The future agenda and role of the European Parliament

The front of the European Parliament, Wierzstreet, Brussels

Report from the Federal Union AGM

The opening speaker at the Federal Union conference was Andrew Duff MEP, leader of the UK Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, ALDE spokesperson on constitutional issues, and president of the Union of European Federalists.

He opened his remarks by saying that, if Lisbon fails, then our great experiment in post-national parliamentary democracy is at risk. He had have never believed that European integration is bound to succeed. There are serious challenges to confront, and the European Parliament has to play its part in shaping the policy and sustaining the force of the EU to shape up to those challenges. The EP is a secret, and is the victim of poor reporting, especially in the British press.

It is worth a reflection on its huge contribution so far to the legislative work of the EU. Over the past 5 years, there has been a programme of revision of the directives that make up the single market, to bring them up to date with economic, technical and scientific developments, and to rationalise the regulatory instruments that they contain. Areas that have been addressed include:

– The REACH directive on chemicals
– The services directive
– Climate change and energy policy
– Telecoms, reducing the retail cost of mobile phone calls
– Anti-pollution measures, dealing with waste, packaging, and pesticides

Many of these measures are being only gradually transposed into national law, meaning that their benefits are still to be fully felt in the member states. In addition, the European Parliament had made progress in:

– Opposing discrimination in the workplace and in access to services
– Financial services directives – often the Parliament and Commission wanted to go further than the Council would accept
– Appointment of the Commission – two nominees were rejected in 2004 and the portfolios of others were switched
– The comitology procedure has been changed to put the EP on an equal footing with the Council in scrutinising the work of the Commission – many national parliaments look enviously at the role of the EP in this regard
– Foreign, security and defence policy – there is now a parliamentary policy on relations with Nato
– A greater degree of transparency and more access to the documents produced by the Council and the Commission
– On enlargement, the EP has a range of formal powers and in fact expressed caution about permitting Romania and Bulgaria to join before they were ready

Regarding the constitutional processes of the EU, the EU is now firmly established as a player in negotiations to revise the treaties. It is complicit in the series of treaties that have been written over the past 10 years, and it is proud of the result. Now it has a duty to bring them into force. The Lisbon treaty brings a huge expansion of the EP’s budgetary and legislative powers, some new competences for the EU, and new decision-making procedures for JHA will which make possible credible common asylum and immigration policies. Faced with these new powers, the EP will in turn have to upgrade its own performance.

The increased influence of the EP is shown by the long list of prime ministers and presidents who are queuing up to speak to it. The EP is becoming the place where they establish their credentials as European statesmen.

Party politics in the European Parliament often brings results where the diplomats in the Council cannot agree. The Council, as a result, is becoming more responsive to EP culture and procedure.

If this is the positive side, what is the negative? What are the things that the European Parliament does not do so well?

It is not good at collaboration with national parliaments. There is s formal mechanism for liaison, COSAC, but there is still a lack of mutual comprehension between MEPs and national MPs. In each member state, there is a tension between the EP party groups and their counterparts back home. We need better systems of collaboration to soften the animosity. There is even a jealousy concerning the growing powers of the European Parliament.

Internal reform of the EP itself is still behind schedule, which includes reform of the electoral procedures. European political parties are still weak and embryonic, and need to become stronger.

It is not good at public relations. It is taking steps to improve what it does, but it still does not have a great impact on political society in a direct way.

It is not good at fighting election campaigns. The turnout has declined over the last six elections, and it may well decline still further. The response is to argue that, in a time of trouble, Brussels is a safe haven. European countries are stronger together, both in economic terms and in terms of democratic politics.

In answering questions, Andrew Duff observed that:

The enlargement of he eurozone was an important means of assisting the countries that were yet to join. The accession criteria were written for different times and their terms and their application should be reconsidered in the light of the current economic crisis.

The enlargement process should continue. The prospect of EU membership for the western Balkans and Turkey was an important means for Europe to project its security and prosperity to the east and south.

The EU was involved in the G20 process – president Barroso would attend the summit – and is taking steps to assist the international economic recovery. The ability of the eurozone countries to act together will be enhanced by the treaty of Lisbon, and president Sarkozy has created meetings of the heads of government of the eurozone member states (the Eurogroup).

The British MEPs did not work together to promote the work of the European Parliament in the UK. They are never in the same room except at EP plenary sessions, and then they are divided up by party. Furthermore, they do not all agree on the role of the EP. Labour and the Liberal Democrats value the European Parliament, while the Conservative group (although not all its individual members) opposes the project of Europe, along with the far right and the Greens. The parties need to speak more fearlessly and frankly about the scope and scale of European integration.

Britain is still seen as standing outside the European mainstream. It is not part of the Schengen area of free movement, it is not in the euro, its people do not speak foreign languages, and it has an obsession with resisting the Charter of Fundamental Rights. As a result, it does not see so many of the fruits of European integration.

Finally, Andrew Duff concluded that he expected to see President Barroso re-elected as president of the Commission: there were no other candidates. He did not agree that the EP should seek to elect a Commission president on a divisive party political platform: the Commission is a pluralistic body and its president must also command the support of the Council.

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