The European Parliament is a real parliament

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I was reading through the notes of Yanis Varoufakis from his October 15 presentation in Barcelona. Together with some very good points that the professor raises, one may also find the following unfortunate remark:

The European Parliament is not a real parliament.

I understand that these are mere notes and that it is in the nature of notes to strip away some of the nuance in the argument. I also acknowledge the fact that Mr. Varoufakis is not delivering a lecture on the European Parliament and that he is just mentioning it in passing. In this sense, one cannot be very critical of the professor. Yet these are not sufficient reasons for remaining silent over a certain falsity.

I disagree with the claim that the European Parliament (hereinafter referred to as EP or Parliament) is not a real parliament. It is one thing to suggest that the EP faces certain constraints and another to be nihilist. This sort of negativity only helps to perpetuate certain misconceptions about “Brussels” and “Europe” as a detached, hypertrophied bureaucracy.

The EP is as real as a parliament gets. It is characterised by the following items on this non-exhaustive list:

  • directly elected members (Members of the European Parliament—MEPs);
  • it makes laws that are legally binding on the Union’s Member States;
  • it adopts its own resolutions over issues that it may not legislate on (e.g. the status of human rights in non-EU countries);
  • it has political groups (political families of national parties) each with their own staff and policy advisors, and with resources that are often used to fund research in various areas of policy;
  • it has its own administration and legal service filled with experts over a broad range of topics;
  • it houses a library and a research service (follow the latter @EP_ThinkTank and read their blog).

Not only is the European Parliament a real parliament, it also is a testament to the potential for transnational democracy, courtesy of its multilingualism. Do not neglect the fact that the EU has 24 official languages. All of the Parliament’s sessions are simultaneously interpreted in multiple languages, depending on the context. During plenary sessions all official EU languages are covered, while committee meetings typically offer translation in all the languages of the MEPs present. Even meetings between a rapporteur and the shadow rapporteurs (those MEPs who coordinate the efforts for amending a certain text or piece of legislation) have translation in a given set of languages if the people present do not use some of the more widely-used tongues such as English and French.

Furthermore, and writing as someone who has recently tried to access the websites of the Greek and the Cypriot parliaments, the EP is doing some very good work in making all of its citizen-facing operations accessible. One can find reports, amendments, adopted texts, video streams to committee and plenary sessions, background material, policy briefs, information about any MEP, links to relevant sources such as social media etc. This degree of transparency is laudable. It should not be underestimated nor be blithely dismissed. In fact, it should be emphasised and serve as a guide for striving to improve the overall transparency of the EU.

Is the EP flawless? No, not at all. It has certain limitations that stem from the very design of the EU as an inter-state formation. While cardinally important in their own respect, these do not anyhow annul all of what the EP represents.

To summarise what I wrote in a recent article about the limitations of the European Parliament:

  • no legislative initiative: the EP cannot use its democratic mandate to initiate the legislative process, given that the European Treaties only allow it to react to proposals from the European Commission; this limitation implies that the Parliament cannot launch the process of repealing existing legislation, while its own-initiative reports do not attain a legally-binding character;
  • no adequate fiscal powers: the budget of the EU is defined in the Multiannual Financial Framework over which the EP has limited powers, since it is the Member States that contribute the resources (the EU does not have its own fiscal capacity, to raise taxes or issue debt); also and given the multi-annual design of the EU’s fiscal position, the EP cannot exert the kind of control over fiscal policy as do parliaments that approve budgets on an annual basis;
  • no control over the legal bases: the Parliament cannot amend any provision in the European Treaties, for only the Member States may do so, meaning that it does not have the ultimate authority to change the legal bases of institutions it is supposed to scrutinise, such as the European Central Bank.

By internalising the view that the European Parliament is something of a farce, we run the risk of providing grist to the mill of those europhobes who never want to examine the specifics, so as to make their arguments more plausible. The EP is a real parliament, but faces certain constraints due to the fact that the European Union is not a state, nor does it function like a typical republic. One needs to be critical of the status quo for its failure to meet the normative standards of democratic life set at the national level. Yet one also has to be specific and eclectic in their approach so as not to fall into a cycle of negativity and nihilism.

Finally, I feel the need to conclude this short piece with a disclaimer, as I have produced a number of blog posts where I either comment on or mention Yanis Varoufakis. I do not have anything personal against the professor. On the contrary, I think he is very important to the general cause of reforming the European Union. Any criticism I may direct against his claims is constructive and well meaning. The arguments of his that I point to are, in my opinion, in need of refinement as they are incompatible with his overall analysis of the EU’s actual flaws.

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