The European Parliament has a legitimacy problem. It is not confined to the well-publicised reluctance of European citizens to exercise their votes in elections to the European Parliament, even if the low turnout rate (43% in 2009) is part of the problem. Nor is the problem confined to the Parliament alone – all the European Union institutions suffer from it to some extent – but it is most acute for the Parliament.
The problem is simply stated: questions persist about the European Parliament’s right to exist and its right to take decisions that affect citizens’ lives – questions that are never asked about any national parliament of the EU’s 27 member states.
The European Parliament has been with us since the foundation of the EU. It has been directly elected since 1979. Each EU treaty since the 1990s has increased the competences and power of the Parliament. Yet the Parliament has not achieved the undisputed status enjoyed by most national political institutions, whose existence is widely accepted (though they do not all command affection and respect).
To some extent, this is unsurprising. The Parliament should be regarded differently from national parliaments because it is not like national parliaments: the ‘government’ of the EU, whatever that may be, does not reside in the European Parliament, or depend on the support of a majority of MEPs. It is not the case, as it would be in the national parliaments, that if a parliamentary majority splinters, then the government falls and new elections are convened. The executive is not to be found in the Parliament. The Parliament is just one part of the EU’s legislature and it is a place where majorities are formed ad hoc, in support of particular resolutions or pieces of legislation, but where defeat does not have the dramatic consequences that it would have in other parliaments.
Nevertheless, this exceptional quality of the Parliament does not, to my eyes, completely explain the ferocity of the attacks that are launched against it. Jack Straw, sometime foreign minister and later justice minister of the United Kingdom, was at it again last week. He declared to the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank in London, that: “There is a major democratic deficit within the EU [and] the mechanism that was established 30 years ago to fill this…deficit, which was a directly elected European Parliament, has not worked out and…cannot work in that form.” He said that the Parliament should be replaced by an assembly of national parliaments.
Arguably more significant and more damaging was the criticism of Germany’s constitutional court, which expressed its doubts in 2009 about the legitimacy of the European Parliament. This criticism counts for more, because Straw can be dismissed as a has-been and his proposed solution as unworkable. Inconveniently for the German government, the constitutional court in Karlsruhe cannot be so easily dismissed, though some of its concerns can be branded eccentric. (Such as the view that legitimacy is in doubt because the ratio of MEPs to voters is bigger for Luxembourg than it is for Germany.)
The standard response to Straw and his like is that the Parliament should be given yet more power and more ideological content. Julian Priestley, an ex-secretary-general of the Parliament, has argued in a pamphlet for Notre Europe that the European Parliament elections in 2014 should be made into contests between choices about Europe’s future, with European political parties proposing competing programmes and rival candidates for the presidency of the European Commission.
Simon Hix of the London School of Economics argues that changes to the forms of proportional representation might improve participation.
I am unconvinced. On the one hand, I recognise that the European Parliament exists and cannot be abolished or replaced. Its importance is greater than ever – and that is why European Voice is publishing a guide to the Parliament, distributed with this edition.
On the other hand, it is also clear that not all is well. Here are a few reforms that would improve its legitimacy:
End the split between meeting in Strasbourg and Brussels. In addition to the environmental and economic waste, there are political costs. For instance, you are less likely to get intelligent coverage of the Parliament by national television companies for as long as the caravan shuttles between the two cities.
Stop the presidency of the Parliament being tied into the share-out of jobs between political groups (see European Voice editorial, 5-11 January 2012) and make the term of the presidency five years – long enough to build an identity throughout Europe.
Reduce the size of the Parliament. Fewer MEPs per country would improve their chances of recognition. The low status of MEPs – and their low recognition – in their home countries is part of the legitimacy problem.
Stop what Antonio Vitórino, a former European commissioner, referred to this week as the “micro-management of Commission”. The Parliament has been so desperate to enlarge its powers that it has tried to muscle in on Commission activities. Micro-management is not the same thing as accountability.
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Some of these reforms are in the Parliament’s own power to make happen. Others require the co-operation of national governments. The EU would benefit if the Parliament gained more widespread acceptance.