Earlier this week the INTA Committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of CETA; the full House will vote on the deal in February. But everyone knows that this process has not been smooth sailing. The actions of the Walloon Parliament, which led to last-minute delays and additional complications in the signature of the EU-Canada agreement (CETA) in October 2016, are an example of a backlash: national governments, as well as national and regional parliaments, have staked claims to become more involved in international negotiations of the European Union (EU). The recent Namur Declaration, signed by 40 academics, implies that this messy process actually sets a good example for the future. This is most regrettable.
Promoting unanimity amongst 30-plus parliaments is a significant step backwards, and weakens the EU at a time when it needs to be strong. It allows a particular local interest to hold the interests of all other EU citizens hostage even in areas where EU Member States have decided to act collectively. A major problem with the Namur declaration is its complete silence on the reasons for the EU’s exclusive competence over international trade policy, coupled with the EU’s system of qualified majority voting.
Of course, even when the EU has exclusive competence, most of what is done in ‘Brussels’ is actually decided by the Member States. Therefore, national parliaments should hold their national governments much more to account for the positions they take in the EU Council of Ministers. In addition, the European Parliament exercises control over the Council. It is unfortunate that the present system of democratic control at multiple levels in the EU is being threatened by tendencies to renationalise EU policies.
Like the European Parliament, national parliaments should be involved throughout the international negotiations of the EU, albeit with a different emphasis. National parliaments should influence the positions taken by their national ministers in these negotiations. Unfortunately, national parliaments do not always seize the opportunities they do have. For example, Wallonia’s Parliament was told by several experts in a public hearing in February 2016 that there was little they could do after the European Commission received a mandate to open negotiations with a third country. This is quite mistaken. There is a lot that happens after the mandate, and on which not only the Commission but also the Member State governments must and do reflect. Just compare the mandate which the Commission received on the TTIP negotiations with the debate that started not long afterwards.
The Walloon Parliament was also told that, in theory, one could envisage national or regional parliaments being informed regularly about the progress of negotiations. But this would be too burdensome in practice. How regrettable it is that these experts, as well as the national and regional parliaments they advise, do not engage in benchmarking. If they were to look elsewhere, to begin with at the working procedures set up by the European Parliament with the Commission, they would see what is possible: being “fully and immediately” informed about the negotiations, and expecting their government to take “due account” of their parliament’s comments.
Of course, national governments should be transparent, and communicate all the information they receive from the Commission about the negotiations to their national and, as the case may be, regional parliaments. This is not standard practice either unfortunately. A telling example occurred last year. The French Assemblée complained it did not receive enough information about the TTIP negotiations. Upon investigation, it turned out that the French government had failed to transmit the information it had received from the Commission to the Assemblée!
Over 60 academics, from more than 15 European countries, are now calling for a different approach in the ‘Trading Together Declaration'. They advocate a Europe that works, that is less complex, with more effective democratic control, and better access for its citizens. To this end, they have developed several proposals. For more information see the web site: http://www.trading-together-declaration.org