Mind the gap

With sweeping gains made by Eurosceptic parties in the European elections, the Head of the European Parliament Office UK Bjorn Kjellstrom explains how the new powers of the EU Parliament aim at bridging the legitimacy gap.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the directly elected European Parliament has been given more muscle. That’s why the ballots cast by Europe’s voters mattered more than ever before, says Bjorn Kjellstrom, the Swedish eurocrat who heads up the European Parliament Office in the UK.

“This power is not something that the Parliament snatched from the member states,” he points out. “This is the result of a conscious decision by the governments and the national parliaments that have approved the Lisbon Treaty.”

Head of the European Parliament Office UK Bjorn Kjellstrom

More powers

In practice this means the 751 MEPs elected to the new Parliament have expanded “co-decision making” powers, along with the national governments in European Council, to amend, adopt or reject new laws proposed by the European Commission. They also have enhanced control over the budget.

What’s more, Parliament will also “elect” the next President of the European Commission, nominated by the Heads of Government based on the results of the election.

“With the Parliament having a say, this is getting one step closer to a system in which the voters will be able to familiarise themselves with the candidates and have a say about who should be the President of the European Commission”

“This is in stark contrast with the way it had always been done before; that is, taking the decision behind closed doors, with no transparency. This is getting one step closer to a system in which the voters will be able to familiarise themselves with the candidates and have a say about who should be the President of the European Commission,” he explains.

The main political blocs have already selected their own lead candidates but the Council may wish to suggest their own candidates taking into consideration the election results, leading some EU observers to predict a power struggle between these two institutions.

“From the European Parliament’s perspective,” says Kjellstrom, “It would be logical for the Heads of Government to propose one of the lead candidates. It doesn’t say, in the Treaty, that it has to be one of these lead candidates, but they have after all been nominated, by majority vote, by European political parties themselves.”

MEPs will also conduct hearings in public with each and every Commissioner designate and they, too, will have to be collectively approved by a majority vote in the plenary.

Addressing the democratic deficit
The new powers given to Parliament go some way to address the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ that EU institutions are often accused of.

“The term ‘democratic deficit’ means different things to different people and it can be interpreted in many different ways; but when it comes to the Commissioners they are often referred to as ‘unelected bureaucrats’,” says Kjellstrom. “Surely, with the Parliament involved like this in the procedure, we have taken a big step towards greater transparency and public scrutiny.”

The European Parliament is also seeking more involvement from national parliaments in legislation, he adds. Already on the question of subsidiarity, national parliaments have the ‘yellow card’ system where they can stop a decision at a European level which could be taken on a national or regional level instead.

Some member states, Britain included, are also pushing for an enhanced ‘red card’ system by which national parliaments working together could block Commission proposals outright.

“There are many ideas floating around on how to strengthen cooperation between the European Parliament and the national parliaments,” says Kjellstrom. “My reading of the European Parliament is that there is a strong desire to involve the national parliaments to a much greater degree than just saying, ‘No’. There seems to be a strong political will to encourage a positive and constructive input into the legislative procedures by national parliaments.”

In his role as head of the European Parliament Office in the UK, Kjellstrom aims to encourage more contact between MEPs and British MPs. In particular, as legislation is going through the European Parliament, he intends to arrange more meetings between British MPs and European Parliament rapporteurs – those MEPs on legislative committees responsible for guiding the legislation proposed by the Commission through the legislative process.

A better dialogue between rapporteurs and MPs could be one way to gather the views of national parliaments and feed these into the legislation process, says Kjellstrom.

The rise of the eurosceptics

Around a quarter of new MEPs are drawn from Eurosceptic parties on the left and right, but how this will affect Parliament is uncertain.

“It’s unlikely that all these Eurosceptic parties will form one group and work together. They might share some views, but they have widely different views on many other subjects,” reflects Kjellstrom.

“They could be more free-trade orientated, or more protectionist. They could claim that freedom of movement of people is very important or they could be more leaning towards restricting the movement of people, and so on.

“So we don’t know yet how it will affect the way the European Parliament works, but we do know that it will indeed have an impact.”

However it turns out, Kjellstrom is relishing the challenge of representing a more powerful and politically diverse EU Parliament: “This must be the most exciting job in the world.”