Playing Parliament in Brussels

Last week, the citizens of the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) went to the voting booth to elect their MEPs (members of the European Parliament). At least, some of them did. Never before has the turnout been so low. Of the 375 million EU citizens a record low of 43.1% cast a vote. Five years ago, this figure was 45.5%, which at that time also was the lowest turnout ever.

Though the European Parliament (EP) spent €18 million on a campaign urging people to vote, 57%, or 213 million voters, did not bother to participate. This is not surprising. The power of the EP is virtually nihil. Despite its name, the EP is not a legislative body. The only real power it has [pdf] is the power to reject the EU budget and to veto the appointment of members to the Commission, the EU’s executive. Hence, most voters in Europe regard the European elections as an opportunity to voice an opinion on the performance of their domestic national governments.

In last week’s elections, the parties of the left received a thrashing in most of the EU’s countries. This happened in Britain, Spain, Germany, Holland,… and is an indication of what is likely to happen in the coming national general elections. In countries where these elections are due very soon, such as Germany or Britain, last week’s results are causing considerable panic in the Socialist ranks, but governing Socialists in countries, such as Spain, where the elections are still a long way off, are not particularly worried.

The EP elections also turned out to be a victory for so-called “Eurosceptics.” These are politicians who oppose the transfer of more powers from the national parliaments to the EU. Eurosceptics do not agree with the EU’s official aim to gradually expand the EU into one single state into which all European nations must dissolve – an aim which in the preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding charter, is worded as the process towards “an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe.”

Despite the increased Euroscepticism in the new EP, however, the ruling establishment in the EU need not worry. As the EP is not a real legislature it hardly has any powers. The EU’s legislation emanates from the European Commission, which is an institution of technocrats. The Commission, also based in Brussels, draws up the “directives,” as the EU laws are called, which the national parliaments are obliged to vote into binding national legislation. The latter is, indeed, an obligation because, under the EU treaties, member states which fail to incorporate EU “directives” into their national legislation are penalized by the European Court.

As a member of the Belgian Parliament explained a few months ago in an article entitled “SOS Europe: Outsourcing Democracy”:

“we are called upon almost every week to vote the incorporation into Belgian legislation of so-called ‘directives’ emanating from the EU Commission. This is a mere formality. Parliamentarians all over Europe press the green button because the EU treaties oblige the 27 EU members states to incorporate the EU directives unchanged into their national legislations. Hence, there are no debates about the directives and no alterations or amendments are proposed to the texts. Occasionally my party abstains from voting or we press the red button – a position we can take since we are not part of the Belgian establishment and are considered ‘extremists’ anyway. But even we, I must admit, usually vote ‘yea’. The EU treaties demand it. The European Court punishes countries that do not oblige with hefty fines.”

The European Parliament plays no role in this entire legislative process. The unelected bureaucrats of the Commission draw up the decisions and the national parliaments automatically vote them into national legislation. That is how EU laws are made. It is not surprising, therefore, that democrats all over Europe loathe this system and talk of Europe’s “democratic deficit”.
In a television program aired on the eve of the European elections, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Eurosceptic PVV party said that his party was participating in the elections so that it could send representatives to the EP to oppose legislation that tells Dutch farmers what to do with their manure and Dutch truck drivers how many hours they are allowed to work. “These issues should be decided by the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, not the European Parliament,” he said. Mr. Wilders’ newly elected MEPs in Brussels, however, are not in a position to do anything to remedy this situation, because the EP does not have a say in legislation. The way to vote down EU legislation is to have sufficient Eurosceptics in the national parliaments who refuse to incorporate the Commission’s directives into their national legislation. In other words: Brussels cannot be defeated in Brussels, it must be defeated in national capitals, such as London, Berlin, The Hague, Copenhagen, Rome…
One of the victors of last week’s elections was a British Eurosceptic party called UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). UKIP became Britain’s second largest party in the European elections with 17.4% of the vote, after the Conservatives (28.6%), but surpassing Labour (15.3%) and the Liberal Democrats (13.9%). Brits who oppose the EU, however, will not achieve much by sending UKIP to Brussels. It is only when they start sending sufficient UKIP representatives to Westminster that Britain will be able to say no to the dictatorship of the Brussels bureaucrats who write the “directives” the British people must obey. UKIP, however, does not participate in the national elections.
The former Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who lives in Britain and happens to be a UKIP member, refers to the EU as the “EUSSR” because the institution reminds him of the late Soviet Union. He thinks the European Union, like the Soviet Union, cannot be democratized.
Despite its undemocratic nature, the Brussels bureaucrats decide the majority of the legislation that is imposed on Europe’s citizens today. In January 2007, Roman Herzog, the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, wrote that the EU has stealthily eaten away all the powers of the German national parliament. He referred to a report of the German Ministry of Justice which calculated that between 1999 and 2004, 84% of the legal acts in Germany stemmed from unelected EU institutions in Brussels, with only 16% coming from the Bundestag in Berlin.
Last year, the Belgian authorities, in response to a question by Alexandra Colen, a member of the Belgian Parliament, confirmed that a majority (51.8%) of Belgian legislation passed in 2005 were directives from the European Commission which had automatically and without alterations been incorporated into Belgian law by Mrs. Colen and her colleagues. Colen’s question was part of an initiative of the Eurosceptic British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who is attempting to assess how large (or rather how small) the share of legislation emanating from the national parliaments still is in the various EU member states. The number of directives which the Belgian, German and all other 25 national parliaments have to incorporate in their national legislation is the same. The discrepancy between the German figure of 84% and the Belgian figure of 51.8% is caused by the fact that the Belgian Parliament promulgates a lot of its own, mostly unnecessary, legislation while the legislative output of the Bundestag is far leaner.

