Courting of European Parliament reflects shift in balance of power

Wed, Jan 16, 2013, 00:00

ANALYSIS:The parliament’s support is key to the success of the Irish EU presidency

Minister for State Lucinda Creighton took to the chamber of the European Parliament yesterday in her role as European Council representative, ahead of the Taoiseach’s speech today.

But while Creighton’s appearance was a textbook example of Ireland’s presidency in action, it also reflected the changing balance of power between the institutions. Often dismissed by many as the poor relation to its sister EU institutions, the parliament has gained more powers since the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

Chief among these are co-decision making. The treaty increased the number of areas in which the parliament makes decisions jointly with the European Council. MEPs have more extensive powers over the EU budget though it can still only advise in areas such as taxation.

Leveraging power

Because many pieces of legislation are now grouped together in certain policy areas, the parliament often leverages its co-decision powers over one area to influence the outcome in others where it lacks powers.

Hence, securing the assent of the parliament, particularly on the EU budget, will be a key task for Ireland, and particularly for Creighton in her role as a representative of the European Council for the next six months. The parliament’s other enhanced powers include a role in the election of the European Commission president.

Ultimately, the parliament still lacks the powers to initiate legislation. Nevertheless, some sectors of the Brussels-based establishment are not comfortable with its enhanced power, which subtly shifts the balance of power between the various EU institutions.

Commission’s role

The commission, still the driver of legislation, has seen its role as policymaker diminish somewhat, particularly with the enhanced role of the council since Lisbon. Since the onset of the financial crisis the member states, through the council, have taken the lead on policy, not the commission.

The enhanced role of the parliament also feeds into broader questions about democratic legitimacy. Despite public mistrust in it – voter turnout has been sinking in recent years – the parliament is still the only EU body directly elected by its citizens. And at a time when these citizens are feeling increasingly disenfranchised, the issue of accountability is a serious one.

The parliament, as watchdog, has a role to play in demanding accountability. But there are other ways to increase democratic legitimacy – an increased role for member states, through their governments, in EU decision-making, for example.

This is already happening as member states take decisions on the euro zone crisis at European Council summits.

In the meantime, expect the Taoiseach to urge action from MEPs when he outlines Ireland’s presidency priorities to the parliament today.