Fun and games in Strasbourg: politics, climate and science

José Manuel Durão Barroso.
Image via Wikipedia

The European institutions rarely do party politics well, but this week was a rare exception as the current European Commission (EU executive) President Jose Barroso fought for the approval of the European Parliament (lower house one part of our bicameral legislature) for a second five year term in office. The verbal jousting between the Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Barroso was a delight; proof that the Punch and Judy politics regularly seen at Westminster can take place in a chamber hampered by simultaneous intepretation, stilted debates and differing national traditions.

In the end Barroso scraped together enough votes for approval by an absolute majority (not required but politically important). Portuguese and Spanish Socialists ignored their own group and joined the centre-right, liberal centre and looney right in voting for a renewal of his term of office.

There may be some scepticism as to whether Barroso will shake lose the shackles of the 27 Member State governments or whether his policies have contributed rather than dealt with the recent financial and economic crisis but he was in effect the only candidate and everyone knew it. The negotiations in recent weeks between Barroso and the political groups were as much about the structure and programme of the Commission as anything else.

While the programme (Political Guidelines for the next Commission) includes sweeties for all deserving children – promises for financial services regulation, a decarbonisation of transport and electricity etc – I’d like to concentrate on two new structural changes announced in Tuesday’s debate that interest me:

– A Commissioner for Climate Action

One of the 26 other Commissioners in Barroso’s yet to be formed team will get the climate change brief. Green members I met down in the Parliament this week remain concerned rather than overjoyed. While Barroso once again pointed out the EU’s leadership globally on climate change issues, they fear that a new Climate action Commissioner will get the climate change part of the department for environment (DG Environment) and put it together with the large energy department (DG Transport and Energy). For Greens, this is disaster time. Energy cares about market liberalisation, energy security and has an unhealthy like for nuclear they would say. The climate change activists at DG Environment will be drowned out by the energy obsessed hoardes, or so goes the theory. In reality, climate change is not going away and the debates that currently occur between the different departments are now likely simply to take place within the department. The issue of ambition is probably more about which politician gets the portfolio. Do they come from a big Member State and carry the political clout to push the agenda on Member States, who like to talk good game but then shy away from hard legislation (see the current debate on the energy performance of buildings as an example). We shall watch with interest as Member State’s lobby for their own nominees. It would not be a surprise if the UK went for the brief.

– Chief Scientific Adviser

Barroso also announced the creation of a Chief Scientific Officer who has “has the power to deliver proactive, scientific advice throughout all stages of policy development and delivery.” The EU institutions, mainly Parliament to be fair to the Commission, are hampered by a lack of access to scientific advice at appropriate stages in the policymaking process. The Commission’s scientific committees and agencies such as EFSA (food) and ECHA (chemicals) provide a good service upon request but suffer from work programmes and the need for both consensus and time. It shall be interesting to see what role such an adviser takes, how political or independent they will become, how proactive they can be and how they fit into the current structure of scientific advice. How would BSE, phthalates in toys, melamine in milk have played out should such a figure have existed at those times? Would some of our more reactive Members of the European Parliament have been slapped down or encouraged by this person’s presence? We await the details and of course the person.


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Petru Teodorescu
September 22, 2009 | 5:37 PM

I respectfully sustain the point of view that the Parliament IS the "lower house". It's role on paper is somehow different, of course.

September 22, 2009 | 5:52 PM

Petru, OK. Now you've got me thinking that I am too hasty in changing my view in an effort to please people that comment on this blog. Clearly whether it is or is not a 'lower house' is not a question that matters that much in the grand scheme of things. It has the powers it has as attributed by the Treaty. It has some of the attributes ascribed to 'lower houses' at a national level, but not all. In some areas it goes beyond, in some cases well below. I am off to dig out my battered copy of Jacobs, Shackleton and Corbett's 'The European Parliament' to see if they have an answer.

Mark Johnston
September 19, 2009 | 10:29 AM

There is no basis for saying that Parliament is the "lower house", as you do above. It is clear in the treaties and elsewhere that Parliament is always first in protocol order, because the EU is based on democracy and Parliament is the only directly elected body. Legislative acts negotiated by co-decision are adopted by "the Parliament and the Council", i.e. in that order.

September 22, 2009 | 5:35 PM

Mark, Thanks for your comment. To be honest to the reference to 'lower house' was shorthand instead of trotting out something along the lines of 'one part of a bicameral legislature'. The original post was placed on another site for a US audience, no excuse for being inaccurate I understand. You'll note I've amended the post. As you point out, the EP has in recent years become a true co-legislator with Council. Though I'd question whether in the co-decision process it is equal or near equal, given that in second reading the bar is set high (absolute majority) and the EP has to work from the Council's text as a starting point. As an aside, the 'lower house' is often the more powerful in many bicameral systems. It also tends to be the house that represents the citizens. See wikipedia's list of examples, which of course does not include the EP! James