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EU: Views Differ Over European Parliament's Future Role (Part 2)

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 final part of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at widely differing views of how the parliament should develop in the future.

Prague, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The grandly named Convention on the Future of Europe opens at the end of the month, with the sweeping task of redesigning European Union institutions to enable them to cope with the union's eastward expansion.

First-wave expansion could increase the EU's membership by as many as 10 states by 2004, to a total of 25. So streamlining institutions is essential if the EU is to retain a capacity to make orderly decisions.

Among those institutions is the European Parliament, the only democratically elected body in the EU. Parliamentary leaders are determined to use the convention to strengthen the assembly's powers. As new Parliamentary President Pat Cox says: "Through the coming convention, which will plan how best to express in constitutional and institutional terms the way of managing and dealing with the politics of this new and larger Europe, parliament must play an important democrat's role, in insisting that we have a democratic and democratically accountable Europe, instead of a technocratic Europe."

Cox's plea for more democratic control of EU affairs strikes a popular note with those who find the union too opaque and unaccountable. At the same time, his comments sidestep the fact that there are wide differences of opinion about such basic issues as the role and purpose of the parliament.

Broadly, the differences are between the pro-integrationists, who favor deepening integration step-by-step in the eventual direction of a federal Europe, and the so-called Euroskeptics, who want the powers of EU institutions strictly limited so as to preserve national sovereignties.

One integrationist scenario is that the EU's present Council of Ministers, the main decision-making body, would be transformed into an upper chamber of the European Parliament. There, it would be a house safeguarding member-state's rights, like the U.S. Senate. The EU's present executive arm, the European Commission, would also be drawn into the parliament, becoming the bureaucracy supplying expert advice. A new-style European executive leadership would be drawn from within this constellation.

As Elmar Brok, German Christian Democrat member of the European Parliament (MEP), says: "We need a stronger European executive branch, that's for sure. Whether you call that a [European] government is a question of taste, but that we need it is obvious because the Council of Ministers still possesses certain legislative powers which it cannot continue to exercise when the council has 27 members, because it will be ineffective by then (because of its size)."

Brok has mentioned the forbidden word, namely "government," which is dreaded by the Euroskeptics. They oppose creation of a European-level government that could eclipse national sovereignties. These skeptics, who number Britons, Danes, and Swedes among them, favor keeping the EU little more than a free-market space, an association of still-sovereign states.

British Euroskeptic MEP Daniel Hannen explains: "There is a view to the effect that it should be a legislature for the whole of Europe, that it should be -- if you like -- a parliament as for a national state. And according to that view, it would replicate many of the powers of national parliaments. My own views are rather different. I think it should be an international assembly there to scrutinize an international bureaucracy. It's there to keep an eye on the [European] Commission, to make sure that money is being properly spent."

For the Euroskeptics, shifting more power to Brussels and its institutions is anathema. One MEP who holds such views is Danish veteran Jens-Peter Bonde: "The European institutions have already too much power. If you compare it with the United States, there is no limitation on the powers of the federal level [in the EU] as you have in the United States. [In fact,] there are many more powers centralized in Brussels than in Washington."

The views of pro-integrationists and the Euroskeptics are poles part, but for the European Parliament, the day-to-day reality will, for a long time, rest somewhere between the two extremes.

On a less philosophical level, there are concrete criticisms of the way the parliament is working.

John Bromley of the British Construction Federation says his association has a keen interest in the parliament because 80 percent of the laws and regulations affecting the building industry are now made at the European level. But he says MEPs are erratic in their work, in that they are too open to lobbying and other outside influences. He points out that a key piece of legislation, one relating to the letting of public contracts, has been stuck in a parliamentary committee with 500 amendments under consideration -- a situation he calls absurd.

Bromley also points to laws developed over many years, involving laborious effort on all sides, only to be struck down unceremoniously by parliament.

"They (MEPs) have the power, but very little responsibility. It's very important, they have always said, that they want to be thought about as a responsible institution, the institution representing the people's interest, the only directly elected institution. But really, at the moment, since they have been given the power, there has been a huge amount of irresponsible legislation, and also irresponsible amendments on legislation which both the [European] Commission and the Council [of Ministers] and lobbyists have worked very hard on. "

Bromley says what's required is a good civil service system for parliament and its employees, one that can filter the pressure exerted by lobbyists and interest groups, so that only the sensible amendments are brought forward.