It is a sunny Monday evening in April and there is but a single item on the European Parliament's agenda: that of not being taken seriously. In the body's Strasbourg headquarters, a 200,000 square meter (2.2 million square foot) building with 1,133 offices that go unused 321 days a year, it is time for the "One-Minute Speeches." Every member of parliament has 60 seconds to say whatever they like. It is a privilege written into parliament's Rules of Procedure.
Among those to speak is Catherine Stihler, a member of Britain's Labour Party. With a trembling voice, she commemorates a certain John Muir, born on April 21, 1838 in Scotland. He is, she says, the father of the modern-day environmental movement. She is followed by the German representative Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, who also holds Greek citizenship. He represents the business-friendly Free Democrats -- and his political career is in doubt after it was revealed in 2011 that he plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis. He holds up a walking stick and a woolen cap and says that they belonged to a Greek pensioner who killed himself in response to the austerity measures imposed by Europe. "Show a bit of sympathy!" he exhorts his listeners. Finally, an independent Austrian parliamentarian, Hans-Peter Martin, steps up to the podium to warn his colleagues about another Austrian member of parliament, Martin Ehrenhauser, who, he claims, has been hacking the private email accounts of European lawmakers.
The speakers are careful to fix their gaze in front of them, though hardly anybody is listening and most of the chairs in the plenary hall are empty. Later, their staff will load videos of their one-minute speeches onto YouTube so that voters back home can watch the important speech their representative just delivered.
The mini-speeches mark the standard beginning to another week at the European Parliament, a body that Germany's Constitutional Court recently argued was not yet a true parliament.
It is a lawmaking body that is reminiscent of a traveling circus. Every month, it moves from Brussels to Strasbourg for one week before heading back -- a 200 million-per-year ($277 million) convention that is etched into the stone of European treaties. The 751 representatives that will be elected in two weeks will be chosen in accordance with 28 different national election laws. Once they arrive in Brussels, their words will be transmitted in 24 official languages and three alphabets: Latin, Greek and Cyrillic. More than 1,000 translators are tasked with preparing more than a million pages of documents each year for the parliamentarians -- including for the Romanian representative who is known as "Mr. Yes," because he has voted yes more than 540 times in a row, no matter what the issue. A European parliamentarian, after all, only receives the daily allowance of 304 if he or she takes part in at least half of the roll-call votes on a given day -- in addition to the monthly salary of 8,229.
Besieged by Lobbyists
It may often seem like a carnival of vanities and fatuousness, but focusing exclusively on the lawmaking body's eccentricities is misguided. Virtually unnoticed by the European public, the European Parliament has developed into one of the most important parliamentary bodies on the planet, besieged by some 20,000 lobbyists.
When it comes time for Europe to determine how struggling banks are to be bailed out in the future, how Edward Snowden will deliver testimony on NSA surveillance techniques or how an epochal trans-Atlantic free trade agreement with the US will ultimately look, then European parliamentarians are no longer the passive bystanders they once were.
They are, to be sure, only allowed to block laws or improve them, rather than propose legislation themselves. But some 90 percent of all EU plans and proposals are now dependent on European Parliament consent. In the final session before the voters head to the polls on May 22-25, some 170 proposals await decisions by the MEPs. They want to establish the right to a bank account for all European citizens, introduce a new foundation for European financial markets, limit the use of plastic bags -- and they want to secure a vast amount of power in Europe.
Parliament has pushed through a requirement that European heads of state and government must appoint the next president of the European Commission in accordance with the results of the parliamentary elections. The two main candidates are the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, who is currently parliamentary president, and the conservative lead candidate Jean-Claude Juncker, the longtime former prime minister of Luxembourg. Two days after voting ends, a session in parliament will begin the appointment process. The lawmaking body has begun to see itself as the political fulcrum of Europe.
Elmar Brok of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has been a member of European Parliament for 34 years, representing a largely rural district in Germany's northwest. Wearing carefully coiffed blonde hair, his loud laugh echoes through a Strasbourg parliament café as though he were sitting in a village pub.
But his appointment book tells another story -- of a man who acts on the global stage: meetings with US senators, participation in a conference of EU foreign ministers, appearances on the Maidan in Kiev. "Today at 3 p.m., Barroso wants to speak with me," Brok says proudly, referring to a one-on-one meeting the European Commission president has requested. Brok is the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament. He is taken seriously by the Americans, because of his clear words in the NSA scandal, and the Russians, because of his active support for the Ukrainian democracy movement. A relatively short man, Brok even surprised CDU leaders at the Munich Security Conference by escorting Vitali Klitschko through the halls of the Bayerischen Hof Hotel. Brok developed contacts with the former boxing champion several years ago because he suspected that Klitschko would end up playing an important role in Ukrainian politics.
At the café in Strasbourg, Brok says that he has taken part in almost every EU treaty negotiation since Maastricht, which was signed in 1992. "With each change to the EU treaties, parliament has received more power," he says. "Nothing can be decided in Europe anymore without us."
At the beginning of the 1950s, when the EU was still the European Coal and Steel Community, there was nothing but the "Common Assembly," which had little more than consultative duties. Once the Treaties of Rome went into effect in 1958, the body wanted to rename itself the European Parliament, but member-state opposition scuppered the plan. Indeed, the body lived in the shadows for years and enjoyed little respect. The first direct elections didn't take place until 1979 and only in 1987 was the European Parliament allowed to adopt its current name. The Treaty of Maastricht, signed in 1993, granted parliament a role in lawmaking for the first time. Subsequent treaties -- Amsterdam (1997), Nice (2003) and Lisbon (2009) -- expanded the body's power to include a say in almost all areas of policymaking.
The European Parliament's new power is represented by people like the 31-year-old Green Party representative Jan Philipp Albrecht. Just a few years ago, he was an intern in Brussels; he went to G-8 summit protests and dreamed of a career as a journalist. But then someone asked him if he could imagine working in politics. His answer: Yes, but only in the European Union. Issues such as data protection and civil rights have long been regulated and legislated at the EU level. "And those were exactly the issues that I had wanted to write about," Albrecht says.
'So Far Away'
Now, Albrecht writes laws. As rapporteur, he was instrumental in guiding Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding's data protection package through parliament, a task which included dealing with no less than 3,999 proposed amendments submitted by his fellow representatives. In his first term in parliament, Albrecht was instrumental in the passage of a regulation which would have required global Internet firms to pay a fine equal to up to 5 percent of their annual revenue should they violate the new rules.
Would have. Member-state governments have put the brakes on the new regulations for now. But Google, Facebook and Amazon now know the slender Albrecht as one of their most powerful adversaries in Europe, along with Commissioner Reding. "It is only possible to wield so much influence so quickly in an environment where every representative can assemble his or her own majority, free of coalition games," he says. Albrecht has found a degree of success in Europe that he says isn't possible in German parliament, where people his age "are merely allowed to vote yes or no every now and then." But he becomes reflective when he thinks about Europe's future. The parliament may have achieved power and influence, but now it is important to develop closer ties to the voters. "That is the Achilles heel here," Albrecht says. "The lobbyists are so close and the people are so far away."