European Parliament - a democratic deficit

Although elected by universal suffrage, MEPs are not sovereign. Most of the time they must leave the last word to national governments. With everyone wanting a more democratic EU, its representative body still remains a weak link, writes The Economist's Charlemagne.

Published on 19 March 2012 at 14:23

The travelling circus gathers at Brussels’s Gare du Midi, from where an extra-long chartered train speeds members of the European Parliament, assistants and others (including journalists) to their alternative home in Strasbourg. Having changed hands between France and Germany five times in a century, the city is supposed to stand for post-war reconciliation. These days, though, the monthly caravan has become a glaring symbol of the European Union’s capacity for waste.

Chauffeured cars whisk MEPs between their sleek parliamentary complex and the city’s hotels and restaurants, where prices are shamelessly inflated for the occasion. MEPs for the most part loathe the disruption. Yet there is little they can do about a two-seat system (plus support functions in Luxembourg) enshrined in treaties that can be changed only by unanimity. MEPs’ attempt to cut one of this year’s 12 Strasbourg sessions prompted France to file a lawsuit. Plainly, the European Parliament is not sovereign.

So the Strasbourg jamboree invites a double contempt. First, the extra costs of sitting in Strasbourg, reckoned at some €180m ($235m) a year, are scandalous at a time of biting austerity. And second, the parliament is irrelevant when it comes to seeking redress. This helps explain a paradox: as the parliament gains more power, ever fewer citizens turn out to vote for it.

Most issues that matter to voters, such as health, education and policing, are handled by national parliaments. The EU deals mainly with arcane regulatory questions. But that is only part of the reason voters cannot see how their choice of MEP matters. Legislation is proposed by the European Commission, the EU’s civil service (led by an appointed college). Laws must then be approved by the Council of Ministers (where governments strike deals behind closed doors) and the European Parliament (where alliances shift from issue to issue). Differences must be resolved by haggling among all three bodies. The system provides lots of checks and balances. But voters cannot throw the bums out.

Comment

A pro-European lobby

On March 15, the European parliament adopted a resolution "strongly" calling on Dutch Prime Minister, conservative Mark Rutte, to "distance himself" from a web site, which targets immigrant workers, launched by Geert Wilders' far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). The MEPs consider that the site "goes against the fundamental European values". Writing in Dutch daily De Volksrant, Martin Sommer notes that Rutte was -

... preached to by a wide coalition ranging from the communists to the conservatives. But one should not believe that this strong alliance was created just because of the PVV site. That's how things go every month.

Sommer regrets that the European parliament does not base itself on the usual democratic rules -

... there is neither government nor opposition. There is just the European Parliament which speaks to itself and to the world [...] In the absence of the democratic struggle to obtain a normal majority, it aims to achieve an optimal majority, the idea being that the European Parliament operates in Europe's interest, with the exception of some sad eurosceptics.

The European parliament, Martin Sommer concludes, operates like a "well-paid lobby club to support the European idea".

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