Parliamentary privileges

by Henry Farrell on April 27, 2004

John makes a commonly heard “argument”: – that the problems at the root of the European Union’s governance system revolve around the weakness of its Parliament.

bq. The central problem with the EU is the lack of democratic accountability arising from a structure with a powerless parliament, under which all decisions are effectively made either by the unelected European Commission or by national governments in the Council of Ministers. The solution is either to keep the EU relatively weak and ineffectual, by maintaining national vetos over most issues, or to make the system more like a bicameral legislature, with some form of majority voting in both the Parliament and the Council.

I reckon that both analysis and solution are arguable. The Parliament isn’t nearly as weak as it’s reputed to be, thanks to the beefing up of the so-called “codecision” legislative procedure, in which both Parliament and Council have an effective veto over major areas of policy. Indeed, the common complaint heard around the Commission these days is that it doesn’t have much of a role – the European Council is increasingly usurping its agenda-setting powers, while the Council and Parliament stitch up deals together on important items of legislation. The European Union is increasingly looking like a bicameral legislature – but this hasn’t done much to solve the famous democratic deficit. As the Parliament has gotten more powerful, it has found itself being sucked into the Council’s traditional, rather secretive, way of doing business, and informal deal-making. Because voters don’t take the Parliament seriously (they often use European Parliament elections to punish their national governments), it’s easy for members of the European Parliament to get away with this. Thus, the problem is less a weak Parliament, than a Parliament which has accrued substantial power without serious electoral accountability. This is a much trickier problem to solve.



John Quiggin 04.27.04 at 7:08 am

There’s a bit of circularity here, which is why I can agree with a lot of what you say, but not the conclusion.

I agree that, for democratization to work, voters need to take the Parliament seriously, and not, for example, use European votes to punish national governments. But I’d argue that the national veto is one of the biggest factors leading people to disregard the increasing (potential and actual) power of the Parliament.

If you remove the national veto, you increase the plausibility of a constituency type campaign in which groupings in the European Parliament campaign on platforms that may not match the views of the corresponding national parties.


Matt 04.27.04 at 8:29 am

My view is that the problem stems from national governments not wanting to concede the final step that would lead to a European federal state (for the obvious reason that it would be unpopular and undermine their own prestige).

Without a central executive that’s under direct democratic control (ie basically a president), most people find the structure of the EU too abstract to understand how they can influence it, so they just assume they can’t, which leads to the kind of stitch up deals you talked about.

Once there was an democratically elected president with clear demarcation between EU federal powers and national ones (unlike the mish-mash constitution currently doing the rounds) I have a naive faith that voter accountability would lead to a better run union.


Ray 04.27.04 at 9:11 am

I honestly don’t think a directly elected president would make much difference to public perception. (And I don’t think Europeans would go for the US model of a strong president)

The problem with EU institutions is not that they’re incredibly complicated, even if the boundaries between parliament, commission, and council are not always very clear. The problem is that these institutions contain members from 15 or 25 different countries. Most people in one member state don’t know very much about the political situation in most other member states. When you don’t know what political concerns are motivating the Dutch foreign minister, or why the Greek commissioner for something or other is so concerned about a particular piece of legislation, the whole process becomes confusing and boring.

I don’t think there’s any quick fix to this problem. There’s an ongoing project to build a European identity – removing trade barriers, the single currency, and also increasing multilingualism, teaching more European, rather than simply national, history, and increasing European news coverage – to supplement national identity, and I think that is the real key to increasing EU democracy.


Maria 04.27.04 at 9:19 am

But I think this has been a very interesting, and possibly telling, week for the Parliament – with its referral of the Commission’s shady deal on airline passenger data to the European Court of Justice. On this issue at least the Parliament is very firmly refusing to be sucked into the Commission’s behind the scenes deal-making – though only because the Commission tried an end-run around Parliament.

Two issues are at play here; first, the substantive human rights/data protection argument that the Commission was forcing the breaking of EU data protection law in allowing transfers of personal data to a third country (the US) which has no effective privacy law and offers no legal redress for non-citizens whose privacy rights are trampled. The Commission’s own lawyers are none too confident that they can win this case by showing the transfers are legal.

Secondly, the Commission went ahead with a secret deal with the US, behind Parliament’s back, and ‘misled’ the European Parliament on what was in the deal. More than anything else (given the Parliament’s all talk and no trouser stance on privacy in the past), Parliament is being difficult because the Commission cut it out of the deal.

See Liberal MEP Graham Watson’s letter to the IHT yesterday for more background.

I keep meaning to write a proper post about this whole sorry saga, and just don’t know where to start…


Doug 04.27.04 at 1:19 pm

John, voters punish national governments by voting out (or against) regional governments (see SPD, travails of, 2002-03); why should the European level be any different?

Ray, the model of a strong presidency is also the French approach in the Fifth Repbulic. Poland has a slightly less powerful presidency, but one that is considerably more than ceremonial. And even the ceremonials have political influence from time to time (see Ciampi, Göncz, von Weiszäcker).

Structurally, I think what would make the most difference would be for party leaders to see Brussels as a stopping point in a career, rather than an end point. F’rinstance, in Germany, you can rise in the state legislature, or you can rise in the Bundestag, and both paths can lead to the upper reaches. But if you go off to Brussels (and Strasbourg and wherever else the circus goes to), by and large, you’ve fallen off the map. What would bring about a change among German parliamentarians would be for an MEP to come back as a Minister-President, or as a major minister at the federal level. That would tighten the linkage among the levels, while also making it clear that Brussels is not just a sandbox to go and play in. I suspect other countries would be similar, and that the answer is in strengthening existing connections to national parties, rather than trying to invent European parties from whole cloth.

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