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The European Affairs Committee
Up until 1979, no internal body of the National Assembly nor the Senate, was specifically tasked with following European issues. Each of the Assemblies in fact appointed representatives to sit in the European Parliament and to present, each year, an information report on the activities of that institution to the Foreign Affairs Committee. However, from 1979 on, the election of M.E.P.s by universal suffrage, has broken this institutional link and led to the setting-up in both the National Assembly and the Senate of a Delegation for the European Communities (renamed “Delegation for the European Union” in 1994).
The constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 provided these bodies with a constitutional status by setting up in each assembly a Committee in Charge of European Affairs (article 88-4 of the Constitution). Taking this change into account, article 151-1 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly in its wording resulting from the motion of May 27, 2009 set up a European Affairs Committee whose operation is close to that of a standing committee but whose missions, set down by law, are quite unusual.
I. – THE EUROPEAN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE - THE EUROPEAN “WATCHDOG” OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
1. – The composition of the European Affairs Committee
The rules of the constitution and the operation of the European Affairs Committee, laid down by article 151-1 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly, are very close to those of standing committees, with the exception of the four particularities which one finds in the vast majority of European affairs committees of the member states of the European Union:
- The number of its members is quite limited. Whilst the standing committees each have 73 members, the Rules of Procedure set the number of members of the European Affairs Committee at 48;
- Its members also belong to another standing committee. This is referred to as the principle of double-membership and its aim is to spread awareness of European issues throughout parliamentary work. In this way, the Rules of Procedure provide that the members be appointed in such a way as to ensure not only, as for every standing committee, a proportional representation of all political groups but also a balanced representation of all standing committees;
- Its members are appointed for the entire term of the Parliament. This specificity is linked to the very rhythm of the passing of European acts which is slower than that of national laws;
- The Committee may invite the French members of the European Parliament to take part in its work, with a consultative voice;
- For everything else – the make-up of the bureau (a chairman, four deputy chairmen and four secretaries), invitations to speak, votes, hearings of members of the Government – the organization is the same as for standing committees. Thus the chairman of the Committee takes part in the Conference of Presidents.
2. – The daily working of the European Affairs Committee
When the House is sitting, the European Affairs Committee usually meets once or twice a week, usually on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons (Wednesday morning is given over to meetings of the standing committees). The subjects of these meetings can vary: they can concern the interviewing of a minister, of a European commissioner or of a well-known figure. Alternatively, they can deal with the examination of information reports, of European acts, draft European resolutions, draft opinions on subsidiarity, etc.
These meetings may be open to French M.E.P.s or to other M.E.P.s. They are very often open to the press. Sometimes the delegation meets jointly with one or several standing committees, with the European Affairs Committee of the Senate or with the Foreign Affairs Committee of another Member State.
II. – AN INFORMATION AND MONITORING MANDATE CONCERNING EUROPEAN AFFAIRS
The main task of the European Affairs Committee is to follow all the work of the European Union in order to inform the National Assembly particularly through the publication of information reports, to ensure the prior examination of all draft resolutions which deal both with the content of European drafts and also with their compatibility with the principle of subsidiarty, as well as to inform the Government of its position on draft European acts.
1. – Informing M.P.s
a) A Broad Range of Sources of Information
To fulfil its role of shedding light on European work, the European Affairs Committee has, at its disposal, several sources of information.
First of all, it is the responsibility of the Government, since the entry into force of Law n° 2009-689 of June 15, 2009, to communicate, of its own initiative or upon the request of the chairman of the European Affairs Committee, all “necessary documents”. No further precision is made. This goes far beyond the “drafts of or proposals for acts of the European Union” which article 88-4 of the Constitution requires the Government to submit to Parliament upon their reception at the Council of the Union.
Thus the European Affairs Committee receives all documents which originate with the European institutions (drafts and proposals for Community instruments, White Papers, Green Papers, papers from the Commission, work programmes, reports etc.). Thanks to the development of the Internet and to the policy of openness implemented by the European Commission, the French Parliament can now be informed, in real time, of European draft legislation. The national Parliaments can now obtain, for themselves, all necessary documentation both rapidly and efficiently. This allows, in addition, every French M.P. to table a European draft resolution which may in fact since 2008, deal with “any document issuing from an institution of the European Union”.
The European Affairs Committee also carries out numerous and regular interviews, in particular with members of the Government and with eminent European personalities. It is thus that the Minister in Charge of European Affairs generally appears before the Committee after each European Council. Other ministers also appear depending on the current European situation. In addition, the Committee endeavours to organize interviews with main actors in the world of economics and social issues as well as M.P.s from other Member States or from countries which are candidates for accession.
b) A Broad Range of Means to Transmit the Work of the Committee
In addition to the publication of minutes of meetings, M.P.s are mainly informed through the publication of information reports. The Committee may examine the subjects of its choosing and this leads it to publish around thirty information reports every year of which certain contain comparative information on legislation applicable in the countries of the Union. Each of these is submitted to the Committee and may lead to the adoption of conclusions expressing the position of the Committee on a particular subject, or even to the passing of a draft resolution.
