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European Parliament Must Grapple With EU’s Democratic Deficit

Posted by hkarner - 13. August 2016

Date: 12-08-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Though the legislature has expanded its authority, it hasn’t gained broad public support

Merkel SchulzMartin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, pictured with Angela Merkel.

Among the many issues European Union leaders will have to consider as they seek to reinvigorate the bloc in the wake of Britain’s exit vote is how to address the complaint that decision-making isn’t properly accountable to the people.

The introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament was meant to fix that problem by creating an elected legislative chamber to oversee the process. It hasn’t.

There are still many in Britain and beyond who see the EU as an out-of-touch decision-making machine rather than a democratic exercise in pooled sovereignty.

The bloc is currently stuck between two paths it could take on the dilemma, said Gerard Bökenkamp, deputy director of the Berlin branch of the Open Europe think tank. While one would carve out a stronger parliament in Brussels, others see the solution in stronger national government and parliaments, an option pushed by increasing euroskeptic sentiment.

In June 1979, Europe was starting its first experiment in what would eventually become monetary union and the bloc was on the path to expanded membership and deeper integration.

Citizens of what was then a nine-member European Economic Community voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament. For the previous two decades, members were picked by national parliaments.

Thirty-seven years later, the Parliament has expanded its size and its de facto authority. It has veto powers on trade agreements and other treaties and joint decision-making powers with EU governments in many policy areas, from financial regulation to EU migration policy.

It plays a key role in picking the head of the European Commission and vets other top EU jobs. Its membership has grown more professional and experienced.

But it lacks powers basic to other legislatures. It can’t propose legislation—that is the Commission’s job, often prompted by national governments—and it has no revenue-raising powers.

It has failed to harness public support and popular legitimacy. While turnout has fallen in elections in many Western democracies, the decline in participation in European Parliament elections has been striking. Turnout has dropped in every election, from 62% in 1979 to 42.6% in 2014.

For some, there are organizational reasons for the lack of enthusiasm. Marietje Schaake, a Dutch EU parliamentarian from the centrist Liberal bloc says many lawmakers lack a genuine constituency link with their voters since they are often chosen from party lists.

Too many parliamentarians, she says, continue to fulfill more than one political function, for example sitting on a city council while trying to keep up with their duties in the European Parliament.

Ms. Schaake says debates are frequently stilted, with lawmakers generally limited to brief statements. There are too many parliamentary mechanisms—like written declarations petitioning the parliament to take a specific action—that achieve little, other than generating publicity for the lawmaker.

“Too often, it’s the illusion of influence,” she said. “We are politicians. We don’t need a petition to take action.”

Like many national legislatures, the European Parliament has been buffeted by controversy, including cash-for-laws scandals and abuse of the generous expenses system.

National governments are frequently able to cajole ”their” EU lawmakers into backing their demands or initiatives, sometimes bucking their parliamentary party’s line.

Crucially, while the parliament has an important role in agreeing to the priorities of the EU budget, it has no real power of the purse. Most EU budget funds come from national governments. Parliament cannot raise taxes and revenue.

Sven Giegold, an influential German Green Party EU lawmaker, says the parliament will only achieve real legitimacy when European democracy is underpinned by an EU-wide civil society—political parties, trade unions and media.

He leads a Europe-wide citizens Christian movement and is active in an organization modeled on the U.S.’s left-leaning MoveOn.org campaigning group, known as wemove.eu.

But he acknowledges building this EU-wide community “will take time.”

“Perhaps it’s time we don’t have,” he worries.

Others question whether the parliament has already reached the zenith of its powers and will be further sidelined in the future.

The prevailing political winds today, unlike in the late 1970s, point in the direction of checking, if not reversing, Brussels’ power over member states.

If that trend holds, it may be that bolstering the power of national parliaments—possibly at the expense of the European legislature—is the required democratic fix.


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