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Preaching about Democracy while not Respecting it. 

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With the European Parliament elections almost upon us there are plenty of reminders in the media and from politicians of the importance of our democratic traditions, and how they should be upheld. Less discussed, however, is how those traditions are being eroded - writes Clare Daly MEP.

For over a decade, the EU Parliament’s capacity to hold those in power to account has been receding. If the new Parliament to be elected in June is to be the house of democracy it is supposed to be, this will need to be addressed.

Bureaucratic Disdain.

A key responsibility of the European Parliament is to supervise the functioning of the EU Commission.  Given the complex nature of the EU, the level of scrutiny exercised by the Parliament should be on a par with or higher than the scrutiny that national parliaments exercise.  The evidence points in the opposite direction.  

A hallmark of the current European Commission has been the contempt shown for parliamentary oversight. The Parliament holds regular debates with the Commission as a mechanism of holding it to account. But all too often, in what has become something of a standing joke, Commission President von der Leyen delivers her address to Parliament only to leg it out of the chamber as soon as the debate begins. In front of the Parliament’s committees, stonewalling from executive agencies and Commissioners is now the norm. And a striking measure of the contempt shown for the Parliament is the manner in which parliamentary questions are treated.  

Around the world parliamentary questions are widely regarded as a quick and easy way to hold governments to account, as a means of protecting the rights of citizens, and most importantly as a means of casting the light of public scrutiny into the dark corners of bureaucracy. That is not how they are perceived in Brussels.

Parliamentary Questions

Members of the European Parliament are allowed to submit a maximum of 20 parliamentary questions in a “rolling three-month period”. Questions may be submitted for written or oral response, most questions are for a written response. MEPs may submit one ‘priority’ question per month. Priority questions are supposed to be answered within three weeks. Non-priority questions are supposed to be answered in six weeks.

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The Commission very seldom meets these targets. It was recently calculated that as many as ninety percent of all PQs are answered late.

Inconvenient questions can languish for months without an answer. A case in point is a priority question submitted by four MEPs in July 2022 on the sensitive issue of text messages between Commission President von der Leyen and the CEO of Pfizer. The question was not answered until March 2023 with no explanation for the delay.

A priority question about suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement submitted by myself and fellow Irish MEP Mick Wallace in November last only received an answer a staggering 23 weeks after the deadline.

Tardiness from the Commission is not the only problem. While there are stringent rules for how MEPs must draft their questions, the Commission is subject to no such rigours, and has freedom to answer them however it wishes. Much of the time, this means not answering them. Responses to questions are frequently dismissive, evasive, unhelpful and even untruthful.

No Comeback

As things stand MEPs have no real comeback where the Commission willfully obstructs the operation of the parliamentary question system.

This was demonstrated over the last year in the treatment of a series of questions tabled by MEPs from across the political spectrum on a report produced in March 2023 by the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority EIOPA.

The questions focused on access to the report, on issues relating to its preparation, the material used in it, and the suggestion that its conclusions are out of line with other relevant reports.

The Commission spent months batting away questions with vague and sometimes openly misleading answers, before admitting that it had not seen the report. In any self-respecting parliament where an executive agency was found to be operating deceptively, there would be serious political repercussions: but not in the EU.

 I lodged a formal complaint with the EU Ombudsman on how PQs had been handled by the Commission. The response demonstrated the extent to which answerability is absent within Europe’s bureaucratic structure.  

The Ombudsman took the view that issues relating to how the Commission handles requests from MEPs is a political rather than an administrative matter and, therefore, not an issue for examination by the Ombudsman's office.

As a solution, the Ombudsman made the suggestion that an “oral behind closed doors” meeting between the EIOPA chair and specific members of the “competent Committee” could be requested as a way of resolving questions about EIOPA’s secret report.   It is indicative of the shortcomings of the current oversight mechanisms that a complaint focused on a report which is being kept secret can only be scrutinised in a meeting which is itself behind closed doors.

The Ombudsman's third recommendation was that EIOPA - which, as has been mentioned, withheld its report from the Commission - should be asked by individual MEPs for a copy of the report.

The limitations on the Ombudsman's ability to pursue democratic oversight of EU bureaucracy is an issue that the next parliament will need to consider.  

Rapid decline

In another indicator of the decline in democratic scrutiny in the House of European Democracy, the volume of questions has fallen precipitously over the last ten years.

In 2015 almost 15,500 PQs were answered in the EU Parliament. That figure fell to 7100 by 2020. Last year it was down to under 3,800 questions.

In comparison with other parliaments, the number of questions dealt with in the European Parliament is ludicrously low. Between February 2020 and November 2023 Dail Eireann, the Irish Parliament, dealt with 200,228 PQs: the European Parliament dealt with less than one-tenth of that number.

This decline in parliamentary scrutiny is no accident. It reflects an odd and undemocratic sentiment in Brussels that the European Commission should be subject to less, not more, scrutiny.

What Price Democracy.

An insight into this attitude was provided in a Parliamentary question in 2015 put by a then MEP from the Parliament’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Group.

Demonstrating that antipathy to PQs is not confined to Brussels bureaucrats, the MEP,  Vladimir Manka referred to a “flood of written questions” placing “a huge burden on the Commission”. The MEP boasted that during the 2016 EU budget discussions he had “managed to persuade the main political parties to reach a consensus on the matter” that fewer PQs should be submitted [1].

The Commission’s Vice President Timmermans, also from the S&D Group, responded that the “ever-increasing number of questions (entailed) considerable costs for the Commission”. He put a price tag of €490 on each written PQ answered explaining that every question must go through “a process of attribution, drafting, validation, inter-service coordination, collegiate endorsement, and finally translation.”

The €490 cost per PQ looks on the high side. Even if correct when applied to the 3800 questions tabled in 2023 and allowing for inflation it would put the price tag for PQs at between €2.5 & €3 million, an infinitesimally small fraction of the Commission's annual budget and a small price to pay for ensuring democratic oversight.  

Ensuring that the EU Parliament can effectively oversee the EU’s powerful agencies comes with an economic cost. Allowing that capacity to be undermined comes with an even greater democratic cost.

[1]. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/P-8-2015-006180_EN.html 

Clare Daly is an Irish MEP and a member of  the GUE/NGL group  

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