Szájer: Sorting issues remains a political battlefield
By Gaspard Sebag | Wednesday 08 February 2012
József Szájer (EPP, Hungary) was the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the proposal for a regulation laying down the rules and general principles concerning mechanisms for control by member states of the Commission’s exercise of implementing powers.
Could you tell us the main differences between the old system and the new system?
The Parliament has gained rights over the Commission’s executive powers. We can control them. This creates a situation in which the powers of the Council, which have existed for quite a long time, are now extended to the Parliament. In both a symbolic and legal way this recognises the equal status of the two institutions.
Since the Parliament is the only European institution that has a direct link to voters, this means that voters now have access to things they didn’t have access to before and which had been managed between the Commission and Council. There are famous cases, such as the size of eggs or curvature of cucumbers, which are within this framework of control.
The Parliament has to organise itself in a way to keep a basic interest in some of the areas and to make sure the Commission is not left to its own devices. This is not easy because the Parliament is a much slower body than the Council and does not sit as often. Our rules of procedure have to be adopted in order to be more flexible to avoid being too late to veto or stop certain things when we don’t like them.
The Parliament has gained power in theory, but will this translate into real gains in practice?
This is a process. It has not happened overnight, in the [previous] procedures we already had a certain say, a certain insight. With the new treaty it’s clear that we have two completely different areas. One is delegated acts, where we delegate the powers but are the masters of these powers, together with the other legislator. So we can withdraw them, we can change them, we can veto them. In that area it is unquestionable that the Parliament has a very strong new power, which it will not exercise every day. The other area is implementing acts. There – and I shouldn’t even say this because this creates an instant fight, even in the Parliament – the area is left for member states to do their job: implementing EU legislation. The Commission can do with these executive powers whatever it wants and the member states, if they are applying European law at home, that’s also their own sphere of interest.
However, the distinction between which procedure to use is up to the legislator in certain cases and the fight is therefore between Commission or Council and Parliament. We want to push for delegated acts, where we have more powers and less for implementing acts. Obviously both Council and Commission, which so far were more or less free of parliamentary scrutiny in this area, don’t like these new powers.
My job was to create a situation in which we find a method to handle disputes about definitions. We created a balance: we cut back where we have real rights (delegated acts) and took somewhere else (implementing acts).
There were high expectations that we could set the rules and that from then on we would just apply them to the issues and things would sort themselves out. But this is not the case. The sorting out of issues remains a political battlefield if there is a priority. The rules are just guidelines. There can be agreement that departing from these pre-set rules may be better.
This is why I’m saying it’s a process. It started in the preliminary phase when it was not even in the treaty. Then it became a regulated area, which is much better. But it doesn’t mean that it’s 100% regulated. It still leaves a lot of room for negotiation.
Will the European Parliament bring some cases to the EU court?
In certain cases we are ready to go. I would find it advisable when I know that we are right and there is a lot of resistance. This would mean delays and all kinds of developments that are not positive. But I think it’s unavoidable that at some point we, or maybe another party, go to court to receive some guidance on certain areas that are not settled. This is why it’s better to settle certain areas because then if you operate according to those rules there is less need for either side to seek a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision from the court.
The Commission claims the new system is more transparent and clearer, at the same time it appears more complex.
Obviously it’s much more complex, because parliamentarians are dealing with legislation that was previously out of their competence. There are more agents on the field. For us, in the negotiations, a very important element was that in order for the Parliament to exercise its rights it needs time. We just cannot do it if we get a 15 day deadline, which would mean that for us this right exists on paper only. We agreed finally on a two months rule for certain objections and other areas. Members of the European Parliament still say that it’s too short but we also have to take into consideration that these decisions, in the area of delegated and implementing acts, are more or less executive decisions, implementing decisions, which cannot wait half a year to be implemented. Almost every session now we have a comitology decision.
How many MEPs understand the system?
