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EU: Parliament Struggling For Acceptance, But Surprisingly Relevant (Part 1)

The European Parliament, the democratic arm of the European Union, has a key part to play in the eastward expansion of the union. It must approve the entry of each new member. But the parliament itself is still struggling to establish its own democratic credentials, in that many of Europe's citizens know little of what it does, and its legitimacy is threatened by ever-decreasing voter turnout. In the first of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the work of the parliament and how it is trying to make itself more relevant in the run-up to the EU's eastward expansion.

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Speak the words "European Parliament" and a matching word that often springs to mind is "extravagance."

That's because when the parliament makes news, it is usually about how much money is being spent on the expenses of its deputies, or on the cost of its two huge buildings -- one in Strasbourg, the other in Brussels. The Brussels building alone -- where deputies spend most of their time -- reputedly cost close to a billion dollars.

When it comes to the daily work of the chamber, however, little is heard. The European public is apathetic toward it, and participation in elections to the 626-seat chamber has been falling in every election since 1979. The last election, in 1999, saw a turnout so low in some member states that the parliament's democratic legitimacy is being called into question.

As British Conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP) Daniel Hannen puts it: "I was elected on a turnout of 24 percent. More than twice as many people have just voted in a television game show for the singer they preferred in the last few days in the United Kingdom than participated in the election which returned me to the European Parliament."

That's the image of the European Parliament then -- a somewhat neglected institution, one apparently without particular relevance to the ordinary people across the European Union, let alone to those Central and Eastern Europeans whose countries are only candidates for membership.

A man determined to show that this is an erroneous image is the parliament's new president, Irish Independent Pat Cox. Cox, a former television journalist, says his priorities are the "three Rs" -- namely to reconnect the parliament, and thus the EU, to the people; to reform the parliament, ridding it of its air of extravagant self-indulgence; and reuniting Europe through eastward enlargement.

On the last point, Cox says: "A key priority in the lifetime of the current parliament, before the next elections [in June 2004], I hope will be to bring closure to as wide a range of enlargement with candidate states as can possibly be. It is the historic challenge of our generation of Europeans. And I hope that the parliament will be not just a very active participant, but also an active advocate of the earliest and widest closure possible on enlargement."

Since the European Parliament must approve each new EU member, its enthusiastic support for enlargement is an important factor. In fact, to consider the parliament irrelevant would be a mistake.

As David Harley, the director of the parliament's press service, puts it: "The European Parliament must give its opinion or take an essential decision in the formulation of about 80 percent of the legislation that is decided in Brussels. And there has been a big increase in the European Parliament's powers, first of all, since the Maastricht Treaty and later the Amsterdam Treaty, which entered into force in 1999."

In addition to broad powers of legislative co-decision with the EU's Council of Ministers, parliament has the right of final approval of the union's massive $70 billion annual budget. Also, its prestige and self-confidence has grown in recent years since deputies forced the resignation in 1999 of the European Commission, led by Jacques Santer, on corruption grounds.

However, German Christian Democrat MEP Elmar Brok says it's essential that the remaining 20 percent of legislation be brought under parliament's purview as part of the democratic process in the union. Brok says he believes the Convention on the Future of Europe, which begins at the end of February, will give further powers to the parliament.

In its day-to-day activities, the parliament deals with different categories of union rule-making -- namely laws, regulations, and directives. Press spokesman Harley explains that the first category -- laws -- have the same force throughout the union. Do they take precedence over national laws, and thus over national sovereignty?

"Yes, provided that it's a legal decision which is taken in an area which is defined as an area of European Union competence in the treaties."

Similarly, the next category -- regulations -- must be applied uniformly in all member states. Directives, on the other hand, set out only a framework, and then it is up to the individual member states to implement the intentions of the framework through their own national legislation.

It's clear, therefore, that as the parliament deals with laws that can supplant national laws across the union, from the Atlantic to the Aegean, it has more relevance to people's lives than many realize.

But still, according to Danish MEP Jens-Peter Bonde, a so-called Euroskeptic, the parliament is not a full-fledged legislative body because it does not have in practice the power to initiate legislation. That right is held by the executive European Commission, backed by the Council of Ministers.

"It is not a parliament compared [for instance] with the U.S. Congress. The legislative function here is with the [European] Commission and with the Council [of Ministers]."

That raises the issue of how the European Parliament might develop in future, whether it will draw new powers to itself. Not everybody wants to see a more powerful parliament.

In tomorrow's final article in this two-part series, we'll look at the lively debate under way on that issue.