Parliament piles up tools to turn democratic deficit into surplus

Klaus Welle in the EP3.jpg

In a move to tackle a legitimacy crisis fuelled by the eurozone troubles, the European Parliament is looking to the Lisbon Treaty to identify ways to counter Euroscepticism and inject more energy into European democracy.

Speaking at a think-tank gathering in Brussels on Wednesday (26 June), European Parliament Secretary-General Klaus Welle said it was time to stop talking about the democratic deficit and point to the ‘surplus’ of the EU system.

An advantage that was strengthened by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 allows MEPs to have the last word on international agreements and the selection of the European Commission president.

“MEPs have much more space to take their own decision, take their own responsibility and follow their own conscience,” he said, contending that a permanent negotiating system with the the Council and the Commission does not prejudge the outcome of legislation. 

National parliaments’ room for manoeuvre is instead limited by their own executive, said Welle, whose role is administrative and not political.

‘Rescue Union’ derailed legitimacy

However, the eurozone crisis has disrupted the democratic balance by creating de facto a parallel union that Welle calls the ‘Rescue Union,’ a situation that needs redressing, he insisted.

“We have a new business model in the EU,” he said, explaining that the rescue operations put in place by the heads of state and government to tackle the banking and sovereign debt crisis have made people realise that decisions on their well-being are taken in Brussels, but not without causing a few problem of legitimacy.

“For reasons of necessity a second union has been established, which does not fuel the same democratic criteria and raising issues of democratic legitimacy,” said the Parliamentary secretary-general, stressing that inter-governmentalism has derailed and member states have not "resisted the temptation from time to time to pre-decide on legislation."

Polls show citizens feel increasingly puzzled by the way EU decisions affect their lives. Recent Eurobarometer, Gallup and Pew surveys show that support for the EU has declined sharply. Part of this stems from the harsh economic crisis of 2008 which has had a severe impact on social and economic living conditions of Europeans, but also from the perceived division of labour between Brussels and the European capitals.

The parallel Lisbon and 'Rescue' unions, the official argued, have posed a triple problem of expertise, efficiency and legitimacy. Decisions are basically taken by a few member states, without a sound impact assessment and sometimes are difficult to implement. The example of EU ministers deciding to make small savers pay for the Cyprus bailout and not wanting to take responsibility for their proposals showed the limits of the ‘rescue union.’

Seven  untapped ‘Lisbon’ tools

To restore confidence and inject new oxygen in the democratic machine, there is no need to change the treaties before the end of this legislature, Welle said.

“There is still enormous untapped potential under the Lisbon Treaty that could be exploited,” he said.

The election of the European Commission president also could play a role in boosting awareness. EU leaders will have to choose the next Commission president taking into account the results of the EU Parliament elections.

More needs to be done to strengthen the common elements of the electoral law, Welle said. Differing closing hours at polling stations and different standards for nomination procedures in member states are areas that need change, he said.

Another area that needs further development is scrutiny. Citing the differences between the EU and United States, Welle said Brussels must upgrade its work on legislative performance. The European Court of Auditors must go to member states and check whether legislation and spending programmes are working on the ground.

“We need a closer cooperation with the Court of Auditors,” added Welle, saying the equivalent US government accountability office puts two-thirds of its resources of legislative performance and only one-third on the legality of payments.

“The European Court of Auditors is now shifting from the focus on the legality of payment to what they call performance audit. It is up to the Parliament to make better use of those audits and make them available before legislation and spending programme are reviewed,” he explained.

To gather expertise on the ground and boost efficiency and democratic legitimacy, Welle singled out a parliamentary partnership, not only with national parliaments but also with the EU consultative bodies – the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee.

“They have the expertise on how legislation is hitting the ground,” he said.

The same is true with national parliaments, which have to monitor more closely what is happening in the council, while the European Parliament decisions taken an EU level.

“We need to strengthen our expert-to-expert relationship of members in committee,” he said. Up to the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, boosting the role of national parliaments, much of the EU-related work was relegated to the European affairs committee.

To boost research and expertise on complex dossiers, the Parliament is shifting resources to improve the management of plenary and committee sessions – more than €20 million can be saved yearly in translation and interpretation, he said.

Also, the yearly and multi-annual programmes should be discussed and agreed by the three institutions, said Welle, adding that the Commission has taken leadership so far, ignoring what is written in the Treaty.

“We don’t need a treaty change, we can start right now and address the concern of the citizens and increase the legitimacy of the system, at a time where the EU is taking more decisions that have an impact on citizens’ daily lives,” Welle said.

The 2014 European elections will be the first to be held under the Lisbon Treaty, which sought to enhance the role of citizens as political actors in the EU.

The Lisbon Treaty also strengthens the powers of the European Parliament, consolidating its role as co-legislator and giving it additional responsibility: it elects the president of the Commission on the basis of a nomination by the European Council, taking into account the results of the European elections (Article 17.7 of the Treaty on European Union).

  • 22-25 May 2014: European elections


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