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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 11:25 GMT

Europe's power struggle: Commission vs parliament

Parliament's power is on the rise in Europe

The wholesale resignation of Europe's 20 commissioners is a landmark step in the shifting balance of power in the European Union.

EU in crisis
It will be especially savoured by many members of the European Parliament who narrowly failed to force just such a move at the start of the year.

Then the commissioners survived a censure motion after a last-minute compromise was struck.

Nevertheless it had been a defining moment in the rise of the elected parliament at the cost of the appointed commission.

[ image: Jacques Santer: The most public face of the commission]
Jacques Santer: The most public face of the commission
The European Union is made up of four key institutions: the commission, the parliament, the Council of Ministers and the Court of Justice.

It is the commission, headed until Monday night 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 626-member parliament, then take on the job of enacting legislation.

Watchdog role

However, empowered by its authority as the EU's only directly-elected institution, the parliament has increasingly 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 muscles.

[ image: The Maastricht Treaty granted more powers to the elected assembly]
The Maastricht Treaty granted more powers to the elected assembly
"I think this episode underlines parliament's watchdog role and that the commission is not autonomous but an executive under the authority of the legislature," says Richard Corbett, Labour Euro-MP for Merseyside West.

Parliament's chief target has been the commission, which has found itself at odds with the elected assembly in recent months on several issues.

One power that MEPs treasure most 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.

Budget stand-off

MEPs delayed giving their approval, leaving the issue to rumble on all year. The stand-off was exacerbated when a commission statement said that if the committee refused to sign off the accounts they should take a vote of confidence.

In January the two came to blows over the fraud and mismanagement issue, which is the cause of the current controversy, when the Socialist grouping, the largest bloc, had wanted to dismiss the commissioners.

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

Inevitably, this has led to a growing strain in the commission-parliament relationship.

Greater power of influence

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

"Formally it will remain the case," agrees Mr Corbett, although the latest developments will boost the parliament's power of influence.

"The commission doesn't work in a vacuum. It has to listen to the parliament and the importance of the parliament will go up from here."

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