The European Parliament at mid-term: continuity or change?
"Het vertrek van Schulz als voorzitter van het Europees Parlement is het einde van een tijdperk." Dat betoogt Michael Shackleton, bijzonder hoogleraar Europese Instituties aan Maastricht University, in zijn tussenbalans van het Europees Parlement. De nauwe samenwerking tussen Juncker en Schulz rondom de tien prioriteiten van de Commissie Juncker komt hiermee tot een einde. Onder Schulz heeft het Europees Parlement zich meer kunnen onderscheiden als een instelling die in samenspraak maar niet altijd op aanwijzen van de Commissie opereerde.
The decision by Martin Schulz in November 2016 not to seek a third term as President of the European Parliament and to return to German politics marked an important moment. It ended the close alliance that he had developed with Jean Claude Juncker ever since the latter was elected Commission President in July 2014. It called into question the continuance of the particular kind of parliamentary government that the two men developed around the ten priorities for Europe that Juncker had presented in order to be elected. It opened the way for a rather less close relationship to emerge between the two institutions to emerge in the second half of the legislature.
The change is not one that should be seen only in terms of personalities. There are very good reasons why the Parliament started during 2016 to steer a rather separate course from that of the Commission. It became clear that one of the priorities set out by Juncker in 2014, namely the free trade agreement with the United States, was unlikely to come to pass but just as importantly the year brought onto the political agenda a number of unforeseen policy challenges. These have opened the way for the Parliament to define its own position and to stress its role as a separate institution, not always following the direction proposed by the Commission.
The most obvious example is the UK referendum. The Parliament has wanted to put its own mark on the process of British withdrawal, in the knowledge that its consent is necessary for any agreement reached under Article 50. It has nominated Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister, to act as its representative for the forthcoming negotiations. He has already presented some of his own ideas, well in advance of the opening of negotiations, notably proposing a form of Associate European Citizenship for those British citizens wishing to continue to enjoy the rights they enjoy at present as EU citizens.
Similarly, the debate on migration has moved on since 2014, particularly after the European Council reached an agreement with Turkey in the spring of 2016 designed to prevent the flow of refugees into the EU. The Parliament reluctantly accepted this agreement but after the attempted coup in Turkey and the repression that followed, it called in November 2016 for negotiations on membership to be frozen. It has made its political position clear, thereby bringing the issue of enlargement to the fore, despite Juncker having wanted not to engage with the issue during his mandate.
The Parliament has also wanted to pursue its own role as a scrutinizer of executive action at EU and national level. It established two committees of inquiry during the year, one related to the revelations in the Panama papers relating to tax avoidance and the other concerning the monitoring of car emissions. Both showed the desire of the Parliament actively to set the agenda.
Many of Juncker’s ten priorities remain important parts of the ongoing work of the Parliament, not least the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI), the digital single market, an energy union and strengthened security at external borders, notably in the light of the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Nice. However, it is striking that these are no longer perceived as solely part of a Commission/Parliament partnership. In December 2016 the Council is due to join the other two institutions in signing a joint declaration which sets precisely these areas as priorities for 2017. The special character of the relationship forged following the Spitzenkandidaten experiment in 2014 is being diluted.
Following the announcement of Schulz’s departure, the election of his successor is the for the first time in nearly three decades leading to an open conflict between the two largest groups in the Parliament, the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats. If an EPP candidate is victorious in January, the political balance between Commission and Parliament will be upset, with the EP President no longer able to act to coax the second largest group to support the Commission; if the Socialist candidate (Gianni Pittella) is successful, he has already made it clear that he wants to push the Commission to change its priorities from those set in 2014.
The strength of the bond between the two institutions will be put to the test. The way in which this relationship unfolds will be of particular importance for the 2019 elections and for the willingness and ability of the Parliament to insist once again that it will only accept as Commission President someone who has been a candidate in advance of the elections. Ultimately the outcome of this argument between Parliament and the European Council will define whether we are witnessing change or continuity at the halfway stage of Juncker’s five year mandate.
 See Shackleton, M. (2015) ‘Whither the Parliament and the Commission? Reflections on the first year of the Juncker Commission’ in Voerman, G. and van der Haarst, J. (eds.) De Commissie-Juncker: laatste kans voor Europa? Den Haag: Montesquieu Institute, 81-94..