The EU Parliament is a top-down voting machine where an individual MEP counts for nothing and the agenda is set by the secretariates of the major parties
Gilbert Doctorow is the founder of the Brussels European Office, Committee on East-West Accord
While researching the recent voting patterns in the European Parliament on Russia and Ukraine related resolutions, I stumbled upon an appraisal of the European Parliament that was as unanticipated as it was shocking. Opposition MEPs shared their impressions of the substance of daily work within the Parliament leaving no doubt that the institution suffers from a democracy deficit that is no less severe than at the other European Institutions, the European Council and the European Commission, those bastions of bureaucracy and European elites to which it is commonly held up in contrast as the voice of the people.
This discovery is particularly disturbing in light of the federalist campaign of the Spinelli Group in 2013 in the run-up to the 2014 elections to the European Parliament and more specifically in view of the federalist manifesto Debout l’Europe (Stand Up, Europe) issued by Liberals leader Guy Verhofstandt and Greens leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit. They would have had us believe that growing negativism towards Europe seen across the Continent in the rise of populist political movements could be effectively cured by treating the ills of bureaucratism (Commission) and selfish statism (Council) in Brussels with the conversion of the Parliament into a full-blooded legislative chamber from which a genuine executive cabinet (transformed Commission) would be formed and entrusting it with powers of the purse, powers to set foreign policy and military policy that now largely were held by the sovereign states. Now it turns out that the Parliament itself needs a vast overhaul and re-think if it is to be anything more than a top down run voting machine in the hands of the same big countries and big parties that otherwise control the Council and populate the Commission with their minions.
The problem is seen everywhere: in the Parliament’s voting procedures, in the allocation of speaking time on the floor of the house, in the way MEPs from different blocs do or do not interact with colleagues from other blocs. The net result is that MEPs feel herded into pens to vote as they have been instructed from on high and are not practicing participatory democracy on behalf of their electors.
The large countries and the large parties EPP, S&D, ALDE dominate the Parliament, marginalizing entirely the minority Opposition blocs, not to mention unaffiliated MEPs. And within the blocs, individual MEPs have no say over positions taken, this being arranged by unelected secretariats acting on behalf of the leadership.
With regard to voting, on one morning last week during the plenary session in Strasbourg MEPs were required to cast their votes on 203 different resolutions. It being impossible to keep straight what they were voting for, they were obliged to follow instruction lists prepared by the administrators. Voting followed at intervals of minutes if not seconds. A mechanical mistake inserting your e-card to operate the voting buttons and you were closed out of a vote count. Moreover, electronic voting was alternated with mechanical voting by raising hands, to the confusion of MEPs. Some raised their hands prematurely to oppose a measure while the hands of those for were still being counted.
Allocation of speaking turns on the floor of the Parliament is opaque. In any case, available time is allocated by electoral weight of parties thus shutting down discussion of issues to the arguments of the side that has the votes and rendering time spent in the Parliament as a formality. If MEPs are very ardent and spend some hours raising their blue cards to be heard, they may eventually be given a turn.
Outside his or her bloc the individual MEP counts for nothing. There is no fraternization across the aisles because it cannot influence the course of deliberations or of voting, which is regimented. The end result is a kind of discipline that party whips in the UK or the USA can only dream of.
Where do these practices come from? No doubt part of the explanation lies in the very size of the parliament, at 751 deputies, which requires some inner controls to make it wieldy. No doubt another factor is the absence of EU-wide integrated and permanently active party organizations, which also would tend towards lack of cohesion and productivity if left to their own devices. But these controls have destroyed the very reason for the institution’s existence.
Any attempt to make sense of the large majority of MEPs who have supported anti-Russian resolutions on July 16 and September 16 runs up against the fact that no serious debates were ever held and that voting was conducted along bloc lines where the centrist majority is led by party stalwarts who bring to the table a Cold War mentality that never faded since 1989.