EU must improve 'tension' between commission and parliament

With the Lisbon treaty redrawing the EU's institutional landscape, Paulo Rangel calls for a reassessment of Europe's democratic legitimacy.

By Paulo Rangel

Paulo Rangel (PT, EPP) is an EPP Group Vice-Chair and a Member of Parliament’s LIBE and AFCO Committees

11 Mar 2014

Although the European commission's role as the 'engine' driving forward European activity has not been put into question by the treaty of Lisbon, over the past four years, the commission has, in practice, lost some of its political influence within the European Union's institutional architecture.

Having identified a weakening of the role of the commission, I took the initiative to address the effects of the implementation of the treaty, with respect to the European parliament. The report goes on to give a comprehensive analysis of the way relations between the commission and the parliament have developed since the entry into force of the treaty, and suggests ways forward in reviewing and improving the EU's democratic legitimacy, as provided by the treaty.

Pointing to the institutional tension between parliament and the commission, one of the major problems with the European construction is not so much a question of democratic legitimacy as such, but rather a struggle in achieving a separation of powers. In the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis that worked to the advantage of the European council's intervention and authority, questions arose regarding the validity of the separation of powers within the institutional framework of the EU.

"Instead of enabling the ongoing intergovernmentalism, I call for a deepening of European integration and a safeguarding of the community method"

As a result, my own initiative report tries to clarify the remits of each institution: such as where and how it can act. Instead of enabling the ongoing intergovernmentalism, I call for a deepening of European integration and a safeguarding of the community method. And, in order to put the commission back where it was, the report weighs the current status of the autonomy of Europe's executive and the question of giving this executive the right capacity to act.

It seems that linking the voters' choice in the elections for the European parliament far more directly to the election of the commission's president will make the elections more attractive. This will lead to a greater democratic legitimacy of the commission and, therefore, allow for stronger autonomy for the commission's president-elect, namely in the process of selecting the other members of the college. By giving the commission more powers, more capacity and greater discretion, we also help pave the way for a more efficient Europe.

Keeping this in mind, I considered the problem of the efficient functioning of the next commission. To that end, the report outlines additional measures, further to the political understanding reached by the European council concerning the number of commission members. These measures include the appointment of commissioners without portfolio or the establishment of a system of vice-presidents with responsibilities over major thematic clusters and with competences to coordinate work in their corresponding areas.

These measures should be envisaged for the more effective functioning of the commission, without prejudice to the right to appoint one commissioner per member state or to the voting rights of all commissioners. I believe, however, that the question of the size of the commission, as well as the question of its organisation and functioning should be revisited at the next European convention.

Still, with respect to the legitimacy and political accountability of the commission, I urge the next convention to consider how the commission is formed and I also call on the commission president to consider how the executive's composition, construction and political priorities can strengthen a policy which is close to the citizens. Although changes have been made to ensure that political parties can have their say on the appointment of the commission president, we would still like to see exactly how the electorate can bring its influence to bear.

That said, the report requests a better use of parliamentary scrutiny, which can be achieved by overcoming a number of issues and shortcomings, such as the ongoing deficit on information sharing, the dubious distinction between delegated and implementing acts and other issues like the treatment given to parliamentary questions and legislative initiatives.

Given the provisions of the treaty, we have no other duty than that of strengthening the parliament. At the same time, the balance of powers would be assured by making sure that the commission president had the ability to work effectively and autonomously, doing so within the scope of democratic legitimacy.

The report is expected to be voted in Strasbourg's March plenary session. At this stage, it will cover further ground on the establishment of new political instruments, bound to change Europe's institutional arrangement. One of the major introductions is the proposal for reducing the currently required majority for a motion of censure against the commission, making it more akin to a vote of no confidence. This would improve the scrutiny of parliament without impeding the effectiveness of the commission.

Read the most recent articles written by Paulo Rangel - Future of Europe: Putting citizens front and centre