Parliamentary prerogatives

by Henry on October 19, 2004

Dan Drezner and I have been conducting a friendly argument over whether or not the European Union is a standard international organization (i.e. a creature of its member states) or something more. The minor crisis surrounding Rocco Buttiglione, incoming Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs should be an interesting data point for our disagreement. The European Parliament has the right to vote no confidence in the European Commission as a whole. Over the last several years, as the Economist notes, the Parliament has assiduously sought to expand this right into the power to make or break individual Commissioners whom it doesn’t like. The Parliament has very cleverly expanded its powers far beyond the intent of the member states, by instituting “confirmation hearings” in which it claims the right to judge whether or not individual Commission members are up to the job. Clearly, it doesn’t think that Italian nominee Rocco Buttiglione is suited for his responsibilities – he’s a conservative Catholic whose personal views on gay rights and single mothers sit rather awkwardly with his responsibility to protect minority rights. A majority of MEPs seems to be willing to vote Buttiglione down; but Italy, a powerful member state, is refusing to back down and withdraw his nomination. The Commission President, who decides the portfolio of individual commissioners, is caught in the middle. As the Economist says, this dispute is a reflection of “a broader philosophical question: where should power really lie in the European Union?”

The Economist’s hopes to the contrary, it seems that the Commission President has decided that it’s more important to please the Parliament than the member states. According to the FT, he’s negotiating a deal whereby Buttiglione would have his powers over human rights and minority affairs stripped away from him. Even more pertinently, the President seems to be contemplating a settlement in which Parliament’s powers vis-a-vis the Commission would be expanded very substantially. This would lead to a very clear shift in the balance of power within the European Union, in which the influence of member states would be weakened, and the Parliament’s relationship with the Commission would start to resemble that between the US Congress and the executive branch. If this comes to pass, it will be very hard (perhaps impossible?) to square with theories of international relations that emphasize the power of states to determine international outcomes – it would be a development that (a) certainly wasn’t anticipated in the Treaties signed by the member states, and (b) clearly wasn’t in member states’ interests. It would also have the incidental benefits of embarrassing Berlusconi’s government, and clipping the wings of a rather dubious potential Commissioner (regardless of his views on gay people and women, his enthusiasm for camps for immigrants should be enough to disqualify him for the job).



greg 10.20.04 at 12:19 am

I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on the ways in which the European Parliament is an independent actor and is constantly attempting to increase its institutional power. My specific focus was on the ways in which the Parliament exercised its influence in the negotiations on the Maastricht Treaty. I don’t really have anything to add here, other than that it’s interesting to see my rather arcane research topic from two years ago in today’s press. Go European Parliament (and Red Sox)!!!


TJM 10.20.04 at 12:25 am

The EU is certainly accumulating power at the centre in a way which resembles the growth of the Federal Government in the US. In fact, it’s fascinating to watch developments which in the US took decades or centuries replicated over the space of a few years.

One of the problems with the EU is that there are very few natural constituencies seeking to restrain this growth. The Left, despite its distrust of “globalisation”, is a passionate fan of the EU. Here in Ireland, membership is (correctly) seen by some as a means of forcing European values (such as stringent environmental laws) on a largely unwilling populace. The Right, despite its cry of small government, has often been reluctant to apply that principle in Brussels. National governments, which might have been expected to resist the erosion of their powers, love Brussels, which allows them to exercise power in a largely unaccountable way through the (appallingly opaque) Council of Ministers, without having to trouble themselves with the views of their own parliaments, much less voters. (After all, EU laws can be blamed on “Brussels”, conveniently obscuring national governments’ own involvement.)

Of course, the whole enterprise could be derailed by one or two adverse referendum verdicts – and in many ways I’d be happy to see this happen, if it forced a slowing down of the breakneck rush to “deepen” the union. The EU, despite its economic success, is anathema to most libertarian (with a small l) principles – and the laws originating in Brussels have already reached a stage of labyrinthine complexity and opacity , not to mention intrusiveness. In addition, powers are being taken on centrally without adequate means of democratic or structural oversight. I’m undecided as to whether the new constitution will exacerbate this trend… or whether enlargement will tend to limit it.


PG 10.20.04 at 12:48 am

The EU certainly is perceived within the U.S. as something more than a creature of its member states, just as I think the U.S. is perceived as more than 50 states and a few territories. Economic comparisons are made between the whole Union and whole U.S., tending to overlook the vast disparities between Germany and Poland, or Rhode Island and Alabama.

However, it’s certainly useful to see how certain powerful member states can prevent changes to the EU in a way that, say, NY and CA don’t seem to be able to decide the course of American policy.


John Quiggin 10.20.04 at 1:27 am

A relevant point here is that the Parliament is right on the merits – this guy is a terrible candidate, and Barroso ought to have shunted him somewhere where he was less conspicuously inappropriate.

