Time to give Parliament the right of initiative

Giving the European Parliament this power would rebalance the legislative triangle between the three EU institutions, argues Gabriele Bischoff.
The European Parliament | Photo credit: Adobe Stock

By Gabriele Bischoff

04 Jun 2020

The European Parliament, as co-legislator, is a powerful institution. Along with the Council, it decides on the fate of legislative proposals presented by the European Commission. However, as the only Europe-wide directly elected and democratically legitimate institution in the European Union, it still lacks full legislative power.

Article 225 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that, “the European Parliament may, acting by a majority of its component members, request the Commission to submit any appropriate proposal on matters on which it considers that a Union act is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties”.

This provision gives the European Parliament an indirect right of initiative, since it is ultimately up to the Commission to decide whether the request made by the Parliament will lead to a legislative proposal. With the requirements on the Commission being low and merely limited to a justification of its decision, there is virtually no pressure whatsoever to follow up on the European Parliament’s call for a legislative proposal. Thus, in the framework of the Treaty provisions, the Commission still has a de facto monopoly of legislative power.


However, the last ten years have seen major political shifts. While the European Parliament relies heavily on the Commission to set the political agenda, the Council has gained tremendous influence in setting the agenda for the Commission. In formal terms, the Commission has the right of initiative. However, in the last decade we have witnessed the development of an enormous asymmetry in the indirect legislative power between the Council and the European Parliament.

While the Commissions listens carefully and often acts accordingly to calls for legislative action from the Council - particularly when they come directly from the European Council and Heads of State and Governments - requests made by the European Parliament are not afforded the same attention. This has created a de facto imbalance in the legislative triangle between the Commission and the two co-legislators while also weakening the role of the Commission.

"With each new treaty, the role of Parliament in legislative procedures has been expanded. Is it now time for the final step?"

With each new treaty, the role of Parliament in legislative procedures has been expanded. Is it now time for the final step? Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, proposed – just before her election – to respond with a proposal for a legislative act whenever Parliament, acting by a majority of its members, adopts a resolution requesting that the Commission submit legislative proposals. With this, she more or less recalls what is already included in the interinstitutional agreement of 2010.

Now that the Commission has taken up its work and responded to the most urgent actions needed following the Coronavirus crisis, it is time to address the imbalance between the two co-legislators and – as a first step – explore ways to strengthen the right of initiative immediately. What can be done now, while treaty changes are still in the future? The planned Conference on the Future of Europe provides a good framework to address the shortcoming of the current provisions in terms of legislative power and the growing lack of balance.

European legislation is made for European citizens. Therefore, it is essential to listen to citizens and to react to their expectations. This concerns both policy issues and fundamental questions of democracy and decision-making processes. Treaty changes are no longer out of the question. Therefore, the argument that it is now time to confer full legislative power to the Parliament is gaining momentum.

Until recently, treaty changes seemed highly unlikely and even impossible in the near future. However, recent statements made by Angela Merkel at the presentation of the Franco-German proposal for the European recovery programme have changed that considerably. Chancellor Merkel underlined that the Conference on the Future of Europe should not exclude treaty changes. Other governments also expressed their interest, although some remain critical or strictly opposed to such an initiative. This is nothing new and resemblances the situation prior the Maastricht reforms.

"In the 2019 elections, the right of initiative became quite a mainstream position of many pro-European parties. This gives the issue some momentum"

In 1990, the European Parliament, in its resolution on the then upcoming Intergovernmental Conference, emphasised the need for the right of initiative as a key element for a democratically structured political union. In the Convention, unfortunately this did not fl y. Would it be different this time? In the 2019 elections, the right of initiative became quite a mainstream position of many pro- European parties. This gives the issue some momentum.

While a European Parliament with full legislative power would rebalance the legislative triangle, it would need to be accompanied by further changes. As long as the Council can block proposals that are not welcomed by all EU Member States, progress will be limited. The shift from unanimity towards qualified majority voting is equally important when it comes to rebalancing the legislative powers between the EU institutions.