What to expect from a new European Parliament?

Read few comments.


Question:

1. While new European Parliament might be more fragmented after the EP elections and populist/extremist parties will strengthen their positions it seems that the pro-EU majority will be still solid. If this happen what do you think should be priorities of the EP taking into account of the EU institutional framework?

2. One of the regular complains especially in smaller members states (like Slovakia) is that their MEPs cannot influence much in the EP. Would you think that the functioning  of the EP could be improved in this regard, or is it sufficient?

Answers:

Alfredo De Feo, Professor, European College of Parma, Fellow, Jean Monnet Center, New York University

1. I think that the definitions are inadequate to represent the complexity of the political spectrum. Parties within the political groups have often position quite different from europhiles, to euro critics to euroscepticals to europhobes.

As you said the majority will be probably not too different by the current one but it would be a disaster if this majority continue to run the EU with the ‘business as usual approach’.

These elections are showing that the vote for the EP is no more a second class vote but it can now influence, the appointment to the top jobs and, as co-legislator, the adoption of the EU policies. I think that the EP could take the leadership to reform the EU policies and make it more attractive for the European public opinion. The fact that euro critics would probably be part of the qualified majority would be a stimulus to push for reforms.

This lead me to the second part of your question on the priorities. First the new EP should ask from the next President of the Commission an agenda to reform the policies and the functioning of the institutions. Maybe the winner of the Spitzenkandidaten contest might deliver this agenda if not the leading coalition should impose a candidate who could drive a change.

EP could do ever more concerning next MFF and all the legislative package renewing all the legislation with a financial impact. EP could take a new approach and focus more than in the past on the policies with more added value (this might lead to return some marginal competence back to Member States, which might attractive for some more moderate euro skeptical). This could lead to reduce the expenditure and concentrate the resources on a limited number of activities. Subsidiarity and European added value could be the key words to lead these changes.

2. First I hope that this time the turn out of Slovakian European elections could be closer to the European average so that the input give by Slovakian MEPs could be more linked with the Slovakian public opinion.

I cannot comment on the capacity of Slovakian MEPs to influence EP decisions. In general, I would say that probably be MEP of a smaller country demand more work, more capacity to build up alliances with others MEPs with similar agendas. The majority within political groups and within the EP are built up with negotiations and alliances. This is the sense of the European Politics.  If the German government (supported by German MEPs) wants to adopt a piece of legislation, it cannot do it alone and it need to build up a majority and make compromises. MEPs of smaller countries can reach the same result but probably they have to work harder to be part of the majority.

Aline Sierp, Assistant Professor in European Studies, Maastricht University

1. Since the first direct elections of the EP in 1979, it has continuously expanded its scope and powers. Being initially a mere advisory body, it has become a co-legislator with the Council since the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. However, the EP is still perceived by many citizens as an unimportant institution without any real decision-making power. And indeed, compared to a national parliament, it lacks one decisive element: it does not have the right to initiative, which is the sole prerogative of the European Commission. In other words, it cannot submit a legislative proposal. It can only ask the Commission to do so (called ‘indirect right of initiative’). The Commission president candidate of the European Socialists Frans Timmermans has already announced that he will change this informally by making sure that proposals by the EP will be listened to and will be taken up by the Commission. If the EP does not attempt to do this, it will not be able to set the agenda and bring in its specific policy priorities.

2. MEPs from small member states, who complain about their limited possibility to influence decsisions taken in the EP often forget one fundamental element about the institutional set-up of the Parliament: the fact that it is not a national or intergovernmental forum but a supranational body structured along ideological lines. MEPs do not sit in national groups but according to their political leaning. Evaluating the amount of influence on the basis of the number of national representatives is thus a basic misconception of the role of the EP. At the same time, ironically, it is in particular the small states that are overrepresented if we take into account population numbers. Nevertheless, MEPs cannot be blamed for complaining: as long as the EP election campaign is seen as a purely national affair and as long as within the EP the national card is played during policy decisions, dissatisfaction with the basic functioning of the EP will continue to be a regular feature of the Brussels/Strasbourg landscape.

