The recent Eurobarometers show the European Union’s approval ratings taking a hard dive. As the eurocrisis rages on, blunt euroscepticism and tendencies to glorify the prospect of renationalisation seem rampant in discussions online and offline. The challenge that I chose as a title for this post is tossed around a lot.
Disclaimer: I do not really blame the people who are not already aware of what I’m about to elaborate. Among others, first and foremost, I blame nationally oriented journalism.
The European Union has given citizens an unprecedented influence on international agreements.
The current version of the EU Treaties, commonly known as the Lisbon Treaty, prescribes that international agreements which the European Union (acting institution in this case is usually the Commission) negotiates have to be approved by the European Parliament (EP). So far, so usual. And about time, you might rightfully think, as it has been customary for international agreements to be ratified by national parliaments for quite a while now. You might also think that this does not constitute a larger degree of influence than the national parliamentary control did before. After all, it’s both nothing but a representative, legitimate parliament doing the approving, with options for citizens to petition it’s members like you would expect. There are a few important differences between an agreement negotiated by the Commission and ratified by the EP and an agreement negotiated by a national government and ratified by a national parliament, though.
Most importantly, your typical national parliament in Europe will have elected and therefore supports the very head of government who negotiated the agreement. Good luck trying to convince the majority of “your” members of parliament to openly acknowledge that “their” party’s figurehead might have negotiated something sub-optimal. And good luck getting them to actually vote against it or push for improvements before it comes to a vote.
The European Parliament on the other hand has far less of such party-based loyalties, at least not between them and the other institutions – notwithstanding the facts, that they do approve, or as of recently elect, the President of the Commission and it is an unwritten rule, that he or she should come from the spectrum of parties that currently holds the majority of seats (e.g. conservative or social democrats). The EP is, as an institution, far more concerned with improving their position within the EU system. They are still disadvantaged in a lot of situations which are commonly named when talking about the EU’s democratic deficit. Their tactic to improve this situation is to use the powers they do have, and try to stretch them to their maximum, or if possible beyond that by being granted informal rights of participation. And they have time and time again proven that they aren’t afraid of rather extreme measures, be it blocking the budget, or rejecting international agreements, such as the first attempt at the SWIFT agreement or more recently ACTA.
Of course it’s not all just “stickin’ it to the man”. My subjective impression is that MEPs themselves identify a lot with the task of battling the democratic deficit for the citizens’ sake. And if there’s an issue that meets massive and widespread protest, they are more likely to listen than many national MEPs, who tend to be more restricted by party lines. That’s why ACTA failed, even though the conservative parties of the member states supported it and the centre-right has a majority in the EP.
Regardless of the exact motivations of the EP, the resulting effect is the same: The European Union has given citizens and their direct representatives a more realistic chance for unprejudiced scrutiny of controversial international agreements, which would most likely have gotten rubber-stamped by parliament in a purely national process. In most cases this is an additional check, since the national ratification has to take place nonetheless.
Next time someone challenges you to “name one thing the EU has ever done for us”, tell that person that without the EU, ACTA would probably be in force right now, despite massive popular opposition.