President. The next item is the question for oral answer to the Council regarding the amendment of the Protocol on Privileges and Immunities, submitted by Mr Gargani on behalf of the Committee on Legal Affairs (O-0002/2006 – B6-0004/2006).
Giuseppe Gargani (PPE-DE), author. – (IT) Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, we are once again debating, as we have already done many times in this Parliament, a very sensitive issue, which relates to immunity.
I am honoured to have reopened the debate with my question, on behalf of the Committee on Legal Affairs and its coordinators. I believe that all of my fellow Members are aware of the need for common rules of the European Parliament in relation to immunity; it is a long-held ambition of the European Parliament to have such rules.
Twenty years ago, one of our fellow Members, named Mr Donnez, gained approval for a report on European parliamentary immunity with the aim of overcoming a situation that, 20 years back, was already limited and unsuited to the scope of the European Parliament as a whole. The Protocol on Privileges and Immunity stipulated that Members of the European Parliament could not be questioned in relation to the votes they cast but, at the same time, it deferred to the Members’ national laws to lay down the rules on immunity.
Naturally, there was a logic to all of this and, at that time, given that Parliament was then an assembly of the various national parliaments, the rule had its own raison d'être, its own justification. It will have escaped no one’s attention, however, that today there exists a body of case-law, thanks to universal suffrage, with all the breakthroughs obtained in the meantime, while Parliament itself has not stood still. There is also a determined attitude on the part of the Committee on Legal Affairs, which during the last parliamentary term expressed and supported a different need, namely that all Members of the European Parliament should have a common statutory reference, a common organisational reference.
It is clear not only to the Committee on Legal Affairs, but also to Parliament as a whole, how difficult it is for Members to have to refer back to national laws: the United Kingdom has a certain type of legislation, Germany has another, and Italy had yet another one, and then it amended it. That does not promote credibility and does not result in the European Parliament’s becoming genuinely autonomous or independent.
Following a great many debates, even you, Madam President, in your current capacity as Chair of this House, will be well aware of the Statute for Members of the European Parliament, given that we have debated and approved it within the Committee on Legal Affairs and twice over in this Chamber.
The Council, however, objected to the subject’s being reincorporated into the primary legislation, so we amended the part of the statute that related to Parliament’s organisational aspects; an albeit difficult management exercise followed, which subsequently yielded a result: the Council – and here is the crux of the issue Madam President, ladies and gentlemen – endeavoured to convene an intergovernmental meeting of the Member States, including all of the various countries, in order to be able to ratify what we had decided in Parliament.
I believe that we have now struck a very important balance: we have debated and we have very astutely bestowed on the Members of the European Parliament as a whole prerogatives that enhance the role of Parliament and increase its independence.
Obviously, since the Council’s commitment already dates back to May 2005 and we are now practically in May 2006, our intention, in submitting this question, was to seek a swift conclusion. Since our fellow Member, Mr Donnez, was already aware of this need 20 years ago and, as Parliament’s vote has shown, it has remained important and crucial, the Council needs immediately to ratify what we have decided and established. We have taken a great leap forward; when this is recognised we will undoubtedly be able to bestow on Members of the European Parliament a much more important and much more precious role.
As you well know, Madam President, the section of the statue that we approved was the less important part. I said in that debate – and I repeat it today – that this is a fundamental issue that affects our rules and enhances the European Parliament and our role, especially our role.
The request to the Council is directed along those lines, and I hope that Parliament as a whole takes account of this request and that each group and each MEP, even on an individual basis, supports it, because only in this way will it be possible to exert pressure on the Council.
IN THE CHAIR: MR COCILOVO Vice-President
Hans Winkler, President-in-Office of the Council. (DE) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Gargani, in answer to your question, I should like to start by saying that I am happy to repeat what has already been said in the past: the Council welcomes the adoption, in July of last year, following lengthy negotiations, of a Statute for the Members of the European Parliament that will guarantee Members the same conditions for exercising their mandate with effect from 2009, in other words in the next parliamentary period. In a statement on the Statute, the Council did indeed state that it was, in principle, prepared to examine the possibility of amending the Protocol on Privileges and Immunities for Members of the European Parliament when the Statute was adopted. It goes without saying that the Council will stand by this statement, and I would stress that we are still prepared to look into this matter even though, as you know, the Statute will not enter into force until 2009 when the next European Parliament is formed.
