The European partnership of national parliaments within the Parliamentary Assembly

 

Doc. 7903

8 September 1997

 

ACTIVITY REPORT 1993-1997

Rapporteur: Mr Francesco Enrico Speroni, Italy, not registered in a group


Summary

After referring to the Parliamentary Assembly's support for the development of the activities of the Committee on Parliamentary and Public Relations, whose terms of reference were widened for that reason in 1990 and 1993, the Rapporteur reviews the work done in the past three years, distinguishing between that relating to follow-up to the Assembly's proceedings in national parliaments and that concerning the role of parliamentarians in respect of the various factors for social change.

With regard to follow-up to the Assembly's activities, the Rapporteur makes a detailed analysis of the difficulties encountered and puts forward some practical proposals for improving the situation. The description of activities belonging to the second part of the Committee's work emphasises the unprecedented nature of the studies, seminars and conferences conducted so far for the purpose of adapting parliaments to new challenges which call in question their functioning and their role in the process of European construction.

I. Draft resolution [link to adopted text]

1. Representative democracy is facing enormous challenges from globalisation and the development of new technologies, and national parliaments will have to adapt if they wish to remain at the heart of political debate and thus ensure greater citizen involvement in public affairs.

2. Representative democracy is also suffering from a weakening of national sovereignty, due both to the reduction of state powers as a result of the integration of the member countries of the European Union and, more generally, to the constraints arising from international agreements such as those produced by the World Trade Organisation.

3. Among the possible solutions to the imbalances affecting the functioning of pluralist democracies, the restoral of the powers of national parliaments is plainly essential.

4. However, if they are to be successful, efforts at national level to counter the effects of the challenges facing representative democracy must fit into a process of European co-operation that creates tangible solidarity between national parliaments.

5. The most suitable framework for such co-operation is quite obviously the Parliamentary Assembly, which is part of an institution founded 50 years ago to foster the political integration of the European continent, based on European civil society and a new European democracy. The framework for this political project was to be a European constitution, to be drafted by the Parliamentary Assembly.

6. This task of political integration is all the more crucial today, now that the Council of Europe includes almost all of the countries in our continent and the European Union is focusing its efforts on economic and monetary union, while the Western European Union is stepping up its work in the field of defence.

7. In order to be effective, however, co-operation demands vigorous efforts from the national delegations in support of the work of the Council of Europe in general and of the Assembly in particular.

8. In this connection, it has to be said that the texts adopted by the Assembly are not receiving satisfactory follow-up at present. There are various reasons for this, including, for instance, the difficulties involved in establishing the actual relevance of the issues of European significance dealt with by the Assembly to issues of topical interest in the forty member countries, as well as those involved in devising texts for adoption by the Assembly whose form and content can be transposed into national contexts.

9. Alongside follow-up to the Assembly's work, the efforts by the Committee on Parliamentary and Public Relations to involve parliamentarians who are not members of national delegations in its activities concerning the functioning of democratic institutions do much to strengthen the links between national parliaments.

10. The Assembly therefore invites:

a) the Committee on Parliamentary and Public Relations:

i. to review periodically, in conjunction with the national delegations, the latest developments in national parliamentary activities, and to select texts not only according to the importance of the European issues covered but also according to their relevance to national situations;

ii. to reconsider the present format of the texts submitted to the Assembly for adoption so that they can be more easily adapted to national situations;

iii. to develop, on the basis of its studies concerning the operation of democratic institutions, such interparliamentary co-operation as will consolidate representative democracy in the member states and meet the technical assistance requirements of the new democracies in central and eastern Europe;

b) the national delegations:

i. to submit the resolutions and recommendations adopted by the Assembly to the appropriate national parliamentary committees, except, of course, for texts deemed to have been overtaken by events that occur shortly after their adoption;

ii. to put regular written or oral questions to their governments about follow-up to the activities of the Council of Europe;

iii. to take steps to ensure that the conventions adopted by the Committee of Ministers are submitted to the appropriate national parliamentary committee by a member of the relevant Assembly committee before they are ratified in plenary sittings;

iv. if necessary, to draft parliamentary bills to speed up the signing or ratification of Council of Europe conventions;

v. to ensure that plenary debates are held on reports concerning the Council of Europe's activities prepared either by the appropriate parliamentary committee or by their country's Ministry for Foreign Affairs;

vi. to prepare annual reports for the Committee on Parliamentary and Public Relations on the follow-up given in national parliaments to the work of the Council of Europe.

II. Explanatory memorandum by Mr Speroni

I. FOREWORD

1. The committee used to present an activity report regularly to the Assembly, but with the evolution of its activities decided to suspend this practice temporarily in order to take stock before submitting a further report.

II. PROGRESSIVE EXTENSION OF THE COMMITTEE'S ROLE AND ACTIVITIES

2. Aware that the Council of Europe was little-known in most national parliaments despite their institutional representation in the Council, the Assembly decided in 1956 to set up a working party to maintain links with national parliaments. In 1961 it was placed on a permanent footing and in 1963 its terms of reference were extended to take in relations with the public, the press included. It was assigned general committee status in July 1968 during the reorganisation of the Parliamentary Assembly's committee system.

