It’s two years since the 2019 European Election, marking the start of this 9th term of the European Parliament. And for a while I have had this nagging feeling that something is not right about the Parliament in this term. So I will have a go at addressing this problem in the best way I know – to write a blog post about it. What follows here are rough and perhaps incoherent thoughts, but this is what’s on my mind. If I am wondering about this I presume there will be others musing about it too. Let’s collaboratively work out what is happening, and what to do about it.
First to the result of the EP election itself. This marked departure for the European Parliament in two ways. First, the share of the seats for the two main political groups – EPP and S&D – dropped sufficiently to now mean three groups (rather than the two before – see the historical evolution on P. 4 of this PDF) are needed to make a majority – de facto we have seen this is most often EPP – Renew (ex-ALDE) – S&D. This has meant getting anything done is harder, and formed a sort of stodgy centre in the European Parliament. Second, 58% of the MEPs were new – an enormous turnover. This is up from 48.5% in the previous term. These changes have made work in the European Parliament harder.
Second, the new EP term got off to a bad start. Successful efforts by the European Council to bulldozer Ursula von der Leyen through as President of the European Commission (disregarding the Spitzenkandidat system) contrary to the initial wishes of the European Parliament (that would have favoured Manfred Weber, or even Frans Timmermans or Margrethe Vestager) weakened the EP vis à vis the Commission. Von der Leyen sees herself as being more at the service of the Council, and especially France (Macron pushed for her) and Germany (CDU is her party, Merkel her guide), than answerable to the European Parliament.
Third, the new leadership of the political groups has remained unbalanced as a result of the imposition of von der Leyen. Weber continues to lead the EPP Group but has no real project in that position, and the group was anyway weakened after losing 34 seats at the 2019 election. Ongoing wrangles about the position of Fidesz in the EPP Party and Group rumbled on until spring 2021 and Weber was loathe to take any categoric position on this. S&D replaced the grey Udo Bullmann with Iratxe García but she has not been able to turn around the fortunes of a group that has seen its fortunes slip for more than a decade. President of the EP David Sassoli is from the S&D but has played his role more along the lines of EP Presidents pre-Schulz – to not seek to lead the Parliament, but to be more a chair of the assembly.
Renew Europe were the supposed big winners of the 2019 election, but the communicative Guy Verhofstadt was eased out of a leading role in the group, to be replaced by the more bureaucratic Dacian Cioloș. The whole will-he-or-won’t-he from Macron about allowing his MEPs to join the group continues to cast a long shadow – it’s as if the group cannot really act unless it has the OK of the Élysée. The Greens-EFA kept their leadership duo but it seems Philippe Lamberts and Ska Keller do not have their hearts in EP work to the same extent this term as they did the past one, and the Greens failed to find an adequate role for Bas Eickhout in the new EP. The ECR Group, shorn of its British MEPs, has struggled to find a new role. The Left remains small and weak. And the iD group is like an unruly uncle that everyone else would rather ignore. Party-politically the position is hence not simple.
Fourth, how von der Leyen is as a character, and how she has run her College of Commissioners, has not been to the benefit of the European Parliament. A prodigious worker, rather than a team player, and not someone who has ever enjoyed parliamentary debate or networking in the way her predecessor Juncker did, von der Leyen has even kept her Commissioners on a tight leash, let alone trying to build bridges to the EP. Von der Leyen might pay lip service to the European Parliament, but sees neither the need nor the volition to take it seriously. The party politics does not help either – the weakened EPP had a struggle to even keep the President of the European Commission job and so EPP MEPs are loathe to criticise the Commission now, with Weber and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee David McAllister among the most risk averse in that respect. It seems that the EPP sees criticism of the Commission as a criticism of the whole EU construct – a very defensive approach.
These party political and leadership dynamics (my third and fourth points) have prevented the European Parliament doing what I would call performative scrutiny of Commission and Council – making some parliamentary drama out of an issue, some firebrand speeches, some uncomfortable moments for Commissioners or national Ministers. The recent non-scrutiny of the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is the most obvious example of this. The European Parliament repeated over and over that it needed time for scrutiny but ultimately managed to generate no moment of tension or controversy, and managed to achieve no concrete win over the Commission on TCA oversight.
It is if the delicate dance that there has been between between institutions in the past, where the EP is dancing to a more urgent beat than the others, but falls into step at the end, has now been dulled into oblivion. Today the EP dances the tedious ballad from the start, and does so behind closed doors where no one is watching, too nervous that it would step on a Commissioner’s toe were it to dance too fast or too publicly.
And then to the fifth point: COVID. This has had an impact perhaps even more destructive on this European Parliament than anything else. At the very least it has prevented the European Parliament working normally, and also prevented the European Parliament’s buildings in Brussels being the sort of hub of the EU institutions’ political debate and gossip that they have been in the past. The European Parliament has found a way to make the formal political stuff work online quite effectively, but e-participation has changed how the Parliament works and wields its influence, and at the very least has slowed down the EP. Add that to the huge percentage of new MEPs (my first point above), and it feels like this EP term still has not really started.
COVID has also had a direct impact on what the EU institutions actually do – with a focus on coordination of procurement of vaccines and movement controls things that the institutions have never had to deal with before to this extent, and areas where fast intervention of the Commission won out over the time consuming involvement of the EP (further compounded by von der Leyen’s approach – my fourth point). Even the big step forward for the EU – the financial perspectives agreed in 2020 – are not an issue where the European Parliament can ever wield major influence.
So those are the circumstances to explain what is going on.
But what should the European Parliament actually do about any of this?
The EP needs to find the guts to put the other institutions – especially the Commission, but to some extent the Council as well – under pressure once more. What do European citizens want from a Digital COVID Certificate? How should the European Green Deal money be spent? What’s the future for digital services and digital taxation? For the circular economy? What about 101 other issues that need addressing and have been languishing in the EU for the past decade?
Which of these issues are going to achieve any sort of cut through for the European Parliament? I don’t know. But which of us could have known a possible veggie burger ban would be the issue in Common Agricultural Policy reform? Try everything, and keep on trying, and work out what sticks. Communicate about all of it, and if that is done with honesty and gusto by the individual MEPs, then some people will give credit where credit is due. Traditional media not interested? Work with bloggers or Youtubers or experts or whoever else thinks an issue is interesting and worth working on, and employ good communication people in each MEP’s office to allow all MEPs to do this.
Above all the European Parliament has to get back to what it is good at in the remaining three years of the term: legislative work on the dossiers that will now start going through the Ordinary Legislative Procedure, and scrutiny of the other institutions. The responsibility for that lies with each and every MEP, as individuals – not to bemoan what has (not) happened over the past two years, but to set to work to show the next three years can be better. MEPs would do well to start with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, and build from there: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent“.
It feels that this is a European Parliament paralysed by fear in some way. But fear is a bad advisor. So shake it off, and start now, and shape the next three years rather than being boxed in.