Yesterday, Martin Schulz (Socialists & Democrats) was elected President of the European Parliament until 2014. But while his acceptance speech, although quite nice, probably will not be remembered as one of the major political speeches in 2012, one line of it still caught my attention (my highlight):
“If our Parliament is to become more visible, if greater attention is to be paid to its views, a rethink of the issue of first-reading agreements is also essential.”
Why would Schulz mention this issue in his first speech if he wouldn’t think it is really important? Apparently, he sees the recurring practice of agreeing on EU legislation between Parliament, Council and Commission behind closed doors (‘informal trialogues’) as a threat to the powers and the visibility of the Parliament.
Apparently, these fast-track, back-room deals de-politicise legislative negotiations in a way that favours Council and Commission much more than the EU Parliament, and for Schulz this is something to change. Given the informal and rapid closure of legislative files in this procedure, important democratic debates cannot take place in public. As a parliament’s role is largely defined by the publicity of the debates it stages, giving away this platform necessarily limits its role.
The relevance of Schulz’ observation is confirmed by recent academic research. In an online-first academic article titled “The Informal Politics of Legislation: Explaining Secluded Decision Making in the European Union” that was published just one month ago (in: Comparative Political Studies, 5 Dec 2011), the authors find that 72% of all co-decision/ordinary legislative procedures from 2004-09 were finished through early agreements. They argue, in a similar line to Schulz, that “the routine use of fast-track legislation has led to seclusion from the electorate and rank-and-file parliamentarians“.
And even more in line with Schulz, the authors conclude that:
“[A]s even salient and redistributive acts are regularly passed as [early agreements], an explanation based on the absence of public interest and political opposition carries little weight. […] Either actors in Council and Parliament do not encounter significant internal opposition where ‘going informal’ undercuts broad controversy and open debate, or decision makers move a file into the informal arena precisely to avoid publicity and opposition. Neither of these reasons would be good news for the democratic credentials of fast-track legislation”
So what the new EP president Schulz has covered in a single sentence in his speech has also been recognised by recent research in much more drastic words. It will be interesting to see whether under his presidency in the next 2.5 years, given his acceptance speech, the number of first reading or other early agreements will drop significantly.
It may be one of things on which we – the public – may be able to measure Schulz’ presidency.