Empowering the European Parliament: a greener, more European way out of the European crises?

Viviane Gravey |

Of the four main European Institutions,[1] the European Parliament (EP) has most struggled to be heard on the recent crises affecting Europe (monetary, economic, social, environmental…).[2] At a time when the European project is at great risk, and when European leaders struggle to define a common European interest, it is perhaps time to turn to the EP, and to give more powers to the only directly elected institution at EU level. After all, the EP is conventionally presented[3] as less bound by national interests, and in certain policy areas such as environmental policy, social justice or civil liberties, as being more ambitious than the Council of Ministers. Hence empowering the European Parliament could be a way of determining a common European interest and alternative solutions to the European crises than those currently supported by the European Commission and the European Council.

But all of these speculations rest on one key assumption: that we know how a stronger European Parliament would behave. More precisely, that it would rise above national interests and deliver a greener EU that is more socially-inclusive and respectful of civil liberties. But would the European Parliament necessarily behave like that? In this blog post, I argue that before granting yet more power to the European Parliament, we need to analyse what impact new powers have had on the EP in the past.  I argue that we cannot always expect the European Parliament to be more liberal and greener than the rest of the institutions. But even though the EP is not green by default, including the EP in policy discussions yields interesting outcomes, opening the way for an alternative take on the different crises to be aired at EU level. I build this argument based on a paper I presented at the 16th UACES Student Forum conference held at Queen’s University Belfast last week, as well as on the other papers on our panel on the EP as an actor, by Martin Wirtz and Ching-Yi Chen.

There is a growing literature which investigates whether greater power means the EP’s more radical policy positions (greener, more attentive to civil liberties etc.) gain greater clout at EU level, or whether the EP changes positions once granted further powers, becoming a tame team player. Work by Burns & Carter on the environment or by Ripoll Servent on civil liberties and trade [4] tend to stress that the EP is losing its unique voice as it gets more powerful. To a certain extent, our discussions in Belfast confirmed this finding. Thus,  by looking at the recent 2013 CAP reform, Martin Wirtz showed in his paper that MEPs are not necessarily impervious to national interests — when distributed costs among member states are clear, national voting patterns can emerge. This raises doubts as to whether the EP could be better at coming up with a common solution than the European Council or the Council of Ministers, if it is also bound by national interests in situations with clearly distributed costs. Not only is it doubtful that the EP would propose a more “European” solution, it is also doubtful that it would propose a greener one. Hence in my paper on greening in the latest CAP reform I explain how the European Parliament, working together with the Council of Ministers, hollowed out the Commission’s flagship greening initiative, the Green Payment.

These two cases offer a clear warning to people keen to pin their hopes on the European Parliament. But we should not take these cases to mean that we can expect nothing new or different from the Parliament compared to what the other institutions would produce. For example, our discussions in Belfast shed light on two key characteristics of the EP’s actions: the EP can be unpredictable and it can be increasingly independent. First, Ching-Yi Chen’s paper on ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, is a perfect example of the EP’s unpredictability. As directly elected politicians, MEPs can be more easily swayed by citizens’ mobilisation than the rest of Brussels. In the case of ACTA, civil protest in Central and Eastern Member States served to shed light on the negative impacts ACTA would have on the rights of internet users. This helped foster opposition to ACTA among left wing parties in the EP, as well as to split the main right wing group, leading the EP to reject ACTA. The shadow of ACTA’s rejection still hangs over the current discussion within the EP about TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently discussed with the US government – which contrary to ACTA could have strong environmental consequences – making other EU actors as well as the EP leadership very wary of how a vote on TTIP would go. Second, my paper on the CAP reform puts forward the argument that the EP did not simply weaken the Commission’s green agenda, it proposed and fostered an alternative path to greening the CAP – through stronger voluntary payments – a clear sign of the EP following its own independent path.

To conclude, looking back at the effects of recent changes to the EP power, it is far from certain that  further empowering the European Parliament would give way to a more “European” and greener response to the different crises shaking the EU. The EP is not always impervious to national interests, nor is it necessarily greener. But empowering the EP nevertheless shakes up discussions in Brussels, giving voice to an unpredictable and increasingly independent actor.

[1] The European Parliament, European Commission, Council of the European Union (ex. Council of Ministers) and the European Council.

[2] As illustrated by Angelos Loukakis’s paper on discussions on the Greek crisis and the EP’s failure to reply to the European Commission’s 2015 Work Programme, even though the programme contained some highly contested measures regarding environmental policy.

[3] Indeed a previous post on this blog presents a short overview of the academic debate on the question.

[4] See for example Neil Carter & Charlotte Burns’ project “Is the European Parliament an Environmental Champion?” and, on trade and civil liberties, the work of Ariadna Ripoll Servent.