EU member states can be relatively insensitive to proposed EU laws. If it were the European Parliament in addition to the European Commission, Czechia would also benefit, says Pavel Svoboda, former KDU-ČSL MEP and expert in EU law.
How strong is the European Parliament (EP)?
History shows us that the position of the European Parliament continues to grow stronger. It started as an advisory body without decision-making power and gradually, even with the cooperation of the Court of Justice of the EU, strengthened its position. In particular, it uses its budgetary powers.
A major turning point in this respect was the Treaty of Lisbon, which made the European Parliament a full-fledged body that decides on legislative proposals together with the Council of the EU. I guess the story didn’t stop and this trend will continue. The quest for new and new powers is evident.
Can you briefly summarize what the European Parliament can currently do?
The European Parliament is the co-legislator of almost all legally binding acts, ie with the exception of the so-called implementing and delegated acts of the European Commission and acts of common foreign and security policy. In addition, it plays a role in other EU external relations, where it is very active.
A stronger parliament would benefit the Czech Republic
But what Parliament cannot do is simply write directives or regulations. Only the European Commission can do this. In your opinion, would the EU benefit from having MEPs this opportunity? This is a subject that we are talking about again.
I think so. In my opinion, this would result in greater legitimacy of the acts adopted, thanks to the fact that the EP would be assimilated to the national parliaments. Of course, that would undermine the current model, where most proposals are backed by the Commission, but I don’t think anything can prevent that.
However, this is the position of a lawyer, my position as a politician is perhaps a little “more colorful”. Some of the extremist proposals in the European Parliament from left and right as Conservatives concern me. During my time as an MEP, I heard some really strange ideas.
You say that nothing prevents this change. On the other hand, this would require a modification of the EU Treaties. Do you think Member States would allow such a thing?
Of course, you’re right, that would require a contract change. But let’s say that, for example, on the question of the European elections, the Parliament has a power of proposal, so it would not be a complete novelty.
I think that if the Council, made up of representatives of the governments of the Member States, remained co-legislator, it does not matter who proposed the legislation.
Of course, if we go into technical detail, it will depend on whether Parliament has enough staff to carry out the same research and preparations as the Commission. The answer is no at the moment.
I would also like to point out that we are talking about the right of the European Parliament as a whole to make legislative proposals. The time has not come so far that one might even think that MEPs or political factions could do it, as is the case with national parliaments.
Would the Czech Republic benefit in any way from this change?
This could be beneficial for the Czech Republic. Given the weak position of the European Commission, I mean the number and position of Czech officials, promoting the Czech perspective in proposals is therefore a relatively difficult discipline. If the European Parliament had the right to propose laws, this could be achieved more through political agreements.
On the other hand, the Czech Republic has so far been rather reluctant to strengthen the supranational European institutions, and in particular the Parliament.
It makes sense to test transnational candidates
In addition to this change, MEPs are also discussing the reform of the European elections which you have already mentioned. How do they really differ from ordinary national parliamentary elections today?
I will start with their content, which is related to the less attractive European elections. At the European level, there is no decision on the level of taxes, on social benefits, on health insurance, which people consider most important for the activities of the national parliament.
In terms of process, we have a problem here. The current electoral model is, let’s say, hybrid, because a supranational body is elected on the basis of national candidates, not pan-European, pan-European candidates. This is an anomaly that calls for a solution.
The second thing is whether the national democratic electoral system can be applied to the continental dimension of the EU. Democracy was created for Greek cities, and the larger the set, the less known the candidates are and the less close the voter is. This is also the reason why some large states have chosen a federal arrangement which solves this problem to some extent.
One of the changes we are talking about concerns transnational candidates. Does something like this make sense to you?
Generally and politically, I would be for them, because the Spanish People’s Party is more acceptable to me than the Czech Communist.
But other considerations must be taken into account. From the voter’s point of view, it is essential that he “looks” at any list of candidates. If they are elected solely on the basis of transnational candidates, the larger Member States could benefit, since it is their representatives who often hold the leadership of European political parties, which could affect the formation of these candidates. Then there’s the issue of ringing, where population could affect the outcome.
Surprisingly, populists could also benefit from transnational candidates, because with their aggressive media coverage they could squeeze more out of this system than their actual strength would match. It should also not be forgotten that these candidates could be the target of financial support for certain undesirable countries, such as Russia or China, which already support extremist political forces in Europe.
Campaign finance is a problem in general. A candidate from a small, poor country would always find it harder to finance a Europe-wide campaign.
But I see the biggest problem elsewhere. People choose whoever comes to them. So it would depend on the size of the constituencies – if they were small enough that MPs didn’t spend the second half of the legislature crossing the EU as part of the campaign, then maybe.
There is also talk that only part of the MEPs would be elected in this way.
If the national and transnational candidates worked in parallel, the MEPs elected on these transnational candidates could feel that they had a stronger mandate and therefore claimed the highest positions in the European Parliament.
But in my opinion, it would make sense to test this hybrid model.
Evergreen is also a system of so-called top candidates. It was used in the 2014 elections, but five years later the states did not follow it. Can you describe what is meant by this term?
The problem with European democracy is that the different political currents are not linked to a specific face in the European elections. It is the system of the best candidates which solves this problem, the European political parties having indicated in advance who is their candidate for the post of President of the European Commission.
I think it can benefit these elections, but the problem is legal entrenchment. European Council (brings together presidents and prime ministers, red note.) is intended to take into account the results of the elections only when selecting the President of the Commission, but is not bound by the specific appointments of the various political parties. In 2019, although the European Council took into account the victory of the People’s Party, the current head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is from this political family, but the candidate Spitzenand of the European People’s Party was someone else (Manfred Weber, red note.).
What chance do you give to make some of the changes for the next European elections in 2024?
There are a number of changes that are being talked about. Some of them would require intervention in the EU treaties, so they are out of the game, which is unrealistic today. I think there will be an effort to bring the Spitzen candidates back into the game. I highly doubt the transnational candidates will be able to succeed.
How to make the European elections more attractive
You yourself have already mentioned the less attractive European elections, almost everywhere in Europe fewer people go there on average. What are the reasons ?
I have already spoken about the content of the competences of the EU, it does not decide the most important things. The second circumstance that reduces attractiveness is the weakening of EU authority by national politicians. Indeed, the successes of the Union are nationalized and the national failures are Brussels. If something goes wrong, we national politicians are to blame. If something goes wrong, bad Brussels is to blame. Unfortunately, this is a practice in many states.
How to change it?
Above all, senior national politicians need to be more honest when presenting the value of European cooperation.
In a broader perspective, it is necessary to strengthen the position of European political parties. It would be useful, for example, if national political parties belonging to the same European family decided to present themselves together. For example, STAN, KDU-ČSL and TOP 09 are today represented in the European People’s Party, the ODS was there once and who knows if they will not return there again. The question is therefore whether it would not be preferable for at least the three parties to run together.
At the same time, I think that European construction has a future in European regions, both national and cross-border, and that the EP elections must therefore take place at their level. The European regions are a territory of many common interests, which would make the candidates, the political programs and the elections themselves more comprehensible and readable for the voters.