Gridlock in the European Parliament

Article published on May 2, 2005
community published
Article published on May 2, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Since enlargement, the sheer number of staff in the Parliament means the building is bursting at the seams. But should my ability to get a sandwich in the canteen be every European citizen's concern?

Many have raised concerns about the effects of enlargement on the workings of the EU. Some fear that the widening has prevented the further integration of the Union, while others are concerned about the effects free movement will have on unemployment. However, there is another side to the debate on the EU of 25 which has gone largely unnoticed by the citizens of Europe. The influx of MEPs, assistants, parliament officials and interpreters has been the focus of political and institutional debate, but logistical planning doesn't seem to have been addressed.

Enlargement at the cost of transparency

The proliferation of member states, languages, MEPs and staff in general since enlargement have all posed specific problems, not just for the functioning of the EU as an organisation, but also for the logistical operation of the institutions themselves. The floor of the plenary chamber has been enlarged, allowing all the MEPs access to interpretation and a seat, but many of the other facilities have gone unchanged. This has serious implications for the transparency of the Parliament, which is the only democratically elected EU institution, and this fact has been largely overlooked by the EU and gone unchallenged by civil society and the media who frequent the building.

By law, parliamentary committee meetings are open to the public, allowing ordinary citizens to follow the debates taking place on legislation. But in reality, how accessible are these meetings in today’s enlarged parliament? Theoretically, members of the public can book seats in advance and lobbyists are free to walk in as they please. However, the number of available seats has effectively been reduced as the number of MEPs has increased. It is now difficult for even parliamentary assistants to MEPs to get a seat. And if you don’t have a seat, you have no access to interpretation, making it impossible to follow the debates which take place in the 20 official languages of the EU. So, as the number of citizens who should be able to follow these debates increases, the possibility to do so is reduced. The Parliament has begun to provide overflow rooms with interpretation for some of the more controversial committees, but there simply aren’t the facilities to extend this to all.

Keeping the public out

When it comes to visiting the Parliament, be it for an individual meeting with an MEP or a group visit to the plenary chamber, multiple hurdles are set up for both visitors and parliament staff alike. The security procedures were demonstrably unable to cope with the increased volume of visitors, with long queues for passes and the airport-style scanners. The response has been to restrict access by the main entrance, requiring visitors to go through two sets of scanners before they can even try to get a seat in a committee room! The Parliament’s visits service, which organises tours, presentations and rooms for large groups of visitors, is also under-resourced. There has been neither an increase the number of rooms available nor an extension of the public gallery in the plenary chamber to accommodate its needs.

In the lead up to enlargement, much time was spent discussing how to reform the EU to ensure that the framework devised for the six founding members could be adapted to address the needs of 25. The failure of the Treaty of Nice to address many of these issues led to the establishment of the Convention which drafted the European constitutional treaty, which is currently undergoing the ratification process across Europe. There is still much debate as to whether the constitution actually addresses all the concerns of the changing global context and the role of the EU within it; the example of the recent war in Iraq showed that the 25 member states will find it difficult to reach agreement on many of the issues which will face the Union. Despite the political capital many prominent European and national politicians have invested in the success of the constitution, it leaves many issues unsolved. And if the decision-makers cannot get their own House in order, what hope does that leave for the EU as a whole?

Building work in Brussels is a never-ending story – the horizon is a forest of cranes at the best of times. The building site outside the Parliament is a constant reminder for all those involved in the activities of the European Union that the European project is still very much under construction. It also acts as a reminder that the necessary structures to ensure an enlarged EU is able to operate effectively, transparently and democratically are not yet in place. A strong argument to fight for the ratification of the constitution – and to bring a packed lunch into work.