The EU Times

The EU Times

The blog on European Union affairs

The Enigmatic Conflict of Legitimacy in the European Parliament

written by Gabrielle Hahn Lopez

The European Union (EU) brings forth a renewed form of united diversity coupled with spirits of optimism. Solidifying fostered collaboration, empowering economic activity, and celebrating democracy, this body has emerged to become a unique political and economic intergovernmental organization that is supranational in nature. Ultimately, the union’s formation was a response to the destruction of Europe after World War II and the end of Europe’s global colonial power and influence. The defining period led the six founding members (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) wanting to start a new beginning and achieve a common set of goals with a new political frame. The EU’s aim included more than just preventing future wars but uniting European nations. 

Today, the EU remains a democratic and transparent union grounded on the adoption of political and economic frames heavily influenced by the collective ambition of its 28 member states. The countries involved operate on a legal form of EU sovereignty and develop economies under joint control to avoid nationalistic tensions. The expansion of the EU was made possible through gradual integration and the common effort demonstrated by EU citizens and leaders as they continue to cooperate in areas of research, trade, and commerce.

Still, major difficulties are being experienced in the union. These range from issues such as the uncertainty of Brexit to the refugee crisis, the problem of democratic deficit to the issue of economic gaps between Northern and Southern European regions, from the slowed growth of the EU to US President Donald Trump’s controversial discussions regarding EU trade and even legitimacy issues concerning the European Parliament and the existentialist crisis of EU dissolution. Although the EU is a powerful governing entity, its authority and influence are limited and can be altered by respective leaders accordingly. While the intergovernmental EU is presently facing a series of internal and external trials and tribulations, external pressure and challenges unifies Europeans and instigates a collective effort to improve the degree of cooperation. This is further encouraged in hope of finding a solution that would combat the crisis evident in Europe.                

Institutions play a very important role in the European Union. Currently, there are formally seven legitimate and exclusive institutions in the EU namely: the European Parliament, European Council, the Council, European Commission, Court of Justice of the EU, European Central Bank, and the European Court of Auditors. The Treaty of Lisbon brought about major transformations including the complete reform of the institutional architecture of the EU. This treaty paved the way for provisions on democratic principles, the abolition of the pillar structure and the reorganization and distribution of competences in various policy areas between member states and the union. More importantly, this introduction empowered the European Parliament, giving the institution a more solid foundation, strengthening its role as a proper co-legislator. 

The European Parliament is the bulwark of democracy in the European Union and represents the voice of over 500 million EU citizens. Considered as an important forum for political debate and decision-making at the EU level, it plays a vital role in shaping the EU’s development and economic performance as well as humanitarian aid policy. This branch in the European Union consists of three main functions which include legislative, supervisory and budgetary roles and are governed by its rules and procedures. Its policy areas involve fields of freedom of travel, food safety, consumer protection, the environment, and sectors of the economy. An important aspect and feature of this institution is that of its practices and promotions on the defense of liberty, democracy and human rights. The dedication and importance of these to the body is depicted through its support for measures that include fair elections across the globe, freedom of speech, and dedication towards the protection of fundamental rights and support for democratic initiatives across the globe. 

The key prerogative of the European Parliament is its budgetary powers. Since its foundation, the European Parliament has evolved throughout the years with the organization gradually gaining more power and garnering increasingly significant importance due to the successive amendments of EU treaties. Although both the Parliament and the Council have to agree on an annual EU budget, it will need the Parliament to approve the EU’s long-term budget. The Parliament also exercises democratic oversight in order to assure the Commission together with other bodies of the EU to properly deal with the allocation of funds within the union. In addition, a range of supervisory and control powers are also given to the European Parliament which allow the institution to not only demonstrate democratic scrutiny but also exercise oversight over other institutions. To add on, the Parliament is in charge of electing the Commission president and is given the authority for the approval of the Commission body.

One of the key features of the European Union is that it is founded on the principle of democracy that of which, over the past few years has been undergoing scrutiny and criticism by certain parties and citizens from the EU. There has been a rapid increase of interest when it comes to matters concerning the ability and performance of the EU as a stable and prosperous entity specifically when it comes to issues involving democratic deficit and more importantly, the legitimacy of the European Parliament. As EU citizens start to become critical of institutions and policies in the union, there emerges a public call for greater democracy.

 Legitimacy, accountability, and democracy is a part of the EU’s integration process and is a very crucial variable in sustaining the life of any organization. However, the problem of democratic deficit or the gap between the powers of EU institutions and the ability of EU citizens to influence their work and decisions has been steadily growing causing rising concerns amongst many EU nationals. This argument that the average European has few opportunities to directly influence the work of the EU remains an internal issue that attacks the union’s institutional design. Few of the major reasons why the EU suffers from democratic deficit include the communal feeling that the EU is too distant from its citizens. This rising problem of the democratic deficit has led to questions if the European Parliament should be given more powers and if the institution is the main channel for addressing the issue. While the demonstration and practice of democracy is especially evident in the functioning of the European Parliament, the argument that democratic deficit could be narrowed by giving this greater power and greater control over other EU institutions is still a very debatable topic. On one hand, the European Parliament is already a fully-functioning institution and the increase of powers it has attained through its lifespan has not diminished the democratic deficit or legitimacy problem in the EU. Conversely, the European Parliament too, is the only directly elected organization in the union and is in the best position to bolster democracy and legitimacy in the EU. Other possible solutions for tackling deficit in the EU is through an intensive transgovernmentalism approach towards collective and transparent decision making or through introducing public referenda on major policy decisions entailing more dialogues, greater mutual trust and stronger capacity to act collectively towards the sustainable EU and national parliament. In addition, democratic deficit can also be reduced through direct consultation with citizens and transnational civil society groups.

The European Parliament was once considered to be very weak in comparison to the European Commission and the European Council. However, as amending treaties came into enactment, the Parliament was granted more legislative, supervisory, and budgetary powers, and is positioned as an institution that is legitimate, fully functioning, and plays a very important role in the European Union. Today, the institution is acknowledged as the law-making body and is recognized as an empowered political agenda-setter in the European Union. Although democratic deficit in the EU is rising, the European Parliament cannot solely be blamed and is not the only solution in combating the issue. However, the European Parliament must also prioritize finding a solution to the issue concerning accountability and transparency that could be detrimental and lead to an existentialist crisis.

EU representatives and leaders must strive to work harder now more than ever and address these issues in a way that makes the EU a more dynamic and united player. An avenue for further integration and growth is overcoming the challenge of democratic deficit in the EU. It is important for citizens to feel that they are involved in an organization that cares about them. The citizens’ low levels of identification with the EU are directly correlated to their low-participation level in EU politics and with the low turnout of previous European elections. Constructing and improving the EU citizen’s sense of identity is of utmost importance and is a necessary tool for successful institutionalization of democracy at the EU level especially in improving the low-turnout in EU Parliamentary elections. Yet at the end of the day can we really just blame EU leaders? European citizens should also do their part and play an active and participative role in engaging with EU politics, one major contribution they may do is to partake in the integration process through voting during elections.

About the author: Gabrielle Hahn Lopez is a masters student of European Studies in Governance and Regulation at the University of Bonn in Germany. She previously worked for the European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines (ECCP) as a team lead researcher for development projects. Gabrielle’s areas of interest are public policy, conflict transformation and peacebuilding.

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