What does the European Parliament do?

European Parliament building in Brussels

Following on from the interesting remarks by Vaclav Klaus reported in this blog yesterday, it is interesting to look at the Civitas factsheet on the European Parliament. (Civitas is a eurosceptic thinktank that has published a series of factsheets on different aspects of the European Union, apparently having consulted people from different parts of the argument to make them as neutral and balanced as possible. I have my doubts about how neutral and balanced they actually are, as we shall see from my comments below.)

The factsheet starts like this (and you can read the whole document here):

“The European Parliament (EP) is the only directly elected EU institution and, as such, is seen as giving democratic legitimacy to the EU. However, it does not have the powers of a normal national parliament in that it cannot propose new legislation: it can only accept, reject or put forward amendments to laws proposed by the Commission. This has contributed to an image problem for the EP, with many European voters unsure of its role and exceptionally low turnouts in EU elections.”

The first sentence is broadly fine, if one overlooks the “is seen” remark and its implication that this is not in fact the case and, secondly, the complete neglect of the argument that the participation of member state governments and parliaments and their ratification of the EU treaties also has a bearing on the legitimacy of the EU. No, I want to take issue with the second sentence, that the distinguishing feature of a member state parliament is that it can propose legislation.

Going back to President Klaus yesterday, in his view, the crucial characteristic is that “part of the MPs support the government and part support the opposition.” The crucial point is that the parliament is ideologically divided, not that it can propose laws.

In Westminster, how many private members bills become law? And do the voters go to the polls because of the possibility that their MP might come top of the ballot and get to propose a bill? A private members bill only has a chance of becoming law if the government supports it or, at least, does not oppose it. It is the ideological character of the parliament that matters, not its right of initiative.

One of the attractions of the Lisbon treaty is that it would tend to increase the ideological character of the European Parliament. If the elections had the function of choosing, indirectly, the president of the European Commission, then the party political divide in the EP would get sharper and Vaclav Klaus, for one, would be happier. However, judging by other things they have written on their purportedly neutral website, Civitas would be less happy, so maybe it makes sense for them to focus on a different criticism of the European Parliament.

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