Tuesday, 30 June 2009

European Parliament reform

Those who think that the European Union should develop according to the agreed and ratified treaty aims of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe are likely to favour the emergence of a parliamentary system, based on the votes of EU citizens, with European level government.

In this respect, the Treaty of Lisbon is a step forward, because it strengthens the legislative powers of the European Parliament, by extending co-decision (the ordinary legislative procedure) to a number of policy areas or issues.

The importance of the Lisbon Treaty should not be exaggerated. Special legislative procedures remain in many areas, with the Council in a privileged position. Treaty reform is still in the hands of the member states, not the representatives of EU citizens. Foreign, security and defence policy continue to be outside the effective control of the European Parliament, and even the Council’s powers are basically subject to unanimity, ensuring that the European Union remains a relative midget in world affairs. The member states block the resources (taxation) and make the strategic spending decisions (long term budget), although the European Parliament is allowed a wider role with regard to annual budgets.

Regardless of the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, an effective and democratic European Union is still a long way off.


New European Parliament

The newly elected European Parliament will convene for the first time in about two weeks. It should start to formulate its priorities for the coming five years.

There are questions, where the European Parliament can function as a conscience and a catalyst or debate. There are also matters, where the EP has all the tools to gain the trust of EU citizens by wise internal decisions and practices.

As the only EU institution directly elected by the citizens, the European Parliament has an obligation to keep the question of EU reform alive. This requires the judicious use of own initiative reports on long term institutional reform towards real parliamentary democracy.

In the future, all running political affairs should be decided by simple majorities, abolishing the need for majorities of the component members (and thus the stifling “grand coalitions”).

The European elections 2009 and the political parties at European level (Europarties) showed weaknesses, which demand constructive initiatives and proposals in order to strengthen European level democracy.

The European Parliament needs to take a critical look at itself and its image. As shown by the Westminster expenses scandal, the EP has to change its attitude to openness, transparency and sound financial practices, although it has curbed some of the most flagrant excesses from the beginning of the new parliamentary term.

The European Parliament does a better job than the Council at informing the public about its legislative work (committee agendas, proposed amendments, reports) than the Council, but the same standards should be extended to the EP’s internal bodies, such as the Bureau and the Conference of Presidents, including the meeting documents. They should be made automatically and visibly accessible to the public in the same manner.

Internal audit reports should be made available automatically and followed up by proposals and decisions, including actions taken against wayward MEPs. Whistleblowers should be promoted instead of demoted.

Despite differing views on the ultimate goals of European integration, the European Parliament has many reasons to take on board criticism of its practices, such as Open Europe’s publication The European Parliament - What does it do and how does it affect your everyday life? (April 2009)

For instance, the following proposals by Open Europe (with some modifications by me) merit serious consideration:

• The Parliament should publish the official figures for MEPs’ salary, pension and expense entitlements in one easily accessible document. (This should include information about EU and national taxation.)
• MEPs need to be open and transparent about how they spend their allowances and should publish all this information.
• MEPs should be obliged to produce receipts for all expenses, and receive allowances accordingly, rather than receive flat-rate expenses for office equipment, etc.
• All unused allowances, and allowances not supported with receipts, should be reimbursed back to the EU budget.
• Any MEP who is caught misusing allowances should, after a proper legal inquiry, be suspended and replaced.
• A robust register of MEPs’ financial interests
• The European Parliament should regularly propose to the Council treaty reform leading to an end to the “traveling circus” between Brussels and Strasbourg
• An end to opaque back-room deals with regard to MEPs rights and obligations (Open committee preparation. See also Bureau and Conference of Presidents publicity above)
• Publish full minutes of Committee meetings
• Allow MEPs greater freedom in debates
• MEPs need to make it clear what they stand for (much facilitated, if the need for grand coalitions is scrapped)

Ralf Grahn