3. The activity reports presented by the committee subsequently indicated that the situation was not undergoing any appreciable change. The political gravity of this state of affairs prompted the committee in 1987 to reconsider its activities concerning relations with national parliaments in order to make the situation move in the right direction. Three orders marked the stages of this exercise.

4. The first — Order No. 450 (1989) concerning traditional activities and the other two — Orders Nos. 452 (1990) and 489 (1993) extended the committee's terms of reference to include activities on the operation of democratic institutions, intended to provide a basis for furthering parliamentary co-operation.

5. In addition, the committee recently embarked on a reform of its arrangements for co-operation with NGOs enjoying consultative status with the Council of Europe. This had two aims: improving the effectiveness and results of work carried out in conjunction with the NGOs, and performing its role of liaison between the NGOs and the other Assembly committees more satisfactorily.

III. RELATIONS WITH THE NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS

A. Traditional activities: giving prominence to the Assembly's work

a. Drafting and presentation of Assembly texts

6. Order No. 450 (1989) laid down the criteria on which the form and presentation of the texts of resolutions and recommendations were altered so as to make them more digestible.

7. The change in the form of the texts is nevertheless but one facet of a policy aimed at increasing their impact both in parliaments and on public opinion. Other elements are the action required of national delegations to acquaint their national parliaments with the texts, and the scope for adapting the proposals therein to national situations.

b. Follow-up to texts adopted by the Assembly

8. After each Assembly part-session the committee selects as appropriate two or three of the texts adopted by the Assembly and puts forward model questions intended to be used by the national delegations in the form of oral or written questions to the competent ministers of their governments.

9. Apart from a few delegations (the UK and Germany in particular), a lack of real determination to give these texts consistent follow-up is observed.

10. Admittedly there are initiatives by certain Assembly members on other texts than those selected by the committee, but they are not at all numerous.

11. Furthermore, governmental replies to the questions are seldom substantial or decisive.

12. The unsatisfactory nature of such a process may involve objective difficulties: shortage of time for initiatives of that sort when members of national delegations return to the political and mayoral duties awaiting them at home; limited interest of the adopted texts in relation to current parliamentary affairs in the country; mismatch between general proposals and the specific situation in each country.

13. These difficulties call for a thorough examination of the following:

14. Heads of delegation should be drawn into the committee's proceedings on the last two subjects, or should meet in their own capacity and associate the committee members. The proposed meetings should coincide with Standing Committee meetings. However, the success derived from the possible results of this appraisal — should the Assembly decide to accept the proposals made — will be commensurate with each Assembly member's degree of purposiveness.

15. Presenting reports on Council of Europe activities, which not all national parliaments do, and discussing them where a debate is held, scores no appreciable gain in notoriety for the Council. Each national delegation should reflect on this and present the committee with its appraisal.

c. Visits to national parliaments

16. The conception and organisation of the visits made by the committee have evolved over the last seven years. Formerly conceived as a mere public relations operation, they have developed into meetings with a very full agenda covering matters of immediate concern to the host country, chosen in the light of their relevance to fields where there is or has been work of major interest by the Council of Europe. These meetings therefore provide the opportunity to give the host country's parliamentarians a definite idea of the Council of Europe. The press conferences held on the second day lend an additional media dimension to the event.

17. It should be pointed out that the theme of relations between media and political leaders, or between media and democracy, and that of the media situation in countries which joined the Council of Europe after 1989, have brought the committee into contact with directors of TV channels, radio stations and newspapers.

18. On every such occasion, exchanges of views have made it possible to clarify the distinctions between the Council of Europe and the European Union, which are often confused, albeit not to the advantage of the Council of Europe.

19. The parliament of the host country is usually represented not only by the delegation members but also by non-member politicians and by ministers or secretaries of state who are invited to give talks and participate in discussions.

20. These twice-yearly visits to two different parliaments have limited impact within an organisation which numbers forty member states.

B. Recent activities: interparliamentary co-operation

21. In order to widen the Parliamentary Assembly's audience in national parliaments and strengthen its links with them, the committee has concluded that it would be of the utmost expediency to promote a type of interparliamentary co-operation involving those members of national parliaments not belonging to the Assembly delegations.

22. In order to tie up with the activities conducted by other Assembly committees and raise the parliamentarians' direct interest, such co-operation concerns subjects with specific bearing on the parliamentary function and, more broadly, the functioning of democracy. This has opened up an extensive field of activities, which are beginning to show results, on parliamentarians' status, legislative initiative, control over the executive, the role of parliaments in European construction, and their attitude to the media and the new technologies.

23. Involvement of representatives not members of delegations is achieved in two types of gathering, the interparliamentary conferences attended solely by elected representatives, and the seminars (more technical meetings) which bring together parliamentarians, parliamentary staff and experts.

a. Interparliamentary conferences

24. Three conferences have been held so far, at Brussels in 1992, the French Senate in September 1993 and the French Chamber of Deputies in 1996. Parliaments were represented at the conferences chiefly by the chairs or vice-chairs of committees having the subjects on the order of business in their remit, accompanied in some cases by the Speaker of a House. The Assemblies of other European organisations, namely Benelux, Western European Union and the European Parliament, were also represented.

