Introduction

With the coronavirus pandemic challenging democracies across Europe, the political landscape is on the verge of a profound overhaul. Conventional and unconventional challenges will persist or, potentially, accelerate as societies face the geopolitical reality of an emergent great-power competition after the pandemic. The European project is certainly not immune to the political effects of the virus: the public health crisis is shaping up to be a major test of the credibility of the EU.

As the union adds yet another challenge to its already daunting list, discussion of the European Parliament’s (EP’s) role in the EU’s postpandemic future is as timely as it is relevant. The EP is a remarkable case of European institutional dynamics. Without a doubt, one of the most noteworthy achievements in Europe has been the gradual empowerment of the only directly elected supranational assembly in the world. In five decades, the parliament has evolved into a permanent institution with extensive powers of decisionmaking and control. However, while policymakers’ and experts’ attention has focused on the EP’s growing influence and its impact on EU integration and democratization, the politics of security and defense in the parliament has received scant attention.

As the EU enters a brave new age of governance on security and defense, it is worth further exploring the role played by the EP, given citizens’ demands for democratic accountability and transparency in this policy field. Eager to demonstrate its full potential, the parliament has been not only the first EU institution to act to counter the spread of the coronavirus and ensure the EU’s legislative wheels can keep turning but also a vocal champion of the urgency of solidarity and unity.

The EP’s institutional coming of age should also translate into a greater role in European defense policymaking. If the parliament becomes more of an equal among the EU’s institutional players on defense and the governance of EU security and defense policy, this can only strengthen the way democratic politics plays out in this area.

Although analyses of the EU’s development of defense muscle abound, little has been proposed in the expert literature on the EP’s role as a supranational actor in security and defense. In short, the parliament’s role has often been neglected or downplayed, suggesting potential political myopia in the EU’s security and defense governance structures.

Raluca Csernatoni
Raluca Csernatoni is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where she works on European security and defense with a specific focus on disruptive technologies.
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Despite the traditional intergovernmental nature of security and defense policy at the EU level, questions about the EP’s oversight powers and right of initiative in EU security and defense policy have resurfaced in view of recent developments, such as the creation of the European Defense Fund (EDF). Established in 2017, the fund aims to foster an innovative and competitive defense industrial base for the EU and increase the union’s strategic autonomy. With a co-legislative role in the EDF, the parliament has received the key to open the door to more involvement in European security and defense affairs. But how much room for maneuver does the EP actually have in this tight space filled with other actors competing for the same prerogatives?

Beyond the numerous crises that have plagued Europe in the past ten years—from the eurozone crisis, with its economic and societal impacts, to the political crisis following the influx of refugees and migrants that began in 2015, as well as others from Brexit to the current pandemic—the EU faces, more than ever, a structural political challenge. While surveys tend to show an appetite among citizens for more common EU-level defense, there is not enough communication from the union or awareness from citizens of what that would entail. That, in turn, also explains the absence of EU defense from national electoral campaigns.

The EP is well positioned to fill the current political representation gap when it comes to defining and deploying its own political agenda on matters of security and defense. The parliament should become a central locus of democratic accountability and representational politics for such issues.

The State of Play

Recent EU initiatives such as reviving permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) to deepen defense cooperation among capable and willing EU member states, creating the EDF, and establishing a new Directorate General for Defense Industry and Space (DG DEFIS) in the European Commission are expected to meet—or, at least, advance—the EU’s stated defense ambitions. These aims go beyond industrial cooperation and capability development and also include reinforcing the EU’s operational dimension and the proposed European Peace Facility to provide for EU military operations and security assistance.

Furthermore, the EU’s Military Planning and Conduct Capability seeks to streamline command and control of Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, whereas the Civilian CSDP Compass is designed to improve the responsiveness of the EU’s civilian capacities. Altogether, these initiatives aim to give the EU and its member states more freedom of action—or strategic autonomy—in foreign, security, and defense policy.

