Open Europe Blog

In a new report published this morning we assess the track record of the European parliament and conclude that it has failed as an institution on a number of fronts. Although many individual MEPs work hard and conscientiously for their constituents, the European Parliament as a whole has failed to gain popular democratic legitimacy. Still, given that the EP now has a lot of power to decide law that impacts on people’s every day life – from working hours to browsing the web – there’s a lot of reason to vote in the European elections.

Here are the key findings:

  • Turnout has fallen despite an increase in MEPs’ powers: While the use of ‘co-decision’, under which MEPs have equal status with national ministers in passing EU legislation, has more than doubled during the last two decades – from 27% to 62% – turnout in European elections has fallen from 57% to 43%. Yes, yes, correlation not causation (as the old twitter cliché goes) but point is: if the EP was effective in closing the democratic deficit, we would see exactly the opposite trend. 
  • There is no correlation between voter turnout and knowledge of the European Parliament or interest in EU affairs: A common explanation for low turnout in European elections is a lack of public knowledge of EU politics and the EU institutions yet this is not borne out by our research. For example, in Romania 81% and Slovakia 79% of people say they are aware of the European Parliament but only 28% and 20% turned out to vote in 2009.

Likewise, low turnout cannot be explained by a lack of interest – in the Netherlands, 61% say they were interested in European affairs – the highest in the EU – yet the turnout of voters at 36% is one of the lowest.

  • The main party groups in the European Parliament agree with each other three quarters of the time: It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched any of the ‘debates’ between Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker that, despite representing national parties of different political traditions, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Socialist and Democrat (S&D) party families voted the same way 74% of the time in the 2009-14 parliament. Meanwhile, the average majority in co-decision votes in the 2009-14 parliamentary term is over 75% – the highest it has ever been. In effect, this denies the voters the very same choice the EP is meant to boost. 
  • In 2012, the European Parliament spent €85 million on fostering a common European political identity through the party groups in the European Parliament and their affiliated pan-European parties and political foundations outside the parliament. This is only part of a budget that has been spiralling out of control – up from €1.4bn in 2008 to around €1.75bn in 2014.
So those are some of the key problems – what about the solutions? While there is no quick easy fix to what is a complex and multi-faceted problem, the single most effective remedy would be to return democratic accountability closer to voters by boosting the role of national parliaments in the EU decision making process and not repeating the mistake of giving more powers to the European Parliament.
This would involve national parliaments being able to group together to block proposed EU laws and amend or repeal existing rules (see here for more details on this). In parallel, the European Parliament should be stripped of its right to increase the EU budget as it is national parliaments that are responsible for raising the revenue. In addition, MEPs should not be able to veto EU trade agreements agreed by national parliaments.

Meanwhile, the €85 million spent on fostering a common European political identity through the party families in the parliament and their affiliated pan-European political parties and foundations should be cut. The 2009 reforms to MEPs’ allowances should be completed by requiring all allowances, such as the general expenditure allowance (worth €51,588 a year) which is vulnerable to misuse, to be conditional on the production of receipts.

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