Council of Europe, Parliament, Commission... better understand the role of European institutions before voting

Council of Europe, Parliament, Commission… better understand the role of European institutions before voting

The workings of Brussels and Strasbourg often remain unknown to the French. They are, it is true, complex and far from our political tradition.

The anonymous civil servants who invented the terminology of the European institutions would have been well advised to first read a manual on marketing for dummies in ten lessons. Because how can you sell a product that is so unidentifiable to the widest audience? Still passes for the European Parliament, called to be renewed between June 6 and 9. His notion is understandable to any citizen of the democratic world. Then it gets complicated quickly.

Despite its misleading name, the European Council is not a subordinate body but the strategic institution where its members (the 27 heads of state or government) decide on the major political orientations. Not to be confused with the Council of Europe – from which the European Court of Human Rights emanates – made up of 46 states (including a dictatorship like Azerbaijan…) and which is not an institution of the EU.

And why did we give the third pivot of the European system the vague term “Commission” when it is the body which holds the power to propose European laws – legislative power – and which implements decisions, in the manner of departments of a ministry – executive role? To further disconcert the citizen, it would suffice to add that the “European Parliament”, endowed with the power of co-legislator by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, is formally deprived of the capacity to propose laws, a prerogative of the European Commission, but may suggest that it submit a proposal. And that MEPs spend their mandate moving between Brussels, where they spend most of their time in committees, and Strasbourg, where plenary sessions are held four days a month, which is, however, according to the treaties, the seat of the 'institution. While its general secretariat resides in… Luxembourg.

Such an institutional Meccano has everything to confuse Cartesian minds. So why should we be surprised that the French admit to a complete lack of understanding of the Brussels system? A survey, published on May 6 by the Viavoice institute, delivers staggering results: only one in two French people declare that the European Parliament is “made up of European deputies”. Nearly one in four French people (24%) believe that the European Parliament is made up of “leaders of member countries” or “ministers of the governments of member states”. And 46% (compared to 21% and 33% of undecided) think that “the European elections allow the members of the European Commission to be elected”. In reality, each head of state or government chooses his commissioner, whom Parliament can dismiss if it judges the candidate incompetent or if it detects a breach of ethics. In 2019, the candidacy of Frenchwoman Sylvie Goulard, presented by Emmanuel Macron, was thus rejected by Parliament. “In line with a low level of knowledge, the results of the European mandate are largely unknown,” underlines Adrien Broche, head of political studies at Viavoice. Only 21% of respondents say they are able to cite a flagship measure voted by the Strasbourg assembly over the last five years.

Culture of compromise

“The French unitary political culture is out of step with the European culture of compromise,” analyzes Thierry Chopin, professor at the School of Mines in Paris and special advisor to the Jacques-Delors Institute. As a result, our representation of political practice, long marked by a right/left bipolarism, comes up against the constitutive features of Brussels political life. Our cultural pitfalls – “difficulties in integrating the practice of compromise, in recognizing the legitimacy of the defense of particular interests, in adapting to the system of majority coalitions with variable geometry” – do not facilitate understanding of the subject “Europe”. “For the development of European law, a consensus must be reached between the technocrats of the Commission, the ministers of the Member States and the elected representatives of Parliament, but when we cannot achieve this, who is to blame for the blockage? It’s rarely clear,” explains François-Vivien Guiot, lecturer at the University of Pau. “Imagine when ministers from the 27 Member States, from governments ranging from the conservative right to the socialist left, meet within the Council of the EU on subjects with a strong political charge such as immigration,” says Clémentine Mazille, lecturer at the same university. The final consensus is necessarily achieved in an obscure manner in the eyes of the French citizen accustomed to more frontal divisions. »

Lobbies and negotiations

Brussels mechanics cast a veil of opacity over decision-making. It is hard to understand an institutional functioning where lobbies, vilified in Paris, openly contribute in Brussels to the development of the law with MEPs. It's not easy to grasp, either, that the head of the Macronist list Valérie Hayer boasts of voting in the European hemicycle “90% in the same way” as her opponent Raphaël Glucksmann, head of the Socialist Party list, while their formations tear each other apart at the Palais Bourbon. Nor that the latter admits voting “at 76%” the same texts as Manon Aubry (Groupe de la Gauche, La France insoumise) when, in France, they belong to two lefts deemed irreconcilable.

In the Strasbourg hemicycle, majorities on a text presuppose the development of a long compromise, inspired by the model of parliamentary democracy, the most widespread among the Member States, but again very far from the very French semi-presidential regime. vertical. Each time, you have to look for votes everywhere. The conservative French MEP (European People's Party, LR) François-Xavier Bellamy details how he was able to get a two-vote majority to vote on an amendment to save the French stained glass industry threatened with disappearance by a ban on lead: “I am went to see the Portuguese conservatives, the Scandinavian ecologists and I even managed to convince the French MEPs of La France insoumise. Beyond our differences, we carry out permanent negotiation work which is essential to winning our battles. »

The “Brussels bubble”

The mechanisms for appointing officials also deviate from French tradition. The hearings of the designated commissioners before the committees of the European Parliament are inspired by the hearings (hearings) before the Washington Senate, which confirms ministers, ambassadors, judges to the Supreme Court, etc. chosen by the American President. We are far from the discretionary power of appointment of the host of the Élysée. But it gets even more complicated when “the Brussels bubble”, as the Eurocrats themselves describe their little world, exempts itself from the set rules.

In the 2019 European elections, as for the previous election, the principle of Spitzenkandidaten (heads of lists) should apply. For the sake of transparency and incarnation, each European party presented its candidate for the post of President of the Commission during the campaign. In 2014, the center right proposed the Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker – who will be invested -, the socialists the German Martin Schulz, the radical left the Greek Alexis Tsipras, etc. But in 2019, the day after the elections, while the European People's Party (center right) had designated the German Manfred Weber as its champion, the heads of state and government chose in conclave, at the initiative of Emmanuel Macron and to everyone's surprise, the German Ursula von der Leyen, from the same training. While the person concerned had not campaigned.

This democratic regression testifies to a persistent distrust of French politicians towards anything that could escape the control of the Parisian apparatuses. “There is a cartel of national political forces not to talk about Europe,” analyzes Olivier Costa, researcher at Cevipof. You don't make a career through the European level, political life is hysterical around the presidential election, as proven, once again, by the current European campaign. The parties are all, with the exception of the centrist family, affected by internal divisions on the European question and therefore prefer to avoid the subject. » Added to this is “the political reflex of national administrations consisting of acting as a buffer between European action and its translation on the ground: we take credit for what works and we blame Brussels for constraints and delays,” underlines François- Vivien Guiot. The faults are shared. The European Commission, with its increasingly bureaucratic reflexes, refuses, for fear of a loss of coherence, to differentiate its communication according to national audiences. National Education is struggling to teach how European construction works. The French media insufficiently cover Union affairs and have few correspondents in Brussels. So many reasons which contribute to the lack of pedagogy. However, as we know, what is not well understood naturally arouses distrust, even rejection.

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