Sunday 26 April 2009

Do we need a revolutionary European Parliament?

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?


  1. For Open Europe and other negativists a strike against Strasbourg seems to be the magic wand to focus attention on the European Parliament instead of the member states' governments, who have set the institutional framework, including Strasbourg as the official seat of the EP.

    So they call for a strike - as colourful as in Lysistrata - and probably as effective.

    I don't remember them ever reminding anyone of the obligations of the institutions to fulfil their tasks under the treaties, or about Article 232 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, which offers recourse to the Court of Justice for a failure to act, and Article 233 TEC, which contains an obligation to comply with the judgment. (Despite the Murdoch press, the EU is built on the rule of law.)

    Politically, it is absurd that the European Parliament has its seat in Strasbourg, and that MEPs and many others have to migrate there each month, but as long as the member states dictate the institutional rules, constrained by multiple unanimity rules, only a miracle (in the form of some 'grand bargain') can change the situation.

    In other words, anti-Europeans should rejoice at the consequences of what they wish for and largely have, a European Union based to a large extent on intergovernmental cooperation. It is dishonest and illogical to criticise the effects of their own aspirations.

  2. Hmm Grahnlaw, you are such a treaty freak. Our friend European Citizen is talking about politics and the potential (or not) for the EP to turn itself into a sovereign body. Europeans should not be bound by treaties but by political alliances and purpose. The EU has always been built on intergovernmentalism, that is why it is a treaty organisation. Treaties and the secretive bureaucratic practices that surround them have always been about the worst aspects of government, especially in relation to accountability. For the EU to become European, of people's not of member states (ie civil servants), it needs to break with the treaties. The fact that the EP can even decide where it sits (I am personally quite sympathetic to Strasbourg or perhaps Berlin to symbolise the end of the iron curtain) is representative of its lack of sovereignty. MEPs are not there to obey treaties, they should be there to represent us

  3. That should say:
    The fact that the EP can NOT even decide where it sits (I am personally quite sympathetic to Strasbourg or perhaps Berlin to symbolise the end of the iron curtain) is representative of its lack of sovereignty. MEPs are not there to obey treaties, they should be there to represent us

  4. I don't think that the EP should risk breaking the Treaties (or should that be risk being defeated at the ECJ...?). The parliament is a law-making (or passing) body which is itself founded in law, so it would be a bad message to send out if it broke the Treaties. If a chamber of the legislature flaunts the constitution, then it doesn't say much about the rule of law.

    However, even if they must travel, and even if the Treaties force the EP to vote, surely there's nothing to stop the EP drawing the legislative process out as long as possible and vetoing bills? It lacks the theater of the original suggestion, and makes the MEPs more vunerable to the charge that they're being paid but not doing their job. Anyway, it's probably a moot point since the EP/MEPs is so keen (well, they say they are) to show how useful the EU can be in the crisis and how important the EP can be in that process.

    @ Grahnlaw

    I agree that some have used the travelling parliament complaint in a way that's politically dishonest. But what political measures should the EP be taking (apart from electing the Commission President) to boost its political standing with the public, and its political effectiveness within the EU system?

    @ Bruno

    I hope that the EP will never be sovereign (I'm guessing you mean in the UK constitutional sense). I'm pretty against any parliament being sovereign since I support the idea of having constitutional law that can protect minorities and individual rights more effectively than a purely political constitution. (Or do you mean that the EP should be more powerful than the Council?).

    The EP does need to be made more important in the EU structure, though - it especially needs to be able to elect the Commission (if not having the Commission President elected directly and his/her appointees installed by parliament). Sadly the member states seem reluctant to give directly elected representitives that kind of power. And with turnout low, there's not exactly much pressure from the public...

    Anyway, I was kind of hoping to get some opinions on what the EP could do, and what it would be wise for the EP to do in order to make it a better representative for citizens.

