Of all the challenges the French Presidency of the European Council wants to address over its six-month stint, the issue of the European Parliament’s legislative powers would initially not appear to be a prominent one
But it has been mentioned before, and President Emmanuel Macron did go on the record with it in the European Parliament’s Strasbourg hemicycle when he began his speech by reminding MEPs of what he called the three historic promises of post-war Europe, democracy, prosperity and peace.
The first, democracy, was now under threat, said Macron, as “we are discovering again today how the Rule of Law and democracy can become fragile”, but he explained, the relative success - compared to authoritarian states - of dealing with the pandemic had shown liberal democracies were vibrant and effective.
The French presidency will propose, along with Germany, Parliament's right to propose legislation.”
Emmanuel Macron, President of France
As one of several ways to strengthen democracy and the “sovereignty of the people”, the President added that, “the French presidency will propose, along with Germany - the coalition agreement [of the new government] was very clear about it - Parliament's right to propose legislation.”
He was rewarded with extended applause with many MEPs expressing their appreciation.
MEPs in the current Parliament have already gone a good way towards a more proactive role in legislating by preparing comprehensive own-initiative reports on important new regulations like the Migration Pact or the Fitfor55 climate package, while the European Commission – currently the only institution to initiate legislation - is preparing its proposals.
To grant a proper right of initiative, an EU treaty change would be needed. Referring to the recent surveillance scandal involving Pegasus spyware, Katalin Czeh a vice-president of the Renew Europe political group in the European Parliament that includes Macron’s own party, reminded the French president that there are more pressing issues, more easily addressed, when it comes to defending liberal democracy:
“If governments in Europe can continue to use secret service weapons against political opponents (…) without any consequences, then we cannot speak of democracy anymore”, Czeh argued, calling for Macron to include the Pegasus relevations in the upcoming talks about the Article 7 Rule of Law procedures against Poland and Hungary. The talks have been moved forward from May to March by the French Presidency this week.
With the French presidential elections starting in April, many French MEPs from parties other than the president’s used their speaking time to make statements more befitting a national election campaign debate than a European Parliament one.
The first, and perhaps most poignant example was provided by the Green/EFA Group’s Yannick Jadot, himself a candidate in the French presidential elections, who, turning towards the president and addressing him directly, called Macron “the president of climate inaction”.
This was duly criticised by French Renew Group MEPs but also led to raised eyebrows on the part of many others, including from his own political group:
Parliament's newly elected President Roberta Metsola, chairing the debate, was also not amused, calling for respect for the institution: “this is not a national debate”, she pleaded.
However, as pointed out by Isabell Ory, a Brussels-based correspondent for Swiss television and the French weekly L’Express, in fairness, French national parliamentarians will get no chance for a debate with the president in their chambers:
“It must sound pretty crazy to my European friends, but Emmanuel Macron's speech in Strasbourg was one of the few chances for French elected officials to debate with him since his election. In France, the President of the Republic does not go to the National Assembly or the Senate.”