The European Parliament is not exactly held in high esteem across the continent, something reflected in the predictions of turnout reaching a new record low this June. The EP is not just a talking shop as was once the case: it is becoming increasingly the equal of the Council, though the Council remains a powerful centre of negotiation and diplomacy - a world with a political culture quite different to parliamentary norms and values. The Lisbon Treaty will extend the power and influence of the EP, notably undoing the French bargain dating back to when the EP first became directly elected: Parliament will have a say over the entire EU budget, including CAP.
But should the Parliament just depend on the goodwill of member states for increases in its power each time there's a reforming treaty? Can it afford to? The argument for increasing the EP's powers rests on the idea that it reduces the democratic deficit, but with voter turnout falling, the EP's political influence falls when it comes to this question.
The most celebrated points in the EP's history are the ending of the Santer Commission and the influence it had over the composition of the Barroso Commission. Moments of asserting, even in a limited way, the place a parliament should hold in the system. So should the EP become more revolutionary, more combative and assertive?
Take the issue of the EP's seat. At the moment it is spread over Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. This isn't the EP's fault; this is written into the Treaties, one of many compromises between the member states. But, as I've read suggested here, should the Parliament simply rebel against this? MEPs could just sit in Brussels, refusing to travel to Strasbourg once a month, and demand to have the right to decide for itself where it sits. The institutional paralysis would be a powerful bargaining counter, though it could be a long protest, since it would take a lot to move France. (Even if the EP passed legislation, if it didn't make the trip, the legislation could be open to challenge). The commute is not popular with the public, and it would be a great chance to boost the EP's public profile and power. It could be part of a wider push for more scrutinising power over the Council and Commission, and even the power to elect the Commission.
Of course, this strategy has many weaknesses. First, it doesn't project an image of a "responsible parliament" as parliament would be blocking up the whole process of legislation (if it needs EP assent or consultation, which is the vast majority of it). Second, the EP has over 700 members under Nice and Lisbon, and it would be a huge task to keep the majority of them together in a strong alliance. Add to that the influence of national party executives over their MEPs, it would be a big ask to try and keep a unified movement running. Third, it could damage its public image at a time when it should be demonstrating what it can do for citizens in a time of recession.
And it's not to say that the EP isn't doing anything to assert itself: the recent demands of the EP to see the books of the Council or the EP won't sign off on them may seem quite boring, but if followed up with a strong stance, it has potential. The EP has little or no power over the Council: it is made up of member states, and it cannot scrutinise or fire them or COREPER. To demand to see the books of the Council is a step in demanding greater transparency, but it is also an assertion of superiority over the Council, and, by extension, the member states. It says that it is the EP that should have a say on the Council's books, and implies that the EP should have some power to back that up. There have been hints that Solana, head of the Council's bureaucracy and of the CFSP (two separate posts), could be in the firing line in the future (see here. Thanks to Julien Frisch for flagging up the video).
While the Council desperately needs a massive dose of transparency, how far should the EP have direct power over Council officials and over the Council's dealings? And how far should the Council be better made open just by Treaty?