  5. Politics should always come before law.
    Democratic sovereignty is not just a British concept.
    Parliamentary sovereignty in Britain has always been weak because of the role of the Crown (this is actually important for the EU question which is hedged around with Crown prerogatives), and the courts for that matter.
    It also depends on what you think democratic rights are and where their best defence lies - do you trust the people or the judges.
    A conflict between the EP and ECJ would be fascinating – I would be on the EP’s side as a point of principle, regardless of the issue.
    The Strasbourg issue is important because it cuts to the representation issue, so does the Commission question too. The EP should do more because the question of where it sits has become important to the question of its independence. The EP should also start (it has taken a small step with the CFSP heading) to use its budgetary powers more. A good position has been taken on working time, because it is one that is independent from the Council - and certainly in UK has popular support (FCO polling).
    Above all the EP needs to remember that it is independent from the Council and exists to represent voters not just to facilitate a Treaty and the convenience of national governments.
    Give me the EP any day, I am not supporter of the Council, because there the day to day formation and practice is that of Coreper - secret diplomacy/unelected officials etc.

  6. My understanding of the treaty obligations is pretty limited. However, I thought that the EP could end traveling between Brussels and Strasbourg by deciding to stay in Strasbourg the whole time (but not the other way round). This decision can be made by the parliament itself (or so I belief). Getting some distance to the Commission and the Council could be rather helpful for the Parliament to develop itself as an independent body.

  7. @ rz

    I'll try and look that up.

    I'm not sure that distance necessarily helps independence. Where the EP has the most power, it is an equal to the Council, so it needs to negoitate with the Council and push its views. Though it could be argued that this could be done with video conferences, etc., I don't think that such communications technology can replace geographical proximity.

    Politics can sometimes move every quickly, and with the Commission and the Council (along with all the lobbyists, working groups, etc.) in Brussels, the EP would be further from the centre of political power and the information loop. How can MEPs find things out in order to judge their political moves without contacts "on the ground"? It could put the EP at a disadvantage, and the Council could out-manoeuver the EP more easily. It's not always a zero-sum game, but the EP should have all the leverage it can get.

    @ Bruno

    I agree that the EP should use its budgetary powers more often. Personally I think that a greater degree of freedom of the parties from their national executives would be a great step in political independence from the Council.

    However, I disagree with you on parliamentary sovereignty.

    First, to make the EP sovereign in the UK style would elevate it over the member states and their parliaments - while I think the EP should have a greater say (if not the most powerful say) in EU matters, I would be completely against such a move, since it would mean that the EP could decide the scope of the national parliaments' powers. Even federalists would not argue such a thing since it goes against the core idea of spreading power and sovereignty throughout the system.

    Second, minority rights and civil liberties are given less protection under the parliamentary sovereignty model. Simple majorities can override or erode such liberties, and in my view there is usually not a satisfactory link with the people to justify such a low barrier to constitutional change. Political parties, after all, are generally elected to govern in line with the ideologies they espouse. Even if the party(ies) in the majority included the proposed change in their manifestoes, there are a range of factors deciding how people vote in elections: confidence in the party leadership, dislike of the others' ideologies, credibility on the economy etc. For me, the link is often too weak to justify the extent of constitutional change that could be carried out.

    Which is why I support codified constitutions where the judicary are the supreme branch. Though you characterise the difference between the two models as giving constitutional power to unelected judges or elected politicans, for me it is the difference between the supremacy of law versus the supremacy of politicans. While the judges defend the constitution in the constitutionalism model, generally the people can directly decide on constitutional changes - a method I prefer. The judges hold the constitutional line until the people decide on constitutional change.

    For me, it is popular sovereignty, rather than parliamentary sovereignty, which ensures that questions of democratic rights and civil liberties are protected according to the people's will.

  8. Bruno,

    There is a difference between studying the treaties as existing law and being a treaty freak. Instead, I would want to see a federal and democratic Constitution in place at European level.

    In other words, I would trade in the treaty basis for a democratic system.

    Although one directly elected chamber would be ideal, I suppose that we would have to accept two because of 'political realities'.

    I feel that the sovereignty discussion is skewed.

    The very core of a political system is its (immutable) fundamental rights, based on the individual. Actually, the founding values of the European Union, as presented in the Lisbon Treaty, are pretty good; the rest of the system less so.


    Even without the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament could have made it clear, in conjunction with the European level political parties, that it is going to appoint the candidate with the largest support base to the Commission Presidency.

    National party leaders and prime ministers have now emasculated the Europarties and the EP.

    In my view, the EP does a better job of legislating than usually acknowledged. But in its internal delaings the EP is quite bad at the transparency and accountability it requires from others.

    Still, the black hole is the intergovernmental Council.