Limitations of the European Parliament

A Handbook on the European Union - Book index

The European Parliament performs the main function of any other parliament: to decide on the content of legislation. While that may qualify it as adequate for the purposes of fulfilling its law-making role, it does indeed face certain limitations in its power, all of which have to do with the nature of the European Union as a union of states that is not yet a federal republic.

There are three limitations to the Parliament’s scope, namely: (1) no legislative initiative, (2) constrained budgetary powers, (3) no institutional role in controlling rule forming entities.

Within the context of the ordinary legislative procedure, which is the main modus operandi for producing secondary legislation, only the European Commission has the right to initiate the process. The Commission sends its draft law to both co-legislative institutions, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, which are then tasked with agreeing on a common text. What this means is that the legislative function is only capable of reacting to a proposal from the executive. All the Parliament can do in terms of an initiative, is to ask the Commission to produce a certain draft for a new piece of legislation, which will then be subject to the ordinary legislative procedure. The inability to outright initiate the law-making process implies the following:

  1. the Parliament’s own-initiative reports are not legally binding;
  2. it cannot be the prime mover in the effort to amend or repeal existing legislation;
  3. it may not fulfil its democratic mandate in formally expressing the demands of European citizens (such as those that gain momentum through the European Citizens’ Initiative).

As concerns budgetary powers, the Parliament has to conform with the EU’s peculiarity of having a multiannual budgetary framework, formally known as the Multiannual Financial Framework. Also and given that the EU does not have a fiscal capacity of its own (the power to, inter alia, raise taxes and issue debt), all of the budget’s funds come from national contributions. This means that intergovernmental bargaining takes place prior to the introduction of a new MFF, for the purposes of deciding on the appropriation and upper limits of the funding arrangements. The main role of the European Parliament is to make amendments to the inner distribution of any given set of resources, as well as have a final say on the MFF as a package. It cannot have a position on either the distribution or the ceilings concerning each area of spending. Put simply, the Parliament cannot decide to take resources from agricultural policy and reallocate them to infrastructure. Ultimately though, the rather minor impact on the MFF means that no parliamentary majority is capable of shaping the EU’s fiscal stance to adopt an expansionary or contractionary policy in accordance with the business cycle.

In recent years, where the Parliament’s weakness has been most apparent is its inability to scrutinise the rule forming entities of the European Union (European Council and Eurogroup), as well as hold accountable the various intergovernmental arrangements that have been set up as a response to the euro crisis, most notably the so-called “troika”—officials from the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank—and the European Stability Mechanism. As concerns the rule forming entities, the Parliament cannot hold each of them accountable as a body, for they are comprised of national representatives who only answer to their respective parliaments and electorates. This means that the rule forming entities are answerable to no parliament or citizenry as collectives. As for the instruments that deal with the euro crisis, including the ESM, these are purely intergovernmental in nature, which puts them in the same league as the rule forming entities. Similarly, the European Parliament has no right to scrutinise the International Monetary Fund: the bailout programmes under the troika’s supervision are multilateral agreements whose “ownership” is attributed to the nation state receiving the financial support, so that accountability, if any, remains at the national level.

These limitations notwithstanding, the European Parliament has over the decades become an important player in European affairs. With the Treaty of Lisbon making the ordinary legislative procedure the default mode for producing secondary law, the Parliament has a key role to play in determining the content of legislation. To that end, we may consider any limitations to the European Parliament’s power as germane to European integration, in particular the fact that the EU is still not a sovereign, constitution-based republic with full fledged legislative and executive functions. The Parliament’s weaknesses are quite apparent, though they would require relatively minor reforms to be addressed, such the right to a legislative initiative, a more meaningful involvement in the EU budget, and the right to hold accountable the rule forming entities.

As for the inability of the European Parliament to decide on its own seat, it is not entirely clear whether this is a flaw of the Parliament or an inherent constraint of unanimity-based decision-making between national governments. Perhaps the latter is a more plausible explanation, since it ultimately is the veto power of the French government which forces the rest of official Europe to persevere the ordeal of travelling from Brussels to Strasbourg to hold at least twelve plenary sessions per year. This will remain the case for as long as the permanent seat of a European institution is treated as a matter of symbolism rather than practical reason. Ultimately though, this issue is not substantive as it does not have an impact on the general role of the European Parliament and, therefore, should not be given more attention than the above three limitations to parliamentary power.