The Dutch Government negotiates with other European governments on new European laws and regulations. In the national legislative process, the Senate only acts after the House of Representatives has acted. However, the procedure is different in the case of the European legislative process. Both chambers monitor the development of European measures and the Government’s involvement in these negotiations. They can also exercise direct influence on European plans, for example by consulting with the European Commission or with members of the European Parliament.
European Affairs Committee
The Senate and the House of Representatives each have a separate committee for EU Affairs. The Senate committee is chaired by Tuur Elzinga (SP) and the House of Representatives committee by Malik Azmani (VVD). Together with the committee members, they serve as the point of contact on European issues for other member states of the European Union and the European Parliament. However, in parliamentary practice, European policy proposals and draft legislation feature in the work of all parliamentary committees. This means that all standing parliamentary committees deal with both national legislation and European dossiers in their policy areas. This is because national and European legislation are increasingly intertwined.
European work programme and annual EU priorities
Every year, both chambers use the work programme of the European Commission as a basis for determining which areas they wish to focus particular attention on. Each parliamentary committee selects the subjects in its field, such as healthcare, agriculture or finance. Whenever the European Commission publishes one of these priority proposals, the relevant parliamentary committee decides whether or not to deliberate on the issue. These proposals may concern proposed regulations, guidelines and decrees as well as notifications, white papers and green papers. The Government is also asked to take this selection into account, so that Parliament is adequately informed about these European proposals in a timely manner.
Monitoring the Government
The constitutional duty to inform (Article 68 of the Dutch Constitution) provides Parliament with a solid foundation for requesting information from the Government concerning the development of European policy and regulations, and concerning the Government’s role in the Council. Before any meeting of ministers or state secretaries of all EU member states in a particular policy area – the so-called ‘Council’ for Agriculture or Health, for example – the Dutch minister or state secretary concerned will write a letter outlining the position that he or she intends to take at the council meeting. This letter is also referred to as the ‘Annotated Agenda’.
Based on the letter, the House of Representatives discusses the Dutch contribution with the minister or state secretary prior to the meeting. This consultation generally takes place in the standing committee responsible for the specific area. On a weekly basis, several committee debates take place on policy issues of this kind for a Council meeting.
As is also usually the case with deliberations on national legislative proposals, the Senate’s deliberations on a European proposal are mainly conducted in writing. The members of the Senate can question the responsible member of government on the cabinet’s efforts in the Council in writing and thereby try to influence the cabinet’s view. The letters are written by the specialist committee concerned and can contain the views of the committee as a whole, or of one or more parliamentary groups. The Senate thereby attempts to avoid duplications in the work of both chambers. In exceptional cases, a complex European dossier can be discussed orally with the member of government concerned during a committee meeting.
Right of approval
For a long time, Parliament had a right of approval regarding a great many European affairs in the area of Justice and Home Affairs (Justitie en Binnenlandse Zaken, JBZ). This meant that a member of government could only contribute to the development of a European proposal in the Council if both chambers had granted their approval. By ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon, the Dutch Government limited the chambers’ right of approval. This right now only applies to proposals relating to passports, family law and certain forms of police cooperation. The relevant parliamentary committees first deliberate on the proposal, after which it is approved or rejected in a plenary session.
Political dialogue with European institutions
During the deliberations on a European proposal, the members of committees in both chambers can share their vision with and question the European Commission on matters such as the substantiation of certain parts of the proposal, or the interpretation of certain terms and provisions. This is done within the framework of ‘informal political dialogue’. Since the dialogue concerns an informal instrument, the letter may contain questions or opinions from one or multiple parliamentary groups. The letter may also refer to both a legislative proposal and a non-legislative proposal, such as a notification or a green paper. Such letters do not need to be drafted in a plenary session. Political dialogue between the specialist committees and the European institutions is not only conducted in writing. Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives regularly discuss European proposals with the members of the European Commission and European members of parliament in The Hague, Brussels or during interparliamentary conferences elsewhere.
Occasionally, the question arises as to whether the European Union is involving itself in issues that are best regulated at national level. The principle of subsidiarity means that the national parliaments judge whether a measure needs to be taken at European level, or whether it is better regulated by a member state itself. If the national parliaments take the view that a proposal should not be presented at European level, they notify this to the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
The outgoing letter containing an objection on the grounds of subsidiarity must – at the suggestion of a parliamentary committee – be drafted in a plenary session and submitted to the European Commission within eight weeks of the publication of the proposal in question. The letter articulates the view of the majority of the chamber and may also describe a minority view.
If a third of the national parliaments object, the European Commission must reconsider its proposal. This is also referred to as a ‘yellow card’. The European Commission cannot be obliged to withdraw a proposal following a yellow card. If more than half of the parliaments object, they can ask the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to halt their deliberations on the proposal. This is referred to as an ‘orange card’. The application of the cards is regulated in the Treaty of Lisbon. Both chambers of parliament have a single vote in the objection procedure, but they always seek to collaborate in order to determine whether a nearly identical letter can be sent to the European Commission. In exceptional cases, only one chamber will submit an objection.
Parliamentary scrutiny reservation
Sometimes a particular subject is so important for the Netherlands that Parliament asks the Government not to approve a proposal before Parliament has held a debate about it with the Government. On the basis of national legislation and within the framework of the duty to inform, since 2009 both chambers have had the power to hold a parliamentary scrutiny reservation during the development of European legislation. By applying a reservation, a chamber indicates that it considers a proposal to be of exceptional political importance and that it wishes to receive detailed information on the discussion of this proposal before the Council reaches a decision on it. The Government is not yet allowed to approve the proposal in these cases. In the House of Representatives, a parliamentary scrutiny reservation has been placed on various dossiers, resulting in stricter agreements concerning information. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate has not yet applied this procedure.
Parliamentary representation in Brussels
In Brussels, the House of Representatives and the Senate are jointly represented by the Office of Parliamentary Representation of the States-General at the European Union (Bureau van de Parlementaire Vertegenwoordiging van de Staten-Generaal bij de Europese Unie, PVSG). Its officers are the eyes and ears of both chambers within European institutions. The office organises working visits and reinforces interparliamentary cooperation in the European Union.
Parliamentary EU deliberations online
Digital dossiers (e-dossiers) are created on www.europapoort.nl for all European proposals considered by the Senate. This website contains all the news and information on the European activities of the Senate and its committees. The website functions as a structural information system that provides an overview of the stream of European legislation and its effect on national legislation. It not only serves all members of parliament, but also enables members of the general public to make their views known to Parliament. The website also provides insight into the interconnectedness of European and national legislation.
During the Dutch Presidency of the European Union, the House of Representatives is expected to launch the public EU monitor to raise awareness of European handling of dossiers in the House of Representatives.