The European Parliament: Not fit for purpose?

The voice of the people? Seriously?

The voice of the people? Seriously?

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an MEP. I had been an ardent eurosceptic until I went to Dachau, and then started to read about Adenauer and Monnet and something clicked with me. This European unity thing made sense. When I discovered the European Parliament, I was blown away at the idea of a parliament elected by millions of Europeans, all working together towards a common noble goal. It was absolutely breathtaking, and I desperately wanted to be part of it. At one stage, as a member of the European Youth Parliament, I got to speak in the chamber, and for years afterwards that moment stayed with me, with the thought: “I’ll be back!”

Then I got involved in politics, and the more times I went to Brussels or Strasbourg, the less enthused I got about it and the EU. A post I put up recently about a directly elected president for Europe raised an interesting debate, and many interesting contributions, about how to reform the European democratic disconnect. One factor which emerged, which caught my eye, was the attitude of pro-Europeans to the European Parliament. It caught my attention because it centred around the fact that burst my parliamentary bubble. You see, the EP does a good job as a legislature and a scrutiniser of the Commission. I don’t doubt that. But where my jaw drops is when I hear MEPs and supporters of the EP proclaim it to be, collectively, the voice of the people of Europe.

No it isn’t. Yes, it is directly elected (by a dwindling 43% of voters, a level that if occurred in a national election would become a major issue in most member states) but that does not give it a collective mandate. Show me the European citizens who say that the EP has the same legitimacy as their national parliaments. Show me the citizens who will nod sagely if the EP were to overrule their national parliament, and side with the EP. When one listens to Brussels insiders talk about the manouverings between the PES, EPP and ALDE it’s like listening to a furious row going on inside the world of late 19th century Hungarian basket collectors. It is so distant from even national politics, let alone the citizens, that its democratic legitimacy is nominal at best.

Put it another way: If it emerged that the European Parliament was about to wrest control of something that really matters to voters, like setting income tax, from the national parliaments, how would ordinary Europeans react?

4 thoughts on “The European Parliament: Not fit for purpose?

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  2. I’m sorry, but I genuinely feel that messing around with the EP is like counting how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin: Irrelevent to the great majority of Europeans. The point of a directly elected president is that in recognising the modern personality driven culture that we live in, where a political movement is effectively blended with the attractiveness of the candidate. I agree that it isn’t rational. Barack Obama could draw 80,000 people to a rally in Berlin when he ran for president. Do you think Joseph Daul, Martin Schulz or Graham Watson could? Could someone running for directly elected president of Europe? I don’t know. But I do know that the parties selecting such a candidate would have to give some consideration to the broad popular appeal of the candidate. Schulz may not: Segolene Royal might. Of course, the fear is that Geert Wilders may draw 100,000, but that says more about the inability of moderates to communicate than it does about an electoral system.

  3. I agree with a lot of these points, yet I don’t agree with your final conclusion. If there was a bigger link between the EP and the Commission – if it was more parliamentary – then surely this would encourage greater scrutiny of policy, and therefore force Europarties to change, become more pro- or anti- gov/Commission, and this would discourage grand coalition politics. In your post on the Commission Presidency, you seemed to assume that the EP would just remain the same under different circumstances. I think it is more likely to stay the same if the Commission isn’t linked explicitly to a governing majority in the EP, as the Europarties are then freer to make deals and there is less incentive to stick together in a governing coalition and not lose face from “their government” being defeated.

    Such a culture wouldn’t spring up over night but I think it would emerge under the right electoral conditions. On ther other hand, I think a directly elected president would end up weaker without a parliamentary power base – leading voters to be disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of their directly elected president. Political authority does fade and fray, and under the pressures of national positioning in Council and coalition-making in the EP, I doubt that a President could easily make his/her mark to a significant degree – and what is the rational incentive for voters to vote for such a figure?

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