Today sees the start of voting in the election of the European Parliament for the next five years. The Parliament is sometimes described as institutionally weak – a passive, reactive body unable to form legislative proposals of its own. But this is to understate the significant role that it can play in forming European legislation, including climate legislation.
The Parliament is the only European institution to be elected directly by EU citizens. This year the voting is taking place over four days, beginning with the UK and Netherlands, but the results will be made public only after all polling booths have closed on Sunday evening.
The other main European institutions are the Commission and the Council. The Commission is appointed by Member State governments, and the Council is made up of the heads of Member State governments. These institutions can interact in several different ways in order to create legislation, and the amount of influence the Parliament has varies depending on the policy area under consideration. Broadly speaking, though, the Commission is the body that determines the policy agenda by proposing new legislation, and the Council has the final say on whether the proposals become law. The Parliament can influence legislation after it is proposed by the Commission and before its final approval by the Council – hence the suggestion that it is the weakest of the three institutions.
But this doesn’t mean that its role is insignificant.
Consider the new EU Emissions Trading Directive, for example, which was proposed as part of the Climate and Energy Package, was amended and discussed extensively by the Parliament before the Council met in December 2008 to hammer out the final details. This meant that Irish MEP Avril Doyle had a crucial role in shaping the debate over contentious issues such as leakage and allocation or allowances, because she had the task of steering the draft legislation through Parliament.
Another important figure is Chris Davies, MEP, who played a pivotal role in ensuring that a multi-billion Euro package of funding was dedicated to the development of Carbon Capture and Storage plants. This will allow testing of CCS on a scale that should indicate whether these technologies can make a significant contribution to emissions mitigation in decades to come. Though it was a proposal made by the Commission at the beginning of 2007, it failed to attract support from Member States during that year. As a result, the idea barely featured in the Commission’s proposals at the beginning of 2008. It was at this stage that a campaign to secure the funding began in the European Parliament, and without this it’s almost completely certain that the billions that will now be available for CCS would not be there at all.
It is difficult to predict what effect these elections will have on the EU’s climate policy in future. Political allegiances and voting patterns in the European Parliament consist of a complex mixture of political groupings, national solidarity and individual Members’ interests and priorities.
Some experts do not predict a significant change in the party-political make up of the Parliament, But the influential role of a individual MEPs in shaping the Directives in the Climate and Energy Package suggest those who will be voted in to the Parliament over the coming days could have a profound impact – for better or worse – on EU climate policy in the decade to come.