Doc. 9485

11 June 2002

Parliamentary scrutiny of international institutions

Opinion1

Committee on Economic Affairs and Development

Rapporteur: Mrs Rosmarie Zapfl-Helbling, Switzerland, Group of the European People’s Party

I.       Conclusions of the committee

1.       There are at least two ways in which the role of parliaments in developing public policy can be strengthened in our present era of globalisation, multilateral institutions and international agreements. The first consists in encouraging national parliaments closely to follow the work of the international organisations concerned, commenting on their work and inciting their own governments to pursue certain lines of action. National governments should also be encouraged to submit early drafts of forthcoming agreements to parliament for comment.

2.       Secondly, greater use must be made of international parliamentary bodies – whether at world or at world-regional level – in overseeing the work of the international organisations concerned. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has been steadfastly pursuing this policy for the benefit of the parliaments and citizens of its member states.

3.       At a time of considerable public apprehension over the direction and content of globalisation, a parliamentary role is essential. Greater parliamentary influence throughout any given inter-governmental negotiation process can help to shape the final outcome in ways that are more in line with the sentiments of the citizenry. Finally, a greater parliamentary say will also bring home the point that – in an era when countries are increasingly forced to find joint solutions to joint problems – it is not only governments that need to be involved, but also, and especially, the institutions that give governments their mandate and derive their authority directly from the people, namely parliaments.

II.       Explanatory memorandum by the rapporteur

1.       It is a hallmark of parliamentary democracy that a country’s parliament should shape national policies through the legislation it enacts, and that it should influence national political life through its debates and through the public discourse of its members. National governments in democratic countries indeed emanate from majorities in parliament, with the latter constituting the ultimate political authority.

2.       However, when countries come together to find solutions to problems of common concern, the link between decision-making power and parliament becomes much less direct. Whether we are talking about international organisations, or about conferences convened for a specific purpose, government representatives reach agreement and then return home and announce to their parliament and the general public what they have achieved. The national parliament is often placed before a fait accompli, since any attempt to modify an agreement negotiated by the government is likely to necessitate a new conference. International agreements reached by governments without any parliamentary input therefore often signify a retreat from parliamentary democracy.

3.       That is why the draft report presented by Mr Toshev on behalf of the Political Affairs Committee of our Assembly is so important. The Committee on Economic Affairs and Development supports the general thrust of the report and accompanying draft Resolution, which it considers an constructive first contribution to a public debate in the years to come on how the ‘democratic deficit’ of international institutions may be overcome or at least considerably reduced. What follows in the present Opinion on Mr Toshev’s report are therefore general observations meant to carry the debate further.

4.       In our present era of accelerating globalisation, the need to reach international agreement on a growing number of subjects accentuates the problem. International organisations and treaty-making conferences were always in response to the requirements of internationalisation. Today they increasingly try to deal with issues caused by globalisation. Only rarely, however, do such institutions possess a parliamentary body.

5.       The above also applies, for example, to the international organisation responsible for managing trade globalisation, namely the World Trade Organisation. Here, intergovernmental summits are convened and agreements hammered out – after years of pre-summit talks – in the course of a few final days and nights of breakneck negotiations. National parliaments are subsequently asked to ratify these agreements ex post facto. Only rarely do parliaments venture to balk – such as when, say, the US Congress refuses to ratify an agreement negotiated by the Administration.

6.       It was in order to, at least partly, overcome this ‘parliamentary deficit’, that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe early on decided actively to start overseeing the work of international organisations. Thus, already in 1960, it assumed the role of serving as the parliamentary forum of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - the OECD. It started to hold annual debates on “The OECD and the World Economy”, with the participation of the OECD’s Secretary General. The debates are based on extensive preparatory meetings between the Assembly’s Committee on Economic Affairs and Development and the OECD, with other Committees concerned by one or the other aspect of the OECD’s work also being represented. The ‘OECD debates’ are held within the procedural framework of the so-called ‘Enlarged Parliamentary Assembly’, which ensures equal rights between the parliamentary delegations of the 44 Members States of the Council of Europe on the one hand, and non-European countries belonging to the OECD on the other. (These are Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and the United States).

