European Parliament: National Focus for European Elections

On Sunday, May 25, 2014, there were elections to renew the European Parliament which meets in committee sessions in Bruxelles, where the European Union (EU) has its secretariat, with plenary sessions in Strasbourg − a city symbolic of German-French reconciliation. For the first time, the major parties had also designated a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. In the past, the president was chosen by negotiations among the European heads of state, and the EU Parliament only ratified the choice of the political leaders. They have usually chosen a person who would not shine more brightly than they. For two terms, it has been the Portuguese, former Prime Minister Jose Barroso, a consensual figure but hardly a dynamic leader. As the conservative-center Right parties are the largest group in the Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, former Prime Minister of Luxembourg should be chosen as President. However, the heads of government who legally still make the choice have the ability to choose someone else.

The elections for the EU Parliament are somewhat ambiguous. By far the largest group of potential voters are the non-voters. Only 13 percent of potential voters voted in Slovakia. Their motivations are probably mixed. It is said that people do not understand the EU institutions and the role of the Parliament, that these institutions are too complex and too far from the daily life of potential voters. This is in part true, although the EU Parliament and the EU administration are really not more complex than national governments. I am not sure that in France, where I live, many people understand better what goes on in the French Parliament. What is true is that the mass media in France does very little to give news and information on the working of the EU institutions. Moreover the EU information services do a poor job of explaining how the system works. This is likely true in most of the 28 member states of the EU, although I have been told that the press in Germany carries more news of the working of the EU Parliament.

The elections are also ambiguous in that the election campaigns and debates are largely on national themes and are a reflection of attitudes toward the national administration. However, once elected, the deputies are not seated in national delegations but by political philosophy: conservative, socialist, ecologist etc. To form an ideological “group” in the Parliament, one must have 25 deputies but from at least seven countries. Thus, although in the last Parliament, there were a number of far Right-narrow nationalist deputies, there was no far Right group, and these deputies were listed as “independents” along with others who were “independent” without being either far Right or narrowly nationalistic. Among those elected on Sunday, there are more than 25 far Right deputies from more than seven countries, but it is not clear if they can agree among themselves to form a group. Narrow nationalism does not necessarily make for transnational alliances.

If one is not in a recognized group, one cannot be part of a commission or committee where the real work is done. In the past five-year sessions of the Parliament, the Right wing deputies could − and did – make speeches and asked parliamentary questions but had no direct impact on the resolutions which are all prepared in committees.

The EU Parliament functions largely by a consensus of center-Left and center−Right deputies, with the lowest common denominator being the chief aim. These common denominators are reached in committees or in discussions among a few designated representatives. It is a pattern which does not make for very exciting politics, and thus the lack of media interest in the working of the Parliament.

As a result of the recent election, there has been a good deal of media comment on the rise of narrowly nationalistic “Eurosceptic” parties such as the Golden Dawn in Greece, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Danish People’s Party and the National Front in France. While the election of members of these parties tells us something of the socio-political atmosphere in Europe and so needs to be taken seriously by those of us opposed to them, these nationalist deputies will have little or no influence in the working of the EU Parliament. The election to the EU Parliament gives these nationalist parties a certain political legitimacy in their home country, but they will neither block nor change the way the Parliament works. Their lack of influence may make them even more “Eurosceptic” and their level of frustration will be transformed into angry words, but life will continue as before.

It is certain that there can be improvements and reforms in the way the European institutions work. Many policies are continued by habit rather than by new, creative thought. The influence of industrial, farm, and other lobbies on decisions of both the EU secretariat and the EU Parliament should be more transparent. The integration of the Eastern European countries has been difficult, although for some such as Poland, the result has been one of dynamic socio-economic growth.

How best to deal with neighboring countries who are not members and are unlikely to become a member for different reasons remains a basic question. Relations with Turkey have been uneven; relations with Ukraine were in part the reason for the change in government and continuing difficulties. Kosovo is likely to remain outside even if most of former Yugoslavia joins.

Migration, employment, financial policies and regulations, the “Free Trade” agreement between the EU and the USA will all continue to be important issues for the EU Parliament. Relations with Russia and China need to be reviewed and then renewed. The working and debates in the EU Parliament merit being watched more closely.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.