EU parliament has 'surplus' of democracy
By Honor Mahony
The European Parliament should make more of its "democratic surplus," its leading official has said in an attempt to counter the prevailing narrative that the EU assembly is not equal to national parliaments.
Klaus Welle, secretary general of the parliament, said that talk of a "democratic deficit immediately gives the impression that somehow we are lagging behind national parliaments and that somehow we have to catch up."
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"[But] democracy in Europe also has elements which are further developed," he told an audience at the Centre for European Policy Studies last week (26 June).
One of the "elements of democratic surplus" is MEPs having more leeway to vote as they see fit as party discipline at the EU level is "much lower."
National parliamentarians meanwhile are "very often limited by their own executive" because if the government loses a majority then it has to resign and "that's the end of the story."
EU decision-making - a permanent state of negotiation based on consensus politics - means that unlike in the national arena where a government has a desired result, there is "no prejudged outcome," said Welle.
But he admits that all is not well with EU decision-making - a problem he attributes to a tendency by EU leaders, pushed by the urgency of the economic crisis, to take far-reaching decisions behind closed doors.
The normal answer to such deficiencies is to change the treaty - an arduous process requiring unanimous agreement - but this is to overlook the "unused potential" within the current Lisbon Treaty.
Different this time?
Topping the "unused" list is the election of the commission President.
Next year's EU elections will mark the first time that European political parties put forward a candidate for the job and EU leaders propose a person "taking into account" of the elections.
This has widely been assumed to give leaders some leeway in their nomination but Welle notes that a little-known declaration (No. 11) attached to the treaty means MEPs and EU leaders have to consult one another before governments can finally nominate a person to the post.
This change will be reflected in the slogan - "This time is different" - for the information campaign ahead of the May 2014 elections.
EU officials are keen to emphasise that citizens' votes can make a policy impact as turnout falls lower with each election.
Pointing to other possibilities within, Welle also says there is room to harmonise national electoral laws, particularly to have "one common election evening" to give a sense of a shared political event.
By the time the last results are in, "northern Europeans have already gone to bed," he notes.
He admits that the parliament is falling behind in holding the executive to account and argues it should be doing more relevant tasks such as scrutinizing the troika, the officials from creditor institutions that oversee reforms in bailed-out Eurozone countries.
The quest for more extensive scrutiny powers and as well as the parliament's greater law-making role is pushing change within the assembly's bureaucracy as well.
It is having to employ more policy experts than ever before. And from next year, it will have its own research service, with 200 staff, to provide MEPs with their own "independent and scientific advice."
On the perennial question of how to give national parliaments a raison d'etre when so many state-linked decisions - to do with domestic budgets and economic policies - are taken at the EU level, Welle believes the task division is clear.
National MPs should be keeping an eye on the Council of ministers - where member states are represented - while euro deputies should hold the EU institutions to account.