7.       Similarly, since 1992 the Parliamentary Assembly – again with the Committee on Economic Affairs and Development as the intermediary – serves as the parliamentary forum of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the EBRD. Here, too, annual debates are held on the general theme of “The Contribution of the EBRD to Economic Development in Central and Eastern Europe”, with the participation of the EBRD President.

8.       The Parliamentary Assembly – first through its Committee on Economic Affairs and Development and then in plenary session – ensures parliamentary accompaniment to the work of several other international organisations that lack a parliamentary dimension, again with the personal participation of their respective heads. They include the World Trade Organisation (often centred on the effects of globalisation), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank (often on ‘North-South cooperation), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN-ECE), the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the Council of Europe Development Bank, the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) and the European Civil Aviation conference (ECAC). (Thus, for example, Mr Mike Moore, Director General of the WTO, came to the Parliamentary Assembly in January 2002 to address it within an Assembly debate on “Managing Globalisation: The Role of the WTO in the World Economy”.) The Parliamentary Assembly can in this way be said to exert a parliamentary insight into, and influence over, the work of the above-mentioned organisations, on behalf of national parliaments and, through them, on behalf of citizens and taxpayers.

9.       The above practice of our Parliamentary Assembly system of course does not cover all the international institutions in need of parliamentary oversight, nor is it perfect. It cannot eliminate, only reduce, the above-mentioned ‘parliamentary deficit’ when it comes to the supervision of international institutions. Ideally, each such organisation should have an in-built parliamentary instance, whether with a decision-making or merely consultative power, even though such an arrangement is rendered difficult both on cost grounds and due to the absence of clearly defined political groupings, let alone parties, at world level.

10.       This notwithstanding, the system developed by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly saves times and money both for national parliaments, which can in this way take stock of and influence the work of the institutions concerned, and for international organisations, which do not have to receive parliamentary delegations from each of their member states individually, but can inform national parliaments via the Parliamentary Assembly.

11.       Sometimes the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also contributes to the efforts at greater parliamentary influence together with others. Thus, it participated in a major IPU – European Parliament conference held in Geneva in June 2001 on the role of parliaments in shaping the world trade agenda. It looks forward to making further contributions to this important mission of the IPU and the EP.

12.        In conclusion, there are at least two ways in which the role of parliaments in developing public policy can be strengthened in our present era of globalisation, multilateral institutions and international agreements. The first consists in encouraging national parliaments closely to follow the work of the international organisations concerned, commenting on their work and inciting their own governments to pursue certain lines of action. National governments should also be encouraged to submit early drafts of forthcoming agreements to parliament for comment.

13.       Secondly, greater use must be made of international parliamentary bodies, whether at world or at world-regional level, in overseeing the work of the international organisations concerned. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is steadfastly pursuing this policy, for the benefit of the parliaments of its 44 Member States, its Special Guest delegation from Serbia and Montenegro (formerly the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) and its Observer delegations (Canada, Israel and Mexico).

14.       At a time of considerable public apprehension over the direction and content of globalisation, a parliamentary role of the kind outlined above is essential. Greater parliamentary influence throughout any given inter-governmental negotiation process can help to shape the final outcome in ways that are more in line with the sentiments of the citizenry. Finally, a greater parliamentary say will also bring home the point that – in an era when countries are increasingly forced to find joint solutions to joint problems – it is not only governments that need to be involved, but also, and especially, the institutions that give governments their mandate and derive their authority directly from the people, namely parliaments.

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Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee.

Committee for opinion: Committee on Economic Affairs and Development.

Reference to committee: Doc. 8430 and Reference No. 2473 of 24 January 2000.

This opinion was approved by the committee on 30 May 2002.

Head of secretariat: Mr Torbi÷rn.

Secretaries to the committee: Mr Bertozzi, Ms Ramanauskaite, Mrs Kopaši-Di Michele.


1 . See Doc. 9484.