The EU-institutions: the European Parliament (Part II)

On July 21st 2016, we published a first article on the structure, organization and functioning of the European Parliament as part of our series dedicated to the EU-institutions. It has been a while since we last published something about the functioning of the EU-institutions, so it is high time we continue what we have started. This week’s article will thus deal with the second part of the European Parliament, i.e its attributions. I prefer apologizing right now for what I am going to write because that is very complicated. I tried to make it fun, but I gave up because the Parliament’s attributions are not fun.

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First, we need to know that the Parliament’s powers have been developed by the treaties and by interinstitutional agreements – meaning agreements between institutions. At the beginning, it merely possessed deliberation and political control powers. Nowadays, it is also part of the legislative process regarding external relations and budget matters. Its role has gained importance over the years, and we strongly believe it will continue in the coming years since the EU is facing a major trust crisis among its citizens, jeopardizing the future of the EU – and even threatening its core existence. Since the Parliament is supposed to represent the interests of the citizens, we reckon it is inevitable that it acquires more powers if we are to save the European Union.

First, let’s talk about its power of political control. Originally, it was exerted on the Commission. Nowadays, its influence is also valid regarding the Council. It possesses various means to do so: it can adopt resolutions regarding the activities of the Commission and the Council, which is a way of influencing their work. For instance, when one of these institutions adopts its yearly work program, the Parliament adopts a resolution on these programs afterwards. Unfortunately, a resolution has no legal force, meaning they are more or less opinions. Second means: it can ask questions to the Commission and the Council, either written or oral. However, since nothing is easy with the EU, do not go on thinking that asking a question does not go along with groundrules, such as the fact that the initiative must stem from a parliamentary commission, a political group or a minimum of seven MEPs. Third means: it can start legal proceedings through the European Court of Justice.

The Parliament also possesses a power of control that only applies to the Council since the Council must present a report to the Parliament after each and every meeting it holds, as well as a yearly report. As far as its powers on the sole Commission are concerned, the Parliament can make the Commissioners quit through the vote of a motion of no confidence that can only be filed by a political group or a minimum of 1/10th of the Members of the Parliament. In this scenario, a period of 72 hours from the submission of the motion is set, after which the motion must gather 2/3 of the votes. Obviously, the Parliament does not use that power very much: it happened in 2014, when the Luxleaks affair involving the at-the-time-and-still-President Jean-Claude Juncker happened. But it eventually failed, obviously: you do not make this kind of people go away that easily – and if this was not enough, we can only wonder what is! Another “power” (let’s keep that into brackets) that the Parliament has over the Commission is that it intervenes in the nomination procedure of the President and the Commissioners, and it can hence veto a nomination – however mostly in theory since the Parliament has refused one Commissioner only throughout the years (for more information, see article “The EU-institutions: the European Commission” from June 14th 2016) and the mystery still holds: how on Earth could they only refuse one candidate?! However, if the EU is to be saved, the Parliament will definitely need to use them a bit more – the citizens are rightfully angry at the EU and hence thirsty for corrupt and incompetent blood.

The budgetary power of the Parliament resides in the making and execution of the budget. It represents about €145 billion (in 2015) – it seems like a lot, but it actually represents only 1% of the wealth generated by the Member States every year. The attributions of the Parliament have spread over the years: the first treaties only granted it a consultative power. A proposition was handed by the Commission to the Parliament, which could make amendments that were not legally binding. The Council could then adopt the budget. However, the Parliament wanted to weigh in a bit more, and it was then established in the Treaty of Brussels of 1975 that the Parliament be the co-holder of the budgetary authority along with the Council.

Now, there are two types of expenditures: the compulsory expenditures (CE) and the non-compulsory expenditures (NCE). Until the Lisbon Treaty, the process related to the CE did not change: the Council adopted them. The CE were set by both the Treaties and the subsequent legal acts adopted for their implementation (the expenditures of the Common Agricultural Policy for instance result from a policy set by the Treaties, so they are compulsory). Regarding the NCE, the Parliament could give a first opinion to the Council, which could then differ and send it back to the Parliament and hence force the decision (within the limits of its envelope that is). However, this all changed with the enforcement of the Lisbon Treaty: the Parliament co-holds the budgetary power since the Council can no longer adopt a budget without the consent of the Parliament, may it be for CE or NCE.

