Interinstitutional Relations Getting the Parliament’s voice heard: EP fighting for respect (1979-1986)

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The ambition of every Parliament is to mark its influence in the political life and to shape legislation. This goal was already clear to the MEPs, appointed by their National Parliament, before 1979. Following the Treaty changes in 1970 and 1975, which created a limited number of competences in budgetary matters, MEPs started to exploit the meagre possibilities offered by the Treaties.

Aim of this section to focus on some events which have contributed to the enhancement of the influence of the EP over politics and legislation.

A key tool: the declaration of 1975

The EP started the fight to influence legislation well before the direct elections. The non-elected MEPs were generally influential, not (only at European level but also, and above all at national level).

To influence legislation, MEPs used the only leeway available: the budgetary competences that were granted to the EP in 1970. Supported by the National Parliaments, the EP asked to be heard on the legislative’s procedure with a budgetary relevance. The Council, in 1972, accepted EP request and proposed a special procedure to consult the EP on the financial impact of legislative proposals; the Council also opened the door to a sort of conciliation procedure (HAEU CM2/1972-119 [PDF]) on legislation with relevant financial consequences (see annex point 1).

The EP was then, informally recognizing a new role in legislative acts. Even if the Council maintained full discretion in the consultation and the subsequent decision.

The President of the Parliament addressed a letter to the Council asking for a number of further modifications, including ‘the establishment of a Conciliation procedure’. Finally, on 31 October 1971, the Council accepted some of the additional proposals suggested by the Parliament (HAEU CM2/1972-120 [PDF]).

Altiero Spinelli, as Commissioner, influenced the Commission, behind the scenes, to achieve this Joint declaration of 1975 of the three Institutions establishing a procedure of conciliation (in French ‘concertation’) to guarantee to the EP ‘effective participation in the procedure for preparing and adopting legislative decisions(see annex point 2).

Virgilio Dastoli, former head of cabinet of Spinelli from 1976 to 1986 and currently President of the European Movement in Italy underlines the role played by Spinelli within the Commission

Interview with Dastoli, Pier Virgilio | HAEU Oral History Collection

This joint declaration shows how, even before the direct elections, EP anticipated an evolution that later it was incorporated into EP Rules of procedure of 1981 and later into the Treaties. (for the Full text see Annex & References, point 2)

The EP was not satisfied and in a resolution of 1981 – (OJEC 1981 C 234 p. 55 [PDF]) Urges the Council to extend the Conciliation procedure laid down in the declaration of 4 March 1975 to all the Commission’s proposals to the Council .

Later, the EP adopted a Resolution (OJEC 1989 C 69 p. 151 [PDF]) tabled by the Institutional committee (Prag Report) where concrete proposals are made to enhance the 1975 procedure:

After the first direct elections in 1979, MEPs realised that there was still a long way to go, in order to be recognized equal partner in the Interinstitutional triangle.

Thomas Von der Vring, Former MEP and Chair of the committee on budgets, reported, in his interview a conversation with Chancellor Helmut Schmid. He asked how the EP could increase its powers, the Chancellor answered  Never in the mankind history a government gave voluntary powers to a Parliament you must take it!

Interview with von der Vring, Thomas | HAEU Reference Code: INT864

This strategy inspired, not only Von der Vring, but all the Members of the European Parliament, beyond political boundaries. After the direct elections, the EP created a number of conflicts to expand its influence and power, but the impact on the institutional reality was rather modest.

Christine Verger, Christine Verger,  Member of the Cabinet of Commissioner Varfis  and of the President Delors and Director at the EP recalls that most of the Commissioners and of the senior management privileged the relations with the Council than with the ones with the EP. Le Parlement européen était un « emmerdeur », pour dire les choses vulgairement. Je pense qu’à l’époque, cette méconnaissance de la sensibilité parlementaire a conduit à la chute de la Commission Santer. Tout ça pour dire qu’à l’époque où j’étais à la Commission, les services, je ne dis pas nécessairement les cabinets, mais les services privilégiaient de manière absolue le Conseil par rapport au Parlement.

Interview with Verger, Christine | HAEU Reference Code: INT302

Even the President of the EP Klaus Hänsch,  MEPs from 1979 to 2009 and EP President from July, 1984  to January 1987, expresses the general feeling of the MEPs. In spite of the declaration of 1975, MEPs continued to feel marginalised.

