The EU faces challenges which call for a review of its institutional structure in the areas of parliamentarism, European citizenship and citizens’ participation. This is Part 1 of my review of a draft document presented by the EU Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs for a Motion for a European Parliament Resolution.
“European democracy is an ever-evolving idea that has the potential to generate further legitimacy through change and adaptation to current developments. There is a strong need to improve the modalities of European democracy, especially in the areas of citizenship, parliamentarism and participation.
“First of all, European parliamentarism, as a fundament of democracy in Europe, should be strengthened. We should rethink European citizenship and address its challenges including the improvement of citizens’ rights and possibilities to participate in the political life of the Union. That is why existing structures should be complemented by a comprehensive and permanent participatory democracy mechanism. This report offers reflections on the ways to address the above-mentioned summons, building on the lessons learnt and the citizens’ demands from the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFE).”
You can read up about the CoFE here.
Institutions of the EU
The Commission consists of the EU staff in Brussels appointed by meritocratic interviews, but which take account of the need to get a spread of intake from various regions and languages of the EU. It could be compared to the UK civil service in as much as it serves as the administration of the EU. The commission proposes new legislation to the Council which then puts them before the EU Parliament.
The Council of Ministers, abbreviated to “the Council”, is made up of ministers of the governments of the various EU countries. For example, for trade issues the departments dealing with trade would send their minister for trade. Working groups will have already debated and prepared drafts, presented by the Commission, for the ministers to discuss.
Confusingly, “The European Council” is a meeting of heads of state and heads of government with the President of the Commission and sets the general political agenda for the EU. They meet about four times a year.
To note, the Council of Europe is not part of the EU and predates it. They both share the same blue and yellow flag, just to add to the confusion. The CoE is the standard setter for Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judges countries in their adherence to the ECHR (the European Convention on Human Rights) which our government is keen to leave.
The European Parliament (EP) is a directly elected institution in the EU. MEPs are elected every five years by direct universal suffrage via proportional representation and in a free and secret ballot. Each member state decides on their own electoral system. People vote for parties, or individuals, if they are independents.
The number of MEPs for each member state is loosely based on the population of the member state. No country can have fewer than six MEPs or more than 96 MEPs. Ireland for example has 13 MEPs. When the UK was a member of the EU, we had 73 Members (MEPs) of the then 751 EP seats. This was the same number as France but less than the largest representation of Germany with 96. The MEPs were working together with the UK Representation to the EU in Brussels, where they were employed by the EU but represented their respective UK parties. Since the UK has left the EU, the EP now has 705 seats and elects its president, along with 14 vice-presidents for a term of 2.5 years. These represent the Parliament in other EU institutions.
Sadly, until the 2016 EU Referendum, many amongst the UK population were not aware that our country had such a representative in the democratically elected EP. According to an article in the Guardian, only 11% of the population could name one of the UK MEPs. This disconnect might be one of the many explanations for the Brexit vote based on a belief that the EU was undemocratically imposing their laws on the UK.
How the European Parliament works
More than 400 million current EU citizens are eligible to vote, making the EP elections one of the biggest democratic exercises in the world. Although elections must be based on proportional representation, member states can decide the details of the electoral system used to elect their group of MEPs. Each country can also decide the exact election day within a four-day span from Thursday to Sunday. The voting age and whether citizens can vote by post or in their host country also vary.
The European Parliament is part of the legislative, or law making, process in the EU. Most proposed laws must be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union to finally become law. The system by which the UK had a say in this process by the EU scrutiny system was described by us in an article in June 2021. The EU Council is made up of elected heads of states and they sign off decisions. EU laws then are entered into national law by the member states.
Proposed changes to the European Parliament
The draft report by the EU Constitutional Committee suggests that there is a power imbalance between the EP and the European Council, which still has considerably more influence over the legislative process. The Council is perceived as the ‘instruction giver’ but, in a parliamentary democracy, the EP should be more actively laying down the long lines of the legislative agenda. For this, the EP needs a full right of initiative as well as full control over its own resources and budget.
The institutional structure of the EU could also be further enhanced through improved coordination between the Commission, the Council and the EP, in outlining legislative priorities and in implementing them.
It is suggested that, nevertheless, parliamentary scrutiny can also only become proper reality when the EP is empowered with more tools such as a proper right of inquiry.
Parliamentary procedure should be made more attractive by being more inclusive.
The EU should review the role of the EP in a system of multilevel governance. More transparency in the decision making could bring together all institutions and citizens to further debates of European relevancy.
“Representatives from the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and from the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) should be invited to relevant parliamentary exchanges, including committee meetings and relevant inter-institutional negotiations, such as trilogues, on issues they are dealing with. The same applies to representatives of citizens’ panels and the proposed youth assembly, the ideas of which are developed in the third part of this report. The inclusion and visibility of these actors in the legislative process should be enhanced. A more inclusive legislative process should also be achieved through enhanced transparency in general, and increased enabling of public scrutiny over interinstitutional negotiations in particular.”
Why we should follow what the EP does
The Conference on the Future of Europe which ended in spring 2022 was a
“unique and timely opportunity for European citizens to debate on Europe’s challenges and priorities. No matter where you are from or what you do, this is the place to think about what future you want for the European Union. The European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission have committed to listen to Europeans and to follow up, within their sphere of competences, on the recommendations made.”
EU Citizens’ groups in the UK are increasingly struggling against the erosion of our democracy, Parliamentary independence and citizenship rights. Many are campaigning for a larger participation of people in holding our government to account. It is obvious, when looking at the last 13 years of UK politics, that major reform is needed to avoid further disenfranchising large numbers of the population. We only need to remember that it took a case at the Supreme Court to declare that the government’s prorogation of Parliament was illegal. Our problems differ from the EU’s complex systemic issues, but maybe the proposals for the reform of the EP could serve as inspiration for our own reform agenda after the next election (which cannot come fast enough).