On 11 February 2010, the European Parliament – with 378 MEPs against and only 196 for – struck down the interim Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications [SWIFT] agreement already negotiated between the EU and the U.S. on the transfer of citizens' financial data to prevent terrorist attacks.
"The US Administration may have wrongly thought they could deal with the European Parliament like Gulliver with the Lilliputians,” said European Parliament Member Martin Schulz, now President of the legislative body. The vote appeared to be a ‘coming of age’ moment for the Parliament, further evidence of its dramatic evolution since the time when it was little more than a multi-lingual talk shop. Striking down the SWIFT agreement reflected the European Parliament’s long-held concerns about data privacy, but it also served to prove a larger point: the new powers granted in the Lisbon Treaty would be used, and the European Parliament would be a force to be reckoned with.
The European Parliament has come a long way since its creation as the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community in September 1952. Initially, it possessed only negligible supervisory powers. That remained the case when, following the creation of the European Economic Community and EURATOM, the Common Assembly expanded from 78 to 142 members. In March 1958, it met for the first time as the European Parliamentary Assembly, and changed its name to the European Parliament in 1962.
Meaningful changes to the role and influence of the European Parliament began in earnest in the 1970. Successive enlargements and inter-governmental treaties in the last forty years led to a rise in the number of members from 198 members in 1973 (after the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined), to 518 in 1986 (after Greece, Spain and Portugal became members), and culminating in a planned 751 MEPs for the next elections in 2014. Moreover, the switch to direct universal suffrage to select MEPs, from 1979 onwards, has provided increased legitimacy.
Finally, the legislature eventually overcame the mutually reinforcing weakness that had plagued it for many years. As The Economist pointed out in 2001, the European Parliament lacked credibility since it had no power; and since it had no credibility, it was difficult to gain power. The European Parliament gradually assumed more significant responsibilities, starting with extended budgetary powers following treaties in 1970 and 1975, and the 1986 Single European Act which required the agreement of the legislature for EU enlargement. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, however, marked a significant turning point, by establishing the co-decision procedure – whereby the Commission proposes legislation, which then needs the approval of both the Council and the Parliament in certain areas. The later Treaties of Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2001) extended the scope of the co-decision procedure and placed the Parliament on nearly equal footing with the Council.
The Lisbon Treaty, which came into force on 1 December 2009, significantly expanded the authority of the European Parliament. Indeed, thanks to Lisbon, forty new areas (including energy policy, the objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy or the internal market) came under the purview of the co-decision mechanism, now renamed the “ordinary legislative procedure,” and firmly placed the body on equal footing with the Council. While some areas still remain outside of the remit of this mechanism, such as competition policy, the European Parliament also obtained the right to approve the EU’s seven-year budget, with the next phase covering 2014 to 2020.
The European Commission now has to treat member states and the European Parliament equally in regard to access to information, which will mean that MEPs will have access to documentation on the Commission’s meetings with national experts. In addition, Lisbon established more accountability for the Commission to the European Parliament. This included requiring a more transparent procedure for nominating special representatives and ambassadors, and holding ‘Question Hour’ with Commissioners during plenary sessions. Under Lisbon, the European Parliament also gained the power to ask the Commission to propose and establish new rules and laws. If the Parliament calls on the Commission to legislate on an issue, the latter institution must respond with a concrete follow up within three months, and it has a year to submit a specific proposal to the Parliament.
Finally, the Treaty also specifically extended the influence of the European Parliament in the realm of the EU’s external relations. Lisbon mandated that the European Parliament needed to give its consent for any international treaty, or trade and development cooperation agreement on behalf of the Union. It also established growing budgetary powers, with a direct impact on the Common Security and Defense Policy, since the parliament has to approve the costs of every foreign police mission.
Even before 2009, the European Parliament would on occasion flex its muscles. It compelled Jacques Santer and the other members of the European Commission to resign in 1999, over allegations of corruption. After the Lisbon Treaty the European Parliament jumped on opportunities to use its new clout. As mentioned above, the Parliament in February 2010 killed the SWIFT bank-data compromise previously agreed to by the U.S. and the EU member states. Five months later, however, it did vote in favor of a revised SWIFT deal that limited the amount of bulk data that could be sent to the U.S., and set a role for Europol in overseeing the transfer process.
Moreover, during the 2010 negotiations over the creation of the European External Action Service [EEAS], the Parliament relied on its control of the budget to shape the contours of the future diplomatic corps. It insisted, in particular, on establishing an EEAS that would be communitarian in nature, rather than strictly subordinated to member-states, and where politically accountable deputies, when High Representative Catherine Ashton was unavailable, would brief the Parliament rather than unelected officials. In April 2010, the Parliament opened its first Liaison Office in Washington to strengthen its international visibility and ties with the US Congress. Since then, the Liaison Office has been busy focusing on building contacts between both institutions and promoting long-term joint legislative planning. Finally, in June 2012, the European Parliament used for the first time its new power to delay a free trade agreement between Japan and the EU because of concerns over trade barriers.
While the Lisbon Treaty has made the European Parliament more powerful, it has yet to fully emerge from the shadows of the European Council and Commission. Without the right of legislative initiative, the Parliament has been restrained in formulating its own approach to resolving the Eurozone crisis. The Parliament did approve several key pieces of legislation that are at the heart of the EU’s response to the economic turmoil, such as assenting in March 2011, to the establishment of the European Stability Mechanism, and agreeing with the Council on the so-called “Six Pack” of economic governance legislation. But, the Parliament was completely bypassed when it came to the Fiscal Compact signed in March 2012 by 25 EU member states, since the accord is considered an intergovernmental agreement as opposed to an EU law.
European leaders and MEPs across the political spectrum have called for more powers in inter-institutional affairs. Indeed, both Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for increasing the Parliament’s oversight of the Council and the Commission, as the EU gropes towards deeper integration. President Martin Schulz also decried the closed-door negotiations and lack of democratic transparency of European summit conferences, even blaming the exclusion of the Parliament as an explanation for the negative perception of the EU among citizens.
Trust in the European Parliament, along with other EU institutions, has waned significantly in the last two years according to the Eurobarometer – from 50% approval in 2009 down to 41% in 2011. The Parliament, in addition, has struggled to inspire European voters, as evidenced by the ever dropping turnout – from 63% in 1979, to 56.8% in 1994, to a low of 43% in the most recent vote in 2009. Recent scandals, including the abuses of expenses by MEPs or MEPs accepting payments in exchange for tabling amendments on legislation, hardly served the reputation of the Parliament. Although it is the only directly elected European institution, the European Parliament has yet to capture the interest and imagination of the public. As The Economist points out, the Parliament specializes in a form of politics lacking in drama, where most of the action takes place in committee rooms, not the debating chamber. The party structure, where MEPs are divided, not according to national blocks, but by loose ideological groups, dampens open conflict and, by consequence, minimizes newspaper headlines. Moreover, multi-lingual debates rarely make for good spectator’s sport.
In the longer term, the challenge for the European Parliament will be to strengthen its role in the governance of the European Union and effectively convince a greater number among Europe’s 500 million citizens that it is indeed the people’s house and at the core of Europe’s democratic legitimacy. Just how effectively that case has been made will become clear in 2014, when the next European parliamentary elections take place.