The European Union is a hot political topic and there are plenty of politicians willing to debate whether the UK should be 'in' or 'out', the future of the eurozone, or the repatriation of powers. Yet, although our membership of the EU affects almost every aspect of national life, not enough of them take a proactive interest in the issues beyond populist headlines. Too few MPs actively engage in forensic scrutiny of the detailed, often technical minutiae of policy and legislation emerging from Brussels. But the parliamentary scrutiny system itself is also part of the problem.
In a new collection of essays published by the Hansard Society, leading politicians, academics and commentators question whether the Westminster approach to European scrutiny is any longer fit for purpose. They explore how the system could be improved to address the democratic deficit and ensure that Parliament is more effective and influential in its scrutiny of European issues in the future.
Before tinkering with procedural reforms some challenging questions about the purpose of European scrutiny need to be answered. Do parliamentarians want to be better informed, actually shape decisions, or make the government change its mind? At present the system is largely one of document-based scrutiny that takes place once policy is decided. Should intervention take place at an earlier, more strategic stage, seeking to influence the development of policy and the outcome of negotiations? In a fast-moving policy and political environment involving 27 other countries, can Parliament move quickly enough - particularly during recess periods - to scrutinise some urgent EU matters on the timetable required? More radically, some prefer giving MPs more decisive influence through votes that would bind government. Should effort be expended in those areas where the UK has the power to act on its own, with a parliamentary vote binding action in areas where we have a veto? Each answer would shape the contours of reform in different ways.
A common thread running through many of the essays is that the House of Lords scrutiny model is better than that in the House of Commons. The House of Lords EU Committee is widely regarded as exemplary and its reports and recommendations are influential in Brussels. In contrast, the flaws in the Commons system of European scrutiny, which has hardly changed since it was first established in the early 1970s, are laid bare. The system badly needs updating and the European Scrutiny Committee is currently carrying out a much needed review.
Among the suggested reforms to mainstream European issues and weave scrutiny of them into the everyday fabric of the Commons are changes to departmental question time sessions so ministers are regularly held to account for the EU related aspects of their policy briefs. Elevating the post of Europe Minister to cabinet rank with its own question time session might provide greater accountability by making the post answerable to Parliament for all negotiations in Brussels.
Some see a role for greater involvement by departmental select committees, particularly through the introduction of a rapporteur model with responsibility for focusing on the EU dimension of their work. Committee reports could carry real weight by helping to strengthen the evidence base used by ministers in their negotiations with EU partners. Confirmation hearings by committees could be extended to include the post of the UK's Permanent Representation to the European Union (UKRep) and even our EU Commissioners. More engagement with parliamentarians and policy-makers in other countries is also recommended in order to more effectively co-ordinate the response of national parliaments to policy initiatives, something the new House of Lords EU Committee inquiry into the role of national parliaments will undoubtedly explore in more detail.
Can Westminster learn from how other parliaments scrutinise European issues? Drawing on their research as part of a pan-European project exploring the role of national parliaments after the Lisbon Treaty, Dr Ariella Huff and Dr Julie Smith, compare and contrast the Westminster system with that in the Dutch Tweede Kamer, the Danish Folketing, the German Bundestag and the Irish Oireachtas. They conclude that there is no single 'right' way to scrutinise EU affairs and that what works well in one parliament is not always effective in another: domestic political pressures, party dynamics and parliamentary culture all play their part.
Each contributor to this essay collection comes at the issues from a different perspective and they have different views on Britain's role in Europe. The ideas for reform outlined in these new essays are, however, not party-political, or pro or anti-European. Those who take diametrically opposed views on the EU and Britain's role in it could, nonetheless, find plenty of common ground in reform of the processes and procedures needed to underpin and improve scrutiny of European matters in the future.