In the second of a series of articles about the institutions of the European Union, Robert Hosking looks at the role of the EU's only directly elected decision-making body and asks whether it really does anything to make the Union more democratic.


Most mainstream discussion on democracy within the European Union (EU) will, at some stage or another, prsent the European Parliament (EP) as the privileged instrument of citizen participation within Europe, without considering if it is democracy being exemplified, or, indeed, celebrated.


Certainly, the EP is the only governing body of the EU which to some degree ‘represents’ the people of the Union. It is the institution where Community legislation, proposed by the Council of Ministers and the Commission, is debated, amended and in some cases rejected, and where aspects of the EU budget are prepared, approved of and adopted.


This may be so, but a superficial glance at cold data avoids a rather pertinent issue and one worthy of investigation. In any system of political control where obedience is demanded, particular rules must be applied which will pursue particular ends. In this case, the rules and ends of the EU are defined by an authoritarian elite who, in their turn, are the privileged members of some of the richest, most powerful and violent nation-states in the world. Any political institution caught within this insidious nexus and concerned with its own survival, will certainly try to adopt, or at least accommodate itself to those determined rules and ends, thus subjecting its reason and behaviour to the particular guidelines and prescriptions dictated. Guaranteed obedience is obtained when the political institution in question - in this case the European Parliament -  is in conformity with the rules and ends prescribed. 


So, what exactly are some of those rules and ends, those that a tiny body, made up of no more than thirty-two individuals, “shall provide” for the 370 million citizens of the European Union, whilst defining “the general political guidelines” for the Union as a whole, and the EP in particular? [i]


Certainly, it is not for the freely elected body to sit in on the European Council’s meetings which “are held in private” and where no record of proceedings will ever be published [ii] .  Nor is it considered good manners for the EP to assist the Commission or Council of Ministers in their deliberations, for these two particular European institutions are in no “position to appeal to public opinion” as their functions cannot be fulfilled “without the co-operation of national governments,” i.e. the European Council [iii] . In other words, all collective decisions within the Union are “negotiated between national elites with no direct involvement of the public in the political process” [iv] . It is apparent that the end in view for the European Parliament is to be the only parliament in the world which has no real power, that is, no power to legislate alone.


To a certain extent, the European Union can be imagined as consisting of three executive bodies, albeit with differing powers. Heading the pecking order is the European Council, made up of the heads of government, the member states’ foreign ministers and the President of the Commission. There is the Council of Ministers, composed of ministers from each member state empowered to take decisions on behalf of their governments, and finally the Commission itself, a body of twenty members chosen by the European Council. 


The EP does have control over one of these bodies, that is, it can shape the Commission by confirming or rejecting it as a whole. A significant degree of power one may conclude, before realising that the Commission’s resignation can only take place after a new Commission has been chosen by the Council, and this new Commission could contain exactly the same members as the old. If, in such a situation, the EP cannot approve of the new Commission then the old will remain in office [v] .


The Parliament also has the power to control some of the processes of the EU’s budget and legislation. The former issue will be dealt with elsewhere, but for now we may safely consider that the budget is extremely insignificant when compared with member states’ GDP, and used more as a regulatory tool rather than one suited to distribution.  This means that the Union must not directly provide services, but rather, allow the private sector to provide them, while the Union  ‘regulates’ the content and standard of that provision,  a device that is loaded with ideological implications. In the latter case, we find that not only is this legislative power severely limited but in some circumstances extremely superficial.


European law is always proposed by the Commission or the Council of Ministers, but never by the Parliament. When formulated it is either offered to the EP so that it may express an opinion on it, a practice known as the ‘consultation procedure.’  Or offered to the EP that it might propose amendments, a system known as the ‘co-operation procedure’;  or in some particular cases, the freely elected body does have the power to endorse and reject European law, but only in co-operation with the Council of Ministers. This practice is known as the ‘co-decision procedure,’ and involves such issues as those involved in the free movement of workers, most environmental law, the accession of new member states, and the “organisation and objectives of the Structural and Cohesion funds and the tasks and powers of the European Bank” [vi] .


This does suggest that the EP has a certain amount of power, no matter how compromised, but this power must not be confused with or considered a European democratic power; if, that is, we understand European democracy as powers authorised by European public opinion.


To start with, there is hardly any European political debate to arouse public opinion, most debate and all European election campaigns being decided by national issues, not European. Voters do not choose between European parties but national parties that only after the election join broad, European political groups in Parliament. Competition for power in the European arena, therefore, is competition of domestic, not European preferences. This means that European elections are in fact “second-order national contests”, that if held just before or after a national election “tend to mirror it,” and if held “during the mid-term of a national parliament...tend to register an anti-government swing” [vii] . In other words, one may safely conclude that European “electoral outcomes can neither be interpreted as preferences for the prospective development of Union policies...nor taken as comments on the performance of the EP or EU over the previous five years” [viii] . Two sentences that pretty much deny the terms "representation and accountability".


One may continue this investigation of the EP and the idea of European democracy by studying the ever-decreasing citizen participation in each European election since 1979, highlighting the public’s concern that its voice really does make very little difference. Or we may study the very close and warm relationship between the European Parliament and those powerful lobbies dominated by multinational and economic interest groups. The frequency in which the two big political groups, the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PSE), vote together indicates that the Parliament is predominately a cartel of European politicians “colluding to carve up the benefits that accrue from the exercise of parliamentary powers” [ix] , as well as the absence of any meaningful discourse in mainstream media that would highlight public awareness of choices intrinsic to EU integration and the necessary processes of policy making.


It is clear that the erosion of democracy within the EU has corresponded directly to the centralisation of power in the executive. The very question of European democracy; the rights of people to decide and control those decisions that not only affect themselves but also their children and future generations, must finally be rejected as useless and superfluous as we witness ultimate power emerging from this authoritarian elite.


One fundamental role of this autocratic class of individuals has been to define the circumstances and conditions in which forms of participation in the decision making process will take place. It is by defining the conditions in which democracy is considered ‘legitimate,’ when the legitimate use of democracy has been clearly defined that its “autonomy can be assured” [x] . The question, then, is not to ask how democratic the European Parliament is, but rather, how is this legitimacy defined, by whom and under what conditions has it been constructed, so that obedience and submission is guaranteed? As we have briefly seen, the European Parliament’s role and that of citizen participation in the exercise of democracy has been carefully provided for by a highly centralised, oligopolistic state bureaucracy that is generally termed, rather ignorantly, as the European Union.



[i] See Article 4 of the common provisions of the Maastricht Treaty; “The European Council shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and shall define the general political guidelines thereof.”


[ii] Hartley, T. C. (1994) The Foundations Of European Community Law, Third Edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press. pp 17.


[iii] Ibid., pp 17 & 13.


[iv] Lord, C. (2001) Democracy and Democratization in the European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University. pp 170.


[v] Hartley, T. C. (1994) The Foundations Of European Community Law, Third Edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press. pp 37.


[vi] Heffernan, R. Venters, G. (2002) The Architecture of the European Union / Glossary, Milton Keynes, The Open University. pp 11.


[vii] Lord, C. (2001) Democracy and Democratization in the European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University. pp 174 & 175.


[viii] Ibid., pp 175.


[ix] Ibid., pp 177.


[x] Foucault, M. (1991) The Foucault Reader, An Introduction to Foulcault’s Thought, edited by Paul Rabinow, London, Peguin Books. pp 38.