The ‘red card’ on proposed EU legislation has been hailed by David Cameron as a breakthrough; the ‘Stronger In’ campaign have put it at the top of their list of renegotiation successes. But it already pretty much exists. The very similar ‘orange card’ was introduced by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. (The European Commission’s website explains how it works.) Here’s a comparison of the two:
ORANGE CARD: 51% of the 28 EU parliaments can force a review by the European Commission.
RED CARD: 56% of the 28 EU parliaments can force a review by the EU Council.
ORANGE CARD: 8 weeks
RED CARD: 12 weeks
ORANGE CARD: The European Commission decides whether ‘to maintain, amend or withdraw the proposal’.
RED CARD: The EU Council decides whether to abandon the proposal or to amend it ‘to accommodate the concerns expressed’.
In both cases, you have a few weeks to get more than half of Europe’s parliaments on the same side, and then an EU body decides what to do about the objections.
Maybe it would be different in practice. But there isn't much practice to go on: unless Europe's parliaments dramatically change their ways, we won't be seeing much of either the red or orange cards. In 2008, when the orange card was about to be introduced, William Hague claimed mockingly that it was highly unlikely to be used: ‘even if the European Commission proposed the slaughter of the first-born it would be difficult to achieve such a remarkable conjunction of parliamentary votes’.
— The World at One (@BBCWorldatOne) February 3, 2016
He was right – though not entirely. The orange card has never been used, but EU parliaments did once veto legislation. The ‘yellow card’, which has a lower threshold (33% of parliaments), has been deployed twice: once to challenge EU strike legislation, once against the creation of a EU Public Prosecutor. The EU abandoned the strike legislation but pressed ahead with the Public Prosecutor.
The ‘red card’ is unlikely to appear, unless European parliaments become a lot more rebellious. But it is equally noteworthy that the renegotiation has produced, as one of its headline achievements, what is basically an exercise in rebranding.