With regard to the question on convening an Intergovernmental Conference, I would first of all point out that the procedure is laid down in Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union and that, under that article, the government of any Member State or the Commission may submit to the Council proposals for the amendment of the Treaties on which the Union is founded. Under paragraph 2 of that article, a conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States shall be convened by the President of the Council if the Council, after consulting the European Parliament and, where appropriate, the Commission, delivers an opinion in favour of calling such a conference. Those are the rules in the Treaty on European Union.
As the representative of the Council, however, I should like to raise a point for consideration when examining the question of whether the conditions for convening an Intergovernmental Conference have been met. If we were to hold such a conference at the present time, we would be interrupting the period of reflection devoted to a fundamental examination of the goals and future of Europe. I will leave open the question of whether it would be appropriate to convene an Intergovernmental Conference solely for the purpose of amending the privileges and immunities of the Members of the European Parliament. I must admit that, from our point of view, it is doubtful whether a conference dealing solely with Members' privileges and immunities would be helpful at the moment in increasing public confidence in the European Parliament; we feel it would be more likely to meet with incomprehension.
From the wording of today's question, the Council assumes that, in other respects, the European Parliament does not intend to make any new proposals regarding content, but confirms the wishes of the last Parliament. This is important for our future work. In any case, as you know, it is the privilege of the representatives of the governments of the Member States at an Intergovernmental Conference to decide the basis on which their debates will be held. It goes without saying that the Presidency of the Council cannot, at this point, predict what an autonomous Intergovernmental Conference might decide.
Nevertheless, I wanted to bring these rather more general considerations into the debate. It is not a question of whether or not the Council is willing to fulfil a commitment it has made: of course it is willing to do so. The question, though, is whether now is the right time to take such a step solely for the purpose of amending the Treaties with regard to privileges and immunities.
Maria da Assunção Esteves, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. – (PT) Mr President, the political Europe that we want to build requires a new institutional and legal order, covering the statutory rules for Members of the European Parliament.
Every Parliament has a Special Statute for Members detailing the values of autonomy and representation, yet the Special Statute for Members of the European Parliament goes further. It helps us to understand Parliament's significance in the development of the political European Union.
A single Members’ statute, with an appropriate privileges and immunity regime, is an essential prerequisite for an increasingly well-integrated political Union, whose system of large-scale representation is based on principles of democracy. The System of Members’ privileges and immunities is an integral part of the fabric of the Statute. It is separate from the context of the privileges and immunities of other servants of the Union, and must not be allowed to fragment into the preferences of each Member State.
The question that Parliament is asking the Council today is not merely formal in nature. Its purpose is to highlight the difference between a concept of Europe as an integrated democratic structure with Parliament at its centre and a concept of Europe as a fragmented structure.
Furthermore, the review of the system of privileges and immunities forms part of a commitment made by the Council. The possibility of holding an intergovernmental conference, now or at some point in the future, could be discussed. It is clear that there is a need to match the desired adjustment to the Statute of the Privileges and Immunities Regime. We are also sure that the Intergovernmental Conference must hear Parliament’s voice, both now and in the future.
Katalin Lévai, on behalf of the PSE Group. – (HU) I agree with the suggestion of Chairman Gargani, that the importance of the MEP Statute is an issue that we should address. I find it extremely regretful that over the past long decades Parliament has not managed to solve satisfactorily, at its own proposal, this important issue and the status of its Members. I believe we must give Parliament the right to regulate, at its own initiative, the legal status.
Let us remind ourselves that the European Parliament is the only European Union body that is elected directly, constituting an embodiment of the will of European citizens and national sovereignty, and as such, it plays a crucial role in reducing the democratic deficit of the European institutional system, in creating a citizens’ Europe and overcoming estrangement from the institutions of the European Union. The importance of holding the Intergovernmental Conference is unequivocal, and instead of arguing, it would be preferable to leave behind all conflicts of interest that are hindering it, because this is a very important issue, indeed. The falling turnouts at European elections and the – hopefully only transient – halt of the European Constitutional process, as well as the failure of the French and Dutch national vote all show that the realisation of the European idea among citizens is now more urgent than ever before.
However, until there is a possibility for a satisfactory resolution of the status, the regrettable events experienced at the end of the last cycle may occur again, accompanied by the diminishing trust of citizens. Therefore, I propose that we include the adoption of the MEP Statute in our agenda as soon as possible.
