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EU: Next European Parliament President To Play Historic Role

The European Parliament, the only truly democratic arm of the European Union, elects a new president tomorrow. The favorite out of five candidates is Irish Liberal Pat Cox, a deputy described as a formidable politician who supports continuing European integration. The next president will have the historic task of finalizing preparations for the arrival of the new Central and Eastern European members to the parliament in 2004, as well as guiding the parliament toward a greater role in an enlarged union.

Prague, 14 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament is like a very large building that is only half completed.

The 626-seat assembly is the European Union's only directly elected body. As such, it has broad powers of legislative co-decision with the EU's Council of Ministers. It has the right to approve the EU's $70 billion annual budget and to decide which countries will be admitted as new members. Its prestige has grown in recent years, particularly since deputies forced the resignation in 1999 of the European Commission on grounds of corruption.

But the European Parliament remains a flawed institution in that its legislative procedures are often criticized as inefficient and irrational. In addition, its credibility is undermined by the fact it has been unable to properly control expense account bills run up by the deputies themselves.

Therefore, the parliament's incoming president can make a big impact in terms of carrying out needed reforms. As analyst Steven Everts of the Center for European Reform in London says: "The expenses system has to be addressed immediately. It has been debated for ages, and the time for a decision is now. It could have been done years ago, but anyway, that's the immediate priority."

There are five candidates for the post of president, which carries a term of office of 2 1/2 years. The favorite is Irish Liberal Pat Cox, a former television journalist and academic noted for his eloquence. He has the support of the largest grouping, the conservative European People's Party (EPP).

Cox's main rival is Scottish Socialist David Martin. There are also candidates from smaller groups -- the Greens, the United Left, and the Euroskeptic group Europe of Democracies and Diversity.

Everts sees the contest for president as more open than in previous years. "Unlike previous occasions, where it was much more of a pre-arranged deal, a sort of 'shoe-in' -- meaning that a deal had been cut [beforehand] by the two big political groups, the Socialists and the Christian Democrats -- now it seems a more open affair."

Cox, from the small Liberal grouping, has the support of the EPP because the Liberals backed the successful EPP candidate Nicole Fontaine at the last presidential election. There is speculation that support for Cox is waning, but EPP press spokesman Bob Fitzhenry rejects this, saying the conservatives still have their weight behind Cox.

"We support him personally. He is an excellent candidate. He has his own qualities, which are basically sound and pro-European. He is very eloquent, and he has a program of reform inside the parliament, which we [in the EPP] also support. And, of course, he is not too far removed from us on straightforward political issues either."

Fitzhenry says he expects Cox to win on the second ballot after candidates from the three smaller parties have been eliminated. The winner must achieve an absolute majority of 314 votes.

Cox, however, is not celebrating yet. He told RFE/RL today: "I hope, in terms of the campaign we have put in, that we can mobilize a majority tomorrow. I feel broadly confident we can do so. But it is a secret ballot, and in politics, one never likes to tempt fate."

Cox, a confirmed European integrationist, wants the parliament to be an enthusiastic and active supporter of eastward enlargement. He says the new president will have a key role in preparing for this: "The new president will have the formal responsibility of preparing the house for the day when the deputies arrive from the candidate states as fully elected members. They are foreseen to arrive -- if the timetable holds -- after the next election [set for 2004] because, of course, it is after the next election that they would have a proper mandate."

Cox called the EU's eastward enlargement "the historic challenge to our generation of Europeans."