By Michael Hammer.

History has shown that parliaments, which one could consider to be the elected branch of civil society, have only gained in powers when they have actively claimed them rather than merely asking for them.

This was demonstrated just ahead of the French revolution, when members of the Third Estate walked out of the Estates General meeting called by Louis XVI to decide on taxes affecting citizens.

In the UK, the parliamentary debate and constitutional reform process around war powers arising from the Iraq war has led to a by-now established principle that, despite its Royal Prerogative, the UK government has to consult, and as the outcome on Syria in 2013 showed, accept votes of Parliament on the use of force abroad.

Similarly, there has been a gradual increase in co-decision-making by the European Parliament. Now well over 50 per cent of legislative proposals by the European Commission must receive support by the European Parliament. The European Parliament also has the power to dismiss a Commission, which it used to great public effect in the case of the Jacques Santer-led Commission in 1999. Despite the motion of censure/vote of no-confidence narrowly failing, the Commission subsequently resigned.

In this sense, the appointment of a new Commission President who openly campaigned for the appointment is a victory for the EU Parliament and for European citizens. Suggestions that this was not in the rulebook, and hence cannot be, are flawed if one reads in detail the Rome, Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, which set out the progression of the European project. The suggestion is also out of date with regards to the evolving nature of power relationships between governments and people.

From a civil society perspective, there is simply no tenable claim to complete representation of people by governments anymore. In fact governments all around the world are being challenged by civic initiatives claiming power and political territory for debate and decision making, both within the formal democratic system, such as in parliament, and importantly outside. This is a good thing.

Numerous analyses of the interplay between formal and less formal mechanisms of exercising democratic powers show that the boundaries are becoming more porous. Furthermore, governments and parliaments are by and large adapting rather than resisting.  Arguing that the future should unfold as imagined in the past (and set out through rules and regulations) therefore reveals a myopic concern with short-term, partisan political interests. It is in the interest of governments to find their place in the emerging balance, or else they will continue to lose legitimacy.

While the recent episode sends a positive signal about parliamentary challenge to government, it still leaves many steps to go in terms of building the legitimacy of parliament with citizens in Europe.

Questions about the emergence of contingents and strong personalities at the parliamentary level aside, the European Parliament is not meeting many good practice benchmarks of broad accessibility for citizens and civil society organisations. Overall, it does not do a good enough job of communicating intelligibly with the people it claims to represent. This is one of the reasons why some governments find it easy to step into the gap and claim to be representing the thoughts and feelings of European electors. Such claims are presumptuous and often false or self-serving.

The European Parliament needs to up its game in connecting with citizens, and citizens should challenge it, just as they are successfully challenging other governments.