Rethinking the European Parliament
By: Sam Thomas
Who is your MEP (Member of the European Parliament)? It’s a question I am hard pressed to answer, and one that most other people from the UK would also struggle to answer correctly. A survey from the Observer in 2014 found only 11% of UK voters could name an MEP of their region as opposed to 51% who could name their MP. Despite the fact that MEP's are directly elected, there is a disconnect between voters and who represents them on the European level. This is not a problem particular to Britain either.
Despite the national humiliation that Brexit is inflicting on the UK, EU leaders should be wary of shrugging off the threat that populist parties pose to the European project. It is still far too easy for governments to blame their problems on the EU.
In December 2018, the renowned economist Thomas Piketty (best known for his book Capital in the 21st Century) led a group of academics across Europe to think about how Europe, and in particular EU institutions, might be improved in their Manifesto for the Democratisation of Europe. They argue that “since the election of anti-European governments across the EU, and with Brexit looming, it is no longer possible to continue as before. We cannot simply wait for the next departures, or further dismantling without making fundamental changes to present-day Europe.”
There is one particular idea to fundamentally change Europe that struck me: reforming the European Parliament. But first, how does it currently operate?
There are currently 751 MEPs who sit in the European Parliament, and are directly elected by EU members. The number of MEPs each country receives is proportional to the population - for example, Germany has 96 MEPs whereas Estonia has 6.
The European Commission (another EU institution) is the body that proposes new laws for EU countries. The proposed law then has to be approved by two bodies: the European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union (made up of national government ministers). The law will pass back and forth between the two institutions until they both agree with the wording and content of the new law. This is similar to how laws in the UK are passed between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
In the European Parliament MEPs are divided into 20 committees, each of which handles a different policy area. The laws are then analysed in the relevant committee where amendments are often put forward. Finally, for 4 days per month the entire EU Parliament convenes in a plenary session to vote on the proposed legislation and amendments.
In their manifesto, Piketty’s group proposes the creation of a European Assembly to sit alongside the European Parliament. The purpose of this Assembly would be to approve the sweeping new taxes they envisage introducing Europe-wide. The exciting part about this Assembly is its composition. They suggest that 20% would be made up of MEPs but the remaining 80% would be national members of Parliament who would convene to approve laws. I would go one step further and suggest this structure should replace the existing European Parliament.
How would this work? If this institution replaced the European Parliament, I would propose a 50/50 split between MEPs and national parliamentary members. MEPs would be elected directly just as they are now, and would continue to do their vital work on committees scrutinising legislation. The change would come in the plenary sessions when MEPs vote on whether to approve or reject legislation.
On a monthly basis, MEPs would be joined by national MPs to vote on EU legislation. For example, the UK currently elects 73 MEPs. Instead the UK would directly elect 37 MEPs to sit permanently just as they do now. The remaining 36 seats would be filled for four days every month by national MPs representative of the current sitting Parliament. Thus, because the Conservative Party currently has the highest number of MPs it would send the greatest number of MPs to the European Parliament – roughly 18 under the current government. Labour would send around 14, the SNP 2, the Liberal Democrats 1 and the DUP 1. National MPs would vote directly on EU legislation. Moreover, I would suggest that included in these MPs must be the leader of each party, so Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer would have to form part of the contingent that goes to the EU every month (however, the composition of the remaining membership could change based on the content of the laws discussed at each session).
What are the benefits of this structural change? Firstly, it would increase the legitimacy of EU institutions. It would be much harder to blame Brussels for EU laws if the leaders of each state were directly voting on them. This in turn would increase their accountability for the laws that are passed. MPs once they arrived back in their home countries would be held to account by their peers for the actions they did or did not take in the European Parliament.
Above all, it would increase knowledge in what the EU Parliament does. In the UK, national news rarely (if ever) covers the workings of the EU Parliament. If MPs sat in the EU Parliament this would change. Once a month news coverage would shift to Brussels/Strasbourg, following the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to cover events there. It would inject much needed vitality into proceedings. Imagine Boris Johnson debating with Angela Merkel, or with Emmanuel Macron on the Parliamentary floor? At last there might be a reason to closely watch EU Parliamentary proceedings. Citizens across Europe would see democracy in action much more visibly than they do now. In the current political climate, the benefits of increased legitimacy, accountability and visibility are hard to overstate. It’s time to rethink the European Parliament and end the Brussels blame game.