EU: Strong Parliament Is Weak Ally In Struggle For Human And Civil Rights

The enhanced competences of the European Parliament have had less influence on EU justice and home affairs than was widely assumed. Human and civil rights groups had hoped for strong support for their causes, but instead saw the Parliament move away from its former – and often more liberal – positions. This is a main finding of a project funded by the FWF which examined the impact of the changes in EU decision-making procedures on justice and home affairs over the last 20 years. The project findings will be presented at a public event to be held in Vienna today.

The European Parliament is in good shape but disappointed some special interest groups. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: © European Union, 2013

Access to justice, national security, border controls: Justice and home affairs are core areas of national sovereignty. Accordingly, member states have been reluctant to give competences to the supranational EU level and to communitarise this field. The European Parliament started to gain more powers only in the late 1990s. This development inspired great hope on the part of numerous interest groups, which expected the strengthening of civil rights and emergence of more liberal EU policies as a result. The extent to which this expectation was fulfilled has now been established in a project carried out at the Institute for European Integration Research, University of Vienna.

More Power But Not More Influence

According to the head of the project, Dr. Florian Trauner, the project results demonstrate that "the pillars of EU justice and home affairs policy were not altered by the strengthening of the European Parliament." A brief look back explains how people's expectations of the European Parliament – and their subsequent disappointment – arose in the first place. In the 1980s and 1990s, EU member states fostered cooperation on justice and home affairs but sidelined the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. The deepening of this intergovernmental cooperation was accompanied by criticism over the lack of parliamentary and judicial control.

"The communitarisation of EU justice and home affairs policy was ultimately agreed on against the background of this growing criticism", explains Dr. Trauner. "This also translated into a greater say for supranational EU institutions like the European Parliament." With this, the hope grew that the European Parliament would be able to tip the political scales in favour of its hitherto liberal positions. What became of this hope is the subject of Dr. Trauner's research project, which he carried out with Dr. Ariadna Ripoll Servent.

Pinpointing Positions

To answer this question, they carried out a systematic analysis of asylum and immigration policy, the fight against terrorism, criminal and civil law and data protection over a period of over 20 years. Numerous interviews with Members of the European Parliament, as well as officials of the European Commission and the member states were effectuated and analysed. In this way, the positions of the EU institutions could be traced through the legislative processes and their shifts over time identified.

The results of the analysis were clear: In many cases, the European Parliament has abandoned its initial positions and accepted the often more restrictive and security-oriented approach of the Council of Ministers. By way of explanation for this unexpected development, Dr. Trauner notes: "The number of seats held by conservative groups in the European Parliament increased after the last elections. At the same time, the Parliament's new powers prompted a new understanding of its role." As the team discovered, this new understanding included self-constraint on the part of the European Parliament to call for measures that ultimately had few prospects of being met. The EU parliamentarians also became more sensitive to arguments that prioritised the security of Europe's citizens.

The FWF project thus showed that the institutional change did not so much alter the direction of EU justice and home affairs but rather the way how the European Parliament has come to understand this field. Accordingly, the project offers unique insight into the dynamic development of an EU policy – and, therefore, into the potential impact of EU institutions on the life of EU citizens as well.

Scientific contact
Dr. Florian Trauner
University of Vienna
Institute for European Integration Research (EIF)
Strohgasse 45/DG
1030 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 4277 - 22418

Austrian Science Fund FWF
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / (0)1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

Copy Editing & Distribution
PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Education
Mariannengasse 8
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / (0)1 / 505 70 44

Vienna, June 17th, 2013