Democracy in Action in the (Other) Capital of the EU

When I first started learning about the European Union as an undergraduate, the dominant opinion in the political science literature that I read was that the European Parliament (EP) was a training ground for promising but untested future politicians or a victory lap for those who had finished their national political careers—an institution with little actual power that did not attract serious interest from mainstream parties back in the Member States.

Outside look of European Parliament
Outside look of European Parliament in Strasbourg

In the five years since the entrance into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, a whole new kind of Parliament has emerged, one that not only has broader official power but that also continuously works to raise its profile and carve out an increased role for itself within the EU institutional framework.  The U.S. Mission to the European Union views a strong and close relationship with the EP as a key part of its broader engagement with EU institutions on the full range of transatlantic issues.

Watching the Parliament’s July 14-17 plenary session in Strasbourg from the diplomatic viewing area as part of the USEU team, I sat on the edge of my seat listening to the enthusiasm with which Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from across the political spectrum defended their constituents’ interests during debates—from Italian leather shoe production to the imprisonment of Irish teenager Ibrahim Halawa in Egypt.

In the face of repeated claims from academics and commentators of the EU’s “democratic deficit,” the EP certainly appears to have become a more visible forum for representative democracy in Europe.  It took on a much greater role in the selection of the European Commission President, it will hold hearings for all the Commissioners-designate, and it has argued for advice-and-consent power even in areas like security and defense policy, as it did in the recent case European Parliament v. Council of the European Union before the European Court of Justice.

The floor of European Parliament
The floor of European Parliament in Strasbourg

Some commentators have called these changes the “Americanization” of the EP, but seeing MEPs in action on the floor of the hemicycle leaves no doubt that this infusion of direct, constituent-focused democracy into EU institutions is done on European terms and rooted in European political culture, with all the vocal dissent, rhetorical skill, and diversity of political ideology that you would expect—all happening in 24 languages!

And, even as academics continue the debate on whether the EU’s “democratic deficit” is growing, shrinking, or actually exists, the clear recognition not only in the Parliament but also the Commission that everyday citizens’ voices have a rightful place within the machinery of the EU challenged my own pre-Lisbon assumptions of the EP’s potential power and left me feeling energized and excited about the dynamism of today’s European Union institutions.

 By Jake Nelson, Pickering Fellow in USEU’s political section 

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