22nd Oct 2020

European Parliament turns 50

The European Parliament has changed profoundly since its talking-shop beginnings in 1958 to the substantial powerhouse it is set to be from 2009. Yet as it celebrates its 50th anniversary on Wednesday (12 March) it continues to be undermined by voter disinterest and lately its own internal scandal.

Established on 1 January 1958 as the European Assembly, with 142 members, four official languages and having the right to be consulted only, its ranks have swelled to 785 MEPs today. It now has 23 official languages and is the world's only directly elected multinational legislature.

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  • The European Parliament building in Strasbourg (Photo: European Parliament)

With its increase in size has come a substantial growth in legislative clout.

At the moment, it has the power to dismiss the European Commission and holds the bloc's purse strings, with the right to approve the EU's budget as well as having a co-say with member states in a number of policy areas, most importantly single market issues.

EU internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy recently remarked: "I know some ministers who would rather be in charge of the industry committee [in the parliament] for the power it gives them."

From next year, under the EU's new treaty, the power of MEPs to co-legislate will be extended to include virtually all policy areas, taking on agriculture, fisheries, transport, structural funds and justice and home affairs.

But despite its power boost, and despite the fact that it is the only directly elected EU institution – a fact that MEPs often see giving the body a sort of moral high ground – the parliament remains far-removed from EU citizens who fail to see that decisions made by MEPs affect their daily lives.

Voter turn-out in the 2004 elections was just over 45 percent, and dipped below 30 percent in some of the bloc's newest member states.

Referring to this voter apathy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso last month admitted that his post lacked "democratic legitimacy". The post is given to a person of the same political family that wins a majority in the elections, in this case the centre-right.

Speaking about the 2009 elections, for which MEPs would like to substantially boost turnout to match their rise in legislative powers, Spanish centre-right MEP Inigo Mendez de Vigo emphasized the importance of each citizen's vote.

"It is not like before when citizens thought their vote didn't count. Their vote in the EU elections will count a lot [and] will have an impact on policies," said the MEP at a discussion on the issue in February.

The parliament's difficulty in projecting itself into the national political sphere lies not only with the fact that there is yet to develop a European political space, governed by European personalities and issues, but also with its internal workings.

Its debates are to a large extent choreographed with pre-agreed speakers' lists and times and the small time devoted to a catch-the-eye discussion is undermined by the necessary interpretation. Fiery or witty exchanges can literally get lost in translation.

In addition, euro-deputies often debate important foreign policy issues of the day – but the parliament has no say in foreign or defence issues, something that will be remain the case after the introduction of the new treaty.

One Nordic MEP, asking not to be quoted by name, said: "The parliament should really stop talking about foreign policy issues. Nobody cares what we say. Really, we're like an NGO. We should stick to internal market issue where we have real power."

Adding to the difficulty of presenting the EU parliament to the wider public are certain hard-to-sell issues.

These include the 350km monthly trek to Strasbourg where the parliament meets to legislate. The 12-times-a-year trip costs the taxpayer millions of euros annually and flouts the EU's own green credentials as MEPs and their assistants often fly or go by car. For the rest of the time the Strasbourg parliament stands empty.

In addition, undermining the parliament's claim to transparency and accessibility, the assembly has just been hit by a staff allowance scandal. A confidential internal audit report last month revealed that the system is being abused with no internal checks to see how the €17,000 monthly staff allowance is being spent.

After a slow response in which the parliament's administration refused to publish the original report, the system is now to be changed. But with swathes of voters still to be convinced that what their MEP does in Brussels is important to them, such revelations are unlikely to motivate them to go to the ballot box.

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