Parliamentary prerogatives II

by Henry on October 28, 2004

As “John Quiggin”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/002753.html 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”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/governance.pdf 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.

{ 7 comments }

1

P O'Neill 10.28.04 at 10:02 pm

The wildcard is the extent to which Buttiglione becomes a cause celebre amongst the Catholic parties in Europe. One can’t generalise from Ireland of course, but I will anyway — I think Sinn Fein have alienated some supporters by being in the bloc that was threating to reject the Commission, so one wonders if people in other countries will also take a look at exactly what positions their MEPs have lined up with in Strasbourg that don’t match well with their supposed alignment at home. But if national voters want MEPs who more match their national preferences, how does this affect a European Parliament?

2

Michael Otsuka 10.29.04 at 7:57 am

_Up to now, the Commission President has had limited choice over who gets what portfolio_

How is it, up to this point, that portfolios were determined? Did the leaders of the larger member states negotiate among themselves who got which choice portfolio and then present their agreed choices to the President of the Commission as a fait accompli? Or was there more of a role for the Commission President?

3

schwa 10.29.04 at 11:31 am

I feel professionally obliged to take umbrage at your description of game theory jargon as “political science jargon”. Formal methods haven’t conquered the world yet.

The Buttiglione saga’s been uncomfortable for me, because I am broadly pro-expansion of the EP’s powers, but distinctly anti-blurring the line between public policy and private faith. I’m not too cut up about it because Buttiglione had other black marks against him, not least his association with Prime Minister Propagandabucks, but I think it’s a damn shame that the Parliament decided to flex its muscles by having for breakfast one of the fairly rare social conservatives who can tell the difference between his religious beliefs and his political duties.

I’d be surprised if the EP is ever formally given the power to reject individual commissioners. Unless the next Buttiglione is qualitatively worse, this stunt is going to be harder to pull off next time (this was, after all, a stoush over something fairly trivial*) and harder still the time after that. It’s in the member states’ long-term interests, and probably the President’s too, to leave the system as it stands.

I think your observation about the expansion of bargaining power this affords the President, though, is bang on. And that’s a very good thing. The Commissioner system is ridiculous, and every step, however small, towards making it less so is to be applauded.

*. I’m gay, and bloody well claim the right to make this observation without any accusations of covert homophobia from the peanut gallery, thankyouverymuch.

4

Michael Otsuka 10.29.04 at 12:02 pm

_one of the fairly rare social conservatives who can tell the difference between his religious beliefs and his political duties_

Well yes he did try to draw this distinction during his confirmation hearing. He said things like: “I may think that homosexuality is a sin, and this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime…. The state has no right to stick its nose into these things and nobody can be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation… ” But these pronouncements struck people as disingenuous, given that, when he was Italy’s European affairs minister he fought hard to remove protection against discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual orientation from the draft EU constitution.

5

eulogist 10.29.04 at 12:37 pm

@schwa: But wouldn’t you agree the man has a track-record proving he is *not* able to distinguish between public policy and private faith? Re his policies as Italian minister, also w.r.t. the anti-discrimination clause in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (from which he tried to remove sexual orientation). My problem (and most MEPs’ problem) with him is not his social-conservatism as such, but the combination of his social-conservatism and this job as Commissioner for civil rights.
In fact, I would say it is quite right for someone in government to make no distinction between his own convictions and his public policies. That is why we have elections in the first place. But then I’d say it is also rather normal for a parliamentary majority to reject a government (or whatever you want to call the Commission) on the basis of those convictions. That’s how democracy works after all.

All of this apart from whether you consider this particular issue important enough to reject Mr Buttiglione. I do (as you may have guessed), as I believe the EU should be about improving ordinary people’s lives. And taking a stand against discriminatory attitudes, laws and regulations is most definitely part of that.

6

eulogist 10.29.04 at 12:53 pm

@michael:
But these pronouncements struck people as disingenuous, given that, when he was Italy’s European affairs minister he fought hard to remove protection against discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual orientation from the draft EU constitution.

My view on this is that he was sincere when he made his statements in Parliament, but simply has a totally different, pre-modern view of what “freedom” or “respect for the individual” entails. I don’t believe it is really possible, or even desirable, to distinguish between personal moral convictions and the public policy you make. Both Buttiglione and his adversaries illustrate that impossibility.

7

eulogist 10.29.04 at 4:36 pm

(sorry for spamming, guys… I’ll crawl back under my stone after this, but felt I ought to answer this question first:)
How is it, up to this point, that portfolios were determined? Did the leaders of the larger member states negotiate among themselves who got which choice portfolio and then present their agreed choices to the President of the Commission as a fait accompli? Or was there more of a role for the Commission President?

Formally, the (governments in the) Council decide on the list of names (each proposing one of the Commissioners), then the Commission President decides on the portfolios, presents the result to Parliament, which gives its consent (or not), whereupon the final result is confirmed by the Council.
So although it is the President who decides which job goes to whom, he has to take account of what the other players want. Until now, there was only one other player (i.e. the Council) as the EP would rubberstamp the result anyway. As of yesterday, it has become more complicated.
I have to add that Barroso’s distribution of the jobs was perceived as much more independent from the Council than any of his predecessors’. He gave many of the important jobs to relatively small countries and vice versa (notably France, which only got the transport portfolio). Previous presidents would not have dared to snub the big countries in such a way.
Until now, the common explanation for this stand of Barroso was that he could do it thanks to the EU’s enlargement with 10 new countries, which diminishes the relative weight of big countries like France. But now, some would argue Barroso’s independence has backfired, as it may have convinced larger countries not to put their full political weight behind Barroso’s proposed line-up this week.
I am not sure this is true, as I understand there has been quite a lot of lobbying in the EP by the member states. But it could play a role now Barroso is making his reshuffle…

Comments on this entry are closed.