The beginning of the Interinstitutional Relations: A powerless Parliament (1979 – 1986)

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At the beginning of the European adventure, already in 1952 the Assembly was a marginal element of the institutional architecture. The newly elected Parliament, in 1979, started its journey with very little competences but with a new political credibility. The two posts tell the story of the beginning of the Interinstitutional relations, as seen by the actors.

Is the European Parliament powerless? As the video suggests the EP powers have evolved over years, but certainly the EP was powerless since the beginning of the European project at the beginning f the ‘50ies. The founding Treaties of the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, 1952) and of the European Communities (EEC, 1957) foresaw an Assembly, composed by Members delegated by the respective National Parliaments. The Assembly had a consultative role but no competences only a limited political influence. It became the European Parliament, with a decision of self-empowerment in 1962. (See Annex & References point 1).

The political influence of the non-elected MEPs was not only directed towards the European institutions, but also towards the national parliaments and indirectly, towards the respective governments. Thanks to the double mandate of the MEPs, most of them, played a role of ‘ambassadors’ convincing their NPs to defend the strengthening of the powers of the EP.

the EP started its battle to expand its influence over legislation, budget and more generally over European political life, well before direct elections.

The ambition to be heard and influence the legislative decision-making process was very high.

This battle started first within the EP.

The EP organization was modelled upon the ones of the National Parliaments: its work organised through parliamentary committees while the political direction, including the plenary agenda, was under the strict control of the President of the Parliament together with the Presidents of the political groups.

The first elected EP was highly influenced by the political Leaders, President of the political groups and by its first President, Simone Veil. Little space was left in the plenary agenda for the work carried out by the parliamentary committees.

This point was made by Ken Collins, MEP in the interview deposited at the HAEU.

Ken Collins was elected an MEP in 1979, he was Chair of the EP’s Environment Committee, 1979–84; Vice-Chairman from 1984 to 1987; and again Chair from 1989 to 1999.

Interview with Collins, Kenneth | HAEU Reference Code: INT814

The text in italic is a free transcript

Ken Collins underlines the importance of agenda setting within the EP, even before that EP had legislative power:

The Committee Chairs very soon realised that the group leaders, including the President of the Parliament, Simone Veil, understood the big political and institutional issues but they didn’t follow and understand how committees worked and so a few of committee chairman decided to ask a meeting with the EP President. The meeting was agreed but cancelled at the last minute. Together with a number of Committee Chairs: Erwin Lange (Budgets), Henry Plumb (Agriculture), Jacques Delors (Economic and Monetary Committee), we decided to meet regularly every month. Later these meetings were formalised in the Conference of Committee Chairs (CCC). The creation of the Conference of Committee Chairs raised the legislative awareness within the EP and Committees had more influence on the plenary agenda, and that became even more marked once the Parliament actually got some powers via the Single European Act in Maastricht. When the legislative timetable became terribly important.

Changing pattern of influence with the Commission and Council

Each parliamentary Committee, for its legislative work, had to rely on the Commission services and in the good will of the individual Commissioners. Once again Ken Collins from his 20 years’ experience in the Environment committee gave a clear picture of what the situation in the early ‘80ies and how it evolved over time.

Ken Collins gives a colourful picture of relations with the Commission and the consideration of Commissioners for parliamentary committees.

Interview with Collins, Kenneth | HAEU Reference Code: INT814

I remember having to go to plead with Commissioners to come and meet the committee. They were always too busy, their timetables were far too busy to come to our committee, and when they did come, they came with great trumpeting, they turned up, said a lot of words and meant not an awful lot .  The difference between that and my last five years (1994-1999) was striking: in my last five years Commissioners were phoning me up and saying, please can I come to the committee, something I need to talk about, A huge huge difference. So apart the balance of influence had shifted enormously, at the end it was clear that the Commission regarded parliamentary support is absolutely crucial to whatever it was they were trying to do. If they didn’t get that support, it was very probable that their ideas were going to fall flat.

During the first term of the elected the Parliament still didn’t have any teeth, but it had learned to do an incredible amount of damage with its gums a concrete example still from the interview of Ken Collins: the environment committee was the first committee which dared to withhold an opinion. Ahead of the vote in plenary, but I asked to the Commissioner, which of the Parliament’s amendments is the Commission prepared to accept? The Commissioner said, well, I think I’ve already explained the Commission position, none. As Chair of the committee, I requested to Madame President to refer back the opinion to the committee. I remember the shock on the face of the Commissioner, five minutes later the Commissioner inside my office: What can we do? How can we resolve this? Easy you have to learn to negotiate. So we did. This was even before the Single European act.

After the first direct elections MEPs had the ambition to influence the legislative process, but what was the feeling in the Council?

EP Opinions seen by the Commission and Council: the date

Una O’Dwyer, Irish Diplomate at the Permanent Representation in the early ‘80ies and later Director at the Commission, who was an. explains as the (only and) most important element of EP opinions for the Council was the date.

Interview with O’Dwyer, Una | HAEU Reference Code: INT1094

Avant l’Acte unique, les membres du Conseil ne lisaient même pasles avis du PE.. Il suffisait que la date d’adoption d’un avis figure parmi les considérants du projet de législation dans le dossier des ministres. Je le sais, parce que je l’ai vécu. À un moment donné, lors de la présidence de 1979, en préparant le dossier pour le ministre irlandais qui devait présider le Conseil du lendemain, j’ai demandé au chef du service juridique du Conseil, Monsieur Glacsner, pourquoi l’avis du PE mentionné dans les considérants du projet de loi n’y figurait pas. Il m’a répondu : « Vous savez, Una, il ne faut pas tenir compte de l’avis du Parlement, il faut simplement noter la date de son avis.

Within Coreper, the EP is not recognised as an interlocutor.

Manfred Scheich, Austrian Diplomats to the EU from 1983 to 1999, was not only sceptical about the role of the European Parliament: In my time, the Parliament still had a more modest and also acted more modestly.  He makes also an interesting difference in case there is an unanimous vote the National Parliament guarantee the democratic approach ‘each member country, is democratically legitimised to say ‘yes’, since the national parliaments, by definition, stand behind it….. The democratic legitimacy is per se given by national Parliaments. But also recognizes that In the cases of majority decisions, of course there is something like a deficit in the democratic legitimacy in the case of those members, who are outvoted. And into this democratic void now steps the European Parliament with co-decision.

Interview with Scheich, Manfred | HAEU Reference Code: INT1125

This impression is confirmed by Paolo Ponzano, Director at the Commission,  who followed the Coreper meetings for 30 years. ‘Never, in my experience, I saw an opinion of the EP distributed or discussed in the Council, but the date was indeed always included in the text of the Regulation’.

Interview with Ponzano, Paolo | HAEU Oral History Collection

To conclude, MEPs could not accept a powerless Parliament where their legislative opinions were always systematically ignored by the Council and the Commission.

The following sections will highlight the, formal and informal, steps which led to expand the legislative influence of the European Parliament.

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