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Europe needs people power



Dit artikel van Lousewies van der Laan  is eerder verschenen in de International Herald Tribune

The negotiations on a new European Union constitutional treaty are drawing to a close. European governments are busy fighting for more voting power, vetoes and a place for God in the text. But those politicians now need to take a step back and focus on the issue that their citizens care about: injecting more democracy and transparency into Europe’s decision making.

These days, the European Union legislates in areas as diverse as environment, social policy, justice and consumer affairs. It is the EU that decides on energy liberalisation, peacekeeping in Macedonia and standards for asylum seekers. Yet at the same time, turnout for European elections is low and surveys indicate that support for European integration is falling. It should disturb politicians that most citizens feel that ‘Brussels’ is an uncontrolled black box that issues edicts over which they have little control.

No democracy can function when people are estranged from the entities that exercise power over them. All European countries are democracies, and perceived as such. The EU ’s decisions likewise need legitimacy. The legitimacy problem can only be resolved by ensuring the European Parliament becomes stronger and exercises full democratic control over EU decision-making.

This is not a popular point to argue since the European Parliament is neither greatly loved nor respected as an institution. The Parliament ’s image is that of a travelling circus, where debates are poorly attended and dull. Parliamentarians themselves are partly to blame for their poor image. It is high time they set their house in order. A deal on clear rules for expenses has been long overdue. They also need to learn to set priorities, liven up their debates and learn how to communicate more effectively.

However, at the same time, unnoticed by most EU citizens, the European Parliament has established a track record of responsible behaviour in examining, amending and sometimes rejecting European legislation. Parliament plays a crucial role in monitoring the EU budget and in scrutinising the actions of the European Commission. MEPs now work in tandem with the Council of Ministers to make laws on issues as diverse as accountancy standards, waste disposal and the limits of stem-cell research. The Parliament can veto legislation – as happened in the case of the takeover directive in 2001 – if MEPs and the Council cannot reach agreement on the provisions of a new law. And the Parliament has shown it can use its powers of investigation to crack down on fraud and mismanagement in the Commission, as it did when it threatened a vote of no confidence and thus forced the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999.

Therefore, the Parliament has shown it is up to the task of ensuring democratic scrutiny. It is now up to ministers to play their part. The new constitutional treaty can address Europe’s legitimacy problem by including the following points:

• The full EU budget must come under the control of the European Parliament. To prevent overspending, the treaty can include a maximum level for the total EU budget in the form of a percentage of EU GDP. Currently, around half the EU’s budget – mostly farm subsidies – is excluded from democratic oversight. This is corrected by the Giscard text, which also maintains Parliament’s final say over the budget. Regrettably, foreign ministers have now removed the latter, thus taking budget decisions back to secretive ministerial deals, rather than the current open parliamentary scrutiny. • The European Parliament must have co-decision powers in all policy areas. As EU powers expand, powers of oversight must grow in tandem. This is especially the case for justice and home affairs, where co-operation is expanding to ultra-sensitive issues as asylum policy, border control, immigration, and cross- border crime.• The European Parliament should have the right to hold the new EU foreign minister to account. Having only one person speaking on behalf of the EU can be an important step forward in forging a consistent EU foreign policy, but the results will not enjoy public support if they come from secretive ministerial meetings. The minister needs to explain his policies to the democratically elected representatives of Europe’s citizens. • The European Parliament should have the right to sack the Commission president and individual commissioners. Currently, MEPs only have the “nuclear option”: sending the whole Commission home if one Commissioner does not perform. More control over individual Commissioners will also strengthen the Commission’s position vis-à-vis the Council.• Finally, the European Parliament should have a single seat in Brussels. The current move of more than 3000 people to Strasbourg for four days every month wastes time and resources (€ 169 million per year) that could be spent on improving citizens’ lives.

As Europe enlarges to 25 members it is unacceptable that the EU continues to take decisions affecting people’s lives without proper democratic scrutiny. The current treaty review may be the last chance for many years to inject much-needed democracy into Europe’s decision making. If European integration is to be a project for and of all Europeans, not just its political elite, strengthening the European Parliament must be a key priority for Europe’s leaders as they finish their negotiations. Lousewies van der Laan is a member of the Netherlands Parliament and author of “The case for a stronger European Parliament” published this week by the Centre for European Reform, London