Why Europe?s parliament deserves a vote of confidence

Andrew Duff discusses why European institutions and member states need to respect the European Parliament


This op-ed was first published in the Financial Times on 20 May 2009

The last Strasbourg
session of this European Parliament ended on May 7. Hectic negotiation between
Parliament and the Council of Ministers saw a number of important laws enacted,
many at first reading. One or two draft laws did not make it – notably, an important
telecoms package
which stalled as MEPs insisted on a prior judicial
procedure to block internet access, and, secondly, the revision of the
controversial working time directive.

Overall, the outgoing Parliament passed about 1200 laws over its five-year
term, many of them harmonising 27 different national laws for the first time,
while several others re-visit earlier EU legislation with an eye to
modernisation and better regulation. In several instances – the services
directive, control of chemicals (REACH), the climate change and energy package
– MEPs were able to broker the deals that had eluded ministers and officials in
the Council.

The Parliament successfully assimilated its new Members from the twelve
accession countries, and adopted their languages. The House undertook some
important internal reforms, including the introduction of a new regime of
salaries, pensions and expenses of Members. Parliament asserted its influence
over the design of the EU budget as well as tightening its grip on budgetary
control. It continues to develop its scrutiny of foreign and security policy,
and to grow its own expertise in the field of human rights. Citizens now
petition the Parliament on all manner of subjects, some with material
significance like the failure of Equitable Life and Lloyds. Parliament has also
become a major and indispensable player in the constitutional reform of the Union.

On 6 May the Czech Senate voted
through the Treaty of Lisbon
, thereby completing the parliamentary
ratification processes in all 27 states. If the Irish say Yes at the second Lisbon referendum in
early October, very little can impede the entry into force of the reform treaty
by 1 January. What the new treaty means for the European Parliament is an
immense accretion of scrutiny, budgetary, legislative and constitutional
powers. Parliament as an institution deserves a big vote of confidence in the
elections on 4-7 June. Will it get it?

Alas, probably not. The European Parliament does very well: except at
election time. There are two main reasons for Parliament’s failure to engage
the electorate. The first is the lack of genuine European political parties
that would stand candidates against each other and develop a debate about where
the EU’s common interests lie. National parties give low priority to and spend
little money on the European elections; candidates are usually selected too
late to make much of a difference themselves.

The second problem for the Parliament is the lack of a European media to
sufficiently report it. European level politics remain a matter of very great
fascination for very few. The bulk of the voters get what little they know
about EU politics at third hand, distorted through the prism of national
political parties and national press. Even those organisations of civil society
and the social partners which play a large role in Brussels fail to project the importance, let
alone excitement, of EU affairs to their membership back home.

Individual MEPs, no matter how assiduous, can do very little to counter this
sorry state of affairs. My information budget, of about € 30,000 a year, is
barely enough to keep my own party members informed and engaged, let alone many
of the other 5,500,000 electors of the East of England. Under the dual threat
of the internet and the recession, local newspapers are cutting back on their
already minimal efforts to report the work of MEPs. The size of the Brussels press corps has been cut, especially from the UK and France. Political programmes on
regional TV are being squeezed out. Even the BBC, which should know better,
persists in behaving as if the only way to cover the EU is to pitch against it.
Few BBC current affairs programmes manage to move beyond the existential
British European question of ‘in’ or ‘out’.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap. In my constituency poll on 4 June, there are as
many as twelve parties standing of a eurosceptic or europhobic tendency (as
well as an independent candidate of as yet indeterminate views). Labour and the
Lib Dems alone compete for the pro-European vote.

The battle in Britain is given an extra edge this time because of the
extraordinary decision of David Cameron’s Conservative party to divorce itself
in the new Parliament from the Christian Democrat MEPs of the European People’s
Party and to set up shop with as many fellow Lisbon deniers as can be found.
(Under Parliament’s rules, the Tories need MEPs of six other nationalities to
form a group.) The defection of the Brits from the EPP will have two
consequences, one good one bad. Good is that the EPP itself will become a more
coherent federalist force; bad is that the British national interest will be
ill-served, especially in terms of the advancement of liberal market policies.

The Tory departure from mainland, mainstream politics will not be enough by
itself to change the overall balance of power within Parliament. Unless both
the far right and the far left do better than expected, there should still be a
solid absolute majority in the new House for the continued integration of Europe. It may be no bad thing for the image of
Parliament, indeed, to have the distinction between federalists and
nationalists more sharply drawn.

The really important question, after all, is whether the European Union
wishes to become a world power. At a time of severe economic crisis, to say
nothing of climate change, the nationalist case for retreat may be
counter-intuitive to an electorate which is already disillusioned by the
caprices of national politics. In time of trouble, more Europe may just prove
to be a better bet than less Europe.

We will soon know how 375m voters have chosen 736 Euro MPs. The first job of
the newly elected assembly, on 15 or 16 July, will be to endorse or reject – by
simple majority – the nomination of the European Council for the new President
of the European Commission. This will be Jose Manuel Barroso.

There is a big irony that the late June meeting of the European Council that
is supposed not only to nominate the candidate but also to agree the package of
measures demanded by Ireland
before its second referendum is likely to be chaired by Czech President Vaclav
Klaus. Mr Klaus, of course, is the champion of the anti-Lisbon brigade. Mr
Barroso’s fate is glued to Lisbon.

It could all go horribly wrong. Aux urnes!

Andrew Duff MEP is President of the Union of European Federalists and
Liberal Democrat MEP for the East of England. His new book ‘Saving the
European Union: the logic of the Lisbon
treaty’ is available via
www.shoehornbooks.com/SavingtheEU.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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