Should the European Parliament be abolished? (2)

By Anthony Salamone, MSc Global Politics, London School of Economics and Political Science

3rd April 2014

The European Parliament is an essential part of the institutional structure of the European Union. It is the only EU body directly elected at the European level, and it co-decides the vast majority of EU legislation with the Council of the European Union. The parliament should not be abolished – instead, it must be kept and improved. These improvements must work towards realising three goals: fostering civic engagement, functioning more effectively, and better representing the peoples of Europe.

Five reforms in particular are key to achieving these goals. First, the parliament should move to a fully-fledged constituency system. This means that each Member of the European Parliament (MEP) would represent his/her own national constituency in the parliament. Citizens would know exactly which MEP represented them, enabling them to more directly relay their queries and concerns and to build more personal relationships in the European context. Providing a specific representative for voters to get to know and communicate with is perhaps the single best way to increase citizen engagement with the parliament.

This shift would most likely involve moving from proportional representation to a first-past-the-post voting system. While the move would entail some sacrifice, as proportional representation does more adequately reflect individual voters’ choices, it is essential to kindling a spirit of engagement and to creating a greater sense of personal investment on the part of citizens. The change would also reduce the representation of smaller parties in the parliament, which, while a loss in terms of pluralism, would equally cut down on the number of extremist parties with small vote shares and enable the parliament to function more coherently.

Second, the parliament should adopt a single seat. This decision is absolutely central to increasing the institution’s legitimacy as it would demonstrate that the parliament is serious about cutting down on its costs and giving taxpayers more value for their money. A single venue would also give citizens a focal point for conceptualising the parliament, thus strengthening its resonance with individuals. With respect to deciding the seat, either Brussels or Strasbourg would be acceptable. Nevertheless, having the venue in Brussels would likely be more effective for integrating with the other EU institutions.

Third, the parliament should be given the full right of initiative for legislation. It is difficult to conceive of an institution as being a parliament without the ability to introduce its own bills at will, and it would be an important step for reconciling citizens’ interests with those of the member states. Citizens are likely to take a greater interest in the parliament if they feel that they can directly petition it and its members with the actual prospect of legislation being introduced as a result. The parliament would also be in a better position to more effectively respond to citizens’ needs as it perceives them. If member states are concerned about the prospect of according the parliament this right, then they could limit it, for example, to areas where the EU has exclusive or shared competence.

Fourth, in co-operation with the other EU institutions, the parliament should intensify its efforts to ensure subsidiarity and proportionality in the union’s legislative acts. Such efforts would improve its image among citizens as a guardian of the EU’s founding principles and as an establishment that acts more effectively. The parliament should institutionalise these functions by creating a dedicated Subsidiarity and Proportionality Committee to scrutinise proposed legislation, having separated these functions off from the current Legal Affairs Committee. It should also create a Subsidiarity and Proportionality ombudsman to provide additional oversight and to address citizens’ specific concerns on these issues.

Fifth, the parliament should further its co-operation with national parliaments in order to more fully incorporate them in the EU legislative process. It should support a greater role for national parliaments, including the introduction of a red card veto, as a means of both ensuring the enhanced legitimacy of the EU as a whole and substantiating its position as the interlocutor of peoples and parliaments at the European level.

These reforms should take place in a context that recognises the parliament’s existing positive aspects. The committee system and political group co-operation, for instance, work relatively well. One idea to leave behind is the attempt to create pan-European parties. This strategy would only work in the very long term, and it would divert the energies needed now to make the parliament more effective and relevant to citizens’ everyday lives.

The transfer of additional powers to the parliament beyond these reforms is certainly possible. However, the parliament should only receive increased powers once these reforms have been put in place and are functioning well. In this regard, the institution must demonstrate that it is more effective and more responsive to citizens’ needs before gaining new powers. These reforms would also require treaty changes and, by extension, the agreement of the member states. The parliament should work with them and the other EU institutions to achieve these necessary and important changes.

The European Parliament must not be abolished, but it must be reformed. These reforms must enable the parliament to demonstrate that it can foster greater civic engagement and interest in the EU, its roles, and its policies. It must function more effectively in its response to citizens’ needs and by ensuring proper subsidiarity and proportionality in the EU. The parliament also has a responsibility to better represent the peoples it serves by working for a union that is more accountable, more responsive, and more focused on its core competences.