Where is the centre of power in the European Parliament

Previous to the process of providing a possible answer to the question mentioned previously, it is valid to commence by offering an overview of the manner by which one has decided to organise this essay, the latter being divided in five main parts. The essay begins by an initial introduction offering an overview of the organisation of this work (part 1), the presentation of the main premises of this work, more precisely “centre” and “power” and posterior to that the provision of possible definitions of both, these serving as premises for the argumentation presented hereafter (part 2).

Part 3 of this work analysis the veracity of the question itself, more precisely whether the European Parliament (EP) may be considered to be an institution holding power and whether or not previous considerations of the EP as the EU’s “talking shop” may be still considered to be valid. Part 4 of this work attempts to draw a possible response to the question presented, presenting possible centres of power in the European Parliament. The final part of the essay (Part 5) presents the main conclusions arrived to.

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As mentioned the question presented basis itself in two complementary premises being the first “power” and the second “centre”. “Power” is hereafter understood as the possession of controlling influence. In other words, this means the capacity to influence and change or alter the course of events, in the case of the EP, political events. As “centre”, one would define the middle or in organic terms, the nerve cells, controlling the rest of the body.

In applying these two definitions to the EP, the question obliges us then to look at where is the middle or central location of the capacity to influence political events in the EP. In historical terms, the EP’s direct roots may traced to the formation of the European Coal and Steal Community and the High Authority in the early 1950’s, to whom it were given supranational powers in the management of coal and steel.

Together with the creation of the High Authority and in order to provide some political accountability to the latter, a Common Assembly was created, based on direct elections or appointment by the various national parliaments. The Treaty of Rome would provide the legal basis where the advisory and supervisory powers of the Assembly would lie, but it would be only in 1979 that the true EP would appear with the form it currently has. In practical terms this would also represent the gaining by the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) of a true European mandate, hence no longer being simple “ambassadors (… of their own national governments”, but “representatives of the real public” (Donald, p. 534, 1998).

One way or the other, this possibility was certainly far less democratic and the establishment of direct elections in 1979 represented a strong victory to the integration “camp” (McGiffen, 2001, p. 20). The referred increase of powers in the EP may be considered exponential to the number of years it has existed, with many authors dividing the EP’s power augmentation path in eight main steps, the initial one given in 1970 and 1975 by the budget treaties.

These would transform the EU in a sort of bicameral system at the budgetary level, with the Council and the Parliament jointly responsible for thrashing out the annual budget set within a fixed revenue system. In practical terms, this would allow the Parliament to amend – and over the years, alter the budget has it happened with, for example, the allocation of money to different areas besides agriculture, thus entailing indirectly the development of these new areas.

The second step took place in 1975 with the introduction of the conciliation procedure, where the adoption of budgetary legislation could bring a potential conflict between the Council’s legislative powers and the Parliament’s budgetary powers. This would represent the possibility for referring the matter under institutional disagreement to a conciliation committee composed of members of Council and an equal member of MEPs, albeit the last word still rested with the Council.

The third step took place in 1979 with the election of the EP by universal suffrage for the first time and the nominal increase of Parliamentarians from 198 (nominated) to 410 (elected) (Corbet, 2000, p. 4). One of the most important steps, however, would take place in 1980 with the famous Isoglucose case, where the EP took the Council of Ministers to the European Court of Justice alleging the Council had not given the EP the possibility to present its opinion as required by the Treaties, in the formation of a specific piece of legislation.

The ECJ would thereafter recognise the EP’s Treaty based right to present its opinion whilst negotiations at the Council level unfolded. Moreover, it also established a clear link between the democratic right of the Parliament for consultation and the democratic character of the Community given by the existence of a Parliament able to be involved in the process of the decision-making (European Commission, 2002, p. 2).

The fifth step in the EP’s power trip would take place with the Single European Act of 1986, which introduced two new procedures for the adoption of Community acts, more precisely the cooperation procedure and the assent procedure. The first procedure mentioned represented the adding of an extra reading to the already existent consultation procedure, where the Council’s “common position” is referred back to the EP, which must approve it or reject it or press for amendments.

The second procedure mentioned gave equal powers to the EP requiring its assent for the ratification of accession treaties and association agreements, the last being much more frequent than the first. The sixth step forward was the Treaty of Maastricht, the outcome of the latter very much influenced (according to some) by the biggest political group in the EP, the Christian Democratic Union arguably showing the influencing power of the political groups in the process of integration (Johansson, 2002, p. 872).

The Treaty of Maastricht would introduce the co-decision procedure, based in the cooperation procedure, but with the inclusion of the conciliation committee obliging the Council and the EP to negotiate in specific areas such as the Environment and the possibility for the Parliament to refuse the Council’s decision following conciliation, thus disabling the adoption of the act. Moreover, the assent procedure was further extended and the EP gained the possibility to vote on the nomination of the President of the Commission and the President of the European Monetary Institute/Central Bank.

