Only one in three voters anticipates going to the ballot box in June (Eurobarometer). The most discouraging part for citizens is probably the idea of giving someone a mandate only to be forgotten about afterwards. For a majority of us, the European Parliament lacks visibility and transparency. This explains why, while 63% of Europeans participated in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, the participation rate has continued to drop until it fell under the 50% barrier in 1999. And the worst is perhaps to come…
Hybrid political parties
Paradoxically, the European Parliament candidates use the labels of national parties but they come together, once elected, in trans-national parliamentary groups – there are eight such groups today – or they are among those who are ‘non-attached’ (32 MEPs out of 626). This state of affairs, instituted in 1953, is an opportunity for Europe but is also a source of incoherence. Within the Parliament, national coalitions sometimes get the upper hand over parliamentary groups, even though they are trans-national.
So, within the Party of European Socialists (PSE), created in 1992 and currently the second largest political group in the EP (173 MEPs), the Spanish, French or Belgian socialist parties, and the British Labour Party, co-exist. The European People’s Party and European Democracies (PPE-DE), founded in 1976 and the biggest group in the EP with 231 MEPs, contains more than 30 different national parties, including several from the same state who do not always agree on the national level.
The European political landscape is therefore characterised by a certain bi-polarity, enforced in 1989 by a ‘pact of honour’ to share the Presidency of the hemicycle. This tendency could be reinforced at the next elections according to a recent study by the London School of Economics. Is this a sign of the EP’s growing importance in the European normative process?
A political landscape needing change?
The other groups range in size from 52 members for the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR) to 18 for the smallest group, the Group for a Europe of Democracies and Diversities (EDD). And let’s not forget the European United Left/the Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) and the Greens/European Free Alliance (Verts/ALE) (1).
The Parliament’s aim is to reflect the will of the people of Europe. It is also incumbent upon it to give European political democracy, which it enshrines, life. It is the only body of the Union whose members are directly elected by universal suffrage. As enlargement arrives, it is now a question of best representing 450 million Europeans from the 25 member states.
The European Parliament will have to be ready to listen and adapt by possibly changing the number and identity of the political groups to make them more representative and more trans-national in their approach to public problems. From July 2004, 16 MEPs from at least one fifth of member states could make up one group. The political balance could be changed; the ballot box will have its say!
On June 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th, the call of debate!
The project for a Constitution for Europe foresees increased powers for the European Parliament. It would be recognised as co-legislator with the Council on all community competencies. Nearly 70% of national legislation from member states is first decided on in Brussels. By representing the people, the EP is a small island of democracy in institutional chaos where the citizen has little chance to make himself heard – hence the importance of the elections.
The nature of the campaign itself is highly significant. If the Parliament is the home of European democracy, it has to be said that these elections are not being fought with ONE European electoral campaign but SEVERAL campaigns focused on national issues. The European factor is just a pretext for getting the attention of the voters again. It is the fault of the media, the electoral system, and political parties. This is where the idea of welcoming real trans-national debate where the issues and trans-national European ‘parties’ would be in the spotlight came from.
The youth parties: witnessing living democracy?
As in the members states, certain European political groups have ‘youth sections’: YEPP (PPE), ECOSY (PSE), LYMEC (ELDR) or FYEG (Verts), among others. They are very busy, especially during the pre-election period, but their elected representatives have nevertheless responded to café babel’s invitation to describe their visions regarding the burning European issues of the day: the Constitution, the economy, foreign policy, immigration and the Turkish issue.
Whether simple infantrymen for the ‘senior’ parties or real witnesses of European democracy on the move, the members of the European youth parties lead a discreet but very active existence. Formed in political offices where they rub shoulders with national members from across Europe, they get a taste of the role of a member of the European Parliament. Their elected members, appointed in a general assembly, play this role very well. This issue of café babel thus provides the tools to understand an often illegible European political landscape. Arnt Kennis, Vice-President of YEPP, Ief Janssens, Vice-President of ECOSY, Aloys Rigaut, Treasurer of LYMEC and Jacopo Moccia, candidate for the Belgian organisation Eécolo-j close to the FYEG, enlighten us on the positions of the main European political groups.
They try to convince us that the debate can be European, as long as we want it to be. A good reason to go and vote.
Ief Janssens, Vice-President of ECOSY
Arnt Kennis, Vice-President of YEPP
Jacopo Moccia, candidate of the Belgian organisation écolo-j, close to FYEG
Aloys Rigaut, Treasurer of LYMEC