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EU elections: What have lawmakers achieved since 2019?

  • European Parliament’s efforts in green legislation face challenges amid recent events
  • Parliamentarians shape rules for big tech and AI but enforcement issues persist
  • Recent changes within the European Parliament aim for fairer distribution
Update : 26 Apr 2024, 05:32 PM

The halls and corridors of the European Parliament were a hive of activity this week. Hundreds of elected lawmakers bustled between votes, racing to wrap up a record number of laws before bloc-wide elections in June. Outside the chamber of the European Union’s only directly elected body, journalists jostled for space and final interviews before politicians enter campaign mode in earnest.

It’s easy to forget just how many political twists and turns those lawmakers have navigated since the last elections in 2019, with Europe bouncing from one crisis to the next — first Brexit, then the Covid-19 pandemic, then Russia’s war in Ukraine.

So, amid the disorder, what did parliamentarians get done — and where did they fail to shift the dial? DW breaks down some landmark laws and parliament’s limits.

Green deal: Making good on climate promises

In 2019, the European Commission — the bloc’s executive arm — unveiled a plan to slash greenhouse emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030 and to become emission-neutral by 2050. That followed pressure from young climate protesters taking to the street and a so-called electoral “Green wave” when record numbers of Green lawmakers won seats in the European Parliament.

Since then, the European Parliament has been involved in negotiating the myriad laws designed to make good on that pledge — including plans to ban combustion engine cars in the next decade and a tax on certain carbon-intensive imports in a bid to make polluters pay.

“The European Parliament has shown itself to be a well-seasoned legislator when it comes to environmental policy,” said Peggy Corlin, head of the Brussels bureau of the Robert Schuman Foundation think tank.

These days, however, polling suggests the tides are turning on the green wave. Protests across the EU this year prompted Brussels to loosen some green farming rules in a bid to ease burdens on farmers, and in February, key nature restoration rules scraped through a final vote after the biggest center-right grouping withdrew support over concerns around food security.

Both moves were slammed by climate campaigners as a watering down of the earlier climate promises. 

World-first rules on AI, big tech

Since 2019, the EU has also rolled out a raft of laws aimed at reining in the power of big tech. Last year, Brussels’ new rule book obliging online platforms to actively police harmful content kicked in. The EU has been flexing its new digital powers with several probes into social media sites, including measures which caused TikTok Lite to scrap parts of a controversial rewards scheme on Wednesday.

Andrea Renda, a director of research with the Centre for European Policy Studies, told DW parliamentarians were also “instrumental” in beefing up first-of-their-kind laws regulating artificial intelligence, adding thousands of amendments to “expand enormously” the uses of AI subject to most stringent EU oversight.

Still, Renda warned the bloc now faces “an enormous enforcement problem” with each piece of legislation replete with different procedures. “There is almost an enormous exercise to be undertaken in streamlining compliance,” he said.

Migration: Deadlock done but deal still controversial

It was long one of the most toxic and divisive topics for the EU: migration and asylum policy. So when EU lawmakers gave their final backing to reforms after a decade of debate earlier this month, many among them claimed it was a success story.

Under the new rules, EU countries will have to take in a more equitable share of the migrants arriving at the bloc’s shores or pay compensation to other states. To speed up deportations, asylum-seekers will also be separated according to how likely their requests to remain are to be approved.

“From a legislative perspective and considering the lead-up to the outcome that we’ve now seen, it can be considered a success,” said Helena Hahn, a migration analyst with the European Policy Center, of the deal.

But Hahn said the outcome — heavily criticized by refugee rights campaigners — also left many lawmakers disappointed.

“The reason why MEPs ultimately greenlit is the simple calculus that it’s still better to have the pact that not. Not passing the reforms would have likely led to a blow in the elections, and centrist and center-left parties would not have wanted to suffer the consequences,” she explained.

Interference: A spy in the house of democracy?

A series of scandals involving alleged interference attempts by non-EU powers is still casting a shadow over the parliament. In 2022, Belgian prosecutors opened a probe into a suspected cash-for-influence scheme dubbed “Qatargate” — though the gulf state has denied all involvement.

Then, in swift succession this month, reports of an alleged Russian propaganda operation in the chamber emerged, before a staffer was arrested on suspicion of spying for China on Tuesday.

“I’m wondering what is next?” center-left German lawmaker Gabriele Bischoff told DW in Strasbourg. “It’s really important that we make our democracy more resilient against foreign interference.”

Over the past year, the Parliament has though moved to reinforce protections for whistleblowers and tighten transparency rules for members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Hungary: Highlighting rule-of-law concerns

The European Parliament cannot table new laws. Instead, it’s limited to negotiating European Commission proposals with EU member states. Still, the chamber often flexes soft power muscles with legally non-binding resolutions aimed at piling pressure on other institutions.

Parliamentarians have repeatedly used resolutions to draw attention to allegations of democratic backsliding in Hungary. This year alone, a majority of lawmakers publicly slammed the EU’s executive for its controversial release of some funds to Budapest, and backed a text questioning whether Hungary could “credibly” assume the EU’s rotating Council presidency in July.

These moves often ignite the ire of lawmakers from Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, who have accused fellow parliamentarians of attacking Hungarians’ democratic choices.

Supporting Ukraine, penalizing Russia

Irish centrist parliamentarian Billy Kelleher told DW in Strasbourg that parliamentarians had also used soft influence to push national governments to cut dependency on Russian gas and bolster support for war-torn Ukraine.

“On the issue of sanctions also, the parliament was very much to the fore in pushing for an increased list of sanctions against Russia to diminish its capacity to fund its war in Ukraine,” said Kelleher, among the many MEPs who have visited Ukraine since February 2022.

Ultimately, the chamber has little in the way of concrete foreign policy power — decision-making lies in EU governments’ hands and lawmakers often argue they deserve greater clout given they are directly elected.

But beefing up parliamentary influence isn’t a priority for all politicians. “We must respect decisions of national governments because the national governments are the real representatives of the people,” MEP Nicola Procaccini, the head of the nationalist right-wing ECR group, said on Tuesday.

Like the center- and far-right, Procaccini’s party is projected to make gains this June at the expense of centrist and left-wing forces.

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