The sad thing is, the European Parliament behaves, in a lot of ways, exactly the way people would like their national parliaments to act. Many MEPs take their legislative duties seriously, carefully studying proposed regulations and directives. Furthermore, many MEPs show more independence from the party whip than national MPs. Finally, and this is a big one: unlike in many national parliaments, the executive is genuinely afraid of parliament.
Those are the good points. The bad, however…sadly there’s plenty. For every hardworking MEP, it feels like there’s some party hack sent off to Strasbourg. For every serious legislator, there seems to be one fiddling his or her expenses, and let’s be honest: the parliament has been its own worst enemy when it comes to expenses fiddles. After all, it took a courageous Irish lawyer, Ciaran Toland, to take the parliament to the European Court of Justice to reveal it’s own report into expenses abuse. One top of that, the parliament also gets abuse for something which isn’t its actual fault: the ridiculous moving of the parliament every month up and down the road between Brussels and Strasbourg: it would surely be cheaper just to send a single MEP to walk around the streets of that lovely French city handing out a few million in €50 notes to its citizens.
But the situation is even worse than that. One could argue that parliament does a reasonable job as a parliament, but one thing is unarguable: as a house constructed to speak for the people of Europe, it has failed. Six out of ten European voters don’t bother voting for it, and those that do use it as an excuse to kick the crap out of their national governments. Most Europeans would struggle to pick their MEPs out of a line up. As for making the parliament elections a de facto election for the President of the Commission? It looks great on paper, it feels real in Brussels, but the truth is, most Europeans felt more of a connect with the bearded Austrian cross-dresser who won the Eurovision than Jean-Claude Juncker.
So what’s to be done? How do we make European democracy look more like what Europeans expect democracy to look like? It won’t be easy. In national elections there are winners and losers, something by its nature doesn’t happen in European elections, as we’re not voting in or out a government.
Let’s consider the ultimate option: should we abolish the parliament altogether? Certainly, it’s hard to imagine there’ll be huge crowds taking to Europe’s streets in protest, and secondly, the member state governments would hardly shed a tear. But is it really in Europe’s interest to just let the European Commission off on its own, watched over by a Council of Ministers preoccupied with domestic politics? I’m not sure that’s a better solution.
Pre-1979, the parliament was made up of national MPs. Could we return to that? It’s possible, but would that create a parliament that holds the Commission to account as it does now, or would it be populated by loyal national backbenchers given a little reward for being good boys and girls at home? Again, it’s hard to say it would be a better parliament. More likely a political doss house.
We could do something really radical, like replace parliament with a senate of say, three directly elected senators from each member state, and with a senate that votes with a double majority of states and population. The senators would at least be well known in their respective member states, but would such a senate be big enough to do the work?
Or we could be more creative: We could start by reducing the size of the current 750 members. Would any non-MEP seriously object to a parliament of 300-400 members, and the savings made?
Then we could consider how they’re elected. Some member states (Ireland, part of the UK, Belgium, Finland and Malta) let voters vote directly for individual candidates, but most don’t, and as a result most MEPs aren’t really known, never mind accountable. In Ireland, however, the ultra-personalised STV voting system requires candidates to put themselves forward. Would it be the worst thing if MEPs had to be elected in their own right? At least they could be held accountable for their expenses and attendance.
Finally, there’s an outside the box option to boost turnout and stop voters using the European Parliament as a dumping ground for mid-term weirdoes. Instead of holding a European election every five years, there’s always the option of letting each member state elect its MEPs on the same day it has its general election. This would instead create a parliament with a rolling, changing majority, not dissimilar to the German Bundesrat, and allow parliament to change as the national political landscapes changed. But it would also, most likely, result in voters voting for the parties that THEY themselves regard as sensible enough to elect to national office, as opposed to the mid-term tantrum brigade. It wouldn’t be a perfect solution by any stretch, but it would be hard, having been elected by the same voters on the same day as national parliaments, not to claim the same legitimacy, and that’s got to count for something.