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 State of the Union addresses of the President of the European Commission are not prescribed by the EU Treaties. Rather, they were instigated with the 2010 Framework Agreement between the European Parliament and the European Commission as part of the annual political and legislative programming of the Union. The agreement provides that ‘each year in the first part-session of September, a State of the Union debate will be held in which the President of the Commission shall deliver an address, taking stock of the current year and looking ahead to priorities for the following years’.
Following the conclusion of the 2010 Framework Agreement, the then President of the Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, delivered his first State of the Union speech to the European Parliament on 7 September 2010, stating that, ‘From now on the State of the Union address will be the occasion when we will chart our work for the next 12 months’.
The agreement also established regular consultations between the Parliament and Commission, as part of their ‘special relationship’, including regular meetings between the Presidents of the two institutions, as well as between the President of the Commission, the VicePresident for interinstitutional relations or the Commission College on the one side, and Parliament’s Conference of Presidents and Conference of Committee Chairs on the other (Chapter III of the Framework Agreement).
Whilst State of the Union speeches by the President of the European Commission in plenary started officially in 2010, Parliament had held State of the Union debates previously, in the 1990s.
The State of the Union debate is fixed in the timetable for the adoption of the annual Commission work programme (CWP), which is set out in Annex 4 to the EP-EC Framework Agreement. It envisages a structured dialogue between the Commission and the corresponding parliamentary committees during the first half of a given year on the implementation of the CWP for that year and on the preparation of the future CWP. On the basis of that dialogue, the parliamentary committees report on the outcome thereof to the Conference of Committee Chairs. In parallel, the Conference of Committee Chairs holds a regular exchange of views with the Vice-President of the Commission responsible for interinstitutional relations (currently Vice-President Frans Timmermans).
The Interinstitutional Agreement on Better Law-Making adopted in April 2016 contains further commitments on dialogue between Commission, Parliament and Council, both before and after the adoption of the annual work programme. This dialogue includes the early exchanges of views described above and the ‘letter of intent’ from the President of the Commission and its First VicePresident on issues of major political importance for the following year and on intended withdrawals of Commission proposals. Furthermore, following the debate on the State of the Union, and before the adoption of the CWP, Parliament and Council are to have an exchange of views with the Commission on the basis of the letter of intent. The Commission has committed to take due account of the views expressed by the Parliament and the Council at each stage of the dialogue, including their requests for initiatives.
Based on the CWP, Parliament, the Commission and Council exchange views on initiatives for the coming year and agree on a joint declaration on annual interinstitutional programming. This includes items of major political importance that should receive priority treatment in the legislative process, and thus provides the Parliament with a practical means of influencing the agenda and indicating its priorities.
Finally, the State of the Union address by the President of the European Commission serves not only transparency and communication goals, but also represents an exercise of political accountability to Parliament. Moreover, the debates on the State of the Union provide an opportunity for Parliament to help shape, together with the Commission and the Council, the Union’s political and legislative agenda, reinforcing the sense of the accountability of the executive for its future actions.
Unlike many national parliaments, the European Parliament does not have a full right of initiative – with the exception of a handful of cases provided for in the EU Treaties, it cannot independently propose new laws but needs to rely on the Commission to do so. The EU Treaties do, however, allow the Parliament to ‘request’ the European Commission to submit proposals, but the Commission maintains broad discretion as to how to respond to such requests. Existing interinstitutional agreements nevertheless commit the Commission to reply within three months and to justify its decision where it does not submit a proposal in response to the request.
Despite the lack of formal right of initiative, the Parliament successfully uses other avenues to exercise influence in setting the agenda for the European Union. For example, before its vote on the election of the President of the Commission, the latter presents his or her political guidelines to the Parliament, followed by an active debate in plenary. Indeed, the four months following the constitution of the Parliament are a major opportunity for it to shape the polictical agenda of the Union for the following years.
The 2016 Interinstitutional Agreement on Better Law-Making further provides for a continuous process of interinstitutional consultation and cooperation between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council with regard to multiannual and annual programming of the EU. Upon the appointment of a new Commission, these institutions are to ‘exchange views on the principal policy objectives and priorities of the three institutions for the new term’, and to conduct dialogue both before and after the adoption of the Commission work programme (CWP).
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.