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European parliament, jostling for relevance, elects a new leader

Metsola’s predecessor, David Sassoli, died at
age 65 last week, and she was selected by an overwhelming majority over two
other candidates, all women.

The European Union of 27 nations, one of the
world’s most ambitious political experiments, is home to 450 million people.
The Parliament is the bloc’s only directly elected institution, and voters have
been electing lawmakers to the body since 1979, when the union was much
smaller.

Despite the holding of European Parliament
elections every five years, the European Union has a complicated structure and
is often accused of being a murky bureaucratic machine, detached from its
citizens and lacking democratic accountability, even as it grows in power.

“In the next years, people across Europe will
look to our institution for leadership and direction, while others will
continue to test the limits of our democratic values and European principles,”
Metsola told lawmakers after being elected. “We must fight back against the
anti-EU narrative that takes hold so easily and so quickly.”

Metsola, a member of the conservative European
People’s Party, the Parliament’s largest political group, has a daunting task
in leading the most fragmented chamber in decades as it tackles issues such as
curbing carbon emissions, upholding the rule of law and setting out rules for
major technology companies.

She will also have to navigate the
Parliament’s relationship with the two other institutions governing the bloc:
the European Commission, its executive bureaucracy; and the European Council,
which pools together the heads of government of the 27 member states. The three
branches often compete with one another for influence, with the Parliament
struggling for relevance and usually coming out the weakest.

The dance between the EU institutions has been
unfolding against the backdrop of a larger conundrum: Can the bloc, which has
positioned itself as a defender of democracy and which governs many aspects of
the lives of Europeans, become more democratic while maintaining its current
structure

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“The European Union is an unfinished political
system,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, a senior policy analyst at the European
Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank. “It’s a question of perspective,”
she noted. “If you look at it like an international organization, it is one of
the most democratic ones. Obviously, if you compare it to national democracies,
it has a democratic deficit.”

But according to Pornschlegel, that comparison
would not be fair. “So far, we don’t have the United States of Europe,” she
said, referring to a more deeply integrated federal power structure. “It’s much
more complicated than that.”

The European Parliament can veto legislation,
set up budgets, ratify international agreements and has a supervisory role over
various institutions. It also has the final say in approving the president of
the European Commission.

But in December 2019, when the current head of
the commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was appointed, national leaders reneged
on their promise to nominate a president from candidates proposed by the
Parliament’s lawmakers, which was seen as a major blow to the institution’s
standing. Lawmakers also cannot dismiss individual commissioners, but can only
disband the commission as a whole.

And in an important divergence from national
legislatures, the European Parliament does not have the power to initiate laws,
which many see as a huge hindrance. “It puts you in a reactive mode,” said
Marietje Schaake, a former member of the European Parliament who now teaches at
Stanford University. “It is a major flaw in the design of the union.”

Alberto Alemanno, a professor of European
Union law at the business school HEC Paris, put it more bluntly. “The European
Parliament is neither a parliament, because it has no legislative initiative,
nor is it European, because its members are elected at the national and not at
the European level,” he said.

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But analysts say that in recent years the
Parliament has gained prominence, expressed both through an increased turnout
in the 2019 elections and through a series of unusually bold moves.

Under Sassoli, an Italian, the Parliament took
the European Commission to court for not using existing rules to cut funding
for member countries breaching rule-of-law standards. And in May, lawmakers
blocked a high-profile investment agreement between the bloc and China, citing
human rights violations and sanctions against Europeans critical of Beijing,
including some lawmakers.

As the position of the Parliament has evolved,
so has the role of its president. “It is no longer the role of a ceremonial
figure, like the president of the German republic,” Alemanno said. “The
president is somebody who can allow the European Parliament to advance their
political goals and defend its prerogatives. But it will depend on their
personality, and their political affiliation.”

In many ways, Metsola, a former lawyer, brings
novelty to the role. Nearly 60% of the legislators are men, and the average age
is about 50. And Metsola is the first president to come from Malta, the bloc’s
smallest member nation.

But in other ways, Metsola is a mainstream
choice. She belongs to the Parliament’s dominant group, which is also home to
the party of von der Leyen. Critics say that the political affinity could be an
obstacle to Metsola’s standing up to the commission.

In an interview with The Times before her
selection as president, Metsola said, “We have the task to hold the commission
to account, and we will keep doing that unapologetically.”

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“But we will keep in mind the bigger picture
of EU unity,” she added. “I don’t want the Parliament to get stuck in
inter-institutional debates.”

Metsola has been outspoken against corruption
and the erosion of the rule of law, especially in her native Malta. But she has
faced criticism over her socially conservative views, in particular her stance
against abortion. She said that once elected, she would push forward “the
position of the house” on reproductive rights.

Referring to Metsola’s vote against a
resolution condemning Poland’s anti-abortion laws, Alice Kuhnke, a Green
candidate for president, said, “All women in the EU should rely on the
president of the Parliament to fight for us when needed.”

“I find it hard to see how she would manage to
do that with credibility and strength,” Kuhnke added, in an interview before
Metsola was confirmed as president.

The institution of the Parliament has often
been chided for not upholding the principles it preaches. Transparency
International, an anti-corruption watchdog, said in a recent report that the
Parliament’s internal rules were not sufficient to guarantee accountability of
lawmakers.

Despite the systemic flaws, there are reasons
for the Parliament to be optimistic, analysts say. In a recent poll, 63% of
Europeans said that they would like the body to play a more important role. One
proposal would see some lawmakers elected from Pan-European rather than
national lists, aiming to bolster the connection with voters across the bloc.
But in typical EU fashion, it is unclear whether such a change would be ready
before the next election, planned for 2024.

 

©2022 The New York Times Company

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