Given that the European Parliament is not a real parliament, one may wonder what purpose its 736 members serve. The EP’s internal budget is extravagantly high, the MEPs receive a handsome income, which is often the envy of national MPs at home, their perks are lavish, and their lives very comfortable in the Brussels parliamentary office complex, which is aptly called the “Caprice des Dieux” (the whim of the Gods).
The life of an MEP is so attractive that many politicians prefer to stand for election in the EP – though it lacks legislative power – than in the national legislature. Instead of being legislators, MEPs are European lobbyists whose function it is to persuade the members of their parties at home that the EU is an important organization which should not be cut back. Since all national parties of some significance have MEPs, they all have their internal pro-EU lobbyists.
The EP gives its members additional subsidies when they team up in transnational groups. In normal parliaments, all members of parliament are equal since they each represent their respective voters. Not so in the EP. The EP has “privileged” and “underprivileged” MEPs. Members who do not belong to a formally recognized group get less speaking time, may not table amendments in the plenary session, get fewer staff and less financial subsidies. The bigger the group, the bigger the perks and the more extra funding a group receives.
For a group to be formally recognized in the European Parliament, it must consist of 25 MEPs from 7 of the 27 EU member states. This used to be only 20 members from 6 countries, but the rules have been tightened with the specific aim of making it harder to form a group. The MEPs of various national Christian-Democrat parties have all teamed up. So have the Socialists, the Liberals, the Greens, the Far-Left. These groups all favor the transfer of more competences from the national parliaments to the EU. For Eurosceptics, anti-establishment parties and parties which are shunned by all the others, it is more difficult to build a transnational alliance.
In the previous EP, the parties of the outcasts, the so-called “far-right” and the real far-right, were attacked for trying to forge a group which included the party of the Italian politician Alessandra Mussolini. They were ultimately unable to form a group with sufficient members from sufficient countries and consequently deprived of the rights other MEPs enjoyed. Meanwhile, Ms. Mussolini’s party has joined the Christian-Democrat group, but no-one in the press seems to have noticed.
Currently, the British Conservatives are negotiating with others to form a new centre-right group which is more Eurosceptic than the Christian-Democrat Group, to which the British Conservatives belonged so far. UKIP, however, will not be allowed to join this group. This is causing alarm in UKIP circles because parties which used to belong to UKIP’s group are likely to join the new Conservative Group, leaving UKIP in the cold with the outcasts, the so-called “far-right” and the real far-right.
Some parties do not want to join a group on principle, because they attach great importance to their independence and freedom. This is the reason why Geert Wilders has announced that his party will not join any group, thereby renouncing the extra speaking time, extra staff, extra subsidies and all the other advantages of belonging to a group. Mr. Wilders’ decision is a principled decision, but the EU abhors principled decisions of people who value their freedom and independence. Hence, the EP toys with the idea [pdf] to set aside half the seats in the EP for “transnational European lists”, i.e. parties belonging to a formally recognized group, in the next European elections, in 2014, “so as to give the elections a genuine European dimension”.
This will make it twice as hard to win a seat in the European Parliament for the so-called “far-right”, the real far-right, and those who, like UKIP, may end up without a group, or who, like Geert Wilders, want to remain independent on principle.


I can't believe that the government of any European country is permitted, under its own laws, to delegate, by treaty, its legislative, executive, and judicial powers to an international body.  Some treaties are "unconstitutional" or "ultra vires" and are therefore not binding on the governments who entered into them.  (Analogously, our Congress is not permitted to delegate its legislative powers to administrative agencies or to the President.)

not analog

Your example of congress-president (in)competence is not analog to the national government's possibility to delegate (in)competence to an international institution. The whole Lisbon Treaty jokes around that point of constitutionality. As long as 50 states or 27 European Countries 'agree' on a constitutional treaty, the delagation of powers is part of the process.