This in turn reflects the fact that while the member states as a group may want to preserve their power, individual states act in irresponsible ways that tend to dissipate that power.

Looking at this case in particular, it doesn’t seem as if the other member states have taken any particular interest, leaving it as a fight between Rome and Brussels.


Gary Farber 10.20.04 at 2:02 am

I blogged on this kerfuffle on the 16th, with a link to a different story.

I didn’t do any serious analysis at all, as you did, but the FT missed the juicy quote I quoted.


Kieran Healy 10.20.04 at 3:35 am

Sorry to lower the tone of the discussion, but if he doesn’t get the job he should move to the San Fernando Valley: “Rocco Buttiglione” is a Porn-Star Name, _par execellence_.


Matt 10.20.04 at 3:49 am

Forget about parliament for a minute- it seems pretty clear that the EU (and the EC before it) is more than just a creature of its member states from the workings of the ECJ, the fact that EU law has supremicy over Member-state law (and that member-states accept this),etc. When compared to, say, the UN, or the old GATT, or even the WTO, it’s pretty clear that the EU is more than just an international agreement.


Jackmormon 10.20.04 at 4:49 am

Some expats in the Brussels crew have been discussing this question at

I’m not affiliated, I’m not blogwhoring: it’s just an interesting site.


Doug 10.20.04 at 10:26 am

tjm, are you a seismologist? It’s only in comparison with geologic processes that I can conceive of calling anything the EU does a “breakneck rush” …

The rise of Parliament is one of the long stories in many European countries; it may be happening at the EU level as well. More backbone and less corruption, as well as greater direct accountability give it potential advantages over the Commission, if it will take advantage of them. Another smart move would be to end the traveling circus of Strasbourg and make it clear to voters that the only reason for a peripatetic Parliament is the desire of one member state.

I think Henry’s debate with Dan could end with the conclusion that the Union is neither-nor, instead of either-or. But that wouldn’t be much fun. (And resolved disputes don’t generate tenure-winning publications anyway.)


Henry 10.20.04 at 2:49 pm

bq.More backbone and less corruption, as well as greater direct accountability give it potential advantages over the Commission, if it will take advantage of them.

I think that the first part of this is wrong – the Commission is relatively clean as bureaucracies go, but some of the Parliament’s hiring practices, relationships with lobbyists etc are distinctly fishy.


tjm 10.20.04 at 3:42 pm

Doug – the breakneck rush is just that. The treaties – the fundamental provisions of EU law – change almost as often as Italian governments. (Bear in mind that the term EU is itself very recent… we’ve gone from EEC to EC to EU over a few years, with each description meaning something different.) Each successive treaty has contained its own innovations (such as the recent incorporation of the ECHR into EU law), some of which radically restructure the relationship between citizen, state and union (the Third Pillar provisions being a classic example, now vividly illustrated by the European Arrest Warrant). The Irish voters who voted for entry 30 years ago would be hard pressed to recognise today’s EU. The changes have been incremental, granted, but continuous incremental change leads to dramatic results. Just ask Richard Dawkins.


Doug 10.20.04 at 5:43 pm

The Commission as a whole may be a relatively clean bureaucracy, but the scandals have been big and juicy. Edith Cresson’s dentist? Olaf’s refusal to investigate shenanigans? The firing of accountants who insisted on good accounting?

The Cresson affair should be sufficient evidence for giving Parliament the power to reject individual Commissioners.

Parliament may be fishy, too, but at least MEPs can be voted out of office.

The western democracies have at least half a century of not succumbing to the madness of crowds; that’s a record much better than they had when the Commission’s technocratic and pan-European (or at least pan-member) ethos was conceived. Can it find a new ethos better suited to a stable democratic age in Europe?

tjm, it took nearly 30 years to implement the single currency. Enlargement took a decade and a half. The single market still isn’t complete. Maastricht is more than a decade in the rear view mirror. Europe makes haste with great deliberate slowness. And I daresay that the Irish voters who voted for entry 30 years ago would recognize even more far-reaching changes in the Republic over that period.

(And Ireland hasn’t even had a real revolution like eight of the ten new members. Consider the last 30 years in Estonia…)

Anyway, I don’t think the one view excludes the other. Europe moves slowly in individual areas, but so many areas are active that change is nearly constant. Like any other government.


Robin Green 10.21.04 at 3:05 am

the Commission is relatively clean as bureaucracies go

Ha ha ha! Henry – I suggest you read Private Eye more often.


Henry 10.21.04 at 6:59 pm

bq. Ha ha ha! Henry – I suggest you read Private Eye more often.

And I suggest you read some of the comparative literature on corruption. Or, if you don’t have time, the _Economist_ (which ran something on this a few months ago, and which is presumably a more reliable source than Private Eye).

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