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Speeches, Interviews

18.04.2006

European Conference on Subsidiarity, Keynote Speech by Josep Borrell Fontelles


"European Parliament and national parliaments - partners or competitors? The European perspective"

 

Thank you very much Mr. President, I think I have the great privilege of being able and being allowed to speak my own language here. And I will certainly try and do so in a way which will not be too diplomatic, I will say, because I don’t want to loose time, so I will go straight to the core of the matter. For the moment I am President of the European Parliament but before that and for many years I was President of the Commission for European Affairs of the Congress and the Senate in Spain, the Cortes in Spain. Therefore I can say that before I became a “chef” I was learning how to cook and I really saw the matter from both sides from which you can look at it and I really learned it right from the bottom up. I don’t want to make any institutional sort of patriotic statement here defending now the European Parliament vis-à-vis the National Parliaments because I think that we should avoid that, we have to avoid that the social being - as Marx was saying – determines the beings conscience, that’s not right we have to look at political matters with a certain objectivity and not with ideology. What we are trying to do in Europe is that we are trying to build a supra national democracy at the moment. It is an experiment which is completely new, has never been tried in the history of political organisation as such. Democracy as such developed in a different way and we can understand democracy when we are talking about a nation state but what we are trying to do is something that is much more difficult than building a democracy for one station, because we are trying to build supra-national democracy and, in addition to that, we want to have a democracy which creates a European being. It is very difficult to create a European democracy without a demos because democracy is the expression of a demos, a polis which exists already. It is the expression of a community that looks at itself as a community with its own values and which therefore in a very natural and intuitive way is created as democracy. This European democracy without a European demos is something which is very, very difficult. We are creating both at the same time the political system and the subject of that system at the same time. We have to give it a European spirit. We have to try and create both: we have to create the European spirit and the European democracy at the same time, we have to make sure that this European being, the European spirit, the European soal is created and emerges at the same time as the European democracy and that is what the European Parliament is trying to do, at least in part. When I came here there were quite a number of media people who came to me and who asked me: what do you think, does the European Parliament have to have more power? Is it replacing the national parliaments, because the press always wants drama and dramatic statements. They were not pleased at all when I told them: that’s not the idea, we are here to co-operate. They didn’t find that interesting at all: no controversy no interest. But, I still think that is exactly what we have to tell them: we are here to co-operate, everybody plays their own role in the creation of this supra-national democracy that we are trying to build, which will have to have its own rules. Sometimes it is rather difficult to accept these rules. During the French referendum I remember that there was one French Citizen who came to me and said: I am against the European Constitution, because the European Constitution says that European legislation has to have priority over French legislation, I am against that, I cannot accept that. I said to him, but that’s nothing new, that’s exactly what we have done since the Treaty of Rome and when the European Community was created, so for forty years that has been the case and he said to me: what, I didn’t even know that, but now that I know, I am against that as well, because that’s not how I see it and I cannot accept that a law which has been created by a supra-national institution or authority is more important than a law that my parliament votes for. And, yet, is has to be like that. We have to make sure that the European Parliament has to approve a directive to liberalise services in the European country, because if every country could create their own laws, well, we will never get there and we cannot make it possible for the national parliaments to come along and to pass laws which would invalidate the European law, that doesn’t work. As a European state, as a European union we have to have laws at the level of the European Union and it is necessary that these have priority over the laws that are established at other levels. The problem is only: what sort of things should these European rules, European standards deal with, on what do we need European rules? When you are talking about the European Parliament that is thought to be more powerful, I like to remind everybody here of two things. First of all, the European Parliament doesn’t have a capacity of initiative, it cannot say what it wants to legislate on, it can only legislate on matters the Commission proposes to it; that is a very strict limitation which you do not have in national parliaments. The European Parliament cannot come along and say: I would like to make a law on this  issue or the other. It can only legislate on matters suggested to it by the Commission and that is why the control of subsidiarity and the limits of any legislative action that the European Parliament has to live with are to be seen in what the Commission tells the Parliament to do. Because if the Commission doesn’t give the Parliament the task to legislate, the European Parliament cannot legislate.  We only look at the European Parliament, but it is not the only legislator for Europe, we have two legislators for Europe. We have the Council as well, and when we are talking about the balance between the national parliaments and the European legislator we shouldn’t forget that there are two European legislators: we have the Parliament and the Council. People normally forget that one of the fundamental roles of the national parliaments is to control this European legislator, namely the Council. The Council is made up of representatives of the governments of the individual countries and they act as legislators that are delegated by their own national parliaments to act as such. When I was Minister in the European Government I left Madrid dressed as a Minister and then I had to sit down in Brussels as a Councillor, member of the Council, and there I became a legislator and I had to make laws. It is called the Council of Ministers but that’s not what it is, it is a Senate, it is the representatives of the states that make laws. The national Parliaments as I said have to control the Government representatives when they act as legislators in Brussels and there diversity is huge between national parliaments because the national parliaments do control their governments, they tell them what to do very, very clearly. There are also parliaments who look at these laws a-posteriori. There is no antagonism with the European Parliament there, but the control by the national parliament of this European legislator, namely the Council, is very important.