Marek Aleksander Czarnecki (NI). – (PL) Mr President, today we are debating changes to the Protocol on the Privileges and Immunities of Members of the European Parliament. In my opinion, we should focus first and foremost on amending the law on immunity for Members as quickly as possible. The situation we are currently faced with is far from ideal. We have as many different regulations within the European Union as we have Member States. Each country has different rules. This is compatible with neither the principle of equal treatment nor the timely investigation of such matters by Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs. We should put in place a uniform system which is the same for Members from all the countries within the European Union. Regulations of this kind would also make it impossible to employ the sorts of practices that we have had to deal with on more than one occasion, whereby governments in individual countries have levelled groundless accusations at Members as part of their campaign against an inconvenient opposition.
Manuel Medina Ortega (PSE). – (ES) Mr President, I believe that the representative of the Council, Mr Winkler, has responded quite correctly to the situation we are faced with today: we have not yet been able to approve the Constitution and, furthermore, if we were to hold a debate at this point on the privileges and immunities of the Members of the European Parliament, we would probably find that the majority of European public opinion would not be prepared to guarantee the Members of the Parliament the immunities and privileges that we have today.
At the moment, I, as a Member of the European Parliament — and I mean this quite honestly — would prefer not to have any privilege or any immunity: I would prefer to be treated like any citizen of the European Union. And I also say this because, in the past, during the last term in office in fact, this Parliament abused its powers in the field of privileges and immunity to cover up certain kinds of criminal activity.
I believe that there are two possibilities at the moment. If the judiciary in each of the Member States is independent and partial, then that is the best guarantee we can have; there are certain countries that do not recognise any privileges, there are at least two or three that do not recognise them. If we were to open up the debate on the Statute at this stage, I believe that what this Parliament would probably have to propose would be quite simply the removal of any kind of privilege or immunity for Members of the European Parliament that is not enjoyed by all of the citizens as a whole. If the citizens are expected to answer to the justice system and put their trust in it, I do not see why the Members of the European Parliament should have any privileged treatment.
In any event, I agree with the words of Mr Winkler, who has expressed the legal point of view and who is right: this is not the time to open up a debate and an Intergovernmental Conference on the subject and, if it were to do so, we in this Parliament would have to reconsider the situation from the point of view of our relations with the citizens.
Giuseppe Gargani (PPE-DE), author. – (IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, in my speech earlier, I forgot to say something, which in my opinion belongs to the field of European law: immunities are not a privilege of individual Members, but belong to the institution as a whole.
I believe that this aspect derives from historical tradition and from the primary meaning of immunity. It really must be said, ladies and gentlemen, that to say otherwise or to seek exceptions to this rule is demagogic. We have already approved and debated it many times, in committee and in Parliament, and we have established a provision. If the Council had been diligent, and if the Presidencies of the various previous half-yearly periods had been too, then this provision would now already have been ratified by the Council.
Given that this privilege enhances Parliament's role and increases its independence, if the Council were to include it on the agenda, it might not only be a great credit to the Presidency-in-Office, but could perhaps even pave the way for a constitution.
The brake put on the convention or the difficulties that the convention faces in being adopted in Europe must not compromise the role vested in Parliament as a whole. On the other hand, national references exist, but they count for little, as the European Parliament is elected by universal suffrage.
Hans Winkler, President-in-Office of the Council. (DE) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I should like to make one thing quite clear – my comments should of course not be seen as a rejection of MEPs' rightful privileges. They exist in all of our states, they have their justification, and it goes without saying that the Council recognises that.
As the Presidency of the Council, we will of course submit the wish expressed here to the Member States, referring to all elements including the statement that has already been cited here several times. The new Statute will, in any event, enter into force in 2009. Any decision now taken regarding an Intergovernmental Conference would of course have to be ratified by all the Member States of the European Union according to their constitutional requirements.
It is also barely conceivable, or at least unlikely, that, even if an Intergovernmental Conference were to be convened straight away – which, as I said, I do not currently think is appropriate – and it did adopt a regulation of this kind, it could come into force before the start of the European Parliament's next parliamentary term.
In conclusion, I should like to come to the question raised in the debate regarding the cooperation of the European Parliament with any such Intergovernmental Conference. In this regard, I would just make it clear that any such involvement and the extent of it would of course have to be laid down in the Council Decision on convening the Intergovernmental Conference in which the modalities for involving other institutions in the conference would have to be set out.
President. I have received two motions for resolutions(1) tabled in accordance with Rule 108(5) of the Rules of Procedure.