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.
The European Parliament’s power to dismiss the Commission by means of a motion of censure goes back to its very inception (1951). However, it was not until the Maastricht Treaty (1992) that the Parliament acquired a role in the investiture procedure too, by gaining the power to approve (and, therefore, also to reject) the College of Commissioners before it took office. The Treaties now provide that, after the election of the Commission President, the Commission as a body is subject to a vote of consent by the Parliament (Article 17(7) TEU).
The Commissioners-designate are proposed by national governments and are allocated portfolios by the President-elect of the Commission. In 1995, to inform its decision before giving consent, the Parliament started holding parliamentary hearings of Commissioners-designate. Such hearings aim to evaluate the candidates’ ‘general competence, European commitment and personal independence’, as well as their ‘knowledge of their prospective portfolio and their communication skills’ (Annex VI of the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure). While the Parliament has no power to reject individual Commissioners-designate, it may, in the run-up to the consent vote, exercise political pressure regarding individual candidates or the portfolios assigned to them. It has done so in the past, and Parliament’s objections (for example on grounds of lack of specialist knowledge or expressions of highly controversial views) have occasionally resulted in the withdrawal of certain candidates or changes in their portfolios. Such hearings have become one of the Parliament’s central tools to seek accountability and to play a greater role in setting the agenda at EU level.
Like most national parliaments, the European Parliament exercises scrutiny over the EU executive – the European Commission – but also other institutions. Parliamentary scrutiny involves several important powers. According to the EU Treaties, the Commission as a body is responsible to the European Parliament and it has to resign if a motion of censure, also known as a vote of no confidence, is adopted by Parliament. While the latter has never happened, the imminent likelihood of such a vote led to the collective resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999.
Further, while the Treaties speak of collective responsibility of the Commission and are silent on withdrawing confidence in individual Commissioners, the Parliament may – in case of conflict of interest – request the President of the Commission to do so (Parliament Rules of Procedure, Rule 118(10)). The 2010 Framework Agreement between the Parliament and Commission commits the Commission President to ‘seriously consider’ such a request by Parliament. These provisions have so far not been applied. Parliamentary scrutiny also involves the right to question the executive (the Commission) by means of parliamentary questions, and the corresponding duty of the Commission to provide an answer (Article 230 TFEU).
Further powers of scrutiny include inquiry committees set up to investigate ‘alleged contraventions or maladministration in the implementation of Union law’ (Article 226 TFEU), as well as special parliamentary committees.
Another long-fought for prerogative of Parliament is the scrutiny of ‘delegated’ and ‘implementing acts’, adopted by the Commission, including a right to veto delegated acts or revoke the delegation of power.
Such formal scrutiny powers are complemented by various tools used by the Parliament at the practical level when conducting its business, for example in the context of impact assessment of proposed legislation or evaluation of the implementation of existing laws.
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.