While some of these developments still have to make their mark on the EU’s abilities as a defense actor, they have redesigned the union’s defense governance. A few years back, EU-level defense discussions were generally dominated by humility, which was imposed by a track record of normatively ambitious documents but little to no implementation. Lately, the EU has paid growing political attention to issues of high politics on European security and defense integration.

There is a plethora of reasons for this shift, but it is generally agreed that a deteriorating international security environment, a return of great-power competition, structural changes in the union’s composition, the stark reality of wasteful duplication in fragmented European defense industries, and an overall lag in defense technological innovation have all played a part. While the expert literature tends to focus on either the reasons for, the shortcomings of, or the potential avenues for European defense cooperation, limited attention is paid to its democratic implications.

This big democracy question is inevitable for the EU, especially if the union proceeds with further integration in politically sensitive fields such as defense. Many experts doubt whether the recent impetus of initiatives will be enough to trigger effective EU defense integration, but there is no denying that EU institutions and member states are today openly thinking and talking about previously taboo issues.

In discussions of Europe’s geopolitical emancipation and talks of increasing the EU’s strategic, defense, or technological sovereignty, realpolitik seems to have made its way back into a European sovereignty-building narrative, cutting across various policy domains. Would the European Commission of ten years ago have been so bold as to call itself a “geopolitical Commission,” as its current president intends it to be? Hardly. True, the commission still has a long way to go to earn this self-proclaimed description, but this goal further confirms an emerging narrative and ambition for European freedom of action.

Over the years, Eurobarometer surveys have confirmed citizens’ support for EU-level coordinated action in security and defense. For example, a June 2019 Eurobarometer survey revealed that 74 percent of citizens backed the principle of a common defense and security policy for the EU.

Beyond such statistics, however, there is limited to no awareness raising about the substance and nuances of such a policy—not to mention the endemic misperceptions that persist about what the CSDP is and does. Misconceptions about the EU’s brand of peace building range from fears that it undermines the importance of NATO and threatens the transatlantic partnership to misplaced talk about the creation of a so-called European army. Despite a rather large gap between defense actors and citizens, one of the many secondary effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been increasing public awareness of the usefulness of military preparedness when a crisis hits. This is where the role of citizens’ direct representatives in the EP comes in.

Tania Lațici
Tania Lațici is a PhD candidate on transatlantic defense cooperation at Ghent University and a doctoral fellow at the European Security and Defense College. She works as a policy analyst on security and defense at the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), the in-house think tank of the European Parliament.

The EU’s security and defense policy has traditionally been intergovernmental territory, with member states adopting decisions by unanimity, while supranational institutions such as the commission have had little formal competence. For example, the European Defense Agency, which supports cooperative European defense projects, is an intergovernmental body whose membership does not encompass all EU countries: Denmark has invoked its prerogative to opt out. Both the EDF and DG DEFIS have put forward innovative changes and redrawn previously inflexible intergovernmental territorial borders in a policy area where supranational dynamics have been kept at bay. The decision to create the new directorate general represented a political signal that the EU and the commission should have increased competencies in the defense industrial domain.

Nevertheless, whereas such policy innovations and supranational consolidation are advancing fast, insufficient public debate has been dedicated to the EP’s role in this area. Today’s political leaders at both the national and the European levels are increasingly constrained by voter preferences and media coverage, which reflect or shape public opinion. There is therefore an urgency to bring European issues to the local level in a better way. In particular, the field of security and defense suffers acutely from pervasive information deficits, a lack of substantive public debates, and, often, negative historical connotations in some member states, such as Germany, where the public has been reluctant to take a strong line on anything defense-related.

The European political market of ideas on security and defense remains elite driven and fragmented across national cleavages, transatlantic loyalties, and industrial and sectoral issues. Political parties play an often underestimated role at both the national and the European levels in terms of channeling complex patterns of popular attitudes toward security and defense. There has been little vigorous public debate in national parliaments or consultation with citizens on the latest EU security and defense developments. Achieving a genuine partnership among political representatives, opinion leaders, the media, civil society, and citizens thus becomes an even more strenuous exercise.

