This is the first Parliament elected since the Lisbon Treaty came into force. The newly elected MPs will have powers that their outgoing colleagues have only begun explore, flexing the institution’s muscles over issues like data sharing. The true extent of the role the Parliament can play has yet to be determined, as the negotiated vagueness of the Lisbon Treaty leaves room for interpretation – and thus for those with the ambition to fight for an interpretation to the Parliament’s advantage.
Such a battle will ensue May 27th, when EU member state leaders sit down to start negotiations over the new European Commission and its President, a post which the Parliament believes it has a Treaty-enshrined right to elect. Member states belong to a different school of thought, according to which they need only “take into account” the Parliament’s choice.
The potential for a power struggle over the changing EU leadership won’t end there; hearings and an eventual confirmation vote for the new European Commission will continue through at least October. The new Parliament may well be tempted to use this opportunity to go further than its predecessor in testing the limits of their powers. As a dweller in the Brussels bubble, I admittedly look forward to being entertained from the side-lines as the spectacle of this leadership battle unfolds. But as a confirmed federalist, I hope that the new Parliament won’t focus all its energies in this internecine EU struggle. There are numerous other ways in which Parliament can take full advantage of its mandate and seek to extend its powers, without focusing solely on power. Here are just a few examples, ranging from radical to common sense.
Most MEPs oppose the two-seat system that forces them to shuttle nearly once a month between Brussels and Strasbourg. The Single Seat campaign has long pointed out the scandalous financial and irresponsible environment costs of the “travelling circus”, and lamented that this obligation is imposed by treaty agreed by the member states, who are the only ones who can change it.
The European Parliament has exercised its new right under the Lisbon Treaty to propose a treaty change, and asked EU member states to prepare a roadmap towards a single seat. However, there is a more radical option against the travelling circus: don’t join.
Yes, the core business of the Parliament – voting – happens in the plenary sittings in Strasbourg, so a few MEPs choosing to boycott means they would be absent for the mission-critical part of their job. But 78 per cent of current MEPs have asked for a revision to the two-seat system; if the new Parliament has a similar majority of rational thinkers on this issue, and most of them choose to boycott, there wouldn’t be enough MEPs in Strasbourg to form a quorum, and the voting, and thus passing of legislation, grinds to a halt – until the member states take the sensible steps requested.
Fix the budget
Parliament currently has a number of veterans from the budget battles of last year, when MEPs fought long and hard with the Council over the EU’s expenditure for the next seven years. No one should be eager to revisit that debate, and nor will they have to until after the next EU elections.
But the EU budget is a mess: it’s actually two budgets, one for commitments – how much the European Commission can plan to spend -- and one for payments – the cash that member states actually contribute, from which the Commission can actually settle its bills.
The gap between the two has increased, leaving a cash shortage. This is particularly problematic for things like humanitarian aid, which is necessarily cash-based (you can’t buy medicine and deliver it in a place like Syria with IOUs from the Commission).
For at least some areas, the budget system is broken. It needs a systematic fix, something that will take creative thinking, clear-headed debate, and a lot of negotiation to reach. At a minimum, the humanitarian aid budget – money that saves lives, and enjoys the support of 84 per cent of European citizens – must be backed by actual cash. The new Parliament, with its joint responsibility for the budget, can launch and lead this conversation.
Breathe life into the relationship with national parliaments
The Lisbon Treaty gave new emphasis to the relationship between the European Parliament and its national counterparts. The Parliament duly set up a raft of administrative and technical processes to share information and allow national parliaments to exercise their formal role.
It’s important that national parliaments are structurally plugged in to the EU-level processes that determine policies they will need to translate into national legislation; but such bloodless, procedurally heavy processes are not the stuff voters’ dreams are made of. If there is to be any hope for building a real pan-European political culture, there has to be an organic connection between European and national politics, across not just structures but relationships and ideas, similar to the way local politics connects to the national level. MEPs are ideally placed to embody this, and to resist interpreting their new role as leaving the national scene to join the Brussels bubble, instead remaining national politicians who work at the supranational level. The EU has plenty of technocrats – the new cohort of MEPs should stay focused on being politicians.
Sara Tesorieri is EU Conflict & Humanitarian Policy Advisor at Oxfam in Brussels. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of Oxfam International. This blog appears with grateful thanks to the VRT expat website Fans of Flanders.