Does the European Parliament “make a difference”?

Viviane Gravey |

Yesterday morning on BBC radio 4 Prof Michael Sandel animated an episode of the Public Philosopher on the thorny issue of “Why vote?” in the context of Thursday’s local and European elections.  The episode opened with Sandel asking members of the public why they would not vote in the forthcoming election. Expecting answers based on apathy (I’d rather go to the pub) or distrust (they’re all liars), I was really surprised when one member of the public explained that after studying EU law last year, and “having learned extensively” how the European Parliament did not make a difference, she simply did not see the point in voting.

This is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, it goes against a still very common assumption that an increased knowledge about Europe will lead to greater support for the European integration process and recognition of the work done by the European Parliament. Indeed, parties have been rebuked for not putting enough “Europe” in their European campaign, not explaining enough what Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) do, and why different parties would contribute to different European policies.  The Nick v. Nigel debates in the UK back in April showed that more knowledge on Europe could become available to the public, but was unlikely to reverse decades of no or misinformation. Thus this remark was a good reminder that increased knowledge does not automatically mean increased support – it simply makes for more informed citizens, making more informed decisions.

Second, that decision may very well be that the EP does not “make a difference”. Indeed, as the tongue-in-cheek Old Continent Agency campaign argued, the EU “is not the next super hero”, voting for the EP would not end the war in Syria, dictatorships in Africa etc… The EU is a system of multi-level governance and what this simply means is that different levels – cities, regions, states, EU – have different responsibilities. Further, the EU has a very small budget (about 1% of EU GDP, while national budgets account for about 44% of EU GDP on average. This means the EU does not have much funding available for redistributive policies, benefits or subventions. But does this mean that the EU does nothing? Obviously not. The EU has major competences in a great number of major policy areas: to name but a few, the EU is negotiating a free-trade  agreement with the US, is leading the international fight on climate change, manages the Common Agricultural Policy and has a growing voice on Internet neutrality, and online protection of private data.

You may or may not agree with current EU policies on each of these issues. But if you care about any of these issues – or any other on which the EU has competence, then you should care about which MEPs Britain will send to Brussels and Strasbourg on Thursday. On each of these issues a vote in the European Parliament is required — over the last 25 years the legislative power of the European Parliament have grown enormously, from being a consultative body to becoming a genuine co-legislator. This means that on most EU policies the Council and EP both hold a veto right on policy.

But the European Parliament will not necessarily make the difference you would want it to make. For example, on the recent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, certain NGOs pointed out that the EP watered down the environmental provisions proposed by the Commission. As we have shown in a previous post, the European Parliament cannot be considered “green by default”. The same can be said about all other type of political adjectives: conservative, socialist, right, left-wing, liberal etc. – without its MEPs the European Parliament is an empty shell. The political colour of the European Parliament depends on the MEPs sent to Brussels. Which MEPs are sent depends on how European citizens vote in their respective countries. It’s really as simple as that.