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EU: European Parliament Prepares For 'Invasion' From East

With the 10 mainly Eastern European candidate countries set to join the European Union next May, planning is underway for them to participate in elections to the European Parliament. The election occurs in June, so the campaigning and preparations will have to take place before the accession countries actually become members. The parliament is the democratic arm of the EU, but one of its main problems has long been how to overcome voter apathy.

Prague, 25 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament is one of the key institutions of the European Union.

The single-chamber legislature brings together directly elected deputies from each member state of the union to exercise democratic supervision of EU activities. This includes oversight of the union's massive budget.

But the parliament has never really captured the imagination of the general public. Most of the publicity the parliament has received has focused not on its important tasks but on its huge cost. It has two new grandiose houses of parliament -- one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg -- and deputies must commute back and forth at considerable expense.

The proposed lavish pay rates of parliamentarians, called MEPs, have also been in the news. A new common salary rate of some 100,000 euros ($114,883) a year is now under preparation, and there are also generous expense allowances. That pay is often several times higher than what even prime ministers or state presidents earn in Eastern Europe.

Parliamentary Press Service spokesman Richard Freedman explains: "Currently the system is basically that MEPs are paid the same as national MPs and of course their salaries vary quite considerably, I think the Italians presently earn the most, and the Spanish the least, the question being, is it desirable that all MEPs who are basically doing the same job, should be paid the same amount of money; there was a study set up into this question, and the conclusions were that MEPs should be paid the same, and in fact their salary should be half that of an EU judge, and that works out at 8,500 euros per month."

The current president of the parliament, Pat Cox of Ireland, has set himself the task of giving the body a more serious image, particularly in view of its greatly increased powers over the last few years.

One of his priorities has been to bring in delegates from Central and Eastern Europe to acquaint them with the legislative body. Accordingly, the parliament has invited a total of 162 observers from the accession countries who sit in on the work of the parliament.

These observers are delegates from their own national parliaments. Their mandate lasts until 30 April, when they return home as the June elections approach. Naturally enough, many of these observers are pondering whether they should stand as candidates for the European Parliament themselves.

Budapest-based analyst Pal Tamas of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences points out there is widespread debate in the East: "In most of the [accession] countries a debate has started about the role of the [European] Parliament, what sort of politicians should go there, and what sort of impact those politicians should have back in their own countries."

Becoming a European deputy would of course mean any national deputy would have to give up a seat in the home parliament, which could mean the end of a domestic political career.

"There is an interesting link between the domestic political scene and the future European political scene; on one side, everybody is happy for his or her party to enter into the European elections, but among the really good politicians, the first-rate politicians, no one wants to leave the national scene and go to Brussels," Tamas again.

The difficulty is making the European Parliament seem relevant to the ordinary citizens of the union. Voter participation in some EU states has fallen so low that the democratic credentials of the parliament are threatened.

As parliament spokesman Freedman puts it: "There is a sort of paradox in that the more power parliament has got over the years, the lower the turnout has been in European elections; the question is, why is that? Is it a question of the media not understanding or responding to European issues, or is it that the MEPs or the governments are not explaining properly to the media the role of the parliament; it is probably a mixture of the two."

One Eastern observer, Polish socialist Sylwia Pusz is quoted as saying in a Brussels press interview ("European Voice," 17 September) that the Polish public regard the European deputies as working on things which have nothing to do with their daily lives. She says that unless this image is changed, there could be a very low turnout in Poland at next year's election.

Spokesman Freedman rejects this, noting the wide-ranging competence of parliament: "Certainly, parliament is becoming more important in people's daily life, one thinks of environmental legislation, animal welfare, [and of laws] on water quality, on beach quality, on industry [regulation]."

For the eastward enlargement, the parliament is being increased from 626 seats to 732. Of the new seats, Poland will have the biggest number -- 50 -- reflecting the size of its population. Small members like Estonia and Cyprus will have six seats each. Romania and Bulgaria are being assigned seats (33 and 17 respectively) even though they are not joining the union until 2007 at the earliest.

Translators for the new languages are being hired, as well as more support staff, and extra office space is being built. The incoming deputies will generally be incorporated into the existing umbrella party groupings. The European People's Party for instance groups together the center-right parties, such as Christian Democrats. The Socialists group the leftists, and the Liberals the liberal-centrist parties. Then there are smaller groupings to the right and left, including the Greens.