Lisbon will strengthen Parliament’s powers
By Célia Sampol | Monday 29 June 2009
The European Parliament champions the Lisbon Treaty because of the advances it brings to democracy, citizens’ rights and the effectiveness of the EU’s action, but also because the new treaty will give the EP more powers than the Nice Treaty on legislative matters, budgetary control and political scrutiny of the European Commission.
If the Lisbon Treaty is ratified by the 27 member states and enters into force, the European Parliament will be on an almost equal footing with the Council of Ministers on legislative and budgetary matters. Its role as legislator will be fully recognised through general use of the co-decision procedure. Introduced in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty, co-decision will become the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’. Its use will be doubled from 44 areas under the Nice Treaty to 90 under Lisbon. “In future, the public will clearly be able to see that European legislative acts are adopted by the chamber, which represents them and by the chamber which represents states,” notes the EP resolution on the Lisbon Treaty, adopted on 20 February 2008 in Strasbourg.
Co-decision will be extended to sectors on which the European Parliament is currently merely consulted, such as agriculture, fisheries and important policies in the realm of justice and home affairs. The stakes of plenary votes are consequently expected to be higher and negotiations with the Council to be more intense. With the increase in co-decision, the two institutions could also try to come to agreement as often as possible at first reading to speed up decision making – a trend that is already taking shape.
GREATER BUDGETARY POWERS
One of the other benefits of the Lisbon Treaty for Parliament is the strengthening of its budgetary powers. Under the Nice Treaty, the EP is considered the second branch of the budgetary authority, but is not placed on a truly equal footing with the Council of Ministers because it does not have the final say in areas such as agriculture or expenditure in the framework of international agreements, so-called ‘compulsory’ expenditure. With Lisbon, Parliament will take a giant step forward in budgetary power because the historic separation between compulsory spending and non-compulsory spending falls by the wayside. The EP will have a right of scrutiny equal to the Council’s on all budget headings, including those that used to be the exclusive preserve of member states. MEPs also hope to have their say on the budget of the future European External Action Service that will assist the high representative for foreign affairs.
Moreover, the Lisbon Treaty establishes a new single-reading budget procedure, depriving the institutions of the chance to correct their aim at second reading. MEPs are convinced that the Lisbon Treaty will strengthen Parliament’s budgetary powers provided it takes on the means to effectively manage the tighter timeframe. Under the new procedure, the conciliation committee will play a greater role as a body in charge of settling differences of opinion between the two branches of the budgetary authority. It will have to work out a compromise within 21 days. The Lisbon Treaty establishes that the compromise text will not be considered adopted if it is rejected by the EP. On the other hand, if the Council is opposed but MEPs approve it, the compromise will enter into force. Parliament consequently has the final say.
The only disadvantage of Lisbon for Parliament is that the financial perspectives will be included in the treaty as a “multi-annual financial framework” (Article 312 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the Union) and will become legally binding. They will be adopted in the framework by a “special legislative procedure” needing Council unanimity and Parliament approval. Member states will therefore have a real veto right, while parliamentarians will see themselves confined to a rather weak role since they do not have co-decision powers on the matter.
MORE CONTROL OVER EXECUTIVE
Another significant power acquired by the EP under the Lisbon Treaty concerns the appointment of the president of the European Commission. As with Nice, the president will be chosen by the member states acting by qualified majority, except that the choice will have to respect the result of the European elections and be made after “appropriate consultations” with the European Parliament’s political groups. The choice of the Commission president in principle already reflects the election outcome. For example, former Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso, named president of the Commission in 2004, was a member of the EPP, which won the elections. However, as a European source explains, “this rule will now be written in black and white in the treaty and will always have to be applied. So it will prevent the European Council from indulging in internal scheming”. The Nice Treaty does not provide for consultations upstream with Parliament.
By the same token, according to Nice, the president of the Commission, nominated by member states, must then be “approved” by the plenary assembly. This vote of approbation will be organised according to rules defined by the Parliament, ie a majority of the votes cast (a simple majority of those present). Lisbon, on the other hand, clearly states that the head of the executive must be “elected” by the MEPs by a majority of votes in the assembly (an absolute majority, or half of the total number of MEPs plus one). So under Lisbon, the Parliament no longer only has the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the member states’ candidate but rather participates in the entire nomination process. An absolute majority is, of course, harder to obtain than a simple majority. If the proposed candidate does not obtain the required majority, under Lisbon, member states must present an alternative within a month.
These new provisions should, therefore, further strengthen the EP’s political control over the Commission. At present, the EP’s only instrument is the commissioners’ hearings, followed by the vote on the appointment of the president and approval of the college as a whole. Now, it will have its say on the choice of the head of the executive. That could also politicise the Commission further if, in future European election campaigns, the political groups decide to present and defend their own candidate to head the EU executive.
Parliament has also made a point of noting on several occasions that the Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, as vice-president of the Commission (the famous ‘two hats’), must undergo the same appointment procedure before Parliament as any other member of the executive.
Along with these new powers come several important decisions that until now were the Council’s exclusive domain. Under Lisbon, these will require Parliament’s approval. For example, the decision to launch enhanced cooperation, to use the flexibility clause that enables the EU to take measures not foreseen by the treaties with the goal of attaining the objectives set therein, or to use transitional clauses so as to switch from unanimity to qualified majority in a given sector.
Likewise, for international agreements, the EP’s approval will become the rule and in the Common Foreign and Security Policy it will obtain the right to “be informed and consulted”. Lastly, the assembly acquires a “concurrent right of initiative” for treaty revision and may take part in the procedure. n
Co-decision will be extended to sectors on which the European Parliament is currently merely consulted // The new provisions should further strengthen the EP’s political control over the Commission
On 20 February 2008, the Parliament, meeting in plenary in Strasbourg, approved a report by Richard Corbett (PES, UK) and Inigo Mendez de Vigo (EPP-ED, Spain) by 525 votes in favour, 115 against, 29 abstentions. The text is the EP’s position on the treaty signed in Lisbon, on 13 December 2007, by the 27 heads of state and government. It speaks in praise of the merits of the treaty, in particular the bigger role for the European Parliament, but also stresses a few regrets, such as abandoning the constitutional approach inherited from the Convention and references to the flag, the European hymn and the title of European minister of foreign affairs. It criticises the protocol limiting the effects of the Charter of Fundamental Rights on domestic legislation in two member states (United Kingdom and Poland) and calls on all countries to ratify it. Today, ratification of the treaty must still be completed by Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Ireland.