Foreign Policy Blogs

Happy Birthday!

The European Parliament rang in its 50th anniversary today, with a 'solemn ceremony’, in what FT commentator Andrew Bounds calls “an even more surreal session” in Strasbourg than usual. Since 1958 and with the growth of the Union the legitimacy (first appointed then directly elected), size (from 142 members to the current 785) and role in the legislative process (initially advisory only, now almost on par with Member States in the majority of issues) has changed to an almost incredible degree. Still, shortcomings are aplenty: A survey published last week revealed that 73% of Europeans feel ill-informed about what it is the parliament does, though generally speaking they think it wields more power than the other institutions. Two-thirds of those queried had no idea when the next elections for the EP would take place – no one dared to ask, of course, if they even cared.

And there we have it: the quintessential dilemma – most people still don't care. The parliament's president, Hans-Gert Poettering, had to go so far today as to issue a call to national European parties to nominate candidates who mattered to people for seats in Europe's elected body. A German saying plays on that fact, implying that only the most passé or incomeptent get shipped off to Brussels (‘Hast Du einen Opa, schick ihn nach Europa’), because wouldn't you want to keep the best where they mattered most – at home? That thinking of course is inherently flawed, given the fact that nearly 80% of national legislation in certain countries is handed down directly from Brussels – so wouldn't you want the brightest shaping policies there?

Naturally, the EP suffers through the same crises as national parliaments – questions over allowances, bonuses and other benefits are forever resurfacing in the press – and these are legitimate questions to ask. Then there is that whole ‘accountability’ thing: While citizens have trouble holding the Parliament accountable, largely because the voting districts and the electoral system for some countries is different from their national contexts, the EP itself has been successful in playing itself as the people's advocate. It brought the Santer Commission down; it stopped an avowed homophobe from becoming EU Commissioner; it was instrumental in capping the cost of mobile telephone calls in the Union; it has ensured robust anti-discrimination legislation and prevented the liberalization of Europe's harbors for fear of an unemployment wave. It sets the rules for multibillion Euro mergers and has a key role to play in the regulation of markets from telecomms to energy.

Yes, there are plenty of lame ducks in the Parliament, hiding amongst the extremely hard-working and committed men and women. For it to become a more relevant institution to the Union's citizens, the Parliament as a whole must, however become more politicized. Parties must resemble what citizens are used to on the national level. There must be a qualitiative debate on policy issues in which transnational issues are made evident – and the issues have to mean something to the citizen.

Until that happens, the current divide will continue: important decisions for the future of each and every one of us will be made in a city far, far away, by people who (in the absolute worst of cases) were too irrelevant for the national political process to begin with. Hardly an ideal situation. Naturally, this has to come from within the parties themselves. First signs are there, as is evidenced by the European Socialist Party. But more effective strategies need to be developed for this nascent, true party formation ongoing with all big groups in the current EP to be transmitted to the voter. That must be the Parliament's ongoing task, but for today – let its members sit back and revel in their accomplishments: Let them eat cake.

 

Author

Cathryn Cluver

Cathryn Cluver is a journalist and EU analyst. Now based in Hamburg, Germany, she previously worked at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, Belgium, where she was Deputy Editor of the EU policy journal, Challenge Europe. Prior to that, she was a producer with CNN-International in Atlanta and London. Cathryn graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's Degree in European Studies and holds a BA with honors from Brown University in International Relations.

Areas of Focus:
Refugees; Immigration; Europe

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