The Post-Pandemic Parliament

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Mechthild Roos, you are Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Augsburg, in Germany. As an expert on the European Parliament, what are your expectations towards the forthcoming elections?

Well, the forecasts largely point to two major trends. First, a relatively high voter turnout, in comparison to previous European elections. And, second, a shift of votes and seats to the right. For me, as someone who looks at longer trends in the European Parliament’s institutional development, the perhaps most intriguing question is: will these shifts affect the Parliament’s established working routines and, maybe even more importantly, its self-understanding?

 

Can you explain in more detail?

Until now, the European Parliament has always understood itself as the voice of the people, as the main provider of democratic legitimacy in EU politics, but also as driver of ever-closer integration.

This is the main point I wonder about: will the shifting of seats and perhaps majorities to the right change this self-understanding? Will the Parliament adopt more of a member-state centred course – which, in effect, would imply a weakening of the Parliament itself, but which corresponds to the political aims declared by the bulk of the parties in the most right-wing groups? Or will these new MEPs – or at least some of them – be socialized into the institution’s raison d’être and find themselves defending a stronger European Parliament and the need for parliamentary involvement in EU politics at the EU (rather than national) level?

 

Do you think this is likely?

It is far from impossible! It is actually a typical pattern within the Parliament. Over its history, and throughout many changes of composition, the Parliament has seen MEPs entering with a rather Eurosceptic view, and then gradually coming to appreciate the Parliament’s strengthened involvement in EU politics, not least of course because that gives the MEPs themselves more political power.

In addition, those who are generally sceptical about European integration tend not to be very active in the Parliament. Those who are active, on the other hand, those who lead debates and negotiations with other EU institutions, who draft reports and carry the bulk of parliamentary work – are largely in favour of closer integration, and of a strong mandate for the Parliament.

 

And in what shape, if you look back at the last five years, do you think the European Parliament is going into its next term? Which of the numerous crises it had to handle, from Brexit to Ukraine and beyond, had the biggest impact on the institution itself?

In my point of view, the most influential crisis of all clearly was the COVID-19 pandemic. Because regardless of all the other crises’ broader implications, COVID-19 had by far the most profound impact on the Parliament’s own work. The combination of a dramatic urgency to act, a complete inexperience with a pandemic of this scale, and the institutional consequences of the lockdown, all of this put into question the established policy-making procedures at the EU level, and also within the European Parliament itself. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that the 2019 elections had brought a significant turnover among MEPs: 58% of them were new to the job, and consequently had hardly any networks or knowledge of formal, but also informal working routines, which are particularly important in the European Parliament as an institution that has always been fighting for more power than it formally holds.

In the pandemic, Parliament managed to uphold a remarkable level of legislative activity. It has also pushed intensely for better and more democratically legitimised crisis governance mechanisms. Nevertheless, this period of extraordinary strain has left its marks on the European Parliament and its role in EU politics.

 

Do you think the pandemic has weakened the Parliament’s position?

Time will tell. We will most likely not exit this period of polycrisis anytime soon, so for me, the question is whether Parliament will manage to formalize its involvement in EU crisis governance, which we may safely expect to become something of a new normal, or whether it will have to fight continuously to keep its foot in the door.

Overall, I choose to be optimistic: if crises are indeed the new normal, then we will get normalized crisis governance routines sooner rather than later, if only for the sake of efficiency. And I hope that these new routines will include a strong dimension of parliamentary involvement and democratic oversight.

 

Thank you very much, Mechthild Roos, for sharing your expectations with us! I recall you are Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Augsburg, in Germany.