The power of the European Parliament
The only directly elected European Union (EU) institution; the European Parliament’s (EP) power and influence in pursuit of citizens’ interests have evolved significantly, transforming it into a full-fledged legislative body and forum of discussion and engagement at the heart of representative democracy, whose influence is felt in virtually all areas of EU activity.
What are then the European Parliament’s main powers?
What difference does the Parliament’s work make to how Europeans live their lives? This series highlights some practical examples of EP impact during the 2014-2019 legislative term.
Ukraine is a key example of how the European Parliament has increased its ‘soft’, diplomatic power. As explained below, before and after the Maidan revolution in 2013-2014, which was sparked by the decision by the then President, Viktor Yanukovich, not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, the European Parliament has played an increasingly visible role in relation to democracy support. In February 2014, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) voted to impeach Yanukovich, who fled Kyiv. The conflict in Ukraine represents a struggle for respect for international law, which Russia violated through its illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its hybrid war against Ukraine. The European Parliament, whose diplomatic role has steadily expanded, is now leading internal reform and capacity-building efforts for the Verkhovna Rada.
The European Parliament’s evolution to becoming an agenda-setter in Kyiv has also boosted its visibility in Brussels. While initially limited to monitoring the trial against former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a European Parliament-initiated mission led by former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewksi and former European Parliament President Pat Cox, later expanded its function. Cox and Kwasniewski helped pave the way for the negotiation of the Association Agreement. Thus, the function of the mission evolved from monitoring to mediation; in Cox’s own words, it became a ‘point of exchange between not only Brussels and Kiev, but also between the Ukrainian government and the opposition’.
The simultaneous ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement by the European Parliament and the Verkhovna Rada on 16 September 2014 was a historic demonstration of the commitment of both parties to develop solid inter-parliamentary ties, laying the ground for the continued mutual commitment to democracy support activities. The European Parliament and the Verkhovna Rada signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Kyiv on 3 July 2015 with the stated purpose of establishing a joint framework for parliamentary support and capacity-building of the Verkhovna Rada. In line with the MoU, a Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) led by Pat Cox, was conducted in Ukraine to identify the key needs of the Verkhovna Rada in this respect. The European Parliament’s NAM prepared the ground for the EU/UNDP project ‘Rada for Europe: driving reforms across Ukraine’, with 52 recommendations recognised in the March 2016 Verkhovna Rada resolution 1035-VIII.
Launched within the framework of the European Parliament’s democracy support activities for Ukraine in 2016, the concept of using the Jean Monnet House in Bazoches (France) for mediation and dialogue activities is expanding, as the Parliament is demonstrating the added value of parliamentary mediation as a soft power tool to complement overall EU approaches. Building on the experience with its Jean Monnet Dialogues with Ukraine, the first Jean Monnet Dialogue with the Sobranie of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia took place on 18-19 May 2018 in Ohrid.
The 2018 Sakharov Prize was awarded to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – a prominent civil society activist during the Maidan, who was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service in Crimea in May 2014 and is currently detained in Siberia. The European Parliament thus increased the pressure on Russia to release Sentsov, drawing attention also to other Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.
Growing soft power – EU foreign policy
Ever since 1979, Members of the European Parliament have aimed to boost the role of the institution in the EU’s foreign policy. These efforts have continued to increase since the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in 1993. The EP is seen internationally as a ‘capable moral force with strong focus on strengthening human rights, supporting democracy and enhancing the rule of law worldwide’ (P. Bajtay). The Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought is one specific example of this: set up in 1988, it is awarded each year to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The EP’s comprehensive approach to democracy support is also part of this ‘soft-power’ approach to international relations. Launched in 2014, it includes election monitoring, mediation, as well as training of staff and members of non-EU parliaments. In addition to this, Parliament can convey messages in ways and through channels that are different from those employed by the EU’s traditional diplomatic players, for example, through its parliamentary networks.
The European Parliament has become a public forum both for representatives of partner countries and international organisations, as well as influential non-state actors. Parliamentarians pro-actively engage in inter-parliamentary delegations and missions to third countries, and are members of various joint parliamentary assemblies. Moreover, parties in different countries often share strong links by virtue of the fact that they belong to the same political family.
Parliament also enjoys treaty-based information and consultation rights, which allow its members to shape the EU’s external policies. The High Representative is invited regularly to consult Parliament on the main aspects and basic choices of the CFSP and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). MEPs can also address questions and make recommendations to the Council and the HR/VP. A major innovation in the EP’s powers to shape and control EU foreign policy has been MEPs’ exchanges of views with Heads of EU delegations after their appointment by the HR/VP, but prior to taking up their post in a third country. EU ambassadors inform Members about the country concerned and the EU priorities and objectives to be pursued in relations with the partner country. MEPs may use these opportunities to question the ambassadors, and provide advice and suggestions on the conduct of relations.
Read the complete study on ‘The power of the European Parliament: Examples of EP impact during the 2014-19 legislative term‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.