European Parliament, Future of the EU, the Netherlands

Debating the European Parliament is possible

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On 6 June, in the municipal house of the city of The Hague, a roundtable debate took place, entitled ‘Towards a new parliament? The European Parliament after the 2014 elections‘. The invited speakers featured both prominent academics like Christophe Crombez (Stanford University/University of Leuven) and Claes de Vrees (Univeristy of Amsterdam), politicians like Wim van de Camp (a Member of the European Parliament from the Christian Democrats), and the expert Tom de Bruijn (former Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the EU and current member of the Dutch Council of State, also an external teaching Fellow at the Institute of Public Administration). The debate was organized by the Institute of Public Administration of Leiden University and the Standing Group of the European Union of the European Consortium for Political Science Research (ECPR) with the support of the European Commission Representation to the Netherlands, the Dutch Minisitry of Foreign Affairs and the Hague municipality which co-sponsored the debate. The roundtable took place in the large atrium of the municipality, while somewhere upstairs negotiations on the new city government were still under way.

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Most of the public were academics – the debate was part of the 7th Pan-European Conference on the EU – but, quite amazingly, people from all walks of life showed up as well – from secondary school students to journalists to retired civil servants. If anything, the full hall and lively discussion showed that debating the future of Europe with a broader public is not only necessary, but also possible.

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The moderator, Joop Hazenberg, asked a number of questions about the speakers’ assessment of the results of the European Parliament elections, their vision of the future priorities and the future President of the Commission. Then there were questions from the floor.

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Two of the speakers – Crombez and de Vreese were more positive than many may have expected on the entry of populist parties in the European parliament, rightly observing that these parties represent views that also have their place and are healthy for the debate. Van de Camp suggested that low turnout in EP elections is the result of lack of education on the EU in secondary schools, a view which was challenged by a member of the audience who was a secondary school pupil.

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De Vreese shared results from his public opinion work which suggest that even more liberal parts of the Dutch electorate are negative towards some member states citizens. This left the audience wondering what the current views and expectations of the Dutch public are with regard to the Internal market.

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Van de Camp was quite optimistic about Dutch companies taking advantage of the final opening of the market for services, yet did not respond to questions on how this would affect the free movement of labour in the Netherlands. De Bruijn highlighted a common energy policy as an urgent priority for Europe. The questions touched on EMU, human rights and the EU, internal market and the selection of the new Commission president. On the latter, the members of the panel were divided: while Crombez felt that making Mr. Juncker the next Commission President would strengthen democracy in the EU, de Brujin pointed out that Mr Juncker was not even on the list of the European People’s Party candidates. With this, a lively debate was finished as one of the highlights of an even livelier conference. This format mixing politicians and academics and using a public venue seems to hold some promise for all involved: academics, politicians, experts and the public.The very exchange of views is creating a better awareness where democracy in the EU is weak and what we can do to change this.

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Academic research on the EU, Europe in the news, European Parliament

The Politicization of the EU Commission

Last week the European Parliament has given its backing to Tonio Borg becoming the European commissioner for health. He was put forward by Malta to replace John Dalli, who resigned last month over allegations of fraud. The newly nominated EU commissioner had to dispel his image as a Roman Catholic hardliner in a bid to win MEPs’ approval in the hearing before two Parliament committees – for the environment, public health and food safety, and for internal market and consumer protection – that took place at 13 November. Borg came under criticism for his socially conservative views, on women’s rights, homosexuality and abortion. The hearing saw Liberal and Green deputies accuse him of homophobia and backward-looking views on contraception.  But the nominated EU health commissioner obviously has overcome concerns about his Roman Catholic views and won MEPs’ approval by a clear majority. In a vote during the plenary session in Strasbourg on 21 November, 386 mostly right leaning MEPS supported Borg, with 281 voting ‘No’ to his appointment and 28 abstentions. His antagonists in the EP said they will watch him like a hawk.

