The European Parliament is often accused of lacking significant power and for being little more than a talking shop. This begs the question: just how relevant is the only directly elected EU institution?
The European Parliament website states that it is a chamber elected by the citizens of Europe, which encourages us to make our voices heard. (“This is your assembly.”) However the attitude across the EU member states is one of apathy and disinterest. There was a large variation in voter turnouts between countries at the last European Parliamentary elections in 2009, however the EU average turnout was just 43%. This figure has been in decline since the first European Parliament elections in 1979 when 63% passed through the polling booths. Europeans have turned out in lower numbers than they have done in national elections. Eurobarometer, the EU’s polling agency, has found that knowledge of the EU appears to be sketchy across its 28 member states. For instance ninety-three percent of British adults surveyed by YouGov were unable to name even one of their MEPs.
Not only are Europeans ignorant about the EU as a whole, they are also mistrustful of it. Trust has fallen to a record low over the past year and Eurobarometer has recorded a decline in trust since 2008-9. As European Parliamentary elections approach in late May eurosceptic parties are expected to make gains. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), France’s Front National, Greece’s SYRIZA, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and the Danish People’s Party are all well placed to take the largest share of the vote in their respective countries.
Going beyond people’s perceptions and knowledge, there is what has been called a ‘democratic deficit’ in Brussels, namely an accusation that the real power within the EU lies not within the elected European Parliament but in the unelected European Commission. Although a ‘legislature’ the European Parliament, unlike parliaments in democracies around the world, is not empowered to draft legislation. Instead, it has the power to accept, amend or reject directives and regulations proposed by the Commission. The Budget is likewise drafted by the Commission before it is submitted to the Parliament. For legislation to become law it must be approved by both bodies in what is called ‘co-decision’ however co-decision does not apply to taxation, industrial or foreign policy or new eurozone members. In such areas the Parliament gives only an advisory opinion, known as a ‘consultation procedure.’ Some agreements require the ‘green light’ from Parliament who are unable to modify the text but can reject it.
What about when it comes to appointing nominees to the Commission, including to the Commission presidency? Again, the Parliament’s role is a reduced one. MEPs must approve the Commission President and Commissioners must appear before MEPs before they can vote on the Commission as a whole.
The structure of the Parliament is problematic. Composed of 766 MEPs from the 28 member states every national delegation to the Parliament is a minority, and so are therefore disadvantaged when standing up for their national interests. How much clout can the EU’s least populous states Malta, Cyprus and Estonia have with six MEPs each? (The number of MEPs each country elects is relative to population.) Even larger delegations from the likes of Germany and France only constitute a fraction of the number who sit in the assembly. Furthermore, due to the division of the Parliament along political, rather than national lines, this is made more difficult as national delegations will find themselves dispersed during parliamentary sittings.
Ignorance about and lack of interest in the EU institutions are widespread however these can be found in national and local politics as well. The real crux of the debate is the EU Parliament’s inability to draft legislation and how in certain areas it seems to serve solely to ‘rubber stamp’ the Commission’s wishes.
How democratic- and relevant- are our votes next month?