25. The theme running through these conferences, and comprising other themes, has been European construction on a continental scale and the present and potential role of parliaments in this great undertaking.

26. The conferences had the virtue of demonstrating that Europe could not be scaled down to the dimension of the countries represented in the Union. While underlining the latter's decisive role, the exchanges highlighted the need to pursue European policies relating to the whole of Europe, coupled with the policies conducted by the Union, in which the Council of Europe should assume a prominent role duly supported (not yet the case) by adequate resources from the member governments.

27. The reports on this subject drawn up by the Political Affairs Committee, particularly the one by MM. Martínez and Seitlinger on the preparation of the Second Summit of Heads of State and Government, drew inspiration from the proceedings of the conferences.

28. A fourth conference is scheduled in Kyiv on 16 and 17 March 1998; the programme is in preparation.

b. Seminars

29. Two seminars on very topical themes have been organised, one in Paris in 1995 on "electronic democracy" and another in Strasbourg in 1996 on "democratic functioning of parliaments".

30. When the committee organised the first seminar, the Assembly became the first European parliamentary institution to open a debate on the challenges which the new communication technologies raise for the functioning of representative democracy. Besides parliamentarians and experts (including a prominent expert from the United States), specialised media and a television channel (Arte) contributed to the success of the meeting. The seminar proceedings resulted in the presentation by Mr Masseret of the committee's report to the Assembly. The resolution was adopted with a very substantial majority in April 1997.

31. The seminar on "Democratic functioning of parliaments" was preceded by studies which required over four years of work on the subjects of parliamentarians' status, legislative initiative and control over the executive. For the first time, comparative studies (rather than case studies) on parliamentary systems were made in the aforementioned areas. Twenty-seven countries were covered. The comparative studies were compiled from replies to questionnaires sent to the specialised departments of the national parliaments and prepared by constitutional law experts.

32. The exchanges among the hundred participants made it possible to fine-tune the experts' analyses. Mr Moser will present the Assembly with a report on this work before the end of the year.

33. Lastly, the committee has addressed an issue which is regaining prominence because of citizens' growing aspiration to participate more in public affairs: recourse to referendum. Here too, in-depth work in the form of a comparative analysis covering twenty-eight countries by a Swiss expert, Mr Möckli, preceded the committee's report presented by Mr Columberg in April 1997 and adopted with a clear majority.

IV. PUBLIC RELATIONS

1. Celebration of the 50th anniversary

34. The committee has appointed Mr Staes rapporteur to initiate discussion concerning the Assembly's contribution to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Council of Europe.

35. A report is being revised in the light of comments made by the political groups and the national delegations which were consulted on a preliminary draft.

2. Relations with NGOs

36. The appointment of a sub-committee on relations with NGOs, replacing the Joint Committee "Parliamentarians-NGO Liaison Committee" should give fresh impetus to co-operation between the Assembly and the NGOs. Two proposed activities are under consideration:

V. CONCLUSIONS

37. The assessment of the committee's interparliamentary co-operation activities is unquestionably positive. The challenges facing democracy represent one of the major problems for our societies. Democracy is attained by perseverance, so the work carried out cannot be considered exhaustive. It provides a basis for both new and older democracies to pursue a very rewarding inquiry and exchange of experience guaranteeing future progress.

38. On the other hand, the committee's efforts to stimulate parliamentary action on texts adopted by the Assembly are not enough to secure satisfactory results.

35. Self-criticism is imperative where each delegation is concerned, and also as regards the conception of reports and the choice of their subjects. The questions raised in paragraphs 12 and 13 can no longer be evaded. The Assembly's contribution to European construction partly depends on how these questions may be answered.


Appendix


Reporting committee: Committee on Parliamentary and Public Relations

Budgetary implications for the Assembly: none

Reference to committee: Order No. 452

Draft resolution adopted by the committee on 5 September 1997

Members of the committee: MM. Jansson (Chairman), Kelam (Vice-Chairman), Mrs Arnold, Mr Berceanu, Sir Andrew Bowden, MM. Brennan, Bugli, Mrs Bušic (Alternate: M. Domljan, Vice-Chairman), MM. Cardona, Christodoulides, Dagys, Diacov, Dzasokhov, Eversdijk, Mrs Fernandez de la Vega, MM. Fogaš (Alternate: Fico), Gross, Mrs Grzeskowiak, MM. Henry (Alternate: Staes), Horn, Hughes (Alternate: Sir Donald Thompson), Jónsson, Kelemen, Kotlar, Koulouris, Külahli, Lauricella (Alternate: Mrs Squarcialupi, Vice-Chairman), Lekberg, Likhachev, Loufti, Lummer (Alternate: Siebert), Martins (Alternate: Pereira Marques), Mignon, Minarolli, Moser, Mrs Nistad, MM. Pahor, Pantelejevs, Regenwetter, Samofalov (Alternate: Popescu), Speroni, Svoboda

N.B. The names of those members who took part in the vote are printed in italics.

Secretary to the committee: Mr La Porta