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The Role of British MEPs in Pushing Forward the Parliament’s Powers


If British MEPs are about to leave the European Parliament, it cannot be said that they have not left a mark. Until the arrival of UKIP in recent years, they had a reputation for diligence and hard work. But the impact went beyond the day-to-day work on European legislation, budgets, and oversight of the European administration. They actually played a significant role in the development of the European Parliament’s powers, procedures and practices.

Richard Corbett

Richard Corbett: Labour MEP who has worked tirelessly for decades to help strengthen the Parliament’s powers and explain its work to the wider public.

Even prior to the first European elections of 1979, British MEPs (who were then MPs nominated by national parliaments) helped shape European Parliament procedures such as question time, drawing on the British model, with veteran MP Willie Hamilton playing a role. Lord Bruce of Donnington, a Labour peer, pioneered the exploitation of Parliament’s budgetary powers.

When the European Parliament became a directly elected body in 1979, most of its members felt that its then advisory role on European legislation was insufficient. A celebrated project to rectify that – and at the same time to rewrite the European treaties in order to transform the European Community into a European Union – was crafted on an all-party basis by a left-wing Italian MEP, Alterio Spinelli, with significant support from two British Conservative MEPs, Derek Prag and Stanley Johnson (the father of Boris!).

At the time, I worked as an advisor to Spinelli, helping with that project, which ultimately led to the Single European Act, and a few years later I similarly helped the British Labour MEP, David Martin, who drafted Parliament’s input into the Maastricht Treaty. Together, we made the first draft of a “co-decision procedure”, now the Union’s ordinary legislative  procedure, giving Parliament equal power with the Council of ministers in the adoption of European legislation – the foundation of Parliament’s legislative power.

The Maastricht treaty brought in the codecision procedure tentatively, for just a dozen articles of the treaty and subject to a clause whereby Council could overrule Parliament if it was unanimous, unless Parliament then rejected Council’s position within six weeks by an absolute majority. Parliament made it clear that it always would, as a matter of principle, reject such a unilateral imposition by Council. The rapporteur for the first such rejection was another British Labour MEP, Mel Read. Five years after Maastricht, the Amsterdam Treaty eliminated the offending clause in the procedure, and it also extended the procedure to cover more areas.

The Amsterdam treaty negotiations took nearly two years, with the final few weeks seeing a new Labour government reverse many of the positions initially taken by the previous Conservative government. This had been prepared meticulously, with a Labour Party working group composed of Blair, Brown, Prescott, Cook and Quin and MEPs Pauline Green (leader of the Socialist Group), David Martin (Vice-President of Parliament) and Wayne David (leader of the Labour delegation) and Christine Crawley (Deputy Leader). I prepared positions for this group, and discreetly conveyed its conclusions to the other governments in the negotiations, which I attended in the guise of being the adviser (Sherpa) to Parliament’s representative, Elizabeth Guigou. This ensured they reached no final agreement with the UK prior to the general election on the issues where Labour had a different position to the Conservative government. When Labour then took over, Britain approved not only the extension and improvement of the codecision procedure, but also the right of Parliament to vote to confirm (or not) the choice of Commission President, a number of extensions to qualified majority voting in the Council, the integration of the social chapter into the treaty, and a number of other issues which the previous government had blocked.

British MEPs continued to play an important role regarding Parliament’s input into subsequent treaty revisions, all of which saw many of Parliament’s proposals taken on board. The key committee was the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which for ten years saw British MEPs lead for the Socialists (me) and the Liberals (Andrew Duff). This culminated in the Treaty of Lisbon, for which I was Parliament’s co-rapporteur. But the Lisbon treaty was largely based on ideas that had been incorporated in the proposed European Constitution – a proposal to repeal all the existing treaties and replace them with a new Constitution, an idea that ultimately fell when France and the Netherlands rejected its ratification. Although the idea of a new Constitution was then dropped, some of the reforms it envisaged were salvaged in the Lisbon Treaty. The laboratory that had drawn up many of these reforms was a constitutional convention, composed of a representative of each government, two from each national parliament and 16 MEPs.

