9 February 2021

MP Open Call #5 – A Call for Better Parliamentary Oversight

In our busiest MP Open Call yet, we were joined by eight parliamentarians from Austria, Belgium, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and Sweden. They discussed the ever-present dilemma of how to ensure parliamentary oversight in times of crisis, stressing the importance of maintaining effective checks and balances in their respective governments.

Now enduring the COVID-19 pandemic for a full year, many Europeans governments strain to uphold the trias politica while enacting swift response measures to manage the spread of the virus. Some of the participating MPs expressed discontent toward their government, citing that they have been effectively sidelined not only as members of parliament but also as opposition party members. The challenge to their inclusion in key decision-making processes comes twofold: first, in the allocation of greater executive powers to more specific pandemic-response committees; and second, in the discontinuation of in-person parliamentary sessions, which limits MPs’ abilities to remain engaged in day-to-day decisions.

How pandemic governance is organized varies from country to country. The call’s participants considered the various circumstances and challenges faced by their international counterparts. In Belgium, parliamentarians can only enter their parliament on a rotating basis and do not make use of the main committee floors – they are more encouraged to vote on measures electronically. Concurrently, in Sweden, the Riksdag continues to hold plenary and committee hearings as normal but has additionally reduced the procedural threshold to hold a vote to just 55 out of its 349 members, ultimately granting MPs greater decision-making freedoms. Finally, in Germany and Austria, in-person parliamentary hearings have been limited to those considered most ‘essential.’ While the German Bundestag has wrestled to fulfill its expansive mandate with only a limited program for its deputies, the Austrian Parlament was undergoing extensive renovations when the pandemic came into force, meaning it has already developed the logistical basis it needs for its members to conduct the span of their work remotely.

Circling back to how each government allocates decision-making power during the pandemic, the participants explored the ways their own countries could better include their parliaments in crisis-related decisions. For example, the Swedish Konstitutionsutskottet – or Committee on the Constitution – serves as a built-in mechanism for its parliament to hold government ministers accountable, its role could be emphasized in ensuring that the executive does not overstep its rights when issuing Sweden’s pandemic-response mandate. In Latvia, a five-party ruling coalition ensures that multiple positions are considered in their government’s pandemic policies. Party dynamics, however, also mean that it is difficult for most parliamentarians to publicly criticize their own cabinet’s rulings. Latvia’s e-parliament system, the e-Saeima platform, already helps to ensure that parliamentarians cast their votes remotely but could also be expanded to provide the virtual space necessary to hold effective debates within the Saeima on policy developments.

Finally, the need for parliamentary oversight was connected to parliamentarians’ role in ensuring better democratic governance in their respective countries. The pandemic has eroded public trust in European governments, arising from a combination of feelings of uncertainty about the future, fatigue from extended social distancing measures, and a sense of opaque decision-making from executives. These public grievances are only exasperated by widespread misinformation and conspiracies. Parliamentarians see it as their role to tackle these social grievances by addressing their constituents’ needs in parliamentary procedures and by ensuring that public trust in the system is built through transparent decision-making.

In 2021, efforts to ensure transparent decision-making are coming to bear at the national and European levels. Recently, the Luxembourgish Administrative Court asserted the right of parliamentarians to access state-made contracts with private entities, granting Luxembourgish MPs the same rights that only some of their European counterparts enjoy. At the European level, the European Commission finally shared its previously un-seen vaccine contract with AstraZeneca with the European Parliament and then with the public at large. The case on how to effectively push for parliamentary oversight continues, and the Open European Dialogue will lend its facilitation processes to help parliamentarians devise their own solutions on the issue.

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