By Stephen Thomas
As the intensity of the European Union ‘in/out’ referendum debate increases across the UK, I had the opportunity to visit the European Parliament in Brussels this month for the first time.
MEPs make decisions that impact upon the lives of 500 million citizens in this very room
I was invited with a group to visit and explore the institution by the European Free Alliance (EFA), a grouping of elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from stateless nations, regions and minorities. In the 2014-2019 parliamentary term EFA MEPs have been elected from Catalonia, Galicia, Latvia, Scotland, Valencia, Wales and the Basque Country. Within the Parliament, MEPs work in political groups. EFA members have formed a common alliance in the European Parliament with the Green Parties since 1999.
The European Parliament
The largest of the several political groupings within the Parliament are the European People’s Party [Christian Democrats] (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). With a total Parliament of 751 seats the EPP currently hold 219 and the S&D 191. EFA have 50.
Each MEP is chosen by an electorate from each of the 28 member countries of the European Union, representing a constituency of over 500 million people. Seats are also distributed, by and large, according to a Member State’s population. Germany, the largest country in population terms, has 96 MEPs whilst the smallest states of Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta have 6 MEPs each. Of the larger Member States after Germany, France has 74 MEPs and the UK and Italy 73 MEPs each.
As such the European Parliament is the only directly elected body in the EU and plays a key role in electing the President of the European Commission. It shares power over the EU budget and legislation with the Council of the European Union.
Council of the European Union
The Council represents the governments of the individual Member States. The Presidency of the Council is shared by the Member States on a six-month rotating basis. For the six months to December 2015 the Presidency is held by Luxembourg. The Presidency is responsible for driving forward the Council’s work on EU legislation, ensuring the continuity of the EU agenda, orderly legislative processes and cooperation among member states. To do this, the Presidency has to act as an honest and neutral broker.
The European Commission
Another major EU institution is the European Commission, the executive body. The Commission is responsible for proposing and implementing EU laws, monitoring the treaties and the day-to-day running of the EU. It represents the interests of the EU as a whole (not the interests of individual countries).
A new team of 28 Commissioners (one from each EU Member State) is appointed every five years. The politically important post is that of President of the Commission.
The candidate for President is proposed to the European Parliament by the European Council who decide on candidates by qualified majority, taking into account the elections to the European Parliament. The Commission President is then elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members (which corresponds to at least 376 out of 751 votes).
Following this election, the President-elect selects the 27 other members of the Commission, on the basis of the suggestions made by Member States. The final list of Commissioners-designate has then to be agreed between the President-elect and the Council. The Commission as a whole needs the Parliament’s consent. Prior to this, Commissioners-designate are assessed by the European Parliament committees.
The current Commission’s term of office runs until 31 October 2019. Its President is Jean-Claude Juncker.
Justice, Financial Management & Banking
The Court of Justice; The Court of Auditors and The European Central Bank are the other influential institutions that make up the European Union.
In defence of Liberty and Democracy?
The European Parliament is a unique example of multinational and multilingual democracy at work. The elected members (MEPs) engage in public debates and play a crucial role in shaping the policy of the EU. The principal areas of their work include the following:
The Parliament decides jointly with the Council of the European Union on laws that affect the daily lives of all EU’s citizens. These include topics such as freedom of travel, food safety and consumer protection, the environment and most sectors of the economy. Member States still have a veto right in areas such as taxation and foreign affairs/defence. Some areas require the Council to obtain the European Parliament’s assent before making a decision.
Budgetary powers are the key prerogative of every Parliament — whoever allocates the funds has the power to set political priorities. At EU level, this power is shared between the Parliament and the Council. Together they adopt a multi-annual financial framework every 7 years, and scrutinise and approve the annual budget for the next year, as well as the spending from the previous year. The EU’s multi-annual budget 2014-2020 is €960 billion (yes, billion!).
The European Parliament monitors the correct use of EU funds. The results of parliamentary elections are taken into account in the nomination of the President of the European Commission, but Parliament also has to elect the President and approve the appointment of the Commission and can force it to resign. Commissioners are often asked to defend their policies before the Parliament, and the president of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy regularly appear in Parliament to brief the MEPs and answer their questions.
Over the last couple of years, Parliament has considerably increased the discussions it holds with all leading decision-makers involved with the euro in a bid to shed more light on the way monetary decisions are being taken. In this sense, the Parliament has become one of the only forums acting to improve the transparency of the governance of the euro area.
European Union – why?
Out of the ruins of 1945, there grew an idea amongst Statesmen that, in fostering economic cooperation between countries rather than pursuing imperial and nationalistic rivalries, the risk of another appalling conflict between major sovereign states in Europe would be reduced. Cooperation based on free trade in several key resource areas (coal, steel and iron ore) was its starting point in a hope that it would build a peaceful and prosperous future for all the peoples of Europe. To a large extent this idea has worked and Europe, indeed the world, has avoided horrors on the scale of the 20th Century’s two world wars.
Few believe however that nirvana has been created with the growth and development of European integration, far from it. The last 70 years since 1945 has continued to witness global tragedies, wars, famine, death and destruction on an appalling human scale. Walking around the European Parliament’s Visitors’ Centre brings these events very much to the mind in a poignant, interactive virtual trip through Europe, its history and its impact on the peoples of the world.
Meeting some MEPs and hearing their ‘stories’ left me feeling that the Parliament does contain elected representatives with strong ideals and a real belief in the concepts of fairness, justice and effective democratic government. They didn’t believe the current European institutions were by any means perfect but were seen rather as a continuing ‘work in progress’ that had evolved far beyond their origins as the European Coal & Steel Community of 1952. Institutions that continue to engage people and politicians of many persuasions, nationalities and languages in debate, for a peaceful common cause. Controversial topics such as TTIP (the transatlantic trade and investment partnership with the United States); the impact of austerity policies resulting from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the democratic predicament raised by the events in Greece pose real challenges for the European Union and its future.
Achieving fairness and justice while maintaining our liberty and freedom is never easy, particularly in our 21st Century multi-layered system of government. It can appear confusing, difficult to understand and sometimes repellent. Yet, as individuals we each carry a responsibility to defend our hard-earned democratic rights and take every opportunity to stand peaceably against the forces of regression who will work to undermine them. An essential first step, surely, is to find out more about how our democracy really works and how we can support it. This has, perhaps, never been more important than right here, and right now.
Learn more about the European Parliament, and the EU in general, here: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/visiting/en/parlamentarium