|The European Parliament set up two committees of inquiry in 1996-1997, one on the Community transit system and the other, which created a greater stir, on the handling of the 'mad cow' crisis. In the current legislative term, there has been no committee of inquiry as such, but there have been four temporary committees. These are less spectacular but they give MEPs the opportunity to shed light on issues of public interest and to put forward practical proposals based on their findings. The four temporary committees were on Echelon (a system for intercepting telecommunications), human genetics, foot-and-mouth disease and maritime safety (following the Prestige and Erika accidents).
Committees of inquiry and temporary committees, together with standing parliamentary committees and public hearings, form part of the supervisory and information-gathering arsenal at the disposal of MEPs. A committee of inquiry may be set up at the request of a quarter of Parliament's Members, provided that the request is endorsed by the Conference of Presidents (i.e. the heads of political groups), and in turn by the plenary. The committee then has 12 months to conduct its investigations, with the possibility of extending this period twice by three months. However, the investigation may only relate to alleged contravention of Community law or alleged maladministration in the application of Community law by a Community institution or by a public administrative body of a Member State. For example, the inquiry into 'mad cow disease' concerned the way in which the Commission, the Council and the British Government handled this crisis, one which had very worrying implications for human health. And it produced strict recommendations and led to internal reforms within the Commission with a view to taking greater account of the need for consumer protection.
Temporary committees, for their part, are set up for a period of 12 months, which may be extended without limit. And the subject of their investigations may extend beyond the strict confines of the application of Community law. The temporary committee approach was therefore favoured over the committee of inquiry for the purpose of looking into the 'Echelon' system, the implications of which went much further than Community law, which was still largely non-existent in this area. Furthermore, a committee of inquiry would have had less freedom of action given that it would have been limited, under the rules in force, on grounds of secrecy or public or national security.
Protection needed against Echelon
In 1999 the European Parliament was astonished by the findings of a report which it had commissioned from the British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell. The report revealed the existence of a global system for intercepting telecommunications, known as 'Echelon', the operations of which allegedly went much further than conventional intelligence activities, notably involving industrial espionage and tapping of private communications. The report indicated that this network involved the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and that, thanks to the system, the United States intelligence services were allegedly able to assist American companies in winning contracts in the face of European competition.
The European Parliament decided to set up a temporary committee in order to verify these allegations and consider what measures should be taken. Beginning in July 2000, MEPs heard evidence from numerous telecommunications and data protection experts, members of the intelligence services, journalists, lawyers and members of national parliaments. The temporary committee presented its conclusions in September 2001, in the form of a resolution adopted by the plenary. The European Parliament concluded that this network did indeed exist and that its raison d'être was the interception of private and commercial communications.
MEPs called on all the Member States to develop European encryption software and to raise awareness among the public and among companies of the need to protect themselves. The European Commission was called on to strengthen its own security system, and companies were invited to cooperate more closely with the counter-espionage services. It was following Parliament's recommendations that the Union set up an agency responsible for information network security.
Human genetics: a delicate issue
In December 2000, another temporary committee was established, with a remit to examine recent developments in human genetics and other new technologies in modern medicine, such as cloning and stem cell research. Since the birth of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, in 1996, genetic science and biotechnology had been advancing at a rapid pace. In 2000, the British Government decided to support therapeutic cloning. These scientific developments had, however, ethical, legal, economic and social implications of concern to the European Parliament, which wished to ensure that it was thoroughly well-informed in order to fulfil as effectively as possible its political responsibilities and to be able to put forward recommendations.
In January 2001, MEPs set to work. Over a period of six months, they held 11 hearings of experts and a round table discussion with national members of parliament. The final report produced more than 500 amendments, a sign of the delicate and controversial nature of the subject. The report was finally adopted in committee by 18 votes to 13, with 3 abstentions. The temporary committee declared itself opposed to cloning for therapeutic purposes as well as for purposes of reproduction. It stated that there must be no question of making use of embryonic stem cells created in vitro for any other purpose than bringing about a pregnancy. And there must be no question of research into human cloning benefiting from funding under the Community budget. There must also be no trade in human embryos or embryonic stem cells. The temporary committee called for a legal framework governing all research in the area of new technologies in modern medicine, and proposed a general framework for the protection of human rights. It opposed the patentability of living matter, but supported research involving adult stem cells.
The report sparked intense debate in plenary on 29 November 2001. A large number of conflicting amendments risked making the Parliament's position incomprehensible. The majority of political groups no longer felt that their position was adequately reflected in the proposal for a resolution, which was in the end rejected by an overwhelming majority, with 319 votes against, 37 in favour and 47 abstentions. Nonetheless, the work of the temporary committee allowed the Parliament to gather very solid information on these complex issues and to raise the profile of the debate. The fact that the resolution was rejected did not prevent the Parliament from adopting a position on certain aspects. In September 2000, a resolution was adopted calling for a ban on all research into human cloning, and in October 2001 Parliament declared its opposition to the patentability of human beings and their cells or genes.
Foot-and-mouth disease - and how to fight it
In the spring of 2001, outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease started occurring in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and, to a lesser extent, in France and Ireland. A policy of large-scale slaughtering of animals was decided on, in preference to vaccination. The majority of British farmers were opposed to vaccination, as it would subsequently have resulted in a complete ban on the use of their produce in the food industry. In the United Kingdom alone, 6.5 million animals were slaughtered. The economic impact of the epidemic was significant, and there were major concerns on the part of the public. Did Community legislation lay down appropriate rules? Was it properly implemented? And how could other crises be prevented?
In January 2002, the European Parliament decided to set up a temporary committee in order to try to answer these questions and draw up recommendations. It held numerous hearings of national and European officials as well as politicians, scientists and representatives of the agricultural sector. Several delegations visited the worst affected regions in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
In December 2002, the temporary committee submitted its findings to the full Parliament, which adopted a resolution recommending that vaccination be considered a first-choice option in the event of an outbreak, in order to avoid mass slaughter. However, given the wide variety of strains, prophylactic vaccination was not possible with a single vaccine.
In line with Parliament's conclusions and recommendations, the European Commission shortly afterwards proposed a new directive in order to update methods of combating foot-and-mouth disease. It recommended emergency vaccination, as called for by MEPs, but not on a compulsory basis. That would apply only if infected herds could not be destroyed within 24 hours and the most exposed herds within 48 hours. In a further report, Parliament supported the Commission proposal, whilst stressing that the measures to be taken should also deal with the social and psychological impact of any new crises.
Strengthening maritime safety
In the wake of the Erika, Prestige and other accidents at sea, a fourth temporary committee was set up during this legislative term. Its remit was to examine the way in which these disasters developed, to assess their economic and social consequences, to verify how well Community rules had been applied and to propose additional measures.
The work of the committee is described in a separate note in this series, called Safety at Sea, an area in which Community legislation has been introduced and in which Parliament has played an important role as co-legislator.