When it comes to the implementation of the budget, the Parliament had no part at all before 1975, only the Commission and the European Court of Auditors did (in order to control the good management of the budget). This changed after that year for the Parliament was given the power to intervene and give a discharge to the Commission regarding the budget implementation. This discharge bears a political meaning because it means that the Parliament basically has to approve the Commission’s work, as well as a legal meaning because the Parliament’s decision is needed to close the accounts. This power of the Parliament is real, and we actually witnessed it for the year being, when the Parliament did not agree with the budget that it was presented with and forced the Commission to make significant modifications, especially regarding the EU competitiveness policies.

Now let’s jump to a harder part – yes, what we said about the budget was a piece of cake compared to what is coming – namely the legislative role of the Parliament. As we said in our first article about the Parliament, it does not hold the same powers as a national Parliament: it does not have the initiative power (which solely belongs to the Commission) nor does it own the power of decision on its own (it is shared with the Council). The Parliament can only give opinions that have no real legal value. What is the point you may think? I know, knowing it is as useful as knowing that pteronophobia is the fear of being tickled by feathers or that every time you lick a stamp you consume 1/10 of a calorie – no one really understands why these facts exist, but knowing it makes you interesting, so let’s see how these opinions work!

The initial legal consultation procedure set by the Treaties bears both a compulsory and an optional component. It is mandatory when it is enshrined in the treaties. If the Parliament’s opinion has not been asked for, it can go to the Court of Justice and ask for the annulment of the act. The optional consultation is valid in any other case (that is those not imposed by the treaties), it is voluntary and the Court of Justice cannot be consulted. The modalities within the Parliament regarding a compulsory consultation procedure are set by the treaties as well, and there are four main stages: the Commission’s proposal is sent to the President of the Parliament, which then transmits the proposal to the competent parliamentary commission that can suggest modifications. The Parliament then reviews the report of its parliamentary commission during a plenary session and votes: either it approves the initial proposal or it rejects it, or else it accepts the amendments of the parliamentary commission. Fourth step: the President of the Parliament hands over the proposal in the version adopted by the Parliament to the Council. Following the Parliament’s opinions is not binding for the Commission and the Council, but do keep in mind that the Parliament’s opinions have a certain political influence on the European Commission since it is under official political control by the Parliament through the threat of a motion of no-confidence. Finally, please note that the Commission and the Council have committed themselves to filling-in the Parliament on their decision to follow or not its opinions.

The concertation procedure aims at seeking an agreement between the Parliament and the Council. This does not appear in the treaties but in an inter-institutional declaration between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission dating back from 1975 that applies to the “Community acts of general application which have appreciable financial implications”. The process is triggered as soon as the Parliament and the Council ask for its opening: the Council adopts a common orientation stating whether it is in compliance with the parliamentary opinion. If it is, the Council pronounces the irrevocable adoption of the act. In case it is not, a concertation takes place within a concertation committee gathering representatives from the Parliament and members of the Council. They have three months to come to an understanding. If no understanding is met, the Council can adopt the act, which makes it very difficult for an agreement to be found since the Council knows it will always have the last word. This whole procedure is hence particularly useless and time-consuming for no reason. Bureaucracy, yay! It now applies to very few matters, such as the internal market exemptions and competition law.

