Strasbourg’s Trial of Strength

LONDON: The withdrawal of the censure vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on January 14th, which would have forced the resignation of all of the members of the Council of Ministers, should not be judged simply on whether such a vote was won or lost, but mainly as a fundamental turning point in the relationship between the European Parliament and the Commission.

The threat of censure marks a vital turning point in the relationship between the Parliament and the Member States in the Council of Ministers. For no matter which way the vote went, and even with its withdrawal, the European Parliament, by flexing its muscles as it did, would still have emerged strengthened.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the Parliament’s censure motion was to sanction the Commission for what was alleged to be the maladministration of the European Union’s 1996 budget; and there were (and remain) accusations in the air of fraud and corruption. The paradox of the situation, however, is that, in political terms, the very holding of a vote of censure will be more important than whether it was successful or not.

In order to succeed, the Commission’s critics in Parliament needed to muster a very large majority in order to carry a vote of censure: two thirds of the votes cast, and over half of all the members of the Parliament. Auditors have undoubtedly revealed some maladministration of parts of the budget. Yet if the detailed accusations are justified, the blame probably lies more, either with the previous Commission of Jacques Delors (now long out of office), rather than the present Commission presided by Jacques Santer, or else with the Member States, who spend 80% of the Union budget.