Maastricht: Call for greater scrutiny of laws: Brussels bureaucracy

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The Independent Online
A PLAN to open up the EC law-making process to greater scrutiny and ensure that European governments take more direct control of legislation will be put to European foreign ministers next Monday.

If approved, which is likely since it has been prepared by member states' EC ambassadors, it will take effect immediately - before the Maastricht treaty is ratified and before the Birmingham summit.

The proposal is an attempt to counter dissatisfaction at the mysterious ways in which the European bureaucracy moves to perform the dubious wonders of EC legislation. It would herald a change of atmosphere rather than substance and should ensure that less time is wasted drafting unnecessary laws that give the EC Commission a bad name.

Because the different European institutions will be forced to defend their actions at every stage, the way should be opened to greater public debate on issues of EC interest.

The idea represents the first time member states have grappled with the problem of subsidiarity - that is, how to ensure that decisions are taken by the lowest level of government appropriate.

The plan, as described by a senior British official yesterday, will mean that at any stage in the legislative process, a member state may query whether such legislation is the rightful domain of the EC. With the support of six other countries, it could demand that work be suspended.

To take an example: imagine an EC Commission proposal to harmonise speed limits on Community roads. When the notion was first raised by a working group France, for instance, might argue that there was no practical reason to implement legislation that would involve unnecessary expenditure changing road signs. If six other countries agreed, the idea would be dropped.

If there was no simple majority for a suspension, France could wait until the regular meeting of EC transport ministers and complain again, hoping to attract a simple majority of ministers to its cause. Informally, EC foreign ministers - traditionally the most senior grouping barring heads of state meeting at summit level - would monitor the process.

Once legislation is passed any member state may, under existing EC rules, query its legal base by referring it to the EC Court of Justice.

'It will be a major change,' predicted an EC official yesterday, 'because legislation will be drafted in the knowledge that it will be subject to such scrutiny, the drafters will not wish to leave any hostages to fortune.'

Subsidiarity is the new Euro-watchword. As well as the plan to be presented next week, the European Parliament has prepared a report and the Commission has a special unit working up its own ideas, which it will present next weekend in time for consideration at the Birmingham summit.

The aim is that by the time EC heads of government meet again in Edinburgh in December, the European institutions between them will have come up with an integrated set of proposals which define spheres of competence and codify how they will be legally applied.

It is a less straightforward process than it seems, for no institution, and particularly the EC Commission, wants to cede too much of its power to anyone else.