Every month the electronic newsletter of the European Affairs Committee sets out its work, inter-parliamentary meetings, a selection of European documents and an account of the jurisprudence at the Court of Justice of the European Union.
This work is easily accessed thanks to the existence of a specific section given over to the European Union, on the Internet site of the National Assembly. This page provides information on the make-up and the working of the Committee (presentation of the Committee, biographies of its members and even the procedures to be followed in the examination of European instruments) and provides on-line access to all the information reports, resolutions and to all the minutes of meetings as well as to current affairs files, comparative legislation studies and documentary resources on European construction. At the same time, a multimedia portal (Euromedia Space) which is accessible to all M.P.s, makes a broad selection of sites on European current affairs available.
c) Participation of the Committee in debates in Plenary Sitting
The European Affairs Committee also takes part, thanks to the speeches of its chairman, or one or several of its members, in the plenary sittings of the National Assembly given over to European issues.
Thus, since January 2003, a debate in plenary sitting is systematically held before every meeting of the European Council. Going even further, article 48 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly in its wording resulting from the motion of May 27, 2009, provides that one sitting during the week of sittings out of four which is given over to the monitoring of Government action and the assessment of public policies, shall give priority to European questions.
2. – The role of the committee in following the work of the European Union
a) The Committee Systematically Follows all Draft European Acts
The European Affairs Committee carries out, first of all, an examination of all drafts of or proposals for European acts which the Government submits to Parliament in accordance with article 88-4 of the Constitution (see article 151-2 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly). The body of documents so examined has considerably increased over the years of the construction of the European Union. Thus, upon its introduction in 1992, article 88-4 of the Constitution obliged the Government to transmit only those drafts of or proposals for acts of the European Communities and the European Union containing provisions of a statutory nature. In 1999 as part of the ratification process of the Amsterdam Treaty, a new possibility was granted to Government to lay before the assemblies European texts which, though not statutory in character, can be considered likely to give rise to Parliament taking a position. To complete this process, the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 extended the range of texts which had to be put before the assemblies by the Government to all drafts of, or proposals for, acts of the European Communities and the European Union transmitted to the Council of the European Union.
Thus around 500 instruments are referred to the European Affairs Committee every year.
Texts deemed of minor importance or that do not involve any specific difficulty are placed under point A of the Committee’s agenda, which means that they are approved without debate. Certain instruments dealing purely with technical issues may be tacitly approved.
The other texts, placed under point B of the agenda, are presented orally by the Chairman of the Committee or a specially appointed rapporteur who states the content and the explanatory memorandum of the draft European instrument, any feedback, compliance with the subsidiarity principle, legal basis adopted as well as the probable schedule for its examination. The examination sheets of all the E documents are regularly published as part of the Committee’s ‘balai’ reports (information reports on texts laid before the National Assembly in application of Article 88-4 of the Constitution).
As regards each of the texts which it so examines, the European Affairs Committee can decide:
- To approve the draft of or the proposal for a Community instrument;
- To defer taking a decision when it feels it lacks information to assess the scope of the text and it may possibly appoint an information rapporteur tasked with addressing in greater depth the examination of the document;
- To oppose the adoption of the draft of or the proposal for a Community instrument.
- Its decision may be accompanied by:
• The adoption of conclusions (text of a political character expressing the Committee’s point of view);
• The adoption of a draft resolution which, as it expresses a position of the National Assembly, in application of article 88-4 of the Constitution, will be communicated to one of the eight standing committees.
In order to have the time to examine all these documents, Parliament may implement a procedure called “parliamentary scrutiny reserve” which lays down that the Government must allow a minimum one-month period from the transmission to Parliament of a draft of or a proposal for a Community instrument. This one-month period is part of the six-week interval, laid down by the protocol on the role of national parliaments, appended to the Amsterdam Treaty, during which the Council of the Union cannot adopt a common position or a decision with respect to a legislative proposal received from the Commission.
b) The Committee Plays a Pivotal Role in the Consideration of the Draft European Resolutions of the National Assembly
The European Affairs Committee examines all draft European resolutions which may, in accordance with article 88-4 of the Constitution, deal not only with draft European acts which must be laid before Parliament by the Government but also with any document of whatever nature issuing from an institution of the European Union.
The right to table a resolution is not the sole prerogative of the European Affairs Committee but is also enjoyed by every M.P. Such resolutions which do not issue from the Committee are nonetheless referred to it for its prior consideration. It must, when the Government, the chairman of a group or the chairman of a standing committee so request, table its report within one month following this request.
