Democratizing the European Semester: the involvement of national parliaments

Ivana Skazlić |

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, EU Member States managed to agree on key financial instruments to support the economic recovery of Europe. The decision to manage these instruments within the existing European Semester procedure has put this procedure into the spotlight. Adequate parliamentary involvement in this procedure is crucial. The pandemic can serve as a new opportunity to enhance the involvement of parliaments. Beyond providing stronger incentives for national parliaments to get involved more actively in the procedure, the pandemic could also encourage governments to include their national parliaments more systematically.

There is room for improvement in involving national parliaments in the European Semester. Illustration: Georges Boulougouris

The European Semester: less technocratic and more democratic?

In 2021, member state governments submitted National Recovery and Resilience Plans for the first time. These documents outline national reform measures and investment plans for mitigating the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuring sustainable recovery. Based on the Commission’s assessment of National Recovery and Resilience Plans, member states can receive available EU financial support for implementation via the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

This process is linked to the European Semester procedure. Originally introduced in response to the Eurozone crisis, this procedure is designed to ease coordination between EU Member States and EU institutions in planning and implementing economic and fiscal policies. The aim of the procedure is to assist EU Member States in maintaining responsible fiscal policies and achieving their growth potential.

Yet, this is a complex and intensive procedure that manages key national policies in a largely executive and expert-level manner. It therefore has often been emphasised that corresponding parliamentary involvement is necessary to ensure greater accountability, justifications of decisions taken in the procedure, and contribute to the openness of its complex processes.

For this reason, research has started to examine the extent to which and how exactly national parliaments participate in the European Semester. However, one unexplored question is how governments engage with their parliaments in this procedure. In this blog post I will present data on government activities related to the timely and systematic consultations with their parliaments in the European Semester before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Governments’ Efforts to Involve National Parliaments in the European Semester

The European Semester policy coordination mostly evolves around intensive exchanges between the European and national executives (the Commission, the Council and national governments). The procedure has several important stages with a clearly defined timeline. A particularly relevant stage for national parliaments is when governments prepare national European Semester programmes. In the National Reform Programme (NRP), which is one of those programmes, governments provide detailed elaborations of national macroeconomic policy plans and outline how they will contribute to the EU defined objectives. The Commission assesses this programme and prepares EU policy recommendations that should be implemented at the national level.

National parliaments largely depend on the information provision from the governments in the European Semester, especially with regard to the national programmes. It is then relevant to consider whether governments provide their parliaments with timely and sufficient information about these programmes, as this is a necessary element of the accountability. Because governments need to submit their National Reform Programme to the Commission by 30 April each year, providing sufficient information about this programme to the parliament before the submission is important for the overall parliamentary scrutiny. And, in order to ensure political responsibility in the procedure, parliaments should also have an opportunity to assess the government’s actions and decisions in the European Semester. Thus, considering whether the representatives of the government appear before the parliament to report on the National Reform Programme and justify their actions is important, as it increases political accountability. To what extent does this happen in practice?

Drawing from the larger data collection of my own doctoral research, the data below shows appearances of the government’s representatives before the parliament to present and discuss the National Reform Programme in the pre-Covid-19 pandemic period. The data covers national parliaments of 25 EU member states, including both lower and upper chambers in bicameral parliaments (not included are the parliaments from Cyprus, Greece and Malta).

Presentation of the NRP by the government’s representatives to the parliament. Source: author’s own

Overall, government representatives appeared in person to report and/or discuss this programme with the parliament/chamber before the 30 April submission deadline in less than a half of the 38 parliamentary chambers during the observed period (2014-2017). Generally, in about one quarter of parliaments/chambers, this was done only after the programme was submitted to the Commission. Still, there are several parliaments where government representatives did not present the National Reform Programme. Some parliaments/chambers did not scrutinize this programme at all, and therefore, government’s representatives did not report on it. This might be due to the lack of formal competencies or because parliamentary elections took place in a particular year. Nevertheless, some parliaments/chambers might also not scrutinize this programme, even though they have formal rights to do so.

A closer look at the data in Table 2 below reveals that before the 30 April submission deadline, government’s representatives mostly appeared only once before the parliament to present and discuss the National Reform Programme. There were only few parliaments that tend to have more than one discussion with the government’s representatives during the observed period, such as the Italian, the Luxembourgish and the Portuguese parliaments.

Number of the government’s appearance before the parliament to report on the NRP before the 30 April deadline. Source: author’s own

Towards more open and democratic management of the European Semester

In addition to a parliament-centred perspective, in this blog I suggest to look at the issue of the parliamentary involvement in the European Semester from a governmental perspective as well. Representatives from the government made efforts to appear in person before the parliament to present and discuss the National Reform Programme in the pre-Covid pandemic period. Still, less than half of the examined parliaments had a chance to discuss this programme with government representatives before they are sent to the Commission, and did so mostly only once. This indicates that there is still room for improvement concerning the systematic consultations with, and adequate involvement of, national parliaments in the European Semester.

The developments brought by the pandemic can serve as a new opportunity to strengthen the dialogue between representatives of the government and national parliaments in this procedure. Available EU financial support for member states recovery now depends on the EU’s assessment of proposed reforms and investments in the National Recovery and Resilience Plans, and their follow-up implementation.

Since these directly concern important questions of the longer-term national socio-economic development, governments should increase their efforts in seeking the parliamentary input during the preparation of National Recovery Plans to ensure that different views, opinions and needs are expressed and accounted for, and that planned measures and available EU financial support adequately and effectively address challenges on the ground.