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E-cyclopedia Friday, 8 January, 1999, 14:11 GMT
Europe's new power struggle
Commission graphic
Jacques Santer must deal with MEPs' burgeoning confidence
The European Parliament's impending vote of censure on the Commission comes at a time of growing confidence among EU elected members.

While the authority to dismiss all commissioners with a simple two-thirds majority vote is nothing new for Parliament, it has highlighted the real political power now wielded by MEPs.

So says Richard Corbett, European Parliament Member for Merseyside West. And he senses the current swing of power away from the unelected Commission, in favour of the elected Parliament, is set to continue.

Key institutions

The European Union is made up of four key institutions: Commission, Parliament, Council of Ministers and Court of Justice.

It is the Commission, headed by President Jacques Santer, which proposes legislation. Its 20 ministers are expected to set aside national loyalties in favour of their specific policy brief.

The Council of Ministers, another unelected body, and, to a lesser extent, the Parliament, then take on the job of enacting legislation.

Parliament's Strasboug HQ
Parliament's Strasboug HQ is taking power from Brussels
However, fuelled by its authority as the EU's only directly-elected institution, the Parliament has also defined itself as the EU's democratic check and balance.

With the greater powers conferred on it by the 1991 Maastricht Treaty and 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, it now has a say on the appointment of the Commission president and its ministers.

With this new-found authority, MEPs have increasingly begun to flex their muscle.

"Parliament is more vigorous in its scrutiny of the institutions," says Mr Corbett, emphasising the Parliament's watchful role.

Its chief target has been the Commission, which has found itself at odds with the Parliament in recent months on several issues.

Budget block

One of MEPs' most treasured powers is that of signing off the EU's 56bn annual budget. Tensions with the Commission were tested early last year when the budget control committee voiced concern about some elements of the 1996 budget.

Discharge was deferred, leaving the issue to rumble on all year. The stand-off was exacerbated when a Commission statement said that if committee refused to sign off the accounts they should take a vote of confidence.

"There is a sense that because MEPs are elected they therefore have more rights," says Mr Corbett.

Pressure on relationship

He concedes this has led to a growing strain in the Commission-Parliament relationship.

"If you're in the Commission it can't be nice to think that the Parliament can send you home at any time."

But while Parliament's drive for accountability in the EU is set to continue to develop, says Mr Corbett, commissioners will continue to hold sway thanks to their potent powers to formulate legislation and so steer the EU's policy direction.

See also:

07 Jan 99 | Europe
08 Jan 99 | UK Politics
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