Thursday

13th May 2021

Confrontation is the only way, new EP chief says

  • Schulz hopes his confrontation politics will "increase participation" in European elections (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The European Parliament can make or break laws in the EU but is considered something of an irrelevancy among the general public, something its new chief wants to change through some old-fashioned confrontation.

In the job for a little under two months and finding it an "enormous challenge" to be "prudent and impartial," Martin Schulz says that his institution is always at risk of disappearing in the public eye.

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A real institutional player since 2010 when the latest EU treaty gave it law-making powers in virtually all policy areas, the 736-member house suffers the inferiority complex of having an ever-decreasing vote turnout and the ignominy of being considered only a rubber-stamping institution.

Real differences that it makes to key laws - it deeply altered liberalizing laws in the area of services and ports - either go unappreciated or are "stolen" by member states, Schulz said in his first interview since taking up office in January.

A package of six laws greatly increasing Brussels oversight on national budgets "was really seriously developed [by MEPs] to the last detail and then in the end it was the Council who took it and sold it to the outside world as a historical breakthrough."

The only way to change the status quo and make the institution a household name is through political fisticuffs, he believes.

"I'm a fighter. I am trying to put the European Parliament in a confrontation with the heads of government," said the German politician, who cemented his combative reputation during his time as leader of the socialists.

In marked contrast to his more discreet predecessor, Schulz is content to be seen in disagreement with prime ministers.

He has highlighted differences with the leaders of Hungary and the Netherlands, both on the EU's radar over rights issues.

His biggest bugbear is the European Council - the increasingly powerful forum for EU leaders.

"The role of the European Council is the biggest problem in terms of oversight by the European Parliament - that is why I insist on being present [at EU summits]."

Schulz has just two years to put the parliament on the political map.

Getting more PMs into plenary

He has already lost one battle. An attempt to get himself into the room as a matter of course for the newly established eurozone summits failed.

But he reckons he might have more luck with another goal - making the European Parliament the automatic venue for leaders to debate issues that affect the EU as a whole and ideally a forum where the Franco-German 'directoire' could be "balanced or challenged."

It should become a "regular event that exceptional events in member states lead to a debate in the European parliament."

"If Italy fails, the EU has an enormous problem. So it is clear that a decision taken by the Italian government affects all MEPs because it affects the voters who send MEPs to the European Parliament," said Schulz, explaining why Prime Minister Mario Monti was invited to the parliament to detail his plans for the country.

For its part the European Parliament is in perhaps in its most delicate situation since 1979, when first direct elections occurred.

National parliaments are losing key budgetary powers to Brussels, something Schulz wants to counterbalance by forcing member states to give his institution more "control rights" in this area.

Superfluous beings?

But the ordinary voter does not identify with the European parliament – participation in the five-yearly elections has fallen consistently reaching 43 percent in 2009.

"What we need are publicly visible successes where [people] could see that something for more democracy is made by the European Parliament," said Schulz. This would also stop deputies being considered "superfluous, useless human beings" at home "but as somebody who has a say in Brussels."

He is visibly annoyed that parliament has been deprived of the chance to have a debate on the anti-counterfeit treaty, Acta, the subject of a 2.5-million strong global petition to the parliament. The treaty is now being examined by the EU court effectively shelving the debate for the next 18 months.

One way of creating a bit of buzz around his institution will be to make voters in the 2014 elections feel their ballot has consequences.

"My feeling is that the next European election will happen as competition between personalities and their programme for the commission presidency."

Jokingly, he suggested the run-off for the next commission presidency could be between Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk for the centre right, "Martin Schulz for the Socialists," Guy Verhofstadt for the liberals and Daniel Cohn-Bendit for the Greens.

"That's just an example," he added.

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