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European Parliament President Election; Deal or No Deal & Maybe a Dash of Democracy?

Agenda 2

In a few days members of the European Parliament will vote to elect a new President of their institution who will take them through to the end of this parliamentary term in June 2019. This follows an unusual double term of five years of one president, Martin Schultz, the German socialist, who by all accounts has not done a bad job. The moment has some interest for me as five years ago I had the temerity (as some saw it) to put myself forward as an independent candidate for that post. I was supported by forty plus members from different political families across the Parliament who were willing to break ranks to sign my nomination as a candidate. For me, it marked several weeks of political and personal turmoil, but the reasons I took the stand I did and finally left the Parliament have not gone away. The European Parliament has a democratic blind spot in matters relating to its own internal democracy and that serves only to tarnish its external image as Europe’s main elected institution.

I absolutely believe in the European Parliament and the hard and genuine work of the majority of its members. I spent twelve amazing years of my life there, but it still has a legitimacy problem and from all I can see this coming election will just continue this problem and not help to solve it. This should not be a moment for business as usual.

Let me quote from an article published in 2011 by John Peet and Anand Menon for Centre for European Reform

Unlike many national parliaments, which are dominated by party politics and hence frequently act as little more than cheerleaders for government-sponsored legislation, the EP wields real influence, proving willing to amend or even reject draft laws altogether. It is on many counts a more effective check on the legislative process than the parliaments of many member-states.

However, the problem with the EP is that it fails to carry out satisfactorily the core task of any parliament – namely, adequately to represent its electorate. There is more to democratic legitimacy than just being elected. Any institution aspiring to such a status must also be considered by voters to represent their interests. It is here that the EP has failed to deliver. Largely ignored by its electorate, and frequently upholding positions that are wildly out of step with citizens’ views, the Parliament simply does not, in practice as opposed to theory, fulfil its legitimising mandate. [1]

These comments are revealing because they point to the key plus and minus attributes of the European Parliament. On the one hand through successive treaty amendments it now has incredible power over the minutiae of European legislation. However it struggles to illustrate how it uses that power to deal with the big picture issues which are on peoples’ minds. For instance, the loss of mobile roaming charges, however welcome, does nothing to address overwhelming concerns about immigration or austerity. The Parliament fails to be seen in the sense of a collective of elected representatives achieving real change on behalf of its electorate. We all know how few people can actually name an MEP and when they can it is more likely because of another role that individual has rather than that directly associated with the Parliament.

It is this issue of visibility that has always bothered me. I suggested two very small steps to try to change popular attitudes. It always seemed to me that one of the most successful committees of the Parliament was the Petitions Committee (although often maligned and hated by the political elites in Parliament). Whilst having no direct legislative power it was able to undertake fact-finding missions and meetings on issues brought to it from all corners of the EU. It thus often gained access to local media and touched the lives of those with concerns, for which it was at least able to gain attention and often action. I argued that, using this example, each policy committee of the Parliament should have one open meeting a year in any member state (although preferably not in a capital city) so as to be seen by the European electorate and to reflect actual popular concerns. After all, every committee of the European Parliament undertakes at least two trips a year to the capital cities of the half yearly Council presidencies to sit down with government members and officials. This exercise gains very little coverage and most of the same officials attend meetings in Brussels anyway. This is elites meeting elites; I want to see parliamentarians meeting people.

The other change, which is perhaps not entirely within the gift of the European Parliament to achieve, would be for a more meaningful relationship with national parliaments. A relationship where MEPs, perhaps even just once a year, should be allowed to speak on equal terms with MPs in their national parliaments when the European Commission’s Work Programme is debated. This might generate a little more knowledge and a little more coverage of what the EU and its parliamentarians are about, but of course the petty power struggles between the two sets of parliamentary power stand in the way of anything so sensible ever being considered!

So just two small ideas, which might be worthy of discussion in the coming election, ideas to enhance the visibility and democratic accountability of the institution. However, instead what we are likely to see is the three main male candidates for the post arguing about who can best represent the Parliament in the never ending Brussels centric arm wrestle with the other two institutions: the Commission and Member States in Council. This is of absolutely no interest to the average European citizen whatsoever. It is exactly the elite power play that they have tried to signal that they fed-up with. But is anyone listening? The whole opaque process of the election of Parliament’s President revolves around what is euphemistically known as the ‘package’ deal. In other words a deal made in the clichéd smoked filled rooms about who, in which political groups, will come away with what key posts for instance, committee chairs. So anyone who rocks the boat – as I did – is seen as damaging the ‘package’ and thus the interests of colleagues rather than serving the interest of democracy. So the ‘vote’ we will witness is not a transparent vote in any sense but an opaque deal between a few key players.

One of the candidates this time is Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of my former political family. When I broke ranks, I had a tetchy but revealing conversation with him. He asked me why I had done it. I said for me it was about ‘democracy’, at which he shook his head and replied that on the contrary he was interested in ‘power’. Well, that makes sense coming from a former Prime Minister, who has in many ways brought the manners of the Council and national governments into the Parliament and of course I realise this is an age old dilemma.

Yet, maybe, now is indeed the time for some simple straight-forward idealism and vision about European democracy. It may just be howling in the wind and may come to no better end than my own candidacy but if I was still there my vote would go to the Green/EFA candidate, Jean Lambert; a woman, a Brit and someone who understands what European democracy means.

[1] https://www.cer.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/pdf/2011/essay_parliament_peet_menon_dec10-179.pdf

 

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About Diana Wallis

A European from Yorkshire interested in people, politics, democracy, history and cultivating my garden!

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