One of the eight standing committees of the National Assembly, called the lead committee, then examines the text adopted by the European Affairs Committee or, if the latter has rejected it, the initial draft resolution. The standing committee may adopt the text as it stands, amend it or reject it. Nonetheless, since the reform of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly in 2009, the draft resolution is considered tacitly approved if the standing committee does not express its opinion within the month following the tabling of the report by the European Affairs Committee.
Within fifteen days of the publication by electronic means by the standing committee of the adopted or taken-as-adopted text, the draft resolution can be included on the agenda of the National Assembly, upon the request of a group chairman, a committee chairman, the chairman of a committee or the Government. If no request for inclusion on the agenda is made or if the Conference of Presidents rejects this request or makes no decision on it, the text adopted or taken-as-adopted by the lead committee is considered final. It is transmitted to the Government and published in the Journal Officiel (‘Laws and Decrees’ edition).
The resolutions are then transmitted to the Government and the General Secretariat for European Affairs (SGAE) begins the inter-ministerial examination. While, legally speaking, the Government is not bound by the resolutions, it is clear that any position taken by the National Assembly on a particular issue will have a political impact and that the Government will take it into account during the negotiations. In practice, many of the resolutions support the position defended by the Executive and even reinforce it, rather than contradict it.
c) Active Involvement in the Monitoring of Subsidiarity
The mechanism for the adoption of resolutions providing a reasoned opinion on the conformity of a European Act with the principle of subsidiarity, provided for in articles 151-9 and 151-10 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly, is identical to that for European resolutions laid down in article 88-4 of the Constitution. The time limits for examination set for the European Affairs Committee and for the standing committees are however reduced so as to allow the National Assembly to express an opinion within the eight weeks provided to national Parliaments in order to give their view.
The European Affairs Committee, in addition to carrying out a prior examination of draft resolutions initiated by M.P.s, also thus systematically monitors the conformity of regulations and directives to the principle of subsidiarity by taking the initiative itself, when it feels it appropriate, of tabling draft resolutions.
Thus, since September 1, 2006, upon the request of the President of the European Commission, in the framework of a trial period for this procedure, the European Affairs Committee has examined six instruments concerning their subsidiarity and proportionality. It has adopted two reasoned opinions which were approved by the relevant standing committees and which were considered-as-adopted by the National Assembly.
An identical procedure providing the European Affairs Committee with a central role, has come into force with the Lisbon Treaty and governs the adoption of resolutions aimed at introducing proceedings, in the two months following the publication of the relevant acts, before the Court of Justice of the European Union for violation of the principle of subsidiarity.
3. – A european perspective on national Government and members’ bills
In order to take the European context and the experience of other member states into account in French law-making, Article 151-1-1 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly, in the wording resulting from the text passed on May 27, 2009, provides that the European Affairs Committee may give a European perspective during the examination of national Government or Members’ bills dealing with an area covered by the activity of the European Union. It can do this by presenting observations, on the one hand, to the lead committee for the Government or Member’s bill and on the other hand, in plenary sitting when the Conference of Presidents invites it to do so.
III. – BETTER LINKS BETWEEN NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS IN THE EUROPEAN DECISION-MAKING PROCESS
Inter-parliamentary cooperation represents an important aspect of the activities of the European Affairs Committee which maintains permanent contacts with the Parliaments of the Union and of candidate countries.
1. – The increase in inter-parliamentary cooperation
As national parliaments are becoming involved in European affairs, so cooperation is strengthening between national and European parliamentary institutions. Thus during the French presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2008, twelve meetings brought together the representatives of the 27 Parliaments and of the European Parliament on major issues on the agenda of the European Union (meetings of the chairmen of the standing committees of the 27, Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union – COSAC –, joint parliamentary meetings on the initiative of the European Parliament).
At the same time, the European Affairs Committee takes part regularly in joint meetings with its counterparts from the 27. Thus it hosted in Paris, in the framework of the preparation of the French presidency of the European Union, 14 European Affairs Committees from the member states of the Union.
2. – Participation in the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees (COSAC)
COSAC is an inter-parliamentary conference created in 1989 upon the initiative of Laurent Fabius, then President of the National Assembly. It brings together every six months, in the country holding the European Union presidency, six representatives of the committees tasked with European affairs at the Union's parliaments and six European Parliament representatives. COSAC meetings allow parliamentarians to question the European Union Presidency-in-Office and adopt political contributions on European subjects. COSAC, which saw its existence enshrined in the protocol on the role of national parliaments appended to the Amsterdam Treaty, is also empowered to examine any legislative proposal or initiative in relation to the establishment of any area of freedom, security and justice which might have a direct bearing on the rights and freedoms of individuals. It also organizes concerted “tests” of subsidiarity by inviting all national Parliaments to provide prior monitoring to selected texts together.
COSAC contributions are transmitted to the European institutions, i.e. to the Council of Ministers, European Parliament and Commission.