The accountability of the European Commission to the directly elected Parliament is at a low point in history, and Parliament’s current leadership is completely neglecting its scrutiny role. It is time for a change, writes Sophie In’t Veld.
Sophie In’t Veld is a Dutch MEP in the Renew Europe group.
‘The Commission, as a body, shall be responsible to the European Parliament’, says Article 17.8 of the Treaty on European Union. Both Commission and Parliament seem to have forgotten the task of democratic control falls upon the European Parliament. It is therefore a treaty-bound obligation, not optional.
The European Parliament must regain a collective sense of its democratic duty and take back control. Accountability is not a tick-box exercise. Holding the executive branch to account is an active occupation.
As the European Union evolves, the European Commission has obtained more powers to act. This is a good thing. Given the challenges facing Europe, a forceful European Commission is in the interest of the EU’s citizens.
With more power however, comes a greater need for democratic checks on power. Instead, the opposite is true. The Parliament’s leadership, notably the ‘Conference of Presidents’ made up of the Parliament’s president and the leaders of the political groups, has in fact dialled down the scrutiny level.
Instead of facing the heat of a plenary debate, the Commission President is prepped during cosy in camera tête-à-têtes with the Conference of Presidents. This blurs the separation of powers. Furthermore, the inter-institutional agreement foreseeing regular and rigorous scrutiny of Commissioners in the parliamentary committees is waning. In any serious parliamentary democracy, this would be unacceptable.
Soon, we will be halfway through the current parliamentary term. Parliament will vote on a new President, and I expect her or him to make it a priority to hold the European Commission to account and to restore the separation of powers.
The first order of business should be a dedicated mid-term scrutiny debate with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. We must look closely at the commitments Mrs Von der Leyen made in exchange for the confidence vote back in 2019.
Then, a demand must be issued that the Commission president be available for each plenary session of the European Parliament and that other Commissioners shall appear regularly before parliamentary committees to answer questions.
Written parliamentary questions, as important tools for parliamentary oversight, shall receive complete, meaningful and timely replies. The current systematic destruction of important correspondence, as shown in recent revelations, must stop. Lest we forget, transparency is key to democratic scrutiny.
A vote of confidence is not a blank cheque from the Parliament to the Commission; it is the beginning of a relationship, in which the Commission has to view its accountability to the elected representatives of the EU citizens as its prime duty. Likewise, the elected representation has a duty to enforce this accountability.
Parliament has strong scrutiny powers, but as the saying goes: use it, or lose it. A healthy democratic relationship will only flourish if the European Parliament starts flexing its muscle again. If it remains passive, then soon there will be no credible democratic relationship at all between the two institutions.
An intergovernmental axis between member states’ governments and Commission has replaced the traditional bond between the two supranational “community” bodies; Commission and Parliament.
The European Commission has become subservient to the intergovernmental order. The current Commission does not act upon excesses from member state governments against their European obligations.
In doing so, it has effectively ceased to enforce EU law, in order to avoid conflicts with national governments. Dieselgate was one of many scandals, resulting from this laissez-faire attitude.
For nearly a year now, the European Commission has itself even refused to follow European law, in the pursuit of avoiding conflicts, most strikingly by not taking those actions demanded by the Parliament in the current rule of law crisis. It all adds up to a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the European Commission.
The current status quo has further blurred the lines of the already vague separation of powers in the European Union. There is no separation of powers when the Commission backs down from national governments and refuses to defend the rule of law.
The EU may be a ‘sui generis’ hybrid entity, but that does not mean the elementary principles of democracy, such as separation of powers, accountability, transparency, checks and balances, do not apply. It is up to the directly elected Parliament to make these principles a reality, starting with addressing the raging accountability crisis.
Accountability is meaningful only if there are political consequences in case of non-performance or grave errors. This is a normal and healthy element of democracy; the very essence of “checks and balances”.
Observing strong accountability is especially important when the executive wields as much power as the Commission does. President Von der Leyen though, seems utterly confident that there will be no serious consequences when her Commission fails on anything.
She may well be right. If the accountability mechanism does not work anymore, power goes unchecked and democracy is broken.
The European Parliament regularly refers to the Venice Commission, a body of constitutional experts, to run a health check on democracy and the rule of law in member states.
Maybe it is time for a Venice Commission analysis of democracy at the EU institutional level. It could be invited to report on the separation of powers, on accountability and on checks and balances within the institutional set-up and functioning of EU democracy.
In any case, Parliament should not waste time, and reclaim lost territory by making full use of its existing powers and prerogatives.
The upcoming mid-term moment is an opportunity to start the restoration of the trias politica and parliamentary democracy. Let us begin and strengthen Europe in the process.