Buzek: Speed up EU lawmaking, but not at cost of democracy
In office for another month, European Parliament chief Jerzy Buzek looks back at the highs and lows of his mandate and advises his successor to reach out to citizens and speed up lawmaking, but not at the expense of democracy.
Under a current arrangement between the two main political groups - the centre-right European People's Party and the Social Democrats - the five-year mandate of the president is split in two, with German Social-Democrat Martin Schulz poised to become the next chief of the legislature in January.
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"Martin Schulz is very experienced, politically. He doesn't need advice. I can only say that besides the obvious activities - negotiating the next EU budget and defending the community method, there are some which are very important, even if they are not that obvious: the creation of a European public space and helping to create EU law faster and more efficiently," Buzek told this website.
From the 11th floor of the European Parliament, things appear quite distant from the day-to-day life of EU citizens. But a former prime minister and member of the Solidarnosc movement, which brought down Communism in Poland, Buzek knows how important it is to have the support and active engagement of citizens.
"I started a few months ago the intense building of what I call a European public space - the best possible way of exchanging views with our citizens, to inform them of the activities and roles of the institutions and to help them avoid seeing challenges as threats, but rather as opportunities," he said.
Meetings with students, entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors all over Europe are essential to spur the debate on where Europe is going, he believes. And to involve them politically too. "In two and a half years we'll have European elections again. That is very soon. We should achieve a higher turnout and give a clear signal to citizens that EU is part of the solution, not part of the problem," Buzek says, echoing similar calls end efforts by his predecessors and other EU politicians.
Still a firm believer in the EU's capacity to overcome the current economic crisis, Buzek admits that the response of the bloc's institutions to the eurozone troubles is much slower than markets would like to see.
A proposal to fast-track economic governance legislation in all three stages - the drafting by the European Commission, negotiation and approval by the parliament and member states and then implementation in national law - has been welcomed by the EU executive and member states alike.
"To speed up negotiations between the parliament and the Council [member states], both sides should be probably better organised," he admits.
But fast-tracking legislation should not come at the expense of democratic accountability. "If democracy should work, it is impossible to avoid this step in the creation of law. Maybe we could shorten the process by two, three months, but not more. National parliaments also take a few months to pass a law. It is normal. citizens have to be informed," he stressed. The same goes for governments when they take the new EU law and pass it through their own parliaments before it actually comes into force.
"Democracy takes time. And we should make time for it. We should not expect it to work as fast as financial markets - in a matter of days and weeks."
Belarus and lobbyists
Looking back on the more than two years in office, having helped to convince the Irish in accepting the Lisbon Treaty and then Czech president Vaclav Klaus to sign it was "a big success of my mandate," Buzek says.
Among other 'successes' he listed, he included securing the negotiating tools for the next EU budget and launch of the "European energy community" - an initiative to spur energy-grid integration and stricter co-ordination among member states when purchasing gas. Buzek also mentioned the launch of Euronest, a joint assembly with parliamentarians from five countries in the Eastern Partnership - Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Belarus, the sixth country in the eastern neighbourhood, is not part of that assembly due to the erosion of democracy under Alexander Lukashenko. Buzek sees one of the great failures under his mandate "that we could not achieve any progress in the democratisation of Belarus."
Yet he admits that the European Parliament, despite its strong focus on human rights, can only work in support of dissidents within the country. Ultimately it is up to Belarusians themselves to change the regime, he argued. He said that this was his experience in the Soviet bloc: "We tried many times - in 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980. It didn't happen over night. Help from outside was important, but the main drive was from the citizens."
Earlier this year, Buzek was the subject of critical articles in the press for having agreed with the chamber's legal services that the EU's anti-fraud office (Olaf) be denied access to the offices of three MEPs involved in a cash-for-amendments scandal. He later on launched a special group to draft a new code of conduct for MEPs, which he now mentions as one of his achievements.
"Two MEPs resigned and we lifted the immunity of the third so that prosecutors can carry on their investigations. The new code was not necessary for this. It is necessary given the fact that the parliament is much more powerful under the new EU treaty, with almost 100 percent co-decision with the Council [member states]. So it is necessary to have transparent rules for conflict of interest, declarations of financial interest outside the parliament for each member," Buzek explained.
The new code was adopted on Thursday (1 December), but transparency campaigners have said that it does not go far enough. They worry that it does not explicitly preclude MEPs from being paid for consultancy work during their mandate.
Buzek however brushed off the criticism and said that the new financial disclosure rules and declarations of interest are among the toughest when compared to those in national parliaments in most member states.
He also warned against chastising lobbyists or MEPs who meet them. "It is normal for our members to meet with lobbyists, representatives of industry, civil society, small entrepreneurs. All these views have to be taken into account when drafting laws. Without lobbyists, it would not be possible to write a good law for our citizens," Buzek concluded.