The Role of the Riigikogu in the Accession of Estonia into the European Union
Recent trends indicate an increasingly important and wider role for national parliaments both in the EU legislative process and in domestic decision-making. Eurointegration seems to have resulted in the general strengthening of the sense of responsibility and self-awareness in national parliaments. Public opinion tends to view the EU as a huge bureaucracy far away in Brussels whose decisions benefit only those making them. On the other hand, the European Parliament, elected directly by the citizens since 1979, is believed to be the most democratic institution. The Amsterdam Treaty defines the functions of national parliaments and further strengthens the European Parliament’s role.
Since Estonia’s accession must be ratified by the parliaments of all the Member States and by the European Parliament, the representation of Estonia by the Riigikogu European Affairs Committee (EAC) in the structures of the European Union is vital. The most important forums for the EAC are the EU-Estonia Joint Parliamentary Committee and the Conference of the European Affairs Committees of the Member States and Candidate Countries, COSAC. Direct contacts between political parties and MP’s from different European nations contribute to mutual confidence building and to the exchange of accurate, unbiased information. Contributing to this is the annual conference series in Tallinn “Estonia and the European Union: Estonia on the Way to a Changing Europe”, initiated by the Riigikogu in 1994. Many MP’s from Member States and candidate countries of the European Union have participated. The ratification of Estonia’s Accession Treaty (1995-98) proved that a variety of contacts with MP’s in the Member States is essential to a smooth and timely process.
In order to maintain relations with the institutions of the European Union, European affairs committees have been formed in all candidate countries. The functions of these committees differ somewhat from country to country. The European Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu conducts hearings on the Estonian negotiation positions before their approval by the Government of the Republic and informs the Government of its opinion. The members of the EAC are expected to inform their factions of the negotiation positions as well as to return to the Committee with the positions of the factions. In this way, the European Affairs Committee shares responsibility for the negotiation positions.
Efficient co-operation between the Riigikogu and the Government as well as better co-ordination of the timing of submission of EU related draft legislation to the Riigikogu’s legislative schedule and proceedings are essential for successful negotiations and the harmonisation of legislation. Two basic possibilities for speeding up harmonisation are 1) achieving greater political consensus or 2) creating amended procedures for accelerated deliberation of EU related legislation. For the latter, an agreement would have to be reached between the ruling coalition and the opposition. It may be useful to study the solutions found by the parliaments of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. The pace of harmonisation of legislation in Estonia has been constantly accelerating. If Estonia wants to be ready for accession in 2003, it is important to accelerate the pace even more, without allowing, however, any decrease in quality.
The members of the European Affairs Committee form a kind of mini-parliament, as they represent the different parties in the Riigikogu and also simultaneously belong to various standing committees in the parliament. Therefore EAC members should have a good overview of the positions of each faction as well as the status of all draft laws on the agenda. All possibilities to enhance co-operation between the EAC, political parties and the standing committees have not yet been realised. A further goal is to function as a forum for discussion of specific laws and issues among NGO’s and interest groups, Government officials and parliamentary committees.
EAC members are also precisely those MP’s who should have enough information as well as the obligation to explain to the people what the advantages and disadvantages of EU accession are. With positive results the European Affairs Committee continues to work closely with the Delegation of the European Commission in organising EU information days all over the country and with the Women’s Civics Centre in the framework of the European School Project.
Every Riigikogu elected since the restoration of independence has supported Estonia’s two main foreign policy goals: to join the European Union and NATO. Riigikogu members also agree that the people must be able to vote on European Union accession in a referendum. The European Affairs Committee together with the Constitutional Committee would be the logical initiators of a broad-based discussion on the pros and cons of membership as well as the timing of the referendum itself.