El Confidencial. 22/01/2021
Plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels. (EFE)
AN EC PROJECT AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
The European Parliament is the political centre of gravity of the European Union. The democratic agora par excellence of the citizens of the EU-27, in triumvirate with the European Commission and the European Council, it is responsible for common legislative action and for negotiating and approving the accounts. Understanding how it works, who its members are and the delicate balances of power between countries, political groups and with other EU institutions has always been fundamental to analysing the EU’s present and future. Now that the coronavirus pandemic will make the European Parliament more relevant than ever in the daily lives of Europeans, it is essential.
To this end, El Confidencial has embarked on an ambitious journalistic project in partnership with the European Parliament to provide our readers with the agenda, current affairs, and trends, going behind the scenes and talking to the protagonists. From February onwards, the initiative ‘Deciphering the Brain of the European Parliament in the ‘Post-Covid Era’ will open a window inside the enormous legislative machinery of the European Union to fulfil our commitment to offer more and better European information to the Spanish audience.
Because it is precisely the European Parliament, with its 705 MEPs from 27 countries, seven major political groups and 27 specific committees, that is one of the driving forces behind European decisions for the post-pandemic, from the record multiannual budget to tackle the recovery of the epidemic to the ‘green’ commitment that 45% of recovery funds should go to sustainable projects.
Since the first meeting of the European Parliamentary Assembly, an evolution of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was held in 1958, the chamber has steadily progressed in influence and legitimacy. Named the European Parliament as early as 1962, this assembly was composed of members elected by national parliaments. In 1976, European leaders signed the agreement that MEPs would be elected by direct universal suffrage. Three years later, in 1979, the first elections were held, marking the greatest – and most discreet – democratic success in the history of the Old Continent.
European leaders knew that with this step they were giving autonomy to a body that would present itself as an antagonistic force to the power of the capitals. A counter-power – controlled by everyone and no one – that would sow the seeds of the politicisation of the European Union. Thus, were born the European political families, a Community projection of the domestic political forces to order the multiple opinions that coexist in the chamber.
Balancing a plural power
The two main historical formations are the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Social Democrats (S&D). The Conservatives are the main political family at the moment, with the leadership always in the hands of the German Christian Democrats. It is not for nothing that Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor from 1982 to 1998, is the architect of the current EPP: after a major performance crisis and the collapse of Christian Democracy in Italy, Kohl laid the foundations for a broad alliance, with strong internal discipline, but also with enormous ideological flexibility to allow for the inclusion of Christian Democrats, liberals, and conservatives in the formation. The formula worked: since 1999 the EPP has not lost a single European election.
The Social Democrats, who dominated European politics between 1979 and 1999, have been in crisis since then – just as Gerhard Schröder became German chancellor. The crisis of the German Social Democrats under Angela Merkel and of the Democratic Party in Italy in recent years, coupled with the decomposition of the French Socialist Party, has made the PSOE the leader of the European formation, with Spain’s Iratxe García heading the family in the European Parliament, with some resistance from German sectors that consider that the historic leadership belongs to the German delegation.
However, there is no total antagonism between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats: what has existed, in fact, is a grand coalition with a conservative dominance. The European Commission requires a majority in the European Parliament, which has meant that the European agenda has tended to be a middle ground between conservative priorities and the social democratic vision.
The European grand coalition ceased to be sufficient in the 2019 European elections. At that time, a third family, the Liberals, now called Renew Europe, entered fully into the power equation, boosted by the seats contributed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s party. Outside this new broad coalition, but very close to it, are the Greens, who increased their seats by 30 per cent compared to 2014 thanks to particularly good results in Germany, France, Luxembourg, and Belgium.
It is these four groups that have influenced the agenda of the current president, German Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen, who has had to integrate social democratic, green, and liberal ideas into her priorities, with special emphasis on a plan for the ecological transition that the Socialists demanded in order to vote in favour of her election.
But these are not the only political families in the European Parliament. One of the most powerful is the Conservatives and Reformists, led by Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS). The European United Left (GUE/NGL) brings together a very heterogeneous group of delegations, from United We Can to France Insoumise via Syriza, and is on the far left of the political map of the European Parliament. At the other end of the spectrum is the recently created Identity and Democracy group, which is the home of Matteo Salvini’s and Marine Le Pen’s parties.
The European Parliament is increasingly evolving into a European Chamber with greater legislative and oversight weight. And it is its MEPs, 705 after the UK’s exit, who have the voice and the vote to force the steering wheel of Congress and the Commission. Although the map of the priorities and political positions of each of the big families may seem intuitively simple, El Confidencial wants to go further. That is why, as part of this editorial project co-funded by the European Parliament, we are preparing a macro-survey of the key issues of where post-coronavirus Europe is heading. From the relationship with China to industrial transformation, from defence plans to migration reform. It is the largest editorial effort to date to map MEPs’ sentiment.
With the help of an editorial team specialising in the European Union, El Confidencial has drawn up a questionnaire that will methodically, objectively, and pluralistically track MEPs’ priorities and understanding of the EU, linking MEPs’ legislative actions to realities and trying to translate how aid and decisions taken in the post-pandemic context are linked to the European Parliament’s strategic priorities.
After a period of more than 12 months of research, the conclusions of the macro-survey will be published in a wide-ranging multimedia format, journalistic formats that are becoming another hallmark of the quality and innovation of El Confidencial. These conclusions will also serve as a tool for analysis and reflection for the European Parliament itself and its citizens, in a post-pandemic moment in which it is necessary to draw up a new European roadmap.
How does the EP work?
But in order for citizens to approach and participate in this reflection on the new European roadmap, it is also necessary to understand how the institution itself works. The European Parliament has three seats: the main seat in Strasbourg (France), where plenary sessions are held, although in reality most of the activity takes place in Brussels, where many members of the House are calling for a single seat to be established in the EU capital, and finally it also has a smaller seat in Luxembourg, where the Secretariat General is located.
The 20 committees and two sub-committees are the engine of the European Parliament: they are where legislation is shaped. The legislation prepared in the committees is then voted on in Parliament’s plenary, which is the forum where the European Commission and the Council are accountable.
The European Parliament has budgetary and legislative powers, as well as powers of scrutiny over the EU executive. It must also give its green light to international agreements as well as to the enlargement of the EU club.
However, the European Parliament does not have the right of legislative initiative, which falls primarily on the shoulders of the European Commission. Parliament does have the power under Article 225 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to ask the Commission to submit a proposal. The aim of many MEPs is for Parliament to have the power to initiate a legislative procedure directly, which is one of the main thrusts of the Parliament.
How is legislation made? The Commission presents the proposal, taking into account the ideas of the European Parliament and the Council (where the Member States are represented). Once there is a proposal from the EU executive, the Parliament and the Council adopt their own versions with amendments and then the three institutions sit down to negotiate (the so-called “trilogues”) to reach agreement on a final version of the text, which must be approved by the Parliament and the Council. The process can be very lengthy and may even end without an agreement.