Thursday, March 31, 2011

The power of MEPs

Earlier this week as part of a wider poll, a YouGov Poll included some questions on MEPs and the European Parliament.

Asked "Do you think the European Parliament has too much power, too little power, or about the right amount?"' 67% said the Parliament has too much power. This was highest among Conservative voters (86%) compared with other parties, and amongst older voters compared with younger ones.

This raises several questions, not least how much power the European Parliament actually possesses.

Parliament certainly has more muscle than it had. The much misunderstood Lisbon Treaty makes virtually every new piece of EU legislation a matter of “co-decision” in that it has to have the agreement of Parliament (the directly elected MEPs) and Council of Ministers (the representatives of the 27 member states governments). Before Lisbon, there were certain areas where MEPs had no part in the decision making process.

However, while MEPs have greater powers, they clearly cannot just railroad things through. “Co-decision” means just that. Both Council and Parliament have to agree.

Neither does Europe as a whole have the power to legislate anywhere it chooses. The treaties between the member states lay down which issues are to be agreed across the EU and which should remain the responsibility of individual countries. Education, health, social services provision, local government, and much else are still decided in Westminster, not in Brussels. According to a study by the highly regarded and independent House of Commons Library, between 1997 and 2009, only 6.8% of the UK’s primary legislation and 14.1% of secondary legislation emanated from the EU.

And the Parliament is not a monolithic institution heading in a single direction. Politics ranges across the political spectrum, from left to right, with no one political group having an overall majority. Arguments between Labour and Conservative are at least as great in Brussels and Strasbourg as they are in Westminster.

Ultimately, of course, your view on whether the European Parliament has too much power will depend on what you want to get out of it. In my (now almost entirely digital) postbag, for every letter I get saying Europe should keep out and stop interfering, I will get four or five demanding we take action on Libya, on cross border crime, on blacklisting workers, on animal rights or on holiday homes in Spain! Too much power? Constituents like these would like to give us rather more clout!

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