The European Commission vice-president highlights the bilateral responsibilities of national parliaments in tackling the economic crisis
The European Union is in a period of severe economic crisis. We are plagued by instability and unemployment; and in the longer term, an unreformed Europe faces the risk of growth rates so sluggish that our social model will become unaffordable. How we are going to fix this and, in particular, how national parliaments can work together to help, needs to be established.
At an EU level, a range of policies have been suggested to meet economic challenges. Leaders have agreed an ambitious Europe 2020 strategy to ensure that we generate smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Our first annual growth survey in January this year set out 10 priority actions to kick-start this, and marked the launch of the European Semester, which is designed to enhance the peer review of national economic policies.
There have been a range of reactions to this. Some state that issues with the euro are just problems that Brussels needs to solve; others believe that some of the policy areas involved – like taxation and employment policy – are the sole job of national parliaments to put right, and that Brussels is interfering too much.
The reality is, of course, more complex. On the one hand, all national parliaments of the EU operate within the same single market, and in many cases, a single currency zone too. When any member state in the EU changes its economic policy, this has an impact on the other nations; and no country can afford to ignore what is happening in its major trading partners. So the policies of EU member states must be made with reference to each other: isolationist economic policy is no longer an option.
On the other hand, national parliaments have an important role to play. Solutions to the economic crisis cannot be 'one size fits all' for the whole of Europe. It is also clear that for the project to succeed politically there must be a democratic mandate and buy-in from across society. National parliaments, being experts on their own economies and having a strong democratic link to their citizens, succeed on both these counts.
To square this circle, two things need to happen. National parliaments need to be aware of, and take account of, what the rest of Europe is doing in terms of economic policy. However, this is not an entirely passive activity and national parliaments also need to get involved in the European policy debate, engage constructively with the issues at an EU as well as national level, and tell us what they believe should happen as well as what shouldn't.
There are many tools that can be used to do this, some of which are already established. Parliaments, for example, can hold governments to account for their actions in the council, and can talk to each other at the regular meeting of EU affairs committees. Moreover, the Lisbon Treaty provided new powers and processes, for example the right to scrutinise European Commission documents, and also the right to raise a warning flag directly with Brussels when they feel legislative proposals have not respected the principle of subsidiarity.
Less formally, but just as important, these new mechanisms have led to more frequent political contacts between national parliamentarians and EU politicians. I have, for example, committed to visit all of the EU's 40 national chambers during my mandate – and I am happy to have already reached around half that figure.
It is no coincidence that the Lisbon Treaty has strengthened the role of national parliaments – after all, ensuring a strong democratic link between the EU and its citizens is a guiding philosophy of the treaty. Ultimately, those citizens care more about fixing the economy and restoring jobs than about obscure inter-institutional debates. However, given the scale of the challenges we face, it is time to start making proper use of the tools we have available to ensure that national parliaments become a true and active part of the institutions involved in EU decision-making.Maros Sefcovic is European Commission vice-president for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration. This article first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: European Union