A Bluffer’s Guide to the European Parliament

Voting is about to begin for elections to the European Parliament. Most Americans only have the vaguest idea of what the European Parliament is – so I thought it no harm to provide the beginnings of a quick bluffer’s guide to the EP beneath the fold.

Q: Does the European Parliament actually do anything worth noticing?

A: Yes – it used to be a talking shop in its early days, but not any more. The European Union is best thought of (to use Giandomenico Majone’s term) as a regulatory state. Its budgetary powers are insignificant compared to a national government’s – it gets a smallish percentage of tax revenues raised through VAT etc. But it certainly can regulate – both boring stuff like phytosanitary standards (don’t ask) and not so boring things like telecommunications markets. Some of this regulation (typically the more technical and apolitical aspects, but not always), is handled through delegated authority to the European Commission. The more political stuff is handled through legislation, in which the European Parliament effectively plays a co-equal role with the European Council (which represents the member states). This means that it shapes much of the legislative agenda of the EU, and hence of the member states (a lot of the activity of member state parliaments these days simply involves transposing European Union law into domestic legislation). The Parliament’s powers in some policy areas such as domestic security and agriculture (where a lot of EU spending does occur) are relatively weak, but likely to get much stronger if the proposed Lisbon Treaty passes. The allocation of different powers for different policy areas mean that the Parliament, Council and Commission often get involved in fights (so called legal basis disputes over which policy area (and hence legislative procedure) a particular law should fall under.

In addition, the Parliament has some control over the European Commission – it has a blanket power to kick out the entire Commission, and has assiduously worked to turn this into a more precise set of instruments through which it can accept or reject individual Commissioners as worthy or unworthy.

Q: Does anyone pay any attention to European Parliament elections?
A: Yes – but rarely because they think that the European Parliament does anything worthwhile. Elections to the Parliament tend to be, as Simon Hix describes it, ‘second order elections’ – that is, elections in which voters punish or reward (with the emphasis on the former) their current national governments. This disconnect is highly annoying for fans of European federalism, who would like to see the European Parliament providing the EU with a patina of democratic legitimacy. But this is unlikely to happen as long as voters don’t care about the European Parliament, which apparently they don’t. What is interesting, is that the political science evidence suggests (again thanks to Hix and his colleagues) that the European Parliament is becoming more and more like a national parliament in some ways, with Members of the European Parliament voting on the basis of cross-national ideological alliances much more than shared national interests. So there is an important disconnect here, which should be of some theoretical interest – that even though MEPs are still not regarded as representatives in a ‘real’ Parliament, they behave as if they were when they get to Strasbourg and Brussels.

Q: What is likely to happen in the forthcoming vote?
A: An excellent question, which should help test the predictive power of political science. In one corner: the ubiquitous Professor Hix et al predicting no very great change in the composition of the European Parliament, on the basis of analysis of multitudes of opinion polls. In the other corner, a gaggle of pundits predicting large votes against ‘ordinary’ parties, right wing extremists doing quite nicely, and general political alarum and disorder. We’ll see who is right, starting Sunday.

This is probably enough information for most would-be bluffers – but am happy to provide more in updates (or a future post if there are enough requests to warrant it), in response to requests in comments.

2 Responses to A Bluffer’s Guide to the European Parliament

  1. Ralf Grahn June 5, 2009 at 6:17 am #

    Not a bad guide for bluffers, when it seems to be accurate even for discerning readers.

    My guess is that the election results will be a combination of the two predictions presented, but the biggest shift may come about because of the British Conservatives teaming up with more or less hard right parties outside the European mainstream.

    This anti-federalist group is the first concrete manifestation of the problems ahead with a new Tory government in Britain.

  2. Mike June 5, 2009 at 9:07 am #

    I know that the EP can veto nominations to the EC, but how does this work once the EC is in place? Can the EP boot individual Commissioners ex post now or are they still limited to getting rid of the EC in its entirety?