By Peter Sain ley Berry
In delivering certain ill-advised remarks to the European Parliament about gay men and straight women, Mr Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian Commissioner designate may turn out to have done a greater service to Europe than ever he might have done as Commissioner for Justice.
These remarks, made during the course of the Parliaments hearings of the new European Commission put forward by José Manuel Barroso, served as the trigger for the Parliament as a whole to threaten to reject the whole of Mr Barroso’s Commission, so plunging the European Union into a new political crisis.
That this should come only 48 hours before the new Constitution was to be signed in Rome could be said to be unfortunate, but it is to the Parliament’s credit that it did not allow itself to be dissuaded by this historic occasion from what it regarded as a yet more historic task. Indeed I venture to suggest that those articles on the Parliament will not be read in quite the same light as they were before.
The European Parliament has long been regarded by everyone except its members as something of an ugly duckling. The power that it has comes only at the expense of member states and the Commission itself. For this reason it is unloved and, on the whole, begrudged. It is tolerated because it provides a fig-leaf of democracy to a European construction sorely lacking in this element.
Yet member states fear, with some justification, that too much democracy at the European level could end up undermining the democratic legitimacy of their own Parliaments. And it is for this reason that the existing European treaties only permit the European Parliament to accept or reject a proposed European Commission as a whole. This has been called the nuclear option. The Parliament is forced into giving its approval for fear of the wider consequences of voting ‘no.’
In practice once the Parliament had shown that it had ‘screwed its courage to the sticking-place’ – and was indeed prepared to press the nuclear button if needs be – it did not have to do so. As in the animal kingdom, most confrontations are resolved without a fight. Mr Barroso withdrew his Commission for the purpose of consultation and reshaping. The Parliament had won.
In doing so it gained far more than simply forcing Mr Barroso to remove or re-post a Commissioner whose views a majority thought totally incompatible with his proposed Commission portfolio. For it has gained the right to mount a serious challenge to the conduct of the other European institutions. Never again, I suspect, will we see such a desperate confrontation between the Commission, backed by the member states, on the one hand and the Parliament on the other. Next time a lot more heed will be taken of the Parliament’s views before the Commission is framed in the first place.
And what does this say about the Commission President himself, nominated by Member States and afterwards presented to Parliament for their approval? Earlier this year MEPs had no difficulty in approving Mr Barroso’s nomination for the post of Commission President. But again, I suspect, that the next time the Parliament has to approve a presidential nomination it will prove a very great deal more truculent.
I suspect that it will demand a say in choosing a candidate, not just in the approval process. Moreover, I suspect very strongly that Mr Barroso will be one of the last – if not actually the last – President of the Commission not to have emerged from the ranks of the European Parliament itself.
This will do a very great deal for European democracy by making the Parliament acutely relevant to how Europe is run. If European citizens vote for the left, then let’s have a left wing candidate as Commission President with a left leaning programme that can be given democratic approval in a European election. Ditto for the right. This is surely the way to combat the apathy and low turnout that we witnessed in the European elections this summer, whether in the Czech Republic or in the UK.
So Mr Buttiglione, whatever his European future and whatever his private views on certain moral issues, may have done Europe a great service. And, for this affair has not been only Mr Buttiglione’s, so too may those two or three other Commissioners-designate who were too readily put forward by their governments as a reward for services rendered rather than as the most suitable candidates for a Commission post and whom the Parliament found less than satisfactory.
But from this turbulence, the European Parliament has found a new voice. As the leader of the Liberal Group, Graham Watson, observed ‘Our will was tested and our will prevailed – the voice of democracy has been raised by an octave.’ Truly the occasion was an historic one and ranks among the other great occasions in the history of the democratic process when parliaments, often to their own amazement and certainly to the amazement of others, have seized power and kept it thereafter.
When the new European Constitution comes to be signed in Rome in two days time it will include a new but unwritten chapter. It will be a chapter about the new powers and responsibilities of the European Parliament.
This article was contributed by Peter Sain ley Berry, who may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.