Brussels Behind the Scenes: Sidelined MEPs

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Sidelined MEPs
Credit: EP

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

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Sidelined MEPs

The European Parliament has a role in making and breaking EU policies, but past assurances that MEPs would be given more power to shape laws have proved to be empty promises. Could that change in 2022?

The Parliament is one of the big three European institutions that help craft EU rules and regulations, along with the European Commission and Council. The blessing of the Parliament is required for significant pieces of legislation to enter force.

MEPs have long wanted their role beefed up, insisting that more say for the Parliament would translate into more democratic accountability and, ultimately, a better functioning European Union.

David Sassoli, the late president of the Parliament who died at the all-too early age of 65 this week, was a champion of increasing his institution’s role as he believed it would improve democratic accountability.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


The European Parliament is often labelled as the only parliament in the world that does not enjoy a full right of legislative initiative or the right to propose new laws. That power is held by the Commission and is sometimes co-opted by the member states by the backdoor.

As things stand, the Parliament and Council can only request legislative proposals from the Commission, which then has to justify itself if the answer is no. Some legal experts say that both institutions could take the EU executive branch to court if it does not.

In 2019, the freshly-appointed Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, pledged to propose new laws if an absolute majority of MEPs backed a resolution supporting it and if it satisfied subsidiarity and ‘better regulation’ principles.

Examples of that in action are few and far between, although lawmakers have admittedly been able to influence the early days of the legislative process through more subtle means.

There has also been a degree of success in affecting parts of Commission proposals, such as a recent text on forestry rules, but those victories are the exception rather than the rule.

Von der Leyen made her promise after she was parachuted into the job thanks to the European Council cutting the legs off of the Spitzenkandidat process. Ironically, this represented a big curtailing of Parliament’s power to set the EU agenda.

The president also said she would support efforts to broker a true right of initiative for MEPs and put one of her most seasoned Commissioners, Maroš Šefčovič, in charge of interinstitutional relations.

Šefčovič’s brief has since been expanded to include the management of EU-UK relations, which is in itself a full-time job. Little progress has been made as the mid-point of this legislative cycle heaves into view.

Even when it comes to micromanaging EU policymaking, the Parliament still finds itself at times locked out of the party. 

The EU’s Taxonomy, a set of sustainable investment guidelines meant to boost the bloc’s Green Deal priorities, has made headlines recently for including nuclear and gas power in the playbook. The draft text now needs to be scrutinised before it can enter force later this year.

But MEPs have quietly fumed about being locked out of the technical expert group that helped during the drafting process and which now has until the end of this month to go over the Commission’s workings again.

The only chance the Parliament will now have to truly influence the Taxonomy process is a potential vote in plenary on rejecting the draft. Currently, that option seems unlikely.

The Commission also has to make good on promises made after Spitzenkandidat’s assassination that there would be no repeat of that coup de grace in 2024, when a new president must be appointed.

It is early days yet but the new German government coalition’s agreement that the Greens will have first pick of the Bundesrepublik’s European Commissioner - unless the job in question is that of president - muddies the waters further.

Von der Leyen might be convinced to step up her efforts in the second half of her mandate in shoring up Spitzenkandidat so that she can put herself on a transnational list and secure reelection that way.

That is, if she wants to stay in the job and if the Council takes any notice of any of this. Both are big ‘ifs’.

Emmanuel Macron was one of the architects of Spitzenkandidat’s downfall in 2019, as the technical frontrunner for the job, the EPP’s Manfred Weber, was not the French president’s particular cup of tea. Macron was not alone in his disdain of course.

However, Macron may yet make it up to the Parliament.

Back in December during a memorial to the late Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the French president said that there is still room to improve how the Parliament functions.

“I support the idea of ​​transnational lists, making it possible to unify this European demos, as well as the creation of a right of parliamentary initiative for the European Parliament,” Macron said during a ceremony in Strasbourg.

France is well-placed to make good on these words, as it holds the rotating EU presidency until July. However, it remains to be seen if that speech was just Macron cranking up his Euro-statesmanship for a receptive audience.

The small matter of his reelection bid may also relegate any meaningful action down France’s list of priorities.

Whether the Parliament is granted more power is one aspect of the debate, whether it would do anything of note with that extra privilege is another.

Remember that MEPs have had several opportunities in recent years to re-exert their existing powers over the EU agenda. The most significant of those was in the aftermath of the Spitzenkandidat betrayal during von der Leyen’s confirmation vote.

The president narrowly scraped by with a cushion of just nine votes, even after the hemicycle’s lawmakers had - rightfully - ranted and raved about how the appointment had been made behind closed doors in the Council.

So far, the democratic exercise known as the Conference on the Future of Europe has gone about its work to little fanfare and very little tangible outcome, but it at the very least shows there is some appetite for changing how the EU does its business.

The Parliament may have to wait a while for extra power but it is not inconceivable that it will be included in the next round of major reforms. Just when that might be is anybody’s guess.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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