Censure motion

Under Article 234 TFEU, the European Parliament may dismiss the European Commission on the basis of a motion of censure passed by a two-thirds majority of votes cast, representing an absolute majority (that is, more than half the total number) of the Members of Parliament (MEPs). The Commission is required to resign ‘as a body’ – motions of censure may not be directed against individual Commissioners – although it may continue to deal with current business until replaced, with its successors holding office for the remainder of their predecessors’ term. Since direct elections to the Parliament were introduced in 1979, only seven motions of censure have been tabled and debated, and none have passed. (The submission of such a motion requires the support of one-tenth, or currently 76, of the 754 MEPs).

There are several reasons why the Parliament has chosen to avoid use of what is potentially the most publicly potent of its powers – and one which is not enjoyed by the European Council, the Council of Ministers or the member-state governments. In many policy areas, the majority of the Parliament tends to regard the Commission as an ally, rather than an adversary, so there are relatively few issues on which enough cross-party support could be obtained to mobilise the necessary two-thirds majority. In any case, if potentially serious problems arise, the Commission will usually be sufficiently adroit to respond to any widespread criticism in the Parliament by making adjustments to its position in the necessary time. Moreover, many Commissioners have sufficiently good party and political group links to be able to appeal, in the name of political loyalty, to enough MEPs to make the two-thirds majority difficult to attain. Finally, it is a treaty requirement that a minimum of three days elapse between the President of the Parliament announcing receipt of a motion of censure and the actual vote, thus making it likely that a motion tabled during one plenary session will not be voted on until the next, usually the following month (although formally speaking a plenary session can be convened at any time). In practice, this allows time for MEPs to have second thoughts and for Commissioners and national governments to lobby sympathetic parliamentarians against precipitate action that might generate a major political crisis.

However, the existence, rather than necessarily the use, of the censure motion is an important strategic weapon in making it clear that ultimately the Commission is accountable to the Parliament, rather than to the member-state governments which nominated it. The resignation of the Santer Commission in March 1999, some six months before its term of office was due to expire, was prompted directly by the fear that such a motion would pass. Although there was no question of any personal impropriety on his part, the Commission President, Jacques Santer, realised that the publication of a very critical report on the Commission’s financial mismanagement – compiled by a Committee of Independent Experts and released only weeks before the June 1999 European elections – made it almost certain that a motion of censure would be adopted, with the support of most members of the largest groups, at the Parliament’s next plenary session.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry


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