Viewpoints: European Parliament powers

The European Parliament was long considered the "poor relation" in the EU's power structure, dwarfed by the Commission and the national governments represented in the Council.

But the Lisbon Treaty has given MEPs "co-decision" powers in most policy areas, including agriculture and the EU budget. The recent Swift deal showed the parliament's clout, with MEPs negotiating extra safeguards for bank data transfers to the US.

BBC News asked a range of MEPs how they feel about their new powers under Lisbon and whether they think the 736-member parliament is democratic enough.

Diana Wallis (UK), centrist Liberal Democrat ALDE

The European Parliament has clearly been the big winner, with new powers as co-legislator. The Commission now applies equal treatment in terms of access to information and participation to member states and the European Parliament.

The reality of Parliament's new ambitions was seen in the vote on Swift - this Parliament is prepared to vote down an international agreement negotiated by member states when it sees it as offending against the rights and expectations of Europe's peoples.

This was done very publicly. What the Parliament now has to avoid is getting sucked into so-called "first reading agreements" on legislation. The Parliament can push for up to three readings, and this right is essential to safeguard open and transparent law-making at European level - but it has to be used.

Likewise, the Council has to accept its position as a European co-legislator and step out into the glare of transparency - admitting that its officials and politicians are lobbied in the EU legislative process. The Council must now join the joint register of lobbyists of Commission and Parliament, instead of refusing point-blank to participate. This would be a real advance for European democracy.

Lothar Bisky (Germany), head of left-wing GUE/NGL group

With the Lisbon Treaty in force there has been a lot of talk in the European Parliament about its increased power in decision making - it's just that: talk.

Parliament is actually not acting on its supposed new powers. Of course it has flexed its muscles to bring about some positive results, such as the rejection of the Swift agreement in February. But in the new vote on Swift [on 8 July] it has certainly shown its unwillingness to defend European citizens.

Whichever role the European Parliament plays depends very much on how closely and efficiently it co-operates with the other EU institutions.

Without question, deals are being made behind the scenes. There are both advantages and drawbacks to this. If too many deals are being made behind closed doors it is a threat to transparency and democracy.

Nevertheless, behind-the-scenes deals sometimes allow for greater efficiency in parliamentary work - as long as it's a balanced deal between equal partners and not a master/servant relationship. At the end of the day, serving the interests of citizens is what matters.

Danuta Huebner (Poland), centre-right European People's Party

Theoretically the Parliament is more powerful than under the Nice Treaty. Where we are on equal footing with the Council in the legislative process, we have the right to be more visible, active and present in the pre-legislative, political debate.

The problem is that the strength of each institution depends also on the quality of inter-institutional co-operation. Those parliamentarians who believe that our strength comes from the weakness of other institutions are wrong. I am also afraid that some of the political groups put too much emphasis on ideology.

Today we need first of all pragmatic solutions, based on a Community approach. We must get out of the crisis, put in place regulations that will reduce the risk of new crises and place the European economy on a long-term growth path. To achieve it, the Parliament must not just flex its muscles.

There is so much to do in Europe, to avoid its marginalisation, that whatever we do and whatever is cooked up and decided behind closed doors must pass the test of Community interest. This is a challenge for all of us but, I would say, especially for the Council.

Timothy Kirkhope (UK), European Conservatives and Reformists

I think it's still too early to judge how much our powers have increased. We have only had a European Commission in place for five months, so there has not been the normal flow of legislation.

However, there are some important areas in which the parliament has flexed its muscles. Particularly unfortunate for me was the rejection in February of the so-called Swift agreement on exchanging financial information on potential terrorists with the USA. Some MEPs did have genuine civil liberties concerns, but many also just wanted to make a point about their new powers. It was disappointing that they chose such a vital agreement on which to make it.

I am increasingly concerned by the number of decisions that are coming to the parliament at first reading, pre-agreed between the lead MEPs on that subject and the Council of Ministers (national governments). We need more transparency in the EU, and asking MEPs to vote on a deal agreed behind the scenes does not provide it.

The Lisbon Treaty also creates new powers for national parliaments to scrutinise and even block EU legislation. I do not yet think that many of them are taking advantage of them, and I hope they will.

Rebecca Harms (Germany), Greens/EFA

Under the treaties MEPs are more powerful now, but we still have to develop and fight for our role.

In the Swift debate MEPs showed that the parliament can even stop an international negotiation on such a matter. But in the end MEPs behaved surprisingly weakly - in the second-round vote there wasn't really a discussion of the compromise.

