In the beginning the European Parliament consisted of 142 members appointed by 6 countries and delegated by their national parliament in 1958, today however it counts 785 MEPs elected in direct universal suffrage and representing the 27 Member States of the European Union. This number will be reduced to 750 members plus the President once the Treaty of Lisbon currently in the process of ratification takes effect.
More importantly, it is the only multinational parliament elected in the world. It is also the only European institution directly elected since 1979, when the first European parliamentary elections took place.
The European Parliament saw its powers developing over time. During its creation, the European parliamentary Assembly had only consultative powers. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 bestowed it with the power of co-decision with the Council of Ministers, which enables the EP to reject a legislative text. Initially limited to a restricted number of fields, this co-decision procedure nowadays relates to many fields: freedom of circulation of goods, workers and services, freedom of establishment, domestic market, employment, customs co-operation, fight against social exclusion, equal opportunity and treatment, education, vocational training, culture, health, consumer protection, research, environment… …
And the Treaty of Lisbon envisages a new extension of the fields in which the co-decision procedure applies, in particular justice and home affairs, common market policy and agricultural legislation. If the Treaty is ratified, 90 legal bases will be related to the co-decision procedure.
The European Parliament also has budgetary powers since it currently has the last word on the non-compulsory expenditure and has a right of rejection in entirety of the project. The Committee on Budgetary Control of the Parliament (Cocobu) supervises, moreover, the implementation of the budget and approves it every year. The Lisbon Treaty reinforces this capacity by removing the differentiation between compulsory and non-compulsory expenditure.
An assertion of its role within the institutional triangle
The Parliament exerts a power of control of the European Commission since it must approve the President of the Commission appointed by the Council and the proposed college of commissioners proposed. It is notably because of the report of the committee of experts set up by the Parliament that the Santer Commission had resigned in 1999. In 2004, the European Parliament had also threatened the Barroso Commission by imposing its veto on the appointment of the Italian Rocco Buttiglione as Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs. In this field the Treaty of Lisbon envisages a further increase in the powers of the Parliament since the latter obtains the right to elect the President of the Commission on a proposal from the European Council which must take into account the results of the European elections.
The European Parliament knew how to contribute fully to the reinforcement of its powers by proving that it could make decisions in the general interest of the European citizens and by showing its independence by rejecting Commission proposals and the Council as it was the case with the directive on the liberalization of harbour services or the budgetary compromise of December 2005, or by rewriting several directives in a direction very different from that of the Commission (directive on software patents in Europe, the Bolkestein directive…). Its action in favour of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, in particular through the Sakharov prize which it gives each year, also contributes to secure the place of the European Parliament.
…but a democratic representativeness to be increased!
In spite of these increasingly important powers granted to the European Parliament and the capital role that it often plays for the citizens (let us remember for example the REACH directive on chemicals), the rate of participation in the European elections remains weak. For example in 2004 it exceeded hardly 45 %. And recent Eurobarometer shows that three-quarters of European citizens do not know when the next European elections take place - the correct answer would be summer 2009.
The democratic legitimacy which the European Parliament pulls of its election by the direct vote should not hide this problem of representativeness. Even if the Treaty of Lisbon reaffirms the European Parliament as the institution of representation of the European citizens on the level of the EU (the article 8A2 foresees that “the European citizens are directly represented, on the level of the Union, in the European Parliament”), the bond between the European Parliament and the citizens of the Union remains distant.
The election of the European Parliament must have a stronger European dimension…
At the national level, this bond is ensured by the political parties. However, the European political parties are struggling to ensure this role, in particular because, for the majority, they develop neither a European programme nor a European campaign. At the national level, the political parties assume clear roles: development of the programmes, designation of the chief candidates and returns on the decisions taken. At the European level, these roles are not assumed for the moment. Admittedly the European deputies sit by political groups and not by nationality, but that is not enough.
Towards a new stage in 2009?
The election of the European Parliament must have a visible stake: the choice of the president of the European Commission must depend on its result. The new methods of election of the President of the European Commission provided for in the Treaty of Lisbon should make it possible, if the Treaty is ratified, to structure the campaign around this stake as well as the programmes of the candidates. Still, it is necessary that the European parties play the game by designating their candidate with the presidency of the European Commission before each election of the European Parliament, by proposing transnational and multinational lists and by conducting true European campaigns.
The election of the European Parliament must have a stronger European dimension so that the voters can come to a conclusion about the orientation to give to the policies of the EU. And the national political parties must explain their position within the European political parties and the sets of themes which seem to them priority for the next European mandate.
A modification of the working rhythm of the European Parliament should perhaps also be planned in order to give to MEPs time necessary to give an account of their mandate in their district and thus to give an account of their decisions closer to the European citizens. It is undoubtedly only when the citizen notes wide powers of MEPs as sound, that it will carry out the impact of the European Union on his/her everyday life and that a European public space will be able to develop.
For European parliamentarians proud of their mandate
Although it does not have the right to initiate legislation, the European Parliament has an incomparable legitimacy to be expressed on the policy guidelines of the European Union as the only directly elected European institution. But in order to reflect the political choices expressed by the voters for European construction, it must be elected on the basis of a clear European campaign and not particular national interests.
A more democratic Europe and closer to its citizens, thus understood better, requires a Parliament with wide powers and clear accountability to its voters on a truly European basis. It is the responsibility of the politicians to seize this issue and not regard the European elections as second-rate elections or a consolation prize, for lack of a national function any longer.
If we can only be delighted by the increase in the powers of the European Parliament which constitutes a true projection as regards democratization of the European Union, we must remain vigilant as regards the Parliament’s responsibilities with respect to the citizens which it represents. It is under this condition that the European Parliament will reach its maturity and will be able to determine the direction of the European construction, strengthened by its increasing powers and a legitimacy brought by 492 million citizens.