The European Parliament’s Powers

For the first ten years after its creation in 1952, the body that became the EP was not even called a parliament but an assembly. As such, it is probably the institution that has seen the most drastic changes through the years. Although each successive EU treaty has increased the parliament’s role in EU policymaking, security and defense competencies have stayed well out of the EP’s reach.

Today, the EP has co-legislative powers with the Council of the EU, which represents the governments of the member states, over the EU’s budget and is free to author reports on any defense matter it takes an interest in. The parliament also provides an annual assessment of the implementation of the CSDP and the union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and it can ask questions to the council, the commission, the European External Action Service, and the EU’s high representative for foreign policy.

Despite some stumbling blocks due to its limited competencies, the EP has managed to forge for itself a reputation as the loudest and most outspoken EU institution—in part because of its political nature and autonomy—including on the most sensitive aspects of foreign policy. For instance, while the Council of the EU has struggled to find the necessary unanimity to point a finger at China’s human rights abuses, the EP gave the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to a jailed Uighur activist. That is to say, the EP matters.

The parliament has also made wide use of its other instruments, such as its delegations to third countries and organizations—like the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, for example—to further refine its foreign policy voice. Through multiple resolutions and debates on security and defense policy, the EP has generally formulated ambitious objectives for EU-level defense policymaking. Numerous times, the parliament has highlighted the importance of making full use of the EU’s existing instruments to foster a common strategic culture. In a January 2020 CSDP resolution, the EP referred to strategic autonomy no fewer than thirty times. The parliament views strategic autonomy, or sovereignty, not at the expense of national sovereignty but as an additional layer, which empowers the national level with the EU’s collective leverage.

This view also reflects a broad consensus among the three big political families in the EP—the center-right European People’s Party, the Socialists, and the centrist Renew Europe—about the need for more integration on EU defense. At times, sensitive issues such as security and defense seem to generate greater consensus than other, more polarized or politicized dossiers.

In particular, the parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense has been one of the driving forces behind EU defense research. A noteworthy example is the pilot project on defense research the EP adopted in 2014. Through this subcommittee, the parliament managed to introduce the project into the EU budgets in 2015 and 2016 to test the conditions for technological development projects and pave the way for the Preparatory Action on Defense Research.

The EP’s role as a security and defense actor seemed to hit a peak during the trilateral negotiations among the parliament, the commission, and the council over the EDF. As this initiative required funds from the EU budget, the parliament automatically became a co-legislator on the same footing as the council. This resulted in some of the EP’s defense goals being translated into the final EDF regulation. Arguably, one of the concessions won by the parliament during the negotiations was its success in achieving a ban on funding for lethal autonomous weapons systems, or so-called killer robots, under the EDF.

Nevertheless, despite its oversight role in the fund’s evaluation process, the parliament has no say in defining the EDF’s capability priorities or in selecting which projects to fund. There have equally been points of contention between the EP and member states over the fund’s objectives, the eligibility criteria for its projects, and its overall management.

The EP’s powers form an underexplored and underestimated political resource. The parliament has several formal, diplomatic, political, communication, informal, and normative instruments that it can use to benefit European security and defense policy.

Formal Powers

The parliament has several formal powers of control. The EP’s power to approve the European Commission and hold parliamentary hearings for commissioners was introduced in 1993 by the Maastricht Treaty, while its ability to hold votes of no confidence in the commission came with the Treaty of Rome in 1958. Moreover, the EP can issue written and oral parliamentary questions, to which the commission, the council, and the foreign policy high representative are obliged to reply. The Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in 2009, increased the EP’s law-making powers by upgrading it to an equal footing with the council in terms of deciding how money is spent and what the EU does. This extended the parliament’s full legislative power to more than forty new fields.

