The European parliament: problem, and solution

Anand Menon
5 June 2009

The campaign for the elections to the European parliament, being held across the European Union's twenty-seven member-states on 4-7 June 2009, has made one thing clearer than ever. Insofar as people have any intention of voting at all, most will do so on the basis of the performance of national politicians in dealing with national problems within national political systems.

Anand Menon is professor of West European Politics and Director of the European Research Institute at the University of Birmingham. His books include  Europe: The State of the Union (Atlantic Books 2008)

Also by Anand Menon on openDemocracy:

"Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (5 March 2009)Who can blame them? After all, a number of factors (as Hugo Brady eloquently argued on openDemocracy) explain why the specifically European dimension of these polls fails to capture the public imagination (see Hugo Brady, "Europe's elections: why they matter" (2 June 2009).

But beyond the "operational" flaws in the way elections to the European parliament work, the indifference of many citizens has deeper roots. Most fundamentally, member-states retain control over all those areas of public policy that polls routinely show to be the primary concern of their electorates: health, welfare spending, education and direct taxation among them. It is little wonder, then, that "real" political debate occurs at national level; or that European elections are regarded as (in political-science the jargon) as "second-order elections" in which electorates feel free to experiment. The European Union, in other words, is structurally condemned to elicit electoral apathy.

The failure of reform

There have been many efforts by analysts of the European Union to find possible remedies for the steady decline in turnout that has afflicted direct elections to the European parliament since their introduction in 1979. The majority view seems to be the need to arrive at reforms whose effect will make people more interested in the elections: recommendations include giving the European parliament more power over more areas of policy, and allowing parliamentarians to elect the European commission, the commission president, or the college of commissioners as a whole.

These and similar proposals are misconceived in two key respects.

First, many of them are hopelessly impractical. It is inconceivable that, in an era of growing euroscepticism, twenty-seven national governments will unanimously agree to grant the European parliament increased authority over more policy-areas - simply in order that European elections are taken more seriously by their publics.

Second, and even more fundamentally, such reform schemes have a tendency to misunderstand the nature of the problem to which solutions need to be sought.

openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's ‘reform treaty': ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

John Palmer, "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe between past and future" (9 March 2009)

Hugo Brady, "Europe's elections: why they matter" (2 June 2009)

Gisela Stuart, "Europe lost and found" (3 June 2009)Thus, European parliament aficionados (and they are a close-knit and committed bunch) have a marked tendency to prioritise the interests of this institution above those of the European Union as a whole. The misplaced idea of making the European commission more accountable to the parliament (as the Lisbon treaty will do). Certainly, this would give parliamentarians something to do. It might conceivably also pique the interest of voters, by linking their votes (if only indirectly) to practical outcomes in terms of the personalities at the helm of the EU's executive.

Yet, and hardly incidentally, it would also undermine the commission. This institution - part executive, part regulator - depends for its effectiveness on a reputation for impartiality. No member-state elects its competition authority, and for good reason. The idea that the whole EU system should be reformed simply to make citizens take the parliament more seriously reveals the warped priorities of its proponents.

To be clear: the European parliament is in many ways an admirable institution, populated by a number of hard-working, dedicated and highly able members (MEPs). Indeed, in those areas where it enjoys coequal status with the council of ministers in the legislative process, it is far more effective than virtually any parliament in any domestic setting. Its committees produce enlightening and thoughtful reports; it has frequently shown itself able to amend and even veto legislation proposed by the commission and endorsed by the member-states in the European council.

So it is not the quality of the parliamentarians that is the problem, or even of (some of) its work - but the anomalous position of the institution itself. However high the calibre of individual MEPs, European parliament elections do not work - they fail to provide a parliament with a genuine mandate for action at European level. It is, moreover, hard to imagine a sensible way in which to make them do so.

A surgical solution

All this being said, there remains a need for some kind of democratic legitimation at European level. The council of ministers can now vote on an increasing number of issues by qualified majority (QMV). Governments can thus be outvoted on measures that may yet go on to become law in their own countries. Citizens of these member-states have a right to some form of additional democratic representation to ensure their voices are fully respected in the legislative process.

The European parliament - with its at best weak democratic mandate from elections in which an ever-decreasing proportion of its electorate participates - is unable to play this role effectively.

Yet there is a solution. The European Union's legitimation problem could best be addressed by shutting the European parliament. In its place, the national parliaments of the member-states would perform the functions the parliament currently carries out, and by this means ensure adequate democratic scrutiny of all EU legislation.

In an age of electronic communication, rapid dissemination of legislative proposals from the commission among national parliaments makes distance redundant. It should be easy to devise an electronic voting-system intelligible to parliamentarians in national capitals.

A subsidiary attraction of this scheme is that it would save money - an institution as large as the European parliament, based in three separate locations (with MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg, and a secretariat in Luxembourg) and boasting generous allowances for its members, is expensive.

But far more important is that it would advance democratic legitimation. For entrusting national parliaments with legislative tasks at the European level would - at a stroke - serve to strengthen the union itself.

The European Union is neither a copy of nor a replacement for its constituent member-states, but rather an extension of their twenty-seven national systems. A new nationally-based system of democratic scrutiny would, by organically linking national and EU politics and legislative outcomes, have three precious benefits:

* reassure those concerned about the development of a separate political system at European level

* end to the pernicious tendency of national political leaders endlessly to complain about legislation "imposed" upon them by "Brussels"

* ensure that in future elections national MPs would be quizzed about their voting records on European as well as national legislation.

A new purpose

I am not deluded enough to believe that this scheme is about to be adopted. There are obvious problems involved in killing off any institution - particularly one with 736 often eloquent members who stand to lose much in the way of power, prestige and lifestyle. Moreover, national political leaders would be reluctant to extinguish a parliament - an act all too easy for their opponents to portray as an assault on democracy.

Yet it is about time that a debate was started on what to do with an institution that, for reasons beyond the control of its members, clearly lacks purpose. The European parliament represents a hangover from the days when serious statesmen aspired to create a United States of Europe with real powers and a real government in which Europeans would have no choice but to be interested. Those days are long gone.

It is only far-reaching reforms of the kind suggested here that will enable effective democratic legitimation of the European Union system as its stands. Without them, Europeans will have no option but to watch in dismay as, every five years, the EU itself is brought into disrepute by elections in which abstentions rise and nationally-inspired protest-votes send representatives to Brussels and Strasbourg with no real democratic mandate. Europe, leaders and citizens alike, surely should aspire to more.

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