the needs and preferences of their respective populations. However, in the context of EU presidencies, their role is often reduced to a secondary function with regard to the intergovernmental dynamics.

To address this deficit, there is a pressing need to reevaluate the role of national parliaments in the parliamentary dimension of EU presidencies. This could involve fostering greater cooperation and consultation between the rotating presidency and national parliaments, as well as strengthening mechanisms for parliamentary oversight of EU decision-making processes. Another measure could be to add a “green card” to the Early Warning Mechanism as a way to allow national parliaments to push for proposals and take proactive steps in EU law-making.

Moreover, during the IPC on the CFSP/CSDP, the European Commission expressed a certain arrogance de pouvoir towards the MPs that were present when Ursula von der Leyen convened Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to discuss foreign affairs with the College of Commissioners. This happened at the same time while he was supposed to attend the conference and answer the parliamentary scrutiny of the MPs … about foreign affairs.

To add insult to injury, this tendency was not limited to the European executive, as Hadja Lahbib, the Belgian minister of foreign affairs, came to hold her speech and left before answering any critical questions from the delegations. The same happened with Georges Gilkinet, Belgian minister of mobility, at the COSAC plenary. 

Such behaviour of prioritising their own agenda not only undermines the democratic principles upon which the European Union is founded, but also hinders the effectiveness of parliamentary oversight in holding the executive accountable for its actions. It could ultimately weaken the legitimacy of the European institutions in the eyes of the public and undermine the Union’s ability to address complex challenges effectively.

A missed opportunity to give more meaning to European democracy 

To sum up, the parliamentary side of EU Council presidencies is an important deal, even if it does not always grab the headlines and is relatively unknown to the broader public. While governments hold the spotlight, national parliaments quietly exert, to the best of their abilities, their function of controlling the executive.

Unfortunately, these parliamentary conferences often slip under the radar. European institutions as well as national governments need to give them more attention in order to highlight their value for policymaking. Recent brush-offs from the European Commission are a clear sign that we need to take parliamentary institutions seriously if we want to keep democracy alive and kicking.

In a nutshell: Let’s give the parliamentary dimension the respect it deserves. It is not just about checking boxes; it is about making sure that EU decisions actually reflect the will of the people.

Marie El Bouziani is a master student at the Institute of European Studies.

(Edited by Luka Krauss)

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