Is the European Parliament under-powered?

What is the institutional role of the European Parliament? Is it under-powered?

I got this set of questions from a university student. Their professor assigned them a project where they had to explore the European Parliament’s institutional functions, whether it is powerful or not, and why that may be.

So here is my approach for current and future students of European politics and for citizens in general.

Reaching the ordinary legislative procedure

Historically the European Parliament (EP) was a weak institutional actor. Its participation in the legislative process was not always on an equal footing to the other legislative institution of the Union, the Council of the EU (Council).

What we know today as the EP is the successor to the Common Assembly [of the European Communities]. A body of appointed members who had the dual mandate of serving their national government and pursuing the interests of the supranational level. The first direct elections to the EP were held in 1979. The notion of a dual mandate has since become irrelevant, at least in principle.

In the decades of the European Economic Community (before it became “European Union”), the legislative process was focused on the Council. The Parliament’s role was secondary. It was typically limited to a cooperation or an assent procedure, whereby it could provide some input or offer approval of a given act.

It took a series of Treaty amendments to alter that state of affairs. And as is typical of the European integration process, the change was gradual. Here are some highlights (in parentheses the year when the treaty entered into force):

  • The Single European Act (1987) broadened the scope of the cooperation procedure. It paved the way towards making the EP an important institutional actor in the law-making process.
  • The Maastricht Treaty (1993) introduced the co-decision procedure, though it applied only to some areas of policy. Codecision involved the EP and the Council as equals. The Parliament thus became a co-legislator, which is a major increase in power and influence. Furthermore, Maastricht bestowed on the EP the right to provide ultimate approval of the European Commission’s composition. The Parliament thus attained a key political function, albeit a partial one. To exercise parliamentary control over the EU executive (we will come back to this in the following section).
  • The Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) broadened the scope of the co-decision procedure to cover most areas of policy. The EP’s position as a co-legislator was further reinforced. On the political front, the appointment of the Commission President became subject to EP approval. Another step towards enhancing parliamentary control.
  • The Treaty of Nice (2003) further extended the co-decision procedure.
  • The Treaty of Lisbon (2009) made the co-decision procedure the default mode of law-making in the Union. Its name changed to reflect this shift. It is now known as the ordinary legislative procedure, covering every major area where the Union is competent, from the common agricultural policy, to the euro and economic governance, to justice and home affairs. On the political side of things, the appointment of the European Commission president became a matter of elections. This has come to be known as the spitzenkandidaten procedure, whereby each political group appoints a head for its election list. The group with the most Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) nominates its spitzenkandidat as Commission President (Jean-Claude Juncker is the first to come to office in this way). Lisbon also introduced Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union, which has clear provisions on the involvement of the EP in future amendments to the Treaties (this is subject for another analysis).

To recapitulate, the European Parliament used to be a rather weak institution. Over the years it has become a proper agenda-setter. A ‘true parliament’ if you will. The ordinary legislative procedure ensures that without the EP and the Council coming to a common agreement there can be no progress in the legislative agenda. Compare that to the days when the Council practically made legislation on its own.

This trend of gradually reinforcing the EP is not likely to be reversed. The European Union is in desperate need of further enhancing its democratic legitimacy. The inclusion of the EP in an ever-expanding array of policies is the most likely course of action. A major area of policy where that is about to happen is the governance of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). There still is some debate going on as to the exact modalities of the EP’s involvement, with some voices calling for a separate chamber for euro-specific issues. Whatever the specifics, the gist is that the Parliament will have a direct say on everything pertaining to economic governance (which is, after all, the single most important area of policy in the Union as the euro crisis has so clearly demonstrated). And one can only expect the same for other areas of policy where the EU is competent.

Sovereignty mismatch and parliamentary control

In the previous section we outlined some of the political powers of the EP with regard to the control over the EU executive. The Parliament elects the Commission president and checks each Commissioner for their suitability in their role. In this respect, the EP is quite powerful, especially in the normative sense of being the EU institution whose membership is the result of direct elections.

