Today, it is hard to appreciate just how sensitive these first elections to a supranational European body were.

Today, it is hard to appreciate just how sensitive these first elections to a supranational European body were.

By: Prof Juliet Lodge

The European Parliament has come a long way since the first direct elections in 1979 when even changing its name from “European Assembly” to “European Parliament” provoked paroxysmal perplexity among national politicians anxious about the implications of the very word “parliament” for national sovereignty and their pre-eminence through the Council of Ministers.

The softly-softly approach to the elections was also clear in the campaigns fought in each member state under different electoral and campaign rules, different criteria on voter and candidate eligibility, and fought then – as now -on different days with very different campaign materials.

Today, it is hard to appreciate just how sensitive these first elections to a supranational European body were.

In 2009 concern remains over voter apathy, mobilising turnout and informing the electorate about the European Parliament’s achievements, purpose and goals. In 1979, these concerns were magnified by an important difference to today’s Parliament.

Then, the “European assembly” only had consultative and supervisory powers. Apart from limited powers over the budget (a crucial power of the purse), its right to be consulted over draft legislation did not mean that MEPs could expect any of their objections or proposed revisions to be heeded by the Council of Ministers.

Indeed, their official ‘Opinions’ were often ignored. It was only by dint of careful exploitation of its own Rules of Procedure and by launching deliberations on the purpose of European integration, and the proper shape of the then European Communities’ inter-institutional relations and structures (sometimes dubbed the institutional architecture of Europe / later European governance) that MEPs initiated a process of constitutional reflection and self-assessment that was to change inter-institutional relations and power relationships profoundly.

Guided by firm belief in the liberal democratic principles of representative democracy and the need to hold the executive (the Commission and – most controversially of all – the Council of Ministers) accountable to the parliament elected by the people, MEPs drew member governments and national leaders into a debate about the nature of democracy. The result was a European Parliament that was to exercise genuine legislative power under what is now known as the “co-decision” procedure. Co-decision ended the practice of the Council of Ministers having the final say over the content of legislation, without accommodating or heeding MEPs’ views.

Pressure for the Council (that had always acted in secret) to hold its meetings in public, when acting in legislative mode, had more than a symbolic function as MEPs insisted on greater transparency and accountability.

“Guided by firm belief in the liberal democratic principles of representative democracy and the need to hold the executive (the Commission and – most controversially of all - the Council of Ministers) accountable to the parliament elected by the people, MEPs drew member governments and national leaders into a debate about the nature of democracy.”

“Guided by firm belief in the liberal democratic principles of representative democracy and the need to hold the executive (the Commission and – most controversially of all - the Council of Ministers) accountable to the parliament elected by the people, MEPs drew member governments and national leaders into a debate about the nature of democracy.”

That took almost a quarter of a century. In the interim, there had been changes to the EU’s treaties often precipitated by initiatives for constitutional and institutional reform from within the European Parliament. Many of the changes in the Single European Act, the Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties echo (belatedly) some of the key democratic principles outlined over the years by the European Parliament.

The Single European Act came into force in 1987 and was followed within five years by the Treaty of Maastricht. These treaties included the first tentative increases to the powers of the Parliament, giving it by the early 1990s “co-decision” power with the Council over European legislation – though limited to just ten treaty articles and with the dice loaded towards the Council in the small print of the procedure. The European Parliament also obtained a right to be “consulted” on the choice of the President of the Commission – who nevertheless still had to be unanimously agreed by national governments; and a right of assent to accession treaties (none were envisaged at that time) and Association agreements.

Parliament was able to employ its twin strategy to develop its authority and powers into what we see today. In the 1990s and 2000s, its Institutional Affairs Committee and its Committee on Rules of Procedure (merged to create the Constitutional Committee in 1999) carefully exploited the new treaty provisions and prepared treaty revisions in a remarkably innovative way.

On the legislative front, by carefully constructing its rules of procedure, Parliament effectively nullified the treaty “small print” that loaded the dice in Council’s favour. For instance, the Maastricht treaty had provided that, if Parliament and Council did not agree on draftlegislation, then the Council could adopt it anyway : it would stand unless Parliament subsequently rejected it outright within three months by an absolute majority. In its Rules of Procedure, Parliament laid down that it would always, automatically, vote on a rejection motion if Council tried that course of action. Council subsequently tried it, Parliament duly rejected, and the Council never tried such unilateral action again.

Parliament had successfully made it clear that, under co-decision, laws could only be adopted with the agreement of both branches of the legislature. The offending small print, along with other irritations, was removed from the Treaty in the next revision, of which more below.

