MEPs have 'increasing power, decreasing legitimacy'
The European Parliament's powers have been steadily increasing in its 50 years of history and the institution has today become a real player in some areas of European politics. But voter disinterest remains one of the main challenges it still has to face - and an element likely to play a key role in the European elections next June.
Today the European Parliament has 785 members (compared to 142 when it was first created), works in 23 official languages (rather than four, as it used to in the beginning) and is the world's only directly elected multi-national institution.
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Its impressive size has not been the only element that has been increasing since its creation in 1958, however.
The evolution of the parliament's powers and competences have transformed it from a simple talking-shop with a purely consultative role, into a "real player in inter-institutional negotiations," according to Antonio Missiroli, director of studies at the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels, who calls the progressive extension of the European Parliament's role "spectacular."
MEPs today dispose of the power to approve the EU's budget and legally co-decide together with member states in more than 40 areas, most notably in the domain of the internal market.
The troubled services directive aiming to create a free market for the services sector in Europe and which was eventually approved in 2006, as well as the EU's plans on energy and climate change that the bloc aims to have endorsed by the end of this year, are two recent examples where the parliament has profoundly contributed to shaping EU legislation.
But its increasing role in the internal market area has not been matched in other fields, such as foreign affairs, where it still has practically no weight and its contribution remains limited to issuing declarations and hoping to raise public debates.
"On relatively minor issues such as the amount of money that could be allocated to the Eastern Partnership or to Georgia, there has been an impact, because the European Parliament has clout on budgetary issues. But certainly not on the content of negotiations with Moscow," Mr Missiroli points out.
Assuring the accountability of the commission
The power of the parliament is also very real when it comes to ensuring accountability of the European Commission and defining its composition.
In 1999, MEPs had threatened a motion of censure against the Santer Commission over fraud and malpractice charges, but the commission resigned collectively by itself before such a motion was filed.
Additionally, the parliament has voted on the investiture of each new commission since 1981, with the Maastricht treaty formalising the practice in 1993.
In 2004, for the first time MEPs flexed their muscles and imposed changes on the composition of a commission before it was even appointed.
By their strong opposition to Italy's candidate commissioner Rocco Buttiglione following his conservative comments on gay rights and women, MEPs showed an increasingly aggressive oversight of the commission. At the same time, they challenged member states who had until then been used to sending whomever they deemed best to Brussels.
Besides replacing Mr Buttiglione by Franco Frattini, then Italy's foreign minister, some additional changes, notably in the energy and taxation portfolios, were also made in order to respond to MEPs' criticism.
Hans-Gert Poettering, the current parliament president and leader of the centre-right EPP party at the time, had then said: "Politics is a process. Everyone must realise that the European Parliament enjoys more power and influence now than anyone would have imagined possible a decade ago."
However, besides the Buttiglione episode - which sent a signal to EU states that they should nominate commissioners more carefully - and the co-decision procedure in certain areas, the parliament still holds little leverage today over the Council - the institution representing member states.
'Increasing power, decreasing legitimacy'
Despite its increasing importance on the European political scene, the parliament also has challenges to face when it comes to engaging European citizens in its affairs.
Voter disinterest and increasingly low turnouts at European elections in the light of the institution's increasing power is "a very dramatic and potentially dangerous development" and could influence the legislative process in the parliament for the years to come, argues Mr Missiroli.
"You have a sort of hybrid, strange animal that has ever increasing power and decreasing legitimacy, while the mechanisms for selecting the MEPs are still very different from country to country."
"There are MEPs with different degrees of legitimacy from one another as they are elected on the basis of different electoral systems and also enjoy different benefits once elected, but all have the same voting rights in the assembly," says the EPC analyst.
The difficulty to create a European public space, as well as the fact that "we still have 27 national elections" that most of the time turn into a "sort of opinion poll on current governments in which the protest vote tends to prevail," could partly explain the phenomenon.
'Competitive' election as a remedy?
According to Mr Missiroli, if nothing changes by next spring, "this is likely to get worse."
"The paradox of the next elections could be that the next parliament, which is set to have the strongest powers in the history of European integration, will also be the one that will be elected by a minority of citizens and by an above-the-average percentage of protest voters against Europe," he argues.
As one way to counter the tendency the analyst suggests making the electoral systems in Europe more homogenous.
Another possibility would be to introduce a so-called "competitive" election - an idea first floated by Jacques Delors in the 1990s, under which the main political parties would indicate who their candidate for commission president is before the elections, allowing citizens to elect a parliament and choose a commission president at the same time.
With both of these ideas unlikely to be realised by the June European elections, however, MEPs will have to think of other ways to bring their citizens to the polls.