In November 1990, just as the twin Intergovernmental Conferences (IGCs) that led to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty were getting under way, an all-party conference of about 250 members of the (then 12) national parliaments in the European Community, as well as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), was held in Rome, to discuss the prospects for European Union.
Hosted by the Italian parliament during the country’s six-month presidency of the Council of Ministers, the conference became known as assises (or ‘sittings’) in French and as the ‘Assizes’ in English. Although MEPs only constituted one-third of the participants, the meeting was conducted largely on the basis of the Parliament’s procedures and assumptions. (There was some argument over whether members should sit by national delegation, as some national parliamentarians preferred, or by political group). A final resolution was adopted that broadly reflected the more integrationist views of the MEPs, as a result of which some national parliamentarians felt they had been out-manoeuvred in proceedings. The suggestion that such joint meetings should be immediately formalised or even turned into a new Community body – as a ‘Congress’ or second chamber of the European Parliament – was rejected.
A ‘Declaration on the Conference of the Parliaments’ was appended to the Maastricht Treaty. This simply invited the national parliaments and the European Parliament ‘to meet as necessary’, and committed the governments to consult such a conference ‘on the main features of the European Union’. This text was preceded by a general declaration on the role of national parliaments in the Union, which spoke of the importance of encouraging their ‘greater involvement’ in Community affairs.
Although the UK presidency of the Council flirted with the idea in the second half of 1992, no Assizes as such have ever been held again since 1990. It was to prove the only occasion on which the national parliaments which would ultimately have to ratify a new treaty chose to meet together, prior to the start of an IGC negotiation, to identify any issues which their governments might jointly consider. The idea of further Assizes was not mentioned in the revised protocol on the role of national parliaments annexed to the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty or in subsequent treaty texts. In effect, their potential role has been superseded by the development of the ‘Convention method’ for treaty reform. Two conventions have so far been held: the first drafted the original Charter of Fundamental Rights in 1999-2000 (which at the time was non-binding) and second, the Convention on the Future of Europe, prepared the draft European Constitution in 2002-03. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the holding of a convention should become standard practice before any IGC can agree a substantial treaty change. On a more day-to-day level, other fora have developed for exchanges between MPs and MEPs, including COSAC and a variety of joint parliamentary meetings.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry