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Playing the parliamentary game in Strasbrussels

Its opening session in Strasbourg, or was it Brussels?, revealed many flaws in the new EU Parliament. Perhaps it was the threat of rain. Perhaps it was the location: a car park in front of the EU Parliament in Strasbourg. At all events, there was something downbeat about the ceremony held on July 13th to start a new five-year parliamentary session. Some reports called it “militaristic”, but that is too flattering. Before a sparse crowd, unarmed soldiers from the five-country Eurocorps hoisted the European flag. A children’s choir sang the “Ode to Joy”, the European anthem. The children had to compete with MEPs from the United Kingdom Independence Party, who started singing “God Save the Queen”. This was meant to display British defiance but ended up sounding rude, which is not the same thing. It was all a bit depressing. As a work in progress, the parliament invents its own flummery. This ceremony was supposed to mark 30 years of direct elections. But the pomp skirted round such awkwardnesses as the travelling circus between Brussels and Strasbourg, and the fact that average turnout has dropped at every election since 1979.

The world view of MEPs revolves around their direct election, which marks them out from rival European Union institutions. Because the parliament is democratic, goes the theory, when it accrues more power the EU itself becomes more democratic. This line has served MEPs well. Their powers have grown with every treaty, and will increase again if the Lisbon treaty is ratified. Yet the parliament’s claims to legitimacy are being questioned as rarely before, and not just because of low turnout. On June 30th, in its ruling on the legality of the Lisbon treaty, Germany’s constitutional court declared that the parliament enjoyed only a second-class form of democratic legitimacy when compared with national parliaments. A new law must now be passed to give the German parliament greater EU oversight. The judges found two structural flaws in the Strasbourg assembly. First, voters are not equal: under Lisbon, a Maltese MEP will represent only 67,000 voters, a Swedish MEP 455,000, but a German MEP 857,000. Second, the court frets that the parliament “is not a responsive democracy”, says Frank Schorkopf, a German constitutional law professor. Because the parties clump together in big coalitions that haggle with national governments and the European Commission, ordinary folk do not know how to vote if they want to influence EU laws. The ruling is a “heavy blow” to the European Parliament, concludes Mr Schorkopf.

Yet only a fortnight later, MEPs appeared set on showing that the parliament is a world unto itself. On its opening day, leaders of the three biggest groups—from the centre-right, centre-left and liberal centre—announced a “technical agreement” to share out the job of the parliament’s president. In theory, a secret ballot still had to be held, but the leaders were able to announce the winner in advance: a Polish former prime minister from the centre-right, Jerzy Buzek. After two-and-a-half years, Mr Buzek will be replaced by an MEP from the centre-left. The group leaders also leaked word of another compromise, to vote on the re-election of José Manuel Barroso as president of the European Commission at their next plenary in September. How that might work is less clear. Mr Barroso is from the centre-right, and his camp wanted a vote in July with a broad base of support. The left and centre can thwart that, but not install a rival. So they are indulging in the political equivalent of bossnapping, taking Mr Barroso’s second term hostage to demand impossible concessions. One MEP predicts an “institutional impasse” if Mr Barroso is not approved in September. He is the only candidate: if he is rejected, nobody knows what will happen.

On the face of it, this horse-trading is odd (though stitch-ups of the parliamentary presidency are quite normal). After all, liberal and centre-right politicians spent the recent European elections calling each other dangerous and wrongheaded. Centre-left parties did so badly that it is easy for centre-right MEPs and liberals to muster a simple majority on their own most of the time. Yet the tendency is for all three to vote together. The key to the mystery is power. The group leaders said that their technical agreement was intended to “guarantee the stability” of the parliament as the “deepest expression of European democracy and integration”. That gobbledygook is code for something different: a wish to maximise the parliament’s clout in future fights with the commission and the 27 national governments. By banding together, the three biggest groups can wield an absolute majority of votes in the 736-strong parliament. An absolute majority is needed if the parliament wants to rewrite laws against the combined wishes of the commission and national governments. And nothing excites most MEPs more than defeating the other institutions.

In the minds of many, such a tripartite pact is also code for marginalising the British Conservatives, now that the Tories have formed a new antifederalist group, the “European Conservatives and Reformists”, with a band of mostly east European allies. The group had a bumpy start. On July 14th a veteran pro-European Conservative was expelled from the group after he snaffled a parliamentary vice-presidency that had been promised to a Polish colleague, Michal Kaminski. Mr Kaminski was promptly given the new group’s leadership as a consolation prize. The Conservatives will still be sought after in votes. But most MEPs, especially on the centre-right, want the new group to fall apart and are hoping to pick them off one by one. “The vultures are out there, sitting on the wall,” says Geoffrey van Orden, a Tory MEP. And the voters? They will be consulted again in five years’ time. Their opinions may, or may not, be taken into account.

Dit artikel van Charlemagne verscheen ook in "The Economist".

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6 Reacties:

At 17:14 Daµv said...

UKIP toch... wat een bende zieligaards!

At 17:15 Anoniem said...

@ Daµv

Wat bedoel je daarmee? Omdat ze hun eigen volkslied durven zingen aan het Europees Parlement in plaats van de hymne van de bezetter die in geen enkele bestaande EU-regel haar oorsprong vindt?

At 11:17 Johan Terwilghen said...

De "grondwettelijke symbolen" van de EU zoals vlag en hymne vinden hun oorsprong in de afgewezen EU-Grondwet en in het nog af te wijzen Lissabonverdrag. Voorlopig hebben zij stricto sensu nog geen enkele verdragsrechterlijke oorsprong maar beide zijn al jarenlang in de praktijk in voege getreden. Men wou die gewoonte verdragsrechterlijk verankeren, maar dat was buiten de kiezers gerekend. Nu beschouwen ze het gebruik daarvan gewoon opnieuw als "gewoonte" die buiten de verdragen valt.

At 11:18 Anoniem said...

Het is ook typerend dat het schouwspel zich BUITEN het EU-Parlement afspeelde. Typerend voor de koudwatervrees van de EU en de angst voor Eurosceptische sentimenten onder de Europese burgers.

At 16:09 GB said...

"Typerend voor de koudwatervrees van de EU en de angst voor Eurosceptische sentimenten onder de Europese burgers."

Sorry anonieme, maar ik denk dat de EU zich daar nu eens echt NIETS van aantrekt. Anders begaan ze met hun tweede referendum in Ierland, oftewel de spreekwoordelijke fuckyou-vinger naar de burgers, immers een gigantische kemel.

At 11:53 Job said...

Typisch een stuk dat is geschreven door iemand die niet gewend is aan coalities. In Nederland bestrijden partijen elkaar ook vurig tijdens de campagne om vervolgens bij te draaien en samen een regering te vormen. Dit soort kiezersbedrog is inherent aan evenredige vertegenwoordiging, tenzij een partij een absolute meerderheid haalt. Europa heeft een "grote coalitie" van sociaaldemocraten, christendemocraten en liberalen "clumped together". Niks vreemds aan. En dat de tories daar niet meer aan meedoen is hun keuze.

Overigens is God save the queen ook nergens officieel als volkslied vastgelegd, dus ik zou niet weten waarom het Europese volkslied dat wel zou moeten zijn.


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