Home truths about abroad

Seat of the Bundesverfassungsgericht, Karlsruhe, Germany (picture Tobias Helfrich)

The judgment by the German constitutional court approving of the Lisbon treaty has been broadly welcomed by pro-Europeans in Germany. (See a commentary by Hans-Jürgen Schlamp on Speigel Online here.)

One exception to this general rule, though, is that there has been some concern expressed about what was said by the court about the European Parliament. The German section of the European Movement, for example, thinks that its criticism is too harsh:

“Unless EM Germany is in favour that the national parliament is forced to take more commitment and responsibility in European Policy this should not lead to a weakening of the European Parliament.”

What the court said was that the EP is not able to replace national parliaments in filling the democratic deficit in the EU. (Read what the court said here.) It suggested that:

“The further development of the competences of the European Parliament can reduce, but not completely fill, the gap between the extent of the decision-making power of the Union’s institutions and the citizens’ democratic power of action in the Member States.”

I don’t think this is too harsh: it is a statement of fact. The EU is not a unitary political system but a federal one, in which the member states’ governments play a major role at European level. Those member state governments are accountable not to the European Parliament but to national parliaments, so the latter cannot be completely written out of the picture in favour of the former.

Furthermore:

“Neither as regards its composition nor its position in the European competence structure is the European Parliament sufficiently prepared to take representative and assignable majority decisions as uniform decisions on political direction. Measured against requirements placed on democracy in states, its election does not take due account of equality, and it is not competent to take authoritative decisions on political direction in the context of the supranational balancing of interest between the states.”

This notion of equality is important, particularly in Germany. A Maltese MEP represents 80,000 voters (5 MEPs for a population of 400,000) while a German MEP represents 10 times as many (99 MEPs representing 82 million people). This is something German federalists have raised themselves as a matter of unfairness: I am not sure how much I agree with them but they should not forget their own arguments now.

Where I disagree with the court is the statement that:

“It [the EP] therefore cannot support a parliamentary government and organise itself with regard to party politics in the system of government and opposition in such a way that a decision on political direction taken by the European electorate could have a politically decisive effect.”

It has not supported a parliamentary government in the past and does not look like doing so in the coming parliamentary term (although read my call that it should do exactly that on Euobserver yesterday), but that does not mean that it cannot. If European political parties were to organise in a manner recognisable at national level, the model of democracy described by the constitutional court could come about. At that point, and it is perhaps not so far away, the nature of European democracy and the European Union would change very much.

It will be interesting to see if the German politicians who object to the court’s interpretation of the role of the European Parliament will do anything to change it. German MEPs are more numerous than those of any other country, and one of them is leader of the Socialists, so they could, if they wished, bring to the EP a lot of what the court has said it is missing.

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