How powerful is the EU

2019 EU election: how powerful is Europe's parliament?

In May next year, EU citizens will vote for the ninth time the MEPs of the European Parliament. The 2019 European elections will take place in times of crisis policy and euroscepticism, in which many consider the influence of citizens on EU decisions to be marginal. In fact, the European Parliament - the European parliament - is more powerful than ever and is continuously expanding its influence.

Since the European Parliament was first directly elected in 1979, voter turnout has steadily declined over the legislative periods. In 2014 it was only 42.61 percent. This is diametrically opposed to the constant increase in competencies of this Parliament in the European decision-making process. 91 percent of all EU decisions fall under the ordinary legislative procedure, in which parliament has an equal say.

But parliament has not only gained formal participation rights. Informally, the role of the European Parliament goes well beyond the contractual basis in many policy areas. This is not least due to the European Parliament itself, which is working tirelessly on increasing its institutional power using a variety of negotiating strategies.

Brexit, Ceta, TTIP and Co

The controversial European trade policy - in particular the highly politicized free trade agreements with Canada (Ceta) and the United States (TTIP) - is an example of such an informal increase in power. Reason for criticism from civil society were, among other things, the lack of transparency in the negotiations and the allegedly minor involvement of parliaments on the European negotiating side.

In fact, however, the European Parliament was more fully informed about the negotiations than in any previous agreement. On the one hand, this is due to the new rights that came into force with the Treaty of Lisbon. According to the new treaty bases, Parliament has both a right to information and a right to ratify international agreements. On the other hand, the European Parliament interpreted its right to reporting and information so comprehensively that in the case of Ceta and TTIP it was granted access to all negotiating documents. This also included the negotiating mandate of the European Commission, to which Parliament had been demanding access for decades.

In addition to having access to all negotiating documents, parliamentarians were informed of the status of the negotiations both before and after each round of negotiations between the European Commission and Canada and the United States. In addition, the European Parliament initiated its own talks with the negotiating partners, for example the United States, and thus secured informal participation in the negotiations.

The European Parliament has for the most part fought for these informal rights itself. In earlier agreements such as Acta, for example, parliamentarians did not shy away from making use of their contractually guaranteed right of veto. In this way, the European Parliament flexed its muscles early on and punished the Commission for not being involved in international negotiations. Such warning shots certainly contributed to strengthening the European Parliament in the later Ceta and TTIP negotiations.

The informal increase in power of the European Parliament is not limited to highly politicized agreements such as Ceta or TTIP. Rather, informal rights that have been fought for are retained and expanded in subsequent decision-making processes. This can be seen in the current Brexit negotiations, the conclusion of which Parliament has only ratified according to the EU treaties. Here the European Parliament appointed Guy Verhofstadt, its own parliamentary "chief negotiator", who coordinates both with European actors and holds direct talks with the negotiating partners Theresa May and David Davis (predecessor of Dominic Raab).

On the way to the "European Parliament"?

Another area that was heavily politicized in the course of the euro crisis is the European economic and monetary union. While monetary policy in the euro zone is the sole responsibility of the European Central Bank, coordination of economic policy is largely a matter for the member states. Nevertheless, the European Parliament was able to use the euro crisis management to come closer to the role of a real "European Parliament".

The informal expansion of parliamentary participation rights in the Economic and Monetary Union is all the more remarkable as the EU treaties only provide for a very limited co-determination of the European Parliament. Its active participation is essentially limited to legislation that regulates the monitoring and coordination of national economic policies. Parliament's control function is also only weakly reflected in the Treaties and is limited to a few information obligations of the Council and the Central Bank.

On the other hand, there are essential informal rights that the European Parliament has won from the Commission and the Member States. These range from hearings and additional written and oral reports on participation in personnel decisions to coordination with national parliaments. Each and every one of these informal rights can be traced back to strategies with which Parliament successfully increased its involvement in economic and monetary policy.

The economic dialogue

The "economic dialogue" introduced in 2011 is an example of the dispute over more informal parliamentary rights. This control instrument enables Parliament to invite representatives of the EU institutions and member states to an exchange on budgetary surveillance in the euro area. Through a clever combination of questioning and public relations work, the European Parliament can better control and influence euro zone policy.

What is special about economic dialogue, however, is how it comes about. Originally neither provided for in the treaty nor wanted by the member states, the European Parliament "invented" dialogue. When the Stability and Growth Pact had to be reformed in the course of combating the crisis in 2011, Parliament linked its necessary approval to the establishment of the dialogue it had drafted. In other words, Parliament threatened the Commission and the member states to veto the urgent reforms if these were not accompanied by an improvement in parliamentary control and participation - and thus a strengthening of democratic legitimacy in the eurozone.

In order to stabilize the euro area over the long term and to prevent future crises, many further reform steps are necessary. A European Monetary Fund, a Eurozone budget and a European finance minister are currently up for debate. Implementation of these and other reform steps will be fiercely contested politically and will be the subject of tough negotiations. To what extent the efforts will be crowned with success remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the European Parliament will try to use future reform steps to strengthen its role in the new institutional structure.

A look at the past decade promises good chances for the European Parliament. Accordingly, it has already announced its institutional claims and demands that the further integration of the Economic and Monetary Union must not take place without strengthening the European parliament. According to Parliament, every further step in integration must be accompanied by parliamentary control and participation.

Not just isolated cases

A look at other policy areas shows that the European Parliament's increase in power in trade policy and economic and monetary union are not isolated cases. Rather, the parliamentarians have succeeded in steadily expanding their informal participation and control rights across a broad spectrum of policy areas.

The ever-increasing role of the European Parliament affects not only specific policy content but also the decision-making rules at European level - such as the appointment of the Commission President. In the last European elections in 2014, the European Parliament successfully enforced its top candidate Jean-Claude Juncker against the right of the heads of state and government to propose proposals.

The next year will show to what extent the European Parliament will establish its top candidate in the upcoming European elections. It is already clear that Parliament is anything but a weak representative body in the European decision-making process. Over the years and decades it has successfully fought for formal and informal participation and control rights. A look back at the past teaches us that these rights will not stop there. Rather, it is to be expected that the European Parliament will play a stronger role for itself with every further step in integration. (Katharina Meissner, Magnus Schoeller, September 25, 2018)

Katharina Meissner is university assistant (post-doc) at the Institute for European Integration Research (EIF) at the University of Vienna. Her research interests lie in the areas of European trade policy, the role of the European Parliament and national parliaments in it, and trade policy cooperation between the European Union and regional organizations outside Europe.

Magnus Schoeller is a political scientist and project collaborator at the Institute for European Integration Research (EIF) at the University of Vienna and at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. His research deals with European economic and monetary policy as well as decision-making processes and political leadership in the euro zone.

The content-related responsibility for the contribution lies solely with the authors.