The European Parliament holds a difficult position within the institutional set-up of the European Union. It finds itself caught between political ambition and inter-institutional power gambles. The Conference on the Future of Europe illustrates the dilemma – and offers a way forward.
The institutional set-up of the EU is a unique one which has been challenging politicians, academics and citizens equally over the past decades. With several severe crises in recent times – the financial crisis of 2008, the refugee crisis of 2015, and most recently, the Covid-19-pandemic – this set-up has been questioned repeatedly, as how the EU institutions handled difficult situations was not always appreciated by everyone. One central narrative of these critical voices relates EU citizens being increasingly disconnected from the EU institutions to the role the EU Parliament plays within the institutional system of the EU. Simply put, the claim is that as the only elected body amongst the EU institutions, it should have more competences, and its position should be strengthened vis à vis the Council and the European Commission, as this would increase the legitimate representation of European citizens in EU policy-making, thereby increasing trust in EU institutions.
Following this narrative, parliaments in the EU, including national and regional assemblies, should be strong voices in any debate on the future of the EU, as they connect policy-making back to the citizens. On 28 and 29 May 2020, a digital conference under the framework of the research project REGIOPARL – Regional Parliaments Lab brought together practitioners and academics to discuss “Parliamentary Voices on the Future of Europe” – in particular with regards to the role they (should) play in the Conference on the Future of Europe. This contribution looks at the European Parliament as a key actor in the process so far, and the dilemma it finds itself in with regards to its role as the ‘voice of the European citizens’.
The Dilemma of the European Parliament
The European Parliament has a complicated position as it is: theoretically, it has been strengthened through several treaty changes over the past 30 years; however, in recent years, we have seen a power shift, in particular in terms of agenda-setting, from the European Parliament towards Council and Commission. This shift, as Gaby Bischoff, MEP, put it during the second panel (“The Debate on the Future of Europe: Inter- and intra-institutional perspectives”) of the Regioparl conference, has led to a “re-nationalization of European politics.” In addition, the European Parliament not only competes with other EU institutions, it also competes partly with national parliaments as well as governments when advocating European issues, as Dr. Karolina Borońska-Hryniewiecka explained in her keynote speech “National parliaments and the Future of Europe: co-responsibility, competition or caving in”. Other than in national parliaments, the political groups in the European parliament do not hold the same power as national or regional political parties do. In addition, regarding its competences and the very particular institutional ties it has with Commission and Council, it is questionable whether the EP can fulfil the requirements for a full democratic representation of European citizens.
As a result, it seems to meander between reaching for more competences and power, whilst, at the same time, being accused of allowing the European Commission and the Council to dominate European politics, and of not taking a stance against the institutional play-off which we have seen over the past years. As there is an obvious case to be made for the European Parliament to be a strong component of the EU’s institutional set-up – as it is the one European institution which is democratically legitimized in European elections – this dilemma seems worrying – even more so in times of crisis and lack of trust by the European citizens.
The European Parliament in the Conference on the Future of Europe
With the announcement of the Conference on the Future of Europe by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2019, some hoped to pave the way for a discussion on treaty changes that could potentially balance the EU’s institutional set-up and empower the European Parliament. So far, with its resolution from January 2020, the Parliament has delivered on laying down its vision for the 2-year-process. Commission and Council, however, are either very cautious in their approaches (see the Commission’s communication) or downright reluctant to find an inter-institutional agreement on the scope, the goals and the format of the Conference, with a long-awaited Council position still under discussion. Main conflict lines in the Council relate to the obvious question of treaty changes as well as the extent of the involvement of member state governments in the process.
But even with an inter-institutional agreement still pending, doubts have already been voiced regarding the suggestions made by the European Parliament. Along the lines of the January resolution, Parliamentary-Voices conference panellist Daniel Freund, MEP, spoke of “an open process where at the end we could potentially see new laws, new budget distributions and also treaty changes”; MEP Gaby Bischoff underlined, that other than in previous consultation processes, this time, citizen agora should be truly representative with regards to nationality, gender, social background etc.. According to Bischoff, citizens have to be included in the beginning of the process whilst assessing “how much appetite for treaty changes there actually is”. Responding to this vision, both, Professor Ulrike Guérot from Danube University Krems, and Professor Andreas Maurer from the University of Innsbruck, voiced their doubts regarding the scope and the goal of the current conference set-up. They postulated that ‘an open dialogue’ might not exactly be the inclusive wording the Conference on the Future of Europe needs if it wants to mobilize citizens for greater participation; defining a concrete goal – such as paving the way for treaty changes – however, might get citizens to engage.
A conference participant hit the nail on the head when analysing the Parliament’s conflict: a majority of MEP in the Committee on Constitutional Affairs (which is responsible for the Conference on the Future of Europe in the Parliament) is in favour of formulating ambitious, concrete goals for the conference, including the possibility to discuss and prepare treaty changes; however, if the Parliament’s resolution was as outspoken, the whole project would likely “be killed” by Commission and Council before even reaching the trilogue negotiations table. Therefore, the Parliament has to fall behind its initial ambition – only to then be accused of not being ambitious and self-confident enough. Hence, the Conference on the Future of Europe process illustrates the dilemma of the European Parliament: it aims to be ambitious and the representative of the European citizens, but then it has to play game if it wants any compromise to be reached due to the imbalance of power between the EU institutions.
So what Role for the European Parliament in the Future?
Taking into account the reluctance of some governments to give up any national ambitions for European common strategies, or to transfer competences from member state level to EU level or from Council to Parliament, treaty changes in the near future seem rather unlikely and the status quo might be all we’ll have, as Sophia Russack, researcher at CEPS, pointed out at the conference. However, if this is already assumed as the most likely outcome of the Future-Conference-Process, the European Parliament might as well show some teeth and take up its role of being the elected representative of the people, by formulating a clear goal for the conference which goes beyond ‘inclusive process and open debate’ – a goal which might actually engage people again, and keep the promise of real citizen participation on EU level. Regardless of the success of such a position, this would be more credible than caving in to the inter-institutional games between Commission, Council and Parliament.
The European Parliament could also step up its efforts in finding some allies in national and subnational parliaments, thereby strengthening these relationships, and foster Europeanisation processes on national and regional level. It will be much harder for the Council to ‘kill a project’ which has already been endorsed by parliaments ‘at home’.
So far, the European Parliament amongst the EU institutions has been the strongest advocate for a Conference on the Future of Europe set-up which brings about actual change rather than being yet another meaningless citizen consultation; it shouldn’t shy away from this role now, but increase the pressure on Council and Commission. On 15 June 2020, the initiative is going to be on the plenary agenda; this could be an excellent – and maybe the last – opportunity to remind Commission and Council that – in the words of French revolution political theorist Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès – “citizens are not there to be consulted, citizens decide”.