This confrontation in parliament, together with previous incidents, with Rocco Buttiglione in 2004 and Bulgaria’s embattled nominee, Rumiana Jeleva in 2010, illustrate how firm the grip of the EP has become in the selection of the EU Commission. In the September issue of the International Review of Administrative Sciences (Vol 78, Number 3) the article ‘The Politicization of the EU Commission’ explains how strengthened democratic control and accountability over the EU executive has politicized the selection of EU commissioners. This has become noticeable in the access and exit procedures of this part of the EU executive, but also in shifts in the demand and supply-factors in the process of EU executive recruitment. An analysis of the careers of commissioners shows ‘who’ is eligible for executive office. Shifts towards political professionalization have made that an extensive career through political institutions has become the most common route for entering the Commission. A look at the political background of Tonio Borg shows that his career fits well in this pattern of recruitment of commissioners. Not a technocratic background but political competences have become relevant for holding this office.

European Parliament

Early agreements in the European Union co-decision procedure: democracy versus efficiency?

This is a guest post from our colleague at Leiden  Anne Rasmussen
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The co-decision procedure, which became the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ of the European Union with the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), has been the subject of a number of adaptations during its relatively short history. One of the most important and most controversial of these developments is the increased use of the so-called ‘early agreements’.

An ‘early agreement’ means that a deal is reached between a few key representatives from the European Parliament (EP) and the Council in a so-called trilogue, at a moment at which neither the EP nor the Council has adopted a formal position. Deals reached are subsequently presented to the full legislative bodies of the Council and the EP but in such a way that it is practically impossible to amend them. Thus, the average members of the legislative bodies are put under a severe pressure to accept what is on the table.

There has been a clear trend to expand the use of first reading conclusions over time, because they result in time savings and efficiency gains. In spite of this, there has been no shortage of criticism of first reading deals among academic scholars, commentators and the EU institutions themselves. Concerns relate to the lack of transparency entailed in negotiation processes, which often allow for systematic exclusion of important actors.

Another concern raised about these deals is that they are being pushed through in a fast manner without adequate time for deliberation and control of the legislators who negotiate them. Scholars even go as far as to speak of “a trade-off, a normative choice between the claims of efficiency and democracy, as democracy is not primarily about the speed of the decision-making process”. Statewatch echoes this criticism by pointing out how “the efficiency of decision-making is enhanced at the expense of transparency, openness and accountability”.

The claim that early agreements allow for less time for deliberation and negotiation has not been tested systematically so far. To assess the seriousness of this part of the critique of early agreements, Dimiter Toshkov and I have examined whether early agreements are reached faster than other deals, and whether there is any pattern in the duration of the different kinds of deals depending on the saliency and controversy of the legislative dossiers.

Our findings show that even if fast-track legislation restricts access for certain actors to decision making, early agreements on salient legislation allow more time for substantive debate and negotiations during the first reading stage. Hence, when we compare the length of the first readings for salient files concluded here and later in the legislative process, we see that first readings on the first group of files last longer. This indicates that the co-legislators compensate for some of the lost time from not going to second reading by extending the length of the first reading negotiations when the deals are salient. Moreover, rather than finding evidence that deals are pushed through quickly irrespective of how controversial they are, we find that the co-legislators spend more time on the first reading negotiation period the greater the level of political disagreement between them.

Finally, we find a trend for early agreements to last longer over time that is robust to controlling for characteristics of the negotiated files.  This coincides with the EP having introduced stricter procedures for the conduct of early negotiations that require negotiators to report back to their committee regularly and collect mandates. Negotiation of fast-track legislation looks different today from the early period of first reading deals discussed among commentators and academic scholars. In this way, it appears that the number of initiatives that the EP has undertaken to formalize, clarify and institutionalize the procedures according to which early agreements are concluded have had an effect. Hence, the increased amount of time spent on concluding first reading deals coincides with the implementation of the reforms.

Much work remains to systematically examine the consequences of early agreements. However, what seems clear based on the results of our analysis is that the EP has adapted to the changing nature of the co-decision procedure and that these adaptations seem to have contributed to a more thorough treatment of fast-track legislation.