Worries mount as European Parliament sits idle

The European Parliament's workload has dropped since the new Commission took office. [Botond Horvath/Shutterstock]

EXCLUSIVE / The European Parliament’s legislative vacuum is frustrating both national and European politicians. While MEPs are forced to vote on hollow resolutions, France has lodged a complaint with the President Martin Schulz. EURACTIV France reports

There is a growing air of dissatisfaction among members of the European Parliament, whose patience is being tried by the Commission’s slow legislative agenda.

Since the European elections in May 2014, MEPs have felt deprived of work. They have voted on few binding texts, and the European executive has been very slow to produce new legislative proposals. The situation has pushed politicians to use their only weapon of protest: the European resolution. These non-binding votes have multiplied in recent months.

Pushed to passing

“MEPs are passing resolutions calling on the European Commission to give them texts to vote on,” one amused source in the European Parliament said.

During the first month of the Commission’s mandate, in November 2014, the plenary voted on 16 non legislative acts, against only five in the first month of the Barroso Commission in February 2010.

On the other hand, the number of votes taking place under the co-decision procedure has risen. “But that is down to the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which extended the scope of co-decision to make it the normal legislative procedure.”

“And of these votes, many of the proposals came from the previous Commission,” said Charles de Marcilly from the Robert Schuman Foundation. “Hence the justified impression that the MEPs have less work,” he added. “What is more, many of the proposals they have adopted are not very politically important.”

>> Read: Parliament urges Commission to submit new alcohol strategy

The European alcohol strategy is a victim of the current legislative lethargy. The previous strategy expired in 2013, but MEPs, tired of waiting for the Commission’s new proposals, adopted a resolution in March calling on the executive to work faster.

Unique legislative initiative

The European Commission, the only EU institution with the power of legislative initiative, cleared out the waiting list of directive and regulation proposals as it prepared its 2015 work programme. This was part of the policy of “better regulation”, whose aim was to streamline the institutions’ workload and brush the less important subjects to one side.

Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans jettisoned 80 of the 450 legislative proposals under review, a move contested by the Parliament, who heavily criticised the abandonment of the circular economy and air quality packages.

>> Read: Commission plans to ditch circular economy and air pollution rules

But between the slimmed-down work programme and the Commission’s slow progress, the Parliament has been left twiddling its thumbs.

“The texts on the Energy Union and the Digital Single Market strategy have been published, but they contain little legislative material,” Charles de Marcilly said. “Nothing for the MEPs to dig their teeth into.”

“The point is not necessarily to occupy the MEPs at all costs,” French S&D group member Virginie Rozière said. “But politically it is shocking, and in some ways it is a negation of the European project.”

“It is a populist idea that the European Union is a “standardising machine” that must be slowed down. Because the point of the European construction is to have common rules. And the single market is far from complete!” explained the Radical Left Party member.

Return of an intergovernmental system?

Since the presentation of his political programme in July 2014, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had promised to completely rework the authorisation system for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which has been a particularly divisive issue between member states for years.

>> Read: Commission prepares minimal reform of GMO imports

In April, the Commission proposed a compromise that angered all parties by allowing member states to choose whether or not to accept GMOs on a national level. “This is not even a legislative proposal like we were promised, and it clearly pushes us back towards an intergovernmental system,” Virginie Rozière said.

French concerns over parliamentary activity… in Strasbourg

The French government is also unhappy with the European Parliament’s torpor, but for another reason: the Strasbourg plenary sessions appear to be becoming briefer, allowing less time for important debates.

EURACTIV has seen a letter from Harlem Désir to Parliament President Martin Schulz, in which the French Secretary of State for European Affairs expressed his concern that “Since July 2014, plenary sessions have been finishing at midday on Thursday, debates on human rights violations have been taking place on Thursday mornings, and no longer continuing in the afternoon. This goes against the practice established since 2000.”

For the French government, the shortening of the plenary sessions “cannot be attributed to the reduced parliamentary activity linked to the establishment of the institutions”, because the number of “mini-sessions” held in Brussels has risen.

>> Read: Parliament despondent after failure of Luxleaks committee

In his letter, the former member of the European Parliament drew Martin Schulz’ attention to the delicate question of the 2016 agenda, whose scheduled adoption by the Conference of the Presidents on 23 April was postponed due to the emergency Council summit. The large increase in “green weeks”, during which the MEPs are sent back to their constituencies, has also raised questions over the powers of the European Parliament.

“I cannot remember ever having had so few votes, whether in Strasbourg or in Brussels,” a European Parliament source told EURACTIV. “The votes scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday in Strasbourg are sometimes pushed to Thursday to stop the MEPs leaving Parliament on Wednesday evening, and the Brussels mini sessions often have no votes on the agenda!”

But the wheels of legislation could soon start turning again for the work-starved lawmakers. The European Commission’s legislative proposal on the Single Digital Market, due to be presented on 6 May, will contain the much anticipated copyright reforms that will surely spark lively debate in the hemicycle.

>> Read: Copyright reform or cultural nightmare?

Jean-Claude Juncker has given Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans the task of lightening the administrative and legislative load of the EU. Frans Timmermans examined 450 bills created by the previous Commission, and came up with a list of 80 proposals to be changed or scrapped.

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