The EP was also granted the possibility to vote on the Commission’s right to stand office and the number of years of a specific cabinet of the Commission was extended to five, thus matching the five year-term of the EP amongst other powers (Jacque, 2003, p. 383). The seventh step was given by the Treaty of Amsterdam (ToA) in November of 2001, which granted to the EP further powers under the co-decision procedure making most agricultural legislation subject to it. Moreover, the ToA made the Parliament’s vote on the candidate for the Commission’s President a binding one, legally speaking and further extended the number of MEPs to 700.

The latest steps were given amidst preparations for this year’s enlargement and based in the urgent necessity of further reforming the Union so that the decision-making process does not come to a halt. The Treaty of Nice extended the co-decision procedure and the number of MEPs to surpass 700 (more precisely, 732), arguably above what could be considered to be a workable size and the Draft Constitution on the Future of Europe has proposed further extensions of power, notably under Article 15.

As mentioned, Article 15 of the new Draft Constitution has proposed a further enactment of legislation with the Council, as well as the possibility to exercise further functions of political control and consultation. Moreover, under the new proposed Constitution the EP will elect the President of the European Commission by universal suffrage for a term of five years and the maximum number of MEPs will not exceed 700 with the representation of European citizens being degressively proportional1 (Convention Europenne, 2003, Art. ). Finally and has shown, the role of the EP has been slowly strengthened thus rendering previous affirmations of the “European Parliament (has a) talking shop (completely) out of date” (partially cited from McGiffen, 2001, p. 22) and moreover, clarifying that indeed the EP does hold the “capacity to influence and change or alter the course of events”. The question now is, where would one be able to find the “nerve centre” of the EP exerting influence in the rest of the EP’s “cells”?

One will argue here that the “capacity to influence and change/alter the course of political events” as mentioned in the beginning of this essay, may be primarily found in the Political Groups and moreover, in the Conference of Presidents of the EP constituted by the EP President, the chairmen of the political groups and two delegates of non-attached members. The underlying initial premise justifying the location of the power in the political groups is a simple one.

If one takes into account MEPs are the ones in the various groups that vote and thus, are primarily the ones that have an effect in the course of political events of the EP, than it is clear that the groupings they are normally organised in (the political parties and indirectly, the political groups) are the ones where power concentrates, as they on one hand determine and control the voting of MEPs with political discipline being exercised primarily at the level of national contingents and a posteriori at supranational level and other hand, form party policy to be followed by the MEPs (Corbett, 2003, p. 8). In analysing political groups as such, it is important to begin by mentioning they are the amalgamation in the EP of the basic democratic unities of Western European Political systems (including the EP), the political parties. These allows the people, the possibility for representation otherwise impossible and allow for the establishment of a theoretical linkage between the represented and the representatives, even if this increasingly takes place only partially, because of decreasing numbers of public participation in elections.

Political groups also channel political activity in the EP and are organised by political affinities as set out in Rule 29 of the Parliament’s Rules, thus representing a tradition started in the European Assembly of the ECSC, with the existence of 3 political families, the socialists, the Christian Democrats and the liberals. Currently, political groups must include MEPs from more than one Member-State (MS), with the minimum number of MEPs necessary to form a group of 23 coming from 2 MSs, 18 if they come from three and 14 if they come from four or more.

The main reason for the development of groups as mentioned previously is ideological, with MEPs coming from similar backgrounds and traditions. However, political groups are organised so that influencing capacity is maximised and hence, translated in practical terms from electing the EP President to voting on amendments being tabled for discussion. Moreover, political groups are also formed as a form of increasing the possibility to gain further funds for administrative and research purposes with the bigger groups receiving a better quality of back-up services.

Moreover, belonging in a political group guarantees the possibility to be in the centre of decision-making of the EP as the latter arranges most of its work around the groups, partially “outcasting” non-attached MEPs, not part of political groups, by the means in which chairmanships of the committees are allocated, in the preparation of agendas for plenary sessions and allocation of speaking time (Nugent, 2003, p. 217) and thus, proving that centre of power in the EP is in the political families.

Further to the previous, one is able to see that the reasons explaining the possible choice of the centre of power of the EP in the political groups is on one hand, by organisational aspects and on the other hand, due to functional aspects. Regarding the latter, political groups are able to table questions to the Council of Ministers and the Commission and, where the Council of Ministers and where the Council, the European Council and the Commission make statements to the EP, the political groups may table resolutions and agree on joint resolutions amongst themselves.