Today, the EP’s budgetary prerogative remains the most powerful tool in the parliament’s playbook. When co-legislating on the EU’s long-term budget, the EP also shapes the scale and scope of the CFSP, since this is an integral part of the budget. This role includes control and influence over civilian CSDP operations and the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace—an instrument for crisis response, peace building for conflict prevention, and crisis preparedness. The council’s Political and Security Committee keeps the EP in the loop about civilian CSDP missions, because they are funded from the EU budget, but not about military operations.

Diplomatic Powers

Complementing the EU’s network of 143 overseas delegations, the EP also has means to represent the EU’s voice and citizens abroad. Through its own delegations to national parliaments and interparliamentary assemblies, the EP has a direct platform from which to represent EU interests abroad and put soft power into practice. For example, the EP’s official biannual dialogue with the U.S. Congress, the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue, could be used in a much more strategic way in times of transatlantic tensions and misunderstandings.

Equally, the EP could play an even more active role in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and be a bridge and coalition builder for its vision and ambitions—provided, of course, that the parliament manages to secure a cross-party consensus and majority. The same goes for the EP’s relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union’s Pan-African Parliament, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Political Powers

The EP’s inherent political nature distinguishes it from the EU’s other institutions and from the parliament’s sister institutions in the member states. In an ideal policymaking balance for the EU, technocracy should inform politics and then policymaking. The Lisbon Treaty conferred on the EP the necessary clout to play a role in setting the EU’s political priorities. It is the parliament that elects the president of the commission on the basis of a nomination by the European Council, which brings together EU heads of state and government; that nomination should reflect voters’ choices in the latest EP elections.

Moreover, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are often—though not always—known personalities in their countries, many having held high office before being elected to the EP and most having influential circles in their constituencies. These national connections are resources that could be used more strategically and coherently to drastically improve awareness of, and thus transparency about, EU policies. That could, in turn, convert into more support for EU-level action. Better engagement with national politics is a farsighted approach for a time when friendly, cooperative parties are in power.

Targeted action in this direction promises a long-term return on investment, not least in terms of securing governments’ commitments on defense matters. That said, controversies remain over whether to increase the powers of the EP’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense. That the parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs is one of the largest and most high-level committees is important, but the growth of EU defense responsibilities should be proportional to the EP’s capacity to scrutinize and contribute to them.

Communication Powers

The EU’s communication deficiencies are well known and understandable to some extent. It is highly difficult to communicate EU policies to all citizens in the union’s diverse countries and regions. Even though the parliament’s and the commission’s national representations and Europe Direct information offices contribute significantly to strategic communication and awareness, there is room for more. Targeted communications should take place through a more diverse pool of actors, so citizens do not perceive it as too one-sided.

Once more, this is where national politicians could play a disruptive role. A positive disruption could take place if the EU were more present in political debates—not only on the topic of securing EU funding but also on the question of how citizens would benefit from a strong EU in the world. This requires an ideal tango between informed citizens and passionate politicians who are willing to put EU topics on the agenda.

If local and national politicians see that they have high stakes in highlighting what the EU is doing and, more importantly, what it could do more and better, the ever-unfinished European project stands to benefit. The reality is that most EP election campaigns are led on the basis of national, rather than European, issues. To address this, MEPs could play an incremental role in raising awareness of the EDF by directly targeting small and medium-sized national enterprises and innovation hubs, which are often unaware of opportunities or lack the know-how to access them.

Informal Powers

The informal value the EP can add cuts across the diplomatic, political, and communication roles the parliament can play. This informal power also relates to the fact that MEPs generally work in influential national, European, and international circles. Policy entrepreneurship or change often occurs as a result of informal rather than formal negotiations. Once more, due to its political nature, the EP is well placed to be a broker of informal consensus building among EU institutions, national governments, civil society, and other stakeholders.

On security and defense issues, one network for such consensus is the Kangaroo Group. Started in the 1970s as an informal gathering of EU stakeholders, the group today brings together a wide array of defense stakeholders to debate topical issues. It thus enables stakeholders to directly have exchanges with MEPs and allows parliamentarians to take the pulse of industry, academic, or business actors.

