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.