Andrew Duff

Andrew Duff: British Liberal Democrat prominent in the Constitutional Convention and who from 2008-2013 was president of the Union of European Federalists.

A prominent role was played by Andrew Duff, deputy leader of Parliament’s delegation. Other British MEPs were Linda McAvan (Labour) and Timothy Kirkhope (Conservative). Apart from the wider reforms to the EU that came out of this process (beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to emphasise that Parliament was not only concerned about its own role), was a strengthening of the Parliament by making the co-decision procedure the Ordinary Legislative Procedure, applicable to (almost) all EU legislation, giving Parliament the right to elect the President of the Commission, the aforementioned right to reject delegated acts, the right to approve (or reject) international agreements entered into by the EU, and several other changes.

But it was not just through treaty changes that British MEPs helped secure changes to the Parliament’s powers and practices. Several examples stand out, and they all involved British MEPs. The aforementioned Pauline Green was instrumental in triggering in 1999 the first use of Parliament’s right to sack the Commission in a vote of no-confidence, albeit in a parliamentary manoeuvre initially contrived to do the opposite (and, technically, the Commission resigned before the actual vote). But it proved that the Commission’s accountability to Parliament was not just theoretical, and had an ultimate sanction.

Pauline Green

Pauline Green: led the Socialist group at the time of the fall of the Santer Commission.

Day-to-day powers over the Commission were complicated for a long time by the absence of a right to block Commission decisions that could be described as delegated legislation. In 2006, a negotiation between Parliament and the Council, initiated under the British presidency of the latter in 2005, produced a breakthrough, giving Parliament, for the first time, the right to block Commission decisions of this kind. Parliament’s negotiators were Joseph Daul, Chair of the Conference of Committee chairs, and myself as Parliament’s rapporteur on the subject. The deal set up the “Regulatory Procedure with Scrutiny”, which served as the pre-cursor to the Delegated Act procedure brought in under the Lisbon Treaty three years later. It drew on the British procedures regarding statutory instruments, and gave Parliament a right to object to the decision within a certain deadline, thereby blocking it.

Most people only see an EU meeting on TV when it is a European Council (summit of heads of state or government). Meeting nowadays five or six times a year, it starts with an address by the President of the European Parliament and a discussion with him. This practice was started by Lord Plumb, the only British president the Parliament has had. Plumb was also instrumental in securing for the Parliament the possibility to hold regular sessions in Brussels, in the teeth of opposition from France.

Henry Plumb

Henry Plumb, Conservative, the first – and now most likely the last – British president of the European Parliament.

The internal workings of the Parliament are set out in its Rules of Procedure. They have evolved enormously over the past thirty years to cater for the greater powers and increased size of the Parliament and in order to respond to threats by a small minority of Eurosceptic MEPs to bring Parliament to a halt. What was a rather sedate, discursive debating chamber thirty years ago is now the venue for brokering tough deals on legislation, budgets and appointments, and the rules had to follow and even enable this change of role. Occasionally, in adapting its internal procedures, Parliament stretched the treaty like a piece of elastic to maximise its own influence. Here again, British influence could be seen, with Conservative MEP Sir Christopher Prout co-rapporteur in 1993 after the Maastricht treaty, and myself after each subsequent treaty change (the Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties) as well as on a number of other rules revisions – and another Corbett Report overhauling the rules is scheduled for December 2016.

All in all, the British will have left a legacy in the European Parliament that will remain.

Richard Corbett is a Labour Party MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, and has a long history of involvement in the European Union dating back more than 30 years. Richard is co-author of nine consecutive editions of The European Parliament, as well as many other books and articles. More information about his work can be found on his website.

Editor: Eliot Scott-Faulkner

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2 Responses to The Role of British MEPs in Pushing Forward the Parliament’s Powers

  1. Joke

    If Brexit is acted at the end of the day, the European Union will miss MEPs of the quality of Richard Corbett.
    I am French but I’ve always considered him as my MEP.

  2. Peter Lockwood

    From Australia I feel sorry for the people of UK, How did these clowns get in?