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Understanding the European Parliament

The European Parliament is a quintessentially EU product. It is meant to represent more than 500 million citizens. It is unique in the sense that it is the world’s only democratically elected international institution, and it is involved in some of the most important policies of the continental bloc. And yet, only four in 10 Europeans voted in the recent elections for the parliament, and the number is expected to decline again this year. More important, opinion polls show that most Europeans do not really understand what the European Parliament is and how it works.

The European Parliament is made up of representatives from the 28 members of the European Union, who are elected for five-year terms. Countries are awarded seats in the parliament depending on their population. As in many EU institutions, power and influence are unevenly distributed: eight countries (Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania) account for more than three-quarters of the electorate and for around two-thirds of the seats. These are the key countries to watch during elections. The exact formula for awarding seats and the maximum and a minimum number of seats that a country is allowed to have are long-standing subjects of negotiations between member states, sometimes leading to friction.

The European Parliament’s evolution from a consulting assembly to a supranational chamber with significant legislative powers highlights the extent of EU members’ concerns about the democratic legitimacy of the continental bloc. After the May 22-25 election, the European Parliament will face three significant challenges: an electorate that is uninterested in the continental body, the onslaught of Euroskeptical parties wanting to weaken the European Union from within and national governments that will resist EU attempts to deepen continental integration.

The History of the European Parliament

Since its inception in the early 1950s, the European integration project was driven mostly by the continent’s elites, with little to no participation by voters. No referendum was held when Western Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg created the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community — the predecessor of the European Union — in 1957. Since the goal of these projects was a progressive transfer of national sovereignty to supranational institutions, its members believed that national parliaments should have some degree of participation. A Common Assembly was created, with members drawn from the national parliaments, but the assembly had no real legislative powers. The Europeans decided to place this assembly in Strasbourg.

The choice was extremely symbolic, as the city is located on the border between France and Germany — a perennial battle zone between Europe’s largest powers. In the 1980s, they built a second chamber in Brussels, so parliamentarians could be closer to the headquarters of most EU institutions. The institution also has administrative offices in Luxembourg. This has led to strong criticism and accusations of squandering money, as EU parliamentarians have to commute between Brussels and Strasbourg and sometimes even Luxembourg. However, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg are not willing to give up their seats because they bring prestige, jobs, and financing to each country.

Over time, this Common Assembly would evolve into the European Parliament, and its powers would grow substantially. The first milestone took place in 1979 when its members were directly elected for the first time. Along with greater democratic legitimacy came greater legislative powers. Treaty reforms in the 1990s and 2000s progressively enhanced the role of the European Parliament in EU decision-making. With the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), the parliament was given power equal to that of the Council of the European Union (which represents national governments) in almost all areas of EU legislation.

Why the Upcoming Elections Matter

A key challenge for the European Parliament in the coming years will be overcoming voter apathy. Average turnout for European Parliament elections declined from 63 percent in 1979 to 43 percent in 2009, with some countries showing turnout below 20 percent. Despite its enhanced powers, the body has not effectively communicated its role and importance to most Europeans.

Since the upcoming elections will be held in the context of Europe’s political and economic crisis, turnout is likely to reach a new record low. At the same time, elections for the European Parliament traditionally revolve around domestic issues, with candidates only marginally campaigning on EU issues and voters using these elections to reward or punish the ruling parties. This means that many voters will see the upcoming elections as a low-cost opportunity to punish the ruling elites and support alternative parties — most notably Euroskeptical and nationalist groups.

As a result, anti-establishment parties will see record performances in the elections. However, they are unlikely to form a coherent alliance in the European Parliament because of their different agendas and personal differences among their leaders.

In any case, greater representation in the continental legislature means more funding and resources to keep growing at home and increased political influence over moderate parties. In recent months, mainstream parties have adopted issues from the nationalists’ agenda to remain popular, and the process will probably continue after the European Parliament elections. An increase in the number of seats held by anti-EU parties will also force those in the pro-EU camp to work closely together — something that could lead to difficult compromises and threaten the cohesion of the largest party families.

The European crisis poses yet another challenge to the European Parliament, as a growing number of national governments are challenging the supremacy of European institutions over national institutions. The most visible case has been the United Kingdom, which is currently proposing that national parliaments have stronger veto powers over European legislation. Recently, the Dutch parliament has also expressed support for keeping decision-making as close as possible to the national level.

Recent moves by the German Constitutional Court regarding policies by the European Central Bank also highlight the extent to which constitutional institutions at the national level feel uncomfortable with developments at the supranational level. Therefore, the next European Parliament will have to deal with a more hostile environment, as some member states will resist its push to give EU-level organizations more influence. It will also face an environment in which some of the most crucial decisions involving the future of the eurozone are made through intergovernmental treaties instead of EU procedures (the Fiscal Compact Treaty is a key example). In other words, the next European Parliament will fight to defend its role amid political fragmentation, which is leading to stronger nationalist tendencies across the continent.

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