The second thing that we have to try and do is to limit the area in which the Commission proposes and the Council and the European Parliament dispose. Now, in the Convention it is a great shame that we haven’t really approved this, we haven’t been able to approve it in the text, there was a huge progress made in this area, because this is exactly what we said in the text of the Constitution: we said that national parliaments should make sure that various initiatives should not enter into competition with their own tasks. I am quite sure that sooner or later this new role of national parliaments will be enshrined in a constitution and will become a reality because nobody better than the national parliament will know whether a legislative initiative at European level – and would like to insist that it does not come from the European Parliament but rather from the Commission – invades the areas and the competences which should be left to the countries and to their own national parliaments. We also have quite a lot of literature on these subjects already and sometimes caricatures as well. Just remember the directive on the protection of workers against cathodic radiation. Now, when this directive was discussed in the Parliament there was a caricature in the whole of Europe which said that Europe wants to legislate on the protection of workers against the sun and the radiation coming from the sun and in Berlin they were even saying that Europe wants to define how big umbrellas where to be set, in Austria they said: Austria wants to legislate on how far the sun can shine into rooms and in Spain it was said that Europe wants to legislate on what suntan lotion should contain. I said that’s a caricature because that’s not at all what we wanted to do. By definition it was excluded to talk about sun radiation it was only radiations that stem from screens and television screens etc. That is just to show you that this has nothing to do with reality, that very often when we talk about community legislation we really see the caricature only, we turn things into the ridiculous and that has nothing to do with what we are really trying to do. As I see it there are things which are better to be settled at European level rather than at regional or at local level, otherwise why would be here? We are here because there is a value added to get together and to talk about things that are better discussed at a higher level and where it is easier to find a solution at a higher level rather than at the lower one. It is quite true that sometimes the border-line is very tight and it is also true that there are some laws and regulations which have been adopted and that are not really in line with that, so we have to be very careful when talking about the competences and saying that there is a European authority and that there are national authorities and when we try to have a division of competences there. And as I see that is exactly where the problem is: Europe has to define better what sort of competences are to be given to the European Union. If you have a good definition of competences for the European Union then I think many of the problems that we are calling subsidiarity or whatever it is, would be solved, because everybody would then know clearly what they have to do and we wouldn’t always have this dilemma that one person says: you are doing what I should be doing. And there again the Constitution made enormous progress because it clarified these competences. It said what should be exclusive competences, shared competences and divided competences. But, unfortunately again, we didn’t accept this. If we really accept only exclusive competences, well even then there will always be a friction when we are talking about shared competences. We will have to define how far this sharing goes, who plays what part of this competence and that is something that judges will never be able to solve. Control of subsidiarity, well, I think this cannot really be left to the courts because subsidiarity is one of the most political concepts that you can have. Therefore, the definition and the assessment of subsidiarity has to be done at the political level. But who can do this best? There will be different interpretations of subsidiarity. I am quite sure that in different countries there will be different answers to the question depending on the structure, the organisation, the internal structure of the individual countries which is very centralised in some countries and very federal in others. So, I think we shouldn’t really make this concept a traditional one and we shouldn’t hand it over to the courts. We have to see it as it is, namely a way in which you can define the responsibilities of the individual levels of the Government and that is why, as I said, we have to start first of all by defining better where the competences of the European Union lie. If we don’t do that, there will be a permanent conflict. If we define these various levels of competence properly, we can t make sure that the practice and the control of the national parliaments versus the European Parliament but especially over what the Commission and the Council do, will be much better delimitated. There are some subjects which we all deal with. There is this famous strategy of Lisbon that is something where the national parliaments have to play their role because eighty percent of the policies established according this strategy are policies that touch the state competence, the member states’ competence and Europe cannot say that that is something that the national states shouldn’t do. Therefore, the national parliaments have a fundamental role to play in this strategy. But, this is always a way in which you can in addition to that have an added value at European level where you can do things in synergy and where it is easier and better to do things together sometimes. As I said that is why we have to work towards defining better also the reasons for which we have created the European Union. Why does it exist? It seems that this a question which has been answered a long time ago, but it hasn’t. Because we would like the Europeans to do more together than we did in the past. More Europeans, more European countries who can share the same values and who can work together politically. So, that is a question to which we have no clear answers. The Convention tries to look at it but today we have new member states and there will be other member states joining us, so that the question of the reasons why we as Europeans want to work together has to be looked at again, I think, and we have to find a definition and a political commitment which we are trying to build at the moment. Because there are things which simply by doing them together you do them with much more strength. We could of course do them separately and individually as well. Let me give you an example. The quality of water, well, every country could define the quality of its waters for bathers separately but there is a European standard which says what sort of quality waters have to have if you want to go and swim in it. That is why I think these laws are much stronger if we define them as Europeans because there are many, many Europeans who define what sort of water they want to go and swim in, despite the fact that they don’t have a seashore themselves. The policy of each country therefore will lead to a greater protection of the environment. There are things where everybody could say: I want to do this myself, I know what to say here, but there is this value added which comes from the fact that we define these things together as Europeans at European level. Because we are looking for aims that will benefit all of us, independent of the fact that we belong to one state rather than another one. That is an important thing and that is something we have to look at because we have to see whether the efficiency is greater if laws are fixed at the regional level, and there are others where things are more efficient if they are defined at a higher level and sometimes if they are defined at a higher level, it does not work at all. That is true, for example, for certain areas of town and country planning. But, I have to say that in the recent past the national parliaments and the European Parliament really have made much progress. We got together very, very often to look at the directive for services, the Lisbon Strategy, the budgets, etc., areas were the European parliament and the national parliaments have a shared responsibility. On the eight and ninth of May we are coming together again in Brussels for a important meeting between the national parliaments and the European Parliament where we are taking no sort of precedence at all. The institution which I have the honour to present does in no way want to be seen as a primus inter pares, and we don’t say that we want to have the main voice there. Everybody has their own responsibilities but I think if we put these responsibilities together we can give a much better dynamism to the European project. I hope that this will not be the last time that we will meet and I think on that basis we will find the right way for an effective common development.

 

Date: 20.04.2006