Status: 22.11.2022 06:49 a.m
The EU Parliament has gained influence over the years, yet it still lags behind the power of national assemblies. In an interview, ex-parliamentary president Schulz says what parliament is still missing.
tagesschau.de: When you became a member of the European Parliament in 1994, the influence of the Parliament was much smaller than it is today. How often did you ask yourself back then: What am I actually doing here?
Martin Schulz: I never asked myself that question. I really wanted to go there because it was clear to me very early on that the role of Parliament would increase with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.
Martin Schulz was a member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 2017. From 2004 to 2012 he was leader of the Socialist Group, from 2012 to 2017 speaker of the parliament. In 2017, Schulz switched to federal politics, became SPD chairman and candidate for chancellor. After the lost federal election, Schulz became a member of parliament and left the Bundestag in 2021. At the end of 2020 he was elected chairman of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation.
“New epoch through budget law”
tagesschau.de: How do you see it today – how much has the influence grown and what were the decisive reforms?
Schulz: To the extent that the European Union and before it the European Community and before that the European Economic Community transferred rights from the national level to the supranational level, the need for parliamentary control of the executive arose. Initially, this was pushed forward only very slowly. But with the so-called Single Act in the 1980s and with the Maastricht Treaty, the Commission was given a huge budget – and Parliament became the budget legislator. A new era in European politics began with budget law.
For me, these are the milestones in strengthening Parliament. And thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, which introduced majority voting in more than 80 policy areas, Parliament is one of the most powerful legislators in Europe.
“Government must be dependent on Parliament”
tagesschau.de: And yet – compared to the Bundestag – something is missing for complete control of the executive by the people’s representatives. In your opinion, what needs to change in order for it to live up to this claim?
Schulz: In my opinion, the EU Commission must become a European government. In fact, she already is. It just shouldn’t call itself that, because the executive powers of the Commission have the character of a government.
But then such a de facto government must also be 100 percent dependent on the will of Parliament. Then the President of the Commission is appointed by Parliament and, if necessary, dismissed again, as we know from the national level. That was also the aim of the so-called leading candidate process, which I did a lot of work on as President of the European Parliament. It would be better if it were anchored in the treaties.
“Parliament was not looking for a power struggle”
tagesschau.de: This process ended in 2019 in that none of the top candidates at the time became Commission President, but Ursula von der Leyen, who had not been on any ballot paper. What is your consequence from this? We are approaching the next election in 2024.
Schulz: In 2019, Manfred Weber or Frans Timmermans could have become Commission President – if Parliament had stayed consistent. I noted that Parliament did not seek a power struggle with the Council for this position. As is well known, French President Emmanuel Macron did not want Weber at the time. Parliament should have said that it would then be Timmermanns – one of them or nobody.
I thought it was wrong that Parliament finally agreed to the deal made by the heads of government, especially Merkel and Macron. But that doesn’t mean it will happen again next time. My impression is that Ms. von der Leyen is very systematically striving for the office of the EPP’s top candidate.
tagesschau.de: And there is the question of whether the EPP supports this.
Schulz: However, that is the question.
tagesschau.de: So we are talking here about Parliament’s self-image.
Schulz: Clearly on this point. In 2014, on election night, I met Jean-Claude Juncker, whose group was in the lead. I said, let’s see that we elect you Commission President and then come to an agreement on how we can act with Parliament on the one hand and the Commission on the other as opponents if necessary and as cooperation partners if necessary.
Because in addition to the Commission, there were 28 other executives at the time – the national governments that sit together in the European Council as a power bloc. They, too, need a parliamentary counterweight, and Parliament sometimes has to have the Commission as an ally in order to assert itself against particular national interests.
We managed that quite well in 2014, but it didn’t repeat itself in 2019. But that doesn’t mean that things can’t go the same way again in 2024.
Two who were able to come to an agreement: Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker after the Luxembourger was elected President of the European Commission
Image: picture alliance / dpa
The Power of the Commission
tagesschau.de: There are critics in Brussels who say that the Commission has gained power again during the Corona crisis and since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine and that Parliament has lost power to the same extent. Do you share this assessment?
Schulz: Not quite. The Commission has not gained power, but circumstances have arisen which have shown what power the Commission already has. The joint procurement of vaccines did not fall from the sky. If there is a common European task to be done, that is the task of the Commission. Derived from this, I come back to my last but one answer: This de facto government needs to be linked much more strictly and intensively to Parliament.
tagesschau.de: You referred to the many policy areas in which Parliament now decides by majority. Do you have the impression that the population in Germany perceives this accordingly?
Schulz: Whenever Parliament shows its power, it is noticed. Take the example of the General Data Protection Regulation. This triggered major debates, it was decided in the European Parliament. The European Parliament decides on the banking union – a consequence of the financial crisis. Parliament also decides on international trade agreements such as CETA. The SWIFT agreement, which regulates international money flows and was much discussed in the context of the Russia sanctions, has been ratified in the European Parliament. From this you can see how powerful Parliament is.
“Central deficit: that Parliament has no right of initiative”
tagesschau.de: But it only occasionally acts as a strong legislator.
Schulz: It is clear to everyone in the Bundestag: Parliament is the main legislator in the country. This awareness does not exist in relation to the European Parliament. That’s why my goal, both as group leader and later as parliamentary president, was: Parliament must be the permanent source of unrest in Brussels. No official of the Commission or of the Council can be sure that a Member of Parliament will not turn up somewhere to ask questions, make suggestions or introduce initiatives. Incidentally, that is one of the central deficits: that Parliament does not have its own right of initiative.
tagesschau.de: Does that mean that this unrest factor is not given to the same extent?
Schulz: I am assuming that the colleagues who are now sitting in Parliament will exercise their control function carefully.
“Consistent combating of extremist intentions”
tagesschau.de: Let me turn the point of unrest a different way and come to the division of Europe, which can also be seen in Parliament. One of your frequently quoted phrases is that the best way to ward off the demons of the 20th century, such as racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, is the European Parliament. Given its division, is Parliament still in a position to stop this demon?
Schulz: Definitely, and it does. The overwhelming majority of MEPs are ardent supporters of European cooperation. That there are a number of extremists from the right and left who are Eurosceptic or even openly ultra-nationalist is nothing new.
But the majorities in the European Parliament have changed – the EPP and the Socialists no longer have a majority alone. But if you put the EPP, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens together, you have a huge bloc of pro-European forces. So I have no worries here, quite the opposite.
Nowhere is the destructive intention of the extremists, especially from the right, more visible in everyday life than in the European Parliament. And nowhere is it fought more consistently in everyday life than in the European Parliament.
The conversation was led by Eckart Aretz, tagesschau.de