From Consensus to Irrelevance

, by Jofre M. Rocabert

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

From Consensus to Irrelevance

Even if the strength of the Lisbon treaty has been casted in doubt after the eurozone crisis, this survivor of the frustrated constitution brings in positive elements that might give a necessary impulse to the legitimacy of European governance. One of these elements is the definitive step that national parliaments (NP) take into European arena. Their role for legitimacy has always been very important since the NP approve the treaties and adapt European directives to national systems. Until recently, they were described in academic circles as “the main institutional losers of integration”. With the transfer of powers to European institutions, the national parliaments have been deprived of many areas of decision they used to hold. Without influence mechanisms at the European level, their participation has been for long centred in controlling the actions of their government in Brussels.

Involvement or detaching in the European decision making process

However, not all parliaments have played the same game. Some of them considered important to participate in European decision making process, whereas others put aside their opportunities for involvement and let the government take full responsibility of European policy. What do these differences depend on? At least, two conclusions have been established. First of all, Europe is only another topic in national parliamentary agenda. Despite what we might know about Europeanization of the member states, fundamentally the political systems of the members have not been altered in their basic institutional equilibrium. In countries with an important parliamentary tradition, like the Nordic countries or Germany, the parliament has had quite a strong voice on European affairs. Whereas in the south, where authoritarian executives bequeathed parliaments with less real power, these seemed to have desert of their basic legitimizing function, basically giving up making sure that the political influence emanates out of the lowest possible level.

The second conclusion, and the most worrying one, is that parliaments have reacted only where opinions about Europe are diverse and confronted. In countries where the integration process is not given for granted, politicians have made sure to speak out their voices as representatives. On the other side, in countries like Spain where integration has always been a state policy, parties have been interested in keeping their parliamentarians quiet and their citizens unconcerned about the parliament’s voice in the council.

The underestimation of the European political project: a risk to consider

In parliamentary democracy it is almost a theoretical illusion to distinguish between government and state, because of parliamentary majorities. But the question lies in the fact that where parties agree about Europe, Europeanism is in danger to become a minor issue not worth engagement or attention for what it really is: a deep and far reaching political project. The permissive consensus dominating most of southern Europe polities vanishes the possibility of taking part of civil society into action and lobbying, which might end up giving a serious advantage to those who know that politizying Europe they can fight to destroy it.

The treaty of Lisbon gives to national parliaments new powers of intervention through which they can request to the Commission a modification of their legislative proposals. This has already had its effect in Spain and other countries, where European Affairs Committees are taking in much more activity to control subsidiarity and even cooperating in some cases with regional parliaments. Maybe this impulse will help politicians to get more involved in European governance and will help citizens to realize its importance.

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