For the EP to become a credible broker, however, it also needs to sort out its own backyard by embracing the richness of ideas that comes from political fragmentation while applying the principle of “united we stand, divided we fall.” There are lessons to be learned from the 2019 EP elections and the subsequent negotiations to appoint the president of the commission.

Normative Role

The least controversial and most widely accepted role the EP can play is a normative and discursive one. Many times, governments and other EU institutions have hidden behind the EP to avoid speaking out on subjects on which they could not reach unanimity or could not take a position for political reasons. With more political fragmentation, and thus diversity, the EP’s current term can send messages of strong cross-party support both within Europe and to partners abroad. Political unity on sensitive matters—from the EU’s defense ambitions to debates about 5G technology and the regulation of disruptive digital innovations such as artificial intelligence—can go a long way when deployed in synchronization with the EP’s other instruments.

What Role for the European Parliament on Security and Defense?

Two dimensions of EU defense debates reveal the ways in which the EP could play a greater role on security and defense issues. The question of strategic autonomy and the matter of ensuring democratic legitimacy are instrumental for ensuring a farsighted approach to EU defense efforts.

EU Autonomy With Parliamentary Characteristics

Uncompromising debates about the concept of EU strategic autonomy over the last four years have prompted mixed reactions toward the EDF. For some, the fund embodies the crystallization of political will across the EU to bring about collective European defense. Yet, for others, it is either a way to inject money into decaying national industries or a risk to already frail transatlantic defense relations. The conceptual debate has recently shifted from strategic autonomy to technological, digital, or industrial sovereignty, but the end goals remain the same: more capacity and capability, less duplication, and increased freedom of action.

Concerns over the governance of the EDF revolve around tensions between the supranational and national levels, given that the commission will be in charge of the fund’s management and decisionmaking. Importantly, the EDF epitomizes the commission’s recent agenda-setting power in the area of defense and its unprecedented emergence as a defense actor. However, what is still sorely needed is a better strategic understanding of how the new defense capabilities will be used, for what purposes, and against what threats and adversaries.

A positive development is increased parliamentary scrutiny and evaluation of how PESCO is governed and implemented. At the time of writing, the EP’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense is drafting a resolution with recommendations for improving the mechanism. Draft proposals include increasing consultation with the EP, ensuring that PESCO is used as an instrument of EU integration, and even including PESCO in a separate section of the EU budget, as it currently depends solely on the contributions of its participating members.

These steps should only be the start of more EP engagement with PESCO. The EP can help the mechanism’s cause by contributing to public and political pressure on participating member states to fulfill the commitments they signed up for and ensure better spending of public finances through joint projects.

More broadly, the EU could benefit from an identity- and destiny-shaping exercise, be it in the form of the proposed Conference on the Future of Europe or another format—as long as citizens and their elected representatives play a significant role in shaping the ensuing political debates. Envisaging a sovereign and autonomous EU in the world without the blessing of Europeans would likely remain a normative promise instead of an achievable goal. The EP, consequently, has a strong contribution to make in the EU’s search for coherence in debates on strategic autonomy, particularly in the case of the union’s security and defense policy.

The current commission’s understanding of strategic autonomy is not limited to defense but also includes digital, economic, and climate policy considerations. Debates on Europe’s dependence on other global players have focused minds even more during the coronavirus pandemic, which has put unprecedented pressure on supply chains and exports of essential medicines and equipment. As the EU’s view of strategic autonomy or freedom of action widens, the defense element of this view is increasingly relevant. The EP played its part in recognizing that the EU’s postpandemic recovery must have “the strategic autonomy of our continent” at its core, but how can democratic accountability be ensured?

Who Speaks for Democratic Legitimacy?

