6th Jun 2023

Officials study futurology of EU parliament

  • Former EP president Jerzy Buzek on a visit to Washington last year (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

While MEPs continue to relish the extent of the European Parliament new powers in making EU laws, officials at the heart of the institution are looking into how the world's biggest transnational assembly is being transformed by the internet, new forms of governance and advances in IT.

Klaus Welle, the Secretary General of the parliament, is drawing up what might be described as the parliament's very own existential handbook.

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It seeks to lay out how parliament will have changed by 2025. Part of the self-assessment will come through 200 questions. Unanswered, they are supposed to provoke thought and debate.

Many of them centre around the role of the internet and practical and political effects of fast-changing technology.

A recent example of the power of the internet for deputies was the mobilising effect it had on opponents of Acta- a controversial international anti-counterfeit treaty. The parliament - due to decide whether to reject the agreement in summer - was recently the subject of a global 2-million strong petition against Acta.

"The internet cuts out the middle man. This is a challenge for parliament because parliamentarians are traditional middle men," said Welle at a recent conference.

"So how can we equip MEPs so that under completely different competitive conditions they are still credible middle men towards the citizens, and they are not cut out of the system."

Other issues are more prosaic. Machine translation, for example, is steadily improving. But this has important implications for the parliament's 1,300 translators.

The EU's relations with other powers also have a profound effect on the workings of the assembly. In 2010, it opened its first ever office abroad - in Washington.

As relations with the US are increasingly defined by legislation and regulation in a series of areas of mutual interest - such as security and financial services - the theatre of power has shifted from the executives to law-making bodies.

The parliament's office in Washington colour-codes all legislation being made by US law-makers. Green means both sides are on the same line while red means "collision course."

Being opponents on various legislative issues is not necessarily a bad thing, said Welle, but "we should know about it advance." EU parliamentary delegations will soon explore setting up closer ties with national assemblies in Brazil and India.

Other aspects of today's world are a greater challenge. Discussions and decisions are more often being taken in multillateral arenas such as the G8 or G20 groups of industrialised countries. But this raises important questions about democratic oversight.

And the parliament has its own particular EU challenge when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny. It is increasingly fretful about the role of the European Council, the forum for EU leaders to meet and take decisions.

But while the multipolar nature of global relations is forcing the parliament to change, so too is the greater power of Brussels over national economic decisions, and the parliament's recent boost in law-making powers.

It has created 500 new policy support posts - adding to the legal services, deputies' assistants and committee staff. The powerful economic and monetary affairs committee - taking care of all the financial services and economic oversight legislation - previously had just seven administrators. This has been upped to 12.

For parliament these past two years, defined both the eurozone crisis and the new Lisbon Treaty rules, have represented something of a coming of age for the institution, which only a short decade ago was routinely dismissed as a talking shop.

MEPs notice the change in the balance of power. National politicians coming to Brussels for ministerials often meet deputies to discuss upcoming policy decisions.

It has practical door-opening effects for those behind the scenes too.

Welle noted that he now has monthly meetings with his counterpart in the council to discuss issues on the agenda and that last year for the first time he was asked to meet all the director generals of the European Commission.

"Five years ago this was unimaginable. It shows we are respecting each other as equal partners."

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