Ragnar Weilandt, Adjunct Professor, Vesalius College Brussels

1. With regards to the institutional framework: In my view, the European Parliament should continue to fight for its own empowerment. I would like to see treaty changes that further empower it, for example by extending the policy areas governed through co-decision procedure or by granting MEPs the right of legislative initiative. However, treaty changes are unlikely to occur within the next parliamentary term – and indeed within the foreseeable future. But even without treaty changes, the EP can do a lot to raise its public profile – as recent years have shown. First of all, MEPs should once again make sure that their voice is heard when the next Commission is chosen. More generally, they should continue to hold both the Commission and the member states’ governments accountable.

When it comes to policy, I think that the European Parliament should focus on the most pressing questions that affect Europe as a whole – such as fighting against and preparing for the climate emergency, pushing for more substantial common and coherent policies on migration, defence, energy independence, foreign affairs as well as economic and fiscal matters. It may not have legislative initiative or even a formal say on all of these issues, but it should make major efforts to contribute to setting the agenda. Moreover, it should focus on completing the single market – notably in the digital realm. A real-life example would be geo-blocking – if you start to watch a series on Netflix in one country and go on holiday in another one you often can’t continue because its libraries differ from state to state. This is very much against the spirit of what the single market is about – reducing all obstacles to the free movement of goods and services within the EU.

2. I don’t think this is a major problem. Of course individual parliamentarians – whether in national parliaments or in the European Parliament – have limited influence. But as members of parties or party families that roughly represent their views, MEPs can amplify their voices. And due to the degressively proportional distribution of seats, individual votes in small states count more than in big states – so small states are actually over-represented in the parliament. Of course that does not necessarily mean that more local interests are represented. But then again, first of all many local questions can be solved locally or nationally whereas the EU and its parliament tend to rather deal with bigger, pan-European questions. Moreover, for Slovakian national interests Slovakia’s government is represented in the European Council as well as the Council of Ministers.

However, one thing that could be changed is the way MEPs are elected in Slovakia. To my knowledge, Slovakia has only a single nation-wide constituency – as do various other bigger and most of the smaller member states. This means that MEPs have little incentive to fight for local and regional concerns, because voters vote for parties rather than for people. To make sure Slovakian MEPs engage more with Slovakian citizens and fight for their interests, one might split up the country into different constituencies and have a first-past-the-post system or a mix between proportional representation and first-past-the-post. It is up to the member states to make such changes.

Laurie Buonanno, Professor, Department of Political Science & Public Administration, SUNY Buffalo State

1. Yes, I agree with you:  the public opinion polling suggests the next EP will be governed by a majority for a grand coalition of center-right, center-left, and liberal parties/groups in the EP – EPP, S&D, ALDE – but according to current projections this will not be an overwhelming majority.

Because EU legislation is passed by a bicameral legislature – the EP and the Council (of Ministers) – and the Commission has the sole right of legislative initiative (subject to some limitations), the EP must cooperate with the other ‘chamber’ to pass legislation.  This co-equal bicameral system makes the EU much more comparable to the US federal legislative system than to any EU member state, which explains why there is now a rather extensive body of literature in EU studies that explicitly makes this comparison.   I don’t think the populist answer of ‘less Europe’ is viable over the long run given the nature of global competition.  What we have in the EU is actually a federal system in all but name – but a federal system from which the ‘woman on the street’ does not see how she benefits.  This is because the EU’s critics on the left really are correct in arguing that the EU is a neoliberal project – focusing on the internal market (which is the EU’s most extraordinary achievement) – with too little focus on Social Europe. Without fiscal federalism – with the current budget’s cohesion funds a tiny fraction of what’s needed – the EU won’t be able to weather anti-EU rhetoric over the long run.