On the appointment front, Parliament provided in its rules that the consultation on candidates to be President of the Commission should involve a public vote on a named candidate proposed by national governments, after he or she has presented himself to Parliament. Such a procedure was intended to make it unthinkable for a candidate rejected by Parliament to be appointed, an interpretation soon confirmed by aspiring candidates themselves. This led to acceptance in the next treaty revision that Parliament’s vote was legally binding.

Similarly, Parliament “stretched the elastic” on the treaty requirement for a vote confirming the Commission as a whole. It laid down in its Rules that such a vote would be held only after the proposed Commissioners had each appeared in public confirmation hearings before the parliamentary committees corresponding to their prospective fields of responsibility. Despite initial reluctance, the proposed Commissioners agreed to participate in the exercise, not least because Parliament would otherwise have simply postponed its vote of confidence until they did. The hearings procedure also required the Commission President to allocate portfolios before the Commission took office. This meant that member governments had to complete their selection of nominees for Commission portfolios far more swiftly than in the past.

As to the right to approve association agreements with third countries, Parliament quickly won a legal battle to establish that this applied not just to the initial agreements, but to any subsequent revision. This considerably increased the significance of this procedure.

Space limits preclude us describing many more examples of the astute way in which Parliament exploited its powers to pave the way for MEPs to exercise legislative power and their authority vis-à-vis the EU executive in an accountable manner. Crucially, Parliament has stressed democratic legitimacy and public accountability and secured an extended right to participate in the treaty revision procedure itself, namely the intergovernmental conferences (IGCs) at which reforms and new treaties are negotiated. This was a coup.

“Parliament had successfully made it clear that, under co-decision, laws could only be adopted with the agreement of both branches (Council of Ministers and EP)”.

“Parliament had successfully made it clear that, under co-decision, laws could only be adopted with the agreement of both branches (Council of Ministers and EP)”.

Only after Maastricht did Parliament secure such a right. The negotiations leading up to the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty saw it appoint two MEPs to the preparatory “Reflection Group” and to some meetings of the IGC. For the negotiation of the Nice Treaty and (Lisbon’s forerunner) the Constitutional Treaty, its two representatives were allowed to participate in all meetings of the IGC. For the Lisbon Treaty negotiations, three MEPs were allowed. Their presence was crucial in securing treaty changes that enhanced Parliament’s position.

The Amsterdam Treaty changed the co-decision procedure to one where Parliament and Council have equal powers; greatly expanded its scope to cover the majority of non-agricultural legislation; made the vote on the Commission President a legally binding one; and extended the range of international agreements requiring Parliament’s assent. Maastricht may have planted the seeds for the Amsterdam augmentation of Parliament’s powers. Within a few years they were further extended by the Nice Treaty and again potentially by the Lisbon Treaty. So which MEPs have brought the European Parliament from being a mere talking shop to a legislature with genuine power?

The legacy of federalist Altiero Spinelli is, but should not, be under-estimated. When in 1984 the European Parliament boldly adopted a draft Treaty establishing the European Union, it was far in advance of what national politicians were prepared to endorse. But it set the scene for the future.

History books highlight national leaders who ultimately brokered and ratified the treaties. Occasionally there is a mention of “heroic” Parliament figures like Spinelli or of Commission President Delors. But there has been little mention of those who worked out Parliament’s strategy and dedicated themselves to the detailed work necessary to turn aspiration into reality. Over the years, some EP Presidents and many MEPs played a role in this process, mostly members of the Constitutional affairs committee. They include MEPs from many states and different political persuasion. In the 1980s and 1990s, besides Spinelli, names like Herman, Dankert, David Martin, Bourlanges, Haensch, Cot, and Napolitano spring to mind.

None of this could have happened without the consistent, informed thinking, political nous and persuasiveness of those who worked behind the scenes to make a reality of the European Parliament’s quest to make democracy accountable to the people and sustainable as a model of peaceful conflict resolution through constructive dialogue and adherence to principles of fairness, justice, openness, transparency and democratic accountability.

Who are these people?  Here we begin with five who follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers of European integration in making modern contributions to ensuring that successive generations follow Jean Monnet and leave a strong legacy and democratic footprint to their children for them to interpret in the light of contemporary needs and experience.

Who are these people? Here we begin with five who follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers of European integration in making modern contributions to ensuring that successive generations follow Jean Monnet and leave a strong legacy and democratic footprint to their children for them to interpret in the light of contemporary needs and experience.