Where things get complicated is with regard to the very notion of the “EU executive”. It is typical to provide that description for the European Commission. It does, after all, perform all the major tasks of a modern government. Makes legislative proposals, allocates funds, checks for the implementation of European law, and imposes sanctions or exerts pressure whenever a Member State fails to conform with the legal-political order of the Union.

So far so good. The complexity arises once we bring the European Council into the picture. This is not to be confused with the Council of the EU, which is a co-legislative institution, nor the Council of Europe which is not an EU entity. The European Council is the institution that brings together the heads of state or government of the EU Member States. Its role is to provide the EU with an overarching strategy for setting the agenda and priorities therein. In practice, the European Council is responsible for directing the European integration process. It does so by adopting ‘guidelines’ that are to be followed by the rest of the Union, typically the European Commission. These come in the form of instructions on what areas of policy need to be addressed, what sort of legislation to be introduced, and the like.

I refer to this phenomenon as the bifurcation of the EU executive. The Commission’s actual role is that of implementing or conforming with the will of the Member States qua European Council. Otherwise any draft legislation will be rejected by the Council of the EU (which is composed of the same governments, only represented by different individuals). To this end, I treat the Commission as the Union’s implementing executive, with the European Council being the deciding executive.

Why does this matter? Because it has far-reaching implications on democratic accountability. The European Parliament cannot exercise control over the European Council. The latter is, strictly speaking, an intergovernmental platform, not a government in and of itself. Each member of the European Council, head of nation state or government, is directly accountable to their own citizens and parliament. However the collection of those members, the European Council as such, is not accountable as a whole to anyone, certainly not the EP.

Which means that we discern another phenomenon germane to the current structure of the EU: its sovereignty mismatch. In a national democracy, the government sets rules for the nation state as a whole. In exchange, the nation at-large can exercise control, either through direct elections or parliamentary scrutiny. Whereas in the EU, the policies first formed by the European Council apply to the system at-large, but there is neither a European demos nor an EP with the power to directly control the European Council.

The mismatch thus consists in the uniformity of the supranational executive as pertains to its output, juxtaposed with the heterogeneity of its accountability structures which span national and supranational contexts. That is a side-effect of the Union’s reliance on intergovernmental modes of decision-making and rule-forming.

Couched in those terms, we may suggest that the European Parliament is not powerful enough. But then again we need to think about methodology and become eclectic in our approach. What is the benchmark? Which are the criteria? More specifically, is there any other polity with a federal system such as that of the European Union? Are such comparisons between things or magnitudes that are alike?

My point is that general propositions of the sort “the EP is under-powered” are erroneous or misleading if taken out of context. In the case of Europe’s sovereignty mismatch, it is not just the EP that has a limited role, but all national parliaments (you know, the ones that are ‘real’ and are ‘properly’ powered). The issue is multifaceted. It calls for a careful examination of the EU’s specifics, including the very essence of its sovereignty.1

Think in terms of progressively enhanced complexity

Here is what I would tell students and the public in general if I were a professor (I am just a blogger—think for yourself):

  • start from the basics, understand them in full, think them through;
  • introduce some complexity, some real world scenario, and try to revaluate your prior knowledge based on what you are observing;
  • proceed with the careful observation of a concatenation of events, do real world research, and then try to discern the patterns that emerge;
  • use those patterns as a point of reference for developing a system of analysis with which to interpret events as they unfold, and to some extent, predict possible outcomes (with the understanding that this is a domain of social science);
  • keep the analytical framework open to further refinements, for the human world does not render manifest all possible outcomes under any given set of constant parameters;
  • so bear in mind that your analysis has to account for cases where the notion of “crisis” is involved, and how that impacts the ‘normality’ you had identified.

To this end, every time you are called to make an assessment of how things stand, offer it with the proviso that the findings or your views are governed by a certain methodology, a given way of seeing things, and that a change in method or perspective could yield different results. It is the approach and the thinking that matters. Not being dogmatic. Justifying one’s position and rendering manifest the underlying rationale.

So is the European Parliament under-powered? I would start by saying “no”, though it depends on what exactly you are asking and the scope of its application.

  1. For an analysis on the sovereignty on the Union, refer to my essay Is the European Union sovereign?^

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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