The state of the European Union address must become a real democratic exercise. And that requires an assertive European Parliament prepared to hold the Commission president to account, writes Sophie In’t Veld.
Sophie In’t Veld is a Dutch MEP in the Renew Europe group.
This week, all eyes will be on Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as she delivers her state of the European Union address to the European Parliament. But will the pressure also be on Europe’s top executive? After all, it is the European Parliament that she has to answer to. Or is it?
In a democracy, it is very healthy for the executive to be wary of facing the parliament that checks its power. This wariness seems to be largely absent whenever von der Leyen addresses the hemicycle. Mrs von der Leyen usually draws plaudits with her big ambitious plans for Europe. And rightly so.
She deserves praise for thinking big and speaking boldly. The praise however, should go hand in hand with attention for her failings. Some of which merit serious parliamentary pressure. Credible parliamentary pressure.
There is a lot going on in the EU that is cause for alarm. The state of the EU’s legal order is calamitous. Rule of Law problems in Poland and Hungary have spiralled out of control. A number of member states follow in their slipstream, having witnessed the lacklustre enforcement by the European Commission.
Enforcement is so weak, that it has long passed the threshold of dereliction of duty. The duty to uphold the EU treaties.
It is up to the European Parliament to not only call out the Commission on this dereliction of duty, but to also act on it. Parliament has lacked the will to act for too long now. With time, it has also lost the muscle memory to do so.
Yes, it’s scary to block EU funds or threaten a Commission with a motion of no confidence, but these things should be credible options in a democracy. Around the world, democratic governments lose the confidence of parliaments all the time. Yet, the sun still rises in the morning, and life goes on.
The mid-term point offers a new chance for Parliament. Instead of making the same mistake of relinquishing powers for the sake of top jobs and cementing the status quo, it should make a fresh start.
Reconquer some territory with the powers it has. If a Parliament does not use the powers it has, however limited they are, it will forget how to use them at all. That is when it loses all credibility and becomes a moot parliament. This would be a disaster for Europe.
The European Council is sucking up all the power and has drawn the European Commission into its orbit. As long as this imbalance continues, Europe is going nowhere. Because however much power the Council wields, it remains the place where plans and ideas go to die.
This is bad news for the European Commission’s big plans addressing the equally big challenges that Europe faces. The European Green Deal is such a landmark plan, that risks being pulverised in the grinding wheels of a do-nothing European Council. Just as so many initiatives have before.
From regulating migration to foreign policy and defence, to shaping an economic agenda for the 21st century. Mrs Von der Leyen should recognise this reality and rebuild the bond between Parliament and Commission. And if not, Parliament should command her to.
The state of the European Union address must become more than just a political tradition. It has to also become a real democratic exercise. Only the European Parliament can make that happen, by holding the Commission President to account.
The fate of the EU rests in a balance of power between the institutions. And Parliament needs to throw its weight around in order to restore that balance.