European scrutiny committees
EU Institutions Learning Outcome 3
European scrutiny committees were set up in order to look at European legislation being put forward and analyse it to see what implications (if any) it had for Britain.
The committees have the power to
- Send for persons, papers or records
- Meet away from Westminster
- Appoint specialist advisors - either to supply information which is not readily available or to explain matters of complexity to the committee
- Meet on days when Parliament is adjourned
- Appoint sub-committees
- Exchange papers and/or meet concurrently to take evidence, deliberate and consider draft reports. They and their sub-committees may exchange papers or meet concurrently with relevant committees of the Lords
The European Scrutiny Committee in the House of Commons consists of sixteen Members, nominated for the duration of a Parliament, with a quorum of five, and is able to appoint specialist advisers. It receives copies of Commission proposals, together with a memo explaining matters prepared by the relevant Government Department, which provides information about the general effect of the document, its financial, legal and policy implications, and any other relevant information, such as
whether the document is awaiting further consideration by other European Community bodies. In the case of fast moving proposals for which a formal Commission proposal to the Council is not available yet, departments often produce an unnumbered memo predicting the likely contents, in order to keep Parliament informed. These documents provide the backbone of the arrangements for influencing forthcoming developments. These are considered by the Select Committee which generally meets once a week whilst the House is sitting. Following such meetings the Committee publishes a report on the documents considered, highlighting any which it considers raise questions of legal and/or political importance, with any recommendations for further consideration by the House. It may also call witnesses to give oral or written evidence as necessary.
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Working in this manner, MPs have the opportunity to debate the issues and to question government ministers before they take decisions in the meetings of the Council of the European Union. Until the debate on the issues raised has taken place, scrutiny procedures are not considered to be complete. However by the time the debate has taken place, the vote (at the Council) may well have already taken place. To allow Britain to still have a say in the proposals even though parliament has not yet decided on their stance, there is a method known as ‘scrutiny reserve’ where the British representative at the Council can vote if he thinks it necessary. He would however have to explain his reasons for doing so to the scrutiny committee.
In the House of Lords the Select Committee on the European Communities also examines proposals and decides whether they require further attention. It produces brief reports on fewer Community/Union documents than the Commons Committee. Its main work is to conduct detailed enquiries on particular proposals or subject areas (e.g. fraud, EMU), selected because of their general importance, and to report either for information or with recommendations for debate in the House of Lords. Much of its work is conducted through five or six sub-committees that concern themselves with particular policy areas. The Commons and Lords Committees complement one another and there is close co-ordination between the two. They have powers to confer and to meet concurrently in certain circumstances, but these powers are rarely exercised formally. The Government has also undertaken to keep Parliament informed of major developments in the course of negotiations on proposals. This is done by Supplementary Explanatory Memoranda, which are also considered by the Commons and Lords Committees.
At the beginning of every parliamentary session within the House of Lords the committee for the scrutiny of European legislation is appointed. The chairman of the committee is known as the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees and receives a salary. Around 20 members make up this main committee although each of the members also serves on the sub-committees set up to allow the committee to conduct investigations. Approximately 70 lords are involved in the work of either the main committee or that of one of the sub-committees. The sub committees consist of:
- Economic and Financial Affairs, Trade and External relations (A)
- Energy, Industry and Transport (B)
- Common, Foreign and Security Policy(C)
- Environment, Agriculture, Public Health and Consumer Protection (D)
- Law and Institutions (E)
- Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs (F)
The Treaty of Nice sets out recommendations for the future structure of the European Union.
Since its origins, the Commission has consisted of two nationals from each of the larger member states and one from each of the smaller member states. With negotiations going with twelve applicant countries who could also be joined by others in the near future. With twenty-eight member states in the European Union could have meant as many as thirty-five commissioners if the system hadn’t been changed. Through the Treaty of Nice it was decided to postpone reducing the number of Commissioners until the European Union has twenty-seven member states. This means that after 2005 the Commission will consist of one commissioner per member state; after the appointment of the first commission when the European Union reaches its twenty-seven member states, the number of commissioners will actually be smaller than the number of member states. The members will be selected on a rotational basis. The exact number of commissioners and the order of rotation will not be decided until the twenty-seventh member state signs the accession treaty, and then only by the unanimous action of the Council.
The Nice Treaty also enhanced the powers of the Commissions president. He/she will decide how the Commission is internally organised and will structure and distribute the responsibilities of the Commission between its members. Commissioners, if requested to do so by the President (with the approval of the full Commission), must tender their resignation. The appointment of the President of the Commission is now by the European Council by qualified majority (following approval of the European Parliament) instead of the previous consensus between Member States required in the past.
The Court of Justice
Both the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance are facing a substantial increase in their workload, which makes it difficult to run them efficiently and quickly. The increase in the caseload has meant it takes too long for a case to come of court (an average of 21 months for the Court of Justice and 30 months for the Court of First Instance). This is out of line with the idea of a smooth running European Community and for the individuals involved the length of time taken to simply hear their case is unacceptable. As new cases are brought before the court (especially with enlargement) then the backlog increases further, as does the waiting time.
Through the Nice Treaty the following reforms were adopted:
For the Court of First Instance-
- To be given powers to hear direct actions
- The setting up of a set of specialised chambers to relieve the court of certain specific cases
- The right to deliver (in certain specific matters) preliminary rulings
For the Court of Justice –
- The power to rule on disputes concerning intellectual property
- The number of judges to be in line with the number of Member states
- Through the Council, the rules of procedure for both courts to require a qualified majority rather than that of unanimity
The European Parliament
The present number of members is 626. The Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 placed an upper limit of 700 on the number of members of the European Parliament. With the continuing enlargement of the European Union, the number of members (of Parliament) will soon be well over 700, which has the serious potential of undermining the effectiveness of Parliament. To ratify this situation, the distribution of seats between the member states has been revised (whilst still staying in accordance with the principle of ‘appropriate representation of the peoples’. Through the Treaty of Nice the upper limit was changed from 700 to a ceiling of 732. For the parliamentary term of 2004 – 2009, after the allocation and distribution of seats to the current member states and those who have signed the accession treaty by January 1st 2004, the number of members will (provisionally) be increased proportionally for each Member State (up to the ceiling of 732). Any countries who join the European
Union during this parliamentary term will also be able to elect their members, so, in
this case, the ceiling may be temporarily exceeded.
Developments in British Politics 4, Patrick Dunleavy et al, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1994
The Government and Politics of the European Union, Neill Nugent, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999
The European Union, Chris Durbin, Watts Books, 1995
Understanding the European Union, John McCormick, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999