UCL European Institute


The long march of the European Parliament continues

02 October 2013, 12:00 am

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As long as there are arguments about what the EU is there to do and what it should become, there will also be dispute about what its institutions should look like.
Professor Michael Shackleton
October 2013

Many believe that the Lisbon Treaty constituted a high water mark for the European Parliament (EP). Its struggle to acquire effective parity with the Council of Ministers in the legislative arena was now over. It could stop worrying about its institutional prerogatives and start concentrating on the effective use of its new powers. At the same time, it would have to accept that it remained a bystander when it came to issues of "high politics". It could not hope to compete with the European Council whose supremacy in the institutional arena was underlined during the economic and financial crisis.

Such views, particularly common in the Anglo-Saxon world, fail to recognise the intrinsically dynamic and contested character of the EU institutions.  As long as there are arguments about what the EU is there to do and what it should become, there will also be dispute about what its institutions should look like. The Parliament in particular cannot be placed in a corner and forgotten as an also-ran. It has always wanted to improve its relative weight in the EU and to challenge the idea that democracy at EU level can only be grounded at national level. Such a challenge remains, whatever Lisbon may have done to reinforce the EP.

The forthcoming European elections provide a good example of how the institutional debate continues to smoulder. The Treaty contains a new provision stating that the European Council will propose for approval by the Parliament a candidate for President of the European Commission, "taking into account the elections to the European Parliament".  It might appear a rather anodyne phrase without much political importance but in fact, it opens the way to a rather different form of governance at EU level. It could be seen simply as an invitation to the Heads of State and Government to choose someone for Commission President from the political family that wins the most seats in the Parliament. This is, after all, effectively what happened in 2004 and 2009 with the EPP winning the most seats and Jose Manuel Barroso, the centre right Prime Minister of Portugal receiving the benediction of his peers in the European Council as candidate for Commission President. And yet what would happen if the Socialists in the Parliament got the most seats next May? Would the European Council, composed of a majority of centre-right governments, be willing to nominate someone from the opposite political camp? If they are willing to do so, it would be a remarkable precedent; if they are not, we could be confronted with a major political standoff as their proposed candidate would be likely to find it difficult to get a majority in the Parliament. 

However, the situation is not as simple as this. With the overt encouragement of President Barroso and the Parliament itself, the main European political parties have set up procedures for nominating candidates for the post of Commission President in advance of the elections, something they have never done before.  You can already witness different potential candidates stating that they will or will not run or that they are considering their options.  A political market place is being created and it will become a much busier place once the nominations have been made early in 2014.  The different candidates will naturally be expected to defend their party's manifesto and to engage in debate with the other candidates in the run-up to the elections.  In other words, a vote in the European elections will be more than a vote to determine who will sit in the Parliament for your constituency, it will also be a vote for a particular brand of Commission.  It will no longer be possible to talk of this body as some kind of neutral civil service, it will have been brought explicitly into the political arena.  Some may regret this - the former Commission President, Jacques Delors, certainly does - but it reflects the move to a more politicised structure at European level.

There are plenty of sceptics about the potential success of such an approach.  Will it really improve turnout, as successive surveys undertaken by the Parliament have suggested?   Will national parties be ready to devote the resources necessary to promote a foreign politician who may well not share their particular policy priorities?  And will the voting public even notice the choice they are being given, when media attention will be concentrated elsewhere?  It is hard to see a German Socialist candidate for Commission President, however outstanding, upstaging Nigel Farage here in the UK!

And yet it would be a mistake to dismiss what is happening as some kind of gimmick.  The very prospect of competing candidates is encouraging new initiatives like that developed by Votewatch, inviting voters to indicate their preferences online and to discover how the different parties are faring (have a look at http://www.debatingeurope.eu/vote2014/).   Within political parties there is a debate about whether to nominate a candidate and if so, who, obliging all to consider how much weight they want to give to the notion of European political parties.  And in Brussels the anticipated closeness of the result is causing some to get cold feet about the experiment, showing that the change is more than cosmetic.    At a more general level, we are witnessing a change in the nature of European elections: 2014 will see them become much more like national elections, impacting as much on the composition of the executive as on the balance of power inside the Parliament.  It will surely not be as great a success as many in the Parliament hope but it will certainly show that the long march of the Parliament is not over.

Prof. Michael Shackleton, Maastricht University