The cooperation procedure was the longest and most complex one, but it disappeared with the Lisbon Treaty. You may think it is a waste of time talking about it, and you are absolutely right, but it shows how preposterous some EU-rules can be. You think the way the EU works nowadays could not be sillier? Well, think twice! This so-called cooperation procedure appeared with the European Single Act and granted a double reading system to the Parliament that enabled it to have “more influence” by giving two opinions – one opinion, although pretty useless as we saw, was not enough uselessness, so a double amount of uselessness was necessary. At the beginning, it applied to pretty much all fields and matters, but the Amsterdam Treaty turned it into the concertation procedure, except for the Economic and Monetary Union. The first step was the Commission making a proposal, and the second was the Parliament giving its opinion in first reading and without any delay. The third phase was the Council reviewing the Commission’s proposal in first reading and adopting a common position by unanimous vote in case it wanted to modify the proposal and by qualified majority if it did not touch it. The Council then submitted the proposal to the Parliament, which then gave its stance in second reading within a three-month period of time. Now it gets even trickier: first hypothesis, either the Parliament approved the common position, or it abstained deciding (which however was worth an approval, so what was the point abstaining), or else it adopted amendments. If it approved or abstained (which was the same), then the Council could adopt the act by qualified majority or unanimous vote depending on the situation. If amendments were adopted by the Parliament in second reading, the Commission had to review its proposal within a month: either it rejected the amendments made by the Parliament and the Council could still adopt the text unanimously, or it took them into consideration so that the Council could adopt it by qualified majority, or else it withdrew the text and the Council could not help it. Second hypothesis (yes all that we just saw was only the first hypothesis): in case the Parliament completely rejected the common position of the Council, the latter could still adopt the text unanimously (nothing anti-democratic about that, no time wasted either). The good news about this procedure is that it only applies to a limited number of cases, such as economic and monetary policies. So, happy you know how it used to work? The good news is that if you made it that far into getting to know the Parliament, please go on – your suffering is almost over.

The co-decision procedure, which was renamed as ordinary legislative procedure by the Lisbon Treaty to give it a legal meaning (the other procedures are called “special procedures”), was created by the Maastricht Treaty and modified by the Amsterdam Treaty. It simply means that the European Parliament shares the power of decision with the Council. A novelty was introduced in the Parliament’s second reading: a mediation committee has to be put together to seek an understanding within six weeks. If there is no final agreement, the proposal is rejected for good. This is the most common procedure and it applies to about 80 fields (transportation, energy, immigration, environment, etc.). It basically means that neither institution can adopt legislation without the other’s assent in those fields.

Finally, in the assent procedure (renamed consent procedure by the Treaty of Lisbon, words are important), the Parliament can give its opinion only once about an act project given by the Council. The lack of assent prevents the adoption of the text. This applies to matters such as the membership of new States, the withdrawal of a Member State (um um Brexit), the decisions on European elections, discrimination, etc.

Please also note that, although it does not have an initiative power since it cannot propose a law, it can still ask the Commission to submit a proposal for law to the Council. When the Parliament is presented with the annual work program of the Commission, it can also say which laws it would like to see introduced in priority. It is not much, but it is a start. One example is the latest idea that the Parliament has had: it wants to give away a free Interrail pass to every teenager on his 18th birthday (we will write a special article about that awful idea soon), and it will soon ask the Commission to present  a law about it.

Finally, let’s move on to the role of the Parliament regarding Foreign Affairs. Its involvement comes in the shape of a consultation at a given time. This procedure is called the Luns 1 procedure (after the name of the President at the time in 1964) and means that the Parliament can ask for a debate with the Commission or an appointment with the Council prior to an agreement. The other institutions must keep the Parliament updated on the agreements status through the parliamentary commissions. A second progress was introduced by the European Single Act: the conclusion of certain partnership agreements is subject to the Parliament’s approval when it comes to economic and trade foreign affairs. This procedure is called the Luns 2 procedure. Thanks to the Maastricht Treaty, some further changes have been adopted through article 218: the Parliament’s approval is necessary for all partnership agreements.

Now as you can see, the attributions of the Parliament are not easy to understand, but the good news is that they tend to develop – at a slow pace. However, we can still regret that most of its powers are either not of much use or that when it has real powers, it rarely uses them. When we read the newspapers, we see the Commission everywhere, but we do not see the Parliament that much. When we see corruption and incompetence cases within the Commission, we blame the Commission and the Commissioners for being corrupt and incompetent, but what about the Parliament? It has the power to destitute the Commission and it never does, it has the power to refuse a Commissioner and a President before they are appointed and it never does, making it almost equally responsible as “partner in crime”. The Barroso Commission and the Juncker Commission have not done anything to help the citizens and to save the EU, they have made the situation worse and worse, we know it, the Parliament knows it, but it is too afraid to lose its privileges. Its role is to represent the citizens and protect them, but we have the impression that it mostly protects the EU-functionaries and elites, which includes the Commissioners and the MEPs themselves. After all, they are also citizens who need protection to maintain their social status, right?

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