To be specific, because the EU is already quite centralized with respect to the internal market and the administrative laws the Commission makes for this market to function (just as in the US much of what the federal government does is to regulate the single market), the wealthier EU member states will have no choice but to work seriously to assist the economies of weaker member states.  It just isn’t enough to say, “Well we have German plants in the Czech Republic providing jobs.”   This is where the EP and Council working together must not only legislate, but communicate directly to Europeans that the EU has shared social goals.  And without migration to make up for the aging European population (to pay for the generous social safety net), the promises made to the Baby Boomer generation with respect to health care and pensions simply are not fiscally sustainable in many of the EU’s less wealthy or economically struggling (e.g. Italy) member states.  Thus, based on this assessment – the EP and Council need to jointly prioritize.  What’s critical here will be the budget negotiations (ongoing, but will pick up steam after the EP elections and seating of a new Commission when the next MFF will be decided) : 1) agreeing a stable source of EU-derived revenue  – the EU corporate tax should be very popular to the voting public – and these new funds could be earmarked for fiscal federalism purposes (transfer of funds to economically stressed regions); 2) immigration and asylum – the EP and Council must agree to a Blue Card system that works for highly-skilled immigrants so that they will come to the EU rather than Australia, Canada, or the US – family unification and free movement are crucial to attract highly-skilled immigrants;  social integration and reception – the EP and the Council need to do more (see the Commission’s recommendation to increase funding for the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) (which would operate under a new name ‘AMF – Asylum and Migration Fund’) –to support reception, integration, and returns; 3) Africa – obviously EU engagement with African countries and the African Union must be stepped up because this is where most irregular migration is going to continue to originate.  Commission President Juncker has prioritized this shift and it has to be embraced by the EP on many levels – not just in aid packages, but in production and integrated supply chains (trade implications); 4) climate change – this is such a key issue to Millennials and Generation Z – and the EP has always been at the forefront of green policies.  So whatever strategic plan will replace Europe 2020 must focus on green technology and the Green ‘New Deal’ young people are talking about in both Europe and North America.

2. If Euroscepticism continues apace, institutional changes aimed at bringing the EU closer to the people will be necessary. There are just so many suggestions for institutional change, and I don’t think Europeans are in the mood for complex institutional overhaul.  The Spitzenkandidat process (used first in 2014) has been a welcome (albeit confusing) innovation in this regard and seems to have generated more public interest in EP elections. Following on my interpretation of the EU as a federal system, then the Council (of Ministers) should be elected by the national parliaments along the lines of the US Senate – e.g. two senators from each member state regardless of population size.  Indirect election by the national parliaments would be a way to involve national parliaments more directly in EU governance, with the added benefit of making this innovation more palatable to member states who might (justly) fear both houses being directly elected by the people. Indirect election is an incremental change (where as direct election might be bridge just too far!).  To the problem of vast differences in population, I would just point out that California (39.5 million) and Wyoming (577,000).  While it is true population differentials are more extreme in the EU – Germany (82.8 million) and Malta (460,000) –this would be balanced by EU senators having continent-wide name recognition who could be seen as European, not exclusively national representatives. I would also point out that the Council as currently configured IS one representative per state in the various Council configurations, including the key GAC and FAC.  The current qmv rules could be maintained to guard against minority rule.  An EU Senate would also bring European politicians closer to the people because they people would know who they are! The media can’t follow 751 MEPs, but the could easily follow 56 senators.  The ‘leadership deficit’ is a different sort of problem.  An indirectly elected senate would also have the advantage of the concerns of smaller states being heard more often in the public sphere due to intensive media coverage of EU senators.  So to more directly answer your question about the small state dilemma – we don’t now know the extent of small state influence in the Council because of the lack of transparency in voting.  HOWEVER, an indirectly elected European Senate would be a transparent body – and, there, I think the voters in smaller states would be in a better position to judge their influence in EU policymaking.

As for calls for a single executive, a quasi-federal system such as the EU is  not suited to be governed by one undisputed leader such as a president or prime minster.  The system that has evolved – six-month Council Presidency, European Council President selected by the European Council, European Commission President, and the High Representative – seems to be working.  It’s hard to imagine how a single chief executive could solve the EU’s current problems.  In fact, vesting executive power in one source would likely undermine, rather than, enhance the EU’s legitimacy.  The multiple executive has been able to produce innovative solutions to crises.  Yes, it takes time – but the time needed to negotiate consensus is a characteristic of federal systems.  Consensus replaces ‘energy and dispatch’.

Charlotte Burns, Professor, Professorial Fellow, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield

1. On your first question as I work in Environmental Politics and Policy-making I would like to see the new Commission and the new EP take the environment and the climate emergency more seriously, particularly by thinking about how to integrate environmental concerns across all policy area but especially agriculture and finance.

2. On the role of MEPs from small states, it is important to remember that the parliament is a European Parliament that is legislating for the whole of the EU.  MEPs have tended to vote and behave  along party lines rather than national lines. The key issue for all MEPS (even from the large states) is that when issues of national significance come up it is challenging to secure national preferences. The way for MEPs to have their points of view taken into account is to work with MEPs from the same party family and with other parties to secure majorities. This behaviour is typical in many parliamentary systems and I think is appropriate for the EP given its multi-national character.

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