If public awareness of Euro elections and the purpose of the European Parliament is hazy, in 2009 voters will not be called on to vote for an assembly devoid of genuine legislative and budgetary powers. Behind this achievement are many politicians – from President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl (architect of German reunification) to those now being talked about as future EU Presidents. However, without the initiatives of the European Parliament, democratic reform may not have got off the starting blocks.

Who are these people? Here we begin with five who follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers of European integration in making modern contributions to ensuring that successive generations follow Jean Monnet and leave a strong legacy and democratic footprint to their children for them to interpret in the light of contemporary needs and experience.

The first three are the co-ordinators of the three largest political groups (and have led their Groups on these matters for a decade). They have thus negotiated on behalf of their Groups virtually all of the positions adopted by the Parliament on these issues over the last decade. They have at the same time taken on several other key roles, notably key rapporteurships. It is striking that two of the three are British – Andrew Duff and Richard Corbett. Two are German.. Jo Leinen is the Chair of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Elmar Brok has been chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but also active in the Constitutional Committee. He represented the EP at successive IGCs.

The Movers and the Shakers : A look at their various contributory roles sums up why these five have been so influential

.

Inigo Mendez de Vigo (EPP/Spain)

Inigo Mendez de Vigo (EPP/Spain)

Inigo Mendez de Vigo (EPP/Spain):

– Spokesman (Co-ordinator) for Christian Democrats (EPP) on constitutional affairs
– Co-rapporteur (with Corbett) on Constitutional Treaty
– Co-rapporteur (with Corbett) on Lisbon Treaty
– Leader of EP delegation to Convention
– Co-rapporteur (with Tsatsos) on Amsterdam Treaty
– EP representative on Nice IGC
– Co-rapporteur (with Seguro) on Nice Treaty

.
.

Richard Corbett (PES/UK)

Richard Corbett (PES/UK)

Richard Corbett (PES/UK)

– Spokesman (Co-ordinator)Socialist Group on constitutional affairs
– Co-rapporteur (with Mendez de Vigo) on Constitutional Treaty
– Co-rapporteur (with Mendez de Vigo) on Lisbon Treaty
– Rapporteur on revision of EP procedure on rules to take advantage of Amsterdam Treaty
– Rapporteur on revision of EP procedure on rules to take advantage of Nice Treaty
– Rapporteur on revision of EP procedure on rules to take advantage of Lisbon Treaty and to adapt EP procedures to internal reform report (Dagmar Roth-Behrendt working group)
– Negotiator for EP (with Joseph Daul) with Council and Commission of the new “comitology” system giving EP the power to block Commission implementing measures
– Negotiator for EP (with Salafranca) on the Commission of new system of informing EP of implementing measures
– Before becoming an MEP, he wrote his doctoral thesis on role of EP in treaty reform, worked with Spinelli on the 1984 draft treaty, assisted David Martin as rapporteur on Parliament’s proposals to Maastricht IGC (including making the first draft of the co-decision procedure) was advisor to Elizabeth Guigou at the Amsterdam IGC and its preparatory Reflection Group, and had links with future Labour ministers at the IGC prior to the change of British government. He has written standard texts on EU treaty reforms and especially on the European Parliament.
.
.

Andrew Duff (ALDE/UK)

Andrew Duff (ALDE/UK)

Andrew Duff (ALDE/UK)

– Spokesman (Co-ordinator) for Liberals on constitutional affairs
– Vice-President of EP delegation to Convention
– Chaired Liberal caucus on Convention
– Co-rapporteur (with Voggenhuber) on Charter of Rights
– EP representative at Lisbon IGC
– Author of works on constitutional reform, and regular contributor on this to the Financial Times

.
.

Elmar Brok (EPP/Germany)

Elmar Brok (EPP/Germany)

Elmar Brok (EPP/Germany)

– EP representative at Amsterdam IGC
– EP representative at Nice IGC
– EP representative at Lisbon IGC
– Co-rapporteur (with Baron) on EP proposals to Lisbon IGC
– Rapporteur on future EU External Action Service
– Chair of EP Foreign Affairs Committee 1999 – 2007
– Chaired Christian Democrat caucus on the Convention

.
.

Joe Leinen (PES/Germany)

Joe Leinen (PES/Germany)

Joe Leinen (PES/Germany)

– Chair of AFCO
– Rapporteur on revised Charter of Fundamental Rights
– Co-rapporter (with Dimitrakopoulos) on Parliament’s proposals to 2004 IGC
– Rapporteur on European political parties

Advertisements