Second chamber

Although provided for in the aborted treaty of 1952-53 establishing a European Political Community (EPC), a second chamber or ‘Senate’ was not a feature of the institutional structure set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Instead, democratic oversight was entrusted to a single-chamber Assembly – now the European Parliament – with its members initially appointed by and from member states’ national parliaments, and since 1979 directly elected by the public in European elections held every five years. However, during the long debates on European institutional reform over the last three decades, the idea of a bicameral parliamentary system has regularly resurfaced. Several suggestions have been made for the creation of a new upper chamber, which would bring together national parliamentarians, along the lines of the pre-1979 nominated Parliament or the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and possibly include regional representatives too. It is argued such a move could help bridge the gap between national and European politics, increase the legitimacy of EU decision-making and reduce the democratic deficit.

The idea of a second chapter has boasted some distinguished supporters. It has been  advocated at various times, whilst in office, by two French Presidents (François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac), a British prime minister (Tony Blair), and a German President, Chancellor and foreign minister (Johannes Rau, Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer respectively). In 2002, the President of the Convention on the Future of Europe, the former French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, proposed a hybrid variant in the form of a ‘Congress of the Peoples of Europe’, composed of both national and European parliamentarians, which would meet regularly in order to hold the European Council to account. Other suggested roles of an upper chamber have included policing subsidiarity and strengthening democratic oversight of largely intergovernmental action in the field of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

To date, however, no member-state government has chosen to make the creation of a second chamber a key priority in any Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) or to confront the deep-seated hostility of the existing European Parliament, which would see its position threatened. Opponents have been able to argue that the new body would either simply duplicate the work of the existing Parliament, making it unnecessary, or risk bringing gridlock to the system, so weakening the Union. Either way, it could make what many already believe to be too complex a decision-making process still more so, thereby increasing – rather than diminishing – public dissatisfaction with the European Union.

The European Parliament has shrewdly sought to divert the debate into a different concept of bicameralism. Some MEPs have argued, especially since the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, that the Council of Ministers should be seen as the real upper chamber in what is already in effect a bicameral legislature. To the extent that further institutional reform is required, they argue that the Council should gradually evolve into a Chamber of States, perhaps indirectly chosen, in much the same way as the United States Senate became over time less and less the representative of state governments.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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