Saturday

16th Feb 2019

MEPs: In search of a raison d'etre

  • The Strasbourg sessions have not been as busy as they were in past years (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission is due to come forward with a fraction of the usual number of legislative proposals this year posing something of an existential dilemma for the European Parliament's 751 MEPs.

At the height of the economic crisis the commission proposed over 300 acts, as it struggled to overhaul its eurozone structure.

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  • MEPs are set to turn their attention to other activities (Photo: European Parliament / Pietro Naj-Oleari)

The new commission came to office last November promising a leaner approach to law-making, amid a general perception that the EU is too meddlesome.

This year, just 23 laws are planned. This is proving to be a culture shock for MEPs used to the commission providing their everyday political bread-and-butter.

Olli Rehn, a Finnish Liberal MEP, said the effect has already been noticed.

“We have discussed sometime that the Strasbourg sessions have not been as full as they were in past years," he said.

Some MEPs have made names for themselves over and above their political groups. German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok is seen as an expert on foreign policy; Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green German MEP, is an authority on data privacy issues; and Dutch liberal Marietje Schaake has carved out a niche on digital issues.

But the commission's more hands-off approach means many more are looking for fewer roles, such as the coveted "rapporteur" positions, shepherding pieces of legislation through parliament.

Fewer laws - but better ones

For Rehn, a former commissioner, it's a good thing that parliament is being weaned off its legislative dependency.

“It’s a challenge for the parliament - a positive one - to change the way of working and not only be fed by the chewing gum of new directive proposals from the commission,” he told press at a recent briefing.

Richard Corbett, a UK labour MEP, who last served in the parliament between 2005 and 2009, told EUobserver "there is a difference" now compared to previously.

But he notes that the parliament has many other roles too, including scrutiny of the European Commission, debates on topical issues, parliamentary questions, and its budgetary role.

Still, the parliament is likely to focus on other issues as it reorients itself in the Brussels institutional playing field.

Rehn says MEPs are likely to push for a stronger oversight role when it comes to economic governance or aspects of the 'troika' - which oversees the implementation of reforms in bailout countries.

Corbett says MEPs may take a closer look at secondary legislation - delegated and implementing acts - the detailed acts that accompany general laws, but which pass without much scrutiny.

Mairead McGuiness, a centre-right Irish MEP, welcomed the slow-down in legal proposals, saying "we could not continue at that rate and pace of just dishing out legislation".

She told this website "there is a sense among some members that they will not have enough to do".

But added she always counters that argument by saying that MEPs have a key role in making sure already-agreed laws are fit for purpose. "Monitoring legislation is as important as writing it" she said pointing to recent changes to farm policy as an example.

"The parliament agreed CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] reform and then we see the commission implementing it in a way that we did not envisage," she said.

The last chance commission

McGuiness also said "more robust debate" in the parliament is also on the cards, something she can already "feel" when she chairs debates in her role as parliament vice-president.

However, others think that while the number of draft laws has nose-dived this year, it will necessarily have to rise once more next year.

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch green MEP, notes that the European Commission has labelled itself the "last chance" commission, referring to winning back EU citizens. But "if it is really serious about this being the last chance of Europe" then it will have to do more than "producing communications" and cutting down on laws "here and there".

Fundamental issues such as migration, energy union, or the economy will require the commission to come forward with more than the current "business as usual".

Eickhout also reckons that although the current commission is “reluctant” to broach the issue, the “treaty change” debate will resurface.

It will be pushed back on the agenda by the British elections in May this year (the Conservatives have promised a referendum on EU membership if they get back into power) and the fact that the current treaty “has been pushed to its very limits”.

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