Can the European Parliament
help change Europe?
Associate since 1991
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June 2, 2009
LONDON - Elections for the European parliament take place at the end of the week. It is gradually becoming a body of growing significant political influence. Its 736 elected members represent the 500,000,000 citizens of the twenty seven member states of the European Union. Not since the time of the Roman Empire has there been such an agglomeration of the peoples of the world. This election will be the
biggest trans-national election in the history of humanity.
A tower of Babel it is not. The parliament is the under-reported Cinderella of the Union. When the Treaty of Lisbon comes into effect, after what seems likely to be a successful Irish referendum in October, a re-ordering of the governance of the Union will give the parliament more power, as well as strengthening the authority of the Council of Ministers with a permanent president (to whom Henry Kissinger in his wry observation at last will have only one phone number to dial). To some it appears to be a contradictory development, but there is no reason why both should not be able to tolerate each other's new powers.
Norman Davies wrote in his magisterial study 'Europe', "Europe is not going to be united in the near future. But it has a chance to be less divided than for generations past. If fortune smiles, the physical and psychological barriers will be less brutal than any time in living memory. Europe rides on. And as William Pfaff, America's leading foreign affairs commentator, wrote in his 1989 book, 'Barbarian Sentiments', "For four hundred years European civilization has dominated the world - for better or for worse. It is convenient and flattering for Americans to assume that it is all over; but it is rash to do so."
The coming events of the year - these elections and the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty under the stewardship of what is likely to be a well run and effective Swedish presidency - will bring Pffaf's observation up to date.
Cecilia Wikstrom is a senior member of parliament for Sweden's Liberal (Folk) Party. In the Swedish parliament the Liberals are the most pro- European party. In the European parliament it is part of the large bloc of Liberal parties. In an interview today she argued that these elections are "a crucial moment for Europe. When drug and human trafficking is increasing we need cross-border cooperation. We also have a growing problem with fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, who organize across national boundaries, pushing their anti-abortion and anti-gender equality agendas. We have a clash of values, not of civilizations. Also in the next parliament, with the arrival of extreme right wing parties in greater numbers, we will have to fight against their attempts to control freedom of expression".
She also argues that after the election (and the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty), even though many fringe parties are going to win seats, including Sweden's Pirates' Party which believes in total freedom on the Internet, there will be enough of a majority on major issues to push though important reforms . One target will be the Common Agriculture Policy that spends a huge amount of its budget on subsidising large-scale rich farmers. Likewise, the parliament's forces need to be marshalled against growing protectionism.
In many countries European elections are on the same day as local municipal elections and electorates tend to decide their European vote on the performance of their parties at home. But in the European parliament members are increasingly voting along party lines rather than national ones. National concerns are being downplayed and party concerns played up.
According to a new study by the Financial Times, members of the three biggest political groupings - the centre-right European People's Party, the European Socialists and the Liberals - voted with their party in the parliament's last term more than 86% of the time. Two decades ago, party cohesion in these groups occurred only 50%-60% of the time. In the last term they voted in national blocs less than 10% of the time. (The most cohesive was the Green Party which voted together 90% of the time.)
One illustration of party discipline is when British European parliamentarians, defying their government, voted to reject the right of member countries to opt out of legislation on the 48-hour working week.
Party discipline has become effective, making it possible to quickly integrate new members from the large number of new member states. And it has enabled the parliament to process more than 1,000 legislative proposals over the last five years - far more than most national parliaments. But the parliament has yet to jibe with a disinterested public opinion.
If that could be changed it would go even further and faster.
Copyright © 2009 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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