The question of whether an effective EU defense policy requires democratic legitimacy, transparency, and accountability should be a rhetorical one. Scrutiny of EU policymaking on defense and security and concerns about arrangements to ensure democratic legitimacy are parts of a healthy ecosystem of checks and balances. Criticism from civil society and activists has focused on the EU’s often opaque policymaking that takes place behind closed doors, as well as on instances when EU security and defense policy has been captured by the interests of the defense industry. Unless challenged with facts, figures, increased transparency efforts, and proactive engagement, the perception could persist and spread that the EU’s goals and interests on defense are shaped by big European defense industrial players or by certain member states.

Transparency and legitimacy would benefit from a greater presence on the debate agenda, given the latest upswing in EU defense integration. Specifically, more discussion of the extent to which these initiatives are democratically accountable and permit meaningful parliamentary scrutiny and oversight, either by the EP or by national parliaments, could help alleviate the worries of civil society. The central question is whether democratic accountability should be a concern, as most democracies have a long-standing practice of measuring foreign, security, and defense decisionmaking against lower standards of transparency than other policy areas because of matters of secrecy and high politics. Of course, this line of thinking is flawed, and parliamentary control is a key aspect of democratic oversight in the realm of security and defense politics and policy.

The EP can mobilize its resources and instruments to challenge this perception. The parliament could achieve this by taking a greater role in interinstitutional muscle flexing and thus bolstering the checks and balances among EU institutions. It would be equally important to further assess the EP’s role in arms exports, especially given the parliament’s increased attention on the Council of the EU’s common position defining rules for the control of exports of military technology and equipment. In November 2018, the EP was particularly vocal on this topic when it adopted a resolution calling for a substantive review of the common position and its implementation by EU member states. The parliament also referred to sanctions mechanisms that could be imposed on noncompliant member states.

However, it could be argued that the EP would have more room for maneuver if, like most national parliaments, it had a full-fledged security and defense committee. Experts have argued that, because amendments and votes on draft resolutions by the EP’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense are done through the Foreign Affairs Committee, the scrutiny powers of the subcommittee are limited. One author has highlighted the need for further analysis of what role the subcommittee can and should play in crystallizing a more coherent EP position on the EDF in particular and on the EU’s defense capability development in general. In a concerted effort with national parliaments, the EP can bring the defense debate closer to the public and explain why the stakes are high—in other words, why citizens should care and why their taxes should be spent on EU-level defense.

The European Parliament in 2025: An Imagination Exercise

The EP has formally and incrementally become more empowered in its role, with increases in both the parliament’s legal powers and its capacity for political influence over security and defense policy. But where would this process of boosting the parliament’s role ideally lead to?

Imagine that the year is 2025 and the EP’s plenary is nearly filled to capacity as a debate on the EU’s strategic priorities unfolds. MEPs are discussing the EU’s new politico-military strategy and the EP’s contribution to its drafting. The charged atmosphere is reminiscent of the Brexit debates, but with the kind of determination for unity demonstrated during the 2020 coronavirus crisis.

After the pandemic hit European markets and the global economy hard, the EU was forced to reduce funding previously earmarked for the EDF and military mobility—to the great displeasure of the EP, which was worried about deepening geopolitical vulnerabilities for the EU. This turn of events mobilized a cross-party compromise in the parliament to upgrade the Subcommittee on Security and Defense to a full committee. The aim was to ensure the EP could make a more robust contribution to the EU-level defense debate in preparation for the union’s next multiyear budget.

As a result, demands from other EU institutions for the parliament’s input followed. Alarmed in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, the Conference on the Future of Europe produced a consultative body between the Council of the EU’s new formation of defense ministers and the EP’s defense and security committee to provide for greater convergence between the two institutions, if not to commit more money.

Discussions of greater EP oversight over the EDF are now subject to negotiations following the positive experience of disclosing the national implementation plans and the foreign policy chief’s reports on PESCO to the parliament and incorporating its feedback. The EP’s tenth term, which will include those elected in 2024, should now have solid enough material to build the foundations necessary for a stable and safe European house, closing the gap between European and national defense politics.