More and more. The most important thing now is to really create a mechanism whereby we are sensitive toward this issue. If we have an important case coming up we should know about it. The Council has been doing comitology for decades. When industry (representatives) now come into an MEP’s office they very often speak about comitology. That was not the case before. They didn’t lobby MEPs because we did not have power here.
This is not just a new right that we can exercise if we wish to. It’s an obligation from now on. We have this right. We cannot tell the public that we have no influence in this area. Whether the exercise will be successful or not depends on how the outside world, various interests, constituents, lobbies, different representations and civil society view MEPs. If they see that we can have a real influence on that, then this right will strengthen with time.
In what ways can the system be improved?
Some atypical areas were not regulated in the treaty but that would need a treaty change. Now this issue is more or less settled. It’s not an urgent change but for future legislation it would be good to think that not only these two categories (delegated and implementing acts) exist.
The Council was a little bit difficult during the negotiations – not on general procedural things, but when it came to substantive issues, such as military procurement or industrial construction. There was a very strong interest in one or other member state that they wanted to keep out, not necessarily the Parliament, but rather the general public. Member states have certain information they wish to keep confidential and want to run their business behind closed doors. For international trade we had to have a special arrangement because of some special member state interests so we had to compromise on these.
There’s a huge area of the past where we are still stuck with the old procedure. So we are pushing the Commission to translate this into the new procedures as soon as possible. It takes a lot of bureaucratic energy to run through all of these things.
Now, this is a mechanism that is just starting to work. It’s not really at cruising speed. It will be there in one or two years’ time. Then we can judge whether it is a real improvement or not.
I approached this as a sociological exercise. What is on paper is important, but you have to see how these things interact, how people interact, how the different institutions and issues interact and then you can have a better picture of the whole. It depends very much on the members. Some people will be interested, some not.
From now on, it is standard procedure for everyone dealing with legislation to question the comitology aspect. This is good because sometimes going beyond the substance helps you understand how you will execute what you are legislating. That’s a new dimension which enters the minds of parliamentarians who normally do not have responsibility for executing decisions. As a pedagogical exercise it’s also a good thing.
“From now on, it is standard procedure for everyone dealing with legislation to question the comitology aspect”
The European Parliament’s comitology network has met 18 times since being set up in late 2007. In the wake of the 2006 comitology reform, the Parliament had to organise itself at administrative and political levels to be able to exercise its new powers.
The first level is administrative. The co-decision secretariat handles this. Its objective is to harmonise practices in Parliament. “Every [EP] committee is a planet unto itself,” explains an official. Each has its own approach. The co-decision secretariat consequently decided to put in place a) a help desk; b) internal training; and c) the comitology network. The latter has some 50 members: representatives of the secretariat of the EP committees (one or two persons), the unit in charge of receiving official documents, the legal service and lawyer-linguists.
In addition to harmonising practices, the comitology network also makes it possible to alert MEPs and awaken their interest. In every legislative text subject to the normal procedure, the rapporteur must establish, with the aid of the committees’ secretariat, whether or not to include provisions for delegated acts or executive measures. This is sometimes where things become blocked, as could be seen, for instance, on external financial instruments (see separate article). Since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, 136 legislative acts have been put through co-decision, 45 of which contain provisions on delegated acts (33%).
Four EP committees are regularly concerned by delegated acts: ENVI (environment, public health and food safety), TRAN (transport and tourism), ECON (economic and monetary affairs) and ITRE (industry, research and energy).
When a comitology matter is considered too political, it is referred to the Conference of Committee Chairmen and if necessary to the higher level, the Conference of Group Chairmen. Three vice-presidents are charged with discussing with the other institutions the provisions of delegated acts and implementing measures in conciliation. For the first half of this parliament they were Alejo Vidal-Quadras (EPP, Spain); Gianni Pittella (S&D, Italy); and Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulos (EPP, Greece). Those responsible for the next two and a half years will be appointed at the Parliament’s February plenary session in Strasbourg.
There is also a replica of the comitology network in the political groups.