Parliamentary prerogatives II

by Henry Farrell on October 28, 2004

As “John Quiggin”: says, the European Commission President has blinked, and backed down in the face of a credible threat from the Parliament to defeat the Commission. The short term result is an (informal) enhancement in the power of the Parliament to control the Commission – what’s likely to happen in the longer term? My predictions:

* An informal deal between the Parliament and Commission in which the Parliament will get a permanent role in deciding which Commissioner gets which portfolio. If Barroso had struck a deal with Parliament last week, he would have been able to get away with sacking Buttiglione, and nobody else. Now, the Parliament is going to demand a higher price – in part because it can get it (the Commission has blinked), and in part because this will be much easier to sell to Christian Democrat MEPs who didn’t want Buttiglione to go. It’s clear that there is going to be a real reshuffle (Buttiglione will be booted; a couple of other dodgy Commissioners will either withdraw or be allocated less sensitive portfolios). The Parliament will demand a proper and ongoing voice in this, and will almost certainly get away with it – neither the Commission nor the member states are going to want a repeat of this week.

* If there’s ever another round of Treaty revisions, I suspect that the Parliament will be formally given the power to reject individual Commissioners. It has effectively shown that it is willing to summon up an absolute majority to reject the entire Commission if there’s one Commissioner whom it dislikes sufficiently. It makes sense for the Council to recognize this _fait accompli_ – and ensure that the Parliament can express its dissatisfaction with individual Commissioners without provoking an institutional crisis by sacking the lot of them. Something like this has happened before, in the Council-Parliament confrontation over the “last bite at the cherry” stage in the codecision procedure (if anyone’s interested, the story is detailed “here”: in a piece co-written with Adrienne Heritier).

* Curiously perhaps, given the slant of the current news coverage, an increase in the powers of the Commission President vis-a-vis the Council. Up to now, the Commission President has had limited choice over who gets what portfolio, and none whatsoever over who gets nominated. As a result, the European Commission is an odd mix of ambitious and competent politicians, bureaucratic operators, placeholders, superannuated hacks and complete chancers. Now, the Commission President is going to be able to tell member state governments that certain candidate Commissioners are unacceptable, and have more discretion in making sure that the right person gets the right portfolio – he’ll be able to say quite credibly that the Parliament won’t stand for this or that fox being put in charge of the hencoop. In political science jargon, he’s now the equivalent of a “COG” in a “two level game”

* As a result of all the above, a quite real increase in democratic legitimacy for the EU. The European Commission only vaguely approximates to a real government, and the European Parliament is not a fully-fledged parliamentary body. But by holding hearings for Commissioners- and firing them if they don’t measure up – the Parliament is injecting some real accountability into an area of EU politics that has traditionally been dominated by self-serving backroom deals among governments.