Is the EU democratic?

The Polish national leaders are leading a narrative that the European Union needs to reform, and should it fail to reform it faces a defeat, a failure, a cataclysm. The Polish pundits, one by one seem to follow this magical trick and consider the EU an external, an alien, a hostile force. One just example came recently in a text by Andrzej Krajewski in Dziennik. Mr Krajewski’s argumentation is the following: “if the European Parliament suddenly, in a magical way disappeared, it would bear no consequence on the way the European Union operates”.

I argue the opposite: it would bear a gigantic consequence.

The European Parliament is one of the two sources of the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. The other one are the governments of member states organized in the Council of the EU. The EU needs such a democratic mandate like a human needs clean air to breathe. Without democratization of the Union it would be impossible to solve many of the problems the EU deals with. For example, long time ago the German Constitutional Court took a decision that “so lange” (as long as) the EU is not a democratic structure the democratic government o the Federal Republic cannot delegate its sovereign powers to an undemocratic organization. This is how and why the EU needs to democratize.

The democratization process means in fact putting the European Citizen in the centre of EU’s attention and its direct representative in the European Parliament. Yes, there are two legs of this European Union: one are the governments of all the powerful member states. And the other one is formed by the collective of 445 million people, inhabitants and citizens of this united, political Europe.

This is why the European Parliament is important, even if it was powerless. Its importance comes directly from the fact it represents the vox populi of the Union. Its importance comes directly from the fact it represents the European Citizen.

But this Parliament is not powerless! Elected by a direct vote every five years since 1979, it has never had any objective to limit itself to ceremonial functions. The history of the past 40 years is a history of putting the Parliament in the centre of EU affairs, that is – it is a history of putting the European Citizen in the centre of EU affairs. The road has not been completed and the process has not been straight forward. Many steps have been taken in this process, but the political advantage – not the legal one – of the member states over the European Parliament continues.

I can argue many commentators are just ignorant about the process of the European integration especially because it is a process. The European Union is not and never has been static. As a democratic organisation it evolves together with the changing realities of the political Europe. This is why we have constant changes in the Council of the European Union (composed of national ministers) and in the European Council (composed of national leaders). This is why we have European elections every five years, and on this basis the European Commission is appointed and elected.

Democracy rules the European Union.

The democratic base is the most important thing, because the European Union is directly responsible for a part of our reality. If we follow the current debate about the MFF (multi-annual budget) and we support our national leaders in getting the best deals for our countries we need to remember we talk about only about 1% of the EU GDP. Meanwhile the EU laws constitute up to 80% of the laws we live by, depending on a subject. Do we have more Union in the laws or in the redistributive budgets?

The European laws are adopted by our European Parliament, we elected last May, and by the Council of the EU, where our governmental ministers sit. The Mateusz Morawiecki governmental ministers represent Poland. The representatives of the European citizens adopt almost all directives and regulations. ‘Almost’ as in some cases the sole decision is still in the hands of the national ministers. This clearly constitutes a challenge for the MEPs, but the reality check shows that the ‘almost’ is rather limited. Only 2% of all EU decisions are taken without the involvement of the European Parliament. On the other hand, 98% of EU laws are adopted jointly by the Parliament and the national governments. Moreover, the delegated acts of the European Commission can be vetoed by the Parliament. Some truly are vetoed when they deserve to be vetoed.

How to respect opinions claiming the Parliament is useless and cannot do anything?

Let me give the floor to the critics: ‘the political position’ is missing! The Parliament is invisible in the most important files! Where was the Parliament when Greece suffered? What did the Parliament do about Brexit? It is not the EP that takes the most important decisions on climate, energy, foreign policy or budget!

Well, different things are the most important for different people. Many of the solutions to the problems are actually initiated in the Parliament when the governments are stalled. Issues such as personal freedoms vis-à-vis the technological giants or the details of the just transition fund in energy policy will be decided most likely in the Parliament than the Council, and definitely not by the national leaders. As an old saying goes, the devil is in the detail.

As far as the rule of law in Poland is concerned, the European Parliament can do as much as the Council. They can talk, discuss, debate, but they lack powers other than to initiate the Article 7 of the Union treaties, which has been started a few years ago against Poland (on the Commission’s initiative) and against Hungary (on the Parliament’s initiative). When it comes to the rule of law the real powers are with the European Commission and the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice.