Hänsch says Commission administration did not take Parliament and parliamentarians seriously, for Klaus Hänsch this was not admissible. For a democrat there is no better status than to have the votes of some millions of people. And there were some guys in the Commission who thought: Europe, that is me. Moreover, I was also convinced that, as we elected directly a European Parliament, it must have something to say, otherwise it’s no use to have general elections. So this was a simple but clear impetus. Concerning the relations with the Commission.

Interview with Hänsch, Klaus | HAEU Reference Code: INT1041

Hänsch also says that a lot of colleagues in the Parliament always tried to get control of the Council. I have always had the impression that this is absolutely nonsense, the Parliament is not there to scrutinize the national governments. What Parliament had to be focused on is the Commission. I always wanted a strong Commission, because a strong Commission increases also the powers of the Parliament. If the Commission has nothing to say, we can do nothing with the Commission.

EP starts to get noticed: influence or power?

The notes and witnesses above give a short and partial picture of the starting point of the EP from 1979 on. In the ‘80ies, in spite of the direct elections, the Council was the legislator and the Commission and its services concentrate its attentions on the legislator, the EP remained in a second row and had difficulties to get noticed. The rejection of the 1980 budget was read by many as an attempt to flex muscles in the only domain where it had some power.

The arrival of Jacques Delors, in January 1985, as President of the Commission, introduced a change of culture, and the EP starts to get noticed in the European institutional picture.

Christine Verger says : Delors avait fait de relations avec le Parlement Européen une priorité stratégique, avoir une assise démocratique, même s’il savait très bien que dans la plupart des domaines il pouvait s’en passer. Mais il avait considéré, qu’il pouvait s’en passer institutionnellement mais pas politiquement.

Interview with Verger, Christine | HAEU Reference Code: INT302

The introduction of the new procedures, following Single Act and later Maastricht Treaty. Improved the situation the role of president Delors was decisive to change the culture of the Commission.

Klaus Hänsch recalls : The Commission suddenly realised that they needed to do what the Parliament said. They now realized that for some of their plans they were increasingly dependent on the Parliament. Because their plans could be, how could be torpedoed by Parliament. It led them to take Parliament and parliamentary actions a little bit more serious. This was not from one day to the other, when the Single Act was accepted, it took some time, but this changed the relation between Parliament and Commission to a better situation.

Interview with Hänsch, Klaus | HAEU Reference Code: INT1041

The last forty years have changed the overall picture, EP is certainly more involved in the legislation but in the balance of powers of the EU Institutions a new ‘body’ has appeared: the European Council, which is more then present in all important decisions and reduce the impact of the ‘community method’ overshading the enhanced role of the EP.

The change of culture was also perceived within the EP, as indicated by Jean-Pierre Cot, Former MEPs, Chair of the Committee on Budgets 1984-1989 and President of the Socialist Group 1989-1994, whose career as MEP coincided with the arrival of Delors at the helm of the Commission. Cot felt the wind change and, in his interview makes an interesting distinction between influence and power

J’ai vécu cette période de montée progressive en puissance du PE, ce n’est pas une période de co législation et moins encore de codécision, le PE avait néanmoins si non du pouvoir du moins de l’influence et il ne faut pas confondre les deux notions. La notion de pouvoir est une notion juridique, la notion d’influence est plus difficile à saisir, le PE exerçait déjà une influence sur la Commission Delors. Cot souligne que les Membres du PE, du moins ceux qui travaillent, avaient aussi. Cette montée en puissance de l’influence s’est par la suite traduite par les pouvoirs de codécisions reconnus par les Traites

Interview with Cot, Jean-Pierre | HAEU Reference Code: INT817

To conclude, the ‘80ies EP enhanced its influence on EU legislation, though without decisive powers. The Commission realised that to increase the chance of success of its legislative proposals, they had to include, wherever, possible some of the amendments of the EP in the, so called, modified proposal.

Interview with Ponzano, Paolo

The positive attitude of the Commission to incorporate EP legislative amendments gave a new dynamic to the legislative dialogue between the Institutions.



References and Full Interviews [PDF]

Annex [PDF]

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