It was as if some children had behaved badly and after some serious meetings with the grandparents the children decided 'OK, we've gone far enough this time'.

Parliament is learning that it has new power, but it's not really fit to use it yet, not really able to stand up to pressure from the Council.

On the budget we have an interesting battle ahead - the nuclear fusion project Iter is now 300% over cost, even before any real construction. European participation should have been 2.4bn euros [£2bn], but now it's 7.25bn euros.

I'm sceptical about the first-reading agreements [with the Commission and Council]. I often feel MEPs are not able to play on the same level as the Council and Commission. Sometimes it's much better to get the whole parliament involved in decision-making. First-reading deals should be the exception, not the rule.

As for the Commission's infringement procedures [against member states] - are we only ever going to learn about them from the papers or a Commission press conference? And new Commission legislation - at what stage do we learn about it? We are hearing about initiatives by chance or via the press, and that's not OK.

Pervenche Beres (France), centre-left Socialists and Democrats

Parliament has lived up to its role as an ambitious co-legislator in the field of financial regulation and supervision.

But on the economic and social crisis I deplore the European Parliament's lack of involvement in drafting the EU's 2020 strategy and in the current discussions on enhanced economic governance - even though Article 121-6 of the Lisbon Treaty grants Parliament co-decision powers.

Despite the new powers it has won with the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament still has to fight for its prerogatives against the Commission and Council. But it also has to act as a mature institution. It must ensure that it doesn't undermine its own powers by giving in to pressure and agreeing to informal deals before the democratic debate has truly taken place.

(MEPs spoke to the BBC's Bruno Boelpaep and Laurence Peter.)

Here are some of your comments on this story:

D Fear, Heidelberg, Germany, says:

This will improve democracy in Europe - however, the nation states still have the real say-so, and their governments are all too often in the thrall of lobbies (see the financial sector, one where the UK has played a particularly bad role). We can but hope that in the very near future, the European parliament will indeed 'flex its muscles' to the benefit of the citizens - even if this means directly opposing some national governments, who, as a rule, are more concerned about votes and their clientele than about the citizenry (see Germany).

Peter Walker, London, UK says:

The MEPs talk about power, but with that comes a responsibility to the people they represent. I feel that in the UK those politicians are remote from the rest of us, perhaps because of the voting system, where in London, for example, not one of the elected group represents a particular area. No MEP writes any article in my local paper, yet before the system was changed, when one of them represented North London she regularly explained, albeit briefly, what was happening. I am therefore disenchanted with the system, although I write regularly on EU law topics for a Chamber of Commerce magazine, and in the 1990s one of my now out-of-print books was entitled 'Taking your business into Europe.' In my opinion our MEPs must do more to explain to the members of the electorate their views, and what is happening in the EU.

Thomas Fillis, Darmstadt, Germany, says:

Being a British Citizen living in another EU country (Germany) watching people's responses has been very enlightening. In the UK there is a sense from the non-Conservative/UKIP followers of having suddenly arrived at a destination, being unsure what they are doing and why they are there. But they are supported and happier by the discovery that they are more equipped than previously thought to decide what they want to do and how. As a pro-European I am happy about this. As long as the UKIP-orientated arguments, arguing how un-democratic Europe is lose their ground (as the EU evolves into a more democratic entity) British people will come to discover Europe is not simply an army of technocrats and distant legislation, but that Europe is a realm of opportunities for British people. This comes to the interesting comparison with Germany. The Germans, in their role as a founding member of the EU, have viewed the evolution of Europe as a more natural progression. Therefore as the Lisbon Treaty established more powers at the EU level (or simply defined them better), the increase of democratic representation in the decision making process was just as natural. I feel the new co-coalition government is possibly a good example of British-European relations. Amid the general euro-scepticism Britons are (in)famous for, there is emerging a group arguing the possibilities within the European Project outweigh the limitations that would emerge from continued separation between the two. However the lack of the belief that the European Project is as 'natural' as some countries (although I stress this is obviously not unique to the UK), means new treaties and institutions in Europe will always face a baptism of fire in the UK tabloids.

Eurocitizen says:

I am very happy with the new powers the Parliament has, and although there are still problems with the parliamentary culture on the European level, it seems that MEPs are sufficiently aware of this, and that gives me trust that they will improve this.

Angry says:

Why have you not included any MEPs from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy grouping? This is the only group which voices real opposition to the EU and gives the real side of the story.

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