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The European Parliament needs independence and a strong voice

, by Christoph Sebald

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Since the Lisbon Treaty came into effect in 2009 there are only a few decisions remaining which can be made without the European Parliament (EP). As it is the only EU institution which is directly elected, the Parliament represents all EU citizens on the European stage. Nevertheless, the Parliament lacks both political independence and sufficient access to the public, and that needs to be changed.

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  • studierte Europäisches Regieren und ist Mitglied der JEF Thüringen.

The foot of the citizen in the door to power

Since its establishment, the European Parliament has continuously gained influence. As it is the only institution of the European Union which is directly elected by the citizens of the EU, this is good news. Besides its competence to co-decide legislation, it has extensive supervisory powers towards the other institutions of the EU, first and foremost the european Commission and the Council of Ministers. If there is somebody who embodies the “citizen’s foot in the door” to the European legislative process, it is the EP.

In the past, the EP has repeatedly opposed national and EU policies, thereby acting in its citizens’ interests. For instance, in 2011 it froze the funds for European Commission expert groups in order to demand more transparency and effectively safeguard against capture by lobbyists. Recently it voted against the persistent overfishing of the seas. Finally, it was the EP who stopped the controversial ACTA agreement, a treaty for the international property rights enforcement. The examples given illustrate that the Parliament has often – though not always – proved its accountability towards its electorate.

Institutionally independent but often ignored

It is one of the advantages of the European Parliament that the European Commission is neither constituted by Members of the European Parliament (MEP), nor built upon a government majority. Although the EP’s institutional independence is hardly more than a precondition, it paves the way to a strong Parliament which is able to fully exert its role as a controlling body.

However, effective control requires access to the media in order to initiate debates which may raise public pressure and influence the legislative process. Up to now, MEPs are most often ignored or they play only a minor part in national public debates about current EUpolicies.

Political dependency and a lack of attention

Decidedly counterproductive is both the EP factions’ political amalgamation with national parties and a lack of EU-wide leading candidates for elections to the Parliament. On the one hand, EU-wide parties could set the EP free of the threat of being used for domestic interests; on the other hand leading candidates in elections could contribute positively to increasing attention of the media and might help to europeanize European elections.

The former point is of eminent importance. There are national representatives whose duty it is to represent national interests on the European stage. Contrary to that there is the EP which is meant to represent the entire EU citizen’s good. It contradicts the institutional logic if MEPs are involved in national interests and undermines proactive European policies. For instance, in the latest negotiations concerning European Transport Networks (TEN-T) numerous MEPs turned advocated their national interest. The consequence has been that there is a lot of money spent on prestige projects whose benefit to the European international transport is at least doubtful.

Political dependency and low media attention means that the EP elections suffer from continuously falling turnout. Media attention might help to stop that trend, but even more important is that the EP publicly demonstrates its power. Only if the citizens recognize the Parliament as an important actor in European affairs will they return to the ballot box. Therefore, it is of crucial importance that the EP tears up the multi-annual financial framework, badly negotiated by the Heads of States and Governments, publicly to pieces or at least to enforce significant alterations and sell it triumphantly as a negotiation success.

The budget issue is actually a power issue and decides whether or not summit diplomacy will proceed to decide the fate of the EU. As both the EU and its Member States claim to be democratic, it suits them badly that major decisions are being taken by what one might call “secret diplomacy”, behind closed doors and closed off from the general public.

What about equal representation?

Most prominently it was the German Federal Constitutional Court which, in its judgment on the Lisbon Treaty, expressed the view that national parliaments embody the primary source of democratic accountability. The EP, they argue, does not comply with the principle of electoral equality. However correct, this view assigns only a supplementary role to the EP thus underrating its democratic potential. There are several good reasons why it should be rejected.

First of all, it is not the national MPs but national Heads of States and Governments as well as national ministers who primarily co-decide in Brussels. Their accountability in European affairs towards national parliaments is quite limited, because they can rely on a government majority and even oppositional politicians regularly prefer to attack the government with national topics. Additionally, European affairs are of minor importance to national elections and even if national MPs do address European affairs, they are still susceptible to communicate them nationally biased.

Indeed, there is no reason why EU citizens are represented disproportionally in the EP, because smaller countries do have their fair share of the power both in the Commission and the Council. Nevertheless, the electoral inequality must not be made an artificial obstacle to the unfolding of the democratic potential of the EP.

