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A ‘Thematic’ EU Parliament – A Novel Institution for Europe (II of 116)

Published on 04 June 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

I’ve argued in 116 – The failed promise of the European Union unveiled (I) that in the EU free circulation does not obtain for politicians. Berlusconi would not stand a chance, if standing in Germany, and Ms Merkel may just not really have what it takes in Sevilla. It was not so five hundred years ago, when an Austrian Prince, raised in the Low Countries, could be perceived by his multifarious subjects to be legitimate Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as well as King of Spain.

How are non-nationals to achieve legitimacy in another European country and create a unified political class? This cannot be done overnight or through even long residence in another country: Just as the local team is always the favourite, so is the native son. What we need is a set of “transnational politicians”. But how do we create them?

Europe needs novel institutions to tackle this problem – is my conjecture. Thematic sub(sidiary) EU Parliaments may just do the trick.

Imagine a specialised – ‘thematic’ – EU-wide subsidiary parliamentary body, whose task would be to deal in depth with one or the other major area of public interest – like environment, health, or education. In essence this body would be akin to a Permanent Select Committee of the main EU Parliament on a major theme.

How should such a Thematic Parliament be constituted?

Ideally its members should be democratically chosen in direct Europe-wide elections. The ‘EU Party for the Unfettered Environment’ might square off against the ‘EU Party for Responsible Environmental Policies’, eventually facing each other across the floor or sitting at opposite ends of the hemicycle. While there would be national chapters, these parties would be trans-national in structure and party programme.

How would such Thematic Parliament work?

Work of the Thematic Parliament would begin with a broad public discussion on a topical issue within its mandate – in the case of “environment” say on climate change, or GMOs. Experts and concerned citizens would be heard; debates would be held leading up to an emerging democratic consensus on the way strategies and policy issues should be handled. White Papers would be published. One would move in iterations from vision to programme.

Based on the outcome of such discussions the EU Commission would prepare thereupon preliminary legislative proposals. These proposals would be discussed and voted upon in the Thematic Parliament.

What would be its relationship with the overarching EU institutions like Parliament and Council?

After the final vote in the Thematic Parliament, the proposal would move up and be eventually voted upon by the European Council and Parliament as part of the overarching political process. The existing EU structures would remain the ultimate sovreign in my scheme, but they would foremostly rely on the advice of Thematic Parliaments. In this way the EU legislative process would be shaped more democratically – rather than technocratically as is now the case.

Aiming at giving it “teeth” the Thematic Parliament might be even allowed a limited veto over the eventual EU Council outcome – e.g forcing the European Council and Parliament to discuss anew the legislative act. Or the Thematic Parliament might be entitled to propose a Europe-wide referendum on controversial legislation.

Delegated implementation

Once these main EU bodies have approved the overarching legislative acts, the Thematic Parliament could be delegated the task of approving the consequential implementing legislation. While subordinate to the main EU Parliament, the Thematic Parliament would relieve it of some of its follow-up tasks, while preserving the broader legitimacy.

A more dynamic political body

Tocqueville once remarked that stagnation is the greatest danger for democracy. Why? Politics is about balancing policies: within a theme, and between themes. When we try to do both at once, the political game ends up in a tangle of “tactical positions” – stalemate ensues. By distancing the “within” from the “between” we obtain a better chance for robust policy proposals to emerge and influence the “higher level” discussion.

Thematic Parliaments have narrower mandates; their legitimacy rests on positive substantive outcomes, rather than successful political “loss minimisation”. They can create momentum: they would be more forward-looking and an important engine of evolutionary change.

How can such a Thematic Parliament help create a transnational political class in Europe?

People from different countries more readily rally around common thematic than political causes, where “national” instincts and parochial interests prevail. I’d trust a Swede to speak for my concerns about the environment, or a Frenchman about education as their legitimacy would be tightly framed by the thematic context. INGOs today work trans-nationally already – they are showing the way. I can more readily see transnational parties and politicians emerge in this context.

Junior politicians would have the choice between earning their political spurs in Thematic Parliaments, achieving trans-national reputation there, or come up through a national party machine controlled by the Incumbent Idol. With substance as a major element of the candidate’s profile, her EU-wide standing might provide a way to challenge the Idol early. This alternative path to power might have promise.

Let’s give it a thought

My proposal is incremental and evolutionary, moving in stages from ‘national town-meetings’ to deliberative and then full-fledged Thematic Parliaments, still subject to the main political one. It could become a useful ‘half-way’ house on the road to strengthening Europe-wide democratic legitimacy.
In Europe we live beyond “end of history”. The regional struggle for survival or hegemony is a thing of the past, and none of the individual countries has a decisive role at the global level. Europe lives in a world where “vital national interests” no longer obtain – the future of a country is hardly ever at stake in Brussels these days. We may label “policy preferences” as “vital interests” – it is rhetoric or narcissism of small difference. We should recognize this and articulate our preferences in depth instead.

Freed of the purely ‘political’ – the struggle for survival or hegemony – the EU-institutions may be re-designed better to deal with thematic and technical issues that do not respect borders. Of course, in the end an overarching political solution must be obtained, but compared to the underlying substance, such a superstructural balancing might be light.

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