Law-making in EU

The media work in such a way that rarely can present the whole picture. When we follow the negotiations between national leaders we focus only on the part of the process. It is like the Moon: only one half is visible. The other half is always in the dark. The constructive Parliament does its best to solve problems rather that to create new ones. This is why the Brexit agreement was not rejected by the Strasbourg chamber. The Parliament could say ‘no’ to many of the laws and international agreements, but it does not do it because it agrees to the negotiated compromises.

Should it be a matter of principle for a parliament to reject laws and candidates? In Spain for over 30 years since democratization the Cortes has not once rejected a proposal coming from the government. In Poland the government loses votes very rarely. Why would it be different in the European Parliament? Before we take an opinion the Parliament is not relevant, maybe we should look first at how it adopts laws? For example, it takes on average 20 months before a law is adopted, not one evening (a regular occurrence in Poland since 2015). The European legislative process’s objective is to reach a compromise nobody loves but everybody supports.

A more powerful actor can do more, obviously. Big states are powerful, but they do not have a monopoly on being correct or influential. They do not have a monopoly on law making. Take this: Germany, a federal republic as it is, is known to be slow to adopt national positions in the Council of EU. This excludes this most powerful (on paper) government for months of initial negotiations.

Still, the states are powerful in the Council. In the European Parliament the strongest are the great parties: the European People’s Party, the Socialists and Democrats and the centrists from Renew Europe. Those three groups together, and sometimes with the Greens, United Left or the Conservatives and Reformists lead the political agenda of the Parliament.

Who rules in the EPP, S&D and the RE? The largest political parties of the largest states. Some of them are also governmental parties back home. Others are in opposition to the government in the national capital. Still, a Polish socialist has more in common with the Italian social-democrat than with a Polish conservative. The Member of the European Parliament does not represent the country they are elected from, but all of the European Citizens. This is also why they cannot betray their country. The country is always represented in the EU by the government in the Council.

A popular national party like Law and Justice (PiS) is wasting its potential in the EP. A major party from a big country is on the margins of the European politics. This problem is not only of the Poles; also many Italian or French politicians are affiliated with irrelevant groups. Hence no wonder that the Spaniards and the Germans have the upper hand.

EU politics

The politics in the European Union has two dimensions. First are the intergovernmental negotiations, where truly the powerful states are powerful and the smaller nations have to form coalitions to win their arguments. Second is the parliamentary politics where the national colours lose relevance once confronted with party alliances. This is why people like Mr Sośnierz, an ex-MEP who was never affiliated with any group in the European Parliament (and today an MP with far right Confederacy and an author of a popular youtube channel), can spread misinformation. He was not affiliated with any group and operated only on the fringes of the Parliament. All the most important decisions passed without Mr Sośnierz taking part in them.

The PiS MEPs irritation with the European Parliament must come from the fact that they enjoy full power over the legislative, executive and now – judicial – branch of the government in Poland, while in the EP they are marginalised. The cognitive dissonance is enormous.

Party politics is important in Europe. One cannot simply say that “the big guys call all the shots”. Some of the most important politicians in Europe today are Belgian, Finnish, Romanian, Dutch or Spanish. Yet they do not take instructions from national governments. They care for the European Union from their particular political angle. The national governments try to lobby the European Parliament, obviously, and sometimes they are successful. Often they are defeated. The Parliament is particularly proud that all its members collectively enjoy this independent source of a democratic legitimacy. Last year some 202 million people voted in the European elections.

The Parliament is equal to the Council of the EU. Together they adopt some 98% of EU laws. But the same Parliament is unequal to the European Council, where the leaders sit. The European Council overshadows all other EU institutions. Still, it is untrue to say that the EP cannot do anything in the big politics of Europe. Last year the candidacy of Frans Timmermans was blocked by the EPP, which was forcing its own candidate, Manfred Weber. The Visegrad-4 veto against Timmermans was complimentary at best. On the other hand, Weber was blocked by the Socialists and Democrats. Hence the compromise candidacy of Ursula von der Leyen proposed by the French President Emmanuel Macron. Von der Leyen was not proposed by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was forced to abstain from the vote for her country-woman, as there was a disagreement in the grand coalition in Berlin as regards the Commission presidency…

Yes, there are many voices in the European Parliament outraged at the attempts of the governments in Paris, Berlin and Warsaw to overtake the powers of the European Commission in the competition policy. Yes, the Parliament listed to the leaders and accepted von der Leyen. But the same Parliament keeps on fighting for its own position in the EU, and by the same token, for the position of the voice of a European citizen.

Earlier version of this article was published in Polish in: Polska The Times, 24 February 2020

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