The voice of the EU citizens needs a European accent

It is illogical to assign national organs, responsible first and foremost to the national good, with the identification and communication of common issues facing the EU. Because of that, a truly European discourse focusing on the European good will not come to fruition.

For example, the Standard Eurobarometer published in spring 2012 revealed the national perception of the most important issues currently facing the European Union is massively influenced by the actual situation in the Member States. Contrary to a high number of Spanish (46 per cent) and Cypriot (55 per cent) citizens, only 19 per cent of the Finnish consider unemployment one of the two most important issues facing the EU. It is perfectly obvious that the lack of a “European” perception complicates co-operation and the implementation of concerted actions.

Besides the language barriers, there are barriers of deviating national interpretations which is a major reason for Europeans neither to fully understand each other nor to truly identify their common problems. As a barrier, incomprehension is hardly easier to overcome than language barriers.

Statements of the EP have already cleared this hurdle. The EP, as an institution of the EU anxious to consolidate its position, has also a profound desire to push ahead and publicly debate European-policy issues. Because it best serves the purpose, by contributing to the accountability of EU-policies and by helping to Europeanize the debate about EU issues, Members of the European Parliament should initiate debates about EU policies and carry them into the public space.

There is still some way to go until the European Parliament obtains both the political independence and the media attention necessary to extensively fulfill its democratic function. As EU citizens, we should attempt to contribute and invite others in order to help raise the independent voice of the EP in national discourses. For the citizens of the European Union finally need a representative with a strong voice and a European accent.

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P.S.

This article was first published on “Treffpunkt Europa” and was slightly modified. It initiated a series of guest articles by Members of the European Parliament of all factions.

Your comments

  • On 6 March 2013 at 22:06, by Matthew David Albritton Replying to: The European Parliament needs independence and a strong voice

    Euro-Federalists (as I will dub you all) need not reinvent the wheel — The United States, has dealt with and solved some of the very same issues which are presented here: Equal representation, institutional independence, and political stability. The Convention of 1789 remedied (to a certain extent) these problems with the Constitution. The Economist had a good article not long ago on the Charlemagne blog (Charlemagne: 1789 and all that | http://econ.st/10gxOvj) I wanted to expand on some of these ideas and issues, so at the risk of taking a historical analogy too far, I will endeavor to help put in perspective the challenges the European Parliament faces in light of similar challenges the United States has faced trying to create a “more perfect Union.”

    1. The philosophy of limited government was almost universally shared by the framers of the US Constitution, and that philosophy guided the whole process. I highly recommend this approach.

    2. The United States solved the dilemma of equal/proportional representation with a bicameral legislature (the Senate & the House), which have equal-representation as well as proportional-representation, respectively. This measure was instituted to prevent largely populated States (such as New York) gain more power proportionally over smaller States (like Rhode Island). This would be extremely interesting to see effectively implemented in the European Parliament, especially considering the diverse size and population of European nations represented at the EP.

    3. As to the all-important issue of sovereignty, let us listen to what Alexander Hamilton postulates in the Federalist #32:

    “An entire consolidation of the States into one complete national sovereignty would imply an entire subordination of the parts; and whatever powers might remain in them, would be altogether dependent on the general will. But…the State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, EXCLUSIVELY delegated to the United States. This exclusive delegation, or rather this alienation, of State sovereignty, would only exist in three cases: where the Constitution in express terms granted an exclusive authority to the Union; where it granted in one instance an authority to the Union, and in another prohibited the States from exercising the like authority; and where it granted an authority to the Union, to which a similar authority in the States would be absolutely and totally CONTRADICTORY and REPUGNANT.”

    Of course, there are a myriad of problems the European Parliament faces in terms of addressing the issues stated and omitted above. The point of this commentary is to encourage European Federalism, because anything is better than the political and financial chaos that Europe is experiencing these days.

    The most important step for Euro-Federalists will be to call for a Constitutional Convention. However, a clear plan must be already in the minds of those attending, as to what they (and their constituents) would like to see in the new constitution. This will be exceedingly difficult, but its really the only way to go about getting the reform the European Parliament needs — 1) Figuring out the sovereignty locus of the European Parliament, 2) Establishing equal *AND* proportional representation models, 3) Ensuring institutional independence.

    That’s all for now.

    Best Regards, Matthew David Albritton @MDavidAlbritton www.diogenesticker.blogspot.com

    Recommended Reading: The Federalist(http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_…)

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