Sunday 25 July 2010

Oireachtas Committee Report on National Parliament involvement in EU legislation

The Oireachtas (both houses of the Irish Parliament) Sub-Committee on Review of the Role of the Oireachtas in European Affairs has published its report (PDF) on how the Irish Parliament should adapt to the new European institutional setting after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. There was a sense during the Lisbon II Referendum that the Oireachtas wasn't making the most of its powers under the old system (though changes had been brought in after Nice to improve oversight), and this Committee was promised to ensure that the Oireachtas would make the most of the increased power of national parliaments under Lisbon.

Under the pre-Lisbon system, the Oireachtas committees relating to the EU had access to Green and White papers (plus government department notes), considered EU legislation and had reports from the government on EU affairs. Irish participation in the Common Foreign and Security Policy is subject to the triple lock (UN, cabinet and Dáil [lower house] approval for all military missions) and opting-in to Justice and Home Affairs legislation is subject to a Dáil vote. The report had several key themes: prioritisation (focusing on important legislation), early engagement, better oversight (of Council positions), better co-operation (between national parliaments), mainstreaming (making EU matters mainstream in the Oireachtas so they're not just handled by a few parliamentary members), and domestic impact (improving transposition work on EU laws so that they fit in better with domestic circumstances). Before the report, 3 areas were highlighted as weaknesses for the Oireachtas: involvement in decision making, lack of transposition oversight, and organisation of EU business in the Oireachtas.

Proposals (summary):

1. The interim procedures for the Lisbon-amended EU (powers for the Committees in examining Eu legislation and recommending motions of subsidiarity, etc.) be made permanent.

2. There should be a weekly report for parliamentarians on EU documents and draft legislation. This should be presented to the Houses and published online.

3. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny should list proposals as limited or greater significance for Ireland. This prioritisation should help the Oireachtas maximise its role.

4. Annual reports are of limited value since thery're mostly historical. Greater use of 6-monthly reports designed to help the Committees prioritise the work ahead is necessary.

5. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny should analyse the Commission's Annual Policy Strategy (APS) and the Annual Legislative Work Programme (ALWP), and send reports to the Oireachtas to be debated in plenary. JCES views on the ALWP should be circulated to the other committees.

6. Before a Council meeting, the relevant Minister should be questioned by the relevant committee (at the moment, only the JCES can interview Ministers before hand, but it is rarely practised, and only happens for the General Affairs Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee in the Council). No binding decisions on the Minister's vote would be taken - the aim is for better scrutiny.

7. There should be a Question and Answer session in the Dáil before European Council meetings.

8. The Dáil should debate the European Semester reports of Ireland before they are forwarded to the Commission.

9. There should be a scrutiny reserve, so Ministers cannot agree on legislation before the parliament has finished looking at and has made the government aware of its views. A Ministerial override could be set in place, with the relevant committees able to scrutinise its use.

10. More work should be handled by the relevant sectoral committee. The current 2 European committees should be merged in the next Dáil to streamline its work as other committees adjust to their new responsibilities.

11. That committees strengthen links with their opposite numbers in other member states and that the Oireachtas hosts inter-parliamentary meetings on an annual/biannual basis.

12. That MEPs meet with the European committees and sector committees to facilitate co-operation with the EP (via video conference if necessary). Sectoral committees should also consult the EP rapporteurs on relevant legislative proposals.

13. The European committees should give support to sectoral committees with EU proposals and ensure that these are properly examined by "policing" the committees (sectoral committees should report back to the European ones). Also, using rapporteurs for EU proposals (though not all of them) would widen the number of parliamentarians involved in the EU legislative process.

14. There should be regular plenary debates on EU affairs, and a week in May devoted solely to EU affairs (involving parliamentarians more and boosting the public profile of EU matters).

15. Information on Regulatory Impact Assessments and Statutory Instruments should be circulated among all parliamentarians and referred to the European Committees for scrutiny. A Seanad (Senate/Upper House) panel should be set up to monitor transposition of EU laws. There should be a study of transposed EU laws that have cause public concern and a comparison with how other member states have transposed the laws.

16. An information kiosk on the EU should be set up in Leinster House (seat of the Oireachtas) to help inform citizens about the EU. Also more formal links with the Commission and EP offices should be made and:

"Initiatives that could be considered include the establishment of a planned tour for students which encompasses a visit to Leinster House and a visit to the EU Offices; the organisation by the Commission and/or European Parliament of outreach programmes, meetings and competitions, particularly in schools, which TDs and Senators could be invited to provide input."


This is a really strong report. It has considered the key weaknesses of the Oireachtas in scrutinising EU proposals, ensuring a good transposition of laws that are sensitive to local circumstances, and dramatically increasing the oversight of Irish ministers in the Council (without pre-empting the government's vote). The Sub-Committee has also clearly thought long and hard about how to involve more parliamentarians in the European legislative process. It might take some time for these reforms, if passed, to pay off, as it will be a steep learning curve for some TDs and Senators, but with the right support it will pay off. I'm also impressed with the commitment to push EU affairs out into a more public light: dedicating a week to EU affairs in plenary plus having debates on the European Council will help in particular (though it's the regular debates and committee scrutiny which will really pay off).

Will these reforms be implemented? Ideally they would be in their entirety, but it would require more resources - particularly in the areas that would make the most difference (sectoral committees taking on EU work, rapporteurs, scrutiny of transposition). These are the most important elements of the report, so I hope that they won't be lost when it comes to reforming the system. There's also a clear need for more public information on the EU - especially with legislative proposals so people can get involved, talk to their TDs and MEPs and take greater control of European issues. European election campaigns would definitely be better if TDs and political party members had more experience with EU affairs and knew what they wanted to change. Over time, this could help the debate and make the European elections matter more. It will require a lot of time and effort, however.

An interesting question is: could the Council become more transparent through national parliaments? It wouldn't be satisfactory to have 27 different parts of the story in different languages rather than a single source which had multilingual information on the goings-on in the Council, but it would be a start. Transparency has never been the Council's strong point, and it is still letting us down, even after Lisbon. More inter-parliamentary contact will hopefully mean that subsidiarity becomes a bigger part of EU politics, and perhaps this contact will help national parliaments hammer out the "best practice" for dealing with the Council. It still seems like the inter-parliamentary aspect is lacking, though; it will be based on personal contacts, and, along with the language barrier, the lack of formal channels may make inter-parliamentary connections weak and vulnerable to personnel changes.


  1. The report contains many interesting ideas. The problem though is there is the Oireachtas is (in practice) hopelessly weak vis-a-vis the Government who tend to "do their own thing". Great reforms of the Oireachtas for EU issues don't matter if the Government just ignores the resulting work of the committees.

  2. Eurocentric,

    A cursory reading of the proposals gives me the feeling that they would roughly put into practice the scrutiny procedures in Denmark, Finland or Sweden (although there are differences between the Nordic countries).

    However, as P R suggests, the crucial issue is how the procedures are used.

  3. These proposals might not be revolutionary in EU terms, but it would be a huge leap forward for the Oireachtas.

    The Oireachtas is just as government-dominated as most other national parliaments. It's true that the committees can't order binding orders (except calling a minister up for scrutiny, etc.). However, most national business is government-dominated. The most glaring problem was that European law-making wasn't subject to the same scrutiny as national law-making - therefore transposing laws are not of as good a quality, and issues aren't hammered out as they might otherwise be. It's hard to strike a balance between effective government and a strong parliamentary role, and that's really part of a wider debate.

    I agree that it is up to the parliamentarians how much use they make of it, and how well resourced it will be. (Much the same can be said of any parliamentary procedures and business).