Topics for debate
In bicameral systems, the Senate or Upper House plays an important role both domestically and at the European and global levels.
And it is precisely this role and function of the Upper Houses that will be debated at the 12th Conference of the Association of European Senates, which has chosen as its themes The Evolution of Parliamentary Diplomacy in the 21st Century. The Role of Senates and The Role of Senates between Local Government and the European Union.
The external work performed by parliaments has undergone unprecedented developments over the past decade, giving rise to a new sphere in the Parliamentary universe, that has become known as "Parliamentary diplomacy". Parliaments hold joint sessions with committees of the European Parliament through their delegates; they hold meetings with foreign parliaments within the framework of bilateral friendship groups; they send delegations of their internal bodies to international conferences and monitor elections in the so-called emerging democracies. Presiding officers of parliaments go on visits abroad and take part in meetings of Presidents of parliaments in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
The evolution of "parliamentary diplomacy" is making it possible for more open dialogue to take place than is the case at sherpa level. Through this kind of dialogue, parliamentary delegations can sometimes overcome the encumbrances met by governmental diplomacy and pave the way for intergovernmental agreements on sensitive issues.
Additionally, MPs' first-hand factual knowledge and familiarity with their foreign counterparts enriches members and enables them to better perform their duties at home.
Diplomacy and international relations have ceased to be the exclusive domain of the Executive. Evidence of this can also be seen in the multilateral parliamentary work performed by delegations to international assemblies, which is aimed at guiding Government action through policy assessments and recommendations. The Italian Senate, like many of the Upper Houses represented in the Association of European Senates, is also present in the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe, NATO, the Western European Union, the OECD and the CEI. In all these fora, one crucial aspect is feedback on the work of these international Assemblies. The Rome meeting will provide an opportunity for an exchange of experiences on parliamentary rules and practices designed to ensure that the appropriate parliamentary committees and the full house actually consider the resolutions and documents adopted in international fora.
"Parliamentary diplomacy" has gained momentum within the European Union. It has become customary for several of our committees to meet every six months in the European Parliament in Brussels and in the Parliament of the country holding the rotating Presidency.
The European Treaties originally referred only to national governments and made no mention of domestic parliaments or local government. The role of national parliaments, which was initially restricted to issuing guidelines for Government action and keeping the Government under check, has gradually gained importance, also at EU level. National Parliaments were first mentioned in the additional protocols to the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties and will become key players in the Union 's law-making process following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.
With respect to local government, the European institutions have taken a number of steps towards recognising their relevance: firstly by instituting "partnerships" for participation in the Structural Funds ‒ through the establishment of the Committee of the Regions ‒ and then by making explicit reference, in the Lisbon Treaty, to the involvement of local government in monitoring compliance with the subsidiarity principle. It is significant that this reference has been made explicit in the Treaty, although the way such involvement is actually implemented has obviously, and quite aptly, been left to the individual members states, depending on their constitutional arrangements.
Despite the essential differences between Upper and Lower Houses, in terms of election of their members, their powers, and Government accountability, they nevertheless share the same vocation as representatives of local authorities. It is mainly the responsibility of Upper Houses to develop ways to act as links between local authorities and European institutions.
An exchange of experiences and perspectives may be of great value for the members of the Association of European Senates, an organisation having, as its core purposes, the promotion of bicameralism in parliamentary democracies and the strengthening of European awareness.