Expanding Influence EU Parliament Has More Power Than You Think
Part 2: 'A Loose Coalition of Political Mavericks'
Dietmar Reich is among those with close proximity to parliament. The elegant lawyer with long hair is a doyen of EU lobbying. His advice as a partner in an international commercial law firm is routinely sought by everyone from representatives of German state governments to Turkish corporations. "Lobbyists can no longer ignore the parliament," he says. But Reich has also noticed that the number of lobbyists has risen. He says there were only a few hundred of them when he got his start in Brussels 17 years ago. This year, in the run-up to a vote in parliament requiring tobacco companies to carry picture warnings on cigarette packaging that covers 60 percent of the surface, Philip Morris was able to mobilize enough lobbyists to work on several hundred members of parliament.
For years, Elmar Brok had carried the nickname "Mr. Bertelsmann" in Brussels because he had worked for the global media company as its "senior vice president of media development" until May 2011. This secondary income had brought him between 60,000 and 120,000 annually. Then, a few years ago, London's Sunday Times newspaper dispatched undercover reporters who offered to pay European parliamentarians in exchange for favors. Several politicians showed a readiness to talk. Meanwhile, Transparency International recently criticized that although members of parliament disclose their assets, there are no subsequent checks to verify their accuracy. And repeat efforts to establish an obligatory lobbyist registry have also come to naught.
So who is going to bring the deputies into line? Anyone who wants to become anything in Germany's federal parliament has no choice but to stick to the rules of their party group -- while Europe's supra-national party blocks appear to be a loose coalition of political mavericks.
'My Job Here Is Resistance'
Not all of them are even interested in seeing Europe thrive. Current polls suggest that radical opponents of the EU will garner 30 percent of the vote. Some 31 of these critical deputies are united in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, which is led by Nigel Farage, head of Britain's anti-European UKIP party. To demonstrate that the British flag means more to him than that of Europe, he had the Union Jack placed on his seat in parliament. Sitting not too far away from him is Marine Le Pen of France's Front National, who calls Europe a "nightmare" and wants to create an alliance of EU haters with notorious populists like Holland's Geert Wilders. Will they capture parliament after the election?
Paul Murphy, 31, is a polite young man. Murphy, who represents the Ireland Socialist Party, a Marxist-socialist organization, has little regard for the right-wing and in fact disapproves of its rise. A sentiment he does share with them, though, is the need to bring European Parliament to a standstill. For years now, Murphy has acted as an obstructionist in parliament using petitions, delays or just grating on people's nerves. "My job here is resistance," he says smiling.
He rejects any kind of cooperation with parliament, let alone working within coalitions. "My colleagues may not be monsters, but they represent monstrous European policies," he explains. If there were more anti-European members of parliament, on the right or left, he adds, the parliament would be less able to inflict damage. His wish could come true, too. Euroskeptics on the left are also hoping to chalk up major gains in the European election. In Greece, for example, the opposition Syriza party appears poised to win the election. Its chairman, Alexis Tsipras, is the leading candidate for the European Left Group and warns of a "social Holocaust" in Europe.
But chaos in the European Parliament might also play into the hands of the leaders of the EU member states on the powerful European Council, which has the final say on many EU decisions. The Council has long been responsible for appointing the president of the European Commission, but now there is considerable pressure for that job to go to the candidate whose block scores the most votes in the European election. "There is no automatism," German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said of the prospects for even her own candidate Juncker getting the top post. Council President Herman Van Rompuy has also expressed his reservations about the European Parliament's demand. If voter turnout during this month's elections is as dismal as the 43 percent registered during the last election, that may make it easier for EU leaders to ignore parliament's wishes.
But Merkel and Co. hadn't reckoned with a man like Klaus Welle. The 49-year-old, who wears a mustache and a bright checkered suit, is the secretary-general of the European Parliament. He's an unimposing, soft-spoken official, but the papers he has laying on his desk are politically explosive. One lists parliament's responsibilities. The functions that have been colored green have already been fulfilled by parliament. The yellow section, standing for responsibilities that haven't been sufficiently implemented yet, includes parliamentary controls over how laws are implemented. Red is for the idea of coming up with the list of platforms together with the other EU institutions that will then be addressed during the legislature period.
"You could call it a coalition contract," Welle says, referring to the deals made in Germany by coalition governments in which they agree on the policies to be addressed before governing together. His concept paper goes far beyond the idea of the leading candidate in the European election becoming the next head of the Commission. It also addresses the political intentions with which candidates like Juncker or Schulz will form a majority in parliament. Polls show conclusively that neither the conservatives nor the Social Democrats have the power to secure an absolute majority, so either candidate will have no choice but to form a coalition.
Secretary-General Welle has already given some thought to what such a coalition contract might look like. A 63-page study from the European Parliament Research Service called, "Mapping the Cost of Non-Europe," cites the most important initiatives that parliament proposed during the last legislature period that the European Commission or member states didn't implement. He argues that the creation of a unified digital market alone could increase EU economic performance by 260 billion annually. The elimination of further trade barriers within the EU internal market could also increase performance by 235 billion. An energy union that would enable 28 member states to negotiate from one position with energy suppliers could reduce costs by a further 50 billion. In total, the study concludes, the EU could save 800 billion per year if only parliament's ideas were made law.
The leading candidates for the two biggest parties, Schulz and Juncker, are familiar with the study, and have both said they would refer back to it when the time comes to present their government program to parliament. "The deputies don't just want to know who they are electing as Commission chief," Juncker says. "They also want to know what he stands for."
Members of the traveling circus that is the European Parliament would be pleased by a further gain in power. It would finally put them at the center of power in Europe.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey
- Part 1: EU Parliament Has More Power Than You Think
- Part 2: 'A Loose Coalition of Political Mavericks'