The European Parliament: How relevant is it?

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Photo: [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The European Parliament is often accused of lacking significant power and for being little more than a talking shop. This begs the question: just how relevant is the only directly elected EU institution?

The European Parliament website states that it is a chamber elected by the citizens of Europe, which encourages us to make our voices heard. (“This is your assembly.”) However the attitude across the EU member states is one of apathy and disinterest. There was a large variation in voter turnouts between countries at the last European Parliamentary elections in 2009, however the EU average turnout was just 43%. This figure has been in decline since the first European Parliament elections in 1979 when 63% passed through the polling booths. Europeans have turned out in lower numbers than they have done in national elections. Eurobarometer, the EU’s polling agency, has found that knowledge of the EU appears to be sketchy across its 28 member states. For instance ninety-three percent of British adults surveyed by YouGov were unable to name even one of their MEPs.

Not only are Europeans ignorant about the EU as a whole, they are also mistrustful of it. Trust has fallen to a record low over the past year and Eurobarometer has recorded a decline in trust since 2008-9. As European Parliamentary elections approach in late May eurosceptic parties are expected to make gains. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), France’s Front National, Greece’s SYRIZA, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and the Danish People’s Party are all well placed to take the largest share of the vote in their respective countries.

Going beyond people’s perceptions and knowledge, there is what has been called a ‘democratic deficit’ in Brussels, namely an accusation that the real power within the EU lies not within the elected European Parliament but in the unelected European Commission. Although a ‘legislature’ the European Parliament, unlike parliaments in democracies around the world, is not empowered to draft legislation. Instead, it has the power to accept, amend or reject directives and regulations proposed by the Commission. The Budget is likewise drafted by the Commission before it is submitted to the Parliament. For legislation to become law it must be approved by both bodies in what is called ‘co-decision’ however co-decision does not apply to taxation, industrial or foreign policy or new eurozone members. In such areas the Parliament gives only an advisory opinion, known as a ‘consultation procedure.’ Some agreements require the ‘green light’ from Parliament who are unable to modify the text but can reject it.

What about when it comes to appointing nominees to the Commission, including to the Commission presidency? Again, the Parliament’s role is a reduced one. MEPs must approve the Commission President and Commissioners must appear before MEPs before they can vote on the Commission as a whole.

The structure of the Parliament is problematic. Composed of 766 MEPs from the 28 member states every national delegation to the Parliament is a minority, and so are therefore disadvantaged when standing up for their national interests. How much clout can the EU’s least populous states Malta, Cyprus and Estonia have with six MEPs each? (The number of MEPs each country elects is relative to population.)  Even larger delegations from the likes of Germany and France only constitute a fraction of the number who sit in the assembly. Furthermore, due to the division of the Parliament along political, rather than national lines, this is made more difficult as national delegations will find themselves dispersed during parliamentary sittings.

Ignorance about and lack of interest in the EU institutions are widespread however these can be found in national and local politics as well. The real crux of the debate is the EU Parliament’s inability to draft legislation and how in certain areas it seems to serve solely to ‘rubber stamp’ the Commission’s wishes.

How democratic- and relevant- are our votes next month?

President Higgins in Britain: A Positive Move

 

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Photo: By Setanta Saki [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Queen Elizabeth arrived in Ireland in 2011 it was the first state visit to the country by a British monarch since before Irish independence in 1922. Now in 2014 Irish President Michael D. Higgins has concluded the first state visit by an Irish President to Britain. The Queen has also expressed a desire to return to Ireland in two years time to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. When commenting on these visits various commentators have noted how, as recently as the 1990s, such a visit to either side of the Irish Sea would have been ‘unthinkable.’ Perhaps that’s a fair assertion.

Although relations with other countries have normalised following conflict the British-Irish relationship has been different. The long, complicated and often bitter history between the two countries, and, more recently, the Northern Ireland situation and the republican bombing campaign in mainland Britain have made this a challenge. On a more personal level, a series of Irish leaders have had family ties to the armed struggle for independence. To British leaders there have been the memories of terrorist attacks between the 1970s and 90s including the murders Earl Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle, and several British parliamentarians.

These visits have been both positive and overdue. In spite of past differences President Higgins urged people to “think of all we have in common” and hailed the contributions to British life that Irish immigrants have made. Aside from a common language we have shared ancestral ties as well. Furthermore Britons are a large minority in Ireland as the Irish are in Britain. Both countries’ economies are deeply intertwined. Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export market; the UK is Ireland’s second largest export market. Additionally, there are strong trade links for services.

Much has been made of the decision to invite former IRA commander Martin McGuinness to the Windsor Castle banquet attended by Higgins and others. However we should remember the atrocities committed by both republicans and loyalists and for us to move forward old foes have to reach out to one another. A ligean ar súil agam go bhfuil imeachtaí le déanaí céimeanna breise sa treo ceart. (Let’s hope that recent events are further steps in the right direction.)