Toward More Accountability on Security and Defense

The short imagination exercise above paints a perhaps overly optimistic picture, given that security and defense is a policy area in which the EU’s only directly elected institution has typically wielded less influence. Indeed, a note of caution is required. Although the EP’s legal and institutional position has changed over time, the parliament can be regarded as successfully exercising its full political and democratic power only if tangible effects can be seen on security and defense policy itself.

The road to the EU’s security and defense governance is paved with democratic accountability. A genuine European security and defense union will require more democratic transparency and accountability in the security and defense integration process. The EP could play a substantial role and be involved in decisionmaking to the largest extent possible. One of the main obstacles to achieving this aim lies in the EU’s current halfway integration, characterized by advanced economic integration and a lack of politico-military integration.

While there is room for the EP to further consolidate its political powers at the supranational level to work out national differences, the European Council also has the challenging task of achieving greater solidarity among the member states. Until then, the EU risks lacking the necessary legitimacy to push integration further in any area, especially security and defense.

The EU could take several specific steps to strengthen its overall security and defense credentials. First, for the EP to be seen as an equal of the other EU-level defense actors, further reflection about the role and scope of its Subcommittee on Security and Defense would be beneficial. The subcommittee’s members could be even more empowered to strengthen links with their constituents on EU defense debates, which would in turn benefit from more public exposure.

The 2019 EP election campaign planted the seed for discussing possible reform of the parliament’s electoral system, and such a debate would only benefit EU efforts to engage with citizens and better address their concerns. Regardless of the feasibility of various reform proposals, debating them would be a positive sign of the EP’s openness and renewal, particularly at a time when multilateral structures are increasingly questioned and under strain.

Political fragmentation can signal a healthy democracy, but “pursuing the common good . . . is not possible without making compromises,” in the words of political scientists Amy Gutmann and Dennis F. Thompson. As political fragmentation in the EP signifies that a more diverse pool of citizens is represented, the policy and political compromises achieved have all the more potential to generate concrete added value, not least on defense policy. Understanding that increased European sovereignty does not diminish but empowers national room for maneuver is overdue. Better coordination between the EP and national parliaments could contribute to this aim while helping bring European issues to the local level and vice versa. The same goes for interparliamentary meetings. A coherent EP can deliver a strong and united message to the EU’s partners abroad.

The EP’s increased role on defense could help pro-union parties and actors build legitimacy and public support for EU actions in this high-politics area. The EP’s levers of democratic oversight and accountability could thus have concrete and positive policy effects. The unprecedentedly high voter participation in the 2019 EP elections showed citizens’ appetite for this empowerment.

Further EP engagement with the PESCO mechanism could also prove mutually beneficial. While this could give the EP another opportunity to demonstrate the added value of its feedback, PESCO members could receive a much-needed dose of external pressure to deliver projects and fulfill their commitments. Disclosing PESCO national implementation reports—despite their high sensitivity—to MEPs on the EP’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense could be an opportunity for parliamentarians to activate national political channels for increased pressure. Such an olive branch could benefit both the EP and member states.

Finally, the Council of the EU should create a configuration of defense ministers and a permanent consultative body that should hold regular meetings with the EP. Such an institutional change would proportionally reflect the EU’s progress on defense.

The coronavirus outbreak will prompt many lessons to be learned, but recognizing the importance of democratic legitimacy and awareness should certainly be one of them. That is not least because the pandemic coincided with social unrest and protests, which stemmed in large part from a widely felt disconnect between citizens and public institutions. The coronavirus crisis is another chance for the EU to prove, paraphrasing German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill [us], makes [us] stronger.”

About the Authors

Raluca Csernatoni is a visiting researcher at Carnegie Europe, where she works on European security and defense with a specific focus on disruptive technologies.

Tania Lațici is a PhD candidate on transatlantic defense cooperation at Ghent University and a doctoral fellow at the European Security and Defense College. She works as a policy analyst on security and defense at the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), the in-house think tank of the European Parliament.

All the views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not represent the EPRS or the European Parliament.