Monday, 9 March 2009

European Parliament: Question Time

Otto von Bismarck may have been of the opinion that it is better not to see laws and sausages being made, but this blog builds on the assumption that educated and enlightened citizens are crucial for representative democracy to work properly. This includes the European level.

Today we let Jim Hacker guide us on our courageous visit to the Euro sausage factory, where the Question Time brand is made.

For the less hyperbolically inclined: the rules on Question Time in the European Parliament.

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Treaty provisions

Currently the third paragraph of Article 197 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC) concerns oral and written questions to the Commission.

The text is from the latest consolidated version of the treaties, published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) 29.12.2006 C 321 E/134:


Article 197 TEC

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The Commission shall reply orally or in writing to questions put to it by the European Parliament or by its Members.

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Original Lisbon Treaty (ToL)

Article 2, point 185 of the original Treaty of Lisbon did not affect Article 197 TEC with regard to questions by the European Parliament or its members to the Commission (OJEU 17.12.2007 C 306/102).



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Consolidated Lisbon Treaty


Article 197 (ToL) was renumbered Article 230 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) in the consolidated Lisbon Treaty, with the questions to the Commission in the second paragraph (OJEU 9.5.2008/151):


Article 230 TFEU
(ex Article 197, second, third and fourth paragraph, TEC)

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The Commission shall reply orally or in writing to questions put to it by the European Parliament or by its Members.

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EP Rules of Procedure

The existing and future treaty level provisions leave the practical solutions to be sought at a lower level. On the one hand, the Commission has an obligation to reply to parliamentary questions, but as usual the institutions have to find cooperative solutions to make things work. On the other hand, questions in parliament are something the European Parliament has had to develop internally.

Not mentioned directly at treaty level is the fairly high profile event called Question Time, laid down in Rule 109 of the Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament (16th edition, October 2008). Note the powers of the EP President to rule on the admissibility and the order of questions:

Rule 109 Question Time

1. Question Time with the Council and Commission shall be held at each part-session at such times as may be decided by Parliament on a proposal from the Conference of Presidents. A specific period of time may be set aside for questions to the President and individual Members of the Commission.

2. No Member may put more than one question to the Council and the Commission at a given part-session.

3. Questions shall be submitted in writing to the President, who shall rule on their admissibility and on the order in which they are to be taken. The questioner shall be notified immediately of this decision.

4. The detailed procedure shall be governed by guidelines laid down in an annex to these Rules of Procedure.


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Guidelines

The detailed procedure is laid down in Annex II, with the guidelines in part A. These guidelines serve MEPs drafting questions and the President of the EP ruling on admissibility and order:

ANNEX II Conduct of Question Time under Rule 109

A.Guidelines

1. Questions shall be admissible only where they

- are concise and are drafted so as to permit a brief answer to be given;

- fall within the competence and sphere of responsibility of the Commission and the Council and are of general interest;

- do not require extensive prior study or research by the institution concerned;

- are clearly worded and relate to a specific matter;

- do not contain assertions or opinions;

- do not relate to strictly personal matters;

- are not aimed at procuring documents or statistical information;

- are interrogatory in form.

2. A question shall be inadmissible if the agenda already provides for the subject to be discussed with the participation of the institution concerned.

3. A question shall be inadmissible if an identical or similar question has been put down and answered during the preceding three months unless there are new developments or the author is seeking further information. In the first case a copy of the question and the answer shall be given to the author.


Supplementary questions

4. Each Member may follow up the reply with a supplementary question to any question and may put in all two supplementary questions.

5. Supplementary questions shall be subject to the rules of admissibility laid down in these Guidelines.

6. The President shall rule on the admissibility of supplementary questions and shall limit their number so that each Member who has put down a question may receive an answer to it.

The President shall not be obliged to declare a supplementary question admissible, even where it satisfies the foregoing conditions of admissibility, if:

a) it is likely to upset the normal conduct of Question Time, or

b) the main question to which it relates has already been adequately covered by other supplementary questions, or

c) it has no direct bearing on the main question.


Answers to questions

7. The institution concerned shall ensure that answers are concise and are relevant to the subject of the question.

8. If the content of the questions concerned permits it, the President may decide, after consulting the questioners, that the institution concerned should answer them together.

9. A question may be answered only if the questioner is present or has notified the President in writing, before Question Time begins, of the name of a substitute.

10. If neither the questioner nor a substitute is present, the question shall lapse.

11. If a Member tables a question, but neither that Member nor a substitute are present at Question Time, the President shall remind the Member in writing of his or her responsibility to be present or substituted. If the President has to send such a letter three times in the space of any twelve-month period, the Member concerned shall lose the right to table questions at Question Time for a six-month period.

12. Questions that remain unanswered for lack of time shall be answered in accordance with Rule 110(4), first subparagraph, unless the authors thereof request application of Rule 110(3).

13. The procedure for answers in writing shall be governed by Rule 110(3) and (5).


Time limits

14. Questions shall be tabled at least one week before Question Time begins. Questions not tabled within this time limit may be taken during Question Time with the consent of the institution concerned.

Questions declared admissible shall be distributed to Members and forwarded to the institutions concerned.


Format

15. Question Time with the Commission may, with the agreement of the Commission, be divided into specific question times with individual Members of the Commission.

Question Time with the Council may, with the agreement of the Council, be divided into question times with the Presidency, the High Representative for common foreign and security policy or the President of the Eurogroup. It may also be divided by subject.



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Recommendations

The European Parliament has adopted a resolution with recommendations Concerning Question Time. These form Part B of Annex II:


B.Recommendations
(extract from resolution of Parliament of 13 November 1986)

The European Parliament,

1. Recommends stricter application of the guidelines for the conduct of Question Time under Rule 43 [now Rule 109], and in particular of point 1 of those guidelines concerning admissibility;

2. Recommends more frequent use of the power conferred on the President of the European Parliament by Rule 43(3) [now Rule 109(3)] to group questions for Question Time according to subject; considers, however, that only the questions falling within the first half of the list of questions tabled for a given part-session should be subject to such grouping;

3. Recommends, as regards supplementary questions, that as a general rule the President should allow one supplementary question from the questioner and one or at most two supplementaries put by Members belonging preferably to a different political group and/or Member State from the author of the main question; recalls that supplementary questions must be concise and interrogatory in form and suggests that their duration should not exceed 30 seconds;

4. Invites the Commission and the Council, pursuant to point 7 of the guidelines, to ensure that answers are concise and relevant to the subject of the question.


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Watch the EP live

The next Question Time with the Commission is scheduled for Tuseday 10 March 2009 between 18:00 and 19:30. “Séance en direct” allows you to follow the live proceedings of the European Parliament.

The final draft agenda for the sittings from 9 to 12 March 2009 offer a snapshot view of the issues to be debated and the work of the European Parliament:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sce/data/fast_access/doc//879/03_mars_I_EN.pdf

Perhaps even Sir Humphrey should miss out on one of his Club dinners for a taste of Euro sausage. Yes, Minister?


Ralf Grahn