In favour of a European senate

Le, 8 october 2014, Strade, 8 october 2014

Since the start of the economic and financial crisis in 2009, EU citizens have looked on helplessly at the pointless power play between those member-States who support supply-based policies and those who support demand-based policies. More than six months after the invasion and annexation of Crimea by Moscow and while Russian forces are pursuing, in spite of the truce, their military conquest of the Donets Basin, we are still waiting for the promised start of a real European energy policy. These are two emblematic examples of the state of our Union. Naturally, the criticism is flying thick and fast and it is aimed at the European Commission, and even the European Parliament, but not, strangely enough, at the Council of Ministers, even though this institution – which was one of the cornerstones of the original institutional triangle gathering ministers from the 28 member-States (by area of responsibility: agriculture, finances, transport etc.) – participates in the European legislative process in the same way as the European parliament does (the notorious co-decision procedure). Together with the European Parliament, it amends, validates or rejects directive proposals submitted by the Commission. It has little visibility but still borrows from diplomatic practices. Most of its work is done by diplomats (Coreper) 1 who, obliged by a sense of group spirit, are more answerable to their respective “Quay d’Orsay” than to their national governments and, even more so, their relevant minister.

In addition, after the triangle became a quadrangle with the creation of the European Council (a real conceptual and semantic feat!), the Council (of Ministers) was relegated to the role of executive for the new supreme institution. Citizens were as lost as ever in the European institutional maze. Only the media were happy about it. Contrary to the tedious practice of parliamentary chronicles, the much-heralded gathering of 28 heads of State and Government working things out to the last detail provides excellent publicity. Nevertheless, two institutions – the Council (of Ministers) and the European Council (of heads of State and Government) – now represent Nation-States within the EU. One institution too many? A lot of people, especially those who, along with Luuk Van Middelaar, 2 have developed the idea of a European club, think that we have gone too far, that there is no turning back and that both institutions should remain in their current form. We would be condemned to a double life sentence of an evanescent Council of Ministers and a never-ending series of “last-chance summits” – which, incidentally, are challenged by the four wise men in their report “Remaking Europe: Framework for a Policy”. 3

However, if, as is affirmed by many commentators, a substantial amount of the laws passed by national parliaments are directly or indirectly derived from “Brussels”, then entrusting 28 heads of State and Government (and their invisible Sherpas) with the development of major economic and political solutions only exasperates ideological and national positions.

Would it not be possible to promote a clearer definition of the roles of both institutions instead? The Council of Ministers (which actually “has no legislative function” 4), which could, ideally, include the Presidents of the Commission, Council, Parliament and European Central Bank, would keep its roles of providing “incentive” and “defining the general political orientations and priorities”, hence remaining the place for a bi-annual meeting of heads of State and Government while formally becoming the Union’s Constitutional Council, where decisions on the Union’s possible constitutional amendments are taken – such decisions that directly affect the sovereignty of Nation-States.

The Council (of Ministers) would effectively become “the Senate of member-States”. 5 And if it could be defined, as Pascal Lamy puts it, as “a Westphalian authority in which the State’s interests are represented”, it is not doomed to remain a purely diplomatic institution. There is room for its institutionalization, its “parliamentarianization” which would bring about shifts in national interests, to marginalize or even transcend its exchange voting mechanisms, to “un-diplomatize” it and turn it into a real interface between national institutions (government and parliament) and European institutions.

Such a reform would require neither another transfer of responsibilities nor any real institutional upheaval. As a replacement for existing specialized bodies, member-States would send five or six ministers 6 to the Council to oversee several deputy ministers 7 in their respective governments. The former would assume political responsibility for their main ministry and would help, within the Senate, to defend their government’s policy and make up other policies with other member-States: the latter would run daily affairs in their relevant ministry.

Within member-States, the change would be relatively small. It would be the culmination of an ongoing process. As a matter of fact, governments are usually already organised around key-ministries led by superministers, who are sometimes called Vice-Prime Ministers or Ministers of State. The real changes would be organisational. It would be about making the agendas of national governments and parliaments compatible with those of the Senate, by dedicating, for example, the first part of the week to government work and the second one to senatorial work. In order to create a real institutional dynamic (debates, reports, amendments…), European senators would not have recourse to a deputy (excepting non-professional emergencies).

This institutional transformation would also pave the way for a functional answer to the question of how national parliaments are to be involved in European political life. Consistent communication between the European minister-senator and the members of the relevant commission of the national parliament throughout the legislative itinerary of a European draft directive would allow the former to take their country’s parliamentary positions into account and the latter to fully comprehend the positions of the 27 other States. This would not rule out – providing budgetary control were to remain largely in the hands of the member-States – organizing, as suggested by Alain Lamassoure, regular meetings of delegations of national parliamentary commissions, European Parliament representatives and members of the Council.

If, as we believe, the choice faced by Europeans cannot be boiled down to “either opting for a federal Europe, ‘a European United States’, or going back to our nationalist habits”, 8 then we cannot be content with the current status quo. Although the Federation of Nation-States – Jacques Delors’ oxymoron – remains a good approach to European construction, this sui generis institutional object must be completed: a federation of Nation-States and citizens. Its legitimacy would be twofold – based both on EU citizens and member-States. It is therefore essential to reinforce, rationalize and… democratize the action of governments within the EU decision-making process.


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  1. The Permanent Representatives Committee. It is responsible for preparing the work of the Council (of Ministers) and consists of Member States’ ambassadors to the European Union.
  2. Luuk Van Middelaar, The Passage to Europe, 2012
  3. “Remaking Europe – Framework for a Policy”, report by Pierre de Boissieu, Tom de Bruijn, Antonio Vitorino and Stephen Wall, September 2013
  4. Article 15 (1) of the Treaty on European Union
  5. Pascal Lamy, L’Europe après la crise (Europe after the Crisis), Regards croisés sur l’économie, N. 11, June 2012
  6. For example: a minister of Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence overseeing ministries of Foreign Relations, Defence and Development Cooperation; a minister of Economic, Social and Financial Affairs overseeing ministries of Finances, Economy, Social Affairs and Budget; a minister of Environment and Energy overseeing ministries of Environment, Agriculture, Energy and Transport… and a minister without a portfolio in charge of monitoring all other matters within their “European” dimension.
  7. Terminology differs from one State to the next – Deputy Ministers or State Secretaries in France, Undersecretaries in Italy, State Secretaries in Germany or Belgium…
  8. Debout l’Europe ! Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Guy Verhofstadt, Actes Sud, André Versaille Editeur, 2012, p. 60

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