These resolutions may fall under the second and third pillars of the Maastricht provisions. Also political groups have the power to demand discussion over an urgent topic and may table an accompanying motion. Moreover, political groups are empowered to submit nominations for membership of committees and interparliamentary delegations and propose amendments to the Parliamentary plenary agenda (Westlake, 1994, p. 89). As mentioned previously, the political groups also enjoy “considerable financial and practical advantages” (idem) with about a sixth of the Parliament’s budget devoted to them, the amount varying on the size of the particular group. The various expenditures include the salaries of the staff, secretaries and political advisers, office equipment, etc (idem).

In the last 10 years, the number of political groups has varied between eight and ten political groups in the EP, the main reason for this being the use of proportional representation and hence, MEPs reflecting the wide range of political opinions existent across the EU at the ideological level. In addition and since the introduction of direct elections in 1979 there has never been fewer than sixty national political parties represented in the EP, the number being set at 129 at the time of the last national elections.

Currently, the largest group in the EP is the EPP-ED (Group of the European People’s Party and European Democrats) with 232 MEPs, traditionally based in European Christian Democracy and more recently, counting the aggregation of more conservative parties such as the UK Conservative Party, this leading to a relative state of internal tension over issues such as the optimal level of integration to be achieved in the EU (Parliament, 2004, p. 34).

The second largest group in the EP is the PES (Party of European Socialists) with 175 members, more than one member per from each Member-State, these being from the breadth of European Socialism and Social Democracy. Until the 1999 elections, the PES and the EPP maintained a form of gentleman’s agreement over the rotation of political candidates in the presidency of the European Parliament, thus allowing for a more equitably splitting up power.

This agreement would be broken up in the bitter fight to the presidency of the European Parliament between the Portuguese ex-President of the Republic Mario Soares and Nicole Fontaine, who would gain the place (Humanite, 1999, p. 1). The third largest group is the Group of European Liberal, Democratic and Reform Party (ELDR) constituted by a group of parties with a wide core of ideas and consisting basically of parties of Centre and Right, but also some parties from the Left.

In the allocation of influencing capacity in the EP, the ELDR and the EPP have maintained a loose coordination with the EPP-ED: a coalition including a deal whereby the ELDR would back the EPP-ED’s candidate for EP President for the first two and half years whilst and the EPP would do the same for the second two and a half years.

Other smaller groups in the EP include the Group of Greens/ European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), a highly heterogeneous group with strong leftist MEPs and others not associating themselves either with the left or right, the Confederal Group of European Left/Nordic Green Left (EUL/NGL), the Union of Europe of the Nations Group (UEN), strongly conservative and the Group for a Europe of Democracies and Diversities (EDD) based in a strong scepticism to the EU and concentrated in the strong willingness to maintain the diversity and cultures of European peoples (Corbett, 2003, p. 4). As mentioned previously, a minority of MEPs in the EP are non-members of political groups in the EP or in other words, are non-attached members of the EP. This group of MEPs initially formed The Technical Group (TDI), with the aim of ripping the same benefits of other groups. Albeit initially this group would be refused recognition by the EP on the grounds it broke the EP’s Rules of Procedure, the EP would reiterate its decision after the TDI’s appeal to the Court of First Instance.

The Court of First Instance would rule in favour of the EP and the non-recognition principle became again effective against the TDI (Nugent, 2003, 218). One other centre of power that may be also be found in the European Parliament and that is in the Conference of Presidents, whose constitution was already described and reflects an agglomeration of the most powerful representatives of the EP.

The Conference of Presidents replaced a previous body known as the “enlarged Bureau” “representing the gradual concentration of political power in the political groups” (Westlake, 1994, p. 190). This group aims at working under consensus and seldom uses the system of “proportional political group representation” enabling agreement to be reached under a system taking into account the number of Members in each political group.

The relevance of the Conference of Presidents in assessing whether it is or not a centre of power may be underlined by its functions predicted by the Rules of Procedure, more precisely insofar as the Conference is charged with taking decisions relating to legislative planning and the organisation of the Parliament’s work, responsible for inter-institutional relations and relations with parliaments of other Member-States, responsible for matters relating to relations with non-countries and non-Community institutions, responsible for the preparation of the draft agenda of the Parliament’s part-sessions, responsible for the composition and competence of temporary committees and committees of enquiry as well as standing delegations and had hoc delegations, responsible for drawing own initiative reports and moreover, responsible for submitting proposals concerning budgetary and administrative matters.

Concluding and has analysed throughout the essay, encountering one sole centre of power in the EP is an incredibly complex task and the two centres of power mentioned here are, to some extent, arguable. However and has mentioned previously, in administering the augmenting powers given by the Treaties which make the EP more than a simple “talking shop”, it is clear that Europe’s Parliament centres the “power spinning the wheel” in the machinery “controlling” those who practice voting (the political groups, the political parties and the MEPs) and in those that aim at reaching consensus at the highest level, more precisely the Conference of Presidents.