Not a lot it seems, at least in the UK, as few people seem to know the names of their European members of Parliament or indeed what they do. The elections of May 23rd may change that, though, as there is a possibility of parties in the European Parliament taking a significant step to the right. In Britain, as it still decides whether and how to implement its 2016 referendum decision to leave the EU, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party is campaigning to win a majority in the UK ballot.
But how does the European continent see the European Parliament? They certainly seem more knowledgeable about it than the Brits and see it as more important, although not as important as national assemblies. 7Dnews asked teachers and lecturers at EU universities and colleges what they thought.
The European Parliament (EP) is one of the three pillars of the European Union legal and executive edifice, together with the European Commission and the European Council (the committee of member Heads of State). The European Parliament has 751 elected members and passes the laws which regulate European Union affairs, which then are voted into national law by member state assemblies. There is only one house, unlike many national assemblies, which have a lower and an upper chamber, but it has two locations. Every month for four days when parliament is sitting it ups sticks and relocates from Brussels in Belgium to Strasbourg in France and then moves back again. This is a costly and cumbersome business. As one interviewee put it, “The European Parliament and the European Commission is its own worst enemy in terms of public relations. It spends large amounts unnecessarily (moving the entire operation by truck once each month to Strasbourg, for example).”
All of the teachers we interviewed knew the names of their members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and all but one of them intended to vote. All thought that the European Parliament was important but for different reasons. One said, ‘we need the European Union to be democratically governed and we need to protect our democratic influence by exercising our right to vote.” Another stressed that, “according to which political party gets the majority of votes, this will influence the whole of European and national politics and I don’t want nationalism to grow even more.” The anti-nationalist theme was endorsed by another interviewee, who said, “The European elections will show the pulse of Europe and if the majority is interested in Europe or not. It will show if Europe believes the EU is important for peace and social justice or if it is ready to leave the floor to the nationalists, populists and EU sceptics.”
Perhaps the most telling reason for the importance of the European Parliament came from a teacher who said, “I am a survivor of a nazi-fascist massacre. My German husband fled as a baby with his mother from Pomerania, where his protestant family from his mother’s side fled from Salzburger Land because of religious persecution. I try not to forget what our common past has been. 70+ years of freedom (in our tiny part of the world) is very precious.” Another view of the importance of the European elections looked to the future. “I hope that we will go for a European constitution after these elections. And of course, I hope that the extreme right will not conquer the EU,” she said.
The danger of a right-wing populist takeover was not the only fear. All interviewees expressed their reservations about the European Parliament, much of it applying to the EU as a whole. “They need a stronger communications policy, as the European citizens do not really know what the EU offers to all of us,” said one, a view strongly endorsed by another. “There is still too little information about what the EP stands for,” she said, “what is their responsibility and to what degree they can influence politics at European and, via European, national level. All our politicians - with only a few exceptions - tend to say that successes are due to their clever politics and failure is Brussels although each EU country has their representatives in all decision-making bodies.”
Other interviewees felt the European Parliament did not exercise its power in the right way. “MEPs seem to have little influence on the EU’s policies,” said one, adding, “the Commission seems to have too much power and the MEPs do not regulate it sufficiently.” One interviewee, who was not intending to vote, explained, “EU elections reproduce systemic pitfalls and hence lose face. It's not the elections per se, it's the neoliberal politics of the EU that make me not want to contribute with my vote.”
Poor public relations, lack of ability to exert its power over the executive and simple egotism are all problems for the European Parliament but perhaps as May 23rd draws to a close we should remember the words of the teacher who said she was the survivor of a nazi-fascist massacre. “I am aware of the flaws of representative democracies,” she said, “but I have no better answer